The Levadas – The waterways of Madeira

The Levadas – The waterways of Madeira

Madeira is famous for its levadas, or man-made waterways, inserted into all types of slopes be they wooded and cultivated, going through mountains or even carved into hostile cliff faces.   The term Levada stems from the Portuguese word: Levar which means to carry.   These levadas transport water for agricultural purposes as well as for human consumption.  More recently, the water from the levadas helped produced electricity.

madeira island levadas Portugal

The slope of these waterways is mostly gentle and gravity carries water to sources high up in the mountains to the entire island.

The origin of the levadas can be traced back to the first settlers on Madeira, in the 15th century.  The sugar cane fields required even growing amounts of water.  The mastery of water flows allowed Madeira to become an important producer of white gold, a nickname for sugar.  Later the expansion of agriculture with Madeira wine vineyards and banana plantations required a constant extension and improvement of water channels.

Rocheiros

Due to the steep mountainous terrain, many rocheiros helped build the levadas.  These courageous men worked hanging from ropes.  They drilled the adverse basalt terrain to enable the construction of levadas.  The tools of the rocheiros are simple which exacerbates their efforts even more.  Those men placed their life in great danger to create the extraordinary levadas so loved by locals and visitors alike.

Levadeiros

A levada is typically less than 50cm high and wide.  Being narrow allows to decrease water loss due to evaporation.  Oftentimes, these irrigation channels also activated watermills and sawmills.  Next to each levada is a narrow footpath which is nowadays used to walk and discover Madeira.  Even today, levadeiros walk these paths everyday to repair and manage and time the distribution of the water.  Levadeiros have an important function which persists in the present time.

Above all, very strict and ancient laws govern the use of levada water.  The water is shared amongst many users who each pay for a certain amount of minutes of water per weekday per month.  So a friendly advice while you walk along a levada, do not block or unblock the water flow.  There most probably is a reason.

Many other countries build waterways.  However, Madeira’s levadas are special.  Madeirans, with great determination, collect water from inaccessible locations and guide it for many kilometers while inserting levadas impeccably into the landscape.  Interestingly, over 200 levadas meander on the island.

Safety always comes first while walking a levada

These levadas are a sheer joy to discover. However, please always stay safe. Hence, wear adequat foot ware and clothing, carry a torch with you (tunnels), water and a snack as well as detailed maps.