PR11 Vereda dos Balcões – The complete hiking guide

PR11 Vereda dos Balcões – The complete hiking guide

There are three main types of hikes in Madeira: mountain hikes, hikes along the coastline, and hikes and walks along a levada. The PR11 Vereda dos Balcões hike belongs to the latter category. The levadas, the irrigation system so specific to Madeira Island, extend for more than 2,000 km and about half of them are now part of the hiking trails to explore.

The Vereda dos Balcões is undeniably the easiest hike on the island. It is more like a walk where strollers are almost welcome, and offers an incredible view at the end. Enough to make your mouth water when you arrive in Madeira.

And if, like us, you are feeling adventurous, we suggest that you follow an alternative, more athletic route for the return trip.

Disclaimer
English is not our native language. And while we put lots of time and attention in translating our content in English, you may find mistakes or things poorly translated here and there. In that case, feel free to send us an email in order for us to correct and improve.

Starting point

Distance

Loop or not

Duration

Difficulty level

Elevation gain

Path type

Exposure

Our complete hiking guide

Key information about the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões, one of the easiest hikes on the island

Distance and duration of the hike

The PR11 Vereda dos Balcões hike is one of the shortest in Madeira. It is 2.7 kilometers round trip, which you will cover in less than an hour. However, the viewpoint to which the hike leads is worth spending some time there, as the view is so impressive. Therefore, plan at least 20 to 30 extra minutes in your schedule, if you have one at all.

Difficulty and elevation difference of the hike

We mentioned it in the introduction of the article: the Vereda dos Balcões hike is one of the easiest in Madeira. The difference in elevation is close to zero, the path is wide, well marked and extremely well maintained.

If you decide to follow the alternative path that we suggest on the return way, the difficulty goes up a notch because of the difference in elevation (+ 300 m / – 300 m) for about a kilometer. Note also that this alternative path lengthens the hike slightly (3.1 km instead of 2.7 km).

Frequentation of the hike

The ease of this walk makes it an ideal outing for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest. Depending on the season and the time of day that you go there, the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões can be very busy. The amount of cars, cabs and buses parked when you arrive will give you an indication of how many people to expect. Note that, unlike other hikes, the short distance does not allow you to spread out the crowds.

If you take the alternative route that we discuss later in this article, you will spend part of the way back absolutely alone in the world, with only the sound of the stream and the vegetation under your feet to accompany you.

Equipment needed for this hike

No special equipment is needed when you walk the Vereda dos Balcões. And to illustrate: the first time we went there, we were wearing white Adidas sneakers.

However, if you choose to come back via the alternative path mentioned above, you should wear your hiking shoes.

Le départ de la PR11

Weather on the hike dos Balcões

The weather in Madeira is extremely changeable. During the same day, you can experience the 4 seasons. And if the weather is great in one place, the situation can be very different a few tunnels away. In order to check the weather before your hike, we recommend you to use the MadeiraWeather application (download from Google Play here or from the Apple Store here).

Note that the weather conditions of the previous days as well as those forecasted for the day may favor the risk of landslides and/or make the hiking trails not very practicable. Before setting out on your adventure, we therefore also advise you to check the following official websites to verify the condition of the hike:

How to get to and park at the starting point of the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões?

The starting point of the dos Balcões hike is located on the regional road E.R. 103 in Ribeiro Frio. It takes about 30 minutes to get there from Funchal, Machico, or Santana.

To get there, you will have to take some mountain roads where hairpin bends and inclines of improbable percentages are the rule. But keep in mind that if there are tourist buses reaching the starting point of the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões, there is nothing insurmountable by car.

The best way to get around the island and from one hike to the next is undeniably to rent a car. Alternatively, cabs are widely available and will wait for hikers at various strategic points on the island.

Upon arrival, you will notice a few restaurants and stores alongside trout ponds, small streams and waterfalls, and lush vegetation. Of course, you can park in the nearby parking lots. However, you will quickly notice that parking spaces are scarce and are quickly taken over due to the various hikes that leave from this area. Note that it is quite common on the island to park along the road. So don’t hesitate to do the same before going on a walk on the PR11.

Les viviers de truites sur la randonnée PR11 Vereda dos Balcoes

What to expect on the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões?

The Balcões Trek is located in the heart of the Ribeiro Frio Forest Park where you can observe the typical fauna and flora of the laurel forest. The first thing that will certainly strike you is the characteristic smell of the place. On each of our visits, the laurels, lichens, ferns, and mosses welcomed us with that undergrowth smell that we love so much.

The laurel forest, called "lauriferous forest" or "primary forest", once covered a large part of southern Europe. Today, it is only found in Madeira, the Azores, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. About 20% of the surface of Madeira Island is covered with it. These 15,000 hectares currently represent the largest remaining laurel forest in the world, making it a unique place to observe a number of endemic or endangered animal and plant species. It is also considered that most of the forest has never been cut down. Some of the trees could date back to before the discovery of the island by man in 1419. It is not surprising that the island was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999.

As mentioned before, the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões is one of the shortest and easiest walks in Madeira. The trail is 1.4 km long and runs along the Serra do Faial Levada, offering several breathtaking views of the surrounding valley. Scattered along the trail are several signs indicating the way to the Balcões lookout. At one point, the path takes you between two moss-covered rock walls overhung by trees, and this corridor is very beautiful.

But the highlight of this hike is obviously the lookout itself. When the weather is clear, it offers a panoramic view of the highest peaks of the island: Pico do Areeiro (1817 m), Pico das Torres (1851 m) and Pico Ruivo (1862 m). The valley of Ribeira da Metade and the town of Faial are at our feet and offer a breathtaking spectacle with the rocky mass of Penha d’Águia that stands out on the horizon. And if you are lucky, you may even see the silhouette of the island of Porto Santo.

We advise you to spend at least 20 minutes at the lookout to fully enjoy this incredible view. Note however that the fog can very quickly develop in the mountains and completely obstruct the view as it was the case during our first passage on the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões. In our experience, the fog tends to invade the summits in the afternoon. Therefore, it is better to be at the Balcões lookout early in the morning if possible in order to have all the chances on your side.

Depending on the season you visit Madeira, your experience on this hike can be very different. If it is foggy, the atmosphere on the PR11 is mysterious. In spring and summer, the vegetation is in bloom and transforms dos Balcões hiking trail. But all year round, the birds give their voices and accompany you during your walk.

The way back from the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões trail may seem a bit monotonous if the conditions are the same as when you arrived. A change of light or the arrival of fog will be the occasion to discover the place with a new look.

An alternative path for the more adventurous

If you’re not thrilled with the way back, or if you just want to get away from the crowds for the last mile before getting back to your car, we highly recommend venturing out on the alternative path we followed ourselves. After crossing the stone bridge, immediately turn right and take a path that rises up. You will then find yourself in the heart of the forest, surrounded by laurels, mosses, ferns, and other undergrowth.

Although unmarked, the trail in question is clearly visible on the maps.me app. We therefore recommend that you download it and load the maps of Madeira before you go hiking.

Although few people use it, the trail is well marked so that you can’t deviate from it. Only two places could make you hesitate:

A few dozen meters after leaving the classic PR11 trail, you will see a trail that appears to be climbing on your left and another one ahead. Continue straight ahead before you come to a set of steps shaped in the ground.

Once you have reached the top of the hill, you have again the choice between two paths: one towards the south-west which allows you to reach the Pico do Arieiro on foot if you are motivated, and the other on your left. Take the latter until you reach the Ribeira Frio river below.

On this alternative path, we were literally alone in the world. We didn’t hear any noise except the one of our steps and the birds around us. A real pleasure after crossing path with several groups along the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões.

This variant is very little used, as shown by the few “obstacles” on the trail. On several occasions, we had to go around an uprooted tree, to sneak under a pile of vegetation, or to make our way between rocks in order to continue our way. As you can see, this trail is far from the well-maintained and marked paths of the island, and that’s not to our displeasure.

When we came out of the forest to join the road leading to our car, a cab driver told us that the path we had just taken was once used to collect wood in the forest and that it allowed us to reach the Pico do Arieiro. A hike that we will keep in mind for another time! 

When is the best time to do the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões?

The best time of the year

The PR11 hike is very popular because it offers one of the most beautiful views of Madeira’s highest peaks from the Balcões lookout, and it requires very little effort. It is also worth mentioning that during the high tourist season (from May to October), the tourist buses pour in an impressive amount of people.

If you have the opportunity to discover Madeira outside the high tourist season, we obviously recommend you to do so. As an example, during our first walk on the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões at the end of January, we met 10 people maximum. At the beginning of March, we went back and there were about 100 people on the trail. Needless to say, it will obviously be more and more frequented in the coming months.

If you are in Madeira during the high season, the best tip to enjoy the uncrowded Vereda dos Balcões is to be there before the first hikers arrive around 9am. This way you can enjoy the trail in bloom before it is crowded.

The best time of the day

As mentioned before, early morning is probably the best time of the day to walk around the Balcões hike, but not only to avoid the tourist crowds.

The Balcões lookout is located in the heart of the mountains, and the mist can develop very quickly between the different peaks. Generally speaking, we observed that the mornings are mostly very clear, and that the fog invades the mountain roads in the afternoon. At the time of our first passage on the Vereda dos Balcões, we could not see at two meters so much the fog was thick. It was the end of January and it was only 1:30 pm when we reached the lookout. But it’s fair to say that the view remained a mystery until our second visit at the beginning of March around noon.

We do not recommend going there for the sunrise. The sun rises behind the mountains surrounding the Balcões lookout. So, besides not being able to enjoy this moment, you will not be able to observe (and photograph) the valley at your feet because it will be totally in the shade.

Is it possible to eat on the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões?

We mentioned it at the beginning of the article: several restaurants are located near the starting point of the hike. It will be very easy for you to stop there to eat before or after your hike. About halfway along the path, you will also find a snack bar where you can have a coffee or a glass of poncha, or even have a lunch break with a nice view on the valley.

As far as we are concerned, we always take our picnic with us when we go hiking. As loops are rare on the island, we usually stop at the end to eat in a quiet place with a nice view before going back the other way. Unfortunately, the Balcões viewpoint is not very suitable for this because of the number of people who come and go. But that’s no problem! We decided to rest on the terrace of the second snack bar of the hike, abandoned this one. The view on the valley is very nice, and there is not a cat.

Is it possible to run on the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões?

Absolutely! Even if the hike is not really long, it is possible to run on the PR11. However, we can only advise you against it in high season as it will be complicated to sneak in between the tourists.

Is the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões suitable for a child?

Without hesitation, a big yes.

The ease of the route and the short distance to the lookout point make it an ideal hike for families. There are no difficulties along the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões and this is one of the first walks we will do with our 3 years old niece when she comes to visit us. Nevertheless, we advise you to be careful. If the hike offers breathtaking views of the surrounding valley, it goes without saying that there is a risk of falling along the trail.

Can I take the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões with a stroller?

The type of path taken allows to do the PR11 with a stroller or a small child. However, the end of the hike is a bit rockier which can make it a bit difficult. We saw a family finish the hike with their child in their arms, having left the stroller on the side of the path against a tree.

Download the GPS track of the PR11 Vereda dos Balcões hike in GPX format

During our hikes, we record the GPS tracks in order to share them on this blog with you. The PR11 Vereda dos Balcões is extremely easy and well marked, but our GPS track will help you if you try the alternative trail on your way back. Be careful, however, not to follow it to the nearest meter and to use common sense. The GPS signal is not always perfect and the track may indeed be a few meters off the actual path. If the track takes you to a stream, it is not the right way, we did not swim on this PR11 🙂 

To go one step further

Prepare your trip to Madeira

Here is a checklist with the key elements to prepare your stay in Madeira and leave with peace of mind:

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We are Gaëlle and Jérémy, a couple in their thirties and we left everything to live full time on our sailboat Kerguelen.

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