Ribeira de São Jorge to Ilha is an upstream hike and one hell of an adventure on Madeira Island. The hike begins inside the canyon and you follow the Ribeira de São Jorge for almost 10 kilometers until you make the steep ascent out of the canyon and join up with the Ilha trail to wind your way back down the ridge to Ilha. It’s very adventurous, you will be submerged in water many times and need to scramble up steep and muddy ascents.


Hike Distance: The total distance of the hike was 20 kilometers for the entire loop.

Hike Duration: The hike will take you about 6-8 hours from start to finish as it can be slow-going through the river.

Hike Difficulty: The difficulties on this trail are the terrain for the most part. While there are no drop-offs or moments to be afraid of heights, it’s the slippery nature of an upstream hike that will get most people. Slippery rocks, walking through water, and scrambling up and down boulders require some technical skills. The ascent was very steep and you should be comfortable scrambling on all fours while holding on to trees for stability. This hike is recommended for experienced hikers I would say although it was nothing super technical.

Hike Incline: Total incline for the hike was 850 meters

My Strava Map Upload: Ribeira de São Jorge River Hike


Because this is a circular loop, you can essentially start anywhere. We parked at the base of the mountains, which meant we started directly at the river. However, you could also start at the entrance to the PR 1.1 Vereda da Ilha, which you will pass on the route. This would mean you start the hike by descending on the road down to the river before you begin and have slightly less descent on the back-end of the hike. I’ve added my map above so you can decide where you want to start but I’d suggest either at the base of the river or Vereda da Ilha PR 1.1


This isn’t your regular hiking route so although I’ve given you a map and a lot of directions and advice, it’s best to link up with a local for this one. Don’t expect any signs throughout the trail or to find most of the routes on a map. I did this hike with the Madeira Lés a Lés, which is a hiking group that does off-the-beaten-path adventures every Saturday. They welcome highly adventurous people to join but also offer specialized tours through their small business Madeira Wonder Hikes, where they can tour you on a trail that suits you and your group. Anyway, I just joined the group as a friend but thought you might find that information of value if you want to do some serious adventure on Madeira but aren’t sure who to get in contact with. If you meet any of the Madeira Lés a Lés crew, you will see what I’m talking about.


The crew from Madeira Lés a Lés invited me out to join them on a Saturday mission and I immediately knew I had found my people. Despite my desperate lack of Portuguese, the connection through adventure was crystal clear. They told me it would be nine kilometers total distance through the river and about 500 meters of incline. After two hikes with this crew, I’ve quickly learnt that whatever they tell you, double it and then you will be far closer to the actual distance of the hike. This time was no different with 850-meters of incline throughout a 20-kilometer journey.

The hike began at river-level as we went straight to knee-deep water within the first few moments of the trek. The water was cold but not icy, which was lucky because it would be eight hours of wet feet forthcoming.

The trail isn’t so much of a trail but more of a build-your-own route as you constantly search for the practical route. This means you are crossing the river back and forth time and time again in search of a clear path or to avoid a steep canyon wall on one side. We would at times be completely engulfed by dense vegetation while other times we found ourselves wading through the river with a break in the canopy where we could finally receive some sunshine as it snuck into the dark walls of the canyon.

The beauty of an upstream river hike is that around each new corner of the canyon walls was an entirely new scene. Huge boulders the size of a house, covered in moss and blocking the river around one corner before a series of cascading waterfalls would reveal itself around the next. You never knew what was coming until you made your way another few hundred meters along the river.

With such a diversity of rock formations, scenery and fauna we came across some very unique natural attractions. At times it felt a little bit like Tomb Raider, with trees seemingly growing out of rocks, boulders blocking caves and adventurers on either side of me marching through the cold water. This is Madeira.

On hikes like this one, full of action and adrenaline, I like to find a few quiet moments to myself and just take in something incredible simple yet complex in how it arrived. It grounds me for a few moments and lets me soak in how lucky we are to be exploring such incredible places.

One of my favorite parts of the hike was about 8-kilometers into the journey. I regularly turn around when hiking. You never know what the reverse view might show. Maybe it is an entirely different scene. In this case, I turned back around and immediately saw an elephant shaped rock whose trunk sprouted out of the boulders through the tree branches. Can you see it?

After 10-kilometers of following the river upstream it was time to ascend out of the canyon to the top of the ridge. This was a very steep scramble up some thick, muddy terrain. These are the parts of the hike were you could have almost no chance of navigating without the local gurus leading the way.

After a long and steep incline, we made it back up to the official trail, Vereda da Ilha, which links Pico Ruivo to Ilha. It was now more of a regular hike along the trail until we made it back to the village and then descended down to our cars to meet back at the original starting point. Tired and heavy, it was time for a Poncha and a team meal at the local restaurant. Another great day on Madeira. Thanks to Madeira Lés a Lés for showing me your backyard!

I hope you enjoyed this guide about the Ribeira de São Jorge to Ilha hike on Madeira Island. Happy hiking and stay safe out there.

Blog Comments

  1. Thank you for the words (and the photos). We’ve done a similar upstream hike here in the Philippines, and what an experience it has been. I haven’t found the apt words to really describe it, until I’ve read this. Mabuhay!

    1. Yes many good canyoning and river adventures in Cebu and other places in PH 🙂 My favorite was Kabutongan in Cebu.

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