What do you imagine when you think of Madeira? Although I did my research before visiting the island, little I knew this place is actually composed of massive rugged cliffs hanging over the hungry Atlantic Ocean, small sparsely populated villages, roads dotted with colourful alliums and a myriad of hiking trails taking me to paradise and back.
Madeira is a small island, with a surface area of only 459sq miles, most of it being mountainous terrain. All points on the island are served by great road networks, however public transport is reasonably limited still.
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For the sake of having flexibility in your schedule and being able to do several trails around the island, the best way to navigate through Madeira is by car. Apart from the obvious big rental companies, there are several local shops located in Funchal and the surrounding areas, offering you much better and cheaper options.
Driving in Madeira
In general, I tend to go for a rental from a local company. I research the company online to ensure it's serious and professional, then, based on reviews, website look and feel, prices and responsiveness to my messages, I pick them or move on. In Madeira, I got really lucky as I rented a car from Europcar, a really good company which I strongly recommend. They were super fun to rent from, they waited for me at the airport with all the paperwork and took me straight to the car. It was the most hassle free transaction. I got a new model Seat Ibiza in excellent condition. The car did not disappoint one bit, being diesel and with good engine size.
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Now here is the trick with renting a car in Madeira: get a GOOD car. I know it’s tempting to save some money, but because of the nature of the roads in Madeira, you will really need a rental which will actually allow you to drive up some 90 degrees steep hills. I specifically asked for a car capable to do all this. The shocking part? The cars are actually ridiculously cheap. For 8 days I paid less than £200 with all-inclusive insurance as part of the deal. Yes, please!
Rent your car here. Make sure you go to Locations on the main navigation. Select "Portugal", then start writing "Funchal" and the option to select Funchal Airport will just pop up.
What to expect from driving in Madeira
Now here comes the fun part, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from driving around Madeira. I’ve heard here and there that you need to be a skilful driver, but I thought, hey, I love driving and after touring New Zealand and crossing the Crown Range, I will be perfectly fine. Was I fine? Yes...BUT, Madeira has the most challenging roads I’ve ever experienced. Firstly, I had to drive on the right-hand side and as a Brit, this didn't come as naturally as you may imagine. Half an hour later I got used to it, so that turned out to be ok.
Secondly, once I got off the motorway, that’s when the challenges actually started. Imagine a continuous maze of roads which take you up and down on close to 90 degrees steep (up and down) hills. Sometimes I came across lots of signs warning me of massive rocks falling on the road. Other times, I drove on the narrowest, unfenced roads revealing a massive gap, spreading all the way to the ocean (which looks astonishing btw, but that’s not the time to marvel at the landscape).
I think my worst moment was when I took on one of those ridiculously narrow roads, going up the hill at over 60 degrees steepness, when, a massive truck almost pushed me off the road. I quickly moved to the very edge of the road (heart skipped a beat) and pressed the brakes (luckily I was only going 30 miles per hour). The truck had no issues whatsoever (just another day in paradise, pushing tourists off the cliffs). I was stunned and really took me a moment to get my wits together before continuing. Sure my knees were wobbling but I kept telling myself “I love driving, I love driving, I love driving”. Horrors!
After what felt like hours later, I finally got to the destination. I parked the car and took my wobbling knees for a walk through a deep forest, leading to the Los Balcones.
The views there were amazing. I mean... AMAZING. You could say worth risking my life for.
For the next week in Madeira, I got better and better at driving on those challenging roads. There a couple more incidents were I had to pull myself together. I had to do a U-turn on a narrow unfenced road, reversing into the abyss. Imagine about 50 manoeuvres to ensure I don’t fall off the cliff. I had to drive through the thickest fog, up the mountains, towards Pico Ruivo. It made me feel like I was part of some horror movie: zero visibility, dark and cold and a serious possibility to get kidnapped by forest spirits.
To top it all up, of course, there were trivial steep hills where the necessary burning of the clutch turned out to be a must. Overall I survived it. Moreover, I actually enjoyed it had the driving adventure of a lifetime.
Now here is what I took away from my driving experience in Madeira and I want you to really keep in mind. Don’t take it as a joke: you can’t race on these roads, you will fall off the cliff and die. Don’t think you are a superior driver and can take on these challenges just because you had years of experience. Honestly, they can be difficult even for a great driver. Just be patient and work on those clutch skills. If you don’t feel comfortable with the clutch work, don’t rent a car in Madeira, it’s going to give you more grief than pleasure and you will end up hating it. Knowing how to manoeuvre the car is an absolute must. And finally, if you are not comfortable with parallel parking up or down the hill, you might struggle here and there.
Now that safety is ensured, know that driving in Madeira is actually A LOT of fun. Challenges and adventures are always great and you will be able to access some seriously remote parts of this island. Get a rental, drive around and be prepared for an epic adventure of a lifetime.
Book your Hotel in Funchal, the capital of Madeira
We have picked a couple of lovely hotels for you in the very centre of Funchal. Parking is available in all of them (fees may apply) and you are only a short walk away from the old town with its outstanding restaurants and bars. During the day, take the car for a day trip around the island.
Few tips about car rental in Madeira
What you need: You need serious clutch skills and a good car with a great engine. Make sure you go to Locations on the main navigation. Select "Portugal", then start writing "Funchal" and the option to select Funchal Airport will just pop up.
Road condition: Motorways are excellent, be prepared for tons of tunnels, many roundabouts and one lane roads. Off the motorway, the serpentine roads are very narrow and challenging. People tend to be considerate and Madeirans seem to be good drivers.
Warnings: There are rocks falling off on certain roads. Be vigilant. In Madeira, you need to drive on the right-hand side.
Driving licences: Madeira is part of the EU. Check with your local government if your driving licence is accepted. Alternatively, you may need to apply for an international driving licence prior to your arrival.
Necessity: You must have a sat nav, this is by far the easiest way to ensure you have a smooth journey. I bring my Tom Tom with me, which has a full European map on it. I recommend you do the same. alternatively, you can rent it with the car for a small fee.
I hope you found this useful and you are now ready to drive in Madeira. Tell about a time when you really loved driving in a new country!