The Portuguese town that invented a human toboggan as public transport

Tobogganing has never featured on my to-do list, yet here I am climbing into a cable car that will take me to my ride. The thought of me hurtling down a mountain at 55: forget low-flying missiles, here comes something far more dangerous. As my gondola lurches slowly upwards, I get an expanding view of the 2,000ft drop below.

I see treetops and ragged, torn mountain faces; I see what might be a river bed, and a long-abandoned shepherd’s hut; I see signs of human activity on the peak I am approaching. I see bits of this, and bits of that, but what I don’t see is snow…

Be sure to visit the Botanical GardensCredit: Anton Dijkgraaf/Camera Press

Which is just as well, as I’m in Funchal, capital of the semi-tropical island of Madeira, where the appearance of the white stuff would quite likely be more alarming even than the sight of me on a sleigh. No snow, no rolling green pastures, and thank goodness, no wooden crate or slither of plastic, either.

Instead, my vehicle is a commodious wicker basket that can achieve speeds of 30mph when sent down the steep road from Monte to Livramento. Back in the 19th century, the enterprising residents of this picturesque hilltop parish devised a novel way to get to the town centre: a carro de cesto (basket car), steered by two carreiros, or pilots. While the arrival first of the city’s cog railway and then of the motor car put paid to its life as a means of local transport, they paved the way for its rebirth as one Funchal’s most popular tourist attractions.

The traditional basket sledge in actionCredit: iStock

The pick-up point is Nossa Senhora do Monte Church, which can be reached by the fit on foot and by everyone else by road or, better still, by the gondolas that run either from the Old Town or the Botanical Garden to Monte.

It’s a short walk from cable stop to carro start, but even those as directionally challenged as I am can’t get lost as there’s a constant flow of distinctively dressed drivers to follow to the church. In white shirts and trousers, and jaunty straw hats, the carreiros wouldn’t look out of place punting on the Cam were it not for their heavy, thick rubber boots – otherwise known as their brakes. These boots, I’m soon to realise, are the vital tool that enables the men to jump off the cart to slow it down and steer it past traffic and pedestrians without losing their feet. 

Once they settle me in my basket, they give me their speil through rigor mortis smiles that indicate they’ve made this joke dozens of times per day for the past several years: “If you want to go faster, just yell, gas, gas.” With that, they pull me along to the starting point, walking faster and faster until the incline, the weight of the cart, its greased runners and gravity are able to do the rest for them. They jump on board and with a last kick of the leg – as though propelling a scooter forward – we shoot off down the hill.

Travel on Trial human toboggan

My carreiros hang from the back, using their weight and two heavy ropes to steer the careering cart, skilfully avoiding – by not many inches – walls, houses, people, cars and cyclists. Twice they jump off to slow us down – both times for the obligatory photograph that might supplement their income – but aside from that, our race to Livramento, two kilometres away, is unimpeded. 

My trip down lasts about 10 minutes and peaks at 25 miles an hour, my driver says. “If you want to go faster, next time come with a friend,” he advises. “The heavier the basket, the greater the speed. When we have two big people, we can go much, much faster.” I’ll bear that in mind for next time. This is one experience I’d certainly like to have again; it’s fast, fun and over too soon.

I feel like a five-year-old who’s just had a go on a huge slide, and my impulse is to get back to the top and do it all again. A ride in a carro de cesto costs EUR25 (GBP21) for one person, EUR30 for two people and EUR45 for three. Cable car: EUR11 one way.

British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Funchal throughout the year from GBP92 return (ba.com/madeira).

For more on Madeira visit madeiraallyear.com.

At time of publishing, overseas holidays were subject to restrictions; check the relevant guidance before booking and travelling.