Ilhas Desertas

Desertas seen from sea

The Ilhas Desertas (the Desert Islands) consist of 3 islands (Chão, Deserta Grande and Bugio) lie approximately 25km to the south-east of Madeira. The various attempts to exploit the islands commercially have been thwarted by the shortage of water, though not without causing significant environmental damage in the process. The introduction of goats is a case in point: the mountainous terrain made it easy for the goats to escape and to consume swathes of the indigenous vegetation without any return for their original owners.


Desertas landscape

The islands now form a nature reserve which is attempting to preserve and encourage the native flora and fauna including a unique spider, various species of birds and a small colony of monk seals, but not including the goats. 

They also offer a unique opportunity to view the island of Madeira in the distance.

Madeira from the Desertas

There is a permanently-staffed ranger station on Deserta Grande and a small visitor centre with a few static exhibits. Visitors are limited in number and restricted to a small area around the visitor centre. 

Visitor Centre

There is no landing jetty (though one has been proposed) and very little to see that cannot be observed without landing. 

Ship lying off the Desertas

However, the route between Madeira and the Desertas is a good location for spotting whales and dolphins and so the trip may be as worthwhile for what you can see en route as what you may see on arrival.

Cetaceans around the Desertas 

Getting there

Because this is a controlled environment, visits should normally be cleared in advance with the visitor centre staff.

There are two companies offering scheduled tours: you can travel on a traditional Turkish gulet on Wednesdays and Sundays or by catamaran on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tours usually operate during the summer season - check the websites for full booking details. Note that these trips will take around 9 hours.

If you have a party large enough, you may be able to charter a boat - or you could simply take one of the tours that spot whales and dolphins and see the islands in the distance.