Reunion is very much an island to be discovered through exploring its mountainous scenery and outdoor activities. The typical landforms of Réunion "Pitons, Cirques and Remparts of Reunion Island", have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and the world heritage covers more than 40% of the island.
The following two (fairly ambitious) hiking trails (Grande Randonnée) take in breathtaking views of the island.
- GR R2. This route crosses the island from Saint-Denis in the north down to Saint-Joseph in the south. Set aside about a week to cover the route's 130km trail.
- GR R1. It's slightly shorter at around four days and covers the Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie craters.
An alternative is to walk in Mafate, without marked-out footpaths. Visit the villages (locally known as îlets) to get a feel of car-free settlements in beautiful surroundings.
Le Cirque de Cilaos
This can be accessed from Saint-Louis by the road of 420 bends (route aux 420 virages). Whilst in this welcoming village sat at the foot of the
cliff, be sure not to miss the embroidery museum (musée de la broderie).
- Cilaos. Is a paradise for hikers of all abilities. With the circuit of the volcano, the most famous hike is most definitely the ascent of the Piton des Neiges. To make the most of the hike, be sure to be well-equipped: solid hiking footwear, water, cereal bars, dried fruits, an IGN map of the St-Pierre region, and the second pair of lighter sandals for severe weather or downpours. The tracks are very well marked-out and maintained, making it fairly difficult to get lost. The remaining hiking time (for the competent walker) is also marked on each signpost. To get warmed up first, start out with an easy walk (such as the Bras-Rouge waterfall) before tackling a visit to Mafate (Marla by the Taïbit pass) or the Piton des Neiges. Cilaos is also a passing point of the GR1 and GR2 hiking trails.
- La Roche Merveilleuse is a rocky headland in the heart of the forest, where you will be greeted by a stunning panoramic view across the cirque and its villages. It can be reached by car in 15 minutes on tarmacked roads. Get here by taking the route du Bras-Sec and follow signs for the forêt de cryptomérias (Japanese cedar forest).
- Ilet-à-Cordes. Nestled on a clearing at the foot of the Grand-Bénare, Ilet-à-Cordes was one a popular sanctuary for indigenous "Noirs marrons". Nowadays it is dedicated to agriculture (lentils, citrus fruits, and wine-growing). It is a well-earned place to rest up after a journey along the mountainside, where locals extend a warm welcome to visitors and gladly engage in conversation about their daily lives. Another place to stop by is the old thermal baths at the Bras-Rouge waterfall. The journey leaves a little further up from la Chapelle, approximately 5 hours.
- La cascade de Bras-Rouge. Found in the Bras-Rouge gorge, on the old path towards Mafate, the waterfall has carved out several pools which are ideal settings for picnics. The water colored by iron oxide is one of the principal attractions. An easy family walk, with numerous viewing spots along the gorges. For a round-trip, set aside two and a half hours. To get there from the thermal pools, follow the well-indicated path (named chemin des porteurs) flanked with flowers and greenery.
- Palmiste-Rouge by the Sentier des Calumets. The Sentier des Calumets is one of the most interesting ways to discover Palmiste-Rouge (but if strapped for time, it is possible to reach by car from the Cilaos road in St-Louis). It is just a short walk from the end of the village of Bras-Sec. The route crosses forests, winds its way around the foot of Bonnet-de-Prêtre, and comes down towards the small "village at the bottom of the valley". Nothing difficult here, apart from that it is sometimes slippery, especially in the morning. After around two and a half hours of walking, you will come across a typical mountain hamlet with nice restaurants. Get back by car (or hitchhiking) or wait for the bus back up to Cilaos. It is of course also possible to go back on foot. Expect a journey of 5 and a half hours all told.
- La Chapelle. Before the road, the journey towards Ilet-à-Cordes could only be made by a path going down steeply into the Bras-Rouge river before climbing back up to the plateau. On the riverbed, enormous slabs of basalt form a curious and impressive feature nicknamed "La Chapelle". It’s a journey of two hours in each direction. A great hike for good walkers. Just before entering into Cilaos, take the route just opposite the cirque bakery (which sells reasonably-priced sandwiches). Then, follow the signs away from the main road. Sturdy shoes and plenty of water are a must. Also, consider bringing a second pair of shoes for crossing the waterfall itself, and don’t be scared to take a dip underneath the waterfall!
- Le sentier des Sources. This is an easy-going little walk, taking about an hour and a half starting from the village of Bras-Sec. Be sure to bring water.
- Forest walks. Cilaos boasts an important coverage of both primitive forestry (behind the church) and land reforested with Japanese cedars (Mare-à-Joseph canton, route de Bras-Sec). There are many well-maintained and well-signposted tracks here, leading to waterfalls, pools and picnic spots which will leave you spoiled for choice. Information can be obtained from the Tourist Information Centre in the town center.
- Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and the Père Boiteau. Among the island’s sacred architecture, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is one of the jewels in the crown. The nave and chancel are noteworthy, and the woodwork is all the work of craftsmen from Rivière-Saint-Louis. The most illustrious figure at the church was the father Paul Boiteau, who arrived there in 1927, and died in 1947. A mystical ascetic, he was very close to the poor. He is buried in front of the church and is remembered for the good deeds he granted unto his followers. The church can be seen from afar, so finding one’s way there should not be a problem.
- From Cilaos, come along the Taïbit Pass (it takes about 5 hours from Cilaos to Marla, 4 hours from the îlet at Cordes). The Cirque is also accessible from the Cirque de Salazie along the Col des Bœufs, and there is even a manned car park (unfortunately slightly expensive). By this pass, you can join up with La Nouvelle in two and a half hours of walking through tamarind forest, or Marla in 3 hours.
It is also possible to reach here by the GR2 route from the north (canalisation des Orangers), or from Maïdo by taking the narrow path heading down the "La Brèche" pass, with a 750-meter change of altitude. It’s a fairly strenuous trip, 2 hours down, and 3 hours up (minimum), with dizzying drops. About halfway along, be sure to stop and appreciate the views, above a sheer drop of 1500 meters.
The cirque de Mafate is home to many villages, or “îlets”. Aside from La Nouvelle (1470m), there is Marla (1600m), Trois Roches (1220m), Roche Plate (1110m), Grand-Place (530m), Îlet des Orangers (1000m), Îlet des lataniers (650m), Îlet à Bourse (850), Îlet Malheur (828m), Aurère (930m) and Cayenne (530m). Although seemingly near from a bird’s-eye view, the journey from village to village requires a good few hours even for competent walkers. It is possible to get here by helicopter from St-Denis or St-Giles as well. Try HELILAGON, Altiport de l'Eperon-97460 Saint-Paul, tel. (0)188.8.131.52.
- The cirque de Salazie’s entrance opens up on the eastern side, allowing easterly winds from the ocean to bring spray, and thus rendering this region one of the island’s most lush. The name of the caldera is potentially derived from the Malagasy word salazy, meaning ‘good encampment’. The various villages can easily be reached from the Saint-André.
The main villages are Salazie (the administrative center), Hell-Bourg (a pretty, flowery village) and Grand-Ilet.
- Salazie, The Bridal Veil:
This is one of the island’s most spectacular sights. The eastern side of the caldera is carpeted in lush greenery through which slice a multitude of waterfalls. The area can be reached by crossing the river on a suspended footbridge, and by continuing alongside fields of watercress and chayotes (a green, pear-shaped fruit). A nice route would be to work one’s way through the vegetation and to go right up to the base of the waterfall – a perfect spot for a picnic.
Starting off from Hell-Bourg, a few long routes can take you to the "trou de Fer" (literally ‘the iron hole’), or the "Piton des Neiges". Alternatively, you could opt for a shorter hike to "Les Trois Cascades" (‘the three waterfalls’), taking just two-three hours for an easy round-trip – still, you’ll need to be equipped with decent footwear though.
- Grand-Ilet is the departure point for a winding route through to the "col de la Fourche" (‘the forked pass’). You can leave your car up in the car park there, and continue the signposted GR1 route, which leads you down to Mafate through the tamarind forests.
- The highest point on the island, the Piton-des-Neiges commands so much appeal among certain enthusiasts that it brings them back time and time again. It can be reached from a few different places, (Plaine-des-Cafres, Hell-Bourg, gite de Bélouve), with the ascent from Cilaos probably the most popular option. It’s still not an easy venture, though – it takes a good 8-hour day from Cilaos for even competent hikers to complete a full round trip.
- Route from Cilaos
Take the Route de Bras-Sec where the paths leave off from. The view is completely unobstructed, and the wilderness is staggeringly beautiful. A good place to take a halfway pitstop would be at the "Grand matarum" cabin. For very good climbers only! The gîte takes bookings (several weeks in advance): Maison de la Montagne (Tel.: 02.62.90.78.78), or at the Cilaos tourist information center 02.62.31.71.71, then book in for a meal and breakfast with the hosts at the gîte (02.62.51.15.26), 24 hours ahead. The journey back to Cilaos can be made in a single push (descending 1800 meters in altitude) – try to take it easy on those knees!
- The other route up is from the Bélouve gîte: set aside between 4 and 6 hours of hiking to get to the refuge hut at the Dufour cave – it is a longer and more circuitous route than approaching from Cilaos.
The path around Bélouve gets very muddy from time to time. The final route is to approach from Hell-Bourg passing through the cap Anglais: allow 6 or 7 hours for this route, which covers 1500 meters of altitude.
- The Piton de la Fournaise (Furnace Peak). Make sure to take to the caldera on a nice day, and leave early morning. The circuit of 14.5km takes about 5 hours of walking.
The first surprise is on the "Nez de bœuf" pass (2136m), where, after walking through lush greenery, a panoramic over the "plaine des sables" (plain of sands) hits you. This plain of black sand from volcanic activity gives us a hint of what is to come. A path (or more precisely, a dusty track), riddled with potholes, takes us to the "Pas de Bellecombe
" (2311m). A short walk of just a few meters from the car park takes you up to a lovely view over the "Fournaise". It’s a breathtaking sight as you see this lunar landscape presented before your eyes. A path (which is the only way of getting to the Fournaise) goes down about 150 meters in altitude in about 580 steps (we counted them!). Fortunately, there is a rail along the whole route, because the “steps” are far from being like those on normal staircases – they are from 10cm to 40cm in height and scramble over rock, earth, tree roots, concrete, and pebbles. Nevertheless, the descent along the wall of the caldera leads you through tamarind trees and is not an all too unpleasant route. Once you’re at the bottom, the first stop is to the "Formica Léo", a small volcano which has been inactive since 1753. From its reddish tip emerges about 20 meters of ash spewed out from successive eruptions of the volcano during its active years. The entire journey is well marked out with white markers. NB: These white markers, about every 2 meters apart, are essential in case of a sudden spell of mist – they will guide you back to the starting point. Be careful not to stray too far from them, as if you get lost there is very little chance of being rescued before the next morning, and nights up there are pretty cold!
After the Formica Léo
, the signposts take you towards the peak, on hard and smooth earth, made up of old lava. A small sign marks out that it is made of “Lave Cordée” (basaltic, smooth, fluid lava, also known as “Pāhoehoe” lava). From then on, the track goes on through a more lunar-like landscape, and the long ascent begins, crossing more recently produced lava.
Getting one’s bearings is no problem, all you have to do is follow the throngs of fellow visitors. Nevertheless, be warned: drink lots and do not be deceived by the cool air at this altitude of 2200m. The sun, even through the mist, is very strong, so protect your head and use suncream sparingly all over all parts of your body exposed to the sun (including your legs). Otherwise, be prepared for a few difficult days of sunburn. After the 2 hours of walking from the car park, you will finally arrive (about a third of the way along the route) at the summit of the Bory crater, at 2631 meters above sea level. This small crater, only 350 meters in diameter, has been inactive since 1971. It’s an ideal place to take a few photos or videos to immortalize the moment. Still following the white markers, the walk continues towards the Dolomieu crater (1km in diameter), which is still active, as the fumes will remind you. This itinerary covers the crater, and the route traverses recent lava flows. You’ll certainly feel the heat on your legs and the crunching underfoot (as if you’re walking on pieces of glass). A few signposts remind you of the danger of climbing down the rock face to get closer to the crater. The positioning of certain seismic probes around the crater’s lip will put your mind at rest slightly. Once you are finished up on the summit, it’s just another 2 and a half hours of walking to return to your vehicle – without forgetting that you have to climb back up those 580 steps again!
There is also good diving off the coast of Reunion.