Cilaos is one of Reunion’s famous cirques, a majestic natural amphitheater carved out of the crater of an ancient volcano. This striking jungle-clad interior is what Reunion is renowned for and what really makes this island truly unique. It’s a world away from the seaside holiday villages and bustling urban centers; somewhere much more primordial and wild, where thick vegetation, rushing waterfalls and sweet mountain air give you the sense that you’ve just entered a scene from Lost or perhaps Land Before Time.
Getting to Cilaos
Turning inland at St Louis you’ll start your ascent to Cilaos. Aptly called the road of 420 turns, it’s a twisty, and at times nail-biting ride, up steep switchbacks, through narrow tunnels and along the edge of plummeting ravines. The scenery along the way is simply stunning and you’ll be reaching for your camera at every turn. The drive itself takes about 1.5 hours and can be completed by either rental car or public bus. The roads are in good condition, but become very narrow and often reduce to a single lane so if you’re driving, be prepared to sound the horn before each blind turn and listen carefully for trucks and buses as they come barreling down in the other direction.
If you are making the trip with your own vehicle there are many great view points where you can safely pull over into a designated parking area. If you’re traveling via public transport you won’t have this luxury, but will still be able to take in the scenery through the buses extra-wide and well maintained windows. Public transport also offers its own special kind of fun. Watching the conductor navigate through tunnels not-more-than-an-inch wider than the bus itself is something to behold especially when it involves a line of traffic frantically reversing out of your way.
Perched on a green plateau, surrounded by deep ravines and high mountain peaks, the charming village of Cilaos welcomes you like a breath of fresh air. Once famous for its hot baths, it’s the largest village within the cirques, yet remains a quaint little place with real creole charm. Here you’ll find a mix of day tourists and more serious mountaineers bumping shoulders with local artisans and creole farmers at the local boulangerie. The town offers a good range of shopping and dining which has remained refreshingly local and homespun. Farm stalls specialize in local Cilaos wines, lentils and achards, and a good selection restaurants offer up a tantalizing array of creole specialties. On Sundays you’ll find a lively village market and throughout tourist season you’ll be greeted with live music in the village square or on the banks of the lake. A range of hotel options are available but they do fill up quickly so be sure to book ahead.
Hiking from Cilaos
There is a huge range of hikes that commence in Cilaos from one hour meanders to multi-day circuits. Pop into the info center where you can pick up a decent map and get some assistance on planning your treks. Due to time limitations, I stuck to day hikes while I was visiting Reunion and returned to Cilaos each evening. There are at least 12 hikes of ranging difficulty that you can complete this way which can keep you busy for at least a few days. My advice is to combine a few of the shorter day hikes. They tend to intersect in surrounding creole villages which are worth a visit in their own right. The bus system within the cirques is pretty incredible so you shouldn’t ever need to hike back on the same route unless you are feeling really ambitious. It’s easy to flag down a bus at the end of any trail.
Another word of advice, make sure you find out which end of the trail is the designated starting point. Otherwise you might discover that your ‘easy’ trail is actually a strenuous 5 hour ascent rather than the enjoyable meander downwards than anticipated!
Although it’s never really advisable to hike solo, Cilaos is not the worst place to take this on as long as you stick to the easy to medium trails. The paths are well marked and very well maintained. Even I, who gets lost in a shoe box, found in nearly impossible to stray from the path. Most routes cross through picturesque Creole villages where you can stock up on water or break for lunch and the routes are well trodden so if you do run into any trouble someone is never too far away.