Hiking on La Réunion

Christina/ October 19, 2023/ Culture

The island of La Réunion is considered a French hiking paradise in the Indian Ocean, and for good reason. “Hike till you drop” could be the motto here. With three fascinating calderas and a coastline that surrounds the island, it leaves nothing to be desired. Furthermore, La Réunion boasts the highest mountain in the Indian Ocean, Piton des Neiges. In the volcanic region in the east of the country, the still-active Piton de la Fournaise attracts crowds to the lava rock. But even those who seek absolute tranquility will find La Réunion the right place. While life thrives on the beaches in the west, the “Côte sous le vent,” the Mafate caldera is a region of the island that can only be reached on foot. For me, La Réunion is a paradise: the perfect escape from the constant media stress and the crises of the world. A stay that makes me believe, if only for a while, that life can be perfect.

In the Hiking Paradise
The hiking opportunities on La Réunion are diverse, suitable for all skill levels and preferences. However, one should not underestimate the local climatic conditions, especially along the coast where the humidity can be intense. The mountain hikes are not suitable for beginners or occasional hikers. Surefootedness and endurance are essential. Some hikes may also require a head for heights.

The three calderas of the island serve as the focal points for hiking: Mafate, Cilaos, and Salazie. Despite the island’s relatively small size of 2,500 square kilometers, which can theoretically be circumnavigated by car in about five hours, it’s advisable not to underestimate the routes to the starting points of hikes. For this reason, we chose accommodations in four different parts of the island. This makes sense because clouds often roll in over the mountains in the late morning. While we experienced this situation, we also encountered the opposite case, where flexibility proved beneficial.

First Base Camp: Cilaos
We spent the first five days in Cilaos. Then, we continued for four days to Hell-Bourg. We spent two days in Plaine des Cafres before spending the remaining days in Saint-Gilles les Bains. We arrived in St. Denis, the capital of the island, and used the day for a city tour. However, I must say that the city seems quite deserted on Sundays. The next day, our drive to Cilaos was already an adventure. The road has many tight curves and several interesting tunnels. It’s a good idea to use the horn frequently when navigating the sharp bends.

Arriving in Cilaos, we realized that it can be quite chilly here. The two swimming pools at the hotel, with temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, felt like oversized bathtubs inviting us to relax. The town itself is small and manageable and is definitely a hiker’s paradise. We headed straight to the tourist information office. Here, you can find an overview of hiking options in the Cirque de Cilaos, even in German. Seventeen hikes are listed, sorted by difficulty. Since we wanted to stretch our legs before dinner, we started right away. We walked up from the “downtown” to the Plateau des Chênes and aimed for the viewpoint “Roche Merveilleuse.” Even on this short hike, it became clear that these are not leisurely walks; they offer fantastic views of the calderas.

Scenic Highlight at Bras-Rouge
The very next morning, we set off full of energy. We had a fantastic day ahead as we hiked to “Bras Rouge.” This was a varied circular hike with 680 meters of elevation difference and a unique picnic spot at a waterfall. We had downloaded the trail to our phone, but the route was also well marked and easy to follow. This was true for almost all the hikes we undertook. Since the trail started right in the town center, we didn’t need a car that day. After the hike, we would have liked to enjoy a “Sofortbier” (instant beer) in Cilaos, but all the cafes in town were closed, and even in our hotel, alcoholic drinks were only served after 6 pm.

For the second day, we had Cap Bouteille on our itinerary. The drive to the starting point was relatively short. The first section of the trail led in the direction of Col du Taibit. As it was all uphill, and the sun was beating down on us, it was quite a sweaty start. On the plateau, we turned right onto a small path. From there, we went through the Pampa. There were no signs here. At first, the trail was still easy to discern. However, when we reached the Source du Cap Bouteille, things got tricky. We were somewhat lost at this point. We crossed the river and climbed up a slippery slope. From here on, no paths were visible except for the trail leading down to Bras-Rouge. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the Point de vue. Frustrated, we made our way back. We were quite disappointed to find that all the cafes in town were closed, and there were no alcoholic beverages available at our hotel until 6 pm.

On the third day, we had “La Chapelle” in our sights, a spectacular rock cave. The hike started right in Cilaos, so we left our car behind. The trail was fantastic but not without challenges. As with many hikes, we had to cross riverbeds several times, so it’s a good idea to pack water shoes. Between 10 am and 12 pm, sunlight is supposed to shine into the rock crevice from above. Unfortunately, on that day, the sky clouded over very early. Nevertheless, the hike was definitely worthwhile. At times, we felt like we were in an Arabian oasis. Since the trail was well-traveled, finding the rock cave was not a problem – we just had to follow the crowd.

Beware of Trail Runners
Our last hiking adventure in Cilaos was the Ravine des Calumets – Palmiste Rouge circuit, rated as “moderate.” I wouldn’t necessarily agree with this assessment. Even on the way up, we had to be very attentive because the path not only descended steeply but had also been eroded or washed away by rain in some places. Once again, we had to cross a riverbed. While we were still looking for the right path, we encountered some trail runners (trail running is currently a trend in France). These individuals run up and down the steepest and rockiest trails, and we kept coming across them. When we visited a sports store, I noticed that trail running outfits were promoted everywhere. In my opinion, it’s a bit crazy, especially since the equipment alone costs around 300 euros, even from a sports discount store. We continued our hike to Palmiste Rouge. We were supposed to return along the opposite rock face. However, I couldn’t see any trail. Thanks to GPS, we found the starting point. The descent was challenging. The path was so steep that my body couldn’t produce sweat fast enough to keep up with what I was losing. Within a few minutes, our tops were completely soaked, as if we’d been caught in a heavy rain shower. I kept wiping sweat from my forehead constantly to avoid running blind. Finally, after what seemed like forever, we reached our car. Here, too, we would have liked to have enjoyed a beer afterward, but it wasn’t served before 6 pm in any of the cafes.

The Jewel of Hell-Bourg

The small town of Hell-Bourg seems to be one of the most popular destinations for hikers on La Réunion. At least that’s where we had the most trouble finding accommodation in advance. The village is located in the heart of the Cirque de Salazie (Salazie Cirque). Although Hell-Bourg essentially consists of just one main street, it has its own unique charm. We particularly enjoyed staying at the “Jardin D’Heva” accommodation (https://www.insel-la-reunion.com/angebote/jardins-d-heva-hotel-spa-les-salazie-de-558467/). The lodging comprises six individually designed cottages with terraces. The property boasts a beautiful garden, and sustainability is a top priority here. The breakfast is small but exquisite: the jams, honey, bread, etc., are all homemade. It’s a place of relaxation!

From Hell-Bourg, we embarked on three hikes. We hiked through the Fôret de Bélouve rainforest to reach the Trou de Fer, the Hell Hole. This hike could also be started directly from our accommodation. Naturally, at the beginning of the tour, there’s a steep ascent to reach the starting point. Upon reaching the top, we were lucky that the clouds parted, revealing the magical view of Hell-Bourg. However, the real challenge was yet to come. From the Gîte de Bélouve, the trail leads into the rainforest. The trail, mostly consisting of wooden walkways, is truly beautiful. However, the paths were so waterlogged that we ended up sliding more than walking. To complicate matters, the return route was closed, forcing all hikers to take the same path in both directions, which can be quite challenging due to the often very narrow trails.

At the Hell Hole, everyone converges. The Point de Vue at Trou de Fer is a small wooden balcony. When we arrived, everything was shrouded in mist. But like magic, the mists slowly receded, revealing the fascinating view of the 300-meter-deep gorge. The waterfalls tumble down from the lush green cliffs into this black hole. A true feast for the eyes. Most hikers picnic at this spot, gazing in awe at the natural spectacle.

Relaxation in Bel-Air
After the long and strenuous hike to Trou de Fer, we decided to take a break the next day and drove to Sainte Suzanne. Here, we found the Bel-Air lighthouse (https://www.france-voyage.com/frankreich-stadte/sainte-suzanne-36671/leuchtturm-bel-air-22594.htm). From there, we embarked on the Sentier Littoral trail to Domaine du Grand Hazier, a vanilla plantation. Unfortunately, the tours explaining the history of vanilla were only available in French. Our language skills were not up to par, so we continued to Saint-André and discovered Parc du Colosse. This park is located right by the Indian Ocean and is a delightful oasis for relaxation.

On the following day, we decided to go for another hike, this time to Source Manouilh. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. It was raining quite heavily during the ascent. In the forest, the trail led over roots and had turned into a slippery slide due to the moisture. So, we decided to turn back. In hindsight, this decision turned out to be fortunate because when the sun came out in the afternoon, we set off to Cascade Blanche near Salazie (https://www.alltrails.com/de/route/reunion/saint-benoit/cascade-blanche-depuis-chapelle-de-l-escalier). We quickly realized that it was an excellent choice. Not only was the path to the waterfall beautiful, but the cascade itself was breathtaking and even inviting for a swim.

At Piton de la Fournaise
On the fourth day, we left Hell-Bourg and continued to Plaine des Cafres. This time, we stayed with a French couple. The accommodation was simple but functional, and the hosts were warm. In this volcanic region, the weather was quite changeable. To stretch our legs, we took a walk through the highland meadows. Once again, we were amazed. With Piton Bleu in the background and cows grazing in the field, we felt like we could almost be in the Alps.

For the next day, we planned to hike to Coteau Maigre. During breakfast, our host eagerly asked if we were going to Piton de la Fournaise. When we told him about our plans, he seemed very disappointed. However, things took an unexpected turn. The sky was clear and the sun was shining, so we decided to visit the volcano after all. The drive to the starting point at Pas de Bellecombe was already breathtaking. We kept getting sensational views of the mountains and the desert-like landscape leading to the volcano. However, upon arriving at the parking lot, we noticed that the sky was gradually clouding over. What followed was a hike in the “fog of terror.” The visibility was so poor that we couldn’t see five meters ahead, and the light drizzle turned into continuous rain. Hoping that the weather would improve on the way to the crater, we pressed on. We were not alone in this decision. As the weather worsened, we were already quite soaked, and a couple coming from the crater met us. They explained that there was nothing to see at the crater, and we still had an hour of hiking ahead of us. Frustrated, we decided to turn back. By the time we reached the car, I had nothing dry left on me. We cranked up the car’s heater as far as it would go. On the return trip, we hardly recognized anything. The clouds had descended so low that we could barely make out the way back. Oh, how wonderful it was to have a warm shower at the accommodation and sit by the fireplace.

The next day, we bid farewell to the clouds and rain and set off for the west coast, the Côte sous le vent. We checked into our hotel in Saint-Gilles-les-Bains. In the afternoon, we visited the Jardin d’Eden and capped off the day with a sundowner at the beach. We were rewarded with a fantastic sunset. After all the mountain panoramas, we decided to conquer the coast the next day. We drove to L’Etang-Salé les Bains and began our hike at Le Gouffre de L’Etang (https://www.komoot.de/highlight/744267). The scenery was breathtaking. We could hardly believe the force with which the waves of the Indian Ocean crashed against the rocks, sending fountains into the air. It was a magnificent spectacle that we could watch for a long time.

However, we noticed that a coastal hike is much more exhausting due to the climatic conditions. So, we looked forward to returning to the mountains. Little did we know that the last two hikes were not only beautiful but also quite challenging.

Three days before our departure, we took on Cap Noir. For this, we selected the tour “Cap Noir – Passages avec échelles Runde von Dos d’Ane” on Komoot. With a length of 7.87 km and an ascent of 660 meters, it sounded manageable at first. The tour was labeled as difficult, but we had successfully completed such hikes before. Although the route mentioned the presence of ladders, they appeared harmless in the pictures. But the real challenge awaited us on the way back as we descended from Belvédère Mafate towards Dos d’Ane.

We began the hike at Dos d’Ane, climbing steeply to “Vu su Mafate,” an absolutely fantastic viewpoint over the Mafate Cirque. We were fortunate as the day was clear! We continued along the beautiful ridge path to Roche Verre Bouteille. At this point, there are two rock formations so close together that they form the silhouette of a bottle. Our return route was initially supposed to go through Kiosque du Cap Noir, but it was closed due to rockslides. Therefore, we hiked further in the direction of Roche Ecrite. The sun was scorching on that day, and since we were constantly ascending, we worked up quite a sweat. Despite the beautiful views and well-prepared path, it felt like the hike was dragging on. I kept thinking that we should start descending soon. We reached the Belvédère Mafate. Once again, we were fascinated by the magnificent view of the mountain range within the cirque. Shortly after the viewpoint, the trail forked. We left Sentier de Roche Ecrite and turned left. I walked ahead, but then I heard Holger’s voice calling after me. We had to descend. When I stood at the GPS-marked starting point for the descent, I couldn’t see a path through the dense undergrowth. “It has to be here,” Holger said, and I hesitated before slowly pushing forward. When I saw the narrow, very steep path, I couldn’t believe my eyes. How were we going to make it down in one piece? Moreover, the ground was soaked from the rain, and the abyss lurked to the left. I mumbled, “This better work out.” We cautiously and slowly inched our way forward, pressing against the rocks. The path got progressively worse and seemed endless. Now, imagine this: we had to abseil ourselves on a section where the secured trail suddenly ended. As I stood there, I couldn’t believe my eyes. We had to literally rappel down. My heart was pounding. We hesitated but couldn’t turn back. At this point, a hiker coming from below appeared. I had no intention of descending first, so I climbed up to make way for her to pass. It was a challenging feat due to the narrowness of the path. I gathered some courage and clung to the rope. Thankfully, everything went well, and I simply hoped it was the last challenge. But it wasn’t. After a while, we reached a point where I couldn’t see how to proceed further. It was another very steep section, and parts of the path had disappeared due to erosion. I couldn’t see where we could hold on. The ground was muddy from the rain and unstable, and the abyss was right there on our left. “We should be very careful here,” Holger said, as there were branches that appeared ready to snap off from the trees. I let Holger lead the way. We slowly and cautiously moved forward, clinging to the rocks. The path had us on edge and seemed endless. I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally arrived back at Dos D’Ane. It had been quite an adventure. The hike itself was beautiful, the views were fantastic, and the ridge path was great. But, as I mentioned, it requires strong nerves, good equipment, and hiking experience.

Our last hiking tour took us to Piton d’Oranges. The tour was indicated as 16.2 km with an ascent of 790 meters (Piton des Oranges – Les Terrasses Runde von Dos d’Ane). We were supposed to start at a parking lot at Forêt de Sans-Soucis. Finding the starting point turned out to be a bit tricky. When we were almost there, we heard a loud noise and the sound of air escaping quickly. Oh no. We had a flat tire. I got out of the car to inspect the situation. A fairly large stone had embedded itself in the tire. Holger quickly took care of it – not even five minutes later, we continued with the spare tire. Upon arriving at the starting point, we found a notice that the forest trail was closed due to forestry work. Since it was our return route, we initially decided to ignore the warning. We entered the trail about 500 meters further. As always, there was an uphill climb. The path was initially easy and well-maintained. But then it turned into an adventure. We ventured into the jungle, waiting for Holger to swing on a vine. Fortunately, La Réunion doesn’t have wild or dangerous animals, but the idea of a boa descending from one of the tropical or tamarind trees always lurked in our minds.

Unfortunately, the weather became hazier halfway through the hike, and we thought we wouldn’t get any more scenic views. However, that wasn’t the case. When we reached the summit of Oranges and had climbed our way up, we were surprised by a gap in the clouds. Standing in awe at the edge, we looked into the Mafate Cirque. Overwhelming. When I looked around, I saw that the fog behind us had thickened so much that everything disappeared into a gray, hazy veil, leaving only the Mafate Cirque under a clear sky. It was insane. As we weren’t sure if the weather would hold, we started our return after a short lunch break. We entered the forest and hiked toward Ilet Alcide. The area with its dense trees and bushes was quite impressive. The sense of adventure was back. Along the way, a light rain began, more like a moist mist than actual precipitation. The way back was quite long, but due to the dense vegetation, there weren’t any more viewpoints. When we reached the starting point, the forestry work had already finished, and our car was the only one left in the parking lot. Once back on the main road, we were stunned. It was pouring down with rain, all the way to the sea. Yet, we had stayed mostly dry the whole time. How lucky we were. This hike was undoubtedly a fitting conclusion to this fantastic vacation on the beautiful island of La Réunion.

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