REUNION – The circuses of Mafate, Salazie and Cilaos, a UNESCO World Heritage site

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As we have already told, the territory of the island is dominated by a very suggestive central area that is part of the Réunion National Park, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the two volcanoes (the Pitons), the circuses are the real stars of the island. They will be a paradise for hikers, not only for the large number of practicable routes, but also for the suggestive landscapes to observe. Rock walls, gorges, peaks, escarpments, reservoirs, waterfalls and a jaw-dropping mix of natural ecosystems. But even if you are not passionate about hiking or if you just have a few days, you could take some day trips (which we will talk about in this article) to admire the main features of this incredible site.

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What are the “circuses”?

The “circuses” are none other than the slopes of an ancient and imposing volcano that suffered profound erosion phenomena (landslides, rains, streams). The result of this process is a set of massive and steep walls, covered by dense vegetation, arranged contiguously to form three basins or amphitheaters, like a clover: the circuses of Mafate, Salazie and Cilaos. These 3 places are not easy to access and, although they are adjacent to each other, they must be visited separately because they are not connected by internal roads. Indeed, many of the villages found there are totally isolated from the rest of the island and can only be reached via footpaths or by air, by helicopter. This geographical isolation has made it possible to keep alive the traditions and Creole lifestyle.

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Mafate Circus

It is the first of the 3 circuses to visit to get an immediate idea of the majesty of these natural places. Drive up from the Guillaume district in Saint-Paul and head towards the Maïdo viewpoint. The climb is quite important, the last 20 km of road in fact are steep and winding (one bend after the other), so we suggest you to rent a car with a good weight/power ratio, in order to face the climb in a easier way.

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The belvedere rises at an altitude of 2205 m and is a real balcony on the circus of Mafate, from which to appreciate the steep walls that embrace the landscape and the isolated villages.

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It is easy for you to find clouds at a such altitude (because they form right along the walls of the ancient volcano), but do not worry because they are fleeting and subject to winds…have a little patience and sooner or later you will be able to see the beautiful view (as it happened to us).

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But it is not all, because behind the Maïdo you can admire the west coast of the island and the intense blue of the Indian Ocean. Along the panoramic road there are few pic-nic gazebos positioned at the most suggestive points where you can stop for a picnic or a picture.

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Coming down from the Maïdo you could make a stop in Petite France, one of the small towns that is part of the circuit of Creole Villages, which we will talk about in one of the next articles.

Salazie Circus

The focal point of the circus of Salazie is the lively and touristy town of Hell-Bourg, which can be reached comfortably by car, along the Route Departementale 48 from Saint-André.

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The road is not as steep as in the case of Mafate, but passes through a landscape made of green mountains and thick woods. Here you will come across the Voile de la Mariée waterfall (literally “bride’s veil“, due to the shape of the main jump), which invests an entire mountain wall, dividing itself into many jumps.

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Park your car along the road or in one of the few parking spaces available at the lookout points and admire the uniqueness of this suggestive waterfall. It is also possible to organize walks in the woods to better appreciate the various water jumps. This circus is so full of streams that it could happen that one of these ends up right on the car windshield…nothing dangerous, just a funny phenomenon that will make you smile. In this circus, the nature is truly luxuriant and allows you to closely touch the contrasts between ecosystems, typical of this island.

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But the exploration of the circus of Salazie culminates in a visit to the lively and colorful Hell-Bourg, a village belonging to the Creoles Villages circuit, as well as to the most beautiful villages in France. Here you will see a large number of well-kept Creole-style houses and you will find various souvenir shops where you can buy typical local products.

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Cilaos Circus

It is the most developed of the 3 circuses from the point of view of tourism and urbanization, here you can visit Cilaos, which is in fact a real town. The town is famous for its spa and you will find many shops where you can buy souvenirs and typical products of the place (in particular the lentils of Cilaos and wine). It is located at an altitude of 1200 m at the foot of Piton de Neiges (3070 m), the highest volcano on the island. The excursions that can be made starting from Cilaos are many and more or less demanding (such as the climb of Piton de Neiges). If you do not have time or you are not hikers, you can admire the panorama of the circus reaching the viewpoint of La Roche Merveilleuse, accessible from the main road through a few minutes walk. Another viewpoint is located in Îlet à Cordes, a village 9 km southwest of Cilaos, renowned for its lentil cultivation. The road leading to Cilaos is taken from Saint-Louis, it is about 30 km long and is very scenic, completely surrounded by nature, with views of peaks and overhangs. It is also known as the road of 400 curves and just this is worth the trip. Pay attention, keep a moderate speed both because in some places it become really narrow (and you could face also buses and trucks), and because the rainwater drains on the side of the road are very deep (not only here, also in all other mountain roads on the island).

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Looking for adventure?

For hiking lovers, we recommend a very useful and well-made site for organizing do-it-by-yourself walks throughout the territory of Réunion: click here for more info.

We are not naturalists so expert to appreciate all the nuances of this territory, but seeing a typical mountain landscape framed by tropical vegetation was something truly impressive and above all unique! That’s why even non-hikers will appreciate these fascinating and particular places. And you, have you already decided how to explore this rich and lush oceanic land? Tell us in the comments.

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