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Road to Cilaos, the sunniest cirque on Réunion Island

Cilaos, the last of the three cirques that inhabit the beautiful island of Réunion. Far less well-known than the other two cirques, I decided to venture there one day, alone, in my sister’s old hire car. Legend has it that the car never recovered from the very winding road that leads there.

The Cirque de Cilaos is formed by the ramparts of the caldera of the Piton des Neiges, Réunion’s highest peak. At an average altitude of 1,200 metres, Cilaos is surrounded by majestic peaks, sharp ridges and deep ravines, creating a magnificent mountain landscape.


For adventure lovers, the Cirque de Cilaos offers an exceptional playground. Well-maintained hiking trails allow visitors to explore the magnificent scenery. Among the most popular trails is the one leading to the Piton des Neiges, offering breathtaking views from the island’s highest point.

As well as its natural beauty, the Cirque de Cilaos is deeply steeped in Creole culture. The inhabitants, known as Cilaosiens, proudly preserve their traditions. Visitors can discover local handicrafts, notably embroidery and weaving, true testimonies of know-how handed down from generation to generation.

What’s more, the Creole cuisine of Cilaos is a true gastronomic experience. Traditional dishes such as curry, rougail and locally-grown lentils are a delight to sample. And don’t miss the chance to taste Cilaos wine, produced from vines grown on terraces on the steep mountainsides.


The legendary 400 bends are associated with access to Cilaos. Yet despite the dizzying curves, it offers breathtaking panoramas, provided you can take your eyes off the dashboard.

For driving enthusiasts, it’s a driver’s paradise. Personally, I’m not going to pretend to be an ace behind the wheel. I’m more the kind of person who prefers speed to technique.

On this twisting road, careful driving is essential, as is patience, because there’s no room for speed here. And let’s talk about the car I’m driving. It probably has more years on the clock than I do. It’s like taking part in a soapbox race against the most technologically advanced cars. It’s not fast, but it’s fun to watch.

So after that background, welcome to the Road of 400 Bends. It all starts with what looks like a leisurely stroll from Saint-Louis on the West Coast. Follow the signs to Cilaos.


Once you’ve left urban civilisation behind, the road decides to do its own gymnastics session. The first few bends are gentle, you know, just to warm up your tyres gently. Then it gets serious. As you climb higher into the mountains, the bends get tighter ; like slaloming between life’s challenges, but, at least, with a better view.

And speaking of the latter, there’s nothing like admiring the valley below while praying that a traffic light doesn’t signal you to stop in the middle of a steep climb. Especially when the manual car I’m driving is acting up and decides to stall at every corner. Cold sweats guaranteed, which don’t really fit in with the claims of the tourist office and its “enchanted itinerary”. For me, it was more like a post-traumatic enchantment. The only people who were truly enchanted were the passengers, who don’t end up with a greenish complexion.

And then there are the tunnels. Three tunnels to spice things up, where playing “Give Way” is like playing a virtual reality video game. Before entering these subterranean dens, I recommend that you use the car horn as if you were a marching band. Having had a few more cold sweats as an intrepid pathfinder in the first tunnel, I took the initiative of parking on the side and letting other vehicles go first in the following tunnels and on the way back. 

I explain this like an action film with a good comedic twist, but in the end I was quite proud to have managed this route on my own. The return journey was much calmer (knowing what lay ahead) and I was able to take more time admiring the scenery than worrying about the next steep bend.


This charming hilltop village will take you round in just a few minutes.

But if there’s one thing you should take seriously, it’s discovering its specialities, and for that you have two great options: the covered market, a celebrity on the island, or Auntie Rosine’s shop!

Imagine yourself in the main street, where you absolutely can’t miss Tatie Rosine’s shop, with its parade of cakes in the window. Auntie Rosine’s speciality is potato cake. A delicious homemade cake made with love and, above all, a disconcerting lightness (nothing to do with the lead I ingested in Salazie, which decided to stay in my stomach for an eternity). I also succumbed to a lentil cake (deliciously special from Cilaos) and a banana cake. A feast! Of course, I had to take a little walk to digest it all, and I’ve come up with an easy idea below.

And, on the way to meet up with my faithful car, who was having a nap after 400 bends, I stopped to savour another local speciality: Cilaos wine. The Cirque de Cilaos is the only place on Réunion where vines dare to grow. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s simple. It’s not the kind of wine that will win any awards, but it’s like a devoted sidekick that can be enjoyed with a good meal, while offering you a dip into the local terroir.


Looking for a breathtaking view of the cirque, I came across a nice hike from the village of Cilaos, leading to a magnificent belvedere. Well, let’s be honest, I was feeling lazy that day (I also had to preserve my energy for the epic walk I was about to make to Mafate), so I decided to save my feet from 2 kilometres of walking and an hour of my time, by parking my car as close to the promontory as possible.

In the end, I parked at the side of the road and had ten minutes or so to walk through the forest to reach the famous Roche Merveilleuse viewpoint. I opted for the official road rather than the forest path, because I had one overriding fear in mind: an encounter with a babouk, a large spider. We all know that as soon as there are more than four legs, my legs decide to compete in an Olympic competition. So, to stay safe, I chose to walk on tarmac.

That said, I nearly missed the staircase leading up to the belvedere. Fortunately, I didn’t miss the legend surrounding the Roche Merveilleuse. Apparently, women in search of fertility used to rub their bellies against this magical rock. Fortunately, I hadn’t planned to take part in this rubbing session, especially after hearing the word I wanted to avoid at all costs: babouk.

On the way to the belvedere, I came face to face with a large (but strangely beautiful, from a respectable distance) spider that seemed to be taking its time to enjoy the view of the village of Cilaos.

With the weather a little overcast, I wasn’t lucky enough to see the famous Piton des Neiges, but I was still able to contemplate the village of Cilaos and its ramparts, while avoiding any close contact with our babouk friends.

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