Cilaos is a superb playground for outdoorsy types, with a superfluity of activities on offer, including canyoning, hiking and rock climbing.
Of the stellar spots for canyoning in Réunion, the Cilaos area tops the list, with three major canyons that draw action-seekers like bees to a honeypot: Canyons de Gobert, Fleurs Jaunes and Bras Rouge. All are very atmospheric; you can expect various jumps, leaps into natural pools and jaw-dropping rappelling. Access to the canyons involves a preliminary five- to 45-minute hike (and back). The time spent in the canyon is about three to five hours. The most suitable canyons for beginners and families are Canyon de Gobert and Mini Fleurs Jaunes (which is a section of Fleurs Jaunes). Fleurs Jaunes is a more aerial circuit, with seven rappels, including a 55m (yes!) rappel.
All canyoning trips are led by qualified instructors. Some of the major operators don't have offices but can be reached by phone.
There are fabulous hiking options in the vicinity of Cilaos, including the climb up Piton des Neiges. There are well-marked trails suitable for all levels of fitness. The tourist office produces a small leaflet that gives an overview of the walks in the Cirque.
Feature: Hiking Up Piton des Neiges
The ascent to Réunion's highest point (3071m) is vigorous, but the 360-degree panorama at the summit is worth the effort. It's usually done in two days, with an overnight stay in Gîte de la Caverne Dufour.
The trail starts at Le Bloc, between Cilaos and Bras-Sec (it's signposted), which you can reach by bus from Cilaos. From Le Bloc, it's a challenging ascent through a forest of cryptomeria (a cedar-like tree) to the Plateau du Petit Matarum, a flat area reached after about 1¼ hours. Here the forest changes to stunted giant heather bushes (knows as branles) cloaked in wisps of lichen. The next section is even more arduous than the previous one from Le Bloc, with steep gradients all the way from here to the gîte (lodge); allow another two hours from the Plateau du Petit Matarum to the gîte.
Because the summit of Piton des Neiges is usually cloaked in cloud by mid-morning, most people choose to stay overnight at the gîte, starting out for the peak before dawn. The path is clearly marked in white on the rock face. The climb takes about three hours return. The landscape becomes increasingly rocky the higher you climb, and the final section rises steeply over shifting cinders that make for slippery footing. At the summit there are few traces of vegetation, and the red, black and ochre rock leave little doubt about the mountain's volcanic origins. On a clear day, the whole island is spread out beneath you.
Rock climbing is becoming increasingly popular in Cilaos, where there is no shortage of awesome cliffs and gorges, particularly in the stunning Fleurs Jaunes area, which is home to dozens of mind-boggling ascents, graded four to eight (easy to difficult). For novices, there are also falaise-écoles (training cliffs that are specially equipped for beginners). Run Évasion and Cilaos Aventure employ qualified instructors. Plan on €55 per person.
The Cirque de Cilaos, with its dramatic topography and great scenic roads, is superb terrain for experienced cyclists. Novices can ride to La Roche Merveilleuse. The road to Bras-Sec is another stunner.