São Vicente is a village on the north coast of Madeira, at the end of the valley that was the birthplace of the island. We were keen to take our grandchildren to walk where lava once flowed, so organized Ricardo and his taxi to take us across the island from Funchal to São Vicente, on a road where the latter part was prone to landslips and where there had been bad flooding a few years ago.
We arrived at the Volcanism Centre and Caves of São Vicente with only a short time to wait until the next guided tour.
The centre provides visitors with audiovisual demonstrations of volcanic eruptions and the birth of an island as well as a walk through São Vicente’s volcanic caves, walking where lava once flowed.
The caves comprise a number of lava tubes, the result of a volcanic eruption four hundred thousand years ago. The area covered by the volcanic tubes is over 1000 meters in length, the largest that has been discovered to date on the island. Some of the tubes have been dug out, with the floors lowered, to allow exploration.
The last time we visited the caves the weather was dry but we were advised to wear light rain jackets because of drips coming through the ceilings. But apart from the odd plop of cold water on our heads the ground was dry and easy to walk on.
This time, there had been heavy rain prior to our arrival so it was wet underfoot with a few puddles, and many more drips from the roof. The plus side of this was that the underground pools of water looked more spectacular in the eerie lighting.
The walk through the mountain is around 700 metres long, taking around 30 minutes. I found it fascinating to see the striations and patterns left when the lava surged though, parts of it reminiscent of intricately carved cathedral roofs.
In places where there were lights plants grew, luminously green despite the lack of natural light, their seeds deposited by the water that seeps into the tubes through the rock above. The temperature here is fairly constant about sixteen degrees centigrade I seem to remember.
The pools we came across took our breaths away and caused bottlenecks on the narrow path as we all stopped to take photographs.
A truly amazing walk through the entrails of the earth during which visitors can admire volcanic stalactites, lava accumulations, known as ‘lava cakes’, and the ‘erratic block’ – a large boulder carried by the lava that, because of its size, became stuck in one of the lava channels.
Our grandchildren looked slightly apprehensive as it was the first time they had ventured underground, but I’m sure they’ll remember aspects of their trip with fascination.