That Madeira is a volcanic island may not surprise anyone who has been here. The barren and dramatic nature with the red-black soil, personifies a volcanic island. Madeira rose from lava in the Atlantic millions of years ago, but today the lava is not particularly hot at all. Rather ice cold. There are no living volcanoes on the island anymore, but the remnants of a much warmer history can be found in the lava caves of Sao Vicente.
What is a lava cave?
The lava caves of Sao Vicente were formed nearly 900 years ago and were the first lava caves to open to visitors in Portugal. I have previously visited lava caves in both Australia and the USA, but the fact that there would be similar caves closer had completely escaped me.
Lava caves are usually formed when large amounts of lava slowly flow forward after a volcanic eruption. In contact with cooler air, the surface of the lava flow begins to solidify and form a roof to a tunnel into which the lava slowly continues to flow. When the volcanic eruption is over, only the hard tunnel roof remains and a lava cave has formed.
Often it can be quite difficult to spot a lava cave. Thousands of years of soil and vegetation closing over the tunnel's roof hide entrances and cracks in the ground.
Sao Vicente was officially discovered in 1885, when villagers told James Yate Johnson – an English geologist – that they had found cavities in the rock. Johnson explored the caves further and laid the foundation for the part of the caves that can be visited today. A total of 8 tunnels are known today that are more than 1 km long and with a tunnel height of up to 6 meters, but the probability is high that there are significantly more lava caves hidden in Madeira.
Visit the lava caves
To visit the lava caves, you need to join a guided tour from the caves' visitor center, which is located just outside the village of São Vicente. The tour is about half an hour long and takes you at a fast pace deep into the caves. We hadn't pre-booked our visit, but got a place on the next tour without a problem. Great to have sights that you can visit spontaneously!
The guide took us into a well-lit cave, where we all had to walk in turn. Most of the cave is untouched and natural, but the ground has been leveled to a narrow path so that the cave can be accessible to everyone. It dripped a little from the ceiling and despite the darkness the caves were not empty and dead. Little green plants, lichens and some kind of fern grew everywhere.
We passed by underground small streams and waterfalls, where water from some of the area's levees passed by. In one of the water courses were boxes of local wine, a test by the local wine producers to see how the wine develops and matures in the cave. Maybe this will be the world's next gastronomic trend? Lava Cave Aged Maderia?
At the end of the guided tour, we will stop at the volcano center, where we will learn more about geology and watch a film about Madeira's creation. A nice little museum, which is definitely worth stopping for a while.
How do I get to Madeira's lava caves?
Grutas de São Vicente is located just outside the village of São Vicente on Madeira's north coast. The easiest way is to take a rental car here, but there are also organized day trips from the tourist resorts.
Admission costs €8 per adult / €6 for children. Usually the caves are open for visits daily, but today (October 2020) the caves are closed due to the pandemic.
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