Cobalt, cerulean, azure, ultramarine . . . When viewed from above, the Indian Ocean is so much more than just blue.
I was standing near the top of Le Morne Mountain, a basaltic monolith on the west coast of Mauritius. From my perch, I could see a smattering of small islands, a fleet of local pirogues, and a mosaic of corals. Kite surfers glided over the sea in a nearby bay, and sea birds banked in the wind. Mauritius, I thought as I looked down, is so much more than just a beach destination.
I had come to Mauritius to work on a photography project while my partner studied the local wildlife for six months. After exploring the beaches and getting a few solid sunburns, I turned my attention to the mountains, deciding to hike as many as I could during my time on the island.
Perhaps most famous as the home of the now extinct dodo, Mauritius isn’t widely known as a hiking destination. Most of the one million tourists who visit the country never even leave their resorts, but the opportunities for hikers are surprisingly varied. With dozens of peaks, the highest of which is 2,716 feet above sea level, Mauritius offers a wide range of great trails to those willing to go off the beaten path.
I went on my first hiking adventure just a few days after arriving in the country. Once I sorted out a rental car and learned how to drive on the left side of the road, I found a local guide through a company called Yanature and arranged to meet him for a group hike at Le Morne Brabant Mountain, beginning at 5:30 a.m.
I arrived a bit early, having given myself ample time to navigate in a new place. There was only one other vehicle parked in the lot, and a middle-aged man wearing running shorts was standing next to the car, stretching.
After watching him for a few minutes, I got out to introduce myself, assuming he was the guide. Using very rough sign language, he indicated that he couldn’t speak to me. Given that Hinduism is the predominant religion in Mauritius, I thought he might have been practicing silence—referred to as mauna in the Hindu philosophy. After we had smiled broadly at each other, I climbed back into my car to wait. It seemed unlikely that he could serve as our guide without speaking.
Eventually the guide arrived, along with eight other hikers, and we all set out on the four-mile round-trip hike. We made our way to the start of the trail, donning headlamps for the first stretch, as the sky was just beginning to lighten.
Most of the hikers were Mauritians, and they were excited to tell me about their country—I actually received two invitations to tea before the sun fully rose. We chatted about outdoor culture in Mauritius, and I learned about a local hiking club that met regularly to explore different parts of the island.
The first part of the trail passed through forest, and we hiked in a line until there was a break in the vegetation. Stepping up to the overlook, we were greeted with a spectacular light display. Sunbeams streamed through a mountainous valley, and the sea was glassy and still, with clouds mirrored in its surface.
The hike only got better as we climbed. Above tree line, the views became panoramic and the breeze was refreshing. Keeping a steady pace, we all made it to the end of the trail in less than two hours and took a break at the final overlook.
We couldn’t actually summit the mountain, since the top is a World Heritage site. Le Morne, I learned, is a place imbued with history and cultural significance. Runaway slaves used it as a hiding place during the early 19th century. Legend has it that when slavery was abolished in Mauritius, local officials visited the mountain to share the news with the runaway slaves. However, fearing that the officials were coming to capture them, the slaves tragically leapt to their deaths from the top of the mountain, never realizing their freedom.
In addition to being a World Heritage site, it’s also the last place on the planet where the national flower of Mauritius, the Trochetia boutoniana, grows in the wild. If you’re lucky, you can spot the brilliant red blooms glowing against the turquoise waters.
After hiking Le Morne, I went on to explore many of the island’s other trails. Le Morne is privately owned, so you do need a guide who has permission from the owners (I recommend Yanature), but most of the island’s mountains can be attempted on your own with instructions from Fitsy.com.
I used the information on Fitsy to hike Piton du Canot, Lion Mountain, and Little Black River Peak, the highest mountain on the island. Piton du Canot in the west was an easy hike, and its summit provided unobstructed views along the west coast. From the summit, my friends and I saw giant fruit bats gliding just a few feet over our heads, their red fur glowing in the last rays of sunlight. As we waited and watched, dozens of the bats swooped around, silhouetted against the sea. Another day, we hiked Lion Mountain on the east coast, where we briefly saw a wild Mauritius kestrel, once the rarest bird in the world. We didn’t see another person during the entire hike.
After spending almost five months living in Mauritius and countless hours peering out into the great blue from the country’s summits, I can fairly say that the travel guides don’t do it justice. As a destination, Mauritius offers so much more than its beaches. If hiking, climbing, and other outdoor activities become more popular, the government may have an incentive to conserve more natural areas.
Now all that’s needed are some adventurous travelers willing to get off their beach chairs and onto the trails.
To see more of Gabby’s adventures, follow her on Instagram @gabbyrsalazar.