The more you discover Maderia, the more you may wonder how this paradisiacal island was formed. How did this land rich of vegetation, exotic flowers, lush forests, rolling mountains, deep valleys and extensive cliffs come to be? The best place to being on this quest for truth is the São Vicente Caves and Volcanism Centre on the northern bank of the river that divides the town of São Vicente into two sections. This educational expedition is among the first volcanic caves to be opened to the public in Portugal and is the largest cave system in Madeira.
The caves were first discovered by locals in 1885 who informed the English naturalist, James Yate Johnson, who explored the caves further. The caves opened to the public 141 years later on October 1, 1996. Within the caves, there is an underground route of lava tubes that runs for over 1,000 metres with a height that varies between 5 and 6 metres. The cave tour, however, features a 30-minute, 700-metre route in eight lava tubes.
The São Vicente Caves were formed 890 thousand years ago by a volcanic eruption in Paul da Serra, Madeira. The outer part of the lava that was exposed to lower temperatures solidified rapidly, while the inside remained liquid and formed a series of lava tubes. Water eventually filtered through the solidified lava rocks and formed clear, cool rock pools and streams of fresh water. Within the caves, you can admire volcanic stalactites, solidified lava hanging like an icicle from the roof of the cave; lava accumulations, areas where lava was built up; and the “erratic block,” a large stone that was carried by the lava and got stuck in one of the lava channels.
After the 30-minute walking tour through the caves, there is a Volcano Centre that offers educational audiovisual displays that recreate the eruption of the volcano, the evolution of the caves and even a simulation of the birth of Madeira Islands. The São Vicente Cave Centre is the perfect place to become more intensely aware of the history of the island through its birth and geology.