The visit to the caves is very well organised, lasting about 30 minutes under the direction of specialised guides. The visit is very interesting because the monotony from the repetition of scenery that hardly changes has been overcome by the creation of a route that is mysterious, suitably lighted, having a well-chosen musical background and special magically architected lighting. All this combines with the telluric imagination regarding the Centre of the Earth.
Besides this, the presence of small lakes of transparent water and some of the larger chambers that are very well integrated in the tour provides very beautiful images and allows the visitor to identify with the caves, with the force and mystery of Nature, and in this case, with the volcanic convulsion that gave birth to Madeira Island.
The caves of São Vicente were formed by a volcanic eruption 890 thousand years ago at Paúl da Serra. As the lava came down to the sea, the outer portion was exposed to lower temperatures and solidified rapidly, while inside, the lava continued to flow with many gases and created a series of lava tubes that form the caves of São Vicente, which one can walk through. This set of eight “volcanic tunnels” extends for a distance of more than 1000 metres, with maximum heights varying between 5 and 6 metres. It is the largest known cave system on Madeira Island.
The volcanic activity has been extinct for millennia, but the last period of eruptions, in which the fused lava reached a temperature of 1200ºC, left marks that can be seen along the nearly 700 metres of subterranean trails that were excavated to gain access to the various tubes or natural channels that make up the 1000 metres of caverns. This excavated trail drops a maximum of about 19 metres in relation to the entrance.
The caves were first reported in 1885 by the local population, whose curiosity was awakened by the cave opening. Amazed by what they found, the news of the discovery spread very quickly, and Englishman James Yates Johnson carried out a study and drew up an integrated project for its use.
These caves were inaugurated on 1 October 1996, being the first volcanically-born caves opened to the public in Portugal.
A Visit to the São Vicente Caves – A Journey to the Interior of the Earth
There are three galleries, the largest of which is called the Lago dos Desejos (the Wishing Lake). Visitors enjoy a dazzling spectacle on this journey to the interior of the Earth, where they can see volcanic stalactites, lava flows called lava drips, accumulations of lava or “lava cakes” (which represent the end of a slow lava flow), and the “errant block”, a rock carried along by the lava, but due to its size and relatively low temperature, it became stuck in the middle of one of the lava tubes. Here visitors can also see some of the many forms lava can take, once it is ejected at the surface, such as rope lava and excoriated lava. Along the way some plants, mainly ferns, add a touch of beauty. They appeared without any human intervention, and whether carried by air or water, or the visitors themselves, these “seeds”, once in the presence of light, set in motion the process of photosynthesis, which is fundamental for the development of plants. The water that accompanies us throughout the visit comes from springs. The water is suitable for drinking, and its temperature ranges from 12 to 13ºC. The ambient temperature over the course is constant and is around 16 to 17ºC.
The Caves, therefore, are an attraction that makes your visit to this municipality unique. To visit the São Vicente caves is to take a real trip to the interior of the Earth and get to know its dynamics and beauty.
While walking from the Caves to the Volcanism Centre, visitors are treated to the sight of a spectacular reflecting pool of water that covers the Volcanism Centre as they follow the corridor that leads into the Centre.