Hike an Active Volcano and Cruise Protected Underwater Reserves on This Caribbean Gem
Let La Soufrière take you to new heights inside Guadeloupe’s 43,000-acre national park.
Picture this: breezy island vibes, crystal clear Caribbean waters, and beautiful beaches for days, plus roadside boulangeries and grocery stores stocked with French delicacies with like-you’re-in-France prices (read: cheaper than the US). Welcome to Guadeloupe. The Caribbean island nation is a French overseas territory, teeming with French-Creole je ne sais quoi throughout its archipelago of six inhabited islands, the largest of which vaguely resembles the shape of a butterfly.
Desperately craving a reprieve from a brutal Northeast winter a few years back—and unable to get visions of ripe cheeses, saucisson, and freshly baked baguettes out of my mind—my partner and I booked flights to Pointe-à-Pitre on a whim to see for ourselves what this under-the-radar Caribbean destination was all about—and to dust off our rather rudimentary, rusty Francais.
Rising with the sun most days, we’d stop at the local boulangerie for an espresso and patisserie before pointing our rental car in the direction of whatever adventure awaited. An absolute highlight was the hike to the summit of La Soufrière, an active volcano towering over the 43,000-acre Parc National de la Guadeloupe on Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe’s largest and most tropical island.
But it wasn’t all sweat and elevation. Getting out on the water is always a good idea—you’re in a slice of Caribbean paradise, after all. Collectively, Guadeloupe’s national park and protected marine areas have been recognized by UNESCO as an international biosphere reserve. Both the Jacques Cousteau Underwater Reserve and the Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin Nature Reserve—a beautiful, shallow lagoon dotted with small spurts of uninhabited land, white sand beaches, mangroves, and a rich coral ecosystem—are solid choices for an unforgettable afternoon at sea.
Tackling La Soufrière: Expectations, reality, and bragging rights
Making our way up the twisting mountain road that leads to the trailheads for La Soufrière and Carbet Falls, we happened to fall in line with a couple of open-air military convoys full of extremely fit, young French National Guardsmen. This, in hindsight, should have been a clear indication of what we were getting ourselves into. We’d read that the La Soufrière hike was graded “intermediate,” and took about four and a half hours round-trip. Once there, however, we quickly discovered that sections of the hike are anything but—in total, it took us closer to six hours to complete.
The guardsmen ran up and down the summit trail as a part of an all-terrain fitness training regimen. The “all-terrain” aspect was no joke—at least half the trail consisted of scrambling up and over boulders, loose, wet rocks, and gravel, at times at quite a steep incline (or downslope, if you’re on the return). Thanks to the perpetual, swirling clouds and mist enshrouding much of the upper echelons of the volcano summit—an unexpected moody, almost spooky twist that also kept temperatures cool and comfortable—the ground is pretty much guaranteed to be slick and slippery. Proper hiking shoes are a must, since no one wants to twist an ankle on holiday and still have to hobble around on it (as was the case for one poor German tourist).
As someone with a mild fear of heights, I managed to only encounter one “What the F did I get myself into?” moment, heart pounding as I inched along a narrow, cliff-hugging stretch of trail leading to the volcano’s summit, the hazy air pouring forth with that tell-tale sulfur smell. There were no guard rails or safety mechanisms in place, and a step out of place would surely send you tumbling to unknown distances below. But make it through this sketchy pass and the feeling is nothing short of victorious. Definitely don’t skip the chance for a photo-op with the summit sign—you’ve earned it, soldier.
The second most popular hike in Parc National de la Guadeloupe is to Carbet Falls, a much flatter journey through dense tropical forest. (If you get an early start and are in decent shape, you could, at least in theory, squeeze both hikes into a single day.) Several other waterfalls are accessible via less strenuous treks from different access points around the park, including a .3-mile walk to the Cascade aux Écrevisses, a short divergence from the only route cutting through the park’s center. Along that same stretch of road, you’ll also find a few eateries and a couple of other attractions, including the detour-worthy Guadeloupe Zoo.
After exploring Parc National de la Guadeloupe’s lush grounds, you’ll want to shift your focus to the park’s enticing protected marine areas—a daytime excursion out on the water is a no-brainer when visiting Guadeloupe, as some of the country’s most impressive natural landscapes can only be seen by boat.
Two of the most popular options on Basse-Terre include snorkeling and diving in the Jacques Cousteau Underwater Reserve just off the west coast, as well as day-trips into the Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin Nature Reserve, which typically depart from the marina in Saint-Rose on the island’s northern shore. Standout area beaches include Grande-Anse Beach up north—but adopting the motto “there’s no such thing as a bad beach” is the best way to approach Guadeloupe’s epic shoreline. It’s how we found some brilliant hidden gems like this black sand beach in Trois Rivières, which we had practically all to ourselves.
Where to stay Near Parc National de la Guadeloupe
Of all the islands in Guadeloupe’s archipelago, Basse-Terre remains relatively rustic and underdeveloped—a factor that is very much part of its charm. Your best options for local accommodations are going to be private villa and bungalow rentals or independent B&Bs offering just a handful of rooms. Those you can track down on Airbnb, VRBO, Booking.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor, and the like. Note that to minimize visitor impact on the natural ecology, camping is not permitted inside the national park.
A smart way to organize your Guadeloupe sojourn is to island hop, spending a few nights on Grande-Terre—known for its breathtaking beaches and large concentration of coastal resort-style properties, restaurants, and tourist attractions—followed by a couple nights a little more off-the-beaten-path in Basse-Terre. After, if time allows, take the ferry over to pristinely mellow Iles des Saintes to bask in pure Caribbean bliss. After mastering that volcano, you’ve earned it.