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How to hike to Dominica's famous and fearsome Boiling Lake

Steaming away like a sorcerer’s cauldron at the heart of Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Dominica’s Boiling Lake is a bewitching and historic hiking destination, the path traversing a tropical rainforest overflowing with medicinal and edible flora.

On the trail in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Dominica.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 26 Nov 2021, 06:07 GMT

“There’ll be a cruising period at the start,” explains my guide, Peter ‘The Bushman’ Green, as we set off on the long trail. “Then comes the hiking time.” Our goal is to reach the Boiling Lake, lying at an altitude of 2,600ft in the UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed Morne Trois Pitons National Park. The world’s second-largest hot lake, it’s eclipsed in size only by the equally vividly named Frying Pan Lake, in New Zealand. While some walkers can do this 12-mile round-trip in half a day, we’ve set aside eight hours. After all, rushing is not in the Caribbean’s DNA, and we want to savour the splendour of Dominica’s towering rainforests and volcanic landscapes — and, yes, maybe do Tarzan swings on the hanging vines.

On today’s adventure, I’ll be entrusting my life to The Bushman, his flamboyant approach immediately apparent by the antique minibus he collects me in, custom-painted with Caribbean heroes such as Bob Marley, Barack Obama and the Jamaican rebel leader Nanny. 
“We’re gonna move and groove!” declares our effervescent host, who’s been leading hikes to the lake for over 20 years. Given that the trail is often obstructed by branches due to storms and landslides, I’m very happy to be in the hands of a local expert for what turns out to be a full-body workout featuring bouldering, river crossings and climbing up ropes.

We start from Titou Gorge, a 30-minute drive from my base in Soufriere. I watch other travellers entering the ravine, strip off and swim in the narrow, turquoise channel, shaded by steep-sided rocks. It looks great fun, but Peter and I have an appointment with a natural wonder that was first ‘discovered’ in 1870 by a pair of Englishmen. Dominica has a wealth of rewarding hikes, from the 115-mile Waitukubuli National Trail that runs its length to a sweaty yomp to swim in waters of Middleham Falls. But Boiling Lake is the one every visitor wants to do. Nothing seems to have changed since a 1922 travel guide described it as a ‘nerve-trying destination of Hades-like aspect’ (one that was nevertheless worthy of the ‘arduous task’ of reaching it).

Soon we’re plunged into a dense forest where gum and chestnut trees provide shelter for endemic jaco and sisserou parrots; the latter is so revered it stars on the national flag. The Bushman explains how many of the plants here have traditionally been used for medicines and cooking, and demonstrates how to tattoo yourself with the spore-covered leaves of golden and silver ferns. 

After crossing Breakfast River, we tackle the steep climb up Morne Nicholls, the highest peak on the hike and a panoramic viewpoint where — on a good day — you can see both the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts. My indefatigable guide bucks me up with songs, sticks of sugarcane and ginger mints before we descend knee-crunching steps to Desolation Valley, where the greenery gives way to scorched earth, signifying the presence of active volcanoes. There’s a nauseous, sulphurous stink and the ground beneath our boots becomes a tapestry of colourful rocks and soil: honeycomb, rust, coffee granules, spilled emeralds — all bound together with streams and pools of steaming, grey water.

As we walk through this wounded landscape, The Bushman falls silent. It’s that sort of place, an apocalyptic wilderness that makes you appreciate the magma-powered turmoil at the heart of our planet. By now I’m tired, and what began as a jaunt now feels more like a spiritual quest. 

After a final climb, we reach a lofty ashtray that frames the 230ft-wide Boiling Lake. Only when the wind picks up does its billowing steam blow away to briefly reveal a bubbling grey cauldron that seems like the ideal holiday destination for the witches in Macbeth. Inevitably there have been tragedies here (my guide tells me about an ill-fated attempt by a Japanese TV crew to put a boat out on its menacing waters). While I feel privileged to have made it here, I’m keeping well away from the edge. 

How to do it: Caribtours has a seven-night trip from £2,749 per person, including flights via St Lucia and accommodation at Jungle Bay resort, Soufriere. 
More info: Bushman Tours offers guided hikes to Boiling Lake from $60 (£44). visitdominica.com

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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