The Beauregard Canal Hike: More Mental than Physical
by Lynn Kaak
Sometimes a hike isn't about the sweat, or the hills, or the length. Sometimes a hike is about the eye-popping "WOW" factor that it elicits. The accelerated heart rate from a spectacular view can be as much of a reward as being able to brag that you did XYZ badass trail. The Beauregard Canal, also known as Le Canal des Esclaves (the Slaves' Canal) is that hike that even the least hardcore hikers can enjoy.
Located not too far from Carbet, Martinique, this aqueduct canal is not far from the anchorage at St. Pierre. The more dedicated walkers and hikers can walk there by going south of St. Pierre, through the tunnel, and then taking the first left, right past the zoo. Here you have a choice: take the left and go on a fairly steep uphill, which is actually shorter, or go straight on a longer route that passes through fields of bananas and other crops. Look for the turn-off with the sign to the canal. (Driving is also an option.) During mango season, you will be sure to find a plethora of opportunities to snack along the road to the canal.
The Beauregard Canal was built in 1777 to bring water to plantations and distilleries in the Carbet and St. Pierre areas that were above the river valleys. On the side of the mountain, it was painstakingly hewn from the rock and constructed by slaves. The work was so difficult that when renovations were undertaken in 1822, the slaves revolted. The whole canal is seven kilometres long, from St. Denis to the Carbet area, but the hike is four kilometres one way.
The access to the canal, at its bottom, is marked with a sign that has a map and some warnings. One of the warnings is that people subject to vertigo, or just plain old afraid of heights, should not do the hike. This should be heeded with seriousness, as there are some areas with some sheer drops that can elicit the symptoms of vertigo. However, it IS possible to go a little way on the canal before you get to this point, so some of the views can still be appreciated. The hiking map also suggests that "undisciplined" children should not go on this hike, either. But if you are okay with these things, go ahead.
The path is along the outer wall of the canal, which is roughly 40 centimetres (16 inches) wide. There is a very slight grade, but it is only two percent, rising about eight metres over the four kilometres. This will not stress anyone's knees.
After passing by some razor grass at the very beginning, you cross over the canal and start getting into the more panoramic area. Those without a head for heights should be okay here for about 100 metres, as the canal is more or less dug into the ground, and not just hanging out over the precipice. By this point, one will start seeing heliconia flowers, red gommier trees, bamboo and some other typically tropical foliage. Soon, though, the vista opens up.
You will be looking over and down - way down - on the Carbet and Piton Rivers at different parts of the trail. On one side of you is a wall of foliage, dirt and rock, on the other side…. The humorous thing is that they have trail-marking paint along the canal, as if you could take a wrong turn.
Eventually the wildness of the foliage becomes more groomed as you approach more habitable areas, and you will eventually get to the tunnel, built to permit access to a plantation house. If the tunnel is closed, a detour is available on the road that now parallels the canal. Shortly after this, the canal angles to the right towards the pond or catchment basin that feeds the canal. You can continue past the running water to go to the pool, or you can turn left to go up the road.
Public transportation is not immediately available at either end of the canal, so many people do a "there and back" hike to start and finish at the same point. It is also not impossible to hitch a ride with a kind person to one of the nearby towns so that you can catch a bus, or you might get a ride all the way back to St. Pierre. Hitch hiking is a very common thing in Martinique.
A round trip hike on the canal probably averages two and a half to three hours, not an unreasonable amount of time for an easy trail with a big "WOW!"
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