Fragments of Africa: the Cape Verde Islands

by gill19

Gazing west from the Cape Verde Islands, nothing stands between you and Brazil. The exotic archipelago is little-known – but music-lovers, bird-watchers, divers, foodies and beachcombers will love it

Way back around AD1460, the intrepid explorer Antonio da Noli came sailing by and claimed the Cape Verde Islands for Portugal. Well, I suppose that’s the sort of thing you do if you discover somewhere brand-new. Fabled in antiquity as the "Islands of the Blessed", the archipelago is among the world's lesser-known destinations and has a climate, topography and mood completely unlike anywhere else in Africa.

Sal – the main island

Sal, the largest and most developed of the Cape Verde Islands, is home to the biggest concentration of tourist hotels. Its main attractions are the laid-back lifestyle, vibrant Creole culture and friendly locals, together with great big, proper talcum-powder-soft sand beaches. There is no jet lag (it's only a one-hour time difference) and there's no need for nasty anti-malaria pills either (this is a mosquito-free zone). Even better, the sun never takes a day off – but while almost constant breezes take the edge off the heat, visitors should still remember to slather on the suncream if they don’t want to go home looking like a boiled lobster. 

Charismatic, tumbledown Santa Maria Das Dores is Sal’s main holiday resort. After dusk, rainbow-coloured cafés and bars come alive with traditional guitar-based Cape Verdean morna music. This seductively bittersweet national song-style, closely related to Portuguese fado, is played on guitars, violin or the cavaquinho – a Portuguese instrument similar to a ukulele. The lyrics, usually sung in Creole, generally cover the themes of patriotism, love and mourning. 

Must-see sights on Sal

On Sal, so laid-back it is almost horizontal, life has trickled along at pretty much the same pace for centuries. Shopaholics may be disappointed. The few makeshift stores don’t carry designer labels or luxury goods, though they do sell gorgeous paintings by local artists and quality hand-made goods. Sightseeing doesn’t take long, but visitors should make time to see the the port of Palmeira; the Buracona coastal area, spectacularly speckled with underwater caves and grottoes; and the "Blue Eye" lagoon, a natural swimming pool formed by black lava rock and popular with divers. The variegated pinks, greens and blues of the Pedra de Lume saltpans, in the extinct volcano crater, are also impressive – and made more so by the surreal sight of bathers floating like corks on the water’s surface. Try it yourself; it’s a real treat for the skin.

Water sports galore 

The more energetic will find plenty of activities to get stuck into – such as sailing, swimming, fishing and scuba diving. Trade winds and winter swells mean the resort is also earning its place on the world map as a surfing mecca. Everywhere you look, there are fishing boats as bright as a child’s finger painting – and for a few euros, the fishermen will let you join them on their trips as they fish for grouper and squirrel fish or, at night, for moray eels.

What to eat

The food in the Cape Verde Islands is an exotic mixture of African, Brazilian and Portuguese, resulting in ambrosial, zesty offerings. If you like seafood, you will be in heaven. Tuck into juicy giant prawns, charcoal-grilled lobster and swordfish with that just-dragged-from-the-sea taste.

Local specialities include pastel com diablo (pastry with the devil inside) – a mix of tuna, onions and tomatoes in light pastry – and the wholesomely hearty cachupa, a stew of boiled maize, cassava, beans, herbs and sweet potato, which sometimes has chicken or meat added.

What to drink

National drinks include Aguardiente (sugar-cane rum), San Antao (a liqueur made from coffee, cinnamon, fig leaf and peppermint, plus orange or lime), Manecome (a local wine from Fogo) and locally-produced grogue, made from sugar cane and with a mule-like kick!

Wildlife wonders

In the Cape Verde Islands, you may spot a giant gecko, one of 15 species of lizards on the islands; or some gorgeous black-winged stilts – birds with elegant, supermodel-length red legs and long pointy beaks. The ngon-ngon bird and the red-billed tropicbird, both on the international Red List of endangered species, are disappearing fast, though there are still plenty of helmeted guineafowl around. There are no large mammals or snakes, but green monkeys live on the island of Santiago. Marine turtles breed year-round and sadly die in their thousands when they are caught in fishing nets. Cape Verde is a refuge for them – and although some locals still take their eggs, or kill the turtles for meat, they are aware of the increasing pressure not to touch them.

The other Islands

The islands of "Cabo Verde", as they are referred to locally, are all deliciously different. Island-hopping, using a combination of local ferries and inter-island flights, is popular with locals and tourists alike.

BoaVista (which translates as "beautiful view") is a photographer’s paradise of coconut and date palms.

Fogo is a volcanic island of eucalyptus woods, and a must-see if you are fit (medical and rescue services are extremely limited). The volcanic mass of Pico de Fogo is impressive.

Sao Nicolau has the kind of rugged features that attract walkers and nature-lovers. Locals will take visitors out in their fishing boats to spot dolphins.

Santiago, the largest of the Cape Verde Islands and the most African in flavour, is ideal for birdwatchers. Its bustling, crowded capital, Praia, is always alive with music. There are some first great botanical gardens to visit and a bustling African market.

São Vicente is more European in character. Its main town of Mindelo is famous for its bohemian set – artists, musicians, writers – as well as its exuberant annual festivals.

Brava, the "island of flowers", is the most secret of all the inhabited islands. With purple mountains and deep gorges, it is also the archipelago’s wettest and greenest.

Santo Antao has breathtaking views of craggy peaks and deep canyons. Plantations of banana, breadfruit and mango can be found in the north, and forests of eucalyptus in the south.

Maio is a peaceful, flat island with deserted beaches. Its elegant capital, sleepy Vila Do Maio, has a white baroque church but not much else.

Santa Luzia is uninhabited and the smallest of all the islands. If you really want to go there, the best way is to find a kindly local fisherman in São Vicente who may be prepared to take you.