The Best Places to Visit in Cape Verde
Which Cape Verde Island Should You Visit?
Cape Verde is made up of 10 islands, varying from strips of sahara desert perched in the Atlantic ocean, to richly forested hillsides poised for exploration. Few think much about the country, situated off the west coast of Africa, and fewer think of it as much more than a home of all-inclusive resorts and relatively cheap flights from Europe.
The islands are far more than that. Being the home to 9 distinct dialects of Portuguese creole, rich and diverse environments, and a history that dates back to the early 15th century, there is so much for travellers to discover in Cape Verde.
As a disclaimer, I have not visited all of the islands in this list, and as such am conveying information gathered from some of the Cape Verdean friends I made on the trip.
On my favourite island in Cape Verde, it isn’t hard to understand why the islands live by the motto of ‘no stress’. It isn’t hard to slip into local life in the capital of Sal Rei, where it is easy to make local friends and to integrate quickly into the close-knit community here. Explore pristine beaches, abandoned ghost towns and hollowed out shipwrecks, and haggle in the lively fish markets that crop up all over the island.
For a full guide on things to do in Boa Vista, read more here.
Sal is the most popular island amongst tourists in Cape Verde. With a large number of all-inclusive resorts and westernised party spots, it has become something of a mimic of its Atlantic cousins in the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean Balearic Islands. With a strip of bars and American-style restaurants, the main town of Santa Maria leaves much to be desired for those of us seeking an authentic Cape Verde experience.
However, Sal is far more than its largest town. Travelling in Sal will bring you to pools in the old salt mines, where you can float as in the dead sea, totally elevated by the dense salty waters, letting your skin be replenished by the deep exfoliation that comes with it. Visit the town of Esparagos for a true taste of Cape Verde life, away from the tourist traps of Santa Maria, and get to know the relaxed pace of life in the islands. Watch turtles laying eggs in one season, or see them hatching on the beaches in the next, standing watch as baby turtles flock to the sea in droves. Cape Verde is the 3rd most important nesting spot for loggerhead turtles in the world, and the population is well protected by the government there. Try kitesurfing, water skiing, scuba diving, or a range of other water sports from the beaches near Santa Maria.
Extend your stay beyond the resorts and the western strip, and explore local life in Ilha de Sal.
Without a native, indigenous population, Cape Verde was first populated in 1462, when Portuguese and Genoese sailors stumbled across the island of Santiago. First constructing the city of Cidade Velha on the island’s southern coast, they later built the city of Praia, which remains as the capital of Cape Verde, and the country’s largest city by a significant margin. With a population of just over 131,000, Praia is comparatively miniscule next to other African capitals, but it retains character nonetheless.
The centre of the old town of Praia is known as the plateau, where regal houses from the colonial age sit on a high rising level of flat ground, aka a plateau. The city is replete with palaces and with slums, characterising the contrasts and the conflicts that left by the age of African colonialism. Visiting the old city of Cidade Velha, you can learn about Cape Verde’s history as a stopover for slave traders, and visit the fort built to protect the island from the frequent pirate attacks it faced, particularly in the 18th century.
Inland, you can find many hiking trails through the thick rainforests of Serra Malagueta National Park.
Traversing mountains’ heights and valleys’ depths, all the while hiking through lush rainforests and teetering terraced farms, is the journey you can expect through the island of Santo Antao. While it may share the perfect white beaches of its neighbours, the islands interior is thick and tropic, ripe with opportunities for exploration.
You can hike to the volcanic heights of Cova Crater, take in the impressive views, and see how farmers work with some of the most fertile volcanic soil on earth. Visit Delgadim for a panoramic view over two enormous, forested valleys. Find fresh murals amongst the colourful street art of Riberia Grande, travel across the Valle Riberia de Torre to Xoxo, or hike the Fontainhas, said to have been discovered by Sir Francis Drake, the most famous of the ‘technically legal’ pirates of the golden era.
If you love hiking, rainforests, and an uninterrupted connection with nature, Santo Antao is the island for you.
Similar to its neighbouring isle of Santo Antao, Sao Vicente is thick with fresh, green vegetation, mountainous hiking trails, and fertile farming land. You can hike to Monte Verde for sweeping views across the archipelago, taking in Sao Vicente, Santo Antao, and Santa Luzia. Indulge in the atmosphere of the Cape Verde live music scene, which of course comes with dancing, drinking, and soaking up the local nightlife scene. You can be totally alone on stretching, sandy beaches, or else head for those filled by people grilling fish fresh from the sea.
Another idyllic spot for those who love a mix of mountain, forest and beach, Sao Vicente offers a variety of experiences for travellers in Cape Verde.
Maio is, amongst all these islands of pristine shores, supposedly home to the best virgin beaches in the archipelago. Free of the tourism industry that has started to grip the beachy isles of Sal and Boa Vista, Maio remains untouched. As is typical to Cape Verde, the towns are filled with colourful houses, fishing markets, and access points to pristine beaches and sparkling seas.
If you are truly seeking idyllic and untainted beaches, Maio is one of the best islands in the world to find them.
Known locally as the ‘Island of Flowers’, Brava is a colourful gem protruding from the wide expanse of the Atlantic blue. See sleepy colonial towns, hike to incredible vistas over the winding coastline, visit mountain farms stacked in high terraces, and hop around the various viewpoints that allow incredible vantages over the quiet island.
Another ideal spot for those seeking mountains, thick forests, and perfect beaches all in one, Brava has plenty of variety to offer.
Looming over the island of Fogo, the enormous volcano Pico de Fogo is the ultimate defining feature of the island’s skyline. An active volcano, last erupting only 5 years ago, the lives of the people of Fogo are defined by it. Should you visit, you’ll be able to climb the black ashen sands that sweep over the base of the volcano, explore ‘lost’ villages that once sat in its wake, and even meet a community of 700 people who live inside the crater of the volcano.
There is truly few volcano experiences in the world that can compare to those of the island of Fogo.
For the adventurous traveller, you can hitch-hike on a fishing boat to make your way to one of Cape Verde’s least visited islands, Santa Luzia. The island is almost utterly deserted, with small communities trying to populate the island since the 15th century, each one of them failing and deserting the barren land. A huge number of bird and reptile species still inhabit the land, however. For any wildlife enthusiast, roaming alone across the uninhabited island will give you exclusive access to the species that live undisturbed on the island. There are always men fishing just off shore to catch a lift back with, unless you feel compelled to tame the untameable island.
You may even be able to confirm the local legend that there is still a lone shepherd on the island, wandering alone with his small flock.
A favourite getaway for Cape Verdeans from neighbouring islands, Sao Nicolau remains something of a secret to the outside world. An earth-bound paradise for nature lovers, the island boasts rich forest, fertile farmland, extinct volcanoes, vibrant mountainside towns and incredible, panoramic views. If you’re interested in visiting a treasured local spot before the rest of the world realise what they’re missing Sao Nicolau is the island for you.
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