A tour of the islands of Cape Verde

A three-hour delay was not the best start to the holiday, but then they offered each of us a free drink, and when finally the flight was called there was no rushing and pushing to be at the front of the queue. This attitude was to be typical of the laid-back, friendly Cape Verdians I met throughout my trip.

Santo Antao

First stop was a night in Mindelo, the capital of Sao Vicente. A pretty place, but with nothing obvious to see or do, and I was happy to take the ferry across to Santo Antao the next morning. This island is filled with steep, craggy mountains – really beautiful when you can see them, though much of the time the top halves seem to be covered in cloud. I did plenty of walking, up and down very steep mountain paths, for many hours, and although all the paths are cobbled and well-maintained I still discovered quite how unfit I am.

I also had the pleasure of an invitation to a Christmas eve dinner, just from a stranger sat next to me in a minibus, as he could not let a visitor to Cape Verde be alone at Christmas! The food was nothing to get excited about, but it was very nice to be with a typical extended Cape Verdian family for this celebration. One back visiting from France, one over from another island, an old couple down from their remote home up in the mountains. Luckily enough of them spoke English or French for it to be a very enjoyable evening.


This island is universally acknowledged to be barren and windswept. Photos of the tourist resort of Santa Maria make it look quite attractive, with clear blue skies, pretty pastel buildings and smiling Cape Verdians. The reality, at least during my visit, was grey clouds, grey concrete shells of half-built hotels and apartments, and harassed-looking tourists being pursued by immigrant Senegalese street traders. I found it quite dismal. Expensive too (€10 for a plate of pasta in cheese sauce with a glass of water?), and an early morning walk around town revealed several people sleeping in doorways under cardboard, and lots of mangy dogs.

So I escaped the town quickly and took a bus up to the capital and from there to Pedra do Lume, to see the old salt pans. The island of Sal has only salt, rock, sand and wind, and was only colonised for its salt production. Even that has now lost its value and the saltpans fell into disuse in 1985.

But you can still poke around the decaying old machinery that used to transport the salt (25 tonnes an hour at its height) from an old crater to the waiting ships. & the saltpans are still there, some blue, some solid with dirty, white salt and others a deep pink colour as the salt forms around the edges. It was worth seeing for the desolate atmosphere of the place.

From there I walked back - a five hour walk across the island, past rubbish tips and the odd turtle carcass, and through the still-operating saltpans behind Santa Maria. Perhaps when the sun is out this place is more inspiring, but whilst I was there it was too cold and windy to even think about lying on the beach.


My next destination was very different. A volcanic island centred around an old crater, half covered with jagged black lumps of lava, and with steam still coming from one of the newer cones. It is a forbidding place, some of the lava fields looking like the end of the world has arrived. The last eruption, in 1995, saw a village destroyed, but the people there refuse to be relocated outside of the crater. They have rebuilt their houses nearby, dug little depressions in the areas of black cinder where they plant tomatoes and vines, and their local musicians get together every evening in a corner of a local convenience store to play the traditional music of the island. It is a strong community.

A welcoming one, too. I was sitting in the corridor of my guest house early on New Year's Eve when someone arrived looking for me. It had been noticed that I was there alone, so someone had been sent to invite me to join a family for the evening.

Like the family I spent Christmas Eve with, this was an extended grouping of loosely related people (I think I may now count as a cousin...), some of them back from overseas to visit their family. One of the traditions of the islands is the "morna", a form of poetry or song which is usually translated as something like "longing". It reflects the longing of emigrant Cape Verdians for their homeland, and the longing of those left behind for their loved ones. I heard it first hand that evening, as Mauricio, back on only his fourth visit from the US (where he lived with an American wife), told us of his love for Fogo, how this little village was the best place in the world he could celebrate the New Year. & it was Mauricio who persuaded the musicians amongst the group to go and get their instruments, so they could accompany him as he sang of his longing for a life in Cape Verde. Like most Cape Verdians, however, that longing is not so strong as to tempt him away from a more materially rewarding life elsewhere...

As well as tramping about over the lava, and up into the 1995 volcanic crater, I also found a guide to take me on a visit into one of the lava tubes discovered on the island. This was not the easiest visit - you can see my guide standing by the steel cable guide-rope near the entrance to the tube (by which time we had already climbed down a steel cable ladder down into the entrance), but if you follow the guide-rope back you will see how steeply the third section of it descends into the tube, and there is no path beneath it, just jagged lumps of lava. By the time I came out my hands and the seat of my trousers were covered with little cuts and rough spots, and I later met someone who had ripped a foot-long hole in his trousers in this tube!


My final destination was Santiago, the largest island of the archipelago. Whilst it doesn't have one single spectacular feature like some of the other islands, it has impressive mountains, some ruins remaining from the initial colonisation of the islands 500 years ago, a few pretty little beaches, and the culture in the country's capital city, Praia.

Whilst there I paid a visit to a property development site which I had been reading about beforehand on the internet. The site will have three residential developments and six hotels, and will offer swimming pools, fitness and yoga classes, tennis courts and a cricket pitch, art classes, a cookery school, a diving club, etc, etc. This is the view I would have from my balcony if I were to buy an apartment there: Unfortunately I would not only have to find the money to buy the apartment, but also to support myself whilst living there and pay for the use of all those lovely facilities. But it's nice to dream!