I ran down the vast expense of sand to the clear, cool water and with my feet in the shallows marvelled at the view. My first impressions of the never-ending dunes of Boa Vista, lapped by the bluest of seas, will stay with me forever.
Some 400 miles west of Senegal in the Atlantic Ocean lies the laid-back archipelago of Cape Verde. Up until relatively recently they were little known but with new airports and improving infrastructure, the tourist industry is growing fast, possibly too fast. I felt lucky to visit the islands twice, when tourism was still really in its infancy back in 2006, on a photographic assignment, and again in 2007, this time simply on holiday.
The people and culture here are an eclectic mix of African, Portuguese (the former colonists) and Brazilian. Everyone I met made me very welcome, although I was rather bemused by being hissed at by some men as I explored the town at Mindelo one afternoon. The next day it came up in conversion with my hotel’s receptionist. She smiled and explained “It’s just our way of catching someone’s attention. It isn’t rude at all.” So if you ever take a stroll around Cape Verde and you are hissed at, just turn around and smile politely, they’re just saying hello.
Each of the ten islands is unique. Some are barren and flat, with the most amazing sandy beaches that I have ever seen in the world, while others are mountainous, lush and green, popular with hikers. While I’ve only been to three of the islands to date I’d still like to tell you a just a little bit about each of them. You can easily work out where I’ve actually been, they’re the ones with all the photos.
This is the most northerly island. It’s mountainous and green with spectacular ravines and pretty, little villages clinging to the hillsides. There are just a few hotels but it is also possible to visit for the day from neighbouring São Vincent.
Considered the cultural centre of Cape Verde, the islands capital Mindelo, in particular, is known for its music and it’s the home of Cesária Évora, the ‘Barefoot Diva’, Cape’s Verde most famous singer. She is also known as the ‘Queen of Morna’, the traditional music of the islands in which the Saudade is a recurring theme – a longing for someone or somewhere far away or lost forever. I only spent one day here but I’d love to go back to discover more and check out some late night music bars.
You can see more of my photos from Mindelo in my post on urban photography.
Another mountains island, Sao Nicolau is quiet and unspoilt, with little tourism I’m told. Some of the beaches here are said to have healing powers and so don’t be surprised to find a few locals buried in the sand.
Most international flights land here so it’s no surprise that there are more hotels on this island than anywhere else. The majority of these are in Santa Maria where you’ll find a reasonable choice of restaurants and bars, as well as a few drunken Brits, plus some small shops and a craft market but not much else.
Sal is flat and sparse with little to do here other then soak up the sun, scuba dive or enjoy the wind-driven water sports that the island is renowned for. The highlight of the island is without doubt the white sandy, beaches which are impressive and stretch for miles and miles, although it can be quite windy. If watersports are your raison d’être it’s perfect.
When I first saw the beaches here I remember my heart skipped a beat at the sight before me; endless sand dunes to my left and to my right, edging the bluest of seas. I ran down the vast expense of sand to the clear, cool water and with my feet in the shallows marvelled at the view. I couldn’t stay on the beach for long though, as I was there to photograph the hotels, but I’ll never forget that moment.
Despite a few large all-inclusive hotels and some smaller independent ones lining the beaches, there are still miles and miles of unspoilt coastline here. Just as well as it’s an important nesting ground for loggerhead turtles. More large hotels are planned, however, so I do hope great care is taken to protect the turtles and the natural beauty of the island’s coast.
Windsurfing, whale-watching, quad biking and deep-sea fishing can all be enjoyed here but there’s little in the way of nightlife and just a few local restaurants.
It was in such a restaurant, over a delicious lunch of I’m not quite sure what (there was only one dish on the menu that day and no translation) that I met an interesting young man who spoke excellent English. I was impressed to find out he had learnt it by watching American films with subtitles. I was so interested in the conversation I didn’t think to ask what I was eating. It went down a treat though.
Like Boa Vista and Sal, Maio is a flat island with spectacular beaches but it remains almost completely untouched by tourism.
This is the largest of the islands and its capital of Praia, has a rich history and culture plus a lively nightlife scene. The landscape is varied with green valleys, volcanic mountains, barren regions and beautiful beaches. The old capital of Cidade Velha is a UNESCO world heritage site.
A large volcano rising up out of the sea, Fogo, is known for its wines and coffee and its nickname the ‘island of fire’. The grape vines and coffee beans are grown on the fertile land inside the crater of the still active volcano. Reminiscent of a lunar landscape much of the island, including the beaches, is covered in black sand. The capital, São Filipe, is a picturesque town of cobbled streets and pastel coloured buildings.
Lastly the little island of Brava, the most southerly of the archipelago, is known as the ‘island of flowers’. It’s mountainous and spectacular with dramatic lava cliffs plunging into the sea. It is thought to have once been part of Fogo.
The variety of the islands really is spectacular and fascinates me. While all the islands are volcanic in origin (as are the Canary Islands) only Fogo has a still active volcano. I would dearly love to go back one day and explore a few more for myself, ideally island hopping. It’s certainly the way to make the most of any visit to the islands of Cape Verde and something I would have done more of if funds had permitted.
I cherish the memories of this very special cluster of islands, that for many years remained lost in the Atlantic Ocean. Although the tourist industry is much needed by the islanders, I’m still a little sad that they have now been discovered.