Eternally sun-soaked and sculpted by the elements, Cape Verde – almost 600km off the west coast of Africa – is far more than just a destination for reliable winter warmth. Its islands (Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Sal, Boa Vista, Maio, Santiago, Fogo and Brava) seem to go from one environmental extreme to another, offering visitors everything from undulating sand dunes to forest-swathed mountains and everything in between – even an active volcano. Here’s everything you need to know about exploring this utterly unique African archipelago.
Over the years, the descendants of slavers and slaves developed a unique Creole culture on Cape Verde, not quite African, not quite European. The people who live here are still around seventy percent mixed race, speak a mixture of Portuguese and Creole, and use the Euro alongside the Cape Verdean Escudo.
Finally, Santo Antão is the remotest island in this remote island chain. It is the polar opposite of Sal and Boa Vista, characterised by towering peaks, terraced fields and thick forests full of banana palms and papaya trees. If you were wondering how Cabo Verde (literally “Cape Green”) earned its name, you’ll probably find some clues here.
You can pair this visit with a trip to Shark Bay, which is also on Sal. You can wade out into the ocean to join a school of lemon sharks, which cruise up and down this area hunting for fish. While the sharks aren’t a threat to people, it’s still exhilarating watching their fins slicing through the waves. Make sure you hire a pair of water shoes on the beach, as the rocks here can be sharp.
On Fogo, it’s possible to climb Pico do Fogo, Cape Verde’s only active volcano and highest peak (2829m). It's a three to six hour walk, depending on your fitness. The paths can shift with the movement of the knee-deep ash, so it’s worth hiring a guide to take you up to the crater. Some of the guides experienced the 2014 eruption first hand, and their tales make for fascinating, albeit unsettling, listening.
Over on Santiago, the highlight is the UNESCO-listed city of Cidade Velha (once known as Ribeira Grande), built by the Portuguese in 1462 as the first European settlement in the tropics. It was at one point Cape Verde’s capital, and you can still see the remains of its fortress, churches and town square, where disobedient slaves were punished. It only flourished until 1770, when sustained pirate attacks led the Portuguese to name nearby Praia Cape Verde’s capital instead.
Alternatively, try the Cape Verdean speciality cachupa, a hearty stew simmered for hours with beans, herbs, cassava and sometimes meat. As it takes a long time to prepare, it’s usually only available for one or two days each week, so grab it when you see it. If you’re feeling brave, wash it down with a glass of grogue, a strong traditional tipple hailing from the maritime days made by a small, family-run distillery on Santo Antão.
There are international airports on Sal, Santiago, Boa Vista and São Vicente. You can get around the islands cheaply by taking one of the ferries, but they are typically slow and unreliable, and the crossings can be rough. Instead, you can fly between most of the islands with Binter Cabo Verde.