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.
Let’s start with the basics, as it’s safe to say that many would struggle to point to Cape Verde on a map. If you find yourself floundering, look for the Canary Islands and let your gaze drift southwest for 1,000km, or simply strike out into the Atlantic from Senegal and keep going west until you make landfall. It’s an isolated island chain, that’s for sure.
Any visitor to the islands needs to know a little about Cape Verde’s fascinating – albeit tragic – history. For a long time, the islands were completely uninhabited, save perhaps for the turtles that arrive seasonally to nest. But in 1456, Cape Verde was discovered by Portuguese sailors who, realising its strategic position, quickly settled and built it into an outpost for the slave trade.
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.
The island or islands you visit depend on the kind of holiday you want, as each one offers something different. Sal and Boa Vista are flat, arid and windswept, and appear positively Martian thanks to the sand blown across the ocean from the Sahara. They draw a great deal more tourists than most of the other islands thanks to their pristine beaches and excellent conditions for windsurfing. Cape Verde’s most famous waves lie at Ponta Preta beach on Sal, which is a regular feature on the windsurfing championship circuit.
A couple of islands over, Santiago is the largest in the archipelago and home to over half of Cape Verde’s population. It was the first island to be settled by the Portuguese and is considered the most African in culture. Don’t miss the lively market in the capital city of Praia, where you can buy all kinds of fish, spices and fresh produce.
Fogo, meanwhile, is instantly recognisable thanks to the simmering volcano at its heart, which last erupted in 2014. The local population, many of which are descended from the same promiscuous French nobleman, still live amid its lava flows and cinder cones, perched on steep slopes overlooking black sand beaches.
To the north, São Vicente is the islands’ cultural capital and home to Mindelo, Cape Verde’s prettiest and most sophisticated city. Over the years it’s been frequented by poets, free-thinkers and artistic types, including famous Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora. The island is known for its vibrant nightlife, and every August it hosts the Baia das Gatas Festival, a three-day extravaganza of local music.
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.
First off, the island of Sal takes its name from its historic salt production, and you can see how it was produced at Pedra de Lume on the island. Here, you’ll find a sea of shimmering salt lakes in the crater of an extinct volcano, alongside the crumbling machinery once used for salt extraction. Take a dip in the medicinal waters and, thanks to the salt, you’ll float like a cork.
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.
Unsurprisingly, Cape Verde is best known for its fresh seafood, which can go from ocean to plate in a matter of hours. You’ll find dorado, wahoo, snapper, scorpionfish and tuna alongside a multitude of other delicacies on menus across the islands, often served under the ubiquitous ‘fish of the day’ label with a side of chips or rice.
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.
Cape Verde is a year-round destination, with temperatures rarely dipping below 20°C, though it’s best to avoid the rainy season between July and October.
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.