Surprising Islands off West African Coast (Cape Verde)

My trip to Cape Verde or Cabo Verde, as they prefer to call it, was an excellent stop, although short, on my West Africa trip. I flew Dakar, Senegal to Praia, Santiago (island) and had 4 full days that I maximized perfectly. 

Over 4 days I did 4 different parts of the Island of Santiago. It was not enough, it was fast, but it was a very welcomed trip for me. West Africa is quite challenging to travel, to live, etc so when you arrive to the islands of Cabo Verde and realize how much more developed it is and how interesting of a mix between Africa and Portugal it is a nice break from the continent. I quickly noticed some exciting differences from mainland… many streets were lit at night, I was able to pay with credit card my lodging – even in a small towns, roads were nice, paved and kept up, minibuses for transport were nice – not reconstructed and years old, streets were cleaner and even the building construction seemed more modern. It was the perfect break for me even if I moved quickly and a lot over 4 days, it was still amazingly restfull. 

Cape Verde is an old Portuguese colony and is part of Africa and both cultures show themselves clearly here. There are 10 islands, each very distinct. Most fly into Praia or Sal directly and then either ferry between various islands or fly inter-island (boats are slow and infrequent it seems but if you have time and feel like braving the ocean, go for it otherwise plan ahead and purchase some flights – might be cheaper when you arrive as long as it isn’t high season). This seemed to me an excellent entry point for Africa because flights are cheap from Europe, Senegal and even Boston, USA (where a large population from here lives). It shows a flare of Africa with major comforts and from here you can get to the continent with a 2 hour flight to Senegal or beyond (longer obviously).

**Also after 2 months in a mainly Muslim country I ate pork again, oddly even on the AirSenegal flight it was given as a snack which I thought was veeery weird. Pork wasn’t missed at all but I ate some since it’s part of their typical dishes as well as fish, beans and corn. 

Islands are mixed between beautiful beach resorts (Sal or Boa Vista), culture (São Vicente), outdoorsy with mountains (São Antão) and all, a mix between the 3, like Santiago, where I explored. The islands, unlike other former European colonies, were actually uninhabited before Europeans arrived there and made it a port…originally for slavery while today it’s for ship stopovers and as a commercial center.

Santiago was great! After being in West Africa for nearly 2 months I was excited for mountains again since most of West Africa is pretty flat (except towards Ghana and beyond). I took a minibus across the island (3 hours) to spend one day wandering around and hiking in Serra Malagueta National Park (NP). (There are 3 NP among the islands) You pay an entrance fee at the office and then could walk without a guide (I mention the guide because in Africa many times it is forced upon you to take a guide, here not! Though plenty came with a guide.) and see some amazing views on a lovely 2 hour hike through the park’s most popular trail to a radio antenna… At the end of the trail you could continue on but the trail is less used – still fairly easy to follow but more technical at times as you enter a valley that is steep taking you to a town near the coast (I did about 1 hour of it then turned around, maybe best with a friend if you continue the extra 3-4 hours to town) where transportation is available back to Tarrafal. Hiking made me very happy, I even tried another trail, which went through small villages…this one isn’t easy to follow and I got lost but made my way out to the main road eventually to catch a car headed back to town (I took local transport both ways – open pick up trucks or vans can drop you, are cheap and efficient – 30 minutes to NP from Tarrafal). Camping is also allowed in the NP in case you have all your gear…it would be nice!

Besides mountains, of course this island has beaches…although the better ones are on Sal and Boã Vista…Santiago has plenty, in fact in Praia there are some nice ones with restaurants and the same area where you stay to go to the mountains has even better ones (Tarrafal). There was even a cool cove with ladders into the water in Tarrafal that looked spectacular but I discovered it at sunset. From here you can see the Fogo volcano on São Felipe Island on a clear day (also from the NP). On that side I also went to a black sand beach called Ribriera de Preto by local taxi truck – no one was there, amazing! (You could stay here too) I swam in a few of the beaches and some places were wonderfully clear, there was some microbe that stung like a jellyfish but not that painful nor dangerous.

History on this island also exists from famous Amilcar Cabral’s importance in liberating the Portuguese from here and  Guinea-Bissau with the PAIGC (small museum in Praia and a statue of him by the library). There is also the quaint town of Ciudad Velha with cute architecture and slave history. It was the original point of entry to Cabo Verde but later moved to Praia due to a plethora of attacks. Worth a visit…it’s a great day trip (like I did) from Praia or a quiet overnight that could be awesome too. You can hike up to the fort (reconstructed), see the various church ruins in town, the banana road or slave alley, the beach or hike out into the canyon.

My last stop was somewhere in the middle, among the mountains, It was 1 hour out from Praia. I stopped on my way back from the other side, it was perfect for catching my flight out the next morning. I discovered it on the ride over and liked the view, saw a hotel and decided to stop on my way back if I had time. The town is João Teves and it’s quiet, great for walking or running (for me) in the hills and had a botanical garden (which I didn’t visit due to time).

Praia itself is also worth a visit or meander with it’s colorful colonial buildings and sweeping ocean views. It is fairly clean and even has a pedestrian street with plenty of restaurants, along the back was some nice graffiti where you could take stairs down to it’s local market or catch a nice and modern minibus to various points on the island like I did. (It is Africa still so expect a fun management of people in the car but plenty of tourists of all ages also took them…I recommend a trip with these vans). The other side of the center of Praia has nice ocean views near the cool capital building. Besides the center you can go over to the mall (it’s tiny, don’t get excited, more of a reference point) and near the main beaches (Praia de Canela) where there is also a nice malecon or boardwalk for amazing sunset views (really, don’t miss sunset). I took a run there at sunset and really enjoyed it. If not running it is easily accessible walking or by bus and there are plenty of places to stop for a drink and watch also. (From above the beaches there is Cruz de Papa plaza – also a nice spot if up there).

Don’t miss a trip here to Cape Verde if you get a chance, it won’t disappoint; if anything it will surprise. I will totally go back as I really would love to go to São Vicente and learn about Cesaria Evora, a famous musician. If you decide to and  have time venture over to the continent after ;).


In Praia I stayed at Praiadise Hostel (very clean, nice – private rooms available…a tad far from center but bus available nearby)

In Tarrafal I stayed at Tarrafal Meeting Point Hostel (really liked this place – private rooms available)

In João Teves I stayed at Pensão Simão y Julia (negotiated price – perk, it has a tiny pool) in João Teves (São Jorge dos Orgãos)

I didn’t but you can camp in the National Park (bring your own gear).

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