Cape Verde (officially the Republic of Cabo Verde), a small archipelago 500km off the west coast of Africa, is not usually one to make a travel bucket list. The country is often overlooked; a big mistake, in my opinion. Once colonised by the Portuguese, the ten main islands were completely uninhabited until the European settlers created a stopping point here for the African slave trade. Independent since 1975, Cape Verde is one of the most liberal and democratic countries in Africa, making it a perfect destination for anyone wanting to get away from the typical tourist routes. It has beaches, volcanos, marine wildlife, culture and a rich, if typically grim, history – what more could you want?
Like most places I travel to, I wish I had had more time to explore. There’s so much to see and do, how can you choose what to fit into a limited time frame? To help you out, here are my recommendations for the must-see places in Cape Verde.
I already wrote an entire post about my favourite places on Sal Island after living there for four months. This is the most touristy of all ten islands, seeing the most visitors each year. Its sandy beaches are lined with resorts, world-class kitesurfers travel from around the world to test their mettle on its east coast, and restaurants abound in its two main towns. The island is dusty, the skies are blue and the water warm. You just might be left wondering how this sandy place could be part of a country called Cape Verde.
However, if you’re only going to visit one place in Cape Verde, and you’re not there for the water sports, then I’d recommend skipping Sal entirely and checking out one of the following places:
2. Santo Antão
By far my favourite place in Cape Verde, Santo Antão is a world away from the golden beaches and flat land of Sal. At the opposite end of the Cape Verde spectrum, in term of both location and scenery, Santo Antão has high sea cliffs, roaring waves, lush forest and hiking aplenty. It’s some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, rivalling parts of New Zealand, even. There are loads of hikes you can do on the island if you have the time, the best and probably most well-known being the Cova Crater walk. Wander through the crater of a volcano before meandering down a steep stony path through lush fields as you stare out over a steep-sided valley not unlike that of Jurassic Park. Also worth doing is the cliff walk from Ponta do Sol to Fontainhas, one of the most beautiful little villages I’ve ever seen. My jaw-dropped when we turned the corner and saw the little place nestled into the terraces of the steep hills around it. With no airport, Santo Antão is a little harder to get to than some of the other islands, but there are regular ferries across from São Vicente.
Recommended accommodation: Black Mamba in Paul. Not only is it beautifully decorated, but the restaurant downstairs does really, really good pizza.
Speaking of São Vicente, Santo Antão’s smaller neighbour is the cultural capital of Cape Verde, with its main town, Mindelo, a hub for Cape Verdean music and food. I wish I could have spent more time exploring this island, as the countryside around Mindelo looks absolutely stunning, but due to limited time it functioned mostly as a gateway to Santo Antão. Monte Verde is the island’s highest peak and the site of some really good hiking, while the bay on which Mindelo sits has been voted one of the most beautiful in the world. Sit for a while on a terrace overlooking the water with some good food and a cool drink, and you won’t wish for anything else.
Recommended accommodation: Simabo’s Backpacker Hostel, which is not just accommodation for humans, but for rescued cats and dogs as well. You can even spend some time volunteering with them. Those pups and kitties need cuddles!
4. Cidade Velha
Outside of Praia, this was the only place on the island of Santiago I visited, and the only reason I would recommend coming to Cape Verde’s main island. What used to be the capital of Cape Verde is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the country’s one and only) and going there feels like stepping back in time, right back to the era of bucanneers and pirate ships. Cobbled streets lead to historic squares where once slavers traded their unfortunate wares, rows of beautiful, painted stone houses lie under the shade of palm trees and white-washed churches sit proudly under the blue sky. Above the town is a reconstructed Portuguese fort, offering stunning vistas across the town and the Atlantic Ocean. Only forty minutes from Praia by bus, it’s easy to get to and absolutely worth the trip.
The Cape Verdean currency is the escudo, which is tied to the euro at 110:1. On the island of Sal, many places accept euros, where it is usually converted at the more convenient rate off 100:1.
Flights to Cape Verde go mainly to Sal or Praia, with direct flights from several countries including the UK, Belgium, Germany, Brazil, Spain and Portugal. Domestic flights go regularly depending on which island you want to get to (Santo Antão and Brava’s airports are both closed), run by the national airline TACV.
The official language is Portuguese Creole, with many Cape Verdeans learning Portuguese in school. However, it’s only on the more visited islands that English is easy to find. Spanish is also a useful language to have.
Accommodation, food and drink prices are slightly lower than in Europe, but are not as cheap as you might expect from an African country. Soft drinks and snacks in particular are around the same as you’d pay back home.
Have you ever been to Cape Verde? Or, had you even heard about it before? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.