I have had Cape Verde hovering around the top of my bucket list for a quite a few years. I was wooed not by photographs, as at the time I hadn’t seen any. I only knew two people who had been there – both said it was very windy and not much there apart from sand. Neither showed much enthusiasm. No, I was fascinated by these islands because of their location and they were “new” to the travel scene, fascinated as only a geography/travel/map geek could be. Over the last couple of years, Cape Verde has crept into those holiday brochures – pictures of exotic pools with swim up bars, palm trees …. and I was sold. Sort of. What I didn’t realise was that Cape Verde was made up of 10 islands and the main “tourist” island was an island called Sal. However, just south of Sal is the island of Boa Vista – just opening up to tourism – and that was the island I was lucky enough to be visit in August this year.
Cape Verde lies midway between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator, approximately 300 miles off the coast of Senegal in West Africa. The island of Boa Vista, nearest island to the African mainland, is the 3rd largest island, but it is still tiny, taking just under one hour driving from end to end – roughly 240 square miles … the size of the city of Chicago, in fact. The population of the entire island, according to the official Cape Verde website, in 2010 was just 8,564. In fact it is the least populated of all the islands – the capital of Cape Verde, Praia, is on the island of Santiago. Most people on Boa Vista live in the capital, Sal Rei … in fact my hotel located in the extreme south of the island, the biggest Rui hotel in the world, was bigger than the villages and towns!
Diego Gomes, a Portuguese explorer, discovered the Cape Verde Islands, way back in 1456 – they were all totally uninhabited. By 1587, Cape Verde became a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese used the archipelago as a stopover for slave traffic between Africa and America. From 1620, slaves were employed in the salt mines – processing the salt in the mountainous areas, hidden from pirate attacks. The salt pans are still here, although more common on the island of Sal, but the industry has dried up due to the technical advances in the industry in other parts of the world. Cape Verde declared independence in 1975. Today, the population is mostly a mixture of Creole, African & Portuguese … with small pockets of Italians, Spanish & Chinese. The signs are all in Portuguese but the people speak a Creole language – the atmosphere is pretty laidback and has a Caribbean vibe in Boa Vista;the other islands have a more European feel.
Most people on Boa Vista work in tourism in some way – either in the hotels, as tour guides or souvenir sellers. Date-farming too. The airport, the grandly named Aristides Pereira International Airport, was opened in 2007. The International Airport on Sal has navigational runway aids (runway lights) and looks like an airport – whereas the airport on Boa Vista is on the edge of the desert, is open air and has no runway lights. The flight time from the UK is just over 6 hours – the plane is not large as the airport is too small to accept the modern Dreamliner jets. There are only 3 or 4 planes landing a day so long queues rarely exist! Expansion plans are already being made. As Boa Vista is hot and dry all year round, having an open air airport isn’t really a problem apart from the fact that it is hot and shade is limited plus at the end of August/September is Boa Vista’s “rainy” season (short sharp showers about 4 days a year!) so if it does rain, you’ll get wet! The airport is located in Rabil, the 2nd largest town and former capital. Rabil is known for its pottery and the longest river in Cape Verde, the Ribeira do Rabil, flows through it. Well, it should on the map look as though it should flow, but in reality it was a puddle with some trees around it (planted in the 1990s).
Boa Vista is known for the sand dunes and moonlike volcanic landscapes of the Viana Desert. The desert was formed by the accumulation of wandering sand grains from the Sahara. The sand dunes in this desert are vast. One morning we travelled to the Viana Club Restaurant for an early breakfast of “catchupa” – the national dish, a sort of corn stew, served with fried egg and spicy sausage – and a refreshing glass of iced hibiscus tea. We then hit the dunes for a sand boarding session. It was hot, it was sunny and it was lots of fun!
Boa Vista has a stunning coastline – it’s most coveted beach is the Santa Monica beach (named after the Californian beach) which extends 18km from the island’s westernmost point to the southernmost point. It is said to be one of the top 20 best beaches in the world. Currently, the beach is devoid of hotels but not for long as a large hotel resort/spa is being built – due to finish in the next 5/10 years. In a decade, Boa Vista will be unrecognisable – I’m not sure whether that is a good thing or not – on the one hand more tourism will help to raise living standards but on the other hand, Boa Vista will lose its uniqueness.
Cape Verde has only just been upgraded from Third World category to Second World category – it is still pretty poor. When visiting the capital, Sal Rei, the “launderette” was a row of concrete slabs where women scrubbed their clothes as they have done for centuries. My guide said that the Chinese have recently introduced washing machines but they are not widespread as yet. Next to the washing area was the water station. Water is scarce on the island so people come to the water stations with their wheelbarrows to collect their daily water tanks. The richer people can afford to have their water delivered. Our hotel had its own water desalination plant for its needs.
Another nice beach was in the far north of the island, renamed Santa Maria, after the MS Cabo Santa Maria, a ship that ran aground there in 1968. The ship was carrying gifts from the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on its way to Brazil and Argentina – the gifts apparently included sports cars! Thankfully, the crew escaped unhurt and the goods were salvaged. The wreck is still there, just a rusty shell now, slowly crumbling away after years being battered by the wind and constant waves.
I was mesmerised by the waves – the Atlantic breakers were very powerful and during my stay the red flag was constantly flying. Managing to paddle, the water was as warm as bath water – around 28 degrees centigrade. I expected the sea to be colder. That is not the only thing that surprised me about the temperature. The climate is warm all year round – August to October are the hottest (and wettest months) and the temperature hovers around 32/33 degrees during the day falling to around 27/28 degrees at night – what surprised me was that it was such a humid heat – I had thought it was more a “dry” heat like I’ve experienced in the Mediterranean. The humidity was often around 80% which meant that the constant breeze was a cooling blessing indeed although it was a false blessing as the island’s location meant that the sun’s strength was equatorial, and Factor 50 liberally applied was needed. Tropical island – but I didn’t see any mosquitos but I did see plenty of wandering goats and the odd cow! Sea turtles are known to nest on the shores, while the coastal waters are a route for migrating humpback whales.
Boa Vista has a few mountains, the highest being Mount Estancia at 1,270 feet. Cape Verde does have an active volcano – on Fogo – which last erupted in 2014. On the slopes of the volcano Fogo coffee is grown …absolutely delicious!
The roads. The road from the airport to the capital and the roads in the towns/villages are mostly cobbled. There is a small patch of tarmac, south of the island, which was built by the Rui hotel chain to try and establish a good route from the south to the airport and Sal Rei. However, it is not finished and quickly goes from tarmac to unmade road. Some routes are not signposted but are tiny tracks meandering through the desert, naked to my eye. Drivers drive on the right but, to be honest, it really depends on which side has the least potholes. I didn’t see one private car – I did see a police car, a couple of motorbikes, quad bikes, tour guide jeeps, tour buses, buses and the odd truck and taxi. Boa Vista has another American equivalent – they have a Route 66 too – the cobbled road doesn’t lend itself to smooth riding on a Harley Davidson though!
Food & Drink. The RUI hotel I was staying in imports all its food and drink from the Canary Islands. This is quite a sensible idea because the island doesn’t produce enough to cater for the number of tourists staying at the hotels. However, it does mean that those people staying put only in the hotel miss out on discovering the island’s cuisine. The national dishes are quite hearty – stew features a variety of meat and fish – I tried the octopus stew which was very tasty.
At the Morabeza Beach Bar Restaurant we ate freshly caught lobster served with exquisitely cooked vegetables …and drank Coconut ponche and Cape Verdian white wine. It is the first restaurant I’ve been to where you can eat with your shoes off, the floor is the beach, and reggae music is playing in the background. It was here we watched fire eaters do their thing and my sons had impromptu African drumming lessons!
Apart from the big Rui hotels, the island has a couple of smaller hotels, apartments and guesthouses – mainly on the beaches around Sal Rei. I stopped off at the Guest House Migrante – a delightful guesthouse with a distinctly European flavour with a bar/cafe attached. It is the grandest looking building in Sal Rei and they serve the most delightful coffee (from Fogo) and grog (Cape Verdean rum). The guesthouse had a gorgeous library area and an inner courtyard. In Boa Vista I found that when it came to food and drink, you should never judge a bar/restaurant by its outside look – inside these places are clean and the food is out of this world – ask the locals for restaurant recommendations too.
Like any place in the world, people’s viewpoints on the same place differ vastly, and not everybody is going to fall in love with a place. Boa Vista attracted me and is now engraved in my heart because of its ruggedness, its beautiful desert scenery and the people are so smiley. Where else would you high five the airport officers as you board your plane home? Where else would you see brightly coloured birds tweeting in the passport control area as you land? Where else would you see miles of untouched white sand beaches not lined with hotels? The hotel was gorgeous and clean but to be perfectly honest, being by the pool, you could be anywhere hot and sunny in the world. What made the holiday was the chance to explore outside of the hotel. Boa Vista is not like the Canary Islands, despite the glossy holiday brochure pictures – but perhaps in 10 years it will be.
If you enjoy self catering, then Boa Vista isn’t the place for you yet. In Sal Rei, there is a small working fish market and a small fruit/vegetable market & a couple of shops where essentials can be found.
If you enjoy walking from your hotel to restaurants/bars, pick a hotel close to Rabil or Sal Rei where you can walk along the beaches to beach bars. The RUI Tuareg at the south of the island is in a fab spot but it is only surrounded by desert scrubland. The hotel has plenty of bars though! Alternatively, look at the neighbouring island of Sal, which is more geared towards tourism.
If you can afford it, splash out on the trips either operated by your tour operator or by Giggling Geckos ( a tour company on the island) and see the island away from the hotels. Quad bike tours have been highly recommended too.
And try the local grog … apparently after four shots you end up talking fluent Creole …..
All photos by Linda Hobden