We went for one week in the islands of Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa. We went to the exotic land, where the great singer Cesária Évora was born.
Why Cape Verde?
Cape Verde is a land of great seafood, good looking and friendly people, a great culture mix and Creole language (mix of Portuguese with other African languages), that differs from island to island.
We decided to visit this beautiful archipelago based on these reasons and others. As Cape Verde is not so far from Europe, we managed to find good flights to go there for a week. However, our plans were shortened as the situation with the pandemic COVID 19 also affected our travel plans. But more on that later…
We wanted to go there for the main reason of it being the land where the great Cesaria Evora was born. With it, we also had access to a different culture, a different way of experiencing life, enjoy food and the natural landscape. We were very curious to visit the country, to see and experience it for ourselves and to capture its natural beauty.
Our initial itinerary was set as 3 days in Sal, 2 days in Mindelo and 2 days in Santo Antao. However, we had to skip the latter as our trip was shortened because of the sudden close up of the Portuguese borders during our travels.
A bit of history from Cape Verde
For now, here are some interesting historical and current facts about this wonderful place:
Cape Verde is an archipelago of 10 volcanic Islands (Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Sal, Boa Vista; Maio, Santiago, Fogo, Brava) in the central Atlantic Ocean, and part of the larger Macaronesia Ecoregion along with Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands. The largest island, both in size and population, is Santiago, which hosts the nation’s capital, Praia. The island of Sal is one of the most tourist-oriented islands and during the whole year it rarely has rainfall. This is where we went first.
It was first discovered in the 15th century and colonized by the Portuguese. It was initially set up as a key location for the Atlantic slave trade, which fed the economic growth of the islands throughout the 16th and 17th centuries attracting all sorts of characters. The end of transatlantic slavery in the 19th century led to economic decline and emigration.
The islands achieved independence from Portugal in 1975. Currently, Cape Verde is considered one of the most developed and democratic countries in Africa. The country lacks natural resources and depends highly on imports. Its economy is mostly service-oriented, with a growing focus on tourism and foreign investment.
Day 1 – Dublin to Lisbon
We flew after work on a Friday to our first stop, Lisbon. A side note here regarding the world context at this time. The pandemic COVID 19 was affecting all major countries in Europe and the airport in Dublin was no exception. It was fairly empty and it was the first time we ever saw it like that. We were cautious throughout the whole trip and took with us masks and hand sanitizer.
We arrived at night and stayed at a local hostel called Pump my Heart. The location of the hostel was close enough to the airport, which was perfect since we had our flight to Cape Verde the next day early in the morning. We checked in and went to grab something to eat. The weather was colder than we expected but still warmer than Dublin.
We had a delicious burger at Josephine Bistro & Bar, which was not far from our hostel. The burger dough was made with chorizo inside, all locally purchased, which made it heaven on earth. The place was small, cozy and had a great ambiance. We absorbed the eerie atmosphere outside, with streets both empty of cars and people. Our conversation flow during dinner went from Corona to what was waiting for us the next day. It was a mixed feeling situation of dealing with some stress, excitement for another adventure and at the same time anxiety about what could happen.
We were dead tired and after the food went back to our hostel for a good night’s sleep.
Day 2 – Santa Maria, Sal Island
We arrive in Sal mid-day. Although then, Cape Verde still didn’t have any confirmed COVID 19 cases, they had thermal scanners at the entrance of the airport, where people were queuing to enter. We bought our visa to enter the country online, a few weeks before flying, which made it fairly quick to pass border control. We took a small break outside and breathed the warm air of the island. Sun and warmth, so welcoming. Welcome to Cape Verde!
As our worries started to fade away, we slowly focused on enjoying the moment and on where we were. Sometimes this happens when you’re traveling. You’re so caught up with what is going on around you, in your life, that you don’t fully appreciate being in that new place until a while has passed.
How we got to Santa Maria and where we stayed?
For a small airport, it wasn’t so busy, so it was fairly easy to grab a taxi from there to our hostel, located in the main touristy city of Santa Maria. Santa Maria is probably the most touristy city in all of Sal. It has great beaches around the whole island. We stayed there for the next 2 nights at Sakaroule B&B.
The room we stayed at was very colorful, spacious and had a nice balcony. Unfortunately, because of fear of Corona, the owners canceled breakfast, rightly so, to avoid big gatherings at breakfast time. We managed to get some coffee to have early in the morning and we grabbed some cookies at the local shops. It wasn’t the best breakfasts we’ve had while on trips, but it was good enough, given the circumstances.
How Cape Verdeans build their houses?
That day, we went for a walk around the town of Santa Maria to have a feeling for it. The landscape felt very raw, as there is a lot of construction going around. We learned later that as salaries in Cape Verde are low and cost of living is high, Cape Verdeans usually take an initial loan from the bank to start building their house and move there.
Once that initial construction is finished and they finished paying their first loan, a second loan is borrowed and so on, until the house is finished. Overall Santa Maria, there is a lot of construction work going around and the houses/buildings have different colors and formats. Also, the architecture is a mix of colonial, African and modern, but especially the first one is more evident in other cities around the Island.
Walking around Santa Maria
As we kept walking, we absorbed the slow pace of life here, although people are going out and about it is still very far from a busy urban center that we are used to in Dublin. Anyway, Cape Verde’s moto is NO STRESS!
It was a very welcoming change of pace. As there was a constant breeze, it wasn’t unbearably warm or anything. Also, the temperature never reached more than 30oC. The town of Santa Maria is very small and easily walkable. When we went, there weren’t a lot of tourists around, which made our time there even more pleasant.
There’s one main street with some shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. You can walk in the middle and see on one side, people sitting and enjoying their beer, meal, etc. and on the other side, locals selling or offering something. Through this street, we had access to other small connected streets that took us straight to the beach and the beautiful turquoise waters of the ocean.
Santa Maria’s Pier
As we reached the beach, we saw a lot of kids going around and having fun at the Pier, which is the main gathering point for fisherman, women selling fish and kids jumping in the water and having fun. It was very entertaining to watch them and a great opportunity to take some nice pictures.
Also, the colors of the surrounding environment were brilliant. We hanged out there for a while, just absorbing the sights. This is the main attraction of Santa Maria, where everyone gathers to enjoy the beach, the view and swim in the clear and crystalline blue waters that make it so special.
Local souvenirs from Sal
While we were exploring along the beach a man approached us to show us his stand in a local market. In the beginning, he was trying to be helpful, telling us where the market was. However, soon after we realized he wanted us to buy something from him. In a sense, we didn’t mind and didn’t take it in a wrong way, especially because we understood that he was just trying to make a living.
People are highly dependent on tourism in Sal, both directly and indirectly. However, locals told us later to be careful when people would approach us this way, just so we wouldn’t go into streets or neighborhoods we shouldn’t go into. Nonetheless, it was good that we ran into him or better that he ran into us, as we got the only souvenirs pretty much for the whole trip.
Food and sunset at Santa Maria’s beach
After we said goodbye, we wandered off back to the beach and went to check out a place to eat. We found a restaurant by the beach called La Vila Beach Lounge.
The food was reasonable, but a bit too pricey. We got 2 mains, 1 beer, and 1 milkshake and paid a total of 45€. We had already checked food prices before coming and realized that eating out here was almost the same as eating out in some EU countries. If you think about it, it’s quite an expensive life, considering average wage round 146€ per month, and 1kg of tomatoes can cost you at least 2€.
After we finished our dinner, we headed back to our hostel to rest and check what we would do the next day.
Day 3 – Tour of Sal Island
As we had a full day for ourselves, we thought the best way to take advantage of it was to do a tour of the island to get to know it a bit better. The Island itself is not big, only 29.7 km long and 11.8 km wide. The salt industry (the island is named after this) was a key economic activity since the 18th century for the island, the period when the industry thrived. Apart from Santa Maria, the Pedro de Lume area (situated further north) were the two main salt production spots on the island and salt was exported mainly to Brazil. Nowadays, Cape Verde is no longer a world producer of salt, but local production continues.
1 day tour with Sal Experiences
Since we only had 1 day in the Island to fully explore, we booked a “Sal Experience Tour” – 1 day trip via Trip advisor with tour operator Reis T. For 36.60€, we got a day tour of the main spots around the island by riding in an open 4×4, in a group of 6. The tour was organized and guided by Chan (a local), who had great insights to tell us not only about the landscape and the spots we were visiting but how was to live in Sal and Cape Verde in general.
We started the tour at 9 am and came back at 5 pm. The tour’s total price didn’t include the entrance fee to visit 2 of the attractions we visited, Blue Eye/Buracona and Pedra de Lume (salt baths). They weren’t expensive (between 2€ to 4€). We went through several areas on the island, from north to south (check the link below for a full overview of the tour). We highly recommend it, as a good way to spend the day but also to have a better insight into the island itself.
Kite surf beach
Firstly, we went for a short drive around Santa Maria and got a general explanation of life there, where were the main tourist spots, etc. After a few minutes, we drove to one of the famous beaches in Sal, ideal for kitesurfing – Kite Beach, located in the southeast of the Island. It was super windy, this is where kitesurfing fans come to practice or learn from Kitesurfing.
Cape Verde has some of the best world champions of kitesurfing and we could see why, with such great natural conditions that allow for the sport to thrive. We stayed for a few minutes, took some pictures, and headed towards our 2nd stop, Salinas. Opposite of Kite beach, lies the Salinas of Santa Maria, where Santa Maria’s Salt is produced and consumed locally or sold elsewhere.
Our 3rd stop was Murdeira’s bay. This is a beautiful spot, where locals enjoy with their families, ideal for young kids to dive in a small natural pool that forms there. Our guide told us that especially during the 1st of May (Labour Day), people are not working and drive there to enjoy some nice barbecue and family time. Since most Cape Verdeans don’t have enough money to travel abroad they enjoy their holidays at home.
Also, it is quite expensive to travel between islands (see our budget), not at all like travel between EU countries, which has become in some cases ridiculously cheap. We took a cool picture with the Cape Verdean flag, as is part of the tradition to do so, and drove further north to visit the fishermen’s village of Palmeira.
Our 4th stop, Palmeira town is a cozy and picturesque place marked by its fishing tradition. Palmeira is an important harbor city, where a majority of the imports and exports take place on the waterways of the islands. Palmeira is also a town with bars and restaurants whose architectural appearances still have distinctly Portuguese characteristics, especially in the north. There is a very nice fishing pier that we saw when walking towards town, where several gathered and were enjoying themselves.
During the tour, we took some pictures of local street art and learned more about Cape Verde and how it was formed. We finished our tour in town by trying some Grogue (20% alcohol) – a local drink made of sugar cane, rum, sugar, water, honey, cinnamon, and other flavors, depending on the type of grogue. We tried several ones about 5 of them, these were all included in the tour price. The taste was interesting, sweet and a liquor type of drink.
Buracona – Blue eye
We continued our drive 5km north of Palmeira towards Buracona – Olho Azul or Blue Eye. This is a small bay in the northwest of the island. It is a natural pool formed by the ocean into lava rocks, turning magic blue and turquoise under sunlight. Locals jump into the hole and swim there when the weather and the tide allow for it (when there is no wind). Also, experienced divers might explore the hidden caves and grottos. There are several walkable paths, and it is a beautiful place for taking pictures of the ocean and the raw beauty that it offers. There is a charge for getting in to see the Blue Eye, It’s a small fee of 3 euros but is completely worth it!
Espargos & Terra boa desert mirages
Afterward, we went on to check the desert & mirages, Terra Boa located 4km north of town Espargos. There is sand and sand as long as you can see. The landscape is flat, except for the brown mountains to the east and west. The scenery is just breathtaking and you can feel the nature and the African breeze so close.
The special thing about this place is the mirage that you can see on the horizon. Because of that, you can take pictures very similar to the ones you take in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It was quite cool and our guide knew exactly where each person should be placed to take the perfect picture. It looks like something like this.
Lunch time – Cachupa
We were hungry and lunch was on its way. We headed towards a restaurant close to Espargos. The place is run by a Portuguese ex-military that produces his vegetables using hydroponics, the only one on the island doing so apparently. When we arrived, the food was ready. We paid 10€ and got a buffet type local food: a mix of chicken, fish, cachupa (the national dish of Cape Verde), salad, rice, chips, you name it, along with any drink.
We enjoyed it very much and the conversation with the owner was very interesting. The great thing about traveling is to meet people that you would never meet otherwise. He was a retired military that was involved in the independence wars between Portugal and ex-colonial African countries that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. Since that experience, he knew he wanted to retire in Africa, somewhere and decided to go to Cape Verde, married a local and ended up having his place there.
Pedra de Lume – salt crater
We left towards our next stop – the salt crater of Pedra Lume.
Salinas de Pedra de Lume is a low volcano crater that lies beneath sea level. It used to be a salt mining area used for salt extraction. The salt ponds were built over a natural salt lake that formed through the infiltration of water from the sea.
The salt extraction is currently inactive since the 1990s. It is currently used as a tourist spot, where tourists (admission fee of 2€) and locals (free entrance) can enjoy a curative salt bath. It is impressive to see it and worth going. Take a swimsuit and towel with you and you’ll have a good time.
We spent about 40 min there before moving to our final stop – the Shark Bay.
Shark Bay is an area close to Pedra de Lume, where lemon sharks swim in the shallower waters. They are not dangerous or anything. The point is not to scare them away, so you keep a safe distance. With a pair of rubber shoes that we rented from locals for 2€, we walked further in the water and saw their fins cutting through the water.
It was fascinating to see such animals in the wild. We stayed for a few minutes observing them and took some pictures. This was our final stop.
Delicious pizza to end the day
Back at the hostel, we said goodbye to our great guide Chan and rested before going out for dinner. It was a long but great day. Tired, but inspired, off we went to grab a bite to eat.
In Santa Maria, there’s not a lot of places to eat and we still wanted to catch the sunset. So we headed there. The atmosphere was lively, with many young people still enjoying a swim at the beach. We went for something simple and grabbed some prawn pizza along with white wine. The ending to a perfect day.
As we monitored the situation of COVID 19 over the news we were thinking if we would make to our next destination – Sao Vicente. We figured we had to risk it and see what would happen.
Day 4 –Mindelo (São Vicente)
We woke up, enjoyed a nice final mocha at the hostel and said goodbye to our hosts. Off we went to the airport to catch a flight to Mindelo, located on the island of Sao Vicente. The flight was only going to take 50mins. Being in a small plane is a different sensation than flying in a big commercial flight. You feel the plane much more, going up and down, and flying over the Atlantic at a closer distance brings more intensity to the experience of being alive somehow.
The plane started turning and we started seeing the majestic peaks of Sao Vicente. We started seeing the island forming slowly, witnessing the raw beauty of the falling ravines of the island’s coast. A part of the island that we could see we could not access by any means. As we came close to the ground we saw the airstrip, so small, right next to the beach.
We arrived in Mindelo late morning, grabbed a taxi and went straight into our hotel (Hotel Pombas Brancas), located on top of a hill with a panoramic view of the city and in the background a combo of blue skies, rough mountains, and Blue Ocean. After settling in, we gathered our stuff and went on to explore a bit of Mindelo and meet up with a local travel agency we had arranged a tour with.
We were supposed to wake up super early the next day to catch a ferry and head towards the trekking capital of Cape Verde – one of the greenest islands of the archipelago called Santo Antao, bigger than Sao Vicente. We were going to spend 2 days and 1 night there and we were very much looking forward to it. It was a great plan of enjoying some beach, get inspired by some culture and witness the beautiful nature that Cape Verde has to offer. Sadly, we weren’t able to go through with the plan.
As we arrived at Terra Lodge (travel agency) we met with one of the tour organizers. They were super friendly but the bearer of bad news, unfortunately. They told us that they were advising all of their clients to either come back immediately from the island of Santo Antao or to not go in the first place and to try and leave Cape Verde as soon as possible. Needless to say, we were stunned by this unexpected turn of events. We understood and appreciated very much their advice.
Although we were monitoring the ongoing lockdowns and border closures, we were hopeful we would have made it. It became more probable that Portugal would close the borders and that we could risk being locked in Cape Verde or Lisbon. Although this hadn’t been confirmed yet, but we took it as a 48h warning to get back to Dublin. It followed an exhausting back and forth of phone calls to try and get some more clarity on the situation, but without success.
Cesaria’s cultural backdrop
We sat at the rooftop bar, where the agency was, that offered a beautiful view of Mindelo’s bay and grabbed some cocktails. As we realized that this was the end of our trip we decided to make the most of our time there and left to explore Mindelo, the city of Cesaria Evora. We found where her house used to be and headed over there.
We could only see the house from outside, as it is not open to outside visitors. Lucky us though, there was an exhibition about her, not so far away. A collection of paintings, letters, photo albums, amongst other things revealed the different Cesaria Evoras over time.
We walked along the corridors and enjoyed all this at the sound of her music that was playing in the background. Nostalgic and inspired, we appreciated the opportunity to get in touch with one of the greatest music icons out there.
We continued wandering around Mindelo. With its well-preserved historical town center, the city is much bigger and developed than Santa Maria, and is considered the cultural capital of Cape Verde.
Enjoying a delicious dinner at Casa Mindelo
We ended our evening at Casa Mindelo –a B&B with a restaurant and live music. The food was great and the ambiance amazing. As we cheered on our last wine from Fogo (another island, where wine grapes grow in volcanic soil), we decided to come back again to this magical place! It was an abrupt ending, to the beginning of great trips. The romantic vibe present in the city is worth going back for and the raw landscape around it just makes it even more special.
Day 5 – Mindelo to Lisbon
We woke up early the next day, had a quick breakfast and headed towards the airport. We waited a few hours in front of the airline TAP’s office there and booked a new ticket to Dublin that same day. While waiting, we bonded with some other tourists and discussed what was going on. Everyone was on the same boat.
We arrived in Lisbon late afternoon and stayed at a hostel in Belem – Belem guest house. For the price we paid, our room was not clean and we didn’t have a private bathroom. Considering the situation happening, we didn’t feel comfortable there at all. Anyhow, armed with anti-bacterial wipes we did our cleaning routine and hoped for the best.
We went for a night walk, as the streets were empty and visited some of the area’s main monuments –Torre de Belem and Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The ambiance was eerie, and we felt weirdly calm as we hoped for our flight the next day not to be canceled.
There was one café open, where we grabbed some falafels and had a fun talk with folks there about what was going on. We think they were a bit excited to have some customers and see some different faces.
Our trip ended early the next day, when we caught our flight back to Dublin, luckily!
See you next time Cape Verde!
Cape Verde is not cheap, and flying there either. This trip was more expensive than others we’ve done previously and especially due to the sudden return we ended up spending much more that we would have. We spent a total of 1361.40€: 601.82€ per person in flights + new ticket 600€ (unexpected expense); Visa – 30.83€; accommodation – 128.75€ (we were able to cancel one accommodation without paying); Sal Island tour – 36.60€.
Cape Verde has its currency, the Cape Verdean escudo, which can be withdrawn in any ATM at the price of a small fee. They also accept € which is equivalent to the escudo. In some establishments, we were able to pay with card, but overall is always to have cash with you.
We only checked for Greece and Portugal, and we didn’t a visa, but to either pre-register online before arriving or pay on arrival. The best is to go to the government’s official website (in the links below) and pay for the pre-registration fee (30.83€), and to do it at least 2 weeks before traveling. This is a better option because you avoid queuing and it’s more expensive to pay on arrival.