Into (the Inexpensive) Africa

Cape Verde: Where western Africa meets the Mediterranean, Latin rhythm, and Portuguese ambience

Mmmm, spring fever. Time to dust away winter and jet off for a dose of warm. But where? Follow the masses scurrying to the latest Girls Gone Wild hot spot? Burn the bank at popular-and premium-destinations in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, or South Pacific, where prices skyrocket this time of year? What's a budget adventurer with a taste for the exotic to do? Welcome to Cape Verde, or the Republica de Cabo Verde as it's known in Crioulo, the Portuguese and West African version of Creole.

These steep, rugged, volcanic islands-ten major land masses and five islets-are scattered in the north Atlantic, some 275 miles west of Senegal. They sit closer to the Americas and farther from the mainland than any other African country and offer a host of outdoor activities, from water sports to hiking. In addition, the islanders mix up African, Portuguese, Mediterranean, and Latin influences, creating one of the most unique cultures in the world-best known for hosting Africa's most vibrant Carnival celebrations, as well as Cesaria Evora, the "barefoot diva," who sings in the traditional Cabo style.

When Portuguese mariners first arrived in 1456, they discovered a paradise of uninhabited islands carpeted in dense, lush vegetation (hence the Verde in Cape Verde). But like most of Africa, Cape Verde was irretrievably hammered by colonization. Due to its prime and remote ocean location, the islands became a trading center for African slaves being transported to Europe and America, and later an important coaling and re-supply stop for whaling and transatlantic shipping. By 1832 when Charles Darwin passed by, the islands were dry and barren. In addition, repeated droughts during the second half of the 20th century caused massive starvation and emigration. The archipelago took a bold step in 1975 when it gained its independence from Portugal. But even with that unified sense of freedom and one of the most stable democratic governments in western Africa, Cape Verde's current expatriate population is greater than its domestic one, an influx that proves Cape Verde is on the radar for the active, intrepid traveler.

Windy, dry, and fairly sleepy, the almost lunar landscape of Cape Verde's hilly islands are especially great for hiking. The volcanic island of Fogo (the active Mount Fogo is over 9,000 feet high) offers killer views, while Ribeira Grande Mountain on the northeastern coast of lush Santo Antão takes a day to climb but is well worth the effort (the hilly green interior is perfect for a short trek as well). The islands of Brava and São Nicolau are also recommended.

If you envision more sea and sand in your tropical vacation, Cape Verde's got you covered. Clean, quiet bays with clear water and seemingly endless sandy beaches on lonely islands afford near-perfect surfing, fishing, diving, and barely touched sailing grounds. Several dive centers on the islands of Sal and Boavista cater to a blooming scuba scene, where divers flirt with parrotfish, barracuda, and moray eels in the azure water. You might also spot blue and humpback whales, dolphins, harbor porpoises, and an array of turtles. What's more, package-trip prices are refreshingly cheap in the spring. Cabo Verde (www.sal-aventuras.com), an outfitter on the island of Sal, offers seven nights in a four-star hotel, five dives, and round-trip airfare from Lisbon, Portugal, for just over $1,000.

Another popular and inviting water activity is sailing or charter boat rentals. Good meteorological conditions in the prevailing northeastern Passat winds afford the Cabo Verde archipelago long, demanding, and pleasant short sails in equal measure. Cabo Verde Sailing (011.00238.32 67 72, www.caboverdesailing.de) is run by Kai Brossmann, an experienced sailing teacher and skipper, and offers weekly bareboat charters with the lowest cost points occurring from May through August. If you intend to skipper your own boat, be certain you have adequate experience with 44-foot yachts; the trade winds make for challenging conditions.

Surfing and windsurfing are both available on Sal, but the surfing is not generally suitable for beginners-water temperatures are good all year round, but the seas tend to be rougher during the spring and into the first part of the summer. But if you're an experienced grommer looking for a new, challenging experience, then Sal should be your next frontier.

Although Cape Verde is pleasantly tropical year-round due to its equatorial location (the water's warm, too), make sure to bring your wind breaker-and a kite. The harmattan winds that sweep Saharan dust across the Atlantic, partially responsible for the decades-long drought (together with deforestation and a thriving, and illegal, beach-sand extraction industry), can make temps a tad brisk. With rainfall limited mostly to the month of September, spring is an ideal season to visit.

And finally, in perfect contrast to the active days and sleepy hideouts is the lively nightlife. There is no shortage of live Cape Verdean music in the bars and clubs. Music is as integral to the daily life of the islands as pastel com diablo dentro (pastry with the devil inside)-a mix of fresh tuna, onions, and tomatoes wrapped in a fried pastry blended from boiled potatoes and corn flour. Warning: if you find the singles scene doesn't match the pulsing music and the island's Carnival-inspired rep for tropical hedonism, it may be you've hit Tabanka, the odd, week-long celebration of music and country-wide abstinence that takes place every May/June.

Access and Resources
One of the best resources for information on travel and things to do in Cape Verde is www.capeverde.starttips.com, where you can find out more about sailing, surfing, windsurfing, trekking, whale-watching, and birding, as well as the cultural history of the archipelago.

Getting There:
Flying is the only realistic option for getting to and from Cape Verde, since sea services are infrequent and will likely cost as much as a plane ticket. There are daily flights from Lisbon, and less frequent ones from Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, and Moscow to the island of Sal, with connecting flights from Sal to Mindelo and Praia, Cape Verde's capital. Flights from New York to Johannesburg and on to Sal depart three times a week on South African Airways (011.27.11978.5313, www.flysaa.com).

Getting Around:
The national airline, TACV (www.tacv.cv), services all inhabited islands. There's regularly scheduled ferries and adequate buses in all the major cities and islands.

The Fine Print:
Passport and visas are required, as is a yellow fever certificate if you arrive from the African mainland. And bring cash: credit cards are still not accepted on most of the islands.


Published: 5 Apr 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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