Introducing Cape Verde
Most people only know Cape Verde through the haunting mornos (mournful songs) of Cesária Évora. To visit her homeland – a series of unlikely volcanic islands some 500km off the coast of Senegal – is to understand the strange, bittersweet amalgam of West African rhythms and mournful Portuguese melodies that shape her music.
It’s not just open ocean that separates Cape Verde from the rest of West Africa. Cool currents, for example, keep temperatures moderate, and a stable political and economic system help support West Africa’s highest standard of living. The population, who represent varying degrees of African and Portuguese heritage, will seem exuberantly warm if you fly in straight from, say, Britain, but refreshingly low-key if you arrive from Lagos or Dakar.
Yet life has never been easy here. For centuries, isolation and cyclical drought have resulted in famine. Generations of Cape Verdeans have been forced to emigrate, leaving those at home wracked by sodade – the deep longing that fills Cesária Évora’s music. While hunger is no longer a threat, you need only glance at the terraced hillsides baking in the sun to understand that every bean, every grain of corn, is precious.
Though tiny in area, the islands contain a remarkable profusion of landscapes, from Maio’s barren flats to the verdant valleys of Santo Antão. And Fogo, a single volcanic peak whose slopes are streaked with rivers of frozen lava. The beaches of Sal and Boa Vista increasingly attract package-tour crowds, but Cape Verde remains a destination for the connoisseur – the intrepid hiker, the die-hard windsurfer, the deep-sea angler, the morno devotee.
For many people the main reason for visiting Cape Verde is for spectacular Santo Antão, and it really is a good reason. This dizzyingly vertical isle, ruptured with canyons, gorges and valleys, offers some of the most amazing hiking in West Africa. The second-largest island in the archipelago, it is the only one that puts the verde in Cape Verde.
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Whether you're being tossed and turned in the heavy seas during the boat ride from Praia or thrown about by unpredictable winds and turbulence in the small prop plane, the drama of Fogo begins long before you even set foot on its volcanic soils.
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With its feathery lines of peachy dunes, stark plains and scanty oases, Boa Vista looks as if a chunk of the Sahara somehow broke off the side of Africa and floated out to the middle of the Atlantic.
Cape Verde's highest peak (2829m/9382ft), the conical, cinder-clad Mt Fogo, rises dramatically out of the floor of an ancient crater known as Chã das Caldeiras. A scenic, cobbled road, punctuated by hamlets with lava block houses, encircles the island It's still an active volcano and last erupted in 1995, yet intrepid farmers raise coffee and wine grapes on its black slopes.
West Africa - Cape Verde (Chapter)
This 10-island archipelago packs a punch. Craggy peaks hide piercing green valleys of flowers and sugar cane, ideal for epic hikes; Mindelo throbs with bars and music clubs; and wispy white dunes merge with indigo-blue seas on unspoiled beaches.
Except for the occasional car that braves the cobblestone, cross-island roads, Brava seems to reside firmly in the 19th century. Its terraced hillsides are farmed with the aid of mules and life moves at a pace that would make a sloth sleepy.
Set around a moon-shaped port and ringed by barren mountains, Mindelo is Cape Verde's answer to the Riviera, complete with cobblestone streets, candy-coloured colonial buildings and yachts bobbing in a peaceful harbour.
Santiago, the largest member of the archipelago and the first to be settled, has a little bit of all the other islands. It has the sandy beaches, the desert plains, the verdant valleys and the mountainous interior as well as the capital, Praia. All this makes it a worthy stop on your Cape Verdean rambles.