Evolution Explores Cabo Verde

Our exploration of destinations old and new moves on to the warm waters of the central Atlantic Ocean, and the Cabo Verde (Cape Verde) islands.

This group of 8 very small volcanic islands sits in the ocean some 650km off the African West coast (Dakar, Senegal) and 2,600km or so east of Fortaleza, northern Brazil. The latter is relevant as local legends have it that as recently as 2003, some unlucky Cape Verdean fishermen (or lucky ones, depending on your point of view), were found on the coast of Brazil after drifting for 40 or so days from Cape Verde. Over the past century, Cabo Verde was in turn occupied by the Italians, and then most recently the Portuguese, whose language dominates locally, along with Creole. The islands nominally trade in euros, but this is very much Africa and not Europe.

The main tourist islands are Boa Vista and, where I stayed, Sal. Sal would fit comfortably three times into the Isle of Wight, so nowhere is more than a 30 minute or so drive away. With a resident population of just 35,000 on Sal (20k of them in the capital town, Espargos – which is Portuguese for Asparagus). Development of the coastal beach areas is rapid with 4/5* (local ratings) all-inclusive resorts the main feature. More ‘business orientated’ hotel openings are planned.

“So why choose Cabo Verde? To my mind, the islands offer the incentive travel market something very new – after all, how many people have heard of the islands, let alone visited – whilst avoiding many of the downsides of new destinations.  At around 5 hours 30 minutes flying time from the UK, and with a BST minus 2 hours’ time difference, Cape Verde is closer than you’d think, and there’s no danger of jet lag on the return. This is an all-year round climate with temperatures ranging from the mid 20’s Celsius, to the low 30’s. They get around 8 days of rain per year, though it can often be cloudy and sometimes windy.

The people are incredibly friendly, after all tourism is pretty much their sole source of national income, and whilst you do get chatted to by the ubiquitous “look looky” crew and Elvis the local tour operator, they are friendly and not at all pushy. English is widely spoken in the hotels, bars and restaurants.

What’s to do and see on Sal? Plenty is the answer! Given that the closest landfall is pretty much the Sahara desert, the islands are pretty barren, desert covered with the occasional flash of green. But this moon-like landscape makes for terrific fun activities. 4x4s and jeep tours, dune buggies and quad bikes are all in plentiful supply, so it’s easy to organise ad-hoc land tours; more formalised coach and minibus tours are easily arranged too. Sal features some interesting sightseeing opportunities too, for such a small island…

First stop could be the small port and fishing village of Palmeira, where you can sample the local tipple – Grogue (pronounced Grog, so called because of the effect on you the next day!) and shop for souvenirs in the small, brightly painted shops and cafes. This is also where we can organise a catamaran trip down the coast. Further along the coast, and easily reached off-road by 4×4 jeeps, is the small cove of Buracona, where one of Sal’s treasures is located, the Ohlo Azul (Blue Eye). When the sun shines, this natural deep rock pool resembles a blue eye – you can clamber down the cliffs for a better look inside, or look at the effect from the terraces above. From Buracona, head inland across the desert to Terra Boa to witness (a first for me), a desert mirage. Another intriguing location is on the opposite coast, at Pedra de Lume where an impressive array of multi-coloured salt lakes have formed in one of the island’s craters. Although the salt is no longer mined, there is a small bar / restaurant, changing rooms and showers, so you can experience the “dead sea” effect of floating on water; the saline content is such that you lie on your back sunbathing on the water!

Meanwhile, back on the sea you can go swimming with lemon sharks, scuba diving, snorkelling, take a catamaran voyage (not to Brazil though!), wind and kite surf, canoe or simply swim in the warm turquoise blue sea.

The resort town of Santa Maria, on the southern tip of Sal, is a very lively little place with local bars and restaurants, plenty of beach clubs with sunbeds and good food, and even a small casino. The pier here sees the local fishermen land and sell their catch in front of you, tuna, kingfish, marlin, swordfish and lots of other varieties. You can try your hand at game fishing too, as we can charter sport fishing boats and head out into the ocean in search of marlin, yellow fin tuna and shark, and the smaller varieties like Bonito and wahoo.

Finally, it’s possible to explore back in time, on the nearby (1 hour flight) still active volcanic island of Fogo. You can explore the heart of the caldera, which last erupted in 2014 and visit historic Sao Filipe.

But perhaps the one “must do” activity on Sal, between July and October, is to take a night-time trek onto one of Sal’s southernmost, remote beaches with a Cabo Verdean conservationist, to watch the Loggerhead turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in the sand dunes. Along with the Galapagos Islands, Cabo Verde is one of the major birthing grounds for sea turtles in the world.

Make no mistake, this is not a “mass tourism” night, visitor numbers are very much regulated and restricted, and beach protocol is very strictly administered. Groups of only 12 are allowed, everybody must wear dark clothing and walk in single file so as not to disturb the turtles. Silence is paramount, absolutely no lights are allowed apart from the guide’s infra-red torch (no camera flashes) as any slight disturbance will see the turtles head back into the surf and not lay their eggs. I was incredibly fortunate to see one 50-something turtle make her way from the surf, up the beach to the dunes, dig her nest and then lay around 80 eggs. Once done, she covered the nest with sand, camouflaged the area and then headed wearily back to the surf. From start to finish, this was three hours, much of it spent on my stomach on the edge of, and quite often in, the surf! But this is a rare sight and one to treasure. There are various conservation programmes, from supporting beach patrols to prevent poaching (still rife), to funding hatcheries to where the conservationists move eggs that are in danger (usually because they have been laid in a populated beach area where the street and house lights mean the baby turtles will become disorientated and not make it to the sea when they hatch. A few stats for you – a mature female will lay batches of 80-100 eggs at a time, up to five times a season (July-October). The eggs take 55 days to hatch, when the baby turtles then have to find their way into the surf in the darkness, run the gauntlet of sea predators and then make their way out into the Atlantic; females will return to the same beach they were born on, after about 25 years, to lay their own eggs; they live for up to 100 years of age. So you and your group can do your bit for conservation and help an almost pre-historic species survive in the modern world!”

Evolution and our partner operators on Cabo Verde can make any of this happen for your group, however large or small. Drop an email to CEO, Andi at andi.swain@evolution.international to find out how an incentive trip to Cabo Verde would give your group a very different, very rewarding and very inspiring African journey.

As we say at Evolution, every event must be an experience.

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