Santo Antão is one of the greenest islands of Cape Verde and considered by many the most scenic. I, too, completely fell in love with this island with its majestic volcanic landforms and friendly people.
At first, though, you might wonder “wait… is this it?”. When you arrive at the ferry terminal in Ponto Novo, you will see an island that appears to be totally dusty, sandy, and empty.
But just wait till you get to the other side of the island where there are deep green valleys, rocky coastlines, and even patches of pine forest.
Some travelers go island-hopping on Cape Verde, spending a day or two on each island, though I decided to spend 90% of my trip just on Santo Antão, as I enjoyed the hiking trails and landscapes there so much.
You can easily stay a week in Santo Antão and still have things left to do, especially if you like hiking and outdoor adventures. Most towns are also fairly close to each other, so it’s easy to hop around.
Top guided hikes in Santo Antao
While you can do many activities independently, you may prefer hiking with an expert guide with local knowledge that will add to the experience. Here are my recommendations:
- Ponta do Sol & Fontainhas Guided Trip This coastal hike is one of the island’s two most renowned hikes, passing by some of the most picturesque villages of Cape Verde.
- Santo Antão: Remote Mountain Villages Hike This trip takes you to the verdant interior and includes the remote villages of Corda, Figueiral de Cima, Terrinha Vermelha, and Coculi. This is a special experience beyond the standard trails!
- Hiking Day Trip to Ribeira de Torre This day trip starting in Ribeira Grande will take you to waterfalls and rural villages.
- Paúl hike, the green garden If the 6-hour Cova to Paúl trail seems a bit much, consider this easier hike focusing on the lush Paúl valley.
Things to do on Santo Antão
Hike until you can’t
Santo Antão is a hiker’s paradise through and through. If you despise hiking, I’d say you’d be missing out on most of what makes this island amazing.
If you love hiking, do as much of it as you can.
The island is simply littered with fantastic half-day and day-hikes. All it usually takes is a short taxi or aluguer ride to get to another interesting walking route.
If you have limited time on the island, try to dedicate at least two days to hiking (one for Cova to Cidade das Pombas, the other for Ponta do Sol to Chã de Igreja). This way you’ll get to do the two most spectacular walks, with both presenting a different type of landscape.
The volcanic nature of the island has led to incredible landforms, including very steep mountains, high cliffs, and deep valleys and gorges. Some parts of Santo Antão you just have to see to believe.
Although the southern part of the island is mostly barren, the northern valleys are green and filled with terraced fields and highly varied cultivation including banana, papaya, mango, and palm trees.
It’s easy to hike independently without a guide. Most of the popular hikes pass by at least one or two towns or hamlets where you can stop for a coffee or lunch (but still be sure to bring your own snacks and lots of water).
I hiked so much on Santo Antão that I ended up with blistered feet and stumbling around the guest house like a pirate with two peg legs. The hiking really is fantastic and I will share some of the top hikes further below.
Stay in a valley
While all the major towns are on the coast, it’s worth staying a night or two in one of the lush green valleys inland.
Firstly because you’ll find yourself in the rural parts amid terraced fields and banana trees. You’ll also get to see the sun come down over the mountains. Whereas during the day the intense sun often bleaches out the views, it’s great to see them in their full golden hour splendor.
A nice spot is the town of Paúl in the valley of the same name, which is about halfway down the island’s most popular hike. It has a mini-resort called Aldea Panoramica (formerly Casa Maracuja) and a guesthouse called Casa Cavaquinho, both offering marvelous mountain views.
I based myself in the Xóxó valley. There is just one accommodation option: the family-run B&B Casa Xóxó. It’s beautifully situated, budget-friendly, and clearly it’s run with much love.
There are some lovely trails around Xóxó, including one to a nearby waterfall. Waking up to the sight of misty mountains here was also a real treat.
See the Delgadim ridge
The Delgadim ridge is one of Santo Antão’s most impressive viewpoints. It’s here that the central mountain ridge becomes just barely wide enough to fit the old cobblestone road (the Estrada de Corda), with deep chasms on both sides.
The ridge was once formed by a crack opening in the volcanic lava and this crack then bursting open, leaving a ‘dyke’ of subvolcanic rocks.
It’s easiest to see the Delgadim ridge on the way to one of the nearby hikes. If you drive to Cova from the north (Ribeira Granda), you’ll pass it. You can ask your driver to stop for a while to enjoy the vistas and take some pictures.
Swim in a natural pool
If you’re tired from all the hiking, you might feel like plopping down on a beach. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many (safe) beaches on the island. You’ll have to go all the way to Tarrafal or near Porto Novo to find some good sandy beaches.
Luckily, there is another place to relax that’s much closer to where most of the hikes are. Near the village of Sinagoga, there is a natural pool of rocks. You’ll be bathing in the seawater, but protected from the rough waves by a rocky wall.
Sinagoga is of some historical interest as well, as it was first inhabited by Jewish people in the 19th century. You can still see the ruins of the synagogue, the town’s namesake.
I sadly learned of this option too late to do it during my trip, but it is possible to go canyoning on Santo Antão. A man named Olivier who hails from the French island of Guadeloupe does canyoning for both beginners and advanced.
Canyoning involves climbing and rappelling down cliffs and waterfalls while wearing wetsuits; it’s a very fun activity in nature that I’ve much enjoyed doing on other islands.
For beginner sessions you’ll likely be taken to a canyon with a waterfall near the Paùl valley, at Praia Gi. I also spoke to a traveller who was more experienced with canyoning who was going to climb near Ponta do Sol.
There isn’t a website where you can book. You can get in contact with Olivier at email@example.com or +238 9977164.
Shop for local souvenirs
I don’t normally get so excited about tourist souvenirs that are mass-produced, but if you’re looking for very nice and authentic locally-made souvenirs, then be sure to pay a visit to EKI-EKO in Ponta do Sol.
This shop was founded by a French woman who sources handicrafts, art, and edible products from across the archipelago (jams, coffee, etc.). You can even peek inside the workshop, where some of the jewelry and decorative items are hand-produced.
Stay by the beach in Tarrafal
The remote town of Tarrafal de Monte Trigo was the most pleasant surprise of my trip. Since it’s on the furthest western point far away from everywhere else, I thought about skipping it. I went there anyway for a day and then wished I’d planned for a longer stay.
The town has a laidback end-of-the-world feel. It also has one of Santo Antão’s rare few beaches and it’s a very scenic one, with a long stretch of volcanic black sand under a big gnarly cliff.
When I arrived, fishermen in colorful boats were coming back to shore, one selling stacks of red snappers under a tree. A flock of children emerged from school pointing at the sky and yelling ‘olhe parapente!’. The town’s resident paraglider had just launched off the cliffs above.
Tarrafal has attracted a minor collection of expats offering small-scale tours and adventure sports. Among others, there is a Portuguese paraglider, a French scuba diver, and a Portuguese surfer. The dive school also arranges snorkeling and boat trips. This makes Tarrafal a place where you can either be on the beach and do nothing at all, or… do something different and exciting every day.
While the sea is usually smooth and calm, it was a bit choppy and murky during my stay, so I didn’t get a chance to see the underwater wonders. However, there are many reefs nearby and locals told me of many resident sea turtles. Dolphins and whales can be regularly seen along the coast.
Does all that sound good? Well, it is!
There is a catch though. It is a bit difficult to get to Tarrafal.
In Porto Novo, there is a minivan in front of Restaurante Antilhas (near the ferry terminal) that goes to Tarrafal between 8 and 9 a.m. from Monday to Saturday. The ride costs 700 escudos one way. Note that this is the day’s only connection. Miss it and you’ll have to rent a private taxi (which costs at least 7000 escudos). Return trips from Tarrafal to Porto Novo leave before 6 am, which is quite an early hour. There is no public transport on Sundays.
To give myself an easier time, I decided to rent a car. The drive to Tarrafal is very scenic, cutting through vast desert landscapes and snaking down along some twisty mountain roads.
In February 2020, the last 10km or so were still under construction, suddenly becoming a very adventurous rocky dirt track that definitely needed a 4-wheel drive. By the time you read this, the new road may be finished, which will make Tarrafal a lot more accessible.
The town has just a handful of hotels and restaurants. I stayed at Kaza Ladera, which has budget rooms at 22 Euro per night and a fantastic viewing deck looking out over Tarrafal Bay. For a great local meal simply go to the restaurant Kuznhola, adjacent to Guest House Vista Tarrafal. The fresh fish there is fantastic and the vibe is very local, with many people from the village coming here for a beer or grog.
Where to stay on Santo Antão
There is some nice accommodation all over the island. Driving distances are usually pretty short, so no matter where you stay, you can still get (mostly) everywhere for your day’s activities.
I hopped around a bunch and stayed in four different guesthouses. I really liked staying in Xóxó, Cidade das Pombas, Ponta do Sol, and Tarrafal — and I recommend all these towns.
I thought Ribeira Grande was a bit modern and not so special, while Porto Novo was a bit too far away from everything, so they were not as high on my personal list.
If you’re only on a short visit (1 – 2 nights), I think Ponta do Sol makes for a nice base. Some dismiss it as being too touristy, but I thought it was only mildly so. There are however several more ‘upscale’ (for Cabo Verdean standards) restaurants with live music and some small hotels with swimming pools. This makes it a nice spot if you have limited time and just want to stay somewhere convenient.
If you’re a backpacker or budget-style traveler, I think Xóxó, Janela, or Cidade das Pombas have a kind of relaxed atmosphere that you might like. Below are some suggestions for accommodation.
Backpacker / budget-friendly
Low prices but with nice atmosphere
- Black Mamba, Cidade das Pombas — it’s a guesthouse but with a hostel-like feel. Run by a very friendly and helpful Italian owner.
- Kasa Xoxo, Xoxo — family-run B&B in a beautiful valley. It’s a bit isolated, but I loved staying here. No shops around but you can eat dinner at the B&B.
- Kaza Ladera, Tarrafal — budget rooms with great views of Tarrafal bay
Boutique / resort
Hotels with more premium facilities
- Biosfera Amor do dia, Cova — hotel with mountain views and wonderful breakfast with locally made jams
- Aldea Panoramica, Paul — mini-resort in Paul valley, an amazing location with swimming pool
- Kasa Tambla, Ponta do Sol — hotel with beautifully designed rooms with sea views
Hiking on Santo Antão
Cova crater to Cidade das Pombas
If you only have time for one hike, make sure it’s this one. I guarantee the views will leave you gobsmacked. The hike takes about 6 hours.
The trail starts at the Cova crater. Take an aluguer or taxi there. I had heard that the B&B Biosfera Amor do Dia here serves breakfast, but the owner didn’t seem so excited to provide food to non-guests, so I recommend eating before you set out to Cova or bring food along with you.
The crater is simply stunning. When I followed the trail down into the crater, I had a good laugh. An annoyed cow, grazing in the middle of it, started mooing — but due to the crater’s intense reverb, this innocent cow sounded like a giant dinosaur. Welcome to Jurassic Park.
It takes maybe 40 minutes to climb to the rim of the crater, from where you’ll be just smacked in the face with one of the most glorious views on Santo Antão. From here, it’s a dizzying descent into Paúl valley.
While the hike is not technically difficult, you’ll surely feel it in your legs and knees at the end of the day.
The town of Paúl mid-way is perfect for a lunch break. I first tried to get lunch at O Curral, a cute restaurant that has its own vegetable garden, but I was told all of the seats were for tour groups only. That’s a pity as it seemed to be such a lovely spot. As an alternative, I recommend grabbing a meal at either Casa Maracuja or at JuJu Bar.
I started this hike the same morning that I got in with the ferry from Mindelo, which proved quite doable. I packed quite light for this trip, taking only my Farpoint 40 backpack. Arriving at the ferry terminal in the morning, I took an aluguer straight to the crater, hiked down carrying my backpack, and then stayed at the Black Mamba guesthouse in Cidade das Pombas.
This was of course more strenuous than hiking without a pack, but it wasn’t too bad — and I didn’t lose any valuable time having to drive back and from my accommodation first.
Ponta do Sol to Cruzinha
This hike offers entirely different landscapes to the Cova-Paúl hike — and some of the most impressive of the island. It follows a cobblestone donkey path that zig-zags along the coast, stopping by several isolated villages that are unconnected to any paved roads.
If you’re looking for a shorter version of this hike, you could start in Ponta do Sol and walk to the incredibly scenic Fontainhas, a small hamlet that clings to steep cliffs like a mountain goat. Be sure to stop at Bar Tchu for a drink. Getting to Fontainhas and back will probably take about 2 hours.
But it’s highly worth continuing all the way to Chã de Igreja, a hike that will take about 6 to 7 hours. Some of the most dramatic cliffs will show up after Fontainhas. For many hours, I was in hiking heaven, traversing the windy paths and watching the wild sea crushing against the rocks below.
You can stop for lunch in the tiny hamlet of Formiguinhas, which has some nice views of the sea, though I had lunch just a bit before it in Corvo. There is an unnamed restaurant in Corvo run by the most delightful woman. She served me a huge plate of catchupa with smoked sausage that gave me all the fuel I needed for the rest of the hike.
This hike will get some wind in your hair thanks to being all along the coast. The last hour before Cruzinha is very exposed to the sun though and felt a bit more like a slog. Just keep powering through here! From Cruzinha or Chã de Igreja, you can easily catch a ride back to Ribeira Grande. Chances are there will be a few drivers already waiting there.
Corda to Coculi
I might not have done this hike had it not been tipped by some locals. It doesn’t seem as well known as the others (in fact, I encountered no other hikers along the way). Yet the views at the top are stonkingly good, while lower down in the valley you’ll pass through some cute villages that are off the usual path.
This hike took me about 2,5 hours and was of moderate difficulty. Fellow blogger Paulina on the Road lists this hike as high difficulty and taking 6 to 7 hours. My guess is that I hiked straight down (following the main path using the MAPS.ME app), whereas the longer hike goes in a bigger circle via the town Figueiral da Cima. I now wish I’d gone the longer way!
Still, the shorter version was worth it. I just couldn’t believe some of the views. Passing through the village at the end, we were constantly greeted by friendly people. One woman — I’d like to call her the log lady — I remember in particular, as she casually strolled past while carrying an enormous wooden log on top of her head. Her sense of balance was amazing.
I highly recommend this hike, especially if you’d like a bit more solitude and see a different slice of the island.
The Xóxó valley hike
If you already did the Cova to Cidade das Pombas and you’re thinking “hell yeah, give me more of this!”, then this is just the hike for you. From Cova to the town of Xóxó it’s about 4 hours.
This hike also starts near the Cova crater, though the trailhead is further up the road (see map location). You’ll again get an expansive vista as you make it over the rim, then you zig zag down the steep mountains into the Xóxó valley.
The first town you get to is Rabo Curto, which is all narrow and squished on top of a mountain rim. You’ll see waves of mountains and hills all the way down, as well as an unusual pillar-like rock formation just beyond the hamlet called Xóxó.
I recommend staying at the guesthouse Kasa Xoxo. The valley is beautiful and you can do some other shorter circular walks here through terraced farms or to a nearby waterfall if you feel up for it. You could also grab transportation from Xóxó. I didn’t hike from Xóxó to Ribeira Grande but it will probably take an extra 2 hours. This part goes over an asphalted road though, so I think it’s not as interesting as the nature trail from Cova to Xóxó.
Pico da Cruz hike
I sadly did not have time to do this hike (nor were my blistered feet capable of doing another one). But since other backpackers raved about this trail, and since I haven’t seen it mentioned online, I thought I’d pass on the information here.
If you do this hike uphill, as my fellow travellers did, you will start in Cidade das Pompas. Walk towards Paúl for only 30 minutes or so, until there is a left turn across the river, shortly after the CiberiBar. (You can see the trail easily if you use the Maps.me app.) From here, it’s a stiff hike up the mountain rims.
There are no shops or bars along the way, so be sure to pack all the snacks and water you will need. The hike ends at the town of Pico da Cruz, at least when done in this direction. The photos I was shown of all the incredible views made me determined to do this hike next time I’m in Santo Antão!
Getting around on Santo Antão
The cheapest way to get around is using shared minivans called aluguers. They let you hop from one town to the next for as little as 100 escudos (about $1 USD or EUR). Keep in mind that aluguers might wait around for a while until they are full.
Drivers aren’t known to rip you off and all prices seemed to be standardized. I do believe a different price tier is applied for tourists. Sometimes guesthouse staff recommended only the expensive taxi option and didn’t mention the alugueres. For instance, I was told it’s 4000 by taxi from Ponta do Sol to Porto Novo, but then I did it for 900 using collective transportation.
There are two important roads on Santo Antão. There is the coastal ‘new road’ from Porto Novo to Ribeira Grande. Much of this is asphalted and the route is fast and cheap. Take this if you just need to get somewhere quickly.
There is also the cobblestoned ‘old road’ that goes straight through the mountains. It’s extremely scenic, so you’ll probably take this road at least once or twice to get to various trailheads or viewpoints. Fares are much higher than the coast, though: going halfway up costs around 2000 escudos ($20 USD), though you can split the bill if you are with several people. Going the whole way across is at least 4000 escudos.
You can also rent a car, which is what I did for two days of my stay. It’s not so useful to have a car if you’re hiking (as none of the hikes are circular) but just driving around the island is a lot of fun. Having a car also makes it easier to reach the remote town of Tarrafal.
There are several rental agencies in Porto Novo near the ferry terminal, but I found my car in Cidade das Pombas instead. There is a mercearia (grocery shop) on the town square with ‘rent-a-car’ in small letters on its sign. It is literally rent a car, as they have only one. It cost 5000 escudos per 24 hours to rent a small but surprisingly capable Suzuki Jimny.
Most roads on Santo Antão are cobblestoned but well maintained and only with light traffic. Potholes weren’t a problem at all, but keep an eye out for occasional loose goats and such.
Getting to Santo Antão
The island once had an airport but it is now abandoned. (You can still see the landing strip and control tower next to Ponta do Sol.) There are some plans for a new airport but as of 2020 there was nothing but desert at its planned site.
The only way to get to Santo Antão is by ferry from the city of Mindelo, on the neighboring island of Sao Vicente. The ferry costs about 800 escudos one way and takes about an hour.
The island seems not so well known among English-speaking travellers, so there are somewhat limited resources available in English.
The Lonely Planet West Africa has a section for Cabo Verde. I thought the info was a bit basic, but you grab just this specific chapter in PDF format for just $5 or €3.50.
Far more useful is the blog Paulina on the Road. Paulina has lived on the island and did a terrific job covering Cape Verde in great detail, including many islands I have not been. Besides reading my posts, I recommend reading all of hers!
Finally, there is an excellent book called Diaries of Cabo Verde, which I found in a shop on the island. It’s part travel guide, part coffee table book. It’s created by a Portuguese couple and includes some nice local stories of the island. The photography inside is amazing and I’d have loved to use this to get inspired for a trip.
If you have any questions about Santo Antão, feel free to drop a comment below. It’s one of my favorite destinations that I’ve been in the last few years — I’d love for more people to discover it!
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