What if I told you there’s an archipelago that few travelers know about that’s filled with the most incredible hiking trails, home to a friendly and colorful culture, surrounded by seas filled with whales, dolphins, and other life — and is unravaged by mass tourism?
Would that maybe capture your interest?
Alright, so I need to tell you about Cape Verde.
Like, really need to! Because my recent trip there was among the most fun I’ve had in ages.
I am aware though that Cape Verde is a somewhat obscure travel destination. If you struggle to point Cape Verde on a map, you surely aren’t alone! Actually, many travelers I met in Cape Verde said they knew hardly anything about it before they visited.
So I probably need to back up a bit and tell you what and where Cape Verde is — and, of course, why you should immediately put it on your travel list.
1. It’s something a bit different
One of the things I liked most about traveling in Cape Verde is that it’s not really on the usual tourist map. It’s a tropical destination, but it isn’t some hyper-touristed place like, say, Bali, Thailand, or the Yucatan.
Things are really small-scale and authentic. If you ask me, I think it’s an underrated little gem.
Cape Verde is a chain of 10 islands in the Atlantic, just west of Senegal and Mauritania. The original Portuguese name of the country is Cabo Verde, meaning ‘green cape’, though most of the rugged islands consist of dark volcanic rock. It’s a small country, having only about half the surface area of Spain’s Canary Islands further north, or one-and-a-half times that of Luxembourg.
Cape Verde was one of the earliest places to be discovered by Portuguese explorers, back in the 15th century. Unlike when explorers ‘discovered’ places already inhabited, Cape Verde was actually uninhabited at the time. Cabo Verdians today are descendants of colonists and mainland Africans who were brought to the islands.
2. It’s perfect for backpacking
A few of Cape Verde’s islands are known as resort destinations (mainly Sal and Boa Vista), but the archipelago is great if you’re a backpacker, especially if you enjoy hiking.
I spent most of my time on Sao Vicente and Santo Antão. The latter is a paradise for hikers, with numerous trails through dramatic volcanic landscapes and green cultivated valleys. I packed only a light carry-on backpack and took it with me on some of the hikes, moving from guesthouse to guesthouse.
It felt great to be exploring in this way, as it had actually been a while for me since I had a proper backpacking trip. A lot of my recent trips had been road trips in countries like Spain and Italy, staying in beautiful Airbnbs in cute villages with my girlfriend. I love that style of more casual travel, but I’m really a backpacker at heart, so Cape Verde really scratched that adventure travel itch for me.
I felt very happy and in my element on Cape Verde. I think you can probably sense from my articles, but I think it’s also objectively a wonderful destination.
There are only a couple of hostels on Cape Verde and there isn’t really a backpacker scene, but in some ways my trip felt like a miniature version of the kind of travel I love to do in South America or Asia. I met a couple of German travellers who I went on a hike with, had dinner with some French and Swiss travelers, met a few locals along the way, and did a lot of solo hiking as well. Every day had some new adventures in store.
3. The landscapes are sublime
During my hikes I just constantly had to stop for pictures, as the landscapes are unbelievable (especially on the island of Santo Antao).
Once formed by volcanic magma, the dramatic landforms include very steep mountains, high cliffs, and deep valleys and gorges. Some parts you have to see to believe.
Most of the islands are dry and barren, but some of the ocean-facing valleys on Santo Antao are lush and green, filled with terraced fields and highly varied cultivation including banana, papaya, mango, and palm trees.
Cape Verde means ‘green cape’, but it kind of got that name by accident. Much of the islands look more like rocky moonscapes, though sometimes you’ll walk through lush tropical gardens.
The beauty is actually hard to fully capture in photos, though I tried my best!
4. It has an interesting culture
A lot of influences got blended together on Cape Verde, leading to a diverse and colorful culture. You can easily see this in all the street art, music, and crafts.
My original inspiration to go to Cape Verde actually came from a friend who took me to a Cape Verdean association in Lisbon where emigrants from the islands go. It was one of those places you really had to know about — it was basically a restaurant hidden at the top floor of an apartment building. There was live music, people eating heaps of catchupa (a Cape Verdean stew), and many pairs dancing between the tables.
It was so lively and joyful. And that was just lunchtime on a Tuesday!
So I thought to myself, “wow, these Cape Verdians know how to have fun.”
I imagined all the islands to be as bursting with music as that Cape Verdian restaurant, which wasn’t quite the case. That incredible restaurant in Lisbon may have set my expectations a bit high.
But music is definitely a big part of the culture, especially in the city of Mindelo on Sao Vicente.
Mindelo is known to have the biggest music scene and it’s the birthplace of Cesaria Evora, the country’s most famed singer. At many (open air) bars and restaurants in Mindelo, you can get a great taste of the local music.
Something else that was interesting to me was Cape Verde’s many connections with Portugal (where I live) and The Netherlands (where I’m from).
The colonial connection with Portugal is obvious, but since Cape Verde is also a nation of emigrants, it has connections with many other countries. Many Cape Verdians worked in shipbuilding in Rotterdam, for example. This emigrant culture reminded me a bit of The Philippines. Some of the sodade songs I heard in Mindelo related to the pain of having family working abroad.
The Cape Verdian emigrants actually took home with them some of the languages and their favorite things from these countries. I was surprised to see Dutch frikandellen on a food truck menu in Mindelo. While driving around Santo Antao I gave a lift to an old local man, who then started speaking to me in fluent Dutch (he’d been a sailor in Rotterdam and told me some great stories of sailing to places like Goa and Tokyo back in the day).
I must confess I had been quite ignorant of the Cape Verdian diaspora, so it was really fun to talk to locals and hear they had some family in the Netherlands, Portugal, and elsewhere.
5. It’s not overdeveloped
If you search for information about Cape Verde online, you might get the impression that it’s just full of all-inclusive resorts. This isn’t true!
Well, it is true that there is a package tourism industry focused mostly on the islands of Sal and Boa Vista, which has a number of large-scale beach resorts. Judging by the number of holiday flights to these islands, this is where 90% of tourists go.
If you’re one of the other 10%, you’ll find that tourism is mostly small-scale and delightfully authentic. Almost all the accommodation on the islands I went to were locally run guesthouses, B&Bs, or eco-lodges.
If you’re a backpacker, don’t expect to find many hostels though. There are only a handful, mostly in the cities like Praia and Mindelo.
Cape Verde is also not an ultimate cheapie destination, with certain prices fairly close to those in Europe. About €50 a day should be a comfortable budget; count on about €20 a night for budget rooms, the rest for transportation, food & drink. This will end up higher if you island-hop a lot, as then you’ll have to spend a lot more on flights.
But if you like a local vibe and to be away from mass tourism, Cape Verde will definitely tick that box.
6. It’s a perfect winter escape
The best time to go to Cape Verde is roughly from November to April. My trip was in February and I had lovely sunny weather throughout.
It’s about 6 hours flying from London, Paris, or Amsterdam, or 7½ hours from east coast USA. I live in Lisbon from where it’s just a 4-hour flight. Cape Verde is clearly perfect for breaking up a long winter — all without quite having to fly halfway around the world, especially if you’re from Europe.
7. It’s filled with adventure
Through my research I already knew that Cape Verde is known for its hiking trails, but I was surprised to find many more activities on the islands. On Santo Antao there were canyoning, surfing, parapente, scuba diving, and snorkelling tours in offer. Most of these were run in a small-scale way by European expats who’d moved to the islands.
The waters around Cape Verde are also teeming with marine life. On one of my ferry trips between the islands, everyone suddenly got up in a bit of a commotion, as a whale was breaching just besides our boat. Whale watching season runs from February to May, while turtle-watching season runs from June to October.
While it’s cheapest and easiest to move around the islands by aluguer, which is the local flavor of shared minivan, I also rented a small 4×4 for a while to get to some more remote places. I had a blast driving my small but trusty Suzuki Jimny through lunar-like landscapes and to the isolated town of Tarrafal, which involved driving over rocky dirt tracks and across a beach.
All in all, Cape Verde was a concentrated little nugget of travel goodness — and I ate it all up with delight. If you’re looking for somewhere different but not too far to travel when this pandemic is over, it definitely needs to be on your list.
You can read a lot more about the island of Santo Antao (my favorite of the ones I visited). I also posted an FAQ about Cape Verde, tips for Sao Vicente, and some impressions of Tarrafal, a remote settlement on Santo Antao that was one of my favorite places.
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