February 24, 2022. 75°F/24°C
After nine days at sea, it’s difficult to express just how excited we were to see land this morning, and the view certainly didn’t disappoint.
Officially the Republic of Cabo Verde, and part of Africa, Cape Verde is an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands off the coast of Senegal. They’re in the same ecoregion as the Azores, the Canary Islands, and Madeira. The islands gained their independence from Portugal in 1975, and have since 1990 been the most stable democracy in Africa.
We’re visiting one of the larger islands, São Vicente, which was uninhabited until 1476 when various Portuguese explorers in quick succession laid claim to it. Once settled by the Portuguese, in the 16th and 17th centuries the island became a hotbed for pirates, privateers, and the Atlantic slave trade. In the 19th century, the location and great harbours that had made those enterprises so profitable also made it a great place for commercial ships to re-supply; in fact, Cape Verde was the first stop of Charles Darwin’s voyage with HMS Beagle in 1832. Mindelo, where we’re docked, was an important international shipping port when coal was a major fuel source, and is still the second most important port in the archipelago.
With very few natural resources, Cape Verde’s economy is heavily (almost 70%) dependent on tourism and its related commerce. 350 days of sunshine per year, a temperate climate, gorgeous sand beaches, several small airports and a large harbour are all attractive to holiday-goers, as is the lack of rain (only about 250 mm per year) – great for tourists, not great for agriculture. Our tour guide, Carlos, native to Fogo Island (where the wonderful coffee of the same name is grown) but now living on Såo Vicente, explained that the islands have been in a drought period for over SEVENTY years, with São Vicente the hardest hit. The biggest non-tourist industries are naval construction and fish processing. Interestingly, the Cape Verde Islands have the highest standard of living in West Africa.
Ted took the 3 hour included tour, and I took the last available seat on the full day tour. I apologize in advance for the fact that my pictures are nowhere near up to the standard of what Ted takes, but hopefully by combining mine and his they’ll do their job, which is jogging our memories when we look back at this post.
Before setting off, we were all issued with a copy of yesterday’s negative PCR tests, which, in addition to being vaccinated, is Cape Verde’s requirement for allowing us on shore. We were also reminded to wear our masks, even outdoors, as we’ll be interacting with the local population. Our ship is maintaining a zero Covid case count, and we want to keep it that way in order to continue to be allowed to do independent exploration in future ports of call. According to the most recent statistics I could find online (Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations – Our World in Data) only 52% of Cape Verdeans are fully vaccinated and another 10% partially vaccinated.
Our crew, some of who have not been off the ship for 6 months, we’re especially excited to be allowed to touch land today. A few chose to defer that experience until we reach Funchal in 4 days because they’re getting their booster shots today. Thube, one of my World Café favourites, was excited even by the landscape, which she said reminds her of her native Cape Town.
Both tours took us around the town of Mindelo, although Ted’s tour was a panoramic drive, and mine was a leisurely narrated walk through the town’s main sites. We both got the “massage ride” 774 metres to the top of Monte Verde (Green Mountain), up winding hand-laid cobblestone roads with hairpin turns, to get a panoramic view of the harbour. We both visited Baía das Gatas (Bay of Nurse Sharks), and Praía Grande (Big Beach). We both got to taste the national drink, grog.
My tour group also stopped at Praia Lagriuna, visited a local luthier’s atelier, and had a traditional Cabo Verdean lunch overlooking the bay.
I’ll try to (mostly) let the pictures tell the rest.
The architecture ranges from colonial Portuguese (the exteriors of those buildings are protected by heritage rules, although the interiors can be modernized) to modern, in a variety of colours. Construction is cement block and mortar, covered by stucco and then painted. Since property taxes are not paid until a building is complete (as is the case in Peru), it is normal to see homes with one or more exterior walls left un-stuccoed, while the front facing the street is beautifully finished.
Almost no food is grown on São Vicente due to the severe lack of water. The island has a desalination plant, but bottled drinking water is imported from other of the islands that have fresh water – as is virtually all fresh food with the exception of fish.
We drove to the top of Fort Hill for a panoramic view of the harbour. The island is very windy, and the higher the elevation, the stronger the winds feel. Carlos our guide joked that the only things São Vicente exports are the hurricanes whose winds collect here and cross the Atlantic to North America.
We had a short delay driving through Mindelo when we found ourselves behind a funeral procession on foot, complete with casket and musicians. We couldn’t see more than a few of the mourners from where we were, but we could hear the music faintly.
Our first of 3 absolutely spectacular beaches today was Praia Laginha, where the sand was perfectly round grains, about the size and texture of uncooked couscous. It’s winter here, so the air temperature was 75F/24C, but the water was around 68F/20C. I wouldn’t have wanted to be immersed, but it felt lovely on my feet (and my backside when I was surprised by a wave).
From the beach, we headed to Atelier Baptista. Luis Baptista is a second generation luthier (guitar maker) who also creates violins, cellos, mandolins, and more, and gives music lessons too. In his words, “São Vicente is a small island, so you have to do more than one thing. You need to eat!” He learned his guitar making craft from his father, but studied in Italy to learn to make violins.
After showing us his workshop (a second floor space of about 200 sq ft that was full of instruments in various states of construction and was very crowded with our group of 14 in it), he took us back downstairs to an even smaller room where we all sat in a circle to listen to him and his uncle and brother play 3 tunes. The first was a Morna, the national music of Cabo Verde, sung in Cabo Verdean Creole and a bit reminiscent in rhythm to zydeco or cajun music, especially if there had been an accordion added, which is often the case. That was followed by a faster folk tune, and a Carnaval tune. (São Vicente hosts a huge Carnaval celebration in normal/non-pandemic times.)
After lunch we visited another beach, Praia das Gatas, where the sand was made of shells crushed into granules by the Atlantic’s waves (reminiscent of the sand in Myrtle Beach).
From Praia das Gatas we got our first glimpse of the island’s famous dunes (across from us in the bottom photo above). Although the entire island is volcanic, the dunes are soft white sand, because the sand blows here from the Sahara Desert!
From there we took the exhilarating drive to the top of Mont Verde. 774 meters (just 0.774 km/2539 ft/0.48 miles) doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking about vertical height to the top, and reaching it in a vehicle on roads just 1-1/2 cars wide, it is a long (sometimes a bit scary for those of us not thrilled with heights) ride. The road is mostly cobblestone, with retaining walls less than 1 meter/3 ft high – and those only around the sharpest hairpin turns or steepest drop offs. The views are breath-taking in every sense of the word.
The wind on the mountaintop was fierce, creating a temperature drop of about 10°C/18°F, making it feel like 57°F/14°C instead of the 75°F/24°C we had on the beach. The shots of grog warmed us up though! The clear liquid is pure cane sugar “rum”, at 40% alcohol. The green has the same alcohol content, but has local herbs added to it. Carlos referred to it as “medicine”. The brown version has added molasses and honey, making it more like at liqueur at 43% alcohol. Ted’s tour group also tasted “Ponche”, a lower 25% alcohol flavoured version.
After the grog, everyone agreed that the ride back down the mountain was much less scary. (No, our driver didn’t join us for shots!)
Our guide told us that on the opposite side of the island, the government is trying to encourage a resurgence of farming by offering cheap land and subsidizing the cost of water for irrigation. I didn’t see that, but Ted’s tour circumnavigated the island and he was able to photograph a portion of that area, being run a bit like a kibbutz (below).
Original plans were for our day to end with a sunset beach party on shore for our entire ship, but at the last minute the Cabo Verdean health authorities nixed that. They don’t have to (and didn’t) give a reason, but I suspect that a party for 600+ people when pandemic restrictions are still in effect on the islands would be a public relations nightmare.
What a day, and what a surprising and beautiful country!