Destination of the week: Cape Verde
Off the radar for many travelers, these islands have unique landscapes from beaches to mountains.
Mon, Nov 29 2010 at 8:32 AM
Photo: Julie Pudlowski/ZUMA Press
Cape Verde, a collection of 10 islands and 5 islets off the coast of West Africa (nearest to Senegal), is one of the more politically stable countries on the African continent. It is also one of the most isolated. This isolation has led to problems in the past. Crop failures caused food shortages and eventually led to the Cape Verdean Diaspora. Today, there are actually more Cape Verdeans outside of the country than there are still living on the islands.
The archipelago’s sandy shores have begun to draw tourists who are seeking something outside of the usual beach experience. The idyllic, uncrowded beaches and attractive and familiar Portuguese/Creole culture are big draws. But Cape Verde is more than an alternative to the packed beaches and loud nightlife of the Canary Islands. With landscapes ranging from volcanoes and mountains to lush valleys and barren, arid flatlands, it is a naturally beautiful country. This geographic diversity is ideal for trekkers and nature tourists. Nesting sea turtles and other wildlife bring another dimension to the country’s eco-tourism industry.
Yes, tourism is on the rise in Cape Verde. Luckily, the inland areas and huge swaths of coastline remain untouched. The increase in tourism has made it easier for eco-tourists to get to Cape Verde (there are more flights than ever before). The infrastructure — or lack thereof — assures eco-adventurers that there are plenty of sparsely inhabited, relatively untouched places to wander through.
The most popular way to get in between the nine inhabited islands of Cape Verde is by ferry. These trips can last for one hour or 12 hours depending on the destinations and the weather. Trips between islands of Sao Vicente and Santo Antao and Fogo to Brava are the quickest (about an hour in good conditions), with trips from Sao Vicente to outlying islands taking half a day or more. Air travel is a more predictable and comfortable way to get from one island to another and may be worth it because of the time it saves.
Transit infrastructure on the islands is limited. Rough terrain and ill-kept roads mean that a 4x4 is the only way to get to some of the most popular eco-tourism destinations. Tour companies providing guide services almost always rely on these types of vehicles. Because the population is sparse, though, pollution from automobiles is generally not a problem.
It is possible to use a bicycle or motorcycle, though the latter is a good idea only if you are experienced at negotiating difficult terrain. Bikes are the greenest way to get around. But pedaling is not easy and it is recommended to travel with a guide or a local who knows the land. There is not a large bike culture on any of the islands, so rental opportunities are scarce. Cyclists will either have to make a purchase or bring their own wheels.
Unsurprisingly, fish is an important part of Cape Verdean cuisine. Most dishes have a noticeable Portuguese influence, though ingredients are more similar to what is found on mainland Africa. Local ingredients are usually used by necessity and much of the fish is locally caught. The waters off the islands are teeming with edible marine life. It is easy to find locally sourced products, but vegetarians and vegans might have a difficult time finding dishes that fit their dietary needs.
Spinguera Eco-Resort, on the island of Boa Vista, is the most overtly green sleeping spot in Cape Verde. The use of water and electricity is restricted and there are no TVs or air conditioners. This small resort uses solar power to heat water. There are plenty of chances for eco-tourism activities, such as hiking, horseback riding, diving and bushwalking tours. There are other small-scale options on Boa Vista as well.
Monte Gordo National Park on the island of Sao Nicolau, near the main island of Sao Vincent, is part of the Protected Areas of Cape Verde Network. There is a major focus on eco-tourism on this island. The park features tropical plants, birds and rocky, arid landscapes. Its beaches are a popular nesting place for various species of sea turtles.
Serra Malagueta National Park, on the opposite end of archipelago on the island of Santiago, is another of Cape Verde’s protected areas. The rugged highland areas, valley and forests of the park are crisscrossed with trails. This is a popular place for birders, as there are a dozen unique species that call Santiago home. The national parks are heavily involved in education and development projects that help the communities in the areas surrounding the park.
Boa Vista, the easternmost island in Cape Verde, has become a popular place for tourists. It is an arid island, but has beautiful, mostly uncrowded beaches. RUI Hotels chose Boa Vista for a massive, 750-room complex and plans further development in the near future. Most guesthouses on Boa Vista (see Sleep green above), however, are small and located adjacent to nearly vacant beaches.
There are beaches throughout Cape Verde. Some are of the idyllic white sand variety, while others have more non-traditional beauty. Flamengos is one of these non-typical beaches. It is isolated, reachable only by 4x4 and features black sand and unswimmable waters. This is one of many such non-tourist beaches on Cape Verde. For those with an adventurous streak and a desire to truly get away from it all, Flamengos and its rugged peers are ideal attractions.
SOS Tartarugas is a privately run conservation program that seeks to protect the sea turtles that come to nest on the beaches of the island of Sal. The organization was started by a wildlife filmmaker who saw local people harvesting the sea turtle eggs. The organization has no government funding and relies on donations from tourists and help from volunteers. Conservation-minded tourists can volunteer to be part of the effort.
Cape Verde is still an undiscovered destination where it is completely within the realm of possibility to experience unique landscapes and nature without seeing another tourist. More and more people, mainly European vacationers, have discovered the beaches and rustic charms of Cape Verde. However, there is still so much that is left untouched that this can be considered one of the last destinations where travelers can truly get away from it all.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
MNN homepage photo: molinaz/Flickr
You might also like: