Many visitors to the ten islands of Cape Verde (Cabo Verde) arrive on package holidays determined to do nothing but sit in the sun, before uncovering a wealth of different experiences to tempt them from the lounger. You can get as active as you like here — learning to surf and kite-surf on the beach, taking the steering wheel of a dune buggy on an island tour or trekking through verdant mountains.
There’s wildlife to spot, too, from dolphins leaping through the waves to turtles nesting in the sand. Holidays to Cape Verde can also take in cultural distractions, be it taking in the national music of “morna” and drinking rum-based grogue at a local bar or exploring the cobbled streets of its Unesco-listed former capital.
Boa Vista has its very own chunk of the Sahara; the grains of sand that make up the Viana desert are blown in from western Africa. Many tour operators offer dune buggy and quad-bike tours of the dunes, but for something different, arrive after dark and spend time staring up at the night sky. You’ll have a traditional Cape Verdean dinner in your camp before heading out with a guide to gaze up at the Milky Way and beyond. The naked eye is enough to observe the constellations, thanks to no light pollution, but telescopes are also provided and activities put on for kids.
From July to October, several species of turtle arrive on the beaches of Cape Verde to nest and lay their eggs. Visit the island of Sal during this time and you can take an evening excursion to go and see them. Knowledgeable, respectful guides pick you up from your hotel and take you out to nesting sites of the common turtle. Here, you’ll sit quietly on the sand and watch as the creatures heave their way on shore and dig their nests, before laying a hundred or so eggs. Once witnessed, it’s an experience never to be forgotten.
If you’ve ever pictured yourself trotting along the golden sands of a beach, the hooves of your horse splashing water at your feet, Cape Verde is an excellent place to turn the dream into a reality. Novice and experienced riders alike are well catered for on this guided horseback tour on the island of Sal. You’ll cover a variety of terrain on the trip, starting in the sand dunes of the Viana desert and continuing through the island’s salt pans before finishing on the beach. If you’re comfortable in the saddle, this is the perfect place to let rip and gallop through the surf.
Padi-certified divers are in for a treat in the seas around Cape Verde. Its warm waters are rich in marine life and provide all sorts of different environments to explore, from coral reefs and caves to shipwrecks. Sal and Boa Vista are good bases for your aquatic explorations. On the latter, a half-day guided trip includes hotel pick-up, all equipment and two separate dives down to a maximum depth of 35 metres. Your small group might encounter some of Cape Verde’s local residents, including porpoises, barracuda and several species of ray and turtle.
Cape Verde is an excellent place to try all manner of watersports, and you should give at least one a go even if you’re planning the laziest of beach holidays. On the island of Sal, combine sunbathing with surfing by spending time on Santa Maria beach in the south. Surf lessons on the popular beach are fun affairs with knowledgeable guides — you’ll spend time practising your moves on dry land, leaping up onto your board from a horizontal position, before moving to the water and attempting to catch your first break.
If you’ve ever fancied yourself an extra in Mad Max, you’ll certainly look the part by joining a guided buggy tour of Sal. Goggles, helmet and face scarf on, you’ll leap into an open-sided all-terrain vehicle and quickly be whizzing around the island. Apart from being huge amounts of fun, the tour is also a great way to see a lot of the island in a short amount of time; you’ll take in salt flats, desert, volcanic craters and fishing villages among other things on the two or four-hour itineraries. The same company also runs a night-time option, if you need to up the adrenaline a bit more.
You’ll likely tuck into all manner of grilled seafood and fish stews while you’re in Cape Verde, so why not try catching your own ingredients? On this private tour, you’ll have a boat to yourself. Putter along the coast from Sal Rei on Boa Vista before the captain casts anchor and cast your line into the ocean, perhaps pulling up a red snapper or a grouper. The next stop is the small island of Djeu; you’ll swim, snorkel or sunbathe while a beach barbecue is prepared to cook your catch. Lunch never tasted so good.
The previously uninhabited islands of Cape Verde were discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century and they quickly set about founding their capital on the island of Santiago. Cidade Velha remains intact today — the Unesco world heritage site is a short drive from the current capital Praia. You can visit on a guided tour, strolling its cobbled streets to take in its traditional stone houses, a fortress used to defend the island from pirates, an old slave market and a convent, all the while learning about Cape Verdean culture and history.
It’s impossible to visit Cape Verde and not get out on to the water at least once. The crew of the Sodade on Sal make it easy for you, picking you up at your hotel before transporting you to the deck of the catamaran. You’ll then cruise along the western coast of the island, stopping to swim and snorkel. There’s a lively atmosphere while you’re on board, with a bar serving cocktails to a soundtrack of local music. Note that this particular trip is adult-only; the same company also has a family-friendly version.
The island of Fogo is aptly named — in Portuguese, the word means “fire”, and reflects the fact that it’s home to an active volcano. The last eruption of the Pico do Fogo occurred in 2014 and lasted several months, its lava flow destroying land, roads and houses. It’s safe enough to hike up now, but you’ll need to be fit to tackle it. The strenuous, guided ascent starts in the fertile, coffee-growing fields at the volcano’s base and continues all the way to the crater, passing through otherworldly landscapes shaped by ash and lava as you go. The views across the island from the top (2,800m) is worth every last bit of puff.
Cape Verdeans have a name for the season from January to March when strong winds whip in off the Atlantic to batter the islands — Tempo das Brisas, or “wind time”. The activity is available at any time of year, but this is an ideal time to harness all that natural power and try your hand at kitesurfing. During this six-hour lesson, you’ll start on dry land, getting to grips with the equipment and learning how to control it on the beach. Once you’ve mastered your technique, you’ll head to the waves where the friendly instructors will encourage you in your first ride.
If your natural instinct is to get out of the water if you learn there’s a shark in it, the tour of Shark Bay is not for you. The coastline on the eastern side of the island is home to colonies of lemon sharks, 2.5m-3m-long fish that feed just offshore. You can stay firmly on terra firma and watch from the beach as their fins glide through the water, or wade out into the shallows to join them for an hour. A naturalist guide is on hand to talk you through the experience.
The verdant slopes of the Serra da Malagueta mountain range in northern Santiago give hikers plenty to get excited about, with trails winding through valleys and over peaks, and something for all fitness levels. A six-hour trek in the Serra Malagueta Natural Park is a great introduction to the region. Starting at the top of the island’s second-highest peak, you’ll meander along narrow tracks through forests and past small farms growing mango and banana — perhaps being invited in to try some homemade grogue, a type of rum distilled from sugar cane, if you’re lucky. Be sure to keep an eye out for some native wildlife, including Cape Verde buzzards and a vervet monkey or two.
Not only do the Cape Verde islands have their own little Sahara (Viana desert on Boa Vista), they also have their own version of the Dead Sea. Pedra de Lume is the centre of Sal’s salt production, a series of evaporation pools, a lake and factory on the eastern side of the island. You can learn about the history of the industry on a tour, and — even better — strip off and head into the salty lake, to bob about like a cork. Many organised trips offer a visit as part of a wider itinerary; the all-day tour suggested below includes many off-the-beaten-track locations and finishes at the Pedra de Lume.
Keen birders will find good reason to bring their binoculars to the Cape Verde islands. Among its 150 bird species are a number of endemic ones, including the Alexander’s swift, Cape Verde warbler, Iago sparrow and Raso lark. You can see some of these on a half-day birdwatching tour on the island of Boa Vista. You’ll spend some time at the Lago do Rabil wetlands on the west coast, with a professional guide helping you spot and identify lesser-known species as well as Egyptian vultures and red-billed straw tails.
Just offshore on the north coast of Boa Vista is the most unlikely sight: the rusting hulk of a cargo ship. The M/S Cabo Santa Maria was on its way to Brazil from Spain with a bounty that include four church bells destined for the new cathedral in Brasilia when it ran aground in 1968. It can now be reached by 4WD, and many wider tours include it on their itineraries. One example is a Toyota Landcruiser trip that takes in many sights of northern Boa Vista, including the wreck, Viana desert and the lonely Chapel of our Lady Fatima.
From March to May, pods of blue whales congregate in the waters off Cape Verde to mate and give birth. If you’re on the islands during this period, don’t miss the chance to take a boat tour to go out and see them. Leaving from Boa Vista, you’ll head across the waves to the mammals, while a local marine biologist gives you a briefing on their behaviour and habitats. Once the breeding grounds are reached, you’ll spend time spotting the creatures, with any luck watching as any number breach the water and plunge back into the depths, flipping their tails as they go.
Set around a horseshoe bay, the town of Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente is widely considered the cultural capital of Cape Verde. Its cobbled streets are home to colourful houses containing boutiques, craft shops and bars, and are the place to come to hear the soulful national music of “morna”. You can hear live music and get a proper cultural understanding of the islands on a private, full-day tour of the town. You’ll visit both palaces and markets, forts and squares and call into the home of Cesária Évora; the “barefoot diva” used to perform in bars in Mindelo and became known as the queen of morna.
Sitting on the prow on a yacht, cresting through the waves as the sun sparkles off the water and dolphins weave around the boat — there aren’t many better ways to spend a day on Cape Verde. Half and full-day tours are available from Santa Maria pier on the island of Sal. You’ll head out along the coast, watching for pods of dolphins as well as flying fish and turtles as you lounge on deck. When the yacht weighs anchor, you’ve a chance to join them — jumping into the warm water to swim and snorkel.
One of the greenest and most scenic of the Cape Verde islands, mountainous Santo Antao is also one of its least touristy. This makes it a great base for some terrific hiking. On a guided tour of the Paul Valley, you’ll follow old mule trails through small villages and farms, past fields positively overflowing with yams, bananas, sugarcane and coffee plants. As you stop to meet locals, your friendly guide will bring the valley to life by sharing stories and explaining its flora and fauna.
There are multiple reasons to pack your hiking boots on a trip to Cape Verde, with trails criss-crossing the islands and options for every level of fitness and enthusiasm. The guided trek up Monte Verde, the highest peak on Sao Vicente, is a good choice for beginners and families. The path is paved all the way to the top and walkers are rewarded with stirring views over the island and out to sea once they’ve completed their two-hour ascent. Near the summit is a sweet little teahouse, the Cabana de Cha do Monte Verde, which brews tea using plants collected from the mountain.