It’s ten years since I went to Cape Verde for the first time, since I wandered through the streets and live music bars of the city of Praia, when musicians like Tcheka, Princezito and Vadu were just starting out. Ten years have gone by, but it seems like only yesterday.
Night had already fallen when the plane that was bringing us from Sal touched down at Praia airport. (At that time there were no direct flights to Santiago and the airport was little more than an aerodrome). “Hiace” (vans that carried several passengers) and taxis were gathered at the exit to pick up customers. It was the first African country I had ever been to and I was trying to take everything in: the Creole they were speaking, the hustle and bustle, the mountains of packages the passengers were bringing off the plane and the heat. After all, it was December and there were lots of emigrants and students returning home to spend Christmas and New Year with the folks. I looked around for the friends who were supposed to be picking me up. They were late (that’s what it’s like in Cape Verde – maybe they’ve inherited it from the Portuguese), but when they arrived they were in high spirits because it was party night. They took me straight to the party, where I was introduced to the beats of coladeiras, funaná, zouk and kizomba and to a crowd of people who welcomed me as if I were an old friend.
The strange feeling I had upon landing on the most African of Cape Verde’s islands soon gave way to one of belonging. I didn’t know it yet, but I had come home. The same home where I welcomed in the New Year to the sound of the batuque drum, with improvised dance steps and the unique back drop of Tarrafel beach. The same home I returned to in the following years to discover the other islands and eventually write a guidebook. And here are my arguments: five reasons to visit Cape Verde.
Cape Verde is the smiling face of Africa. A door thrown wide to welcome visitors with open arms. The people of the archipelago are hospitable, buoyant and love to party and it doesn’t take long for this spirit to rub off on the visitor. Cape Verde entices us into listening to a melancholic and romantic morna, dancing to the frantic beat of a funaná or venturing into a sensual coladeira.
Cape Verde is morabeza. This is a difficult word to translate, but it means something like friendliness, kindness or joy of living. The people have big, open smiles, as if life will go on forever. Basically, it has everything to make us feel welcome.
That’s why I think the greatest treasure Cape Verde has to offer – this “small country” as the singer Cesária Évora described it – are the people and the way they welcome us: their friendliness, their love of parties and music, their willingness to welcome visitors and the pride they take in their culture, language and identity. In Cape Verde I was taught a good mantra for life: “dipos di sabe morre é ka nada”, which basically means if you’ve had a good life, death is unimportant. And that’s how most of the Cape Verdeans I know face life: you have to make the most of it.
Cape Verde has beaches for all tastes: for swimming and sunbathing, surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, unspoilt, deserted beaches. Beach lovers like me will be won over by the white sand and warm, transparent water. Santa Maria, on the island of Sal, is captivatingly beautiful. The sea is calm and impossibly green. It is the perfect place for relaxing and forgetting all about stress or for family holidays. For those who like water sports, just a few kilometres away is Ponta Preta, where you will find surfers and lovers of kite and windsurfing.
Another island not to be missed is Boavista – a true paradise on Earth, with its gold and blue hues, the mini-desert of Viana, and vast, practically deserted beaches surrounded by sand dunes. Santa Mónica (which owes its name to the town in California) is so big that it can be difficult to bump into anyone else. The sea is a deep turquoise blue, just like in the Caribbean. One trip that is an absolute must is to see the turtle spawning, seeing as this is the third most important place in the world where they build their nests. Maio also boasts dream beaches, the difference being that this island is off the beaten track and its beaches are therefore untouched.
The diverse landscape
Each of Cape Verde’s ten islands has its own charm, its own way of being and welcoming, something unique and incomparable. It is difficult to choose between the hustle and bustle of Mindelo on São Vicente, the lush greenery of Paul on Santo Antão, or of São Nicolau, the black volcano of Fogo or the golden dunes sloping down to meet the turquoise blue sea of Boavista.
That’s why there’s so much more to see and discover than just the heavenly beaches. When you get to Fogo, the volcano island, the impact is unique. In Chã das Caldeiras, the village that nestles in the crater, you feel incredibly small surrounded by all that black lava and the vast volcano.
It’s only when you get to Santo Antão and São Nicolau, or go inland on Santiago, that you realise how green the country is. The mountainous islands, which abound in streams flowing down to the sea, are ideal places for hikers to wander along the numerous trails and to delight in a landscape of cliffs pounded by the sea, green mountains and the silence of being at one with nature.
Non-stop music and dance
Cape Verde is without doubt a country of musicians, starting with Cesária Évora, the voice that took the islands’ mornas and coladeiras to the four corners of the world. And the truth is that everyone plays something in Cape Verde, everyone sings – an age-old heritage – and shares a great passion for the music they make. It’s rare to stop anywhere – even in the most secluded village – and not hear music being sung in Creole or walk past someone with a guitar in their hand. And dancing goes hand in hand with music. The people of Cape Verde are born with rhythm in their bodies and they have no qualms about teaching visitors to dance funanás, coladeiras, mornas and kizomba. Today, there are many ambassadors for Cape Verdean music around the world such as Tito Paris, Mayra Andrade, Lura, Nancy Vieira, Ildo Lobo, Tcheka and many others. It is by far the best souvenir you can bring from the islands.
Fresh fish, lobster and cachupa
The comings and goings of the fishermen bringing their freshly-caught fish to the beaches is a sight worth seeing: it’s so colourful and hectic. The women then put the big bowls on their heads and set off to market to sell what their husbands, brothers or cousins have just caught. Needless to say, the fish in Cape Verde is delicious and fresh. You can still taste the sea as you take your first bite. Tuna is one of the big specialities, grilled or braised with onion, as are saw-fish and grouper (which is different from the European variety). Another speciality is lobster, much cheaper and easier to find.
The traditional dish of Cape Verde is cachupa – a kind of bean stew with corn, beans, meat or fish and vegetables. Fresh, stewed, rich or poor in variety, it is delicious however it’s made and whenever you eat it, even at breakfast time.
And you really mustn’t leave Cape Verde without trying grogue, a brandy made from the native sugar-cane, or without paying a visit to the sugarcane mill where it’s made and choosing your favourite flavour: these include sugarcane honey, baobab, coconut and date. For all these reasons, and for many more, Cape Verde is “sabe” (it’s good).
by Tânia Sarmento