Cape Verde: Facts and Information

Surfer, Santa Maria, Sal Island, Cape Verde
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The Cape Verde Islands (known locally as Cabo Verde, the "Green Cape") lie just off the coast of Senegal in West Africa. Cape Verde is famous for its warm tropical climate, volcanic islands, wonderful musicians, and delicious cuisine. Americans may not have heard much about Cape Verde, but Europeans are much more familiar with the islands as a winter escape. 

Basic Facts

The Cape Verde islands are comprised of an archipelago of ten islands and five islets that lie about 500 km off the west coast of Africa. In total, Cape Verde covers an area of 4033 square km's (1557 square miles). The Portuguese settled the unpopulated islands in the 15th Century in order to establish a slave post. The population is consequently a mix of Portuguese and African descent and most people speak Crioulo (a blend of Portuguese and West African languages). The official language of government is Portuguese. The capital city is Sal, the biggest city in the archipelago which is located on the largest island, Santiago.

Terrible droughts during the mid 20th Century as well as some volcanic action left more than 200,000 people dead and propelled many of the remaining inhabitants to leave Cape Verde. There are now more Cape Verdeans living in other countries than on the Islands themselves. The current population on Cape Verde hovers at around half a million.

Best Time to Go

Cape Verde has a good steady tropical climate year round. It's cooler than most of the rest of West Africa. The average daytime high temperatures range from about 20 to 28 Celsius (70 to 85 Fahrenheit), with the warmer temperatures falling from May to November. For the tourist, it's basically warm enough to hike and swim throughout the year, although nights can get chilly from December through March. The harmattan does reach half the archipelago, bringing hot winds and Saharan sands along with it during November through March. Most of the rain falls between the end of August and the beginning of October.

The best time for festivals is around carnival in February—Mindelo on Sao Vicente island, in particular, should not be missed. The busiest season is between November and April when the dry warm weather attracts lots of Europeans looking to escape their winter. 

Where to Go

Cape Verde is a popular destination especially if you are looking for a relaxing, sun-filled package holiday. If you like to get off the beaten track and hate resorts, then you will have to make a little more effort to explore the more remote islands on your own. Cape Verde's crime rate is very low and people are friendly. The seafood is excellent, tap water is safe to drink, and there are decent medical facilities on the main islands. This all helps to make it an attractive destination for tourists. The main attractions in Cape Verde include:

  • Santa Maria - Charter flights often fly straight into Sal Island, where many enjoy the watersports and beaches of Santa Maria. This is one of Cape Verde's most developed islands, and many beach lovers will just stay here for the duration of their vacation (but there is much more to explore!). The rest of Sal is quite barren, so head for one of the other islands for more greenery and good hiking.
  • Santiago is Cape Verde's largest island and most densely populated. The capital city Praia is quite hectic and might be a bit shocking if you have not traveled to Africa before. But there's a good vegetable market and lots of history that includes pirates and Charles Darwin. The best beaches are at Tarrafal—and don't miss the historic UNESCO site of Cidade Velha, just 15km from Praia.
  • Boa Vista - One of the best beaches in the country is Santa Monica beach on Boa Vista island. If you are visiting Cape Verde for the sun, this is the place to go. The volcanic interior of the island is also worth exploring, and many enjoy doing so on 4x4 quad bikes.

What to See and Do

  • Music - Cape Verde's most famous musician and cultural ambassador Cesaria Evora passed away in 2011. But her legacy lives on and you can enjoy traditional Cape Verdean music (morna and coladeira) throughout the islands. The best places to hear the typically poetic and melancholic notes include Sao Vicente island's capital Mindelo, the cultural capital of Cape Verde and Cesaria Evora's hometown. Carnival here is the best by far on the island and takes place in February every year.
  • Hiking - Mount Fogo, an active volcano on Fogo Island and the highest peak on the archipelago, is an obvious destination for trekkers. But for great scenery and lovely cobbled paths, head to Santo Antao island. Volcanic peaks, a dramatic rocky coastline, and some tropical forest make for wonderful trekking. Spend the night in a bed and breakfast in one of the small villages for an authentic experience. 
  • Watersports - Fishing, diving, and surfing are all possible on the islands, Santiago island is the tourist hub and it's easy to organize day trips and packages from any number of tour operators and/or resorts. It's quite windy on all the islands, so Cape Verde has become a popular destination for windsurfers and increasingly kite surfers.

How to Get There

Check out tour operators that specialize in Cape Verde for the best deals. A direct flight on Cape Verde's national airline (TACV) leaves from Boston to Sal once a week thanks to the large local population of Cape Verdeans in the area. TACV also has regularly scheduled flights to and from Amsterdam, Madrid, Lisbon, and Milan.

Getting Around

There are taxis to get around each island. Shared taxis are the cheapest way and they have set routes. Ferries and small aircraft are the best way to island hop. Note the ferries are not always on time, so make sure your plans stay flexible as some of the islands take half a day to get to. The local airline TACV flies scheduled flights between all the main islands.