Not quite Africa, not quite Europe, Cape Verde is an archipelago of ten tropical islands which are over 1,000km southwest of the more well-known Canary Islands and about 500km off the coast of Senegal. A mixture of Portuguese and African cultures, the country boasts a true melting pot that rivals other countries’ multi-racial populations.
Dubbed ‘The Caribbean of Africa’, the islands of Cape Verde have their own distinctness and singularity, yet are still intertwined. I’ve been wanting to visit these islands for some years now, and now that I am in Cape Verde, I can definitely say it was worth the wait!
For a long time, as a performer and digital nomad, I have made tentative plans to visit this island nation, especially after spending time in Portugal and meeting many local Cape Verdeans there who spoke highly of their homeland. But something always came up which caused me to re-arrange my plans.
After several stalled attempts, I finally landed in Cape Verde in May after a long air journey via Portugal. I have been here ever since and, just as was promised to me, it has been a glorious adventure that I am still adjusting to, one relaxed day at a time. So, what does one of the smallest countries in the world that most people have never even heard of have to offer? Plenty!
What sets Cape Verde apart from other tropical islands is its melting pot and history. Cape Verde possesses an unusual history that is noticeable as soon as you touch down. The first inhabitants were Portuguese sailors in the middle of the 15th century off the coast of Santiago, who initially used the islands as a stopping point to carry enslaved people from Africa, primarily to South America.
Due to its colonial heritage, Cape Verde has a singular history that merges components of African, European, and South American culture, which is evident not only in the official languages of Portuguese and Kriollu, but also in the cuisine, which takes elements from all of these continents, with rice, fish, and pork dishes the most common dishes across the islands. In my time here, I can attest that it is nearly impossible to get a bad meal here. The national dish, cachupa, is an absolute must for anyone who visits.
Cape Verde officially became a separate country, independent of Portugal, in 1975, but to this day, Cape Verdeans hold a deep connection to Portugal, and when I am here, I do not feel like I am in Africa, but somewhere in between. As many that visit here will notice, it feels like a totally separate occupied space that cannot really be found anywhere else in the world. With so many islands to cover, I narrowed down my list to a few upfront, and then took advice from locals on which ones to visit in the coming months.
Sal, the tourist island
I was warned that Sal was the main destination for tourists who come to the country, but I still wanted to check it out for myself. After being trapped in the cold of Europe for the previous six months, any area that gave me a beachside location was an advantage, and in this regard, Sal did not disappoint. The coastline is just as beautiful as any you would see in the Caribbean, and arguably – in my estimation – better.
Cape Verde is also known for some of the best surfing spots in the world, and even for those who are not into watersports, the white sandy beaches are welcoming and dotted with small bars and restaurants along the way for a quick bite or simply to relax away from the intense rays of the sun.
Although the beaches are never too crowded, as there’s more than enough to share, I did walk even further away from the most populated spots for my own little slice of beach nirvana, where the water was calmer and swimming was possible. No matter what time of the year in Cape Verde, I have been told the water can always be enjoyed, and so I swam for a couple of hours before heading back into town to Casa Azul, the guesthouse I was renting for my two weeks there.
Not a lot is currently happening in Sal because of Covid, and many of the venues were closed while I was there, but I was able to take in the rich local arts scene. Across from my guesthouse was Eliseu, an artisan shop featuring the works of not only the shop’s namesake, but other noted pieces that include small handcrafted trinkets and large-scale paintings of everyday Cape Verdean life in vibrant colors.
The murals are a homage to the culture and diversity of the region and the country, and the atelier serves as a meeting point for the country’s artists to be exposed to visitors to the island.
Maio, the hidden gem
I was eager to get to Maio and discover it for myself for a couple of reasons. The first was because an American friend of mine had taken my advice and decided to buy property on the island a couple of years ago, so I would be meeting her there. The other reason was because most Cape Verdeans I met had not been to this island and knew very little about it – much to my surprise.
Not as easily accessible compared to other islands, upon arrival I immediately decided that Maio is worth the trek for those that choose to travel outside the normal routes here. Maio is ranked behind the islands of Sal and Boa Vista as beach destinations, but what it lacks in population (only 3,000 people live on the island) it more than makes up for in character and hospitality.
Staying in the tiny village of Morro, literally a stone’s throw away from Porte Ingles, I was immediately welcomed by the locals, who invited me to their weekly gathering to eat, drink the locally made grog (a potent rum that packs quite the kick!) and sing until the wee hours of the morning. Every sunrise, I could walk less than 100 meters and reach the beach, where I could see the imprints of turtles that famously land beachside during the night to lay their eggs.
There are a few popular meeting places in this small town that locals just seem to gravitate to, and since it would be my de facto home for a while, I took it upon myself to learn the ropes and to adopt a more laidback approach to my days. During the days and afternoon, I spent many hours working on my laptop at Horace Silver Lounge Bar, and then enjoying the white sandy beaches that are mere meters away.
On the weekend, my friend took me to the other side of the island on her quad to check out Ribeira Dom João, which is famous for its multicolored houses and the amazing beach literally right behind the village. We had to hike down a trail to reach the sea, but once we got to the water, we had the beach to ourselves for the entire day.
This was probably my favorite experience of all my days in Cape Verde so far, and being in such a secluded area surrounded by natural beauty of this scale was indeed a rare find. Understandably, Maio is gaining in popularity quickly, and it is only a matter of time before the island is inundated by tourists looking to capture a sliver of the beauty it has to offer.
São Vicente, the culture island
Next up was the island of São Vicente and its port city of Mindelo which is widely regarded as the cultural epicenter of Cape Verde. As a singer, I was excited to visit Mindelo because it was the birthplace of Cesaria Evora, the Queen of Morna music, and I wanted to discover the sounds and landscapes for myself. Although she passed away in 2011, Evora’s influence and powerful voice can be felt and heard everywhere throughout the country.
Mindelo has a lot to offer visitors, from the famous murals that can be found throughout the center of the city and in the hills surrounding the city, the local flea market that is open every day and features handcrafted jewelry, fabrics, and artwork from locals, and the beachside bars that are dotted along the coastline.
Although I am not much of a swimmer, I did manage to spend a few days directly on the beach practicing my broken Portuguese with the locals. Later that night, I took in the local musicians at the Jazzy Bird, which is known for amazing jam sessions in an open air surrounding.
I’ve only visited three of the islands so far, and I am already on the fence about sharing Cape Verde with the rest of the world, but the truth of the matter is that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world falls in love with this country as much as I have. It is unique not only because of its location in the world, but also because it is one of the most progressive and advanced tropical countries in all of Africa.
Excellent climate year-round, affordable housing, and proximity to several continents makes it a leading candidate for many that are searching for a welcoming place to call home, either part-time or full-time. I don’t know what the future holds for me in Cape Verde, but I am open to the possibilities.
Header image: Kirsi Kataniemi