SETTING THE SCENE
Cape Verde (CV) or Cabo Verde (in Portuguese) has one of the most unique histories I have ever come across. It was discovered by Portuguese/Genoese explorers in the 1450s, and prior to that the islands were uninhabited. From there on the 10-island archipelago underwent an incredibly turbulent history of colonialism, seafaring, slavery, commerce, independence, and transformation. Yet the nuances of this history simply can’t be understood until you listen to the incredibly eclectic music of the country. This is what truly attracted me to the islands.
I remember first hearing about the islands when I was a Teacher Assistant for a class called the ‘Politics of Music’ at UC Berkeley. In the class, the professor spoke about the nostalgic notes of Morna’s loss and longing and how it had been influenced by and has influenced Portuguese Fado music (a form of reverse colonialism). This introduction made me want to learn more about the melancholy of Morna, the sensuality of Coladeria, the fast-paced protest music of Funana, and rhythms of Bataque. These are just a few of the iconic musical genres of the islands, which when understood, appreciated, and admired can very much explain the complicated history of the country, the sheer beauty of each island, and the heart-warming Morabeza (hospitality in local creole) of Verde’s diverse citizens.
COVID TESTING: Thankfully there were no COVID restrictions on the islands.
FLIGHTS: I flew direct from Lisbon to Praia in Cape Verde for a great price. But getting between the islands was the tricky part. I had read that getting between the major islands requires flying since the distances are great and the ferry schedule is erratic at best. So I discovered BestFly (an Angolan airline) that operates throughout the country. It’s not bookable on Skyscanner, Kayak, or any other travel aggregator. Using their website I was able to get the scheduling and got as far as inputting my credit card. But that’s where things stopped. Apparently, after researching and contacting several local travel agents (see Travel Hacks), the tickets can only be bought using a local CV credit card. So I asked a local agency to purchase them for me, except I had to wire funds to the agency, a scary prospect in terms of potential fraud. Other than the price going up ALOT, it thankfully all worked out! So we flew from Praia to Mindelo in Sao Vicente via Ilhe de Sal (I only later discovered I could have flown directly from Lisbon to Mindelo and avoided all the extra costs and travel, but at least I got to see the capital Praia on the island of Santiago on my last day).
ACCOMMODATIONS: I asked a few friends and one recommended Casa Colonial right in the middle of the old town of Mindelo. I could not book the room on Booking.com or Hotels.com so I found a number on their site, whatsapp’ed it and thankfully someone got back to me and reserved us three nights at the hotel. The place was nice, quaint, and not pretentious, but I wanted to change things up the last night and decided to check out early. That’s when we stumbled on Mansa Marina, a beautiful modern, savannah chic, hotel right on the water with a beautiful view of Monte Cara. They were kind enough, after some persistent negotiating to give us a standard off-season room rate with a deluxe room upgrade that had a fabulous view of the mountain and marina. In Praia, we got a great accommodation on Airbnb at Salav Guesthouse in a nice part of town with a sea view.
CASH: When it’s said, ‘Dollar is King’, that does not apply to the islands. Here it’s the local Escudo, Euro (which is generally pegged at 1 Euro = 100 Escudo) or bust. I found it near impossible to use dollars even though the rate was easily convertible since it was at parity with the Euro. That said, most places take credit cards.
CAR RENTALS: This was one of the easiest things to do in Sao Vicente and Santo Antao. In Sao Vicente, I found a company through the same travel agent that helped with purchasing the tickets Actour, and they had the car delivered to the hotel for $40 a day. I didn’t have to pay a deposit (which other rental companies were insisting on all cash upfront) and I was able to somehow pay in dollars. The car was a POS but it did the trick and it was a GREAT way to drive all around the island to see Mindelo, the beaches, the mountains, and other points of interest. In Santo Antao, we found a company right at the ferry port for $40 and put the security deposit on my credit card. The car was fun, a Suzuki Jimmy, which we used to explore the island from the beaches to the mountains, villages, and small cafes!
FERRIES: We got a ferry from Mindelo Marina to Porto Novo roundtrip for about $16. Check out the travel hacks for more on this.
The main focus of my trip was to discover the music. But most of all I was curious about the life and work of Cesaria Evora, the Queen of Morna, likely the most iconic singer in the country (think for example Billie Holiday (U.S.), Edith Piaf (France), Om Kalsoum (Egypt), or Celia Cruz (Cuba)). She was born in Mindelo so that was where I wanted to start. We then planned to go to Santo Antao for one of the days and finally end the trip on the island of Santiago in the capital Praia. But truly the trip was more than I could have ever imagined. In fact, I met more locals there than I had ever done on any previous trip, was blown away by the sheer diversity of nature, ate some incredible seafood (that’s all I ate on our trip), and was so fortunate to listen to some amazing music straight from the people who lived it every day.
This island was more recently populated than the others and became a major port because of its natural marina that allowed boats to safely dock there en route to the new world transporting initially slavery and later coal and other commercial necessities. This brought many different people to the island thereby creating a melting pot of cultures and identities. Eventually, the music slowly found its way onto the island and in time it became the cultural capital of the country and the home of Morna music.
Cesaria Evora: I’m not kidding, but when I first heard her music it made me stop and listen. It gave me goosebumps and even brought me to tears. She was not born into wealth. Her mother died when she was young and her father, a musician, was constantly on the move and also died relatively young, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. But she suffered greatly, often frequenting bars to sing (she had learned to sing from her exposure to the world of bohemian musicians in Sao Vicente). After falling into a depression and taking a prolonged hiatus she was re-discovered and traveled to Portugal and later France in the late 1980s where she slowly became a global icon, remembering her humble beginnings by singing with her soul, barefoot (her signature style) on stages all over the world until she passed in 2011.
I still remember when I first heard her song Sodade about 5 years ago. I never bothered to find out what it meant until I got to Cape Verde. There I learned that Cape Verdeans have for centuries lived in the diaspora in countries like the U.S., Portugal, Brazil, and more recently even Luxembourg. In fact, while there are 500,000 people on the islands, there are over 1 million living abroad (almost 100,000 of which reside in Massachusetts since Cape Verdeans were formidable sailors and made up a large part of New England’s whalers in the 1700-1900s). So Sodade is a homage to those who left the islands leaving behind their loved ones and now we mourn their loss. I visited her museum, saw where she lived, sang, and finally where she was buried in a very simple grave only 10 minute walk from where she grew up. Such an incredible journey into the life of someone so humble, simple, enigmatic, and truly an exceptional national treasure for Cape Verde and the world.
Exploring the Island: We were very fortunate that a friend of a friend of a friend (such is the story of my life on these journeys) Paloma gave us an amazing one-day itinerary to follow and we followed it literally to the letter.
We started by heading to Salamansa beach, which was so desolate, rugged, and beautiful. It has volcanic rock and mountains that lead to the beach and ocean, giving it a very unique backdrop. We then headed to Praia Norte, another beautiful stretch of beach, with a similar rugged feeling, yet what made it even more magical was that we were all the only ones there. The whole ocean was ours!
The water was near immaculate, clear, at a perfect temperature to accent the warm weather outside. We then stopped at the famed Hamburg Restaurant which at first seemed deserted but when we entered we were greeted by friendly service and delicious fish. Thereafter we crossed the mountains, made green by the recent rains, to the beach of Sao Pedro. Here we called an audible and decided to go swimming with the turtles. An experience that was among the most incredible animal encounters I’ve ever had. HIGHLY recommend it!
That night we explored several bars, restaurants, and music venues to listen to local musicians play the sweet music of Morna and Coladeria. But the highlight was tagging along with Paloma’s friends Erikson and Bruna, who were good friends with the owners of Bombu, Toni & Miriam. Bombu is a modern day salon, where people can come together to listen to incredible music, think, dance and be happy. That night I spent several hours talking to the group, especially Toni (one of the most knowledgeable artists I have ever met), while listening to different musical traditions on vinyls and learning the history of the country through the music of the people. Exactly as I was told. I would 100% stop by this cafe if you ever visit Mindelo. It truly is a gem and the highlight of my whole Cape Verdean journey.
This is one of the bigger islands in the archipelago known for its natural beauty, agriculture, green mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and tradition among many of sugar cane and the drink Agruidante. Many have said it’s the most magical of the islands and I don’t disagree!
Island Tour: Once again Paloma came through in the clutch and gave us an amazing one-day itinerary.
We rented the car at the Ferry Port and started our trip heading on the old road made of cobblestones, winding high into the mountains. We made a stop at Cova, a beautiful crater, with the highest concentration of biodiversity in one area on the island. There’s a lil kiosk next to the viewpoint, where we had catxupa, the traditional breakfast 😊served by Vera the nice woman who makes it: + 238 997 89 18.
We then stopped along the way and did a short hike not too far from Delgadinho where you can see one side one valley and another on one on the other side.
We then stopped by the seaside village of Ribeira Grande, with a very nice historic center with colonial houses. From there we continued on the road to Ribeira da Torre, where we made a pit stop to have Caldo de Cana (sugarcane juice) at Melicia. This place is amazing, I mean the streams, and greenery was something mind-blowing.
We continued driving on the other side of the island along the coast, stopping spontaneously by a lighthouse, which we were able to enter and climb to the top for a small tip.
And finally we drove to Lagedos and had a nice seafood lunch at Babilonia (+238 227 1054). If you have time, stop by a liquor and jam store at the start of the village (we didn’t have time for that but I hear it’s a must-experience)!
The island was everything it was cut out to be and more. I have rarely seen such abundant greenery with so little rain and beautiful temperatures. You likely need at least 2-3 days here to see the main attraction and probably 2-3 weeks to become part of the island’s magical spirit. So DEFINITELY visit the island if you are in Sao Vicente.
On the last day/night, we stayed in Praia, the capital of the country. While I had grand plans to rent a car and explore the entire island, we ended up taking it easy and just seeing the areas in and around the capital. We were also connected through one of Erikson’s friends (Simone) to Samira, who was the Queen of Praia! I’m telling you, if you are fortunate to get to know locals it will change the experience entirely.
Praia: Praia is the biggest city on any of the islands and is steeped in history. The island of Santiago itself is a microcosm of the entire island chain in terms of beaches, greenery, history, culture, and of course delicious food.
We stayed in the Praihna area on the coast at the Salav Guesthouse which had all we could want, a quiet, safe, clean, well-decorated, comfortable rooms, and an awesome breakfast. Given our limitations, we decided to explore two main areas, Plateau the oldest neighborhood, and the Old City which is the first settled area on the island and frankly the country as a whole.
Plateau is a really cool walking around with shops, cafes, restaurants, and a pedestrian area that is really worth exploring. The Presidential Palace is also there as other notable former Portuguese colonial buildings since the area was settled in the 1500s.
Oh and I randomly stopped by a local barber shop and get my hair trimmed for $3!! It was actually my first visit to a barber shop since the start of COVID (I’ve been cutting my own hair over the past 2.5 years!).
We then headed to the Old City, which is about 15 km (20 mins) from Praia where you drive past empty savannahs of trees and greenery, which is in stark contrast to Praia. Simply walking around the center of the Old City, seeing the old cathedral and fort as well as walking along the beach is really an amazing experience and highly recommended.
If you are in Santiago for longer, there are numerous hikes, cultural hotspots, and apparently Tarrafal beach on the far west of the island. On the final night, we ended up hanging out with a bunch of filmmakers, having great conversations, and even meeting a hilarious stand-up comedian named Enrique (@aguirrealhinho). Salt of the earth people that epitomize how incredible Cape Verde is and how special the journey was for me.
I knew Cape Verde would be special for me since at a minimum I would discover the music on the cultural island of Sao Vicente. But through that discovery, I literally learned so much about the country. How the people became such incredible sailors, how the country resupplied passing ships initially for slavery and later for commerce, how the island has one of the most diverse populations as a crossroads of Africans and European identity forming a single unified population that now spans the globe. What an incredible history and how lucky we are that this has been transferred into the musical traditions of the country, which we can enjoy.
Above all, I was so so fortunate to meet so many incredible people, artists, architects, musicians, and creatives that come from all backgrounds and are so proud of a nation that truly embodies Morabeza. I hope to return and see more of the islands (the volcanoes of Fogo, the beaches of Boa Vista and Sal, and the rugged, raw terrain of Brava) while enjoying the music, food, and of course the hospitality of the people.
Ferries: If you plan to visit an island accessible by ferry DON’T buy a roundtrip with one company. Look at the schedules of the different companies to see who leaves the earliest and who returns at the latest. Then buy one-way tickets so you can have the longest stay as possible (we made that mistake, buying a roundtrip that left at 7 AM and returned at 4 PM. We later found out that there was another company offering a later ferry at 7 PM).
Domestic Flights: When trying to travel between locations in a country find the local airline rather than depend on international carriers. This can greatly increase the availability of different flight options at a lower cost. You can find the domestic carriers by googling it or even looking at what airlines operate out of the local airports. Again in our case, BestFly offered infinitely better options than TAP to get between the islands.
Rental Cars: Try to avoid paying all the costs upfront. Put the security deposit on your credit card and not pay it in cash, because they can always say there is a scratch or dent and not return your cash, which you can dispute with your credit card company. Also, make sure to check with several companies and not just work with the first company you see. In our case, both times I shopped around and the second or third company was always better than the first, largely because I knew what to look out for and how to negotiate the right terms.
Losing iPhone: Before I went to CV I was in Portugal and left my phone in an Uber. I had no way of contacting the driver and couldn’t get into my Uber account to track him down. Thankfully I had my laptop in my hotel room. So immediately went home and fired it up, activated “Lost Phone” and was able to block the phone from being used and put an alert on the lock screen to call a number I had assigned (in my case my mom’s phone since she was with me). I also was able to get into my Uber account on the laptop and reported it lost. It all worked out and I retrieved the phone. But heads up, I was lucky: my phone had some battery left so the driver saw my message, I had my laptop to activate lost phone, I used my mom’s phone to communicate with the driver, and the guy was honest. Just have a plan in case you lose your phone on travel.
Airtags: I got airtags and put them in all my bags. This is critical when traveling in case someone takes your bag by accident in the airport, or the bag gets left behind in a transit city, or your luggage gets stolen at any point on the trip. I got Apple Airtags since I have an iPhone but there are definitely other options out there. And really no matter the distance, as long as there are other devices near your airtag and you have your devices connected to ‘Find My Phone’ you should be good to go to track your devices across the world.
Reserving hotels: Sometimes a hotel you want will not have availability on the main booking companies. In this case, see if you can call them directly or whatsapp them if you have a mobile number and ask them directly. If it’s not high season, it may be worth booking just the first 1 or 2 nights and when you get to the location to then scout other accommodations and negotiate a free upgrade at a base rate, at a location that may be different or better than the one you originally booked. Your negotiating power is far better in person than from a distance.
Airport Drop-off: A good way to avoid the crazy crowds at the airport is to be asked to get dropped off on arrival and not departure. It can save you a lot of time especially if you are running late for a flight. Of course, that is not the case with all airports or at all times of the day, but it is especially important at airports where they have car checkpoints for departing passengers.
Leveraging Travel Agents: It can be helpful if you can’t book a flight, or you need to know more about a specific tour, to google map travel agents in the area you are traveling to, then WhatsApp their listed number and hopefully connect with someone on the ground who can help. This is how we were able to find Actour who were very helpful in getting us our flights on domestic airlines and a rental when we arrived, which required a local credit card and not an international one.
If you are still reading this blog, then I am elated and I REALLY hope you find it useful as you plan your trip to Cape Verde. And hopefully, it means you are interested to read more! In that case, may I recommend my Ghana Blog, to maintain the theme of West African culture, history, and the people!
~ Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next Final50 Journey! ~