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cape verde: sea, sun, sand, sharks and salt, but 'no stress'

'Same, same but different', a commonly heard phrase around Thailand/Southeast Asia, often used to describe subtle nuances or create intentional ambiguity. Costa Rica's philosophy of 'pura vida' encompasses a free spirit and an appreciation of life's simple things. The expression 'This is Africa' (often abbreviated to 'TIA') is both a term of endearment and a way to shrug off inconveniences. I recently added a new travel mantra to my list after I was introduced to Cape Verde's quite literal motto, 'no stress'.

I can attest to the truth of the saying and the relaxed nature of Cape Verde, however the journey there was not exactly stress-free. The 6-hour TUI flight from London to Boa Vista was like a wildlife documentary, and I'm not referring only to the mating practices occurring in the seats beside me. Adults roared with laughter, babies screeched, herds congregated in the aisles, bare feet emitted distressing smells, lavatories overflowed and rubbish obscured the floor. Society would benefit greatly from the people on this flight being caged when on the solid ground.

Citizens of most countries need a visa to enter the Cape Verde islands. The visa can be pre-arranged by booking a package deal through an agency or by visiting an embassy/consulate in Brussels, Netherlands or Senegal. These option didn't suit me, so I was forced to stand in the hour-long queue, alongside ~150 of my feral plane-mates, in order to obtain the €25 visa on arrival.

Only after clearing passport control, with the animals left in the brave hands of tour companies to deliver them to their respective all-inclusive kennels, errr resorts, did the 'no stress' ideology really settle in.

Cape Verde (or Cabo Verde, as referred to by the locals) is made up of a cluster of 10 islands, born of volcanic fury. The archipelago floats in the Atlantic Ocean, about 500 km/310 miles off the northwest coast of Africa. Formerly a colony of Portugal, until peaceful independence was gained in 1974, African soul still mixes with Portuguese history to create an exotic, easy-going culture.

Charter and cheap holiday deals have increased tourism in recent years, but Cape Verde, as a whole, is still not very exploited.

The first island I visited, Boa Vista, has benefited from growing tourism since the inauguration of its international airport, in 2007. It is now the second most visited island, behind Sal. It has an ever-increasing number of hotels and resorts, however, much of the island is still undeveloped. It's interior is flat, with desert-like, barren landscapes.

The beaches on Boa Vista are stunning, with golden sands running into azure waters...

...And the sunsets are colorful.

On this island, constant high winds create perfect conditions for water sports like kitesurfing, wind surfing and sailing.

Two-third of my days in Boa Vista were spent relaxing at the Tortuga Beach Club, sunning my UK pigment-devoid body, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, eating wahoo and swatting flies.

For 4-hours of one day, my friend and I hired a private guide to take us on a tour around the northwest portion of the island.

After about 6km of rough off-roading, (most of Boa Vista's roads are treacherous), we arrived at Praia de Atalanta, home to the Spanish cargo ship, Cabo Santa Maria, which ran aground on 1st September 1968.

Driving due south, we arrived at the Viana Desert, a small desert patch formed by the accumulation of sand grains that continuously blow over from the Sahara. The rolling white dunes are interspersed with black volcanic rocks and sparse vegetation.

We entertained ourselves for hours, running and jumping around in the dunes.

Covered in sand and exhausted from exertion, our guide took us to a local watering hole (otherwise known as his mate's house) for a local beer, before dropping us back at Hotel Dunas.

Other favorites on Boa Vista included:

1. Beramar Restaurant. There were only 7 tables, so reservations were necessary. The food was excellent! We actually went there twice (of our three nights).

2. Morabeza Beach Bar & Restaurant Lounge. Morabeza is a Cape Verdean concept/lifestyle akin to the spirit of Aloha in Hawaii, involving looking at life in a kinder way. The Estoril Beach bar/restaurant, with this notion's namesake, is adorable and definitely worth a visit.

After four days it was time to leave Boa Vista and island-hop over to Sal. The domestic flight took a mere 14-minutes.

Although smaller, geographically, than Boa Vista, Sal is bigger in tourism. The southern beach town of Santa Maria, where I stayed, has the liveliest tourist scene on the island, with plenty of watersports centers, hotels and restaurants.

Although built up on shorelines, the brown terrain of the undeveloped, non-coastal parts of Sal would likely make the moon look fertile.

Our first day in Sal, we decided to acquaint ourselves by taking a full-day tour. The concierge at our hotel, Aparthotel Santa Maria Beach, made the all the arrangements. For €25 each, our local guide, Kenneth, shared his island with us (and six other people), for 8-hours.

Road safety did not appear to be a top priority in Cape Verde, given that the traditional mode of tour transportation involved sitting on a bench in the bed of a Toyota truck, with no seat belts. Luckily traffic was light and drivers were cautious.

The first stop on the expedition was Murdeira Bay, a top diving spot.

Sea Urchins

Lava rock formations surrounded the turquoise waters which were protected by Monte Leão (a mountain resembling a sleeping lion), across the bay.

En route to our next location, we took a dirt track passing by shanty dwellings in deprived areas outskirting Espargos (Sal's capital).

We came to a stop at a brick shack, in the middle of nowhere, called ‘Bar Mirage’.

Although we were not near water, a lake appeared in the distance.

After gazing at the optical illusion in the abyss for a time, it was onward to the Buracona Lagoon, to scamper around the volcanic rocks and explore sea caves, swimming holes and grottoes. Although the whole area is beautiful, the 'blue eye' is the wonder that puts Buracona on the map. Legend has it that when the sun's rays hit the water at the bottom of the cave, just right, the entire surface lights up bright blue. Unfortunately, the sun's position did not cooperate with our timing, so we were unable to experience this phenomenon.

We then popped by Palmeira, a fishing village and home to the main port on the island of Sal. This port is vital to Sal's economy as everything they need, apart from seafood/fish and salt, has to be imported.

From Palmeira, we drove about 10-minutes to Espargos (Portuguese for 'asparagus'), where we ate lunch. Espargos is not only the capital, but also the main commercial center of the island. According to Kenneth, 18,000 of Sal's 30,000 population reside here.

The stop following lunch was the highlight of the tour for me. For €2, you were required to rent water shoes. Of course everyone else on the tour had no issues, but I had to basically bribe a local child to lend me her pink Crocs, which were still far too big for my tiny feet.

Once fitted for shoes, the group waded out into the sea to behold baby and adult lemon sharks, up close. For perspective, view the the photo below. Note the fin separating the two people on the right from the rest of the group.

We watched as the 8-foot sharks ducked and dived over the waves, showing off their fins. I'm told that lemon sharks only eat fish and are not interested in dining on humans...Even little humans.

Salinas de Pedra de Lume was the final stopping place on the tour. In a moon-like crater of an extinct volcano, seawater turns into salt as the sun evaporates the water in the basins. Due to the uniqueness of the site, as well as it's historical and natural characteristics, Pedra de Lume is currently on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list.

The salt pans are a perfect spot for a relaxing float. It was claimed that these pools have a higher concentration of salt than the Dead Sea. Although I did not find that to be the case, I did enjoy being buoyant.

The remaining days on Sal were spent coastally. The island is much less windy than it's neighbor, Boa Vista, and there are far fewer flies. Year-round temperatures in Sal, and all of Cape Verde, range from 24-30°C/75-86°F. Humidity is low and mosquitoes don't exist. Perfect weather means that Cape Verdean life revolves around beach activities.

Local gyms were set up right in the sand (move over Venice Beach, CA)!

Elite skimboarders did masterful tricks.

There was even a bounce house-style water park in the sea, for the kiddos.

New Year's Eve was spent at a restaurant called Palm Beach, also on the beach. They didn't take reservations, so we arrived at 6:30pm to secure the best seats in the house, right in the front, facing the ocean, in preparation for the fairly lame fireworks that took place oddly at 11:30pm. Then, just before midnight, the guy on the mic was too relaxed to count properly, so the countdown went like this '10, 9, 8, 1, oops, 6, 5, 1, Happy New Year!' Ah well, no stress, feliz ano novo!

The laid-back creole culture, combined with the stunning beaches, friendly people, political stability, english-speaking and perfect weather could relax even the most wound up of people.

Cape Verde is up-and-coming and fairly new to the travel circuit, but has lots of plans for continued development. If I were you, I would add this to my travel list before the masses catch wind.


  • Cape Verde's time zone is one hour behind London (GMT).

  • They drive on the right side of the road, mostly in brand new Toyota trucks.

  • Cape Verde was not included in my mobile plan network, and cost an absolute fortune, so I only used it on airplane mode. WiFi was widely available, but not particularly strong.

  • The Cape Verdean escudo is a closed currency, not available outside the country. Euros and escudos are widely accepted, but credit cards are not. The escudo is fixed at a rate of 100 escudos to 1 euro. You will often received a mix of currencies as change.

  • Service in restaurants/bars is very slow, but tours and flights tend to run on time.

  • A small tip is always welcomed, though not required.

  • Don't drink the water.

  • Tourism has replaced salt and fishing as the main source of income in the Cape Verde islands.

  • Crime is low and Cape Verde is a politically stable nation.

  • Don't bother with fancy clothing and, ladies, don't even consider wearing heals.


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