Travel Guide: Uncovering the Cape Verde Islands

Cape Verde is an archipelago consisting ten volcanic islands (nine inhabited), located in mid-Atlantic, about 600 kilometres / 373 miles off the African coast (west of Senegal).

Each island is unique, and offers at least one good enough reason to visit this popular beach destination.

The two main resorts of Sal and Boa Vista together with Maio are the most popular beach destinations. Boa Vista has a special appeal: between June and September, you may be able to watch the spawning of sea turtles.

If you prefer mountain landscapes and great hiking don’t miss Santo Antão, São Nicolau and the interior of Santiago. For some beach together with fun and culture, head to São Vicente and Santiago.

Here’s an overview of the Cape Verde Islands, with tips on things to do and how to get to each island.

Cape Verde Islands

  • Barlavento / Windward Islands – (west to east): Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia (uninhabited), São Nicolau, Sal, and Boa Vista
  • Sotavento / Leeward Islands (east to west): Maio, Santiago, Fogo, and Brava

Santo Antão

Estrada da Corda on Santo Antão Island, a basalt road built in the 1970s

Santo Antão is Cape Verde’s westernmost island, and one of the most beautiful. With a cluster of mountains, valleys and forests, it’s ideal for trekking. The island’s paths will take you to amazing ridge tops, past sugarcane and banana plantations. Santo Antão is not a mass tourism island, but a destination for adventurers.

How to get to Santo Antão: There’s a boat connection between the islands of São Vicente (Mindelo) and Santo Antão (Porto Novo) twice a day. The trip takes about one hour.

São Vicente

Mindelo Bay

São Vicente offers a combination of beach, fun and culture. Mindelo is the island’s capital, an historic port and a lively city with a musical tradition. The acclaimed Cesária Évora, “Queen of Morna”, began her career at Mindelo’s live music venues. Laginha is the most popular beach, while São Pedro is one of the best beaches for windsurfing. Baía das Gatas, about 10km east of Mindelo, has a natural lagoon, great for swimming, and hosts the famous Music Festival. Together with the Carnival, these are two of the most important Cape Verdean festivals.

How to get to Santo Antão: By plane or boat. There are direct flights from Lisbon, Portugal, to Cesaria Évora International Airport in Mindelo.

São Nicolau

São Nicolau is still an off-the-beaten-track Cape Verdean island. With an unspoiled mountain landscape, São Nicolau is great for walking and horse riding. On the highest peak, there’s the Monte Gordo National Park, one of the natural wonders of São Nicolau Island, with its centenary dragon trees. At 1,312 metres of altitude, in days of good visibility, you may be able to glimpse other islands. Ribeira Brava, embedded in a valley, is the most important town, and a place of narrow streets and houses of colonial architecture.

How to get to São Nicolau: By plane or boat. There are regular flights from Sal and São Vicente operated by Binter Cabo Verde, the airline that offers interisland flights.

Sal

Sal

With beautiful golden sand beaches such as Santa Maria, Sal Island is probably the most popular of the Cape Verdean islands. This will be the closest you get to mass tourism, not only because Sal has an international airport a few hours from Europe (a 3-hour direct flight), but also because it offers a unique tropical setting. But Sal is not just a beach destination: the Pedra do Lume salt crater, inside an extinct volcano, offers a scenic landscape that you simply cannot miss.

How to get to Sal: By plane or boat. TAP and TACV offer daily direct flights from Lisbon, Portugal. TUIfly has cheap direct flights from Brussels and various German cities. From the UK, TUI offers non-stop flights twice a week. Read More

Boa Vista

View from the Spinguera Ecolodge

Boa Vista Island has 55 kilometres / 34 miles of golden sand beaches and small coves between rocks, where you can watch turtles and whales. It has an international airport, but mass tourism has not yet fully arrived. There is plenty of space on the beaches, and few but good restaurants – do book ahead. The Viana Desert, Spinguera, the abandoned fishing village given life by the ecolodge, and the Santa Monica and Ervatão Beaches, are some of the best places to visit on Boa Vista.

How to get to Boa Vista: By plane or boat. TACV and TAP offer daily direct flights from Lisbon, Portugal. TUIfly has cheap direct flights from Brussels and various German cities. From the UK, TUI offers non-stop flights twice a week.

Maio

Maio Island is the easternmost of the Leeward Islands, and one of the flattest in the archipelago. It’s also known for its extensive golden sand beaches with clear, warm waters – Ponta Preta Beach is the most popular – where the turtles spawn during the summer months. Maio’s largest settlement is Vila do Maio, also known as Vila do Porto Inglês, with colonial-style buildings and an important church.

How to get to Maio: By plane or boat from Santiago.

Santiago

Tarrafal Beach, Santiago

Santiago is Cape Verde’s largest island, and was the first colonized by Europeans. The island’s capital Praia is also Cape Verde’s largest city. Its lively markets, and the welcoming locals, are good enough reasons to visit Santiago. Add to that the rich architectural heritage of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde’s first capital. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, Cidade Velha boasts two historic churches, the Fort of São Filipe, and Pelourinho, a small yet significant pillory from the 16th century.

The best beaches on Santiago are located on the northwest and southeast coasts, namely São Francisco and Ribeira da Barca. The best spot for diving and surfing is the Tarrafal Beach.

How to Get to Santiago: By plane or boat. TAP offers regular direct flights to Praia from Lisbon, Portugal.

Fogo

Pico do Fogo

On Fogo Island, you’ll not be indifferent to the extensive volcano crater of Pico do Fogo. If you’re into hiking, venture from the town of Chã das Caldeiras up to the rim, treading on lunar and wild landscapes. Besides the volcano, enjoy some rather good wine and coffee that come from the nearby vineyards and coffee plantations. In São Filipe, the largest town on the island, the highlights are the colonial-style houses.

How to Get to Fogo: By plane or boat. Domestic flights are operated by Binter Cabo Verde. There are ferries that make the connection between Praia (Santiago) and Fogo, but the ride takes about 4 hours.

Brava

Brava is the smallest and southernmost of Cape Verde’s inhabited islands. It’s also the less arid island. Mountainous landscapes make for great walks. Climb to Pico das Fontainhas for panoramic views, and descend to the Fajã d’Água, where you will find a natural pool and one of the island’s greenest areas. The beautiful town of Nova Sintra, with colonial-style buildings, has often a misty atmosphere, also adding to the charm of this tiny island.

How to Get to Brava: By boat from Fogo and Santiago.

When to Go

Cape Verde is a destination to be enjoyed across the whole year. Check out our page on:

How to Get to Cape Verde

Useful Information

You’ll need a valid passport for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into Cape Verde, and you may also need a visa.

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