After five days at sea crossing the Atlantic, we arrived in Cape Verde off the coast of Africa. If the name is familiar to you it is probably because this is where hurricanes start and then head our way. Ironically, the islands of Cape Verde have no problem with the storms and homes are built right up to the shoreline. In fact, the only weather-related problems are occasional inland flooding during the rainy season and severe drought. It was the repeated droughts of the second half of the 20th century that lead to heavy emigration that resulted in a majority of Cape Verde citizens living outside the islands rather than on them.
There are 10 islands making up Cape Verde, one of which is not inhabited. We anchored off the Coast of Santo Antao Island and tendered in to Porto Novo. Santo Antao is not as populated as some of the other islands of Cape Verde and is mostly agricultural. Most of the visitors to the island are German hikers (of which we saw several). Cruise ships began to visit in 2011, with 2-5 ships visiting each month during the tourist season that is about to end. Isaac said there is another ship in port in two days and then none until September. They are currently building a cruise terminal and dock and hope to attract more vacation dollars. It was the perfect time to visit, while some of the charm of being untouched still existed.
Cape Verde was uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived in the 15thcentury. They colonized it and used it as a base for slave trading and refueling. Cape Verde got its independence from Portugal in 1975 and is now considered one of the most stable democracies in Africa. They have a two party system. For the first time this year, the Prime Minister is from one party and the President from another. As Isaac our guide put it, it is too early to tell how things will work out. The official language is Portuguese, but the people speak Creole. English is taught in the upper school. Students attend primary school free of charge, but pay for secondary school at a rate dependant on their parents’ income. Family size is shrinking now, but Isaac (who is 25) is the 11th child of 12 in his family.
The island was uncommonly beautiful. It is very mountainous, which we could see from our balcony before even leaving the ship. It appeared very arid, so it surprised us when Isaac told us it was an agriculturally based economy. We traveled on the “old road” completed in the 1960s after 30 years of construction by hand. The road is made of stone and travels up and over the mountains. It is rough, but in very good condition. The views from the road were breathtaking. Upon reaching one mountaintop, we viewed the Cova Volcanic Crater that is now a lush valley.
We saw examples everywhere of terrace farming. The people also raise goats and chickens to eat. There are some cows, but their beef is an expensive luxury. We also saw donkeys, but they were beasts of burden carrying packages (especially in the high altitudes). It was very warm at the shoreline and quite cool at the top near the crater.
We continued on the old road to Cordo Village, making several stops for pictures along the way. We visited the new high school (a restroom stop) and the village square with its Catholic Church. 90% of the island’s population is Catholic and the local festivals are based on the feast day of the local patron saint. Most of the students and the teachers at the high school were friendly, allowing us to come inside the classroom and even visit with the students. I suspect this was the only facility in the area with several restrooms available to accommodate our tour buses. (One teacher even went to hunt down more toilet paper.) This is also Isaac’s hometown. He told us of a history of local rebellion and persecution from years ago, even pointing out a survivor of the rebellion who is now in his 80s and who was sitting outside a village store.
We went next to Ponta do Sol, the northern most point on the island, for a wonderful lunch of local delicacies. The staple of their diet is a mixture of corn and beans that is served with fish, goat, or chicken. We saw the fishing activities at the end of the street and knew that the tasty fish we had for lunch was most likely just caught that morning. We saw one woman either taking home her find or perhaps trying to sell a large fish she carried in a bucket on her head. As one of the guests put it, how else would you carry that large a fish?
While the trip out was almost directly north (although full of switchbacks), the trip back was on the “new road” which followed the coast line south and then west until we reached Porto Novo. The new road was paved and was completed only 3 years ago. Where were tunnels through the mountains and construction must have been very costly. Prior to the new road’s completion, there was no road through this area, although we did see shortcuts and walking paths for foot travel. We saw very few homes and only a few goats, but travel along the waterfront was spectacular. Isaac told us that one of the unfortunate results of the construction was that vehicles no longer passed through the mountain villages and the people who depended on the sale of their produce to those who passed through were now suffering. The mountain road we traveled on-the “old road” as Isaac called it-is now used only by tourists and hikers. We did see many abandoned produce stands in the villages we passed through.
The last stop on the island tour was a less than memorable resort with a gift shop. Souvenirs were limited, but somehow Boris found some of the local alcohol (which they call grog) to buy. After a wave filled ride back to the ship on the tender, we headed to the room for naptime. A full day of touring was hard after our lazy sea days. If you enjoy a beautiful vistas and/or hiking (particularly up and down hill), I can highly recommend Santo Antao Island in Cape Verde. The people were welcoming. It is a great one-day stop to see the unaltered beauty of the island. Hikers could keep themselves busy there for a long time.
My hope is that increased cruise traffic to the island will not spoil its charms. I do recommend a visit sooner rather than later.