How to Have the Perfect Trip to Cape Verde, West Africa’s Soulful Beach Destination
Multiracial culture and soulful music are a backdrop to a beach getaway like nowhere else.
Located 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde is a one-of-a-kind island nation, comprised of some of the most gorgeous tropical islands in the world. Historically, though, this wasn’t always the easiest place to survive.
Arid and uninhabited when the Portuguese landed here in the 15th century, Cape Verde's difficult ecology is an extension of the nearby Sahara Desert and multiple volcanoes. Over the centuries, each of its 10 islands developed a distinct cultural flavor, thanks to the disparate groups of people that passed through and managed to survive there. Today, Cape Verde has emerged from a history of struggle and poverty with a rich, complex culture all its own.
All Cape Verdean culture seems to include principles of yin and yang, struggle and celebration, light and dark. The music, best described as a blend of slow Portuguese Fado and Caribbean pop, often pairs happy instrumentation with pensive, deep lyrics; the food is spicy but filled with umami; and the wine is light but deeply flavorful (and shockingly cheap -- a good bottle easily knocks in at under $5 USD, even in restaurants).
Innovative Cape Verdeans have used the dry, mineralized soil to create a delicious cuisine starring bold wines, flavorful coffees, and hearty produce. Combined with fresh seafood and the nearby legacy of dishes like Senegalese thieboudienne, Cape Verdean food blends the best traditions of Portugal and the West African diaspora into flavorful, stewed dishes you’ll find nowhere else.
An increasingly popular destination for Europeans, Cape Verde still flies under the radar for Americans. We’re calling Cape Verde one of the 20 Places We're Dreaming About in 2020. To make the most of your trip, we made this 10-day itinerary featuring the best things to do on the islands -- but when in doubt, find some sand and follow the music.
Know before you go
To avoid the rainy season, plan to visit between November and June. Head to the island of São Vicente the week of Shrove Tuesday (February 25) to catch Cape Verde’s celebration of Carnival, which blends the best of Brazilian party and parade traditions with West African influences. Because attendance is lower at the Cape Verdean Carnival than its Brazilian and Caribbean counterparts, it is comparatively quite affordable.
All festivals in Cape Verde place music in a starring role -- the Gamboa Music Festival on the island of Santiago is in May every year and features an eclectic mix of world-class DJs, local bands, and guest musicians from all over Brazil and Africa who perform a range of genres including salsa, Latino, zouk, reggae, and funaná.
It’s tough to hit every island within a 10-day time frame, and every island has a different vibe to offer, so the best strategy is to pick two or three islands and really nail it. Visitors with US passports don’t need to purchase a visa unless you’re staying for more than a month. There’s a 31 euro fee per person upon arrival, so exchange some money into euros before leaving the States. (Cape Verde’s local currency, the escudo, is available at ATMs in urban locations around the islands).
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Days 1-3: Kick off with beach time on the island of Sal, or São Vicente
Dive deep into island life and fly into Sal, the tourist hub of Cape Verde. This island is a one-stop shop for savoring the sun, sand, sea, and stars. Do as many active excursions as possible (dune buggies, sailing, horseback riding, etc.) with a local company like No Limits Adventure.
Visit a beach where turtles nest; stand in a bay of lemon sharks; and visit historic towns, like the salt-production center in Pedra de Lume for the chance to float in the world’s second-saltiest body of water. You can rent a car and guide yourself around, but to get the most bang for your buck, I recommend a formal tour with Reis Transport.
If you’d rather go somewhere a little less crowded, choose the island of São Vicente. This is the birthplace of world-renowned singer Cesária Évora. Cape Verdean music has evolved from African, Portuguese, and Brazilian influences; the primary genre is a slow, bluesy style called Morna -- Cesária Évora's specialty.
Évora’s spirit is everywhere on her island of birth; visit her home or her grave in Mindelo and savor the beautiful colonial architecture along the way. Évora often sang about São Vicente, describing it as “a little Brazil / full of joy and colors.” You’ll see why immediately while standing at the summit of Mount Verde, Cape Verde’s highest point, or driving through Madeiral, a valley that grows most of the island’s produce such as bananas, papayas, mangos, palm dates, and sugar cane, also popular Brazilian crops.
Days 4-6: Slow down on Boa Vista
On the island of Boa Vista, you'll explore a stunning diversity of beaches in a surprisingly small geographic area; there are direct flights from Sal.
Some of the best beaches include the white sand and quiet seclusion of Praia de Chaves (also a prime windsurfing spot); the golden sand of Praia de Santa Mónica, perfect for long, romantic walks or spotting whales; Praia de Atalanta, where you can explore a shipwreck in the warm, shallow water; or the Praia de Cabral, right by the city of Sal Rei, Boa Vista’s capital. Sink slowly into glowing sand with a cool drink and no plans.
If you get tired of bumming by the water, hire a quad bike through Quad Zone to take advantage of Boa Vista’s unique ecology. A must-visit is the Viana Desert, an extension of the Sahara that will take your breath away. The desert sand also contributes to Boa Vista’s reputation for excellent ceramics, so stop by the city of Rabil, Boa Vista’s former capital, to purchase some traditionally made ceramic goods.
An unforgettable visit is the Museu dos Naufràgos (Museum of Castaways), where guests pose as castaways from a recently crashed ship and are led on a journey through a mystical history of the islands. For a more academic time, hire Cau Tours for a detailed look at Sal Rei.
Days 7-8: Food, wine, and volcanic black sand on Fogo
Take a ferry or airplane from Boa Vista to the otherworldly volcanic island of Fogo, the hungry traveler's favorite stop in Cape Verde. Chã das Caldeiras, the active volcano at the center of the island, looms over all of Fogo and is responsible for the dry but nutrient-dense soil that drives Cape Verde’s wine and coffee industry.
Even the most experienced hikers should hire a local guide to take you up to the peak of the volcano. Prepare to commit -- most tours begin very early and last for a full day, leading directly to the volcano’s peak, then making several stops on the way back down at local villages, which grow excellent wine and coffee. Make sure to ask if the price of your tour includes food and drink at these stops, and bring cash -- you’ll want to haul back at least a few bottles of wine or some goat cheese.
Don’t leave without ordering some Fogo culinary specialties like djagacida (a dense, flavorful, starchy dish made of corn, fish, and beans -- think of it like red beans & rice meets mofongo), pastel de milho (a cake made of corn), bissap (hibiscus flower juice), or calabaceira (baobab fruit juice).
Days 9-10: Cape Verde’s largest island, Santiago
The largest island of Cape Verde, Santiago is home to Praia, Cape Verde’s capital and biggest city. It’s easy to get around Santiago on your own with Ubers and taxis, plus it's easier access to shopping and a wider variety of restaurants and lodging. Praia also offers front-row access to the best clubs featuring live music.
To get a tour of the full island, contact Bu Country Tours -- you’ll get a taste of everything from the Praia market to a traditional Cape Verdean cooking demonstration and a stop at a banana and coconut plantation. Another easy drive from Praia is through the lovely Serra Malagueta Natural Park at the northern portion of Santiago. Or, take a quick jaunt to Cidade Velha, an original 15th century Portuguese settlement with cobblestone streets and dazzling views of the islands.
Whatever route you take, no trip to Praia (or indeed all of Cape Verde) is complete without a night out at Quintal da Musica for a delicious dinner and an unforgettable exposure to traditional Cape Verdean music forms like morna and funaná. Close out your trip on a high note by making sure to order a caipirinha and gambas grelhadas (grilled prawns) to start, followed by a bottle of the crisp local white wine Cha Vinho Do Fogo and the arroz de polvo (octopus rice) for a meal you will never forget, much like the mournful music.
Keep it going: Get to the West African continent
If Cape Verde has piqued your interest in West Africa, now's the time to explore this region, which is uniting under the banner of ECOWAS (think of it as the European Union of West Africa, with a connected infrastructure and currency currently in progress). There are many options to travel between nations, so don't be afraid to flight hop or rent a van and hire a driver for the long haul.
One of the easiest places for Americans to start is Ghana, an English-speaking nation with several direct flights from the East Coast. Ghana has wonderful food, wildlife, and historic tours, plus a bustling African American expat community that is thriving after a successful "Year of Return," a 2019-long celebration that encouraged members of the African diaspora to return to the motherland.
Senegal is a close second choice; its capital, Dakar, is a rapidly rising arts and cultural center. Dakar has wonderful beaches, museums, cuisine, and historic sites to visit, as well as a fun club scene. For a quieter but no less enjoyable stop, consider visiting Togo, a small Francophone nation tucked between Ghana and Benin. You'll find affordable safaris, the origins of Voodoo, and arguably the best foufou the region has to offer.
MEET THE WRITER
Becki Iverson is a Thrillist writer and an ardent lover of all things arts, food, and travel. You can follow her wide-ranging passions on her blog, Compendium, or on social media on Instagram.
When was the last time you were in Cape Verde?
June of 2019, at the tail end of a dream trip and honeymoon through West Africa.
What drew you there?
One of my first bonding experiences with my husband was over music. I had always loved the soulful voice of Cesária Évora, and he also loved her music right away. We played her catalog constantly -- she became such a favorite that we included multiple songs in our wedding. It became a priority for us to visit her homeland someday, and when we realized we’d be nearby for our honeymoon in West Africa, we had to spend the extra cash to make sure we made it there to pay homage.
What was the most surprising thing about the place that you didn't expect?
Experiencing the blended Creole identity that the majority of Cape Verdeans now share was striking for an interracial couple like my husband and I -- especially coming from a place like America where people tend to draw stark lines between their individual racial identities. It’s one of the few places we have not received stares out in public together (New Orleans is the only similar comparison I can think of). This story in the LA Times captures Cape Verde’s complex multiracial dynamic better than I ever could.
Number one can’t-miss recommendation for a visitor?
Visiting Quintal da Música for a long dinner, cocktails, and live music. There’s no better way to capture the spirit and contradictions of Cape Verde than spending some real time listening to morna and coladeira.
For example, Cape Verdeans have struggled to define their culture through the centuries -- are they more African? Portuguese? Or something entirely new? One of Cesária’s most famous songs is called “Africa Nossa” (or “Our Africa”). It has a very upbeat, celebratory musical tone, yet includes quite serious lyrics like these:
The sky has cleared
Consciousness has brightened
The time has come to face reality
A suffering people
Have soothed their pain
To live in peace and progress
Make sure to spend time with some songs, even before you go, to gain a richer understanding of the push-pull nature of this culture.
How easy is it to get around for English speakers?
Cape Verde has been a very stable democracy for more than 30 years and is quite safe for tourists. I recommend utilizing a local tour service to connect your destinations or help schedule tours. Travel between islands can be difficult, and spontaneous travel and lodging between islands is especially tough to navigate. Two great options are Todahora Tours or Cape Verde Vacation and Services.
If, however, you prefer to visit only one or two locations slowly on your own or don’t anticipate trying to pack in many activities across multiple islands, you can wing it with no trouble. You’ll find travel conveniences like Uber and Airbnb, especially on the more populated islands like Sal, Santiago, or Boa Vista.
What’s your top piece of advice for someone going for the first time?
This is a place where it really pays to plan ahead. Because travel between islands is relatively limited (usually just a couple flights or ferry options per day), it’s hard to spontaneously jump between them. It’s also like any other island nation where the pace is slower than urban continental life, so expect things to take longer than you’re probably used to.
What's the next big trip you have planned in 2020?
We have several friends living in Sweden and Norway, so we’re hoping to make it out to see them and explore parts of both countries I still haven’t seen (mostly the northernmost areas).