Cape Verde travel guide: Sal, Santa Maria

By Marina Aagaard, MFT

Cape Verde, Africa. An archipelago in the Atlantic.
10 islands with sun, sand, water and wind and vastly different nature.
Green and brown volcanic islands with varied experiences.

Here you will find practical tips and background knowledge of Cape Verde, an area that has come on the radar of a.o. Danish tourists. A sunny winter destination that offers a mix of raw, unspoilt Africa and ‘polished’ tourist areas. Here in a positive sense; it provides the islands with a source of income and curious tourists a starting point for more African experiences.

Cape Verde Africa Sal Santa Maria Marina Aagaard blog travel photo

The atmosphere is relaxed. The motto is “no stress” . It is said that at Cape Verde one comes the furthest with smiles and patience. It can give the impression that it is all in slow motion or chaotic.
Fortunately, this is only the case to a limited extent: I found the service well and timely (December 2019); only short delays and virtually no chaos.
Below my best practical travel tips and more information about Cape Verde, including Boa Vista (the easternmost island, closest to Senegal and Dakar), and details of Sal (just north of Boa Vista).

Any doubts about going to Sal or Boa Vista? Read on.

Cape Verde Guide – Travel Tips

From Denmark you can fly directly to the two exotic Cape Verde islands of Sal and Boa Vista, approximately 5466 km south. A flight of about 6½ hours – up to 9 hours if there is a stopover in Gothenburg or Tenerife.

The time difference between Denmark and Cape Verde is only – 2 hours (winter), – 3 hours (summer), which means there are no problems with changes in circadian rhythm or jet lag at home or at home.

The Cape Verde Islands have a visa requirement, but the visa can be issued through the travel agency (2-3 weeks before departure – recommended) or upon entry into one of their airports (but then you have to queue for it). Read about the general rules at your Foreign Ministry pages.

Vaccination

In the tourist areas of the islands of Sal and Boa Vista there is no recommendation from the travel agencies on vaccination. However, when traveling to Africa, including the Cape Verde Islands, some tour guides recommend (some time before departure) to protect themselves with vaccination against diphtheria, yellow fever, hepatitis A and tetanus.

There is a small risk of malaria, but usually the doctor does not recommend taking medication for it. On the other hand, it is recommended to protect yourself from mosquito bites with mosquito repellent and / or long sleeves and pants, and with mosquito nets at night when sleeping. Please ask. your own doctor.

I travelled with a Danish travel company to Cape Verde. You should compare prices. For 1 person 1 week including flights, prices in December can range from EUR 400 over 2000 to 4000.

I paid EUR 400 for a 3 star hotel (which had four stars on the facade), 1.2 km from the city center, but on the main street opposite the Hilton and 100 meters from the beach. It was a bargain with far better facilities and service than expected.

Cape Verde stays are “easy” – even for curious travelers who aren’t exactly adventurers:

The population is smiling and welcoming, holiday homes and hotels are good, the food is mostly tasty, there are fitness centers at the big hotels (and outdoor fitness on the beach), you pay with euros or cape verde escudos, CVE, cash or VISA, electricity is like in northern Europe and wifi is widespread and well functioning in hotels and restaurants.

The peak season is at Cape Verde from November to March. December is probably the ‘low season’ in the middle of the peak season and the coolest time with 24-27 degrees and mixed sunshine and overcast every day. At this time, there are relatively few tourists.

Climate and sun

Cape Verde’s climate is milder than the African mainland because the surrounding sea moderates the temperatures of the islands and the cold Atlantic currents provide a dry atmosphere around the archipelago. The air temperature is cooler than in Senegal, but the sea is warmer.

Highest average daytime temperatures are around 24-30 degrees C; from 26 ° C (79 ° F) in February to 31 ° C (87.8 ° F) in September. It rarely rains; irregular between August and October with frequent short, heavy rainfall. Most of this year’s rain falls in September.

A desert is usually defined by terrain that receives less than 250 mm of annual rainfall. Sal’s total volume (145 mm (5.7 in)) falls in this category.

Cape Verde is close to the equator, so even though the climate feels mild, it’s important to keep in mind the following to avoid heat stroke and burns:

  • Drink plenty of bottled water (remember that alcohol dehydrates).
  • Wear a sun hat, cap, scarf or similar.
  • Avoid being out in the midday sun around 12-15.
  • Use plenty of sunscreen, factor 30-50, or cover the body.

Wind and water

The wind – almost constant – make Sal, the main tourist island together with Boa Vista (in the other islands, tourism is limited) ideal for surfing, windsurfing and kite surfing.

The wind makes the year-round weather feel mild, a bit like a Nordic summer – not too hot and sometimes cool if you are stationary. When moving, the air feels pleasant.

It is possible to sit outside and eat in the evening, but it can get chilly. Many restaurants are open, but covered, and it is good, but some may need a jacket.

Language

The official language is Portuguese. In addition, in Cape Verde Creole (a mixture of West African and Portuguese) is spoken. Staff at hotels and restaurants speak and understand some English (some German and French).

Currency

The official currency unit is the CVE, Cap Verdean Escudos. 1 Escudo is 100 centavos. However, Euro is widely used in Sal (and Boa Vista): Prices are often quoted in Euro. 1 Euro is about equal to 100 CVE.

You can exchange EUR to CVE in banks for showing passports or alternatively in some hotels.
There are many ATMs in town and in the hotels (Sal). Note that there is a fee, so avoid withdrawing many small amounts, also because CVE is only used in Cape Verde.
VISA cards are widespread. MasterCard not so.

Hygiene

It is pretty clean in the tourist areas, inside and out in hotels and restaurants, the toilet conditions are good and there is soap and paper in most places. Still, be sure to avoid unwanted bacteria:

  • Drink bottled water
  • Wash hands frequently and with soap (use hand spray if necessary)

Transport and traffic

There are a total of 1100 km of road on the Cape Verde Islands. Approximately 858 km of these are paved.
At Sal and Boa Vista you can rent cars so you can get around the island.
However, the roads are in poor condition in many places, so getting around is not easy.

It is recommended to take a look at the island on a guided island tour, which may be just as cheap or cheaper than renting a car for a day.

Cycling and electric biking is very popular and there is many bicycle rental places at Sal and Boa Vista; also in hotels.

You can also take long walks along the coasts. If you want ‘real’ hiking, hiking, on volcanoes in green surroundings, you should choose some of the other islands.

You can take a taxi from the airport to the city and return: It costs about 15 EUR against approx. 40 EUR for a shuttle bus arranged from home through a travel agency. In the city there are also many taxis that run at fixed prices. About 2-4 euros, depending on time and distance.

There are no railways on the islands.
There are ferries and a ferry port in Palmeira on Sal, Sal Rei on Boa Vista, Praia on Santiago, Mindelo on Sao Vicente and other islands. Where there are no airports, ferries are popular.

From Sal to Boa Vista there is also a boat trip with a catamaran, Maximus, with daily departures, 9am and 2pm, for 50 euros per person (2019).

Ferry departures are irregular. You can go on “island hopping”, trips between the islands, but it is not easy and requires a lot of time (eg longer stays of 2-3 weeks).

Cape Verde has seven airports; at Boa Vista, Fogo, Maio, Sal, Santiago, Sao Nicolau, Sao Vicente. These are all small airports. The largest are at Sal, Amílcar Cabral International Airport, and at Santiago, Francisco Mendes International Airport, and Boa Vista, Rabil Airport.

Shopping

Quite refreshingly there are no international stores like H&M, Foot Locker etc. or large supermarkets with everything in food and electronics. There are small local shops and mini markets, which is refreshing and authentic, but be sure to bring the most important thing you need with you from home. There are pharmacies, but bring your own medicine from home.

If you want to shop, there is a mixture of handicraft, African colorful clothing, wicker baskets, wooden figures and jewellery, such as shells, and souvenirs. When shopping for souvenirs and the like, it is recommended that you bargain for the price. You pay in EUR or CVE.
There are street vendors and sellers trying to get you into the shops, but they are far from as aggressive and persistent as in, for example, Turkey and Egypt. They are friendly and understand a ‘no thanks’.

Dining

The food is well made and tasty and the prices are reasonable, around 25-30 EUR for 2-3 dishes. Not super cheap, but cheaper than in Denmark. There are quite a few restaurants (Sal) in the category, cheap, medium, and a little pricey.

Both meat and fish are of fine quality. It is highly recommended to eat seafood and fish (more than usual); They come in many varieties, large, fresh and tasty. For example, you can eat lobster for approx. DKK 250 against DKK 500 in Denmark.

Anne-Vibeke (traveling) recommends eating at Farolin Restaurant in Odjo d’Aqua on the outskirts of Santa Maria. Here you sit on an open terrace overlooking the city and the sea. Under the terrace, the waves strike the rocks. You should book a table.

I would recommend, among others, LobStar (for the atmosphere and the view of the sand), Le Privé for the experience and the food and the taste, as well as George’s (for tasty food and local ambiance – in a minimalistic setting).

Food beverages are bottled spring water, beer (also local), and European or overseas wine, such as Portuguese or Argentine, or the local Cha, which tastes excellent (alcohol percentage 14%). Before or after the meal there is the option of the usual drinks and cocktails (I saw no mocktails without alcohol).

The local specialty, the islands national drink, is grogue. It is made on cane juice and is somewhat reminiscent of rum. There are dark and light versions and sweet flavors that taste like liqueur.

You may give gratuity (which is not included in the price) of about 10%. Note that the locals do not take it for granted and there is no pressure.
When I left gratuity last day at the hotel, the waiter found me later in the morning and asked if I had forgotten my money on the table.

In another place, I paid a lot too much and could only “get change later”, but it never happened. Some locals probably think that tourists have a lot of money and this is a situation to get the most out of. So take that into account and arrange fixed prices, agreed amount, in advance.

A little about Cape Verde and Sal, the northernmost of the islands:

Cap verde

Cape Verde or Cabo Verde, the official name, means “green spring” in Portuguese. An archipelago consisting of 10 volcanic islands (and 8 small islets) located in the Atlantic Ocean, approx. 570 km (350 mi) west of the Cape Verde Peninsula on the North African mainland (Dakar).

All the islands are volcanic, but only Fogo has an active volcano (eruption in 1951, 1995, 2014).

The archipelago is part of the Macaronesia region together with the Azores, the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Savage Islands. Total area is approximately 4,033 square miles (1,500 sq mi).

Coffee and sugar are produced in some of the islands. At Fogo also the local wine (red wine and white wine), Cha, which is light and tasty. Otherwise, the natural resources – apart from the fish in the sea – are limited, so service industry and tourism are most widespread.

The islands are divided into two groups:
Barlavento Islands (Islands in the Wind Side):
Saint Anthony, Saint Vincent, Saint Luzia, Saint Nicholas, Sal

Sotavento Islands (islands on the Lee side):
May, Saint James (Santiago), Fire, Brava

The largest island in size and population size is Sao Tiago, where the capital of the Republic of Praia is located. However, Sal is the island where tourism is most systematized and widespread; fortunately without towering tourist hotels.

The islands are vastly different in appearance. Three of Cape Verde’s islands, Sal, Boa Vista and Maio, are relatively flat, sandy and dry; the others are generally more mountainous with more vegetation.

There are also great social contrasts: from the cities’ fine houses and luxury hotels to the outskirts of cities and the aluminum shelters in the countryside (without water, so children and adults carry water to the home in large plastic tanks).

About Cape Verde

The Cape Verde archipelago was uninhabited until the islands were discovered by the Portuguese during the great voyages of discovery in the mid-15th century. Later they became the hub of the Portuguese slave trade.

The islands developed economically throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and attracted traders and pirates. The end of transatlantic slavery in the 19th century led to economic decline and emigration. Cape Verde only gradually returned to its former glory as an important trading center and stop-over for freight routes.

Cape Verde became an independent African republic in 1975 following the carnival revolution in Portugal on April 25, 1974. Cape Verde’s largest city is the capital Praia, located on the island of São Tiago.
Cape Verde has been a stable representative democracy since the 1990s and remains one of the most developed and democratic countries in Africa.

There are only limited natural resources, so the economy – which took a severe fall during the financial crisis – is mainly based on tourism and foreign investment. The country is a member state of the African Union.

Population is approx. 540,000 inhabitants (2017), mostly of mixed European, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic and African descent.

The religion is predominantly Roman Catholic (over 90%) taken over from the former Portuguese colonial power, but with the influence of local African traditions. A minority of the inhabitants are Protestants (less than 10%).

Sal

Sal is one of the islands in the archipelago of Cape Verde, more specifically the Barlavento islands: on the windward side.
Cape Verde’s largest (but rather small) international airport, Amílcar Cabral International Airport, is located at Espargos in the northern part of Sal, about 20 minutes drive from the main city of Santa Maria.

The name Sal means salt in Portuguese and refers to the earlier very extensive salt extraction on the island.

Sal is the most well-developed island touristy, so there are many opportunities to stay in small or large hotels or resorts with larger swimming pool areas and more leisure activities.

The area is small 216 sqm. and there are approximately 17,244 inhabitants, of which 11367 live in Santa Maria and 5,877 in Espargos, the two largest cities.

Desert Landscape

From above, the island looks almost completely sand-colored and golden. That impression largely persists when you land and get around the island.

The island consists mainly of desert landscape; not with large sand dunes, but with brown, solid sand and dust and scattered low bushes. There are only a few trees, apart from a limited number of beautiful palm trees around the main city of Santa Maria.

Great coastline and water sports

On the other hand, the coast is formidable: a mix of rugged, dark lava cliffs and gushing waves and huge, beautiful sandy beaches and clear water – with limited undercurrent. Even so, children and unskilled swimmers should stick to bathing in the hotel’s swimming pools – and everyone else should also be wary of the high waves and places of high (under) current.

Because of the wind and waves, there are plenty of opportunities for surfing, windsurfing, kite surfing and in some places also SUP, stand-up paddle-boarding.

Around almost the entire island, diving is available at various depths and there are many opportunities to learn to snorkel and dive from the beach or at sea.

Paradise beaches

Two of Sal’s best sandy beaches – for sunbathing, beach sports and walks – are the beach at Ponta Preta, and the kite surfing paradise at Kite Beach. The World Champion in Kitesurfing (2019) is from Cape Verde and also the second, who is from Sal, and offers kitesurfing courses here.

Nature experiences

As something special, it is possible to see turtles and sharks. From March to May you can go whale watching and see humpback whales. Or you can go  shark spotting. You can also go on a luxury day trip on a yacht with champagne and food (about 100 Euro) or deep sea fishing with professional fishermen.

The island has a rich wildlife and it is advisable to take an island trip with an eco-friendly company with sustainability focus (arranges beach clean-ups a.o.). Unfortunately, many places just behind the city and tourist areas are filled with trash. In the photo, however, only conchy ‘debris’, cut off bits of conchy, glistening in the sun.

Excursions and experiences

Cultural experiences are limited by the islands, with the exception of selected historical buildings from the colonial period under Portugal and some monuments. Mostly in Santiago, San Tiago, which houses the capital Praia and has the largest population.
Fewer on Sal and Santa Maria and the other small towns on the island. You go to these islands mainly to experience nature, enjoy outdoor activities (especially on the beach or in the water) or eat fish.

It is recommended to go on a day trip or two half-day trips and see the island’s highlights. They are not spectacular, but definitely worth the trip.
Please note that the tours can take place in closed buses, which can be an advantage. Many of the trips take place in four-wheel drive vehicles, with four sitting inside and four sitting outside. It makes it easier to see and photograph. On the other hand, you sit in the wind and get covered with sand.

The northern part of the island has a ruin of a lighthouse. This part of the island is currently only on one trip (Hisbicus Excursion (2019)). Unfortunately, the purchased trip was chaotic at first, so this part of the trip was missed … You can possibly rent a car and drive there yourself, but the roads are very poor and the area is largely uninhabited, so locals do not recommend it…

Bring cash on the trip. On these trips in several places you have to pay yourself to get in (prices around 2-3 Euro).

Most trips have the following points:

Espargos

A city with low, colored buildings, small eateries and a vantage point that is not particularly pretty. From the top you can see over large parts of the island, ie views of sand and sand again and a few volcanic peaks (the highest is about 400 meters).

Buracona

Rocky area with a cave of water where the sun rays at the right time and draws an eye, The Blue Eye. However, you should not expect to see that. You look down a hole (maybe in gray weather) in a queue of tourists, so the experiences are nothing special. If you pay for a dive trip, you can go in and dive in the cave!

Outside, there is a beautiful lava rock landscape with stunning waves and a small natural pool to swim in. It is recommended. At the top there is a restaurant and a souvenir shop. In addition, there is a lava island garden and a minute geology museum. Recommended, but the whole place is very touristic.

Palmeira

The island’s port city, from where you can sail to Boa Vista.
A small town with festive colors houses and a small fishing village where you can watch the fishermen clean their fish – and meet many street vendors…

Shark Bay

Bring good bathing shoes (sandals) or rent a pair for 2 euros and go out into the water between small lemon sharks and watch the larger sharks swim around in the surf. Get ready to get wet when the waves hit you! A recommended experience.

Salinas de Pedra de Lume

Lake with salt extraction. An attractive area. You can go swimming in the salt lake, it’s a fun feeling. There are changing rooms and baths as well as a cafe.

ATV safari

As in other desert areas, you can go on a ‘safari’ with motor vehicles. Usually you drive in jeeps, but at Sal it is with small open ATVs (all terrain vehicles, called quadricycles) suitable for off-road driving. You borrow a full suit, motorcycle glasses and a helmet.
It’s a bumpy ride and a dusty experience, but fine for speed (and those who may not have tried it before). The tour takes you around the desert and out to the small fishing villages on the rocky coasts with beautiful natural small sea basins.

If you are in doubt whether to visit Sal or Boa, you can read this comparison written by Danish blogger  Miss Jeanet: Should you choose Sal or Boa Vista

Santa Maria

Santa Maria is a nice little tourist town. A pedestrian street and some small streets parallel and across with small shops, cafes, bars and restaurants.

There is a tranquil and friendly atmosphere, there are no loud music or noise
from shops. In restaurants and hotels, on the other hand, there is often local music (coladera, funaná, batuque and Morna); very often live music, incisive drum rhythms and violin, piano, clarinet and various guitars – and regularly with dance performances.

Just outside the city center there is a Pirate disco, for those who want more …

Fortunately, even if Sal, Cape Verde, is becoming more well-known, there is no extreme tourism and no white hotel skyscrapers.
On the island – more specifically in and around Santa Maria – hotels and resorts are a maximum of 2-3 floors and located at some distance from the beach and in several cases hidden behind walls and trees.

Special tip for free sightseeing: Take a trip to the Santa Maria pier. There are plenty of life and fishermen cleaning their big and small fish after today’s fishing trip.

Read more:

Miss Jeanett: Should you choose Sal or Boa Vista

Travel to Cape Verde: Sal, sun, sand and salt (more about food, exercise and memories)

Da.wikipedia.org: Cape Verde

En.wikipedia.org: Cape Verde

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