santiago island

Eggs & potatoes in a tropical paradise

Last week Brittany and I took a “ladies vacation” as my mom called it to Cabo Verde (until recently “Cape Verde” in English although it’s “Cap Vert” in French which is how I think of it since all the planning was done here). You could be forgiven for not knowing anything at all about Cabo Verde - it’s a tiny country made up of 9 also tiny islands off the coast of Senegal, just south of the Canary Islands. We visited three of the islands throughout the week, so I’ll divide this post up by island. I made a video compilation of all the little clips I took of the landscapes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVfdJw9M1Pw (set it to high resolution so you can see the images better). 

1. Santiago - Praia side

Santiago is the biggest island (it takes two hours to drive from top to bottom and about an hour to do the width) and we flew from Dakar to the capital, Praia, which is on the south side of the island. We took the Cabo Verde national airline, TACV, which I was expecting, given that the flight was about $100 round trip and was going to be an hour and TACV mostly does island hopping within Cabo Verde, a puddle jumper plane with a bring-your-own-folding-chair to sit on type deal but boy was I wrong. The plane was the size of a regional jet in the US and pretty new and they even served us all sandwiches, which blew me away. Granted, the sandwich was a hotdog bun with some cheese slices, but still, I was so impressed.

We arrived in Praia in the evening and quickly made friends with a French guy who was in our hostel and he explained that apparently Praia is dangerous at night because of gangs so we went the three of us to get some food at a restaurant near the hostel. I was blown away by how dead everything was. It was only 8 PM and there was almost no one outside and practically every shop was closed. It was the quietest city, even during the day, that I’ve ever been in. The next day as we were exploring the city, I was struck by how small it felt, especially coming from Dakar, and how orderly and calm it was. It almost felt European at times, and occassionaly even kind of reminded me of Goa in India (Portuguese colonization being what the two places have in common). We went and explored the ruins in the old city where the Portuguese had first arrived and walked up to the fort. We came across an old abandoned bar/restaurant, which was wild - it’s state wasn’t so dissimilar from the ruins of the old cathedral which were several hundred years old, but it was probably only a couple of decades abandoned (I would imagine that has something to do with weather wear). You could see all the old spots where there used to be a bar and bar stools and the bathroom, but it was totally gutted.

^The abandoned bar/restaurant

We ate dinner at a jazz club/restaurant downtown which was great because Cabo Verdian music is lovely and we got to try homemade “punch” which was everywhere and was basically rum with honey and coconut and tamarind (there are other kinds too, every sort of flavor you could imagine) and it’s so good. However I was massively annoyed because we both ordered the “vegetarian” dish which I was expecting to be like a vegetable curry of some kind which sounded good and I asked if it came with rice (the waiter told us he spoke French and seemed to be telling the truth) and the waiter said yes but then it came out and it was a plate with like 10 slices of raw vegetables on it and nothing else and I was absolutely furious because it was like 8 dollars which is completely insane given that most dishes in restaurants were in the $3-5 range.

2. Sao Vicente

The next day we went back to the airport at 5 AM, which, armed with the unfortunate knowledge that Praia is not a good place to be hanging out in the dark, was not fun because we had to stand around on the empty street waiting for a cab with our phones and passports in our underwear like idiots because the hostel owner never showed up the previous evening so we couldn’t ask him to call us a cab for the next morning (not that this was a surprise, he had messaged me before we left Dakar asking if we wanted to be picked up at the airport, to which I said sure, and no one showed up to pick us up). We found another woman standing waiting for something and waited with her, luckily only for about ten minutes before a cab drove by. We felt bad leaving her on the street but with the language barrier (Cabo Verdians speak Creole and Portuguese) we couldn’t get across that she could come in our cab to wherever she was going also.

Just as in Praia, when we arrived in Mindelo, the cultural capital and the only big city on Sao Vicente, the cab that the hostel was allegedly sending us didn’t come. I was still stoked about the hostel because it’s also a cat shelter so there were cats everywhere.

^ Some of the cats at the hostel; they had their own special area and every time I came in they would go nuts and start chatting away and meowing like crazy and trying to climb up me

Mindelo is much bigger and more alive than Praia and also absolutely gorgeous. The city is nestled in a half-moon cove with a lovely marina on the most perfectly blue water that looked more like the light blue Gatorade than the ocean. We spent most of the day sitting in the floating cafe we found in the marina enjoying the view and the perfect weather and tranquility and then Brittany went to nap in the hostel and I walked up to the old fort that looked like it would have a good 360 view. When I got to the top I discovered that it was private property but that sign was accompanied by only about 5 feet of fence so I just walked right by it to do a quick round and take some pictures, since there was absolutely no one around. Those pictures are on the photo blog. Then we went to the store and bought a bunch of chips and snacks and went and sat on the beach. We swam but neither of us had bathing suits so we wore our PJs, which was bizarre because that meant wearing shorts in public which I would never dream of doing in Senegal, but in Cabo Verde most of the women were wearing mini skirts and short shorts most of the time.

^ From the floating café. We stole the label off our Cabo Verdian beer 

We had been trying to taste the national dish, catchupa, which appeared to be some sort of beans and rice deal, but every time we ordered it they came back and said “no catchupa” (we were mostly getting by with Brittany mumbling in Spanish and hoping for the best, but sometimes when that didn’t work I would try French and then we would speak to each other in English and people would just stare at us in utter confusion and back away slowly). So for dinner we went into this little local looking restaurant and ordered some catchupa and Brittany was trying to explain that she was a vegetarian, but apparently the Spanish mumbling didn’t work because we thought we were getting catchupa with egg and potato instead of with meat - we were sitting there waiting and laughing about how funny it would be if we ended up with just eggs and potatoes when she came out with two plates of french fries and a fried egg. She looked really confused when we both broke down laughing. Every time we ordered in a restaurant after that we were half expecting to be served a plate of eggs and fries.

3. Santo Antão

The next morning we took the ferry from Sao Vicente (the island Mindelo is on) to Santo Antão, which was easily one of my favorite parts of the trip - I already love boats, plus the islands are so close together and both so mountainous that at any point throughout the hour long ride you can see both (those views are in the video I mentioned at the top of this post). Plus the early morning light on the water and the cool breeze, and there was a cafe/bar thing on the boat so Brittany and I were even able to get some coffee. 

^ Coffee on the ferry 

When we arrived we grabbed an aluguer, amid some confusion. The aluguers aren’t taxis but they aren’t buses either, they’re generally big Toyota 15-seater vans (in fabulous condition, we couldn’t believe it - and the taxis in Praia were late model Toyota Corollas which for some reason was hilarious to us…not quite as much character as my beloved dilapidated Renaults with weird furry seat covers) and you pay your spot like in a bus but unlike a bus they don’t all have a set route. Some do, some have names of towns and/or cities painted on the side and they just go back and forth between those places but others just go where they decide they’re going to go that day and pick up people along the way. Anyway, we were jostled around a bit by the competing aluguer drivers but eventually got one to Paul, the city on the coast at the foot of the valley that we were planning to hike. It was a striking drive, the edges of the mountains of Santo Antão are baren and dotted with dramatic cliffs and drops into the ocean below, which was raging and wavy like I’ve never seen. But in Paul, it starts to get really green, palm trees start to pop up and I’ll get to it in a minute but once on the interior of the island its lush and green everywhere you look. Paul, or Vila das Pombas, I never figured out why some people called it one thing and some the other, is a tiny but nice little town on the water that stretches the coast before shooting up into the hills directly behind it. 

^ Vila das Pombas 

Our hotel was a few minutes up the hill and owned by a really friendly Italian guy who spoke no English or French but enough Spanish to sort of communicate with Brittany. Despite the language barrier he tried really hard to be helpful and answer our questions about the hiking etc. and his little hotel, with just two rooms, was absolutely adorable. Plus I was excited because he had a cat, one of the cutest most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen, who was super duper pregnant - it looked like she had swallowed a football. She would come sit outside our room and purr so loudly the floorboards would shake until I opened the door and then she would dart into the room, much to Brittany’s dismay.

We got a different kind of aluguer, kind of like a bush taxi here in Senegal, just a pickup with some benches in the back, up the mountain(s) about an 45 minutes (it probably would have taken twenty if we didn’t keep having to stop and reverse for 100 meters down the tiny narrow mountain road to accommodate the occasional car coming the other way, once we had to do it three times before we rounded a single bend).

^ In the aluguer 

The hills just kept getting more and more massive - I suppose in some circles a “massive hill” is known as a “mountain” - and steep and green and there were little villages here and there but mostly just lots of banana and sugar cane and what I think was maybe corn and of course palm trees. We hiked the rest of the way up (about 2 hours of basically walking straight up on this absurd winding path) to Cova Crater, which is nothing special but the view from up next to it is extraordinary, especially since you can look down over the hills you just crossed through and see the ocean where you started and all while you’re above the clouds. Saying that walking back down was harder than going up would probably be overstating it, but it was not easy. In most places it was so steep that you couldn’t help but run down it failing your arms around like an idiot, and as we got closer to the bottom the dirt got looser and looser and there weren’t rocks and roots anymore and we were sliding around almost breaking our ankles every five seconds. But we made it down, exhausted and sunburnt (I put on so much sunscreen, religiously reapplied, and still got burnt to a crisp). We found a pizza place in town and basically dragged ourselves inside but it was totally empty and smelled like weed and then the Italian guy who owned it (I’m not sure why there are so many Italians living in Cabo Verde) came out from the back and told us that they didn’t start making pizza for another two hours because island time so we went back to the hotel and laid prostate on our beds half conscious until it was time and then we sprinted back to the restaurant and seriously contemplated getting two pizzas each. The pizza was great (Italians) and the owner, who spoke only Italian and Portuguese (it’s amazing how far one romance language gets you with the other, I understood almost everything that was said in Spanish and Italian throughout the week but since Portuguese has a totally different sound to it the same did not really apply) was so nice and served us some homemade “punch” and also gave us free shots of some sort of Italian lemon-y liquor.

The next day was quite relaxed because we were both basically zombies. We went to the edge of the island and did a short hike along the coast to a small village built into the cliffs called Fontainhas and then drank some coffee by the water before getting the aluguer back to the port city to get the ferry back to Sao Vicente. This time I stood all the way on top the whole time and it was so windy that I couldn’t wear my hat and I was half convinced that my face itself was going to be blown off. It was so windy I was terrified to take pictures and videos because I was worried about the genuine possibility of the wind blowing my phone out of my hands, so I white-knuckled it whenever I took any pictures.

4. Santiago again - Tarrafal side

We flew back to Santiago and stayed in Praia just for the night since we arrived late and couldn’t keep traveling until the next day. So early the next morning we got an aluguer to Tarrafal, the biggest city (which is not saying much at all) on the far north of the island. When I say we got an aluguer, I really mean we found one going to Tarrafal and sat in it falling asleep for two hours while we waited for other passengers and these two guys used some weird blue filmy material to tint the windows of the van. The drive was about two hours through rolling baren hills and dramatic peaks and then about halfway there the hills grew into mountains and we reached a certain point where you could see Tarrafal on the coast below but unfortunately it was quite overcast so none of my photos from the drive came out. We had been planning to hike in the nearby national park but we were so beat that we ended up just wandering around the tiny deserted city, or town really, sitting on the beach and going to bed at like 8:30 PM. We finally got to try catchupa, after a great deal of confusion and negotiations regarding Brittany’s vegetarianism, and while eating it it was good but it was perhaps the heaviest thing I have ever eaten in my life, I can’t understand how Cabo Verdians eat it for breakfast every day. It literally felt like someone had opened my stomach, placed all of the catchupa into it and then closed it again, and then it sat there like that for 24 hours. For dinner we had a plate of plain rice and some mild cheese cubes because we were incapable of eating real food with the catchupa still in us and I think our waitress thought we were insane.

The next day when we felt like real humans again we finally went to the national park, and even though it was a bit overcast (which did not prevent me from getting sunburnt again) the hike was beautiful - I love green mountains but I almost like bare ones more, because the closest ones look sort of brown but then they fade to purple and then to blue and the clouds cast crazy shadows over them that you can clearly see since there are so few trees. We were just congratulating ourselves on how easy the hike had been, since we started already high up and basically just walked straight along the top of the mountain ridge, when we got to a sharp turn downhill and a sign introducing the new trial which included the qualifiers « Difficulty: Hard » and « Path quality: bad ». Both of those things turned out to be true. Mostly because the path was in many places about as wide as one of my feet and it was basically three hours straight downhill. When we finally reached the town at the bottom where we could allegedly get an aluguer back to Tarrafal, we were disappointed to discover that our excessively vocalized fantasies about going to a little boutique in the town and getting some chips or a Kit Kat bar (which were strangely ubiquitous even in small stores) and some cold water were not going to be realized as the tiny town/village that we ended up waiting an hour in had no stores and also for some indistinguishable reason smelled so bad I thought I was going to pass out while we waited. But eventually and aluguer passed and we hopped on - when we got back to Tarrafal we bought chips and Kit Kat bars and then got another aluguer back to Praia and got cheeseburgers (and a veggie burger) and ate way too many french fries before packing up our stuff in preparation to fly back to Dakar the next day.