Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Cape Verde and the island of Sal

This won't be much of a food review, just a few thoughts on my holiday in Cape Verde. I have split it into two parts, so more thoughts and photos will follow later on.

I have to admit that when my colleague travelled to CV a few months back I had no idea where the country was located and had to Wikipedia it (yes, if "to google" is a verb, then so is "to Wikipedia"). CV is a group of ten islands (nine of them inhabited) located off the Senegalese coast, and only a three and a half hour flight from Brazil. It gained its independence from Portugal in 1975 and hence the official language is Portugese. At home people speak Creole, a mix of Portugese, Spanish, English and French. Kids learn English in school and as tourism is the main field of employment you will find almost everyone you need to communicate with know English.

Not hard to imagine why many people call it the "New Caribbean"

The island with the most tourists is Sal, one of the islands with the long white sand beaches. This is also where we visited. The island got its name from the salt that was being produced here in the old volcano crater on the island, and over 40,000 tons of salt used to be exported all over the world. Now there is only very small scale production for local use. The salt mines are a tourist attraction and you can go floating in the salt pools which have 26 times the concentration of salt compared to sea water. When you get out and dry off, you skin will feel like sandpaper from all the crystallised salt, it's rather unbelievable.

The salt mines in the volcano crater. The scaffolding used to support the cable car
that transported the salt from the mine to the nearby small harbour.
The reason to come here is the sea, which some people have said is as amazing as the sea in the Caribbean. Tourists come for the white sand beaches and turquoise sea, or to do watersports. Conditions are ideal for windsurfing, kite surfing and scuba diving, particularly in the winter when winds are stronger whereas summer is low season. The rest of the island is rather barren (think of Luke Skywalker's home planet in Star Wars), although if you come around August you can see the hoards of turtles that come to the beaches to lay their eggs in the sand. Unfortunately, we visited just before the main turtle season. It seems like the island is rather protective of its turtles, with restricted beaches and big signs urging you to only join the official turtle tours to minimise the impact on the lives of these lovely animals.

There is over 8 km of white sand beaches on Sal.
Most tourists stay in a few main hotel resorts which are all inclusive, have their own pools and beaches, so there is no need to ever leave the little oasis that is you resort. And there really isn't that many places to go, the two cities on the island are Espargos, the capital, and Santa Maria in the south. The island has around 20,000 inhabitants with 14,000 of them living in Espargos as the locals can't afford to live in Santa Maria, which is essentially a tourist town. Small minibuses shuttle the locals back and forth between the two cities.

View over Espargos, the island's capital, from the hill that the city is built around.
If you come here, you should definitely do a tour of the island. The travel agencies offer their tours, but you get a much better deal if you go with a local guide (well, I didn't do both tours so I can't compare, but at least financially the local tours are a much better deal). You can find the local guides on the beach outside the main resorts, and they will try to sell you their tours very aggressively. If you get stressed by the aggressive marketing, just pick a tour and go at the beginning of your holiday, they do keep good track of who have already been on a tour and will stop harassing you after that.

View of the Sleeping Lion mountains.
We ended up choosing the No Stress tour run by brothers Dilan and Ola, and were very happy with our tour. It seems like all the tours have more or less the same stops, but our tour seemed to outlast the others as we could see some of the other tour cars heading back to the hotel much earlier than we did. You will get a guided tour all around he island with a local guide, our guide was born and raised on Sal. Just one hint, although it seems tempting to sit out on the back of the truck, I suggest you sit inside. Everything worth seeing can be seen and photographed during the stops, you will be protected from the sun and particularly the omnipresent dust and best of all you will have your guide available at all times to answer any questions you may have. I really liked that our guide was very honest in his answers, talking about the good and bad things and showing us all of the island, the natural beauty and also the poor parts. During the tour you will see the sleeping lion mountains, the shark cove with a very high chance of seeing the lemon sharks, the fishing village of Palmeira, the Buracona or Blue Eye (if the sun is shining and you get there before noon), the island capital Espargos, the salt mines and much more. Our tour lasted from 9.30 am to about 4.30 pm which for €25 (and an added €5 for the salt baths) was a rather good deal.

Buracona, or The Blue Eye that is visible when the sun hits a deep well of sea water. It is very striking as you peer down a deep dark well, and once you lean far enough over the edge it comes to view.

Lemon sharks. You could walk almost right up to the sharks in the shallow water.

Part 2 to follow in a few days with more pictures and a few words on the local cuisine.

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