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Cape Verde - When and where to visit
Caught in the Sahel zone, Cape Verde is really a marine extension of the Sahara. The northeast tradewind is responsible for much of its climate. It blows down particularly strongly from December to April, carrying so little moisture that only peaks of 600m or more can tease out any rain. The high peaks, particularly on Fogo, Santo Antão and Brava, can spend much of the year with their heads in the clouds.
Added to that wind are two other atmospheric factors. First is the harmattan – dry, hot winds from the Sahara that arrive in a series of blasts from October to June, laden with brown dust which fills the air like smog. The second factor is the southwest monsoon, which brings the longed-for rains between August and October. Often half the year’s rainfall can tumble down in a single storm or series of storms. Unfortunately Cape Verde’s position is a little too far north for the rains to be guaranteed each year: it lies just above the doldrums, the place where the northeast and southwest tradewinds meet and where there is guaranteed rainfall.The longest recorded time Cape Verde has gone without being watered by the southwest monsoon is 18 years. For 12 years from 1968 there was also a drought.
In the ocean, the cool stream known as the Canary Current reaches the archipelago from the north and mitigates the heating effect of the northeast tradewind. Temperature variation on the islands is small – it remains between 22°C and 27°C on Santiago throughout the year. But these figures mask big variations between and even within islands. In the desert centre of some of the flat islands it can reach 40°C between July and September, while on the moist peaks of Santo Antão early in the year it can be as cool as 10°C.
Cape Verde’s rainfall figures tell a similarly strange story. A recurring theme is the wide variation in rainfall even between different slopes of the same island – the northeastern slopes are the wettest. On Fogo for example, the average rainfall over 35 years for the northeastern slope of Monte Velha is 1,190mm, while the average on its leeward side is 167mm. Monte Velha’s figures also reveal how precious rain can deluge an island over a very short period. In a single month, 20 years ago, 3,000mm of rain fell there. The lower islands, the flat ones, São Vicente and Santa Luzia, receive much less moisture, leaving them almost totally barren.
These chaotic figures can be processed to give mean average rainfalls in the range 10–900mm. Most regions of Cape Verde are classified as arid or semi-arid.
The islands are warm and sunny all year round so for many visitors without any special interests, it doesn’t really matter when they go. For windsurfers the best months are January and February while divers will find the calmest waters and peak visibility from June to December; beach lovers might wish to avoid the windy winter months. Fishermen after marlin should opt for May to October, while tuna fishing is at its best in August. For hikers, the mountainous islands are significantly more beautiful during and just after the rainy season of July to December, though flooding can impede some Santo Antão hikes. The heaviest rainfall is usually in August and September. For those concerned about the heat, the peak is in September (with an average daily temperature of 30°C), with the trough being in January (average 24°C). For those who wish to see nesting turtles the season is June to October, peaking in mid-July and August. Turtle hatchlings are born from mid-August until the end of November. Whale-watchers will find the best opportunities in March and April, particularly off Boavista. Photographers should avoid December to March when the harmattan winds dull the light, and leave deposits of sand. Party animals and music lovers might choose February for the São Vicente Carnival, or for that in São Nicolau; August for the São Vicente Baía das Gatas music festival; or May for the Gamboa music festival in Santiago. To coincide your visit with one of the more low-key festivals, consult the individual island chapters. Those on a tight budget will find hotels cheaper from April to June and in October, and should definitely avoid Christmas and Carnival time. Peace seekers might avoid July and August, when Cape Verde is full of both European holidaymakers and emigrante families taking their summer holidays back home. As well as Christmas and Carnival times, the whole period from November to March is high season.
Climbing Pico do Fogo, the highest peak in Cape Verde, is a highlight for many © Martin Haigh
Cape Verde is a superb hiking destination – the vistas from the mountains of Santo Antão or from the depth of its gorges, the lonely slopes of Brava and the stunning interior of the brooding volcano crater of Fogo make for a unique experience. Much of the walking on Cape Verde is on the extraordinary cobbled paths that have been constructed in the most unlikely corners and up the steepest of slopes, making the walking much easier than might be construed from the map.
On Santo Antão the classic walks are up or down the ribeiras, taking transport at the beginning or end. On Fogo, the highlight for many is to ascend the Pico, the 2,829m spectacular volcano cone and, for some, to spend a night or two in its shadow. On Brava there are endless walks criss-crossing the steep ‘flower’ island where you are unlikely to meet any other travellers. São Nicolau is a gentle and quiet island with a hidden, green and mountainous heartland filled with beautiful walks, whilst Santiago has its own mountainous spine with some fine walks between it and the coast. Most of the walks require a certain amount of fitness because they are steep, and a certain elasticity of knee for the descents. For those seeking very gentle hikes there are options in Santo Antão and Boavista, but few attractive flat walks on the other islands. You can penetrate quite far by vehicle, however – into Fogo’s crater and far up one or two of Santo Antão’s ribeiras.
The beach at Santa Maria on Sal Island © Samuel Borges Photography/Shutterstock
Cape Verde has miles and miles of virgin coastline, but without the palm trees. Sal, Boavista and Maio have the best white sands. Whether white or black sands, the shores are breathtakingly beautiful – and many of them are remote and desolate too. Luxury holiday resorts are now very common in Santa Maria on Sal and there are a few, too, on Boavista. There are more under construction and some seemingly abandoned projects on Maio and São Nicolau. Beware, though, that some beach tourists complain about the wind and some seem to be plagued in the rainy months by flies, too; others have complained that swimming was not safe in front of their hotel: check before you book. Keen swimmers might want to choose accommodation with a pool, rather than rely on the ocean.
with Jacquie Cozens
Will Cape Verde soon rival the Red Sea for diving or is it all just hype? The marine life is certainly abundant and there is the novelty of being in the Atlantic yet encountering tropical fish such as parrotfish, angelfish or the occasional whale shark. In addition, flight times from Europe are relatively short, you are never likely to tie up on a crowded dive site and there are exciting seasonal events such as the migration of humpback whales and the breeding of turtles. That said, there are no classic coral reefs, there are occasional strong currents and wind, the water is colder and diving is in its infancy.
The potential as a diving destination is huge, as the relative isolation in the middle of a vast ocean is likely to lead to exciting and unexpected encounters.
Although there are centres on five of the islands, most of the focus is on Sal which has a variety of sites in Santa Maria Bay within 10 to 15 minutes’ boat ride, a few along the west coast and some less frequently visited places on the east coast. The underground topography consists of rocky ridges, pinnacles and boulders and underwater arches and caves. On Sal there are five wrecks at between 5m and 30m, the latest having been sunk in April 2008 by Manta Diving Center, though actually diving them can be difficult. Sal also offers the opportunity to dive in caves that have been formed by lava in the north of the island. A classic dive is Buracona, a 40m tunnel that emerges at the ‘Blue Eye’, a pool where you can surface to see the surprised faces of land-based tourists looking down on you.
Dive sites in Cape Verde are usually ridges with big overhangs smothered in bright-yellow polyps and populated with large aggregations of surgeonfish, goatfish, parrotfish, Atlantic bigeyes, enormous scribbled filefish and metre-long cornet fish. At certain times papaguia (Guinea grunts) form huge balls of up to 1,000 fish. The macro life is also abundant, with numerous nudibranchs, tiny coral eels, sharpnose puffers and frogfish. Large marine life you may encounter include dolphins and five species of turtles, including loggerheads which come ashore to nest between June and October. Species such as endangered tiger sharks and bull sharks were once common but are now more often seen being gutted on the pier. Sometimes there are nurse sharks, lemon sharks, reef sharks and manta rays. Humpback whales visit in the spring.
In general the diving around all the islands is reliably good and, compellingly, it is very underexplored. The potential as a diving destination is huge, as the relative isolation in the middle of a vast ocean is likely to lead to exciting and unexpected encounters. Water temperatures range from 21°C to 27°C. Diving and courses are available on Sal, Boavista, Santiago, São Vicente and Santo Antão. All the centres have rental gear. Be aware that there is no operational recompression chamber on any of the islands.
Cape Verde has superlative big-game fishing. Blue marlin, for example, is big both in numbers and in size (fish up to 750lb have been caught here). There are also tiger shark, sailfish, swordfish, kingfish and striped and white marlin. Closer in to shore there are wahoo, albacore, yellowfin tuna, grouper and dorado. Big-game fishing is best from São Nicolau and between São Vicente and Santo Antão, though it is also possible from Maio. Hiring a boat for the day for such a trip is around €700–1,000 per day, depending on whether it is a local fishing boat or not, while booking an all-inclusive week’s trip is around €1,800–2,800, depending on numbers. Around the archipelago it is possible to join local fishermen on their trips, a great experience whether you personally catch anything or not. Often they go out a few hundred metres, drop anchor, and fish for skipjack, grouper, squirrelfish and many other varieties. Some go night-fishing for morays. The locals use harpoons to catch lobster, octopus and parrotfish. As sport fishing grows in popularity, so do less than ecologically sound practices. Many operators with limited knowledge of marine life take undersized fish and target marginal species such as sharks, marlin and other billfish. If you don’t want to contribute to this indiscriminate practice look out for a skipper who practises catch and release.
Sailing, surfing and windsurfing
With the trade winds providing a remarkably steady force 5 to 6 in winter falling to a gentler force 3 to 4 in summer, wind is never lacking, and Cape Verde has become an international windsurfing and kitesurfing destination.
Sailing around the islands is still quite unusual. At any one time there might be 20 or more boats moored in the main harbour of São Vicente, and a few more to be found in those of Sal and Santiago. A promised new marina project in Praia has not materialised. Facilities are far inferior to the Azores or Canaries, but there are beautiful anchorages at Murdeira Bay on Sal, at the remote Fajã d’Água on Brava and at Tarrafal in north Santiago. In fact, each island has some sort of shelter but it may be a long trek to get provisions and an even longer one if you need spare parts. There are many day excursions in large sailing boats and powerboats on Sal but less available on other islands. Yachts can also be rented, with or without skipper, in São Vicente. The Itoma is a 23m (70ft) motor-catamaran with room for 16 passengers; its owners organise cruising, diving and windsurfing tours.
A surfer catching a wave at Ponta Preta, Sal Island © Marco Muscarà
Cape Verde has 965km of coastline, spotted with reefs and points and steady wind throughout the year, and its reputation as an international windsurfing, kitesurfing and surfing destination is growing. The water is warm and the swell from the open Atlantic, during the winter, can be big. It is similar to the Canaries and the Azores in the kind of swell it picks up – but it is warmer. The Barlavento – the islands in the north – are in the best position for winter surf, while the Sotavento – southern islands – pick up summer, tropical swells and swells from far away in the south Atlantic. The wind is strongest in the winter and calmest from May to September.
The winter swell season runs from January to March and at this time the average deep-swell height is about 1.8m. The swells tend to hit the western coasts of the islands and wrap around into spots heading south. The result is off shore conditions with northeast winds.
The best-known island for surfing is Sal, whose most famous wave is at Ponta Preta – a long, classic right-hand reef with 200m rides. There are also surfing spots on Santiago – Tarrafal, and the coast in the southeast, south of Ponte de Lobo. The surf is mostly reef breaks but there are some beach breaks. Boards are available for hire in Sal, São Vicente and in Tarrafal on Santiago.
Cape Verde is a popular destination for windsurfers from Europe to Hawaii, and regularly hosts championships. The two main islands for windsurfing are Boavista and Sal, with São Vicente and São Nicolau offering a lot of potential but little as yet in the way of facilities.
November to the end of May is the windy season. During this time, the winds range from 18 knots to 22 knots and are good for both intermediate and advanced riders. Even during the windiest times there will be days that are good for beginners. If you want to avoid strong winds, the best time to learn is during the summer. Sal has a dedicated kitesurfing bay and also has Ponta Preta, whose huge breakers, kicked up by a strong offshore wind, led to the venue being added to the World Wave Circuit in 2007 and the Professional Windsurfers Association World Cup in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In São Vicente, in the bay of Mindelo, the average wind speed between January and June is 16 knots, with gusts of up to 30 knots. Round the coast in São Pedro Bay, world windsurfing speed records have been set and the current record is over 40 knots.