Cape Verde: the reality beyond the resorts

The Macaronesia is a geographical region that comprises some of the islands of the Atlantic off the shores of Africa and Europe. The Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores…and Cabo Verde. Those who know me know that I am a big fan of the Canary Islands. Sweet weather and awesome hikes can never be a bad mix. In my imagination, before traveling to Cabo Verde, I thought it would follow the same pattern as the other Macaronesian islands — European tourists flooding the islands, high prices and not much of the “true essence” (if any) of the place itself. Little did I know that my trip to Cabo Verde would end up being radically different.

Cabo Verde got its independence in 1975 when the dictatorship in Portugal came to an end. Contrary to Angola or Mozambique, the revolution in the country was rather soft and some people were not in favor of attaining independence from Portugal. Cuba and other communist countries aided greatly the island country due to the Cold War context, and consequentially the nation became ruled by a Marxist one-party (PAIGC) system. Cabo Verde managed to get rid of Portugal joining efforts with the other former Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau. After independence, both countries were ruled by the PAIGC and there was a project to join both nations in some sort of federation. Nonetheless, this never happened due to several factors, communism fell and since the 90s Cape Verde is one of the “healthiest” democracies in Africa.

The country has around ten main islands. The most inhabited (and important one) is Santiago, where we can find the capital city of Praia. Nonetheless, most of the Cape Verdean tourism is located in the Eastern islands, which are notably arid — just as if a small bit of the Sahara desert had decided to break away from the continent and had sailed towards the West. The islands towards the South were the first ones to be inhabited (slaves brought by the Portuguese) and is predominantly black, while the islands towards the North started being populated centuries after, when mixing between white Europeans and black Africans became allowed, therefore the ethnic differences within the country are quite noticeable and are a clear example of the brutal history of the territory.

Cape Verde suffered greatly all throughout history. The ten islands of the country have witnessed some of the worst chapters of history. Millions of slaves passed by Cape Verde on their way to the Americas, in fact, slavery was the main economy of the territory until its abolition in 1873. After that, the islands entered in a period of a great economic crisis and Portugal ignored the territory to a large extent until its independence. In fact, during WW2, a famine killed 30% of its population and up to 60% of the people of the main island, Santiago. For the last centuries, Cape Verde has faced brutal droughts that together with the poor conditions of its soil, does not allow for prosperous agriculture/farming. Nowadays, Cape Verde imports 70% of its food, something which is easily noticeable when buying at the local supermarkets.

Old chimney of an abandoned ceramic factory close to a beach. Now completely swallowed by the moving dunes.

Even in the poorest parts of Boa Vista I wasn’t able to find affordable prices for food — I ended up eating pasta with tomato sauce three times during my trip. The prices match those of Spain or Italy. I wonder how people afford to do their groceries taking into account the average salary is around 160€/month. One thing that shocked me was the fact that 90% of the supermarkets in the islands are owned and run by Chinese individuals. If anyone reading this knows why this is, please let me know.

Sal is Cabo Verde’s most visited island. Since the country transitioned into an open market economy, the government started selling land at a very low price to big hotel chains. Together with the construction of great international airports, the economy of Cabo Verde was set to experience a significant boost out of the tourism industry. Nowadays, tourism makes up about 30% of the country’s GDP, while fish exports still make the biggest part of Cabo Verde’s economy. One would think that the influx of tourists has helped boosting development across the country. Truth is, this only applies to the few islands that receive the massive groups of European visitors, and is really focalized in a few aspects such as road infrastructure and air infrastructure. For the rest, Cabo Verde is visibly at a similar developing stage as that of its West African counterparts. It ranks 131st in the Development Index rankings, below countries such as Iraq and Bangladesh. While big resorts are being constructed across specific parts of the islands of Sal and Boa Vista, the rest of the country still struggles to afford food.

Rabil, Boa Vista’s ancient capital.

The companies that organize flights from Europe to Cape Verde are just a few. Most of them (such as TUI or Transavia) fly from Northwestern Europe to Boa Vista, drop a couple of tourists there and then continue on to Sal, the final destination of most of the passengers. Making good use of surprisingly cheap flights, I embarked on one of these flights with TUI and got down in Boa Vista. Boa Vista is similar to Sal “concept-wise”, but bigger, with less population and way less tourists. Only a few resorts have been built in the island as Sal is still the preferred option for the families that choose to come to Cape Verde looking for sunshine and pristine beaches. I was the first one to get down of the plane, and as I had anticipated, most of the tourists stayed in the plane as they had Sal as their final destination.

I was truly shocked with Boa Vista. I was expecting something similar to Fuerteventura: a place overrun by tourists where everything is organized around this industry. Instead, I was welcomed by a pure West African environment which reminded me of my trip to The Gambia. Contrary to what I thought, most of the population in Sal Rei, the capital, is local. I barely saw any tourist during my stay. Talking to some locals, I learned that 90% of the tourists just stay in the resorts towards the South and the West of the island and not too many of them want to explore the local life of Boa Vista.

The town of João Galego in Eastern Boa Vista.

Sal Rei is a lovely fishing village in the Northwest which used to be a salt exporting port. The town is no more than two centuries old, as in the past the local population feared building towns near the coast due to the constant threat of pirate raids. I rented an e-bike from an Italian guy to travel around the island. It is worth saying that there is an considerable amount of Italians in the island. According to other Italians I spoke to, they came around the 90s to take advantage of the new opportunities caused by the end of the Marxist doctrine in Cabo Verde. With the motorbike, I traversed endless cobblestone roads as I cut through a monotonous arid landscape, and for an instant I imagined I was riding the American Route 66. The roads were a big pain and my body shook like jelly. The only well-paved roads connect the capital city with the airport and the airport with the resorts. The rest of the island is left practically left out the development schemes.

As I rode the bike East, I arrived to the villages of João Galego, Fundo de Figueiras and Cabeça dos Tarrafes. These were some of the first villages to be ever built in Boa Vista. It is not possible to see the sea from there, reason why they chose that location to build the village (to avoid the pirate raids). Life in these villages is calm and quite. The silence is only broken by some house renovations and the kids laughing at the public playground. I sometimes felt that the noise of my bike riding over the cobblestone roads was breaking a perfect harmony. Although the heat is not intense, the landscape reminded me of the Sahel or drier Kenyan savannahs. If I had woken up in one of these villages without knowing were I was, I would have assumed I was somewhere in Northern Nigeria or Niger. 

The people were curious about my bike, and my knowledge of Portuguese made it easier for me to communicate with them and ask them questions. In Cabo Verde they speak a creole version of Portuguese, which was unintelligible for me, but luckily everyone was able to switch to standard Portuguese when talking to me. To be able to speak to the local population in their “home language” is a very rewarding experience which reminds me once in a while why I should keep on learning languages. In Fundo de Figueiras I stumbled upon a sign that displayed the logo of the Spanish Embassy and the Spanish Cooperation Agency. It was a small museum or “center of interpretation” of the wildlife of the country, with a special focus on the turtle nesting process. 

The location of this center was rather odd to me as the village is far from the sea. A local lady that opened the doors of the museum for me explained to me that the Spain is quite involved in developing these communities and has several cooperation projects led by seasonal volunteers. In fact, Spain is the largest export partner of Cape Verde with more than half of the total exports going to the European country (way more than to its former metropolis, Portugal). According to the woman that opened the door for me, the reason why they chose this village for building such center was due to the fact that a big part of the village makes a living from the sea, even if it is located in the interior. The battery of my bike was running alarmingly low so I decided to come back to Sal Rei right after eating a delightful Cape Verdean lunch. The feeling of being alone in the middle of nowhere zig-zagging the cobblestone road as I crossed the desert is hard to describe.

Cape Verde was a bizarre trip, perhaps because my foundations on the country were challenged, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting it to be so genuine. I also felt alone from time to time — something that it never happens to me when I solo-travel. I was meant to do this trip with a person that never made it, and I truly missed her presence. The outcome of my trip to Cabo Verde was the result of a clash of expectations, both in the good and the bad sense. I hope to be back soon.

Thanks for reading!

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