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May 12, 2014, Cape Verde

A heaven for hikers

Walking trails on the islands of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa offer spectacular views of volcanic mountains, green valleys and unspoilt beaches

Tan Chung Lee

Aptly shaped like a ship’s anchor, the archipelago of Cape Verde (Cabo Verde in Portuguese) is a cluster of 10 small volcanic islands scattered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa. But what islands!

The variety of its landscape is mind-boggling. Soaring craggy peaks interspersed with lush deep valleys dotted with villages and farmland in the interior; swathes of hillside terraces along the coast, with villages perched at dizzying heights on top of narrow rock outcrops; powder-white beaches encircling the islands.

Scenery apart, what makes Cape Verde, independent since 1975, stand out is its intriguing cultural mix – part African because of its heritage, a bit European thanks to its Portuguese history and an inexplicable feel of the Caribbean, perhaps the result of the mestico (mixed) legacy of its people and the infusion of a soulful kind of music. The latter was best personified by the late Cesaria Evora, dubbed the “barefoot diva”, who gave a memorable performance in Singapore at the Esplanade in 2002.

Most of Cape Verde’s half a million tourists make a beeline for the islands of Boa Vista, Sal and Maio, drawn to their beaches, where all-inclusive resorts cater to sun and surf revellers. But for those in the know, Cape Verde is tops as a premier hiking destination, offering unique walking trails of incredible beauty.

Of its nine inhabited islands, six of them offer a variety of such trails, with the best walks to be found on two islands – Santo Antao and Santiago.

Much of Santo Antao, the second largest of the Cape Verde islands, is criss-crossed by ribeiras. These streams have carved out deep wide valleys, which house small villages where people lead idyllic lives as they have for centuries. Even if you are not a hiker, you can appreciate the beauty of Santo Antao on drives along precarious mountain and coastal roads, making stops to admire the spectacular views.

Walk along lofty ridges to descend into the ribeiras for a close-up look at life in tucked away valleys. Here, houses are built in stepped fashion into the almost vertical cliff sides.

Where hikes elsewhere usually involve undulating terrain, in Cape Verde, trails are mostly downhill. For this reason, walking poles are de rigueur. Handling descents of more than a kilometre in some areas and on stony paths over a period of six hours is a challenge to the knees, but well worth the effort. Ribeiras often interconnect: Our walk from the mountain-top village of Corda to coastal Coculi saw us passing through two different ribeiras.

On most of our hikes, the scenery begins with breath-taking vistas – craggy peaks and plateaux. As we proceed downhill, across boulders or on cobbled paths, the panorama tranforms into a tapestry of traditional stone houses with thatched roofs, among cultivated fields of tapioca, sugar cane, papaya, coffee, corn and banana, on the terraced mountain slopes.

Perhaps the most memorable hike was from near the highest point of Santo Antao. From there, it was a descent of 1,350m into the Cova extinct volcanic crater. At the bottom of the crater was a verdant patchwork of fields. Once there, look up and you will see the sheer jagged wall of the crater encircling you.

Just as enthralling as the mountains of Santo Antao is its coast. We spent four nights at Ponta do Sol, a fishing town with a lively night scene of music bars and restaurants. From there, we did a 22km hike along sheer cliff tops overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, taking in unusual sights such as a Jewish cemetery, a stadium set against a mountain and pig pens strung along a precipice.

The trail then leads to a series of tiny villages such as Fountainhas, Corvo and Figuimos, all crowning the summits, with a drop into a deep valley on one side and the sea on the other. The trail peters out at the fishing port of Cruzinha.

It was along this coast that we glimpsed two huge leatherback turtles swimming in the ocean. Alas, we did not see any of the whales and dolphins that also make this part of the Atlantic their playground.

Even more astonishing than Santo Antao is Santiago, the largest island in Cape Verde. This was where the Portuguese first sailed to when they discovered the cluster of uninhabited islands in the mid-15th century. Here they founded Ribeira Grande (now known as Cidade Velha, “Old City”, and a World Heritage Site) as a refuelling station for trans-Atlantic shipping and as their capital in 1462, before moving it to Praia in 1770.

Later, the Portuguese established a lucrative trade in slaves, bringing them in from Africa and shipping them out to North and South America to work in plantations.

They retained some of them and, with time, interbreeding led to the creation of the mestico population of Cape Verdeans that you encounter today.

Many of the Africans meant to be sold as slaves managed to escape to and lived in the mountains whenever one of the many pirate attacks on Santiago distracted their Portuguese masters.

Bigger than Singapore by a third, Santiago is home to 230,000 inhabitants or half of Cape Verde’s population. It is the sum of all the islands – volcanic mountains in the interior, green open valleys, national parks, desert plains and unspoilt beaches.

Unlike Santo Antao, which is all about soaring mountains, plunging ravines, volcanic cauldrons and black lava beaches, the landscape of Santiago resembles that of an English hill station with more undulating terrain and rounded contours.

Our base of Sao Domingos, in the mountain resort of Quinta de Montanha, sat at the bottom of the serrated Saint Anthony mountain range, which runs across the island.

From there, we went on several walks: to villages such as St George of the Organ Pipes and San Laurence of the Organ Pipes, nestled in the foothills of fluted mountains.

If you are not into hiking, go on a drive through the centre of the island.

It is also worth exploring far-flung villages, such as Assomada with its art deco buildings and the fishing port of Tarrafal with its colourful fishing boats and sandy beaches.

A visit to Santiago would not be complete without exploring the capital city of Praia and Cidade Velha. The first European settlement in the tropics, Cidade Velha has numerous ruins, including that of its first church, a monastery and a Portuguese stone fortress up on a hill.

Most poignant of all was its main square. There, the pillory post to which slaves were chained and put on public display still stands.

The walk to the imposing fortress yields superb views of the old city and coast. No wonder the Portuguese built their defence here.

Praia is less historical. Apart from its town hall and oldest church, its esplanade is worth a stroll for sea views.

Take a fascinating walk down from the top of Ribeira Grande, which at some 150m high is about the same altitude as the fort and is home to magnificent baobab trees, monkeys and kingfishers.

The steep descent also lets you take in snapshots of local daily life – villagers bathing, washing clothes, working in the fields or distilling grog in blackened vats. The end of the trail leads to an old monastery and the Convento Sao Francisco, active in Portuguese times but now abandoned.

After exploring Santo Antao and Santiago, spend some time on the island of Sao Vicente. Come every February, Sao Vicente is where visitors throng to partake in the rowdy and colourful pre-Lent Mardi Gras Carnival festivities, best seen in Mindelo, a cosmopolitan Mediterranean town with a lovely harbour.

Mindelo is also probably Cape Verde’s most photogenic town with pastel-coloured colonial buildings and lively squares. Monuments are patterned after those in Portugal, such as Belem tower, inspired by Lisbon’s own 15th-century Belem tower.

And if you are still up for a ramble, there is always – how could there not be, in this hiker’s paradise? – the exhilarating one up the mist-covered Monte Verde (“green mountain” in Portuguese), the island’s tallest peak at 750m.

This story first appeared in The Sunday Times & straitstimes.com

Getting there

The most convenient connection to Cape Verde is via Lisbon in Portugal. From there, TAP Portugal offers daily flights to all of its airports, including Praia, Sao Vicente, Sal and Boa Vista. Domestic flights link the islands of Sao Vicente, Praia, Boa Vista, Sal, Fogo and Maio. Ferries connect islands where flights are not available, such as between Santa Antao and Sao Vicente.

When to go: Cape Verde is warm and sunny all year round, with temperatures ranging from 24 to 30 deg C, although it can be cool if you are staying in the mountains. Try to avoid the rainy season, from July to end- October, when flooding may occur.

How to hike: It is not easy to go hiking on your own as many trails are unmarked. Hire a local guide or join a walking group. One of the few organisations leading hikes in Cape Verde is www.ramblersholidays.co.uk

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