Travel to Cape Verde: the islands of Sotavento (1/2)

Singer Cesária Evora has made Cape Verde loved. This small archipelago off the coast of Senegal is one of the most endearing travel destinations I know.

We went there for the first time in 2017, and all we wanted to do was come back. We did just that in July 2022 with a three-week trip.

In this article, I tell you about the first part of our trip to the Sotavento islands in the south of the Cape Verde archipelago.

Discover the islands of Sotavento (leeward)

From Paris, via Lisbon, we land in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, on the island of Santiago.

From here, we first visit Brava, then Fogo, and finally Santiago. These are the islands of Sotavento.

In a second article, I tell you about our trip to the Barlavento islands of Sao Vicente and Santo Antao.

If you haven’t already read it, you’ll find all the practical advice you need to organize your independent trip to Cape Verde in a dedicated article.

Travel route map Sotavento islands

Brava: the green island

Brava is the first of the Cape Verde islands we discovered. As it’s the most difficult to access, that’s why I chose it at the start of our stay. In this way, it would be easier for us to reorganize our tour if unforeseen transport problems prevented us from following our program.

So, the day after we arrived in Cape Verde, we boarded a plane for the island of Fogo. The flight in an ATR72 propeller plane takes just 15 minutes. We would have preferred to make the trip by boat, but we decided against it due to the unreliability of inter-island shipping.

ATR42 from BestFly

However, Brava no longer has an airport. The only way to do this is by boat from Fogo, which takes about an hour.. Sounds simple enough, but the shipping company doesn’t reveal its schedules until the month before the trip, and they change all the time. And at the last minute, delays, breakdowns, and cancellations are frequent. It’s hard to plan a visit to Brava in these conditions! You really have to want to go.

Liberdadi CV Interhilas

That day, luckily for us, everything went according to plan. The plane and boat are on time! In the early evening, we approach the island from the port of Furna.

No sooner had we disembarked than we boarded an aluguer that would take us to the west coast to Fajã d’Agua, a small fishing port. The winding road climbs boldly towards the capital Nova Sintra, before descending just as steeply towards our final destination.

The driver makes numerous detours to get everyone to their door or to pick up new passengers. An “à la carte” service that meant it took us more than an hour to reach our accommodation 15 km from the port!



Brava map

Fajã d’Agua: the fishing village at the end of the world

When our aluguer arrives we are greeted by a Dutchman. Erick and Marijke who fell in love with Brava some ten years ago and settled here to welcome tourists to the Kaza di Zaza.

Brava paved path

However, for family reasons, they decided to put their property up for sale and return to the Netherlands. We were still lucky enough to be able to stay there. Our little cottage is very simple and basic but with a superb view over the bay of Fajã d’Agua.

The impression of being at the end of the world is total. During our stay on Brava, there’s just us and a family of Europeans as tourists on the island. No other tourists! A luxury that is becoming rare. And there’s no question of remaining incognito. Every Illian knows where we’ve been! We’ll be told nicely several times.

Faja d'Agua

The abandoned Brava airport

The day after our arrival, we decide to enjoy a cool day after our long journey. We start with an airport tour! It only operated from 1992 to 2004. Facing the Atlantic and at the foot of the Brava mountains, Esperadinha airport soon proved too dangerous due to the strong crosswinds.

Brava Airport

In 2022, it’s time for an original visit, to say the least. The passenger terminal is quite dilapidated, but the runway is still almost functional. Wandering around here fires my imagination and takes me back more than 50 years to Algeria. My father worked there as an engineer building a gas liquefaction plant. We lived near Skikda airport, which had just been decommissioned. The airstrip was a fantastic playground for the 8-year-old me!

Author on the runway at Brava airport

We continue our walk along the coast to Ribeira do Morro beach. It is an opportunity to dip in the Atlantic, which is very calm today.

Ribeira do Morro beach

On the way back, we stop off at the natural pools where Cape Verdeans happily splash around.

Natural pools at Faja d'Agua

First hike to Nossa Senhora do Monte

On our second day in Brava, we get down to business: a real hike with 700 m of ascent through a narrow valley to the small village of Nossa Senhora do Monte.

Hike to Nossa Senhora de Monte

Our walk begins along a riverbed to the hamlet of Lagoa. These are a few houses and huts surrounded by orchards. Our trail passes through the courtyards of houses where the inhabitants greet us kindly.

As in many places in Cape Verde, hamlets are difficult to access. Cape Verdeans sometimes have to walk several hours to get back to their farms or to cultivate their plantations. If the load to be transported is too heavy, mules take over.

Hamlet of Lagoa

On the island, we see many abandoned fields. The reason is that rainfall is very irregular from year to year, making it difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the seeds will take or not. Behind the gentleness of its people lies a very harsh and not always hospitable country.

Abandoned fields Brava
Abandoned farm in Brava
Fields in Brava

At the end of the valley with the river, we find a magnificent cobbled path like so many to be found across the country. Luckily for us, as the path becomes very steep!

Brava paved path

Finally, we arrive in the pretty little village of Nossa Senhora de Monte, where we have a bite to eat in a small café with the old village women, hypnotized by a horror film on TV!

Nossa Senhora de Monte

We return by the same route, finishing with a well-deserved rest in the natural pools of Fajã d’Agua.

Hike to Mount Fontainhas and Nova Sintra

Brava is a tiny island less than the size of Paris itself. But the terrain is very rugged and requires a lot of effort to cover on foot. That’s why we decided to leave Fajã d’Agua on the coast and settle in Nova Sintra for our last night. This will allow us to make another excursion into the interior of the island and discover its capital at our leisure.

We’ll be staying at Villa Vicente with Aisha and Elsa. They pick us up at Caza di Zaza and drop us off near Nossa Senhora do Monte for our walk to the top of the island. They greet us in excellent English with a typical Southern American accent! We learn that Aisha and Elsa are sisters, born and raised in Atlanta. They used to return regularly to visit their grandparents on the island of Brava, and four years ago decided to settle down for good, opening a small inn in Nova Sintra. They tell us they have not regretted their choice.

This is an opportunity to say a few words about the Cape Verdean diaspora, which numbers around 700,000 for a local population of just 580,000. At least 250,000 Cape Verdeans have settled in the United States, many of them from Brava. They come back for vacations and build homes that stand out from the crowd with a flashier edge!

American emigrant home

Today’s hike takes us up Mount Fontainhas, 976 m high. It looks more like a big hill than a mountain.

The landscapes we pass through are surprisingly green! We feel more at home in the Azores or Normandy than in Cape Verde. It’s late July and, this year, it’s raining. Nature is magnificent.

From the top of Mount Fontainhas, we can see the ancient craters whose shape is still clearly visible.

Mount Fontainhas
View from Mount Fontainhas
Hibiscus fields in Brava

Nova Sintra

We spend the rest of the day in Nova Sintra, a pretty, airy town. As is often the case in Cape Verde, the villages and towns are well-maintained despite the country’s economic poverty.

Nova Sintra in Brava

Nova Sintra central square

Brava was a favorite.

Because it’s so difficult to get to, it’s often overlooked by tourists and tour operators. During our stay, we came across only one other family of Europeans! So much the better! We’ll be back one day and for longer than four days.

Nova Sintra and Fogo in the distance

Fogo: the volcano island

We take the boat back to Fogo. On the outward journey, we simply passed through. This time, we take the time to discover the island.

Aboard the “Praia d’Aguada

We board the Praia d’Aguada, an old mixed cargo/passenger boat. It was built in 1999, but we’d easily give it another 20 years. We have the impression that it served as a model for Hergé’s Tintin and Captain Haddock comics! Due to the longer-than-expected unloading of the hold with the ship’s crane, we leave two hours late.

A hundred young people returning from a Christian gathering are on board with us. Singing, dancing, and laughter surround us throughout the crossing, which takes just over an hour to reach the tiny port of Fogo. Only a handful of us get off in the early evening, as the majority of passengers continue to Santiago. Luckily for us, because the stopover is long due to freight, and the boat won’t be leaving until midnight. Apart from a privileged few who will have access to a cabin, everyone else will be looking to stretch out on deck or wallow in uncomfortable armchairs inside.

We are well aware of how difficult it is for Cape Verdeans to travel around their country. Insularity has its charms but is a major hindrance to a poor economy.

Port of Brava
Cabin on board Praia d'Aguada
Praia d'Aguada
Boarding the ferry at Brava
Loading the Praia d'Aguada ferry
Interior seating on Praia d'Aguada
Back to the Christian gathering in Brava
Praia d'Aguada

The volcano on the island of Fogo

The main reason to visit Fogo is its majestic volcano, which is still active. It last erupted in 2014.

We climb gently by cab, some forty kilometers, to the edge of the Caldera at 1700 m altitude. And here it’s a visual shock! The great Pico rises to 2829 meters amid a landscape of craters and lava.. All around the Caldera rises an enormous wall several hundred meters high. The panorama is both austere and magnificent, and I strongly recommend spending at least two nights here to get the most out of it.

We’re staying at Casa Alcindo, run by a Cape Verdean and French couple. The hotel is simple and the food is very good. However, to prevent travelers from wasting scarce water, it is only cold. Needless to say, our shower is quick.

The satellite photo on Google Earth is spectacular. Fogo is above all a volcano!

Satellite view of Fogo (Google Earth)

Chã das Caldeiras :

We spend our first day walking around the Caldera. Traces of the 2014 lava flows are visible. They engulfed several houses and a road. Since then, the villagers have returned despite the volcano’s hostility. In fact, the land is very fertile and there are many crops. The most remarkable are the vines, which produce a wine that’s a pleasure to drink! We won’t be depriving ourselves of this during our trip.

Fogo grape
Winegrowers in Fogo
Lava flow in the caldera
Vineyards on the island of Fogo
Orchard on the island of Fogo
Casa Alcindo
House engulfed by lava
Village of Bangaeira

Climbing Gran Pico

The next day is the big day of our Grand Pico expedition! We leave at 6 a.m. to avoid the heat. We are accompanied by a guide. The 1100 m climb is long, sometimes a little steep, but not particularly difficult. In a few sections, we have to use our hands to climb more easily.

By 10 am. we’re on the summit, on the rim of the Grand Pico crater, with a dozen tourists. Our guide informs us that in winter, which is the high tourist season, there can be as many as fifty. In such a fragile environment, it’s easy to see how evena small number of visitors can create the nuisance of over-tourism. That’s why it’s so important to set off with a guide who can tell you what to do, and what not to do, to preserve the area as much as possible.

We bypass the crater to descend another face of Grand Pico towards Petit Pico. The descent into the lapillis, which are small fragments of lava, is simply exhilarating: we sink knee-deep and slide towards the foot of the Grand Pico!

Chã das Caldeiras is an exceptional place that will remain one of the most vivid memories of our trip to Cape Verde.

Ascent to Gran Pico
Ascent to Gran Pico
Ascent to Gran Pico
Gran Pico crater
Ascent to Gran Pico
To the summit of Gran Pico!
Inside the Gran Pico crater
Descent of Gran Pico
2014 eruption crater
Gran Pico

Hiking to Mosteiros and the north coast of Fogo

The next day, we leave Alcindo, our host, to walk down to Mosteiros at sea level.

After leaving the Caldeira and its lunar landscape, we enter the dense, humid forest of Monte Velha. The contrast is striking!

Monte Velha Forest

Fortunately for us, it was a fine day, otherwise the steep, loamy trails might have been more difficult in wet weather.

Path to Mosteiros

We have splendid views of the north coast. Halfway up, we emerge from the forest into the plantations.


In Mosteiros, we had our fill of the typical Cape Verdean restaurant dish: grilled fish served with rice, vegetables (actually fried potatoes!), and raw vegetables. Simple, but fresh and homemade.

Emilio, our driver on the island of Fogo, is waiting for us as scheduled. He takes us to the Salinas. It’s one of the few places on the island where you can swim. It’s an enchanting place, with small bays of ancient lava cut into natural pools. We enjoy swimming after our days of hiking. Above us, the coast rises steeply and spectacularly.

Salinas Beach
The north coast of Fogo

Sao Filipe, the pretty capital of Fogo

For our last night on Fogo, we chose to sleep in an eco-lodge not far from the island’s capital: Sao Filipe.

La Fora Ecolodge is a wonderful discovery. Helen and Aaron, an American couple, have created this ecolodge in the countryside. In the distance, we can see Brava.

Fora ecolodge

View from Fora Ecolodge on the island of Brava

Sao Filipe is a pretty little town with cobbled streets, well worth spending a few hours in. It’s built on a steep hill, up to the cliffs overlooking a huge black sand beach. We were tempted to take a dip but were strongly advised against it because of the dangerous currents.

Sao Filipe is also full of pretty colonial houses, some of which are home to charming little hotels.

A special feature of Cape Verdean towns are the artistic murals to be found everywhere.

Sao Filipe
Sao Filipe
Sao Filipe
Sao Filipe

The island of Fogo deserves more than just a visit to its volcano

Fogo’s main attraction is its exceptional volcano. But we felt that the island deserved to be explored in greater depth, particularly on its north coast. We stayed for four days, but we could have done with a longer stay.


Santiago: the African island

As on the outward journey, we reach Praia on the island of Santiago by air. This time, we’ll be taking more days to explore the island. When we were planning our trip, it was hard to get an idea of how long it would take to visit.

Reviews on the forums weren’t much help. It is often criticized, especially its capital Praia, for problems of overcrowding and insecurity. But it is also said to offer some very beautiful landscapes. In the end, we thought it would be best to visit it and make up our own minds!

Praia, the capital with an African flavor

Praia is the capital of Cape Verde. The city is not very large, with just 150,000 inhabitants. But on the scale of Cape Verde, with a population of just 550,000 the city is enormous. As a result, this is the part of the country where poverty and anarchic urban development are most felt.

It is sometimes nicknamed the little Dakar because of its very African atmosphere.

Living in Praia is certainly interesting and not unpleasant. There are a couple of lively beaches like Quebra Canela, where it’s fun to swim with the locals.

The residential area of Achada de Santo Antonio is quiet and rather pretty. This is where we stayed at Syd’s Guesthouse. The guesthouse is simple but quiet and the breakfast is hearty and good.

Praia also offers a few nice restaurants. We’ve tried and enjoyed the Italian-run Roma and, just next door, the Orla.

However, Praia’s tourist appeal is fairly limited. The historic town, set on a spectacular plateau, is a popular place to visit.

Our favorite place was the market. It is divided into two parts. The magnificent food market and, a little further on, the Mercado de Sucupira, the largest in Cape Verde.

As we only stayed a short time in Praia, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I think that for a three-week trip to Cape Verde, it’s advisable not to linger there, as there are more interesting things to see.

Crossing the island of Santiago

In Santiago, we rented a car. It was an excellent choice which gave us the freedom to go wherever we wanted. Traffic is light and the main roads are of good quality.

We had planned to stay three days in Tarrafal in the north of the island. We get there via a road that runs right through the center of the island. On this first day, we’re lucky, as the weather is splendid. The views of deep, fertile valleys, towering peaks and villages are rewarding. At every turn, we make new discoveries.

The north coast of Fogo
The north coast of Fogo

Unlike the other islands, Santiago is densely populated. The villages are numerous and we also pass through two larger towns: Sao Domingos to the south and Assomada to the north.


We pass through the magnificent Serra Malagueta Park, a starting point for many hikes.

Our initial intention was to return the following day, but the weather turned gloomy and unfortunately deterred us.

Serra Malaguenta Park

Tarrafal: its beach and camp

Tarrafal is supposed to be Santiago’s seaside resort. There’s already a lovely promenade along a corniche and even a cycle path. The sandy beach in a beautiful cove is pleasant, especially when the fishermen return.

But the town has no architectural harmony and the urban planning is a mess. You can sense that the authorities want to develop Tarrafal, but the means aren’t there. It doesn’t have the charm of Sao Filipe in Fogo or Nova Sintra in Brava.

We’re staying at Kingfisher Village. It’s a hotel with pretty little buildings around a tree-lined courtyard. It’s rather expensive by Cape Verdean standards, but we think it’s worth a two- or three-night stay. Access to the sea is via ladders.

Tarrafal is an almost obligatory stopover to fully understand the tragic history of this country. Right next door is the Chão Bom prison of sinister memory.

It operated from 1936 to 1974. It first welcomed Portuguese opponents of the Salazar dictatorship, and later independence fighters from Cape Verde, Guinea, and Angola. Everyone had their own building.

Living conditions were appalling, and a visit to the site gives an idea of just how bad they were. Forced labor was the order of the day, and recalcitrant offenders were inhumanly locked up in a tiny, windowless cell called a frigideira. The most despicable was the camp doctor, who did everything he could to exacerbate the prisoners’ suffering by rationing medicines, for example. A deeply moving visit.

Chao Bom prison

Cidade Velha: the old slave-trading port

On our last day, before flying back to São Vicente, we made a detour to visit Cidade Velha. Today it’s a peaceful little village around a pretty beach. But until the 18th century, it was a major city and an important nerve center in the slave trade between Africa and the Americas.

Near the beach is a marble column. It’s a sinister pillory where slaves who tried to escape were tortured and killed.

Cidade Velha

Slave pillory in Cidade Velha
Sao Filipe

Santiago Island: a slightly frustrating visit

We were a little frustrated by our visit to the island of Santiago. As splendid as the first day was, the following days of our stay were misty and rainy. So we weren’t able to discover the island as we would have liked. Fortunately, our hotel in Tarrafal was pleasant and we took the opportunity to slow down and rest.

The first part of our trip to Cape Verde’s Sotavento Islands is coming to an end. We leave Praia in an ATR72 propeller plane for a short 45′ flight to São Vicente. I’ll tell you about the second part of our trip in the article devoted to the Barlavento islands.

ATR72 BestFly




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