Many years ago, I read a travel writer’s claim that Cape Verde is the most festive country in Africa, and I put it on my list of places to go. I no longer prioritize partying, but Dakar is just a two-hour flight from the capital of Praia, and after seeing pictures of the mountains of Santa Antão, I swore I’d visit before leaving Senegal. So at the end of January, I island-hopped between Santiago (where Praia is located), São Vicente, and Santa Antão, and I was blown away nearly every step of the way. I mean this both literally and figuratively; Cape Verde is a windy country.
My first full day in Praia, I paid the equivalent of 40 Euros for a taxi driver / tour guide to take me to the UNESCO town of Cidade Velha. Founded in the late 1400’s, it was the first European colonial outpost in the tropics. First stop was a fort that protected the town from invaders. I was more taken in by this view towards the opposite direction.
Below is the oldest church in town (and in the colonial world). It was finished around the year 1495. There was some sort of mass field trip for the island’s youngest schoolchildren and hundreds of them converged on the church just after we arrived, shattering its silence and stillness. It made for a cute juxtaposition.
Feelings of desperation brought on by actions taken the day before, thousands of miles away, inspired this agnostic Jew to pray to a very beautiful collection of Jesuses and Mary’s, asking them to change the hearts and minds of people who could together alter the misguided trajectory of my country.
Unfortunately, I’m not digressing here. Every few hours I would remember what was going on back home and be overwhelmed by sadness and anger and panic. Which is why when I had no access to Internet on Santa Antão it came as such a welcome relief.
The town was pretty small and after an hour or so we headed back to Praia. It was like déjà vu of my Lisbon trip in April. Loads of pastel-painted buildings, bright blue sky reflecting light from the surrounding water, and a super chill vibe.
At night I took everyone’s advice and headed for Quintal da Música, where there was a band playing traditional Cape Verdean music.
The next day was supposed to be a beach day but honestly I was a bit underwhelmed by Praia’s beaches, especially in January. Not bad, but not great. And I have access to not bad but not great beaches year-round in Dakar.
I didn’t have enough time to get to the northern part of the island to hang out on the beautiful beach at Tarrafal. Instead I attempted to eat as much of Praia’s delicious food as possible. I did very well for myself.
First, on a friend’s recommendation, I went to a restaurant where I was supposed to order tuna on a hot stone. They bring it to your table seconds after they stick the tuna on the stone, and you flip it to your liking. I’m not so into tuna, but I was into this tuna.
I also had smoked tuna for the first time, at the amazing hotel restaurant, which also served the best ice cream I have ever had in my life. Both were so good that I returned to the restaurant just to order them two more times over the next 24 hours. But now I really am digressing…
That night, I flew to Mindelo on the island of São Vicente. I would have liked to skip it but the only way to get to my ultimate destination, Santa Antão, is to take the ferry from Mindelo.
After spending a day wandering around, though, I was glad I hadn’t gone straight from the airport to the ferry, because it is a really picturesque city that is obsessed with bright colors.
Above is an actual pink palace, and below is a restaurant.
I loved it. It was the visual equivalent of Vitamin D.
And their market was, like Praia’s, impeccable.
My hotel helped me find another taxi driver / tour guide, and he took me on an excursion that included a stop at the Bay of Cats, from which I walked along the beach to a nearby town while he picked up and dropped off someone else. (I didn’t see any cats but I saw a bunch of unleashed dogs running around.)
We returned to the city at twilight and headed for a scenic overlook.
And then I went to dinner at Chez Loutcha, which was an even lovelier experience than it normally would have been because there is another Chez Loutcha in Dakar. It opened in 1960 and is probably the oldest restaurant in town. It is certainly the most beloved. At this newer branch, the owner was doing the rounds, and she told me about how she moved back to her home country of Cape Verde 30 years ago and left the Dakar restaurant to be managed by her son. I told her he was doing a good job.
While listening to an Cesária Évora-like singer, I ate the national dish of cachupa, a delicious stew into which every type of available meat is thrown.
And then I headed back to the hotel to get to bed in time to catch a very early ferry to the island of my dreams the next morning.
P.S. Surprisingly, I spoke nothing but French the whole time I was on these two islands. There are a ton of Senegalese workers at the hotels and restaurants, and French is also the lingua franca for Cape Verdeans on these particular islands, rather than English. (There are a ton of Belgian and French visitors, but not many Americans or British. The British tend to go to two other islands that are featured in package tours departing from London.)