Blue is the sea
Blue is the sky
It is celestial
It is the colour of the universe
It is divine
It is infinite
It is purity
It is greatness
– “Djarmay Azul” by Tibau Tavares, Maio singer and songwriter.
Off the coast of West Africa, 300 miles from Senegal, lies a stunning archipelago with a unique blend of spectacular nature and colorful cultural traditions. This is where you find the oldest European colonial town in Africa, mountain villages that remind you of Machu Picchu, active volcanoes that dominate island life, quaint seaside villages reachable only through coastal trails, and miles and miles of empty beaches… Here, one can hike for days on end, enjoy a dip in a scenic natural pool, or take a surf lesson as a challenge, then chill with the locals for a BBQ lunch, enjoy a pastel de nata or two at Bar Estrela before walking leisurely to the beach for a sunset swim and dropping by a Jazz bar to soak in some suave Coladeira flowing as smoothly as the sugarcane rum… Even the turtles know this is the best spot on earth to come nest. When in doubt, trust the loggerheads! Welcome to No-Stress Cape Verde where having fun is a national art and swinging hips is never hard!
It’s August and Cape Verdeans – including the vast diaspora packed with dollars and euros – flock to their beloved islands. I run off to the ferry office and book all my tickets to seven islands, my bouquet finale to a year of adventurous, minimalist travels across Africa during the pandemic. After a few quiet days in Praia, the capital city, I begin a month of idyllic island-hopping in a small semi-desertic rocky island called Maio, where the objective is to do nothing before tackling the highest peak in the archipelago, an active volcano at 2820m, in the next destination, Fogo. Two hours away lies lush and green Brava, a real gem with a rich history of whaling and migration and a spectacular coastline. Then it’s time to brave an nine-hour ferry ride – cruise it isn’t – to Sao Vincente for a dose of culture before getting out my hiking pants for a week of rigorous trekking in magical Santo Antao. Finally, in Sal, I enjoy my first bowl of Vietnamese pho since I left Canada last July and spend afternoons photographing surfers before bidding farewell to Africa, my home for the past year, for more island adventures in the Canaries…
Vamos à Praia!
I ease naturally into island tempo, Cabo Verde style, by taking a leisurely stroll along the oldest street in sub-Sahara Africa, Rua Banane, in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Cidade Velha where ripe wild mangoes dangle with bulky sweetness, tempting one to grab a bite. Tarrafal, a tranquil village two hours North, makes another perfect day excursion to while away a Sunday afternoon at the beach where fisher folks divvy up the catch of the day before setting the grill to work… Praia is not exactly the most photogenic spot in Cape Verde, but her welcoming residents more than make up any misgivings. Colonial era buildings, bustling mercado, colourful murals, and even an art gallery, a semblance of city life before the next ferry departure…
Few travellers know about Maio and that’s precisely where I want to go. Drought has been a serious issue for years now in the island, making it difficult to farm. Islanders resort to burning charcoal for subsistence living. The acacia forests that a foreign university team had planted some 40 years ago are mostly desiccated but still show resilient signs of life! Between Morro and Vila do Maio, I enjoy walking back and forth along a beautiful sandy beach with salt mines. Further up North from Calheta, miles and miles of beaches and dunes invite a visitor to drop everything else to be in the moment… During the summer, turtles remember these gorgeous places to nest at night. If the tiny ones survive, they would begin their new life six weeks later by braving it all the way to Brazil! Talk about epic life journeys!
After taking my 16th Covid test (!), I continue on to Fogo, the island of fire. From Sao Felipe, the collectivo/shared minivan climb its way through small mountain villages until, all of a sudden, one plunges in lava land, at once sinister-looking and eerily photogenic. As the van nears Cha das Caldeiras at the foot of the volcano, white cones appear that were once roofs of old houses now buried deeply in jagged lava-scape. The last eruption in 2014 wiped out the entire villages of Portela and Bengeira which are still in the process of rebuilding today. Villagers had asked to be resettled near Sao Felipe, but negotiations with the government failed. Back to square – cone – one. Resilience could not even begin to describe the spirit of this tight-knit community absolutely determined to stay.
Visitors come to climb the active volcano, Pico de Fogo, the highest peak in the island chain of Cabo Verde. On the anniversary of my knee injury in Paris, I test it by climbing Gran Pico! Alarm at 5am and set out before six with Rosy (he/him/his), my guide. A glorious morning with an un-obstructed view of the the highest point in the entire archipelago, a massive active volcano spread before my eyes at 2800m! Having a dancer’s legs helps; climbing up is usually not the problem. The first hour is a gentle hike up 200m where one starts to appreciate the view – and the magnitude of the 2014 eruption. The rest of the 800m climb is straight up, one sturdy step at a time. At 8:30, the wind picks up, requiring double effort, but I feel no pain on my left knee, already a mini-victory!
By 9:30, we are on top of the clouds, standing on the edge of the crater, with a resplendent view of the entire Cha das Caldeiras and miniature calderas. A sublime moment, until the descent begins… “Sometimes I have to carry my clients down,” Rosy says. Thankfully that does not happen! The LONG descent in volcanic ash until Petit Pico somehow reminds me of Mt. Fuji (except that there is no sushi lunch afterwards). The clouds are slowly drifting in, casting photogenic shadows on an already explosive palette of colours. What a memorable moment, after Etna in Sicily and Erte Ale in Ethiopia this past year!
Sao Felipe is a bustling town with colorful churches and murals. Time for another rapid test, required for almost all inter-island travels. Mathieu, a fellow hiker, and I arrive at the hospital at 8am. Our numbers are 59 and 60 (!), thanks to which we enjoy an impromptu chat – about transitions and timeless living – over breakfast till noon! And since the handwritten result would not be out till 2pm, we get a bonus stroll along the black sandy beach with a perfect view of Brava!
From Fogo, it’s barely an hour’s ferry ride to Brava, the smallest island of the chain. A typical summer fog envelops the quaint town of Nova Sintra in early morning. True to its name, the island is lush, green, and wild, so different from Maio and Fogo. The coastline is spectacular, leading to a historic village, Faja d’Agua, where American whalers once came to stay, beginning the close ties between Brava and the East coast of America that continue today. At the end of the road, a welcoming natural pool awaits the visitor, the favourite spot of locals enjoying long, hot summer days chilling with nonstop music and BBQ. I spend leisurely afternoons walking around town and taking portraits of photogenic Bravese…
Having spent two weeks in the southern island group, it’s time to head up North. The long nine-hour ferry ride from Praia to Sao Vicente is not exactly a cruise, but it’s the price to pay to get near paradise. Sao Vicente is famous for being the cultural capital of Cape Verde with her iconic Ambassador, the great Cesaria Evora whom I had the fortune to see perform when she visited Vancouver. Mindelo is a real gem, photogenic and with an added touch of softness, effusing from people’s easygoing smiles, sweet pastries, and mind-blowing music. A short collectivo’s ride away in whatever direction and you are in wild country, with awesome coastal trails, long, sandy beaches, dunes, and turtles in the ocean… I know why people come and stay!
I keep the crown jewel of Cape Verde for the end: Santo Antao. The word Spectacular echoes in my head as I hike its coastal trails and up mountain tops. The Southern half of the island is desertic while the North is lushy green. The contrast is so huge that one feels arriving at Shangri-la in the valleys of Paul and XoXo and along its dramatic coastline. A quaint village here and there, wow at every turn, impressive terrace fields where no inch is spared, abundant fruit trees, and dramatic drops to the ocean. It’s Edenic!
Just when you think it’s not possible anymore to take in more beautiful vistas in this enchanting island, your host suggests just one more hike, from Cabo de Ribeira to Cova de Paul, through a misty trail, arriving in a lush crater, before going down to Corda with sheer drops on both sides. Breathtaking, spellbounding Santo Antao!
Sal is a convenient flight hub with a bustling cosmopolitan center and gorgeous beaches. Time to chill before flying back to Europe. I spend the entire time just photographing locals, surfers, passers-by… Perfect light and moments!
Cape Verde tops all the countries I visited this past year in my African odyssey, hands down. The abundant sun, generous sea, beckoning beaches, exquisite trails, vibrant colours, seafood galore… Above all, fun-loving and hip-swinging Cape Verdeans who share their infectious love for their beloved islands. The fabulous music and street art are just icing on the cake. Impossible not to succumb to all the temptations this tiny but rich archipelago has to offer! Oh, you have to imagine the nonstop flowing soundtrack that accompanies each of these photos!
If I’m going to write
a lot to write
If I will forget
too much to forget
Until the day I’m coming back
longing for my land.
longing for my land.
– Sodade, by Armando Zeferino Soares
Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.
5. On Board My Love: Mozambique
7. The Old Towns of The Gambia
8. The Last Great Oases in Mauritania
9. The Dying Art of Puppetry in Mali
10. Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan