(mudar para Portugues) Our visitor heads off to Santo Antão on a calm Sunday afternoon, after an inspiring and musical weekend on São Vicente and ready to start his or her second week in Cape Verde. The third part of the Grand Tour of Cape Verde is going to be entirely different from the first two. No island is the same in Cape Verde and each of them represent small countries of their own, with distinct dialects, cultures, landscapes and economies.
Santo Antão lingers in the back when staying on São Vicente, as its contours can clearly be seen from Mindelo, across Porto Grande bay and the Canal de São Vicente, the stretch of sea between both islands. Santo Antão’s character is a clearcut one. It was one of the first settlements established by Europeans and it remains untill today the third most important island, with roughly 40.000 inhabitants spread over three municpalities.
Contrary to most other islands, Santo Antão has water and especially its northern valleys traditionally know intensive use as agriculture areas. The two historic (and rival) towns of Ribeira Grande and Paúl give access to lush and fertile valleys, hidden from the sea, while most of Santo Antão’s coast looks barren at first sight. Agriculture remains the mainstay of the island’s economy right up till today and it is even expected to grow bigger, now a ban (due to a millipede plague) to export its products to other islands has been lifted a while back. New dams are also being built to save morerainwater for frequent dry spells.
The island of Santo Antão attracts a steady stream of nature loving tourists who come to hike along centuries-old footpaths, crisscrossing the island’s high mountains and steep valleys. People come to Santo Antão to chill out, enjoy the peace and revel in the fascinating and dramatic landscape. It’s an ideal place for artists, thinkers, hikers and everybody else in need of a good break away from it all. Its position as “last island” on the northern stretch of the Cape Verde archipelago enhances its seclusion. To reach Santo Antao you need a slow boat to cross some unruly waves.
And now you are going to cross that sea. At the moment three shipping companies provide the transfer. Though a bit outdated, the best option still is the Mar d’Canal of the Armas company. Armas itself hails from the Canaries, where they are a big player in the ferry business. Eagerly awaited is the arrival of the state of the art Liberdadi, the second vessel of the Cape Verde Fast Ferry, a new company that is rapidly setting new standards for passenger shipping in Cape Verde. The Liberdadi will cut the crossing between Mindelo and Porto Novo by half, to around 30 minutes.
By the way, a small airport in the town of Ponta de Sol is now defunct, but a new one is being planned for Porto Novo town for the near future. Nevertheless, the Santo Antão-São Vicente crossing will remain the busiest ferry route of the country.
The trip to Porto Novo now takes about an hour with Armas. Take a seat on deck and prepare for sightings of dolphins and other flying fish. Be aware that, though the towns and mountains on both sides of the canal make you feel like on a ferry between two Greek islands, this sea is neither the subtle Aegean nor the smooth talking Med. It is the Atlantic Ocean and you will know it!
Once you arrive in the aptly named town of Porto Novo (New Port) you have the option of staying there for a while or move on to the other side of Santo Antão. It is not a bad idea to hang around for a few days. Porto Novo now boasts Santo Antão’s first resort hotel, the Santantão Art Resort, just outside the centre. You can stay in this Italian owned hotel for a few nights, making use of a wide range of amenities including good food or settle for one of the local pensions, such as the Residencial Antilhas.
Porto Novo is a relatively new town and it grew around Santo Antão’s only port. This port is now being enlarged, so it can take more than one large vessel at a time, including cruise ships. Porto Novo will also be the site of the future Santo Antão international airport. Furthermore, a section of the coastline outside town has been designated for the development of more resorts and hotels. All these developments reinforce the town’s function as a gateway to Santo Antão. Another interesting plan is the redevelopment of the old army barracks in the centre of town into a hub for creative industries.
Porto Novo is nice for a few days relaxing on the beach and staring back across the Canal to Mindelo, pondering your weekend’s activities and thinking about your new acquaintances from Cave. But you will soon start plotting the exploration of the rest of Santo Antão. First our visitor will have to go north.
There are two roads now to the northern towns and valleys. You should leave the excellent and brandnew asphalted road along the coast (boasting Cape Verde’s first tunnels) towards Paúl for you return from the north to Porto Novo. The best thing to do by far is to take the older, high road to Ribeira Grande. It is advisible to either rent a car or to book a regular taxi in Porto Novo to bring you there. More collective forms of transport can be quite uncomfortable, like the Toyota Hiace (pronounce: Yass) vans or the even rougher chuvite pick up trucks.
As your car winds up the mountain behind the town you will experience sweeping views across the canal towards São Vicente and beyond. After many bends and curves you will reach higher ground and the barren landscape will make room for cooler and wetter areas, with plenty of pine trees. Other great views will emerge and be sure to peek into Cova, the green and fertile crater of an old and – rest assured – now extinct vulcano.
The narrow road now starts winding even more wildly and you will soon notice you are actually driving on top of a high ridge in between steep and deep valleys. This situation culminates in a place called Delgadinho, where the road sits exactly on top of the ridge and you can stare down on both sides in two of Cape Verde’s most beautifull ribeiras or valleys.
Leaning over the rickety walls that line the road you will soon distinguish green and – depending on the time of year – less green farmlands.
On the final stretch of road after the Delgadinho viewpoint the road descends towards Ribeira Grande town. Ribeira Grande is made up of three small townships, of which Povoação is the centre. Here, on a small bit of land between two riverbeds (those of the Ribeira Grande and the Ribeira da Torre), all roads of northern Santo Antão converge.
The town has a small historic centre around the church. There are a couple of pensions, restaurants and shops. To the west lies the Penha da França township, on a ridge on the other side of the Ribeira Grande, overlooking Povoação. On the other side lies the old fisherman’s village of Tarrafal, on the opposite bank of the Ribeira da Torre stream. Both riverbeds are usually dry, but after the rainy season on Santo Antão (from August untill October) most ribeiras may turn into wild streams. Brand new bridges span both ribeiras now so that you can cross them with your feet dry.
You could stay in one of the pensions in town, but we recommend the Pedracin Hotel, about 10 minutes driving into Ribeira Grande valley, past the township of Coculi. Pedracin is one of the best options for spending the night in this part of the island, though it is advisable you rent a car, as the hotel is quite far away from any town. You can relax here, enjoying the sweeping views through the valley, plunge in the pool and have an excellent lunch or dinner.
Small hikes can be made from here into some of the smaller valleys that end in the Ribeira Grande. Going deeper into the interior of the island from Pedracin Hotel you could reach several other towns by car, including the rural community of Garça as well as pictoresque and peaceful Cha de Igreja, which gives acces to the sea near the fishermen’s town of Cruzinha. Small beaches can be found among the rugged and rocky coastline there.
Another must see and do is a trip, either drive or hike, into the Ribeira da Torre (Tower Valley), starting at Ribeira Grande town. A new access road has been built and the valley is best appreciated at it wildest and greenest, all the way at the end, near a towering rock that gave its name to the valley.
Most visitors to Santo Antão will head straight from Ribeira Grande to Ponta do Sol (Sunny Point) on the northwestern tip of Santo Antão. Hikers congregate in Ponta do Sol and there are plenty of bars and restaurants as well as pensions and small hotels. You should not leave Ponta do Sol without having tried Dona Fatima’s lobster. Fatima is well known and averybody will be able to show you her restaurant cum pension on the town’s waterfront. There are other good restarants too, like the French-owned Cantinho do Gato Preto and Por de Sol as well as the Veleiro with its nice setting above the tiny port.
Closeby you can observe how, during the day, fishermen set out in small rickety boats to come back from the dodgy ocean several hours later with their catch of the day. The open air fish market is a good place to watch how the fish is then being prepared and sold off.
Ponta do Sol has received a lot of investment from the island’s emigrants abroad lately and it is full of residential projects under construction. Its small airport however is to remain closed permanently after an aviation tragedy around a decade ago. A short nice hike or drive can be made from Ponta do Sol to the cute village of Fontainhas with its colourfull houses perched on the steep mountains along the coast. Real hikers take it from there all the way along the coast to Cruzinha.
There are two eating options worth mentioning in Ribeira Grande. One is the Cantinho de Amizade near the Shell and Enacol petrol stations. For decades the old patio was a meeting point for taxidrivers and their passengers. Now a brandnew building has been added with a wonderfull kitchen. You still have the choice between the patio and the restaurant.
The other option is the Divin’Art restaurant, a couple of kilometers outside town on the road to Coculi. You enter this unique place through a garage that doubles as a selling point for the island’s best liquors (grogue, pontche, licores) and other local products. From the garage you enter the basement that has been converted into a nicely decorated restaurant with an interesting menu. There is live music on many occasions and some great names have played there already.
You could spend at least three or four days in the Ribeira Grande/Ponta do Sol area during your first visit to Santo Antão. Then one should move for another few days to the town and valley of Paúl, a 15 minute drive south from Ribeira Grande along the coastal road.
On the way you will pass several barren looking valleys, but be assured that behind the unpainted houses close to the road fertile valleys can be found, including some of the island’s best kept secrets. Also on the way lies the hamlet of Sinagoga, once home to the island’s Sefardic community, now being redeveloped into a resort town that will host Santo Antão’s first 4-star hotel with infinity pool. Small beaches can be accessed here from the coastal road.
Paúl is one of the loveliest places of Cape Verde. It is ideal for hiking among its plantations and smallholdings. Lots op sugarcane is grown here and this Ribeira produces some of the countries best grogue. If you are looking for a good place to watch the traditionl method of distilling, visit Mr Ildo Benros. He still uses an ox for crushing the cane. He can be found behind one of the gates at the end of a row of houses when arriving in Vila das Pombas, the coastal part of Paúl .
For sleeping try the Aldeia Jerome or the brandnew Paul Mar Hotel. Best catering option is the Veleiro II, a sister establishment to the Veleiro in Ponta do Sol. Don’t miss the goat Santo Antão style.
But wherever you stay in Paúl, go wander around in the interior valley, passing the townships of Eito and Passagem. There are several hiking options, depending on your stamina. But if your condition lets you down, you could always catch a taxi up to Passagem and then walk more or less downhill, back to Vila das Pombas.
After spending a couple of days in Paul it is time to return to Porto Novo in order to catch a ferry back to São Vicente, from where you can travel further. Now you should take the brandnew coastal highway, going through Cape Verde’s first tunnels.
There is much more to see on Santo Antão, such as the other valleys in the centre of the island, which can only be reached from Porto Novo. But one of the best kept secrets of Cape Verde is the beach in the south of Santo Antão, stretching from the fishermen hamlet of Tarrafal Monte Trigo to Monte Trigo. As this area is still hard to reach by car and the road needs upgrading, we leave this for a next visit. Just to make sure you will be coming back!