It was dusk when we arrived at Ponta do Sol — the far northern end of an island at the westernmost edge of the Atlantic archipelago known as Cape Verde. Specks scattered in the ocean 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, nine of the 10 islands in the former Portuguese colony are inhabited. Our journey to the island of Santo Antao required a flight from Portugal to the island of Sao Vicente, followed by a ferry across the choppy currents to the town of Porto Novo, from where we piled into a collectivo (a shared taxi) that bounced us to the end of the road: a town of cobblestone streets and sherbet-colored houses clinging to cliffs facing the furious Atlantic Ocean.
But now, at our friendly guesthouse, Kasa Tambla, all the guides are booked for hiking excursions into the Paul Valley — a verdant pilgrimage spot for hikers.
“Go ask at the bar up the street,” we are told.
And so do we happen to meet the French-speaking Bebeto, as he tells us to call him. Shrugging, as I can always translate from French to English for my sister, I agree to a price and a departure time the following morning.
At the beachfront, the sun burns bright orange as it drops into the water. We gaze at the craggy mountains rising from the ocean, sipping shots of grogue, the local spirit made from sugar cane. “On the house!” the waiter grins. We tuck into tasty morsels of fish, pulled from the water a few hours earlier, as musicians sit down to play, their tunes electrified by the energy of an Atlantic storm.
An Atlantic crossroads
In the morning, Bebeto is right on time. Emmy and I refill water bottles from the dispensers offered by the eco-conscious guesthouse. Then we climb into Bebeto’s red pickup truck for a drive along the old cobbled road.
“Before these islands were discovered by the Portuguese in the mid-15th century, this was completely virgin land,” Bebeto explains. Much like the Galapagos, these isolated volcanic islands developed their own plant and animal life, with seeds carried from the African continent on the Saharan trade winds. When Charles Darwin arrived here in 1831, awestruck by the islands’ unique geography, vegetation and animal species, he wrote, “It has been for me a glorious day, like giving sight to a blind man’s eyes.”
Bebeto points emphatically out the window at the most interesting tree I’ve ever seen: a flat, spiky canopy spread horizontally atop a gnarled trunk, standing sentry among the sugar cane stalks. The dragon tree is ancient. Resistant to drought, this endemic species is considered a symbolic national monument, standing witness to centuries of history. Resilient, like the Cape Verdeans themselves.
Bebeto stops the truck and we set out on the loose pebble path used by peasants ascending the Paul Valley. It feels like the edge of the Earth, we decide, but Cape Verde actually has a strategic position in the middle of it all. The Portuguese identified it as the Atlantic’s crossroads, an anchor between Europe, Africa and South America. Favorable wind patterns and ocean currents meant that Cape Verde played an important role in maritime history — and a sinister one, at the heart of the infamous transatlantic slave trade. Ships stopped to pick up supplies and pay customs fees. Later, Cape Verde became a port of call for whaling ships, then ocean liners needing to stock up on coal, salt and water.
Uninhabited when discovered, the islands served as a blank slate for Portuguese colonialists — both geographically and culturally. The great mariners had ventured to all corners of the Earth, carrying back an incredible variety of plants. The settlers imported edibles such as papaya and sugar cane, along with agricultural methods including irrigation systems developed on mountainous Madeira. The hybrid population represents a unique melting pot descended from original Portuguese settlers, Africans from Gambia and Senegal, Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution, and Moors of Arabic descent. There’s no better symbol of this mélange than the Kriolu language, which developed as a mix of African and European vocabulary, with some archaic words not used in the Portuguese vernacular for centuries.
But Cape Verde was an unsustainable place. The Verde — or green — in Cape Verde is a misnomer, considering the bleached and rain-parched colors of many of the islands. Serious drought and barren soil led to waves of emigration throughout history. The Cape Verdean diaspora means that more citizens live abroad than in the country itself. (The largest population is in the United States, as many seafaring Cape Verdeans left to work on New England whaling ships.) And so the mournful ballads, known as morna, sung by the great chanteuse Cesária Évora are infused with longing for those who departed and for the land left behind.
Water remains scarce in Cape Verde, with modern desalination plants supplying much of the potable water. The exception is Santo Antao, where we are. This is the greenest of the islands, a fertile paradise sprinkled with rainfall.
As we walk up the Paul Valley, we marvel at the agricultural bounty. Terraced hillsides are planted with coffee, coconut, avocado, manioc, sugar cane, mango, banana and breadfruit crops. Bebeto shows us how farmers painstakingly plant in mountain streams; taro plants are cultivated in the rushing water like rice. Small stone walls are constructed to prevent erosion and to pool the water flow. The harvest takes place in August before the rains wash out the stream beds. Each year, workers rebuild the walls, stone by stone.
Bebeto jumps into a stream to show us how the plants are grown; he ushers us inside a friend’s house to drink locally grown coffee; he picks blossoms to thread into a colorful bouquet, which he presents with a smile. We are welcomed inside traditional thatched dwellings perched at dizzying heights above the valley, adorned with simple Catholic shrines. We have never discussed lunch and end up feasting on fried chicken. When I snack on a banana later, Bebeto won’t let me throw away the peel; he saves it for a goat.
He tells us that two wind turbines supply 60 percent of the island’s energy. Five villages on the island’s west side are solar-powered, with more solar projects on the horizon.
The higher we ascend, the more mind-blowing the views. We are bowled over by the grandeur. The canyons appear as deep lush grooves, a wrinkled green carpet cloaking the volcanic peaks.
Évora sang of the Paul Valley as the “Jardim Prometido”— the “promised garden” where the “river is flowing,” “water is falling” and “hope is blossoming.” And what we see is a harmonious cohabitation between humankind and nature. We salute the workers we pass, and Bebeto describes a tilled terrace as a “work of art.”
Not until much later in the day do we encounter another set of hikers. Clad in Patagonia outdoor gear, the tanned and toned guide beams at Bebeto, reaching out to shake his hand. “He’s the best guide on the island!” he tells us. There, on the top of a mountaintop gazing at the mar azul, or blue sea, that Évora sang so passionately about, we realize that we had lucked into the very best. It is a stroke of serendipity that marks the best travel adventures.
A young tourist industry
Later in the week, Bebeto drives us to the ferry, taking the longer panoramic route over the mountains. The Estrada de Corda is epic. Following a steep ridge, the cobbled road reaches a vertiginous altitude. We stop to give a lift to a few schoolchildren in uniform, along with a trio of young Bob Marley-inspired guys with dreadlocks. Even these locals are wowed by the vistas, snapping grinning photos via selfie sticks. We marvel at the deep volcanic craters circled by jagged peaks. Spiky agave plants sprout from sheer rock cliffs. The mountains are laced with a green so luminous that it’s almost fluorescent. Forged by fire and successive lava flows, the rocks were later carved by water. There’s something primordial about it, like we’re witnessing geological creation in real time.
The road climbs into the clouds. The temperatures are cooler, the soil planted with fragrant pines. Reforestation has helped create a distinct microclimate. Bebeto tells us that tourism on Santo Antao began only 18 years ago.
As we near the ferry terminal, Bebeto points out the aridity of the island’s southern side, where the rains are blocked by the mountain peaks. One of our reggae friends says with a laugh, “The only things growing here are acacia trees and unemployment.”
Our return flight is from Sal, where transatlantic flights used to refuel decades before planes could traverse very long distances. Sal is a spit of sand and barren rock, but it’s the country’s de facto tourism capital.
While Santo Antao is gloriously green and Sao Vicente is the music-marinated culture capital, Sal is all about fun in the sun. It has fine sandy beaches, world-renowned kiteboarding, and vibrant nightlife in the town of Santa Maria.
But it’s jarring to see the sheer number of all-inclusive resorts, operated by international hotel chains and kitted out with sprawling infinity pools. Mass tourism to Sal is soaring, with the British press calling Cape Verde “the next Canaries.”
From the terrace of our guesthouse, Emmy and I imbibe the passion fruit punch we had purchased at the artisanal grogue factory in the Paul Valley. We remember the two poignant words Bebeto had said about Sal: “No water.”
Sal offers a marked contrast with Santo Antao, where sustainable tourism has taken root and has the opportunity to flourish, bringing with it jobs. Cape Verde — a promising young country with high literacy and a stable democracy — has announced plans to run entirely on renewable energy by the year 2025. Can tourism follow suit?
More from Travel:
If you go
Where to stay
Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao
This welcoming, eco-friendly guesthouse has eight rooms and a tropical garden where breakfast is served. Reservations can be made online, and the manager is happy to help arrange a car pickup from the ferry dock. Doubles from $58 per night.
Rua 24 De Setembro, Mindelo, Sao Vicente
Inside one of the oldest houses in Mindelo, this lovely hotel has nine rooms with mahogany four-poster beds. There’s also a small pool and a rooftop with sweeping views of the city. Doubles from $73.
Where to eat
On the waterfront, Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao
Friendly restaurant and bar overlooking the Atlantic. Tables are situated on the sidewalk. On the menu: fish and traditional dishes like cachupa. Live music offered nightly. Mains from around $9.
Filled with art, this guesthouse has a restaurant serving traditional food with a leafy terrace. The fish of the day costs around $7.
What to do
Museu do Mar
Avenida Marginal, Edifico Torre de Belem, Mindelo, Sao Vicente
A terrific little museum, housed inside the replica of Lisbon’s Belem Tower on the waterfront, tracing the island’s maritime history and whaling. Beautiful views from the top of the tower. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and closed Sundays. Tickets cost about $1.
Guided hike in the Paul Valley on the island of Santo Antao
Guides can be arranged at your guesthouse in Ponta do Sol. A day hike for two people costs about $44 to $55, not including transportation and lunch.
The terrific French-speaking guide, Bebeto, has a website: guideindependantcapvertbebeto.blogspot.fr
For the author’s full list of recommendations for Cape Verde, visit washingtonpost.com/travel