Unpacking the package holiday – Sal, Cape Verde

Santa Maria beach Sal

Cape Verde

About 20 years ago ‘the spy’ told me I should go to Cape Verde. Before it got spoiled. The spy, a military man and drinking pal of my father in law, had ‘worked’ there and had fallen in love with the country. I didn’t even know where Cape Verde was. Later I looked it up and found out it is 500 kilometres from the coast of Senegal and mentally filed it as somewhere to visit, someday.

A few years ago my daughter visited Boa Vista and loved it. Underdeveloped, huge beach, luxury hotel. A place where she and her SO could relax and recharge. Sounded like hell to me. Nothing there. Not a beach person.


Fast forward to 2017 and I finally get to Cape Verde. I chose to visit Sal, one of the 10 islands that make up the archipelago that is Cape Verde. It had been a busy year. The Mr and I had lived on a building site, slept in 13 beds, decluttered and moved from airbnb to house sit while our house was beining renovated. And if this was not enough going one we had the daunting task of house clearing the mother in law’s house. We were exhausted and needed to be pampered and to relax. So Sal and the Riu Palace Cabo Verde it was.

The flight

We flew from Birmingham Airport. Don’t. If you are going to Sal and can fly from Gatwick you get a decent Dreamliner plane. From Birmingham you fly in a sardine can. With no entertainment for 7 hours. A 17 hour flight from Auckland to Dubai was more comfortable than the relatively short flight to Sal.

Sal has an airport with a long runway, hence why big planes can land. Built in 1939 by Italy as a refuelling stop, Amilcar Cabral International Airport was later bought by the Portuguese. And during the Space Shuttle flights, NASA chose it as one of the emergency landing strips. Long runway equals big planes and while not technically a long haul flight I am sure I would have arrived in better shape if I had been on a decent plane.

The Dreamliner flies to Sal from Gatwick

Fly from Gatwick. Unless you want to emerge from the plane feeling like you will never walk again, with a full bladder because the guy in the aisle seat slept all the way through, don’t fly from Birmingham. Do you hear me Birmingham Airport and Thomson Airlines? Get your act together. Birmingham is a good airport, with a new long runway, so give us some decent planes please.

Sal is an arid island with little rainfall

It has 350 days of sunshine on average. There is no fresh water. On my first day I overheard a tourist complaining about a day trip she had taken exploring the island. Nothing to see but barren land and a shanty town full of poor people apparently. She was wrong.

Get out of the All Inclusive Bubble and explore

Most of the tourism on the island is All Inclusive Hotels – huge ones. Recently the government have insisted that there should be no hotels with more than 700 rooms, which has meant that some of the biggest have split in two. They are still huge. And hardly anyone leaves them. It is a fair walk from most of them to get to the local town Santa Maria and taxis were a four Euros each way. We went one night to listen to live music in a small bar/gallery we had found earlier that day and it was brilliant.

We joined the reps walking tour of Santa Maria, which was useful if only to get to know the town better. This is how we found Kaza D’Artista. By day a cafe and art gallery, by night a bar and music venue.

We then took a taxi into Santa Maria a couple of times to explore the town by ourselves once in the day and one evening. And we were one of very few tourists there. They just don’t leave the hotels. There is a school where donations of pens, toiletries and clothes are welcome, a few cafes and restaurants, and a small sprawl of beach bars.

All the action is on the pier when the fish arrives off the boats. And after the boats have delivered their haul, it is party time. A perfect place to people watch.

The night we went was supposed to be a Saints festival – it was very low key, a band of young people gathered in the main square and played some music, while a dress rehearsal for a fashion show carried on in the background. All very bizarre. Later we went to listen to live music at Kaza D’Artista which had visited earlier that day and it was and excellent atmosphere. With an audience of perhaps a dozen people.

I think the reason people don’t leave the hotels is because they are all inclusive – and they can’t bear the thought of paying for drinks when they can get them ‘free’ at the hotel. And that is a shame, because getting out there is one way of putting money in the hands of locals as opposed to the big hotel chains. So get out of that bubble and leave the hotel.

The day tour

The guides and drivers are locals and know and love their island. We visited most of the highlights of the island. We booked this through our tour company and lunch and entrance fees were included. There are a number of companies offering similar trips so I would recommend you also check them out. My personal experience is that Viator seem to offer some of the best tours and can be better value than your package holiday provider, but do check out what is included as often lunch and fees are extra. This full day road tour is similar to the one we took.

Kite Beach

We started off the day with a visit to Kite Beach – which in high season is host to international kite surfing competitions. We then went on to do a full day tour of the island with lunch in Espargos.

A taste of Sal

The highlights of this tour (for me) was bathing in the salt lakes at Salinas and visiting the rescued animals at the botanical garden Viveiro. However I enjoyed the day immensely. We had an informative guide and this together some good company in the other passengers made the day for me. I learned a lot about the history of Sal and the country of Cape Verde. Saw some men playing a game of Oware and went to the highest point in Espargos.

Bathing in the salt lakes was hilarious as we all tried to bob along on our backs – you are so buoyant it is hard to manoeuvre – but it is definitely an experience I recommend. I would recommend you wear sandals you don’t mind getting wet (but that won’t float away) as the ground underfoot is rough and you may cut your feet.


We also visited Palmaira which is where the main port is and where a bigger port (that will be able to dock cruise ships) is under construction – and there we had rain. As there is so little rainfall on the island this was a novelty – but it did mean that we missed out on seeing the Blue Eye, due to it being overcast. It was reassuring to see that the windscreen wipers worked on the bus and they knew how to switch them on given that they only have to use them a few days a year. We then drove to the desert to see the mirage.

I liked Murderia. Possibly because there are no big hotels there. At the moment it is very low key. Tourism outside of Santa Maria is minimal – I did see some rooms to rent and smaller pension type hotels in Palmeria and Espargos but not many. Getting out of the AI complexes is the only way to find the real Sal.

Viveiro – a solution to the drought

I felt that I had got a taste of Sal in a day – and I suppose that is what the tour was meant to do. Was it barren? Well yup – but then you get to Viveiro and you can see what can be done on an island with little rainfall. The owner of Viveiro has not only created a garden of Eden in a barren land, but also grows all the trees and plants for all the hotels.

Water and irrigation

The guide told us that the owner also came up with the idea to recycle all the waste water the big hotels produce by using it to irrigate the gardens. Ah that is why the morning walk to breakfast was perfumed with a la compost corner…..  but this is great and IMHO needs to be adopted more. With 500 plus bed hotels that is a minimum of 1000 showers a day per hotel in a drought ridden country. Plus all the loo flushing, that is a lot of waste water that can be utilised to irrigate not just hotel planting, but food too.

The catamaran trip

There were a few versions of this trip available and again we pre booked with the tour operator (will I never learn)? Again I would say check out Tripadvisor and Viator for tours. We also saw many trips advertised on the jetty of Santa Maria, so there are lots of options. We chose to go on the adult only one and wish we hadn’t because it was all about the booze and loud music. The best bit, apart from the swim, was the trip on a tiny boat to the catamaran and hanging around the harbour. We also spent most of our time chatting to the photographer who was the most interesting person on the trip.

The coastline isn’t pretty. It is no Santorini. And while I jumped on the person who whinged about the day trip and the island being barren – well this was just a brown coast with a bit of swimming. Which is the bit I love. The priority of most people on the trip was to ‘top up their tan’ whilst getting pissed. Choose your trip wisely. Disappointing. I am sure there are better ones out there.

Quad biking

I am not an adrenaline junkie but my daughter, who is, told me that this was a must do activity. She was right. I didn’t get to drive but riding pillion was just fine for me. We had a short introduction to the vehicles and then headed out of Santa Maria to the dunes and salt flats to explore the area.

You will get dirty, dusty and hot. There were a few participants who were petrol heads and wanted to be at the front – overtaking dangerously – what these idiots did not realise that they would always have to wait for the ones bringing up the rear (us) aka Mr Captain Sensible and Mis Daisy).

There is still a lot of undeveloped land around Santa Maria – new roads have been built leading to nowhere and there is very little traffic – so the short time you are on road during this trip you are not battling for space with trucks and cars. It was a fun day – but boy did my legs and arms ache the next day.

We got to see more of the coastline and the landscape of the area around Santa Maria and again visited Kite Beach. The tour finished up at a small beach bar which was perfect location to cool off. Although we seems to have travelled miles, this bar was just over a sand dune from our hotel. A place I discovered we could wander to along the beach if we escaped the security of the AI hotel.

I am glad we experienced the quad biking, despite the heat and the dust, it was a good way to see more of the island.

The food

We were warned that the food in the hotels would be poor- as it  all imported. Expect tinned peas they said, the ones who have never visited but their friends had. They were wrong. We only ate outside of our hotel once, in Espargos, on the day trip, and the food was very good. The food in the hotel was exceptional. Yes it was a RIU hotel, yes it was a buffet, yes it was good. Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, some excellent fish too. There were also some stations where food was cooked  to order, so yes, good fresh food was available.

We also booked one night in the a la carte restaurant, included in the AI price. It was lovely to have table service for a change. That said the service from the staff in the main buffet restaurant was the best I have experienced in an AI hotel. Talking to a few of them, they felt appreciated by the hotel, they had access to learn German, French and English, and loved their jobs. Tourism is one of the main source of work for local people.


The population of Sal is growing. I think that one of the reasons was there is some movement here due to the work offered in the tourist industry.

The island population is now currently around 40,000 and is now the fifth most populated island in Cape Verde. 

Source Wikipedia 

We were told by the woman who ran the music bar we went to that there are more women than men on the island. Again, I can only quote what I was told, but she said that a lot of the men left the islands to find work. I think however, and again speculation, that many are returning as tourism expands.


This had meant rapid expansion of Espargos with new small apartments being built. My concern is that when almost all the employment eggs are in one tourism basket and that basket being an AI one, what happens if the bubble bursts?

Windsurfing and Kite surfing

One of the reasons that Santa Maria has developed as a tourist centre is the wind, the dunes and the huge beaches, which are the ideal conditions for wind and kite surfers. Between December and May Sal is the hot spot for these activities. I imagine the demographics of the tourists changes significantly at this time of year.


Mostly AI hotel but a lot more apartments being built (windsurfers take these over in the main season).

There are older and more central in Santa Maria hotels and apartments, which if I return I would choose, however, AI is popular because it works out cheaper to book AI rather than rent an apartment and buy food – and the options are limited and not very affordable. I would say if you were in Espargos – a bigger town, there are more eating out and buying food options. Although there were a number of small cafes in Santa Maria which I would have loved to have tried.

The other drawback to being in a big AI hotel was that you could have been anywhere in the world. Attractive but identical blocks of buildings, pouring out holiday makers trekking to the pool to put a towel on a sunbed, the beach to top up a tan, or to go and eat one of the 5 meals a day on offer. That said the room and the hotel over all was lovely.

Every morning as we walked to breakfast I half expected to see the big white ball from The Prisoner. It was all a bit dull and monotonous as people walked to and from their rooms to breakfast, lunch and dinner and to and from the pool to reserve sunbeds. Which is why we escaped on trips and visits to town.

Slums and slum clearance and the Espargos shanty town – the Political bit

We drove past this on the day trip. Personally I think it is voyeurism and I was uncomfortable with it. The tour guide then proudly pointed out all the new build apartments and announced that the shanty town dwellers were moving there now. Of course I asked if this was a choice. No it seems, it is a policy.

Now while on paper a new apartment with clean water and a bathroom seems a good idea, it struck me that every hut in the shanty town had a bit of land where some veg was grown, a goat grazed and chickens scratched. The people living here were self sufficient. And most of them I was told had full employment and it was a choice to live here. Again, I can only repeat what I was told. What I could not understand was how the building of apartments and not small houses with a bit of land was the right solution to improving lives.

Could they not use the waste water from small houses to irrigate gardens so the once fertile plain blossomed with food again. The capital, Espargos was named for the wild asparagus that grows on the island. But now almost all the food is imported. If Viveiro can grow palm trees, it can grow tomatoes. There must be a better way.

I don’t know. But I think the politicians need to rethink their housing policy. In the UK and other developed countries there is evidence that moving people from substandard houses in established communities to apartments without gardens leads to isolation. Emulating developed countries is not the solution. Creating solutions for your community is.

Most of the hotel workers lived in Espargos and were bussed in to the hotels in Santa Maria. It is a city that will expand – the land is flat, it is the most fertile area, so in 20 years or so, who knows?

So, why visit now?

There is a new dock being built so cruise liners can go there – more tourists and more development will follow. The cruise companies want this as it is an all year round destination and with some countries being ‘closed’ due to real and perceived threats of terrorism, Cape Verde is the solution to cruises closer to home. It offers much of what the Caribbean offers, white beaches, a laid back atmosphere, without the long flight.

Places that are empty now will be crowded when they dock. The blue eye was quite busy when we visited (as it is only visible between 12 to 1 – this will be when all the trips from the cruise ships will visit and then it will a trip to bathe in the now almost deserted salt lakes.

The roads are quiet – there is no chains (apart from hotels) so local people run local businesses at the moment. While the casino and other swanky hotels have taken years to build, many plots remain half-finished and abandoned. This will change. Traditional winter destinations such as The Canaries are at full capacity and Egypt and Tunisia remain to some extent closed for business. Cape Verde is a therefore a solution for the tour companies for the demand for winter sun. It has a big runway. Good roads. Infrastructure. Sun.

I hope that Cape Verde negotiate a good deal with them, I do. Irrigation being part of it. And ecotourism. They have made a start in some areas, and this is a real opportunity to develop it now, before the big boys take over and quite frankly ruin it.

There are a few Europeans who have set up businesses in Santa Maria. They like Sal for its all year round sun. And who can blame them? Some are the chips with everything and Sky Sport 24/7 type bars. Others are more upmarket. Local bars are low key with emphasis on the music. Property is relatively expensive.

I also heard that there are lots of issues around getting stuff done. The Hilton Hotel had taken many years to complete so the local tour rep told me. Many of the other hotels had had to remodel due to the restriction on number of rooms each hotel can have. At this moment in time there is not enough of this type of development to turn into a Costa del Hell but more development is on the way. It does seem to be concentrating on the top end of the tourism market though.

Would I go back?

Yes. Preferably as an indie traveller and go island hopping. I asked if it was possible and locals said yes, but transport was unpredictable, boats left when they were full. This would not be Greek Island Hopping. It would be slow travel, it would not be cheap, but I think I would like it. Boa Vista and Sal are the islands that the big tour operators and hotel chains have focussed on, and that is purely down to the long runway at Amilcar Cabral International Airport and the beaches of course.

Having learned more about some of the other islands and the ecotourism and small guest houses such as Spinguera on Boa Vista and the vibrant and verdant of Santiago, I realise now that there is much more to Cape Verde. Currently most tourists on an average package holiday stay in an enormous, soulless All Inclusive resort. They see little more than the pool and the restaurant. And I am happy to leave them to it. And yet if a really cheap AI came up again, yes I would go again. If I could go there on a decent plane. But I would leave the hotel, hire a car and explore. And find the real Cape Verde.

Have you been to Cape Verde?

For more information about Cape Verde here are some useful links













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