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Santiago, Cape Verdes bustling main island

Cidade Velha and Tarrafal, Santiago, Cape Verdes

The largest and most populous island with the capital Praia. It is noisy, boisterous, hassling and crowded. It does not appeal to many and may struggle to become a tourist island. It was the first to be settled by the Portuguese because irrigated crops grow in the steep valleys between craggy bald mountains. It is dotted with banana plantations and once had forests with many birds. This attracted Charles Darwin, who took several specimens on his way to the Pacific . It is the island for business and for meeting government officials.

D from New York is conscious of the history

" The opening pages of Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle are a pretty accurate account of what we saw and did today. He came ashore here in January 1832, most eagerly we must assume, since Captain Fitzroy had not allowed him ashore in Madeira, he had been quarantined at Tenerife and had been continually seasick since leaving Plymouth. He describes the arid landscape around Praia and the swathe of green that meets the sea at Ribeira Grande. Like us he looked down from the fort on the remains of the old city - still known as Cidade Velha - noting the remains of the old cathedral and marveling at the apparent oasis of the valley below. We inspected the fort, its size a testimony to the wealth in slaves that was being protected in the city below. For this old city was the first European city anywhere in the tropical world, a place from whence slaves, obtained on the adjacent mainland of Africa and seasoned on the Cape Verde Islands, were transported to the plantations of the New World. There were no inhabitants on the archipelago when the Portuguese first sighted them in 1460, the year of the Infante Enrique's death. Better known in the English-speaking world as Henry the Navigator, he had sponsored expedition after expedition along the coast of west Africa, voyages that would culminate gloriously by the end of the fifteenth century in the Portuguese establishing a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian sub-continent. By the end of the following century the island had attracted a raid by Sir Francis Drake who surprised the garrison of the fort above Cidade Velha by attacking it from the rear, after landing his men on the beach from which Praia takes its name. The arid climateisalleviated with ingenious water tanks making the most of occasional rainstorms and by a massive program of afforestation. We had visited the produce market in the morning and were impressed by the freshness and variety of the fruits and vegetables on sale. Our birders had set off in pursuit of the endemic Cape Verde Purple Heron, a rare brown bird that breeds in a single tree. It had left the tree for the duration of their visit unfortunately but could be found in the Post Office adorning a new issue of the country's colorful stamps."

B from Manchester got bored there

"We had intended to stay our entire holiday at Santiago but in all honesty, I didn't think it would be enough to satisfy most travellers for more than three or four days. On the evening of the third day we decided we wanted to decamp and explore Maio"

S from Lancs says

"Santiago was terribly run down. I hired a car and ended up in the ghetto which was quite frightening. I also saw all the new roads being built at the front of the sea but behind when all the new apartments will be built is the ghetto and in time unless they sort out the ghetto there is going to be robbery there when the place is empty"

D from Berskshire felt it was a mistake to go there

"I guess the only unfortunate side was that visiting Santiago was a complete waste of time but it's just a live and learn experience."

Cidade Velha

Originally Ribeira Grande, the ancient capital and first Portuguese slaving base, but the river has long since dried up. It was often attacked by pirates and involved in the several naval wars during the 16th Century. The famous British pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked it twice in 1585 and 1586, on the second occasion sinking half a dozen Portuguese ships. Many wrecks are still accessible to divers and an archaeological survey is recovering cannon , pottery and other artefacts. The French pirate, Jean Cassard, devastated the town in 1712, and it was abandoned for the better protection of Praia. Many ruins reflect its past importance, as the first European settlement in the tropics. An old fortress looks down on the village, with Napoleonic-era cannon and on the beach a nice restaurant and bar serves barbecued chicken for around£3.

The road from Praia to Tarrafal

There are many stops along this route. From Praia towards Assomada, is Sao Jorge de Orgao with streets lined with bougainvillea. Near Assomada, is the highest peak on the island with good views . Assomada, an old village, has attractive colonial style houses and a local vegetable market. Boa Entrada nearby has a huge tree “Pei de Polom” and Ribeira de Barca once took sailing ships. Aguas Belas is a secluded beach within a cave reached by boat.

Beaches on Santiago- Tarrafal

Many beaches are of black volcanic lava. Tarrafal and Sao Francisco have good yellow sand beaches which are mostly empty, but they are hard to reach. At Tarrafal is an old Portuguese colonial political prison and the finest beach on the island. S from Scotland comments.
"when the laval sand gets wet it turns to mud. These will never be tourist beaches."

B from Manchester found some others

"There are a few beaches on Santiago that merit comment: Sao Francisco and Tarrafal are the best, but if you are touring Cape Verde Islands they would not be worth a mention compared with the stupendous beaches on Maio and Sal. The town beaches at Praia have khaki/black sand, so look unappealing, but if you don't mind sunbathing on lava rocks there are some wonderful natural pools with crystal clear water just beyond Quebra-Canela Beach."

Tarafal resort

Tarrafal, a fishing village in the far north of the island is much nicer, but it is a long trek to get there through the dusty, barren hills, partially along cobbled roads. There is one hotel, the Tarrafal, which does not have a restaurant and the Baia Verde which operates a restaurant but has closed its bungalows. You can also eat in several Cape Verdean open air restaurants, for perhaps £4. B from Manchester found it a bit poor

"The natural topography of Santiago is stunning; stupendous mountains contorted into monstrous shapes in varying shades from dun to copper with the occasional grey river bed 'wadi' to provide a relief of dusty green. The villages are mainly unattractive - you have to remember this is a poor country and the people have to make do and mend - and are marred by litter, the most offensive being the ubiquitous plastic carrier bags snagged on the acacias for miles around. Having said that you can wonder around freely - people are very friendly - and it is always fascinating to have a glimpse of a life very different from ours, with all manner of livestock roaming the streets, and puppies, children and kittens tumbling together in the dust. Driving is pleasure with the cobbled roads mainly in a good state of repair with miles of open views between the villages. Cidade Velha is a notable exception to this rather downbeat description of Santiagan village life; here you will find well-maintained cottages, a lively square by a curvaceous beach, an impressive fort with even more impressive views, well-maintained monuments and a ribeira (my 'dry river bed' wadi'!) that winds back through the hills for a couple of miles. If you do tour the island - which will take the best part of a leisurely couple of days - take picnics and plenty of water with you: it is very difficult to find food once you are out on the road, Tarrafal being the only place we found that offered snacks as we would understand them, and this on the terrace of a small hotel overlooking the beach. "

H from Essex visited the old colonial prison

"The former prison camp in Tarrafal is wonderfully weird, but the beach and hotel need a good tidy up if they want to attract European custom."

A from South Africa was interested in birds

"Drive from Praia to Tarrafal inland route via Assomada. En route visit to the world's last remaining Bourne's Heron nesting colony at Banana, Ribeira de Montanha. Small water ponds at roadside, open grass fields, dry acacia "savannah". Midday trip through island to central mountain range near Picos and Joao Goto. Visit to heron colony at Banana, Ribeira de Montanha, and towards Sao Jorge dos Orgaos. Return to Tarrafal along coastal route via Pedra Badejo (visit to coast and outskirts of lagoon) and Calheta de Sao Miguel"

Band S from iowa toured around the interior

"For lunch one day, we traveled to the village of Assomada by overloaded Hiace (18, including the driver), about an hour's drive on a new national highway and hilly, winding roads. After a lunch of beans and rice with a couple of large hunks of grilled pork on top, we found a small hotel bar for drinks - beer, Coke, bottled water - then explored the Assomada market before catching another Hiace for the ride back to Praia. The next day we rented a Skoda Octavia - a five-speed diesel sedan - for a trip from Praia to Cidade Velha on Santiago's southwestern coast, then back through Assomada and north to the town of Tarrafal. Cidade Velha is the site of the Fortaleza Real de San Felipe, a 16th-century cliff-top Spanish fort that overlooks the town. Perched on the edge of the ocean was an outdoor bar/restaurant offering comfortable wicker chairs and cold water. Colorful roosters provided entertainment by pecking at our feet and a lone monkey danced in a nearby tree. The drive from Praia to Tarrafal - about 50 kilometers, essentially the entire length of Santiago - takes about two hours. We stopped in the mountains at an overlook, from which we could see tiny villages in the valleys on either side of the road. These are volcanic islands, where modest block homes cling to steep hillsides, and corn and sugarcane are planted on narrow terraces that often appear all but inaccessible except to the goats. In the scenic cove at Tarrafal, visitors can lie in the sun on a white sand beach and watch fishing boats bob in the surf a hundred yards or so off shore."

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