A heaven for hikers

A heaven for hikers
Panoramic view of a typical ribeira in Cape Verde.

Aptly shaped like a ship's anchor, the archipelago of Cape Verde (Cabo Verde in Portuguese) is a cluster of 10 small volcanic islands scattered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa. But what islands!

The variety of its landscape is mind-boggling. Soaring craggy peaks interspersed with lush deep valleys dotted with villages and farmland in the interior; swathes of hillside terraces along the coast, with villages perched at dizzying heights on top of narrow rock outcrops; powder-white beaches encircling the islands.

Scenery apart, what makes Cape Verde, independent since 1975, stand out is its intriguing cultural mix - part African because of its heritage, a bit European thanks to its Portuguese history and an inexplicable feel of the Caribbean, perhaps the result of the mestico (mixed) legacy of its people and the infusion of a soulful kind of music. The latter was best personified by the late Cesaria Evora, dubbed the "barefoot diva", who gave a memorable performance in Singapore at the Esplanade in 2002.

Most of Cape Verde's half a million tourists make a beeline for the islands of Boa Vista, Sal and Maio, drawn to their beaches, where all-inclusive resorts cater to sun and surf revellers. But for those in the know, Cape Verde is tops as a premier hiking destination, offering unique walking trails of incredible beauty.

Of its nine inhabited islands, six of them offer a variety of such trails, with the best walks to be found on two islands - Santo Antao and Santiago.

Much of Santo Antao, the second largest of the Cape Verde islands, is criss-crossed by ribeiras. These streams have carved out deep wide valleys, which house small villages where people lead idyllic lives as they have for centuries. Even if you are not a hiker, you can appreciate the beauty of Santo Antao on drives along precarious mountain and coastal roads, making stops to admire the spectacular views.

Walk along lofty ridges to descend into the ribeiras for a close-up look at life in tucked away valleys. Here, houses are built in stepped fashion into the almost vertical cliff sides.

Where hikes elsewhere usually involve undulating terrain, in Cape Verde, trails are mostly downhill. For this reason, walking poles are de rigueur. Handling descents of more than a kilometre in some areas and on stony paths over a period of six hours is a challenge to the knees, but well worth the effort. Ribeiras often interconnect: Our walk from the mountain-top village of Corda to coastal Coculi saw us passing through two different ribeiras.

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