Santiago Island

Santiago Island, Rui Vaz
Santiago Island, Rui Vaz

Santiago – The Fertile Island

Welcome to the biggest island of Cape Verde! With its capital of Praia in the southeast, Santiago has had a strong influence on the history of the archipelago. More than half of the Cape Verdeans now live on this island. With an area of 990 kilometres, Santiago is probably the most diverse island in terms of its landscape. You can find fine sandy beaches, mighty mountains and dry steppe areas, as well as fertile valleys and plateaus. In a valley near Assomada, in the island’s interior, you can admire the oldest and largest tree of Cape Verde, a kapok tree that is about 500 years old and 40 metres tall.
Two volcanic mountain ranges dominate the structure of the island: The arch of the Serra Malagueta (1394 metres) runs from the west coast to the east in the north; at the centre of the island, a mountain range stretches around the island’s highest peak, the Pico d’Antónia. The two monuments of nature are surrounded by achadas (plateaus) and flat-top mountains of lava rock. The achadas in the interior of the island display rich vegetation: Acacia, euphorbias and figs are very common here since the soil is comparatively moist. In the north and south, the plateaus are much more barren and crossed by dry valleys (ribeiras).
The island has been very strongly influenced by Africa in terms of its culture. After all, it was the centre for the slave trade with the neighbouring continent for many years. The classic music styles such as funana and batuco, which are present everywhere, are a potent reminder of this fact.

City hall in Praia, Santiago Island
City hall in Praia, Santiago Island

With its roughly 100,000 inhabitants, the capital of Praia pulsates and grows. This is the governmental and economic epicentre of the country. But slums that are reminiscent of Brazil‘s favelas and suburbs with multi-storied concrete buildings also dominate the cityscape. Praia is busy, loud, hectic — a typical big city. Businesspeople, diplomats (at home in the Prainha villa quarter) and the government officials bustle about in the centre, and 10,000 commuters descend upon the city every day. Even if Praia is less tourist-oriented, it still has some attractions for you to discover: The core of the old town, which is built on a plateau, with its magnificent houses from the colonial era and the Praça Alexandra de Albuquerque. The  Nossa Senhora da Graça church, the food market, the palace of justice, the Museo Ethnográfico, the presidential palace, the parliament building in the Achada de Santo António section of the city, and the old town fortress of Bateira, from which you can enjoy a wonderful view of the ocean.
The best city beaches are the Praia Prainha or the Quebra Canela, which is close to the Prainha quarter. The Praia da Gamboa, which is not recommended for swimming, is the site of the island’s latest music festival, which takes place once every year.
The Achada de Santo António quarter, located on a plateau in the west of Praia, is where you will find bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
It’s also worthwhile to visit the Mercado de Sucupira with its labyrinthine side streets in the Várzea quarter. This is where you can buy everything from clothing and African fabric to household appliances to music and traditional handicrafts and the typical national dishes.

Cidade Velha, Santiago
Cidade Velha, Santiago

Cidade da Ribeira Grande de Santiago, the former capital of Santiago (previously called Cidade Velha), was placed on the World Cultural Heritage list by UNESCO in July 2009. The city is overlooked by a mighty fortress, Fortaleza Real de São Felipe, which serves as a reminder of the Portuguese colonial rulers. The romantic little houses of Rua Banana, which also display architecture typical of Portugal, were rebuilt true to the original within the scope of a UNESCO project. The fact that the Cidade de Santiago was the centre of the international slave trade during its heyday, when it was still called Ribeira Grande, is attested to by the pillory (Pelourinho), an obelisk close to the city centre.
The Nossa Senhora do Rosário church, whose construction began in 1495, is enthroned above the northern part of Rua Banana. With its baptismal of alabaster, it’s the oldest colonial church in the world. Above all, the monument‘s baptistery is worth seeing. The floral motifs in stone in the latticework vault of the chapel are evidence of Moorish influences, as are the numerous azulejos (painted tiles).
The Convento São Francisco, to the north of the city centre, is also worth visiting. Directly on the coast, the ruin-like Sé Catedral lies elevated above the sea. Started in 1555 and only completed in 1693, the rather simple church in the Mudéjar style is full of history. Its construction plans were frequently changed, and it was partially built of limestone and partially of basalt quarry stones.

Bay of Tarrafal, Santiago Island
Bay of Tarrafal, Santiago

You can spend a classic pleasant Sunday in Tarrafal in the north of Santiago. A pretty little bay with palms is protected from the wind and quite suitable for swimming. You can watch the boats arrive at the small fishing harbour (divers and deep-sea fish will get their money’s worth due to the many species of fish). Once a week, there is a market on the church plaza and you can also tour an old Baroque church. The surrounding mountains invite you on a hike.