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Santiago Island Guide

Santiago is the largest, the most populated and the most African of all the Cape Verde islands. However, it must be remembered that large by Cape Verde standards is still pretty small by those of the rest of the world, with Santiago measuring roughly two times the size of the Isle of Wight.

One of the Sotavento islands which lie to the south of the Barlavento islands, Santiago is home to more than half of the Cape Verde population and its capital, Praia, is a bustling and noisy city with plenty of African attitude.

However, travel to either side of Santiago’s beating heart and you will find idyllic fishing villages and deserted beaches as stunning as any found in the region. The island is also more mountainous than most, with swathes of lush and verdant countryside in which much of Santiago’s food is grown. The island’s highest point is the twin peaked Pico do Santo Antonio, which lies at 1392m in the middle of the Serra Malagueta Natural Park where there are some exceptional hikes to be found.

The history of Santiago

Santiago was one of the first islands to be discovered in 1460, when Portuguese explorers embarked on the shores of Ribeira Grande. Led by Antonio da Noli, the men built a garrison on the barren coast on the south west tip of the island, which is now called Cidade Velha.

Due to its proximity to West Africa and its trans-Atlantic position, Cape Verde became very important for the slave trade from the 1500s. Men and women were forcibly removed from their villages in mainland Africa, taken to the Cape Verde Islands by slave masters and from Cape Verde they were transported by sea to every corner of the world.

As a result of this human trading, Ribeira Grande became very prosperous. It became a city in 1572 and its cathedral was finally completed in 1693. It is documented that the explorers Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama both stopped here during voyages, Columbus during his third voyage to the Americas in 1498 and Vasco de Gama on his way to India in 1497.

At one stage Ribeira Grande was the second richest city in the Portuguese realm. However, with prosperity came envy. News of the island’s wealth grew and Santiago came under attack by pirates on numerous occasions. The ruined Real do Sao Filipe Fort, which overlooks the town, was built in 1590 to protect Ribeira Grande following an attack by Francis Drake five years earlier. Sir Drake attacked Santiago with more than 1000 men and ordered for Ribeira Grande to be burned down when no treasure was found.

The city was attacked again in 1712 by the French under Jacques Cassart in 1712 and was virtually destroyed. It was at this point that the Santiagos decided to move the capital city from the coast to Praia, on a plateau to the east of Ribeira Grande.

Geologist Charles Darwin visited the island in 1832 and was struck by the beauty of its interior, writing; “Here I saw the glory of tropical vegetation: Tamarinds, Bananas and Palms were flourishing at my feet ... It has been for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes, he is overwhelmed with what he sees and cannot justly comprehend it.”

However, its prosperity was short-lived. The Island’s fortunes declined dramatically when Portugal abolished slavery in 1876. The economic travails were not aided by increasingly hard weather conditions, bringing chaos to Santiago. There were three major droughts between the 18th and 19th centuries, which resulted in the deaths of more than 40 per cent of the Cape Verde population through starvation. With its population dwindling through starvation and no help on the horizon, many Cape Verdeans started to emigrate.

In recent years, things have started to look up for the people of Santiago. The island has been earmarked by the government as one of four ripe for tourist development along with Sal, Boa Vista and Maio. As a result, a new international airport was opened on the outskirts of Praia in 2005, and a year later, direct flights from the UK began to fly there.

An island of contrasts

Santiago is an island that has it all: beautiful sandy beaches, a stunning natural park with mountain peaks and exotic wildlife, and an ancient town which has been singled out as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The island’s interior is particularly stunning, as Darwin himself noted, its mountainous peaks and river valleys filled with an abundance of bird life including some species that exist nowhere else in the world.

Amongst the highlights are:

Cidade Velha - the first European city in the tropics. It is now Cape Verde’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to the old town is crucial to understand the significance of slavery in the history of Cape Verde. Here, you can explore the ruins of the Portuguese settlement, including the Fortress of Sao Filipe. The centre piece is the Whipping Post known as “Pelourinho” made out of marble, which is a haunting reminder of the cruelty of the slave trade.

Assomada - an attractive town at the heart of Santiago famous for its museum and market. The town’s Tabanka Museum explains the history of the Tabanka Festival, a celebration of the liberation of slaves which takes place every June. The market of Assomada is one of the largest on the island, crammed with agricultural products and crafts. It is the central collection and distribution point for products produced throughout the surrounding countryside.

Serra Malagueta Natural Park - one of Cape Verde’s three national parks, which is located between Assomanda and Tarrafal. Working in partnership with the local community, its visitor centre provides experienced guides to escort walkers on a number of hiking trails. Within the park itself, which is an eco-tourist site, visitors can stay with local families and fully immerse themselves in Cape Verdean culture.

Tarrafal - lying north of the Serra Malagueta Natural Park, is the site of a former concentration camp and a testament to the sinister past of the Portuguese dictatorship between 1937 and 1975. It used to be a prison for political and anticolonial convicts. However, the village is also home to one of the island’s most beautiful beaches, which is ideal for snorkelling.

San Francisco Beach - another stunning sandy beach just 15 minutes drive from Praia on a new ring road that has just opened.

Praia - the capital of the Cape Verde islands with more than 115,000 inhabitants. It is the country’s administrative centre, as well as being an important port which exports coffee, sugar cane and tropical fruits such as mangoes and bananas. The city has a raw edge to it, but there are also a number of interesting colonial buildings and museums to be seen, mostly located near to the Praca Alexandre Albuquerque, an impressive square in the old part of the city. Another must is the fruit and vegetable market, on Avenida 5 de Julio.

Rui Vaz - a beautiful and remote mountain top village where you will literally feel on top of the world. Many visitors to the village say that the mountain scenery from here is unrivalled in Cape Verde.

Development and the future

Thanks to its international airport and capital city, Santiago is already an established tourist destination. Figures released last year by the National Statistics Institute (INE) show that after Sal and Boa Vista, it is the third most visited island.

The Cape Verde Government is doing all it can to encourage this phenomenon to grow. Santiago has recently seen significant property investment centred in a small number of large resort style developments around San Francisco Bay and to the west of Praia. There has also been some development in Tarrafal.

One particular development on the south coast promises two thousand acres of apartments, villas, a harbour, multiple five star hotels and a gold course designed by British golf champion Nick Faldo.

Nick Faldo said of the proposed golf course at Estrela Santiago: “The terrain cascades down towards the sea from a high plateau, incorporating elements of both cliff-top and coastal design. These changes in elevation coupled with the way the course relates to the winds that cross the site will offer real strategic challenges that will certainly appeal to the thoughtful golfer. There are also a number of small water courses that filter through the site creating large, exposed rock faces that form a recurring feature throughout the design. With views over the ocean from every point of the course and puzzles that will engage high and low handicappers alike, I firmly believe that our design at Estrela Santiago will help to confirm Cape Verde’s place as an emerging golfing destination with a genuinely unique appeal.”

Activities on Santiago

Currently most visitors who come to Santiago do so for the beautiful mountain scenery, and the walks that wind through the national park down to the coast. However, many areas of the coast are beginning to open up to tourism and water sports activities are springing up everywhere.


There are a number of sensational walks from Serra Malagueta Natural Park down to the coast through the mountains but one not to be missed is a trek through the canyon of Ribeira Grande where you will discover kingfishers, monkeys and a 400 yr old baobab tree. There are up to seven known walks, which can be attempted with or without a local guide.


There is currently just one professionally run dive school just outside Tarrafal which is within a 15 minute boat trip to some great dive sites. The school is run by a published marine biologist and his German partner.


The mountains of Santiago also provide ideal terrain for some serious biking. On the east coast of the island is a bike hire outfit where tourists can rent bicycles by the day. From here you can set off on an exploration trip of the island with experienced guides. Festivals Although not as famous as the festas on Sao Vicente, Santiago is host to a couple of festivals which attract musicians from across the globe. The Gamboa Festival is held in the bay of San Francisco every May, while Tabanka Festival - a celebration of the liberation of slaves - is held every June in Assomada.
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