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São Nicolau Island Guide

São Nicolau Island Guide
São Nicolau is one of the least discovered islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, and remains for the moment almost untouched by development and tourism. The few people fortunate enough to visit the island come away mesmerized by its stunning scenery, warm and hospitable population and laid-back atmosphere.

São Nicolau is one of the Barvalento islands, lying to the east of Santa Luzia and a half hour flight away from Sal and Boa Vista. The mountainous island measures just 28 miles by 12 miles and much of its interior is lush and green – in contrast to the other volcanic isles of Cape Verde. The island has more rainfall than most, allowing its people to live off the land unlike many of their neighbours. Oranges and coffee grow on high ground whilst maize, beans, bananas and papaya flourish on the flats below.

In the middle of the island lies Mount Gordo, at 1,340 metres, a majestic mountain range which is a hiker’s paradise. Here you can find the prehistoric looking Dragon Tree – or ‘Dragoeiro’ – which grows abundantly in the foothills.

An Intellectual History

São Nicolau was discovered by Portuguese explorers on December 6th 1461, and was aptly called São Nicolau, after Saint Nicholas. However it was not until the 16th century that the first settlers came to the island, and stayed.

The first inhabitants settled at Porto da Lapa, in the south of the island. However, they were forced to move inland, to the present capital of Ribeira Brava after they were attacked by pirates. The main port then became Preguica on Sao Jorge Bay, on which the local population built an impressive fortress in 1818 the ruins of which can still be seen today.

The island thrived under the defence of Ribeira Brava, and in 1780, the city was declared as the Bishop of Cape Verde’s seat. Here, Africa’s first university of Seminário de São José was founded in the 1866. The seminary prepared students for church and government offices, and became the centre of evangelization, spreading the Roman Catholic faith throughout Cape Verde and Western Africa. It also later opened to lay people, and its teachings influenced generations for years to come.

The island’s population was devastated in the 1940s and 1950s by a period of famine, which resulted in many of the islanders leaving São Nicolau to find work elsewhere.

São Nicolau’s population now stands at around 20,000, and the Cape Verde government is making a concerted effort to bring prosperity to the island. Recent development projects have included a programme to bring 24-hour electricity to rural communities as well as paving many of the island’s roads.

A Paradise for Nature Lovers

São Nicolau has a reputation for being one of Cape Verde’s most picturesque and beautiful islands which offers something for everyone. Here, you will find stunning empty white beaches lapped by emerald blue sea, miles of challenging hikes through the pristine forests of the Parque Natural Monte Gordo, and arguably Cape Verde’s most attractive town, Ribeira Brava. The highlights of the island include:

Ribeira Brava - the capital of São Nicolau, built nestling into the fertile slopes of the mountainside. Its colonial-style houses painted in bright colours with beautifully tended gardens make it an interesting place to visit. In the town centre you will find the Praça do Torreiro church square with the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário, an impressive building with two towers and blue facades.

Preguica - a small fishing port know as St George Bay, with a fine view of Caldeira, the extinct volcano known as the cauldron. The town, which used to be a trade harbour and major whaling station, now has a population of around 2,000.

Tarrafal - the main fishing harbour and beach of Sao Nicolau, as well as being the port of arrival for most visitors. Tarrafal is one of the few places on the island with beach access for swimming, and the best is Praia da Luz, a wide black sandy beach in the north of the town. The beaches are renowned for being rich in titanium and iodine and are visited by people in search of relief from rheumatism. Nearby is the Rocha Escribida, a rock face on which is written some unclear markings which are believed to have been ancient Chinese.

Cachaço - a village in the foothills of Monte Gordo, where the Nossa Senhora do Monte Sentinha chapel stands on a hill overlooking the mountain.

How to get to São Nicolau

The island has an airport between Ribeira Brava and Campo with daily flights from Sal and São Vicente. It can also be reached by ferry from Mindelo, on São Vicente or Praia.

Development and the future

The Cape Verde government has big plans for São Nicolau. The island is already very popular with Cape Verdeans living on other islands who come here for weekend retreats or holidays, but the government is keen to attract international investors and open up São Nicolau to the rest of the world.

Activities on São Nicolau


São Nicolau is undoubtedly one of the best Cape Verde islands for walking, with more than half a dozen well-known treks for hikers of all standards. One such walk follows the central spine of São Nicolau, from where you can look down on extinct volcanic craters, emerald blue sea on both sides and the beautiful crescent shaped bay of Sao Jorge. Another heads west to the verdant part of the island, around Ribeira Brava, from where you will eventually descend on cobbled paths through maize plantations to the coast. There are numerous tour operators who organise hikes in São Nicolau, and it is not advised to undertake the treks alone.


The nearby island of Raso is home to the Cape Verdean Lark – one of the rarest birds in the world. Visitors can reach the uninhabited island by catching a local fishing boat from the port of Tarrafal. The journey takes approximately two hours. It should be noted however that there are no facilities whatsoever on Raso island and bird-watchers should bring their own water and food.


The waters off São Nicolau are some of the best places on earth to catch Blue Marlin, as well as Tuna, Wahoo and Swordfish. Fishing here can be more productive in terms of weight of fish caught per dollar spent than almost anywhere in the world.

Mountain Biking

The trails across the spine of the island are perfect for very adventurous cyclists. There is also an annual bicycle competition called the Race de Independencia which crosses the spectacular 26km route between Tarrafal and Ribeira Brava. The race, which has been running since 2009, is organised by the Bicycle Association.

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