Santiago (Portuguese for “Saint James”), or Santiagu in Cape Verdean Creole, is the largest island of Cape Verde. It is an important agricultural centre, home to half the nation’s population and to the capital city Praia. The interior of the island has rich vegetation; acacia, euphorbias and figs are common since the soil is reasonably moist. In the south and east, the landscape is much more barren.
Praia is a bustling African town with a clear Mediterranean flavour. Old colonial buildings line the main square on the Plateau, where you will find the Presidential Palace and the Palace of Justice. Bustling markets, chic cafés and quality restaurants can also be enjoyed and are dotted around the town. The most attractive area is Plateau, a volcanic plug of rock that stands above the rest of the city. Here you will find lots of shops, restaurants and the central park (Praca Alexandre Albuquerque).
Praia doesn’t possess the sort of touristic sights that many other capital cities have, but it is a vibrant city with African style markets such as Mercado de Sucupira and a lively mixed-race population. The international Nelson Mandela Airport provides direct flights to various cities in Europe, Africa, the USA and Brazil and to the other islands that make up Cape Verde. The government of Cape Verde have grand plans to make Praia airport an international hub. This is primarily due to its ideal geographic location between America, Africa and Europe.
The beaches of Santiago are varied and include beautiful white sand such as Tarrafal in the north, the intriguing black beaches at places such as Ribeira da Prata, just 6km south of Tarrafal or the little pebbly cove at Cidade Velha. Many beaches are almost deserted and if you find a small café or restaurant on the beach, you may be enjoying fresh fish caught that morning with some locally grown vegetables and a glass of grogue, (the local tipple made from sugar cane), cachupa – a stew with meat or fish (Cape Verde’s national dish), buzio – a type of giant barnacle.
A day trip to the old capital of Cidade Velha (a UNESCO world heritage site) and Forte Real de São Filipe, the main slave trading point between Europe, Africa and America, provides an interesting insight into the island’s past. Ornithologists will be in their element as most of the species endemic to Cape Verde can be found on this island.
Two jagged volcanic mountain ranges tower over the centre of the island. Driving from one end of the island to the other provides impressive scenery with plenty of photographic opportunities. At the northern tip of the island is the beautiful little town of Tarrafal with its unusual double cove of white sand (many beaches are black) and some lovely restaurants overlooking the water. The highest mountain peak is Pico d’Antónia, which reaches an impressive 1,394m (4,573ft) is situated in the Serra Malagueta National Park. Cobbled roads wind their way to hidden villages and tracks afford plenty of opportunities for hiking and mountain biking.
Pano Cloth is a traditional hand woven cloth that has great symbolic, historic and cultural value. It is traditionally made out of six long strips sewn together. The distinctive woven patterns make use of just two colours, often black or indigo and white; the more complex the pattern, the more expensive the cloth. Women used to use the cloth as wraps tied around the waist, sometimes to carry small items, or to hold their babies on their backs. Now Panos are more often family heirlooms and sadly it is now unusual to see them being worn.
Santiago displays a strongly influenced African culture, some of this being due to the fact that the island was a centre for the African slave trade for some considerable time. Music is a very important feature of Cape Verdean life and the African influence is exhibited in some of the popular music such as funaná (a music and dance genre characterised by variable tempo and a two-beat rhythm). Morna is a form of folk music usually sung in the Cape Verdean Creole, accompanied by clarinet, violin, guitar and cavaquinho that is is a national song-style, like Argentinian tango, beloved by Cape Verdeans across the many islands of the country.
If you want to take in the African heart of Cape Verde, Santiago should be on your list….