Fogo - the most active volcano you've never heard of
Flying due west from Santiago above the clouds, Zeb suddenly shouted excitedly out of the window ‘daddy look it’s a volcano’. We learnt a while ago that when Zeb says he can see something the rest of us cannot – he’s invariably telling the truth. Sure enough, off in the distance pushing through the cloud layer which must have been at least 8,000 feet – we could pick out the conical of Cabo Verde’s only active volcano – Pico do Fogo. Approaching Sao Felipe’s short runway the lava flows visible on the flanks of the 9,281ft mountain seemed to have barely cooled since the last eruption in 2014.
We jumped into a taxi with some pumping reggae music – and were joined by a remarkably persistent tour guide who insisted on hitching a ride in a bid to flog us a day trek with two kids up a volcano. Neither the driver, nor our persistent tour guide were familiar with our accommodation. With Google Maps playing up we suggested he point the car up the mountain away from town. After a few wrong turns we arrived at La Fora – a rather delightful eco-lodge perched high above Sao Felipe sporting uninterrupted views over the straits to the island of Brava.
Thanking the driver – and politely declining the tour guide’s last ditch promise to carry Zeb on his shoulders and Oz in a baby carrier in the 30 degree heat for 6 hours - we headed inside.
It’s not often on our travels we’re blown away by accommodation. Most places are just somewhere to crash, give the boys some food and get a few hours interrupted dozing before one or both determine the day is ready. Well-crafted images on AirBnB, 360 tours on booking.com – coupled with reviews on Trip Advisor act as spoilers and too often let-downs. Not so with La Fora. As we walked down the small cactus lined path, volcanic rock crushed cathartically under foot. A handful of neat white villas nestled amongst banana and papaya. Turning the corner onto a polished concrete restaurant deck we were greeted by stunning views of Brava – alongside the beaming smiles of Aaron and Ellen the intrepid American couple who toiled for a year to construct Fogo’s only eco lodge only for Covid to hit just weeks before their grand opening.
As with so many places on our covid blighted travels we were the only guests at La Fora, indeed we have the rather miserable honour of being only the third guests in almost 12 months. The upside – a choice of ten immaculately finished villas each with Moroccan inspired interiors, along with an empty pool which became the boy’s go to destination for the next 5 days. Everything here was handmade and sourced locally (apart from the odd Moroccan sink from Fez). Solar panels and ground water make the lodge totally self-sufficient. The all-women staff, still employed despite the lack of guests are taught English by Ellen in between tending the papaya. After the boys settled, we whiled away the evening stargazing and exchanging grogue infused stories about our shared wanderlust.
Frankly, I could have stayed by the pool for 5 days. Taking a quick dip in a bid to shake off any remnants of Garca Real we headed down the slopes into Sao Felipe the island’s sleepy capital – and Cabo Verde’s second oldest settlement – having been inhabited by the Portuguese between 1470 and 1490. One of the joys of Cabo Verde are the subtle differences in geography, climate, food, dialect – all of which combine to give each island unique character and personality. Fogo was no different. Sao Felipe immediately felt organised. Neat, tree lined streets. Well-kept colourful houses. Less chaos. More order. After a pleasant few hours wandering, interspersed with a visit to a Cuban doctor to get some antibiotics for Oz’s increasingly alarming spider bite - we headed back to the serenity of La Fora in our hire car ready to strike out the next day.
There’s really only one reason tourists visit Fogo and it’s not the grogue. The whole island is essentially one massive stratovolcano. 184 square miles of densely packed lava. You’re likely to be familiar with two more infamous stratovolcanoes – Mount Versuvius in Naples and Krakatoa in Indonesia. Stack both these on top of each other and you’ll still be three thousand feet short of Fogo’s prominence. In fact, Fogo is closer in height and ferocity to Mt Etna – you just haven’t heard of it.
Fogo is Portuguese for ‘fire’. On Sunday 23rd November 2014, shortly after 10am the mountain reminded us why it is so called.
The eruption which ensued was the longest in recent history, forcing the 1,000 inhabitants of the volcanos caldera to abandon their homes as they were engulfed by the lava. The rocks had barely cooled when the hardy residents of Cha das Caldeiras returned in February of 2015 to rebuild their homes and wineries.
As we entered the caldera we were awestruck – even the boys stopped babbling momentarily. Walls half a mile high towered around us creating a stillness and quiet found in few places on earth. In Cabo Verde we often find ourselves asking why? When? How?
Why did people choose to settle in this place?
When did they decide living inside a remote crater, perched atop a desolate and barren volcanic rock, in the blazing heat, days of travel by foot from the seas and a source of nourishment – was a cool idea?
How did they survive?
The answers here in Fogo are none the less impressive than elsewhere in Cabo Verde’s sprawling archipelago. Portuguese traders who first settled the town of Sao Felipe bought with them slaves. Occasionally the enslaved would escape and head to the hills, far from their pursuing captors. Over time, they retreated to the relative safety and shelter of the caldera constructing homes using traditional techniques brought from Africa - particularly Guinea-Bissau. Volcanic rock replaced mud walls, palm fronds substituted straw roofs. Today the round house 'funcos' in Fogo’s caldera retain their unique appearance and preserve an important part of Cabo Verdean history for all to remember.
Thousands of meters above sea level the caldera enjoys its own micro-climate. Each year the fertile conditions generate a remarkable grape harvest from vines clinging precariously to the volcano's slopes – enough to fill around 250,000 bottles of wine and producing the famous (and deceptively strong) Cha wine. Despite being offered more than double what French farmers receive per kilo of grape – the residents of Cha das Caldeiras know a good thing when they see it – and choose to not sell around 150,000 bottles worth of grapes to the Cha cooperative, preferring to bottle and drink the wine themselves. Next time you are in Cha das Caldeiras – pop into a house and ask for some, you may never leave.
We spent a delightfully relaxing few days exploring the remainder of island, whiling away hours as the boys retrieved items from the bottom of the pool – generally feeling satiated. We had no itinerary. No fixed plans. School wasn’t due to start for another week. Ed had his laptop and was able to work a few hours each day without interruption – save for the boys jumping on him and CV Telecom’s somewhat erratic 3G.
Staring across the strait at sunset to the tiny island of Brava – the westernmost point of Africa – we were drawn almost imperceptibly to it.
The following morning, somewhat reluctantly we packed up our bags and waved goodbye to Aaron and Ellen – promising to be back, and to spread the word about their awesome lodge.
The military operation we’d become accustomed to in order to have freedom of movement during covid kicked in. I joined the queue of Cabo Verdeans at Sao Felipe’s medical centre waiting my turn to present our passports in order to pre-pay for our covid-tests. Meanwhile, two streets away next to the pharmacy Katherine patiently waited with the boys in line. I met her just as she neared the front of the queue with our chits. Cotton buds unpleasantly rammed up noses far beyond what would be necessary to detect a virus - we then sprinted back across to Centro de Saude brandishing our negative tests, for them to then be signed as an official declaration by the doctor. All in all 7 people were involved in our effort to make it to the port for the midday sailing to Brava.
Descending the port road Zeb instantly recognized Praia d’Aguada as the same boat we had taken from Sal to Boa Vista before Christmas. Bags disinfected, temperatures taken, tests checked, facemasks in situ – we boarded for the short 40 minute crossing. As the mooring ropes fell away and Praia d’Aguada slipped out to sea - Oz played with the small volcanic rock we had collected from the caldera. I smiled – relishing the fact we’d always carry a piece of this special place with us.