Santo Antao - fine hiking trails, even finer micro-distilleries
Whilst we could have happily stayed around the delightful poolside at Casa Colonial it was time to move on and explore what is often labelled Cabo Verde’s most beautiful island - Santo Antao. On our wish list since Ed first came to the archipelago in 2001 - now, 20 years later we boarded the newly commissioned Chiquino ferry for the short 30 minute crossing to the ‘green island’.
As we disembarked in Porto Novo a familiar calmness descended, a stillness in the air similar to that we felt on landing in Cabo Verde's westernmost isle, Brava several weeks prior. Our accommodation for the next 10 days was in the Paul Valley - a 30 minute minivan ride from the port. We arrived sometime after lunch at Vivenda Marinha a splendid house, with pool, perched up the hillside above the small town of Pombas. The boys were living the dream - moving from aqua park to aqua park whilst daddy was able to settle in to some true remote work on his new start-up GoRemote.
Having spent 6 months living on a sandy volcanic rock, it's hard to describe the impact Santo Antao’s lush greenery had on us.
The valleys were verdant, rich with plantations of Papaya, Breadfruit, Bananas. Terraces of the island’s staple crop - sugar cane - clung precariously to precipitous cliff faces.
Where there grows sugar cane, there flourishes grogue. Santo Antao produces some of the finest distilled aguardente rum in the world. With a typical ABV of 40% (once double distilled) grogue is blended with melted sugar cane molassis to create Ponche - adding honey, aguava, coffee, passion fruit, coconut to create flavoured variants. Grogue is often drunk neat (typically by fisherman or other hardy souls), or mixed with sugar, lime, soda water/sprite and crushed ice to create the popular drink - caipirinha. Locals create their own variants - omitting superfluous soda water to make a ‘bladinha’ or mixing 50% grogue and 50% Ponche to produce a ‘stemparot’. Both of which are fairly lethal as Ed will testify to.
Santo Antao is mountainous island exceeding 300 square miles. It’s characterised by two distinct plateaus feeding multiple river valleys which can run full during rainy season from July until December. It’s not uncommon for residents to be stranded in the mountains waiting for waters to subside and mudslides to be cleared from the roads. The mountains are a Mecca for hill walkers with multiple well maintained and signed trails crisscrossing the island. In December of each year a globally acclaimed trail running challenge connects all the major peaks of the island in a non-stop, 100km, self-supported endurance event which has to be completed in under 48 hours. Ed passed on entering this year’s event, opting instead for some limbering down and hydration in the cute bar by the waterfront in Pombas.
We spent several less energetic day trips exploring the numerous valleys and mountains by car. The highlights of which included the vast caldera of Cova at 1500m - reached via an exhilarating (if at times terrifying) climb on the island’s oldest road up from Ribeira Grande. The change in the 'terra' as we passed through alpine forest was breathtaking. Descending towards Porto Nova from the caldera into desertified landscape it was easy to see why the island offered settlers such opportunity and variety to live, cultivate and prosper.
The drive to Santo Antao’s southernmost town of Tarrafal de Monte Trigo was equally as hairy. At points in the descent Ed would stop the car, nervously shaking, before getting out to check the steepness of the next hairpin. The beach at Tarrafal is the island’s finest and usually popular with hikers on their rest days. Now, in the grips of COVID, we once again felt like the only visitors the town had seen in months.
On one of our random forays we passed through Cha de Igresia, stopping in Cruzinha for refreshments. Ed gazed out to sea commenting on the wind strength and yearning for a board. Then, in an almost paradoxical moment of madness - someone appeared with brand new, top of the range gear and climbed down to the small rocky outcrop which doubled as a launch for the town’s wooden fishing fleet. Zeb immediately shouted ‘that’s Ronnie’. Following a double take, Ed sprinted down the steps fist bumping the young manager of the windsurf station on Sao Vicente, who had randomly decided to visit his Aunt in the village for the first time in years. Bringing with him equipment to become what we all conceded must be the first person to ever windsurf in Cruzinho.
On a trip to the northern settlement of Ponta do Sol we sought out the now closed airport of Santo Antao. The 1999 crash of TACV flight 5002 from nearby Sao Vicente killing all 18 passengers and crew, sealed the tiny airstrip’s fate - leaving it and Brava as the only two islands not served by a domestic airport. Still it gave Zeb and Oz the right to turn to the runway into an impromptu scooter track.
As we sailed across the Canal de Sao Vicente looking back across the straits to the towering peaks of Santo Antao we promised to return next time with trail shoes, windsurfing gear and a couple of boys old enough to appreciate grogue.