The Cape Verde islands are varied in their geographical features. The Cape Verde geography basically falls into two categories – desert and mountains. Those furthest to the east are generally flat and include areas of desert. Those in the west are mountainous with jagged peaks and rugged coastlines and dramatic valleys.
Cape Verde is now officially known by its Portuguese name of Cabo Verde. The country consists of 10 volcanic islands (nine of which are inhabited) and also a number of small islets. The capital city is Praia, which is on the island of Santiago. The total area of land is approximately 4,033 sq km and the terrain ranges from sandy deserts to lush mountain ranges. The largest of the islands in terms of size and population is Santiago, with Praia being the largest city in the country.
Cape Verde is located 570km off the west coast of Africa, the nearest country being Senegal. The archipelago is about 1850km north of the equator and 1,600km south of the Canary Islands. It is approximately a 2-hour flight from the Canaries. The islands are divided into two groups – The Barlovento Islands to the north and west and The Sotovento islands to the south and east. The Barlovento islands comprise Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Sal and Boa Vista. The Sotovento islands comprise Santiago, Maio, Fogo and Brava.
The islands are volcanic, but there has been very little volcanic action for many years. However, the Pico do Fogo erupted at the end of 2014. This eruption resulted in a temporary evacuation of the island. Pico do Fogo is the tallest mountain in the country at 2,828m, with Topo de Coroa on Santo Antão being the second highest at 1,979m.
The easterly islands of Sal, Boa Vista and Maio are generally flatter and more desert-like than the westerly islands. They have large areas of desert and they also have the wider, longer expanses of beaches. Even on these islands there are mountains, but they are generally much lower. The Deserto de Viana on the island of Boa Vista is some 20km long and 4km in width.
The western islands are the more mountainous islands. They include Santiago, Brava, São Nicolau, Fogo and Santo Antão. Pico do Fogo on the island of Fogo is the highest mountain. These islands have a mixture of dry arid areas and lush green valleys. You can visit the craters or caldera of the volcanos. The caldera on Fogo being inhabited and is where the Fogo wine is produced from the grapes grown in the caldera.
There are salt pans or salinas on the islands of Sal and Maio, where salt is extracted from the sea by evaporation. On the islands of Santiago, Santo Antão and São Nicolau, there are sugarcane and banana plantations on the bottom of the impressive mountain ranges.
These Cape Verde islands have some of the best beaches in the world. The coastlines of the islands in the archipelago are as varied as the terrain on the islands. The eastern islands generally have wide, long expanses of white sandy beaches, sloping gently into the clear blue waters. However, even here, you will find cliffs and small coves. The western islands, being more mountainous, generally have smaller beaches. Here the sand is sometimes black, but also there are dramatic cliffs. The winds and the sea have eroded the cliffs in many areas, resulting in dramatic sculptural forms, such as on São Nicolau.
The waters around Cape Verde teem with marine life, including whales, dolphins, turtles and many varieties of fish. The seas can be rough, especially in the windy season. However, visitors enjoy many of the activities that take place on or in the sea. They also provide one of the main food sources for the archipelago – fish.
The varied terrain found in Cape Verde means that many areas have their own micro-climate. Even in the easterly islands, which are generally windier, you can find areas sheltered from the winds. On the westerly islands, which are more mountainous, they are generally greener. This is because clouds are more likely to form over the mountains, producing moisture and shading from the sun. Clouds form over the mountains on Brava most of the time, making this the greenest of all the islands.