Shivering in the cold, early morning air at Praia airport waiting for my delayed (by fog) TACV flight to the island of Maio, I watched the sun rise and wished for the fabled golden beaches of Maio. Finally in the air, twenty minutes later I could see the turquoise waters of a peaceful-looking Atlantic lapping onto the white sand beaches surrounding the island’s capital, Vila do Maio.
I’d been given contradictory advice about Maio from people in Praia. This ranged from, “Why go to Maio? There’s nothing to do there”, to “Go now before tourism destroys the peace and quiet.” The irony of the latter wasn’t lost on this tourist. Its true that there is little to do on the island, but that was part of the allure. I’d decided to stay for four days, and explore its beaches and grog bars at leisure – it was so hot that exploring at leisure was the only option.
The island is home to about 8000 people and suffers from water shortages, a landscape denuded of trees and chronic under- and unemployment. Tourism is of the low-key, independent traveller variety (I only met a handful of other tourists), but lack of water and potential environmental devastation, hasn’t prevented permission for a giant resort hotel being granted. Raise the issue of how the resort got permission, local people simply make the international sign for money changing hands.
This is particularly important as Maio has a largely pristine environment and a high level of biodiversity, but is extremely vulnerable to habitat and environmental degradation. Loggerhead Turtles nest on its beaches, Humpback Whales frolic in its waters, the sea off its shores teems with life and it is an important habitat for migratory birds. All of this would be threatened by badly managed mass tourism, not to mention the impact on the water table.
Although people are keen to have the employment, the benefits of mass tourism are dubious. Two Cape Verde islands – Sal and Boa Vista – have embraced mass package tourism and have found it a double edged sword. Extensive environmental impact has been coupled with increased crime, while local communities gain little from tourists on all inclusive package holidays who rarely venture out of their gated compounds. That model of tourism doesn’t work for communities, even if the resorts employ some local people.
I also wanted to visit Maio for its history. It is one of the Cape Verde islands which has a salt pan, created by a natural tidal lagoon. This natural ‘wonder’ attracted sailors and pirates for three hundred years. Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were just some of the famous pirates to stop here. Legend has it that Captain Kid buried his treasure on a remote island he named Skeleton Island; even today many people believe Maio is Skeleton Island. Whether true or not, the treasure hasn’t been found yet, and I did look.
Eventually the English took control of Maio. The main town, Vila do Maio, became known as Porto Inglês, or English Port, because of the number of English ships that called here. Using their superior military strength, the English traders had the cheek to sell Maio’s salt to the other, Portuguese controlled, islands. This also explains the number of grog bars on the island. Grog, a very English naval term for hard liquor, is the tipple of choice on Maio, and there are plenty of home made varieties from which to choose. I can vouch for the fact that a night in the grog bars can be pretty wild, the morning of the following day less so.
I spent my first day in the main town, Vila do Maio, strolling on the beaches and having some delicious fresh fish for lunch. I sat at a beach side restaurant and watched life pass by, it was just too hot to do anything else. The comings and goings of fishermen provided the entertainment. Things were very relaxed in the town, the heat of the day was severe, and it was only in the evening that people really came out onto the streets.