I’d heard Maio’s beaches were spectacular, but I wasn’t prepared for just how wonderful – and how wonderfully empty – they would be. During two days of beachcombing I saw a fishermen, two goats and a number of jellyfish. Nothing more, nothing less. No beachside restaurants, no sun loungers or stripy umbrellas, and not another tourist in sight. It was a little dreamlike walking alone on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, Robinson Crusoe fantasies playing out in my head as I went.
If you enjoy strolling for hours on end, down a seemingly endless stretch of white sand, with nothing but the waves of the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean for company, Maio is the place for you. The water was lovely, but after I’d seen a couple of dozen jellyfish, I decided too much swimming might be hazardous to my health. Apparently, too many jellyfish is a sign that there aren’t enough turtles around to eat them. Yet another reason for supporting turtle conservation efforts in Cape Verde.
With the exception of a small range of hills in the interior, Maio is pretty flat. The sand of the beach seems to merge with the hot, dry sandy terrain inland, giving the impression of an aqua marine fringed desert. In part, the goats that I met on my walk north, from Vila do Maio to the village of Calheta, are responsible for some of the desertification. During the colonial period, Maio was heavily used to graze goats, which were loaded alive onto ships for the crossing of the Atlantic. The goats made short work of the vegetation the island provided, although areas of woodland do still exist.
As you look at the landscape, it comes as no surprise that Maio was badly affected by the droughts that have plagued Cape Verde throughout its history. Yet, the coastline is pristine and the peace and tranquility almost absolute. Its hard to imagine that this beautiful island was also a major hub for the transportation of slaves; being in English hands its not surprising that many slaves left from here to be transported to Barbados and other English possessions in the Caribbean.
Just before I reached Calheta, the small and sleepy village that was the end of my northerly walk, I came across the remains of a tourist village. It had once been a set of cabanas with a bar and restaurant, all with palm leaf roofs. There clearly hadn’t been any tourists in a long time, every building was dilapidated and most of the roofs had collapsed. Judging by the number of plots of land for sale though, this wasn’t going to be the only attempt at mass tourism on Maio. I hope those vast empty beaches won’t be packed full of sun loungers the next time I visit.
Public transport on Maio is limited. My options were to walk back to Vila do Maio during the heat of the day, or wait in the shade of a lone tree and hope a passing car would pick me up. In the end a pickup arrived and gave me a lift to town for a small fee. I celebrated my walk with a night in Vila do Maio’s grog bars, where I met an unlikely set of expatriates and heard some of their back stories. My guides for this were two Brits, who had left for a fresh start in Cape Verde, hoping for a tourism boom that may never arrive, and who didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. It was a strange night.
They pointed out an Italian who, it was alleged, was a notorious criminal and wanted man in his home country. According to local sources, he had bribed local police to leave him alone. There was a New Zealand family, who had stopped in Maio while sailing from Europe to Brazil with their two small children, and never left. A German woman who seemed to be in a relationship with Maio’s one hardened criminal and local drug dealer. To cap it all, I ate at a lovely French restaurant, run by an expatriate French chef who never talked to anyone else in the expatriate community. By the end of the night I’d started to understand why.
After a late start the next day, I walked south and east from the town along another vast stretch of pristine beach. On my return the sun was starting to set, illuminating the island of Santiago which loomed large across the ocean between the two islands.