From the ocean, the island of Fogo presents one of the most dramatic sights I’ve ever seen. Rising 2,829 meters into the mid-Atlantic air, the Pico do Fogo, a vast black volcanic cone, towers over the island and dominates the imagination. Dramatic as entry by sea into Fogo’s tiny and chaotic port is, it is impossible to truly visualise the island without seeing it from above. I didn’t have the opportunity to fly over it, so I hope this photograph, taken from the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, gives some indication of island’s extraordinary geography.
Fogo is a giant, and still active, volcano. Perhaps more precisely, it is a giant volcano with another really big volcano on the top. The island literally erupted out of the ocean several millennia ago, and pushed upwards to a height of around 3.5km. Today the highest point is lower than this thanks to the top part of the volcano collapsing (visible at the bottom left of the photo from space). It last erupted in 1995 and evidence of previous eruptions are everywhere on the island. One massive eruption in 1680 literally blew Fogo’s top off, causing most of the inhabitants to evacuate to the nearby island of Brava.
The eruption lasted for several years, and was so large and the lava so bright that 17th Century sailors used the tower of smoke and ash to navigate by during the day, and the bright lava fires on its peak to navigate at night. It was from this eruption that Fogo got its name. Fogo is Portuguese for ‘fire’.
I only had two days on Fogo, and almost from the moment I arrived I wished I had more time to explore this unique island and its culture. I was staying in the island’s relaxed and picturesque capital, São Filipe. Home to around 20,000 people and a host of old colonial buildings, São Filipe sits dramatically on top of cliffs overlooking Fogo’s iconic volcanic black-sand beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty of good restaurants serving fresh fish and a friendly cafe and bar nightlife where you can taste one of the islands more unusual products – Fogo wine made from grapes cultivated in rich volcanic soil.
Fogo is blessed with a higher than average rainfall than most of Cape Verde’s other islands. Coupled with the nutrient rich volcanic soil in the west of the island, this allows for a surprising level of agriculture. When Fogo was first settled by the Portuguese, slaves were used to grow cotton here; with the collapse of that industry regular agriculture took its place. In the volcanic soil it is possible to cultivate grapes, coffee beans and figs, and there is a small but flourishing wine industry. Fogo wine is unlike any I’ve tasted before and, while French wine makers are unlikely to be quaking in their boots, the wine is good.
Even close to São Filipe, strolling along the beach on a week day is to find yourself alone – a recurring theme on my visit to Cape Verde. The black volcanic beaches of Fogo are an entirely different experience to the white sand beaches of Maio, with steep cliffs rising dramatically directly behind the beach. Walking on Fogo’s beaches is oddly counterintuitive, so hardwired is the idea that the perfect beach has golden sand. For the record, as it squeezes between your toes, lava sand feels exactly the same.
São Filipe is one of the most attractive towns in Cape Verde, with a wealth of brightly painted Portuguese colonial buildings and a relaxed small town vibe. As a special treat, and because I was only staying for a couple of nights, I stayed in the converted Colonial House B&B with lovely wooden floors and a veranda. Although I was the only person staying there (and one of the few tourists in São Filipe), it was a wonderfully atmospheric choice with genuinely friendly staff.
WIth so little time available, I wasn’t going to be able to explore much of the island, but I had arranged to visit the small village of Chã das Caldeiras, which sits in the giant volcanic crater, from where it would be possible to climb the Pico do Fogo. The next time I come to Fogo, I will definitely spend more time in the surrounding villages and make a trip to the small island of Brava a short boat ride away.