Into the interior, a trip through Maio

There is only one fully paved road on Maio linking the island’s villages. Branching off the road are sandy dirt tracks that take you to hidden bays, tiny hamlets and big sand dunes. Technically, it isn’t possible to get lost driving around the island, but since a hire car was the same price with or without a driver, I decided a guide showing me around and explaining the history would be wise. It would also prevent me from getting stuck down some dusty track, because I needed to be back in Vila do Maio to get the boat to Praia.

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Cargo boat and public transport, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

A cargo boat had arrived in Maio’s harbour the previous evening and, after a few enquiries, I discovered it was sailing for Praia the following afternoon. I decided it might be fun to get the boat back rather than the plane, especially as the plane was regularly cancelled. I had limited time and didn’t want to miss visiting the island of Fogo. The harbour security guard, who had spent most of his life working on ships around the world, told me the boat would be sailing after it finished loading. No need for a ticket, just turn up.

With my onward transport sorted out, I set off to explore the island. First stop, the legendary salt flats which had been vital to trans-Atlantic shipping, and Maio’s economic lifeline for three hundred years. Given the history, its easy to be underwhelmed by the sight of the salt flats, but these were critical in both the settlement of the islands and the flourishing of the slave trade. Even with the end of the slave trade, Maio’s salt pans survived by exporting salt to Brazil, when this ended in the 20th Century the island went into economic decline.

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt pans on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The salt is still extracted today and sold commercially, but only on an artisanal scale. Although the salt pan is relatively small – compared to the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, for instance – but it is an endlessly renewable resource. High tides sweep sea water into the pan and then the intense sun evaporates the water leaving a crust of white salt. This process is repeated over and over. Salt was so important to humans, and one of the commodities that drove world trade, that its unsurprising Europeans developed Maio as a major salt production centre.

When the salt is harvested, workers build a conical pile that sets into a solid lump. Often this remains there for a while, getting coated in sand and dirt, before being processed in a small building close to the pan. I bought a kilo of Maio salt from the women’s cooperative which runs production, only later regretting it when I came to pack my bag for the flight home.

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Landscape, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

We drove around the island and found ourselves walking to a beautiful and secluded bay where, during the season, turtles nest. The bay sits at the base of the island’s largest sand dunes. It is beautiful, and as we sat eating lunch it was almost possible to imagine never leaving. Walking back to the car, the views inland from the top of the sand dunes were wonderful, but only served to highlight the scrubby and inhospitable interior of the island. People kept telling me there was a forest on the island, but I never saw it.

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The view inland from sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The view inland from sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

It was only when we came to leave that we realised we’d managed to get the car stuck in deep sand. Despite our best efforts, the car wheels just kept digging a deeper and deeper hole until we eventually admitted defeat. It was official, we were stuck and I had a boat to catch.

The driver set off on foot to get help. I couldn’t remember passing a village and hadn’t seen a single person all morning, this could take a while. Over an hour later the driver returned with another vehicle to pull us out of the sand. By this time two young men had joined us, proving that misfortune attracts bystanders even in the middle of nowhere. Much to the amusement of everyone, it took less than five minutes to free the car and then we were on our way again.

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Sand dunes on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Secluded bay on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Secluded bay on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Car stuck in deep sand on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Car stuck in deep sand on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

I made it to the boat in time, and chatted to the security guard about his adventures around the world when he was a sailor, while the crew finished loading it. The journey was smooth and fairly relaxing. As with all journeys, it started in an almost carnival mood, people chatting and having fun, a wave of collective excitement for the shared adventure ahead.

This all changed about 20 minutes into the voyage. Despite being world renowned seafarers, Cape Verdeans are notorious for their susceptibility to seasickness. There were probably 40 or 50 passengers on the boat and, before long, everywhere I looked people were being sick. The ship’s crew were running around with mops and buckets, but the rising smell of illness sent me to the front of the boat where the breeze was freshest. No photos of that, just a last view of Vila do Maio as we sailed away.

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Vila do Maio from the cargo boat, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

A beachcomber’s paradise, the vast and empty beaches of Maio

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.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Jellyfish on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Goat on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Goat on the beach, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The village of Calheta, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The village of Calheta, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Beaches on Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

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.

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Clouds and light with Isla de Santiago from Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Maio, island of salt and endless beaches

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.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

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.

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

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.

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Boats on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde (photo from Maio Facebook page)

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

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.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

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.

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde (photo from Maio Facebook page)

Fishermen and fish on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Lunch, Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Lunch, Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

Fishermen on the beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde

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.