The Cape Verde archipelago was uninhabited when the first explorers of Infante Dom Henrique [Henry the Navigator] arrived in 1456. Henrique, son of the Portuguese king João I, was a key figure in Portuguese exploration and colonization during the 15th century known as the Portuguese Age of Discovery. His motivations were driven by scientific curiosity, economic interests, and the desire to spread the Christian faith. The Portuguese then colonized the islands, establishing the first European settlements in the tropics. Ideally situated for the Atlantic slave trade, the islands thrived throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
The islands of Cape Verde were once lush and covered with vegetation, but overexploitation and fierce deforestation led to severe environmental degradation. This, in turn, led to droughts and famine, resulting in thousands of people dying of hunger. This, coupled with the end of transatlantic slavery in the 19th century, led to economic decline. Subsequently, many Cape Verdeans migrated to the United States in search of better economic opportunities, driven by the American dream.
The Cape Verde archipelago remains largely unexplored in the present day. The island of Boa Vista is notable for its extensive golden sandy beaches licked by crystal clear waters. Visitors can often enjoy Praia de Santa Mónica [Santa Monica Beach] without encountering other people for hours. While the fauna of Cape Verde is relatively sparse, the marine life is diverse. In spring, groups of North Atlantic humpback whales migrate to the coastal waters of Boa Vista to give birth. During the summer months, thousands of loggerhead sea turtles arrive on the shores of the island to nest. Away from the coast, the island’s interior presents a desert-like landscape characterized by bare rock formations, patches of date palms, and abandoned ruins. Charming small towns such as Sal Rei (the island’s capital), Rabil and Fundo de Figueiras are scattered throughout the island.
Deserto de Viana
Boa Vista is renowned for its unspoiled sandy beaches, diverse marine life, and a unique attraction known as the Deserto de Viana [Viana Desert]. This small patch of desert is formed by the accumulation of sand grains that wander from the Sahara to Boa Vista. The trade winds continuously carry vast amounts of sand from the African continent towards the sea. Due to the island’s proximity to the mainland and its terrain’s particular shape, most of the sand gets deposited on Boa Vista, creating a stunning desert landscape of rolling dunes of white sand interspersed with black volcanic rocks and sparse vegetation.
The Cape Verdean government takes measures to preserve this extension of the Sahara by prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles in the desert and promoting the construction of stonewalls around it to prevent the sand dunes from encroaching on the coast.
Wreckage of M/S Cabo Santa Maria
On the northern coast of Boa Vista can be found the wreckage of a Spanish cargo ship that ran aground in the fall of 1968. The vessel, M/S Cabo Santa Maria, was en route to Brazil and Argentina with a diverse cargo and a selection of gifts from the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco’s government intended for his supporters. Among the gifts were four church bells destined for a new cathedral in Brazil, the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida [Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Apparition].
Unfortunately, in the early hours of September 1, the vessel ran aground on the coast of Boa Esperança. A tugboat from the island of São Vicente was sent to try to dislodge the ship, but to no avail. Fortunately, the crew was able to escape the scene unharmed. That left just one thing to deal with: the cargo had to be removed, and this was no small feat. A significant part of Boa Vista’s population, including children and public employees, as well as machine operators from other islands, were mobilized to unload the ship’s diverse cargo. Mules and donkeys were used to transport the goods to Sal Rei, the nearby capital of Boa Vista. The unloading process continued for almost a year. Unfortunately, the church bells intended for the new cathedral in Brazil were never recovered; they vanished in the deep water.
Today, the ship’s remains are slowly crumbling. After almost 50 years of being battered by the wind and constant waves, most of the deck and hold have disappeared, leaving only a rusty shell behind for the time being. However, it is clear that it will not last for much longer. Over the decades, the wreckage has become a symbol of the island and a source of inspiration for artists.
Know Before You Go
Most of the sites on the island can only be reached via a scenic route of untouched nature with a 4WD vehicle.