Santo Antão is the second biggest of the Cape Verde islands and very different from its barren neighbor, São Vicente, you'll be using as its gateway. Santo Antão is the most northern and the most western island of the archipelago, with the area of 779 km², maximum length of 43 km and maximum width of 24 km. The highest point is Topo de Coroa, 1979 m high.
Santo Antão is a surprising island. When you land at the ferry port it appears to be dusty and sandy like many of the other islands but in half an hour you can be driving up steep, windy roads and suddenly find yourself in pine forest and skimming the edge of a volcano. Much of the island is unexplored, but in the north you'll find some great accommodation mere meters away from great hiking trails. In Ponta do Sol you can scuba dive, hike or rock climb in a very picturesque setting. Accommodation is inexpensive and would suit all budgets.
But there is much more to do than hiking — if you are interested in swimming, this is the right place to come to. Tarrafal de Monte Trigo has the largest, most pristine, and only really swimmable beach on the island. Whereas in other parts of the island it may be possible to swim on a few days of the year, in Tarrafal it is only impossible to swim on a few days of the year. The reason for this is that Tarrafal is sheltered from the northeast trades winds that blow most of the time, making other parts on the island very windy and their beaches subject to rough waves which make swimming dangerous or impossible. Snorkeling, scuba diving, boat rides and fishing are also possible. Tarrafal has more sunny days than many parts of the island. It is therefore not quite as green as some parts where rain and clouds are more frequent, although being a true oasis and receiving water all year round from springs, it is still quite green in the valley. This “microclimate” sets it apart from the rest of the island — it means, for example, that it is also a great place to relax, just “hang out”, and you can dine outside comfortably virtually every evening with no need for windbreakers and jackets. Many travelers choose to visit both “sides” of the island.
You cannot get to Santo Antão by plane. There used to be an airport near Ponta do Sol, but now it's abandoned. You must fly to São Vicente (Cesaria Evora Airport at São Pedro, VXE), take a taxi (1000 CVE per vehicle) or hail down a passing by collective taxi (100 CVE per person) to the ferry harbor in Mindelo (about 15-30 minutes, depending on the mode of transportation chosen) and a ferry to Santo Antão (about 1 hour, 800 CVE). Depending on times of flights and ferries (see below) as well as what you want to see and how much traveling you want to do in one day, you might consider spending one or more nights in Mindelo, São Vicente.
There is a punctual twice daily ferry connection from the island São Vicente. The trip from Mindelo to Porto Novo takes about 1 hour with the ferry. As of May 2021, the Interilhas goes 2 times a day, at 07:00 and 15:00 from São Vicente (Mindelo) to Santo Antão (Porto Novo); and at 08:00 and 16:00 from Santo Antão (Porto Novo) to São Vicente (Mindelo). Boarding in either direction starts half an hour prior to the listed departure time and lasts for about 10 minutes. The tickets (800 CVE per person per way) can be bought online (Visa card payments only, as of May 2021) as well as in the harbor. When not booking the tickets in advance, it's advisable to arrive at the harbor an hour prior to departure as there will be a queue at the ticket office. When booking the tickets online, make sure to print out your ticket as you'll have to hand it over when boarding.
The ferry terminal in Porto Novo, Santo Antão is relatively new and even hosts a few shops, the one in Mindelo, São Vicente is far more basic. Neither has WiFi available to travelers. When in need of an internet connection (for the price of a drink) while awaiting your ferry back to Mindelo, restaurant/cafe called Autentico that is 100 m from the Porto Novo terminal and has a reliable connection.
The ferry between Porto Novo and São Vicente is the most reliable ferry in the entire archipelago; nevertheless, there are sometimes changes. Ferry information that is amost always up to date can be found here. It is still a good idea to check when you are there in case of short term changes.
By "aluguer" or "collectivo" (collective taxi)Edit
This traditional type of public transportation is alive and well all over Santo Antão. These mini-buses or 4x4 pickups can be found when you arrive with the ferry or in any of the towns and villages, going to any location on the island, sometimes with changes in another town. Sometimes the name of the destination is written on the car, sometimes you have to ask. Then get in and wait, because they only leave when they are full — by Cape Verdian standards, and that can mean very full! They carry goods as well as passengers and often do errands on the way, so you have to be patient. But it is an interesting, authentic experience, environmentally friendlier than a rental car, and by far the least expensive option.
From the ferry to either Paúl, Ribeira Grande, Ponta do Sol or Coculi should be possible for about 400-500 CVE, to Tarrafal de Monte Trigo for about 700 CVE. Local trips between towns and cities that are up to 10km apart shouldn't cost you more than 100 CVE. All prices are per person and cash only.
As a rule of thumb, at least one collective taxi per half an hour plies the routes Paúl - Chã de Padre, Paúl - Ribeira Grande, Ribeira Grande - Ponta do Sol, or Ribeira Grande - Coculi. From Ribeira Grande to Xoxo, aluguers are less frequent (one per hour or so) and from Ribeira Grande to Cruzinha there are only two collective taxis daily, departing roughly at 11:00 and 12:00. Most aluguers to/from Porto Novo schedule their trip to drop off & pick up passengers from arriving from/departing ferries to Mindelo, São Vicente (see above).
By "taxi" or "frete" (privatized collective taxi)Edit
If you want to be more flexible, comfortable, faster, make breaks along the way, etc., this is a good option. These are not the blue taxis you see waiting at the ferry landing, but other cars, usually sturdier and often 4x4 with an "aluguer" sign on the top. (aluguer actually means "to rent"). Often it is the same car as the collective taxi, but under other conditions — you "rent" the whole car and driver to any destination you choose, for as many people and baggage as you want and can fit in. It will end up being less expensive than a rental car if you want to get where you are going and then walk or hike and not drive around every day. You can ask the aluguer drivers when you arrive with the ferry, and if they can't do this, they may be able to direct you to someone who can — it is usually a profitable and welcome change for the drivers, instead of waiting for customers.
You can also use a "taxi/frete" as an excursion, to see more of the island on the way to your hotel, or just to spend a day seeing the island. You can fit quite a few people in the car for the same price, so it may be a nice idea to share with other travelers. Ask people you meet on the ferry, or while traveling, or at your hotel. The people from your accommodations can also help to find others to share, and can organize a "taxi" for you, either to arrive or to leave or as an excursion around the island.
Costs are approximately tenfold of the per person price of a collective taxi plying the same route. So Porto Novo to Paúl works out around 4000 CVE; Porto Novo to Tarrafal around 7000 CVE; a day of excursions: 8000 to 12000 CVE for the whole car, about 4-8 people, depending on model of car and the itinerary.
You can rent a car in Porto Novo for €50-60 per day. Two car rental agencies even have a counter at the ferry terminal. As a tourist however, it doesn't make much sense to rent a car as you'll have to do all your hikes as a return trail (to get back to your parked vehicle) and public or privatized public transportation (see above) options will work out less pricey and more convenient.
Santo Antão is foremost a place to enjoy the island's majestic nature (see #Do), but there is also quite a few different places to behold as well.
- Rua Albuquerque, Ribeira Grande.
- Historic centre, Ponta do Sol.
- Fontainhas, Ribeira das Fontainhas.
- Lombo de Pico & Rabo Curto, Ribeira de Torre. Authentic towns perched on a rim between two valleys.
- Corvo, Ribeira do Corvo. Small coastal settlement squeezed into a deep valley.
- Chã de Mar. Seaside ghost town with an impressive backdrop.
- Cova. Fertile volcano crater with a spectacular view over the adjecent Ribeira do Paúl valley.
- Porto Novo - Ribeira Grande route. Inland road, connecting both cities, with jaw dropping views on a day with no or high clouds.
- Farol de Boi (Farol Fontes Pereira de Mela), Pontinha de Janela. The biggest and the oldest lighthouse of Cape Verde. Built 1886, now abandoned.
- Statue of Santo Antonio, Vila das Pombas.
- Tarrafal de Monte Trigo. The black sandy beach here is protected by mountains from the winds and offers good swimming and snorkeling on all but a few days a year.
The north of Santo Antão is prime hiking territory. The most accessible hikes can be found in and around 3 adjacent (and equally stunning) valleys: Ribeira do Paúl, Ribeira de Torre and Ribeira de Figueiral, as well as on the northwestern coast between Ponta do Sol and Cruzinha.
- Ribeira do Paúl: Chã de Padre - Cabeça de Figueiral - Boca di Figueiral. Gorgeous hike through the lower latitudes of Ribeira do Paúl. Moderate with steep sections. 4-5 hr. 200 m elevation change.
- Ribeira do Paúl: Chã de Padre - Cinta de Vaca - Cova - Chã de Fazenda. Stunning hike on a day with clear skies or high clouds. Hard, starting off with a 5-km-long climb of 20% inclination. 7-8 hr. 1000 m elevation change.
- Ribeira de Torre: Marrador - Rabo Curto - Lombo de Pico - Marrador. Beautiful hike through the lower latitudes of Ribeira de Torre. Moderate return trail with a side track to Lombo de Pico. 3-4h. 400m elevation change.
- Ribeira de Figueiral: Coculi - Figueiral de Cima - Boca de João Afonso - Coculi. Pleasant hike through the lower latitudes of Ribeira de Figueiral. From the easternmost point of this trail, there is a shortcut to Ribeira Chã das Pedras through the sugarcane fields (instead of passing by Boca de João Afonso). Easy with moderate sections. 2-3 hr. 200 m elevation change.
- Cruzinha - Chã de Mar - Formiguinhas - Corvo - Fontainhas - Ponta do Sol. Splendid coastal hike from Cruzinha to Ponta do Sol (or vice versa). Moderate with steep sections. 5-6 hr. 200 m elevation change.
Download the free (OpenStreetMap data based) maps.me app for easy access to offline maps that allow you to walk the routes mentioned above. Google Maps coverage is extremely poor on the hiking trails of Santo Antão.
An alternative (or complement) to the north is Tarrafal de Monte Trigo in the southwestern part of the island. Although the number of hikes may not be as large as in the northeast, there is still great hiking, for example along the coast between Tarrafal and Monte Trigo (and back by fishing boat). Additionally, it's a good starting point to reach the highest mountain, the Tope de Coroa, taking the morning aluguer for a short stretch before starting the hike. You can also go out with the local fishermen in their boats just for an excursion, to fish or just watch and enjoy the nature. The beach is good for swimming almost year round. Snorkeling and Scuba diving are also possible.
If you're visiting between the months of March and May, you can see the grogue distilleries in operation. This local sugar cane-based rum is the bread and butter of Santo Antãoan agricultural export, besides bananas, papayas, beans and gourd vegetables. Any other time of year, you can buy grogue from nearly any store on the island, but during the aforementioned months you can buy it straight from the (often very picturesque) source.
- 1 Casa Cavoquinho, Potinha da Janela, firstname.lastname@example.org. A great place to sleep in the Ribeira do Paúl. José, the Spanish owner, cooks an excellent 3-course dinner for 1650 CVE per person.
- 2 Casa Xoxo (Hotel Xoxo / Kasa Xoxo), Ribeira de Torre. Basic and clean accommodation. A great place to sleep in the Ribeira de Torre. The on-site restaurant boasts beautiful views over the lower part of the valley.
- 3 Pousada Green Place, Coculi (aluguers from Ribeira Grande to Lombo de Santa will drop you off in front of the door for an additional 100 CVE; from Coculi, it will take a 15-minute hike of which the latter third is uphill), email@example.com. Comfortable rooms in local ownership. Boasts stunning views over the Ribeira da Figueiral valley, copious and delicious dinners (order the grilled grouper!) and a refreshing swimming pool.
- See also listings for accommodations in other towns and villages on Santo Antão such as Tarrafal de Monte Trigo.
There's only one direct destination to go next from Santo Antão: Mindelo, São Vicente.----Well, actually there are other destinations. Sailing yachts sometimes anchor in the bay of Tarrafal de Monte Trigo as their last stop before crossing the Atlantic Ocean---stocking up on the last fresh fruits and vegetables, or good drinking water if they don't have a "water maker" on board. Occasionally they are looking for crew and someone gets the chance to join them for the crossing. But even if you don't join them, it can be inspiring and fascinating to wave them good-bye as they set sail for the Carribean Islands or South America....