Cape Verde comprises ten islands, but Sal Island is perhaps the best-known destination in this African country.
I traveled around this tiny island for a week, from north to south, east to west, to discover its main attractions.
If you are looking for a beach destination where you can practice several water sports, explore jeep tracks, eat delicious dishes, and socialize with one of the friendliest African people in the world, then read on!
- 1. Getting to know Sal Island
- 2. What to do in Sal
- → Visit the salt pans of Pedra de Lume
- → Horseback riding through the salt pans near Santa Maria
- → Surfing in Ponta Preta
- → Beach walking at Ponta do Sinó
- → Learn to kitesurf
- → Watch the fish selling at Santa Maria Pier
- → Buy handicrafts on 1 de Junho
- → Walk among sharks at Shark Bay
- → Visit the port of Palmeira
- → Diving at Buracona
- → Climb to the Espargos Viewpoint
- → Go jeep touring to Monte Leão
- → Bathing in Calheta Funda
- 3. Taste the flavors of Cape Verde
- 4. Where to stay on the island
- 5. How to get there and around
- 6. Last note
1. Getting to know Sal Island
As I said at the beginning of this travel guide, Sal Island is one of the ten islands that are part of Cape Verde.
Being one of the smallest, with a total surface area of 216 km², it doesn’t take many days to get to know the island’s main attractions.
The landscape is dry and even somewhat desolate, caused by its proximity to the African continent and its exposure to the strong winds that bring the sands of the Sahara desert.
The island of Sal remained uninhabited until the 19th century when salt extraction operations began in Pedra de Lume.
Despite its volcanic origin — you will get this perception further down when I tell you about Pedra do Lume — Sal is a relatively flat island. The highest elevation is Monte Grande, which reaches 405.3 m of altitude.
Other facts to keep in mind:
- Sal has 39,000 inhabitants (according to a forecast by Cape Verde’s National Institute of Statistics);
- Official language is Portuguese, although the local dialect, criollo, is also spoken;
- Currency is the Cape Verdean escudo, but most prices also appear in euros;
- The four most populated localities on Sal Island are Espargos, Santa Maria and Palmeira.
2. What to do in Sal
On such a small island, you’d think there wouldn’t be many things to do. But Sal offers many activities, even more, if you are a water sports lover.
→ Visit the salt pans of Pedra de Lume
It can be said that Pedra de Lume was at the base of the settlement of Sal. The island was discovered in 1460 and remained uninhabited until 1796, when Manuel António Martins, a wealthy merchant, began exploring salt in that place, and the island started to be inhabited.
The beginning of the history of Pedra de Lume and the salt exploitation in that territory is the same as that of so many other African regions (and not only), built based on slave and exploited labor, of which nobody is proud today.
Infrastructures later created there resulted in an industrialized society with its most significant expression at the beginning of the 20th century. The construction of a long cable car, mechanical mills, and a power plant, among others, were some of those structures.
Pedra de Lume has a sus generis scenario. Located inside the crater of an extinct volcano, the white and pink color of the saline waters contrasts with the brown and dry landscape surrounding it.
The old cable car structures still stand imposing on the site and indicate the way to go when leaving the main road towards the entrance to the mine.
Today the place is oriented towards tourism, as this is one of the island’s main attractions. For this reason, entrance is paid. Inside, a small complex consists of a bar/shop and a spa area, with a shower and chairs for resting and enjoying the view.
The salt pans can be visited along the path that crosses them or around them by the shore, but bathing in that water is the most significant appeal. The sensation of floating in the saltwater is extraordinary, very similar to the experience you can have in the Dead Sea in the Middle East.
→ Horseback riding through the salt pans near Santa Maria
On an island with its name “Sal” — the Portuguese word for “salt” —, it’s natural that the salt pans of Pedra de Lume are not the only ones in this Cape Verdean territory. A few kilometers north of Santa Maria is the Costa da Fragata Natural Reserve, which also has a salt mine complex that is now inactive. This protected landscape can be visited by car via a dirt track (stick to the marked route and don’t go off-roading since it’s in a protected area), but I suggest you go horseback riding here.
→ Surfing in Ponta Preta
When it comes to surfing in Cape Verde, Ponta Preta, on Sal Island, is one of the country’s ex-libris.
It’s a wave that runs long and perfect to the right, on rock bottom and crystal clear water.
Eventually, you can follow the shore from Santa Maria on a long walk that goes beyond 30 minutes. But if you want to get there faster, the way is through the resorts by jeep along a dirt track.
The wave can go from 150 to 300 m in length, but unfortunately, when I was there, there was no swell, even though this place is indicated as a frequently working wave.
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→ Beach walking at Ponta do Sinó
And since we are talking about the way to Ponta Preta, if you go by the seaside, part of it is done by Ponta do Sinó.
This is an extensive stretch of sand that serves as the beachfront for numerous resorts on Sal and is also the southernmost point on the island.
Passing even a little unnoticed, since it doesn’t present the format we are used to, is the Ponta do Sinó Lighthouse. This structure was built in 1892 and reaches a height of 9 meters.
→ Learn to kitesurf
Besides being a surfing destination, Sal Island is, without a doubt, a paradise for wind sports lovers, especially windsurfing or kitesurfing.
I confirmed this on my trip, with the wind being a constant throughout my stay.
The potential of this place for these activities is undeniable and, for this reason, there are plenty of learning centers and equipment rental along the beaches. So, if you want to try a new water and wind sport, this is the place to get your first lesson.
→ Watch the fish selling at Santa Maria Pier
It’s funny that before I read anything about Santa Maria Pier, I was drawn to that place while walking through the town center. The constant coming and going calls to us, and we have to go and see up close what is going on.
From young men carving stone and turning it into little white turtles, to the girl building bracelets made of shells, to the boy playing Cape Verdean sounds on his guitar, and, in the end, the fish vendors taking the scales off the fish that has just been brought in by the boats that pull up to the jetty. The atmosphere is frenetic and makes you feel the local culture.
→ Buy handicrafts on 1 de Junho
It’s the commercial street in Santa Maria, and it’s even closed to car traffic, so it’s an excellent place to stroll and see “how the fashions go” on Sal Island.
Look for stores selling local handicrafts such as bags, fabrics, dresses, t-shirts and scarves with the colors and patterns that so characterize Cape Verde. But also look at the art workshops with pieces by local artists or the woodwork stores. In the latter, which range from sculptures to masks, you’ll probably not find anything from Cape Verde but from other African countries.
As you are in the commercial street, it’s natural that you will be approached by vendors trying to attract customers into their stores.
→ Walk among sharks at Shark Bay
Yes, you read that right, walk. Shark Bay is about 10 minutes by jeep from Pedra de Lume, and here you can get very close to the tiny reef sharks.
This bay is another of the island’s tourist attractions, and a local business has developed there.
Upon arrival, we are approached by “guides” who offer to take us to see the sharks in exchange for whatever we want to give them. In reality, they are a group of young people who make a living from this activity and, in my experience, they are super friendly. A friendliness that, by the way, characterizes Cape Verdeans.
If we don’t have any, they provide proper shoes and then lead to the middle of the lagoon with water that reaches your knees. For those who have more difficulty or are not used to walking on the reef, the guides help make the path and prevent greater instability.
Once we arrive at the spot, the guide then throws bait into the water, and soon the lemon sharks come to us, and we can observe and feel them around us.
The lemon shark can reach up to 3 meters, but here we can observe the young that remain in shallower depths for several years before venturing into deeper waters. Of course, it goes without saying that they are harmless animals, but we must respect them because we are their guests.
→ Visit the port of Palmeira
It can be said that Palmeira is the third most crucial town in Sal, but some consider it the first since it has a large port where the most important boats arrive on the island.
This port bustles with activity, not only with the arrival of ships bringing essential goods for the population but also with local fishing boats or the sailboats of those discovering the various islands of Cape Verde or who arrive there as a gateway to the African continent. Some also take a boat to tour the nearest island, Boa Vista.
Next to this port, you’ll find Esplanada Roterdão, a typical restaurant, perfect for eating fresh fish or the lobster of your life. But to learn more, take a look at my article about the best restaurants on Sal Island. (note: it’s still to be written, but stay tuned!)
→ Diving at Buracona
Another of Sal’s great attractions and one I enjoyed visiting the most.
Buracona is in the north of the island, 5 km from Palmeira. On the road leading there, you will find several arrows indicating the way, but be prepared because it’s the most irregular route I took by jeep during my trip to Sal Island.
So much so that halfway through, I started to question if it was worth the effort… it was totally worth it!
Buracona is a bay that is part of a protected landscape area and is distinguished by two attractions: a large natural pool and the so-called “Blue Eye”. The latter is a natural pool that creates a strong blue colour effect in the water below as the sunlight passes through the hole in the rock.
This effect is generated around noon and lasts until two in the afternoon. Unfortunately, given the time of year and the sun’s direction, I could only see half of the effect on the water, but it gave me a sense of it.
For me, the best part of this visit was enjoying the large natural pool. Here, the luck factor was in my favor, since, when the sea is big, the waves invade it, and it is impossible to bathe. However, this was not the case the day I was there when the sea was smaller, and the sun was shining.
The Buracona area has yet another curiosity: reconstitution of the ten islands that make up Cape Verde. Again, Sal has a particular highlight, with a platform to see the prominent landforms and towns from above.
→ Climb to the Espargos Viewpoint
Espargos is not exactly the most attractive place to visit since it’s the most densely populated village on the island. However, follow the arrows that indicate the viewpoint and lead to the highest point of that location. There you’ll have a clear view, not only of Espargos but also of its surroundings.
→ Go jeep touring to Monte Leão
On the west coast of Sal Island, we find Monte Leão, a hill that follows us on the horizon whenever we take the road from Santa Maria to Espargos.
But the exciting thing about this area is to get to know it close to the sea, and for that, you have to choose dirt tracks only made by jeep.
The idea is to enter through the town of Murdeira and go north along the coast up to Monte Leão. This is also a great surfing area, so stay alert for good waves. 😉
When you get to Monte Leão, you can either turn back or continue on your way, first to Fontona and then to Palmeira.
→ Bathing in Calheta Funda
Calheta Funda is a small bay 5 km from Santa Maria, and you may well find it deserted most of the time. It is not easily accessible, and it is definitely advisable to make your way there by jeep. But once you arrive, and if there are no waves, you will find a paradise for swimming.
I didn’t have time to go snorkeling, but I think this may well be an ideal place to do it. However, take the proper precautions if you go swimming. As I said, this is an unguarded and fairly deserted spot, far from the nearest town, so be careful.
3. Taste the flavors of Cape Verde
Going to Sal and not trying the typical local dish is unthinkable! I’m talking about the famous cachupa, of course. This Cape Verdean bean stew has gained fame abroad, and for a good reason. Ask for a “Cachupa Rica”, and a very complete dish arrives on the table that combines local vegetables such as beans, corn, or sweet potatoes, as well as sausages, chicken, and even fish.
The best cachupa I ate were at Café Criolo in Santa Maria and Nortenhah in Espargos.
4. Where to stay on the island
There’s no shortage of lodging options on Sal Island. Being one of the most sought after destinations in Cape Verde, resorts and hotels multiply in Santa Maria, the most touristic place on the island and the one to stay.
Depending on how much you want to spend, you can opt for a large hotel, on the beachfront, or for a more modest accommodation, in the town’s interior.
Let Santa Maria serve as a starting point to get to know all the other places of interest on Sal.
Discover the Best Hotels in Santa Maria, Sal Island
5. How to get there and around
Arrival on Sal is by plane, landing at the Amilcar Cabral International Airport. Ideally, you should rent a car before your arrival so that when you land, you have it waiting for you.
Be sure to rent a jeep if you intend to discover the island independently. Except for the main road that connects Espargos to Santa Maria, the rest of the routes are mostly dirt roads, and many of them require four-wheel drive.
If you don’t want to go around the island yourself, you can take a cab from the airport to your hotel. Then, you can always visit the sights through tours with local operators.
6. Last note
My last note in this travel guide for Sal Island goes to its inhabitants. These Cape Verdeans conquered me by their friendliness and good mood. Always ready to help, they proved to be the perfect hosts.
Our car got stuck in the sand, and soon someone showed up to help us; The hotel where we stayed gave us a room to rest while we waited for the time to go to the airport (the flight from Sal to Portugal left at 1 am);
Dear Sofia, a born saleswoman, made the souvenirs I brought have even more meaning.
The Cape Verdeans from Sal are used to a very high level of tourism, and that’s not why they stop being friendly, even without receiving anything in return.
Now it’s your turn! Share in the comments box below what you think of this guide.
If you have been to Sal, share your experience, and if you have never gone there, tell me if it’s a destination you would like to visit one day.
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