Boa Vista, Cape Verde Islands – A Trip to Sal Rei

While  the Grand Karamboa was very pleasant, there wasn’t much point in travelling so far from the UK and just hanging around the hotel campus, so we booked a trip into the island’s capital Sal Rei.

Main Church Sal Rei, Boa Vista, shared by Catholics and Jews

Sal Rei is the largest settlement on Boa Vista. The name in Portuguese means salt king and sea salt used to be the major industry here, until cheaper mined salt started to grace European dining tables. Today the major industry is tourism and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves taken to the ‘African market’

African market Sal Rei

The sad thing was that hardly any of the items on sale were locally produced, there is an awful lot of tat and most of really nice stuff like the masks and wood carvings are imported from Africa.

African masks on sale in Sal Rei

Some of the traders were a bit persistent, but eventually we managed to get back out on the street. Mind you some traders were a bit more mobile than others

You don’t get away that easy folks

As you would expect much of the architecture of Sal Rei is Portuguese colonial. The Portuguese arrived in the 1462 and up until the 19th century the Cape Verde Islands grew fat as a staging post for slavers midway between east Africa and Portugal’s south American colony of Brazil. The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the mid 19th century led the islands into serious economic decline and even today many of the people scratch a living close to the poverty line.

Crumbling buildings Sal Rei

Some people do their bit to brighten things up and down by the port we discovered some local artwork.

Mural Sal Rei

Sal Rei was in the grip of an election so we had to dodge the various political ‘battlewagons’ pick up trucks with huge sound systems that drove around playing dance music at ear-splitting volume.

Election battlewagon

I’m not sure how the local democracy works, but at least some of the local people were getting free T-shirts and baseball caps out of it.

After sampling some grog at a delightful little hotel, our final stop was the municipal market.

Municipal Market Sal Rei

The fruit and vegetable market was downstairs, while upstairs there were more local traders selling a variety of stuff from either Africa or Brazil.

Fruit and veg market

The sole trader who is on the ground floor is known as Jimmy the Rasta, for obvious reasons. Jimmy is very charming and he was the only person who managed to give the moths in my wallet an airing when he sold me a set of three carved tortoises. He assured me that they were locally made and at least the Cape Verde Islands are well-known for the turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs.

Our visit to Sal Rei was quite humbling, many of the people we encountered were very poor.

Carrying water home

However as our guide pointed out the last thing you should do is give people money, as it encourages a culture where begging becomes endemic and children are taken out of school to beg on the streets. Hopefully increased tourism to the islands will lift most of the people out of their present poverty trap, lets hope it is managed sensitively.

Boa Vista, Cape Verde – Birds and Bees

While Boa Vista is one of the semi-arid Cape Verde Islands, the landscaped area around the Riu Karamboa’s pool area is a haven for the local bees. Judging from their shape I think they must be some kind of bumble-bee, but I have yet to identify the specific species.

I’m going in

They quite clearly liked what they could find in these pink flowers.

Prepare for entry

It was fascinating to watch them crawl right inside the flower trumpet.

Time to reverse out

Then back out again covered in pollen and tumbling down before being able to open their wings and buzz off.

Out at last

The flowers themselves were quite interesting to observe as they gradually closed over during the day to preserve moisture in the face of the unrelenting sun and wind.

The flower beds also harboured another visitor.

I’m just nipping off to the beach

These land crabs live in burrows on the beach, but I think this fellow was probably hiding from the brown necked ravens that perched on the thatched roof of the pool bar.

Crab I is looking for you

There are three kinds of sparrow in the Cape Verde Islands and these little opportunists were never far away when there were crumbs to be had.

Cape Verde or Iago Sparrow

The Cape Verde or Iago sparrow has a little black bib just below his chin and often hangs out with the more familiar Spanish and house sparrows.

Spanish Sparrow, Ole!

The Spanish sparrows are similar to European house sparrows except that they have a russet cap and the male birds are more heavily marked on the chest. To make matters more confusing the two species hybridise quite freely.

Did someone say crumbs?

These birds are remarkably confident and will take food from your hand, but they don’t have it all their own way.

Hotel Cat, Karamboa

Boa Vista, Cape Verde Islands – Arrival

It’s a six-hour flight from London’s horrible Gatwick Airport to Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands. Comments on Tripadvisor suggested that conditions on the Thompson Airways flight would be little short of those endured on the Brazil slave ships that stopped off at Cape Verde on their way from west Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fortunately it wasn’t anything like as bad, but we did suffer some truely awful food and were given no in-flight video entertainment. Thankfully I dropped into a fatigue induced coma for part of the journey, having got up at 2am that morning for the airport taxi, as ever my trusted means of coping with in-flight boredom.

On arrival we had to queue for our landing cards to be collected (although quite why this is necessary today with machine readable passports is puzzling), but at least we got a nice green stamp in our passports. Having collected our bags, it was on to the coach for the five-minute transfer to the Club Hotel Riu Karamboa, which turned out to be no further away than across the road and behind a whacking great sand dune.

Imposing architecture of the Riu Karamboa

The African inspired Karamboa, with over 700 rooms, is one of a small number of absolutely massive all-inclusive hotel complexes on the island of Boa Vista. Smack on a beautiful long white sandy beach lapped by the azure waters of the Atlantic (is that enough hyperbole folks?),

Amazing long sandy beach lapped by the Atlantic Ocean

the hotel aims to compete with the all-inclusive resorts on the opposite side of the Atlantic in the Caribbean, but as yet does not quite pull it off. Our air-conditioned rooms were comfortable and rigorously cleaned, every day we returned to them with a sense of awe to discover how creatively our stuff had been arranged and displayed, by our maid come art director! On the down side they did not have a mini-bar or tea making facilities and we had to collect bottles of drinking water from reception.

Just like the places we had stayed at in Cuba and Mexico, there was a buffet restaurant and a number of themed restaurants, but the Karanboa’s themed restaurants are buffets rather than silver service, so if you aren’t quick you could miss the good stuff, not to mention risk the dubious food handling techniques of fellow guests.

local trader Sal Rei

Las Dunas is supposed to be an African restaurant, but the food seemed to be more Spanish than African, with a massive Paella taking pride of place. The battered squid is exquisite though. Buda is the Asian restaurant and the sushi starters are truely excellent. Unfortunately the hot dishes are not quite so successful, chicken yakitori takes a bit more effort than threading chicken on a skewer and the sauces are bland. Local cuisine is featured in Barloveto, mostly freshly cooked fish and other seafood served up with yam and plantain.

Yeah right, just wait till they have you inside the shop

And so to the all-inclusive drinks menu. The local Strella Lager holds its own against most pub brews, but the wine ranges from bland (red) to bad (rose) to downright doom-laden undrinkable (white). I have drunk worse, but only once in an Indian restaurant in Dundee!

Spirits are served in massive slugs, so a couple of gin and tonics or rum’n’cokes could creep up with lethal potential. The local fire water is called Grog, you could probably fly a helicopter on it. Ponche is Grog with honey and citrus, for the discerning drinker who likes a bit of flavour as his internal organs are steadily  liquified.

Woof – Sal Rei

As to the cocktails, the Karamboa has a long way to go to catch up with rival resorts on the Caribbean. There is a very limited menu of blended drinks like Pinacolada and Daiquiri which are little more than a rummed up Slush Puppy.  A Martini, Manhattan or a Cosmo are beyond Riu’s mixology staff training, but a decent Bloody Mary can be had so long as soy sauce isn’t substituted for a dash of Lea & Perrin’s finest.

Despite what I have written so far don’t for one moment imagine that we didn’t have a great time, because we did. Tourism is new to the Cape Verde Islands and there is a lot of learning to be done by the local hotel management.

More will follow on what we saw and got up to.