With its only international airport, the gateway to Cape Verde, the former salt island of Sal appears dry and barren at first glance. But at second glance, dreamlike beaches with year-round bathing temperatures in the Atlantic, healing salt lakes and luxurious hotel complexes can be discovered.
The elongated island of Sal is the easternmost island of Cape Verde and, due to the international airport, the first island that foreign guests get to see. At first glance, it appears flat, dry, desert-like, without much greenery, without much shade - but with lots and lots of sun and fantastic beaches, especially in the tourist stronghold of Santa Maria.
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PICTURES: Sal - Gateway to the Cape Verde Islands
With the only international airport in Cape Verde, tourism is also flourishing on the 30km long "golden sliver in the ocean". Sal is now home to 20,000 people, of whom only about 10% are over 40. Divers, kitesurfers, windsurfers and sun worshippers feel right at home on Sal, while everyone else usually flies on to the more attractive islands of Cape Verde.
Climate on Sal - sun, sun, sun
Sal is spoiled by the weatherman with an average of 330 days of sunshine a year. There are no mountains on Sal that would allow clouds to form. Monte Grande in the north of Sal, with its 405 metres as the highest elevation on the island, is more of a hill than a "big mountain".
When it rains on Sal, it is most likely between August and October. But even in this "rainy season", the wetness from above is not enough to make something like vegetation possible on Sal. On average, it rains 10 days a year (in London it is 145) and in May it has never rained at all since records began.
There are no mountains, no valleys or gorges, no cultural monuments or national parks on Sal. The main activities on Sal have to do with heat and sea and are limited to lazing on the sand, water sports and endless beach walks.
Santa Maria - Sal's most beautiful beach
The town of Santa Maria is located on the south coast of Sal about 20 kilometres from the island's capital Espargos. It is the largest town and the tourist centre of the entire island and is one of our top 10 attractions in Cape Verde.
Only about a quarter of an hour by car from the airport, Santa Maria presents itself as a dreamlike - and exclusive - symbiosis of sky, sun, beach and sea. Not a single tree clouds the play of colours from heavenly blue and sandy white.
PICTURES: Santa Maria on the island of Sal, Cape Verde
The heart of tourism on Sal
In the early 19th century, Santa Maria housed workers in the region's salt fields; after the decline of the salt industry, it became the heart of tourism on Sal. On the sun-drenched south coast of Sal are the largest hotel resorts in all of Cape Verde, protected from the omnipresent wind behind glass walls and thick hedges.
During the day, when the sun is burning down, Santa Maria is almost deserted. During the midday siesta, there is hardly anyone on the street. Only towards afternoon does it become bearable and the closer the sun sinks towards the horizon, the more souvenir shops, snack restaurants, bars, guesthouses and internet cafés open their doors.
From salt mining to tourism
The Wäghaus at the old harbour is what remains of the former salt mines and has become something of a landmark in Santa Maria. It is nestled between small restaurants, pretty shops and pastel-coloured houses.
This is where the salt from Pedra de Lume used to be weighed before it was sent on its long journey across the sea. Today you can find souvenir shops in the weigh house. At the harbour, you can also watch the fishermen who bring their catch ashore and process it on the spot.
In the excellent restaurants in Santa Maria, you can dine on excellent fish straight from the sea. As a digestif, we recommend enjoying a Cape Verdean caipirinha in one of the numerous bars and discos in the hotel complexes (just like the Brazilian original, only with local grog instead of sugarcane schnapps).
Dreamlike beach of Santa Maria
The main attraction of Santa Maria is the dreamy, fine-sand beach that winds around Sal's southern tip over a distance of 8km. In addition to bathing and swimming, boat trips and water sports are also possible on the beach of Santa Maria. The surfing and diving schools reach almost to the water's edge.
PICTURES: The most beautiful beaches on Sal, Cape Verde
On the beach of Santa Maria, there are luxurious hotel complexes, evening entertainment, boat rentals, providers for a variety of water sports, horseback riding and much more - a holiday beach that could not be better in the Caribbean. Bathing here is also relatively safe. But beware! The further north you go from Santa Maria, the more treacherous and dangerous the currents become.
Tip: The beach of Santa Maria is often relatively crowded in front of the big hotels. A few kilometres away, however, it is as lonely as ever - but without any infrastructure.
However, tourists have to bring their own nightlife. Outside the hotel bars, there is not much going on. Those who still want to see a bit more of the island can visit the fascinating light reflections of the Olho Azul ("Blue Eye") in Buracona or the old salt works in Pedra de Lume.
Snorkelling and diving on Sal
Divers are best served on the west and north coasts of Sal, around Espargos. There are no sandy beaches here, but the rugged rocky coast is home to a spectacular variety of colourful marine life. The diving stations in Santa Maria know the best diving spots on the island and head for them.
About 5km north of Palmeira is Buracona, a natural pool where you can swim and dive without danger. Here, fantastic coral reefs and spectacular underwater caves, such as the Olho Azul ("Blue Eye"), inspire. Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., the sunlight refracts in the oval hole in the rock ceiling, making it glow in intense shades of blue and turquoise.
Tip: There are no trees on Sal and therefore no shade. Even the strongest sun protection factor is not exaggerated here and at noon it is best to escape to the hotel. When the trade winds are at their strongest, you are better off at the hotel pools, which are protected behind hedges and glass walls.
Brine baths in Pedra de Lume
Pedra de Lume ("fiery stone") is located on the east coast of Sal and is the second main attraction of the desert island of Cape Verde next to Sal's dreamy beaches. Here, salt water seeps into an extinct underwater volcano, the Pedra de Lume, in whose crater a huge salt pan has been created by evaporation in the shimmering heat.
Salt extraction on Pedra de Lume
Salt was mined in this collapse crater until the middle of the 20th century. A lonely church, the wooden barracks and the abandoned machines form a unique bizarre scenery under the glaring sun over Sal.
At the beginning of salt extraction, the pack animals still had to climb over the crater rim with the heavy salt sacks; it was not until 1804 that a tunnel was dug through the crater wall. In 1922, the pack animals of Pedra de Lume were replaced by a revolutionary cable car that transported 25 tonnes of salt per hour. At the height of the salt trade, several hundred workers were employed in Pedra de Lume.
A dirt road still leads up to the tunnel that leads inside the crater, but since 1984 the salt fields on Sal have only been used for subsistence purposes and Pedra de Lume is hardly inhabited. Besides the breathtaking scenery, visitors can enjoy a Dead Sea-like bath in the salt pan or take a mineral-rich mud bath. A shower afterwards is possible on site, by the way.
History of salt mining on Sal
Like the rest of the islands of Cape Verde, Sal was discovered and taken over by the Portuguese in 1460. Originally, the island was simply called "Ilha Lhana" ("flat island").
Sal ("salt") got its present name from the rich salt deposits around Pedro de Lume, which were mined and exported on a large scale. At the beginning of the 19th century, 30,000 tons of salt were mined per year, making Sal a prosperous island whose population grew steadily.
The salt boom continued until the middle of the 20th century, after which the salt marshes were abandoned and most of the machines left to rust.
Sal's capital Espargos
Right in the middle of Sal is its capital Espargos, 3km north of the airport. Espargos was built in 1939, when the Italians under Benito Mussolini started the construction of the airport on Sal. Sal was the perfect stopover for Italian planes heading to South America to refuel.
The South African airlines, which were not allowed to land in many African countries during apartheid, also used Sal as a stop-over. The first hotels were built in Espargos and Santa Maria for the aeroplane crews, and finally Sal was also discovered for tourism, mainly because of its beautiful beaches.
The city takes its name "asparagus" from the wild asparagus that supposedly once grew there. At that time, Espargos consisted only of quarters for airport workers. Today, Sal's capital has around 8,000 inhabitants and is the seat of the mayor, the city library and the health centre.
For visitors, Espargos has little to offer, except for shops of all kinds selling mostly African handicrafts and the practical things of travel life, such as the post office, a bank, bars, internet cafés and also a hotel and some guesthouses. The tourist scene is elsewhere - on the beaches and especially in Santa Maria.
Technology and port life in Palmeira
Palmeira is located a few kilometres west of Espargos. With its seawater desalination plant, the less spectacular settlement is something like the technical centre of the island and is used as an export and import port. An extra detour there is not worthwhile, because apart from the hustle and bustle of the harbour, a few bars and restaurants, there is little to see.
The way there leads through desert-like landscape, where mirages like in the Sahara are possible. But the eerie vastness of the desert is missing, because the dark blue glittering Atlantic Ocean is never far away.