São Nicolau in Cape Verde is the perfect island for hiking and mountain biking. Lush nature, steep slopes and fantastic rock formations are to be discovered. However, you can hardly swim on the rocky coasts.
Nature lovers and sports enthusiasts will feel right at home on São Nicolau, in the central north of Cape Verde. The mountains are not quite as high, the gorges not quite as deep and the trails not quite as strenuous as on the classic hiking island of Santo Antão. On the other hand, the infrastructure is not yet as well developed.
The northwest is the most fertile part of the island. Here, Monte Gordo, the highest mountain on the island, stretches its peak 1,300 metres above sea level. In the south and east it is rather dry and apart from a few, partly abandoned villages, there are hardly any settlements. The former mule tracks are ideal for desert hikes to the windy peaks of Tope de Chuva, Tope Simão or Cruz de Pedra.
Table of contents
Capital Ribeira Brava
The pleasant little capital Ribeira Brava ("Wild River") ducks into the velvety green slopes of an impressive mountain landscape in the centre of São Nicolau.
The colourful houses in various pastel shades are grouped around the Praça do Torreiro. The central square is dominated by the magnificent, blue-washed Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Rosário. As a former episcopal see, it was the largest church in West Africa in the 19th century.
A side street leads to the market hall, where fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and clothes are sold.
In the district of São João, about 200m upstream, traditional houses made of natural stone with thatched roofs still stand today next to neat houses. The former seminary Seminário de São José is also located here. When São Nicolau was chosen as the episcopal see of Cape Verde in 1780, the future priests were prepared for their ministry on site.
In 1931, however, the seminary was converted into a prison for political offenders after the bishop's seat was moved to São Vicente. Today, a small chapel still stands next to the building, above which the imposing Cruzeiro de Penedo rises from the rock.
Ribeira Brava is at its liveliest in the morning, when doors and windows are opened and trade is bustling. After experiencing the hustle and bustle of the capital, the riverside city park is a great place to relax. Here you can sit on a bench in the shade of a tree and enjoy Ribeira Brava at your leisure.
Tip: After heavy rainfall, Ribeira Brava lives up to its name. Then thunderous masses of water roll through the city. Many of the streets are flooded and it is best to stay where you are until the weather has calmed down again.
South of Ribeira Brava, the rather poor-looking village of Preguçia lies directly on the steeply sloping coast. Formerly a trading port and whaling station, it now exudes an old-fashioned charm.
There is also a town called Tarrafal on São Nicolau, as there is on Santo Antão and Santiago. Tarrafal on São Nicolau is 26km northwest of the capital Ribeira Brava and already has more inhabitants than the capital.
The route from Ribeira Brava to Tarrafal is scenic and highly recommended. The paved road leads through the green, wide valley of Fajã with cute villages, fruit and vegetable fields and numerous hiking trails. From the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Monte Sentinha, there is a dreamlike view of the mostly cloud-covered peak of Monte Gordo and the valley of Ribeira Brava.
Tip: On the way to Tarrafal, we recommend a short detour to the coast in the valley of Queimadas. Here you can discover the "Blue Hole", a fascinating breakthrough in the rock that is picturesquely washed by the waves.
Tarrafal harbour and beach
Tarrafal is home to the largest port on São Nicolau and is one of the few places on the island where seaside holidaymakers get their money's worth. At Praia da Luz, a wide beach with hot, black lava sand in the north of Tarrafal, the sea is calm and pleasant. The black sand is also said to help against joint pain and rheumatism due to its titanium and iodine inclusions. Deep-sea fishermen and water sports enthusiasts also feel at home here.
About 4km further on, the tiny solar lighthouse of Barril rises out of the glowing sand. Behind it, a dirt road leads around the western tip of São Nicolau to the north to Praia Branca. The village is nestled between Tope Moca, Tope Matin and Topana, which offer wonderfully idyllic hiking trails. After Praia Branca, the road continues to Ribeira da Prata on the north coast, then it's time to turn around.
Ascent of Monte Gordo
The summit of São Nicolau's highest mountain offers a magnificent panorama. The starting point for the ascent is the village of Cachaço on the main road between Ribeira Brava and Tarrafal. On the forest road signposted "Perímetro Florestal", you go uphill past dragon trees into the increasingly dense forest.
At the highest point of the road, you have to leave the car and continue on foot along a steep path. It takes about an hour to reach the summit. With excellent visibility, you can see every single island of Cape Verde - unique in the entire archipelago.
Tip: The hike up Monte Gordo takes two and a half hours and covers a height difference of 600m. Good physical condition, surefootedness, hiking boots and at least three litres of drinking water are recommended.