Scouting the Wild Shores and Trails of Cape Verde

Credit: Reiner John / Getty Images

In 2005, Men's Journal writer Tom Downey visited the rugged archipelago of Cape Verde. Sitting 285 miles off the coast of West Africa, the islands form a secluded paradise for multisport adventure athletes.

I'm a sucker for shortcuts. Whether I'm being led by Papuans with no concept of time I can perceive, or being dragged through epic canyons by Ethiopians for whom a three-day walk is a typical errand, I can always be persuaded to tackle a steep trail or cross a frothing river if I think it might shave time and miles off my trip. So when Eduardo Gómez, a canyoneering guide from Spain, invites me on a shortcut up to Cova de Paúl crater on the island of Santo Antão, part of the Cape Verde archipelago, I eagerly step off the stone path and follow a faint trail around a boulder. The thing about shortcuts, though, is that sooner or later they make you pay.

Make that sooner. Immediately Gómez's shortcut goes nearly vertical. We clamber up a muddy slope, lost in clouds that cut visibility down to five feet. Over the next 90 minutes we claw our way up, sometimes clinging to roots, and when that fails, digging into the soil with our fingers. Finally we drag ourselves over the summit. We saved maybe 30 minutes on the ascent, but my heart's pounding — from lack of oxygen, but also from the vertigo. I'm over it quickly, however, as the clouds part to reveal the flanks of the long-dormant volcanoes that roll down Santo Antão to the Atlantic. It's the kind of intricate landscape you could stare at for a lifetime: rocky canyons, green hillsides, stone huts built into the mountains.

"Now you can see why I left Spain," Gómez says softly.

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I first heard of these islands when I read the printed insert in a Cesaria Evora album and thought, Cape Where? Evora, the "barefoot diva," is a world music sensation, and her haunting melodies intrigued me. The 10 islands of Cape Verde, which lie about 300 miles off the coast of West Africa, were first settled by the Portuguese in 1462, who shipped in slaves to man this outpost of their empire. The high winds that streak across the islands also made the archipelago a regular stop on the sea journey west to the Americas. The same winds are now bringing a new generation of explorers ashore.

Along with Gómez, other expat adventurers — from world-class windsurfers and fanatical kiteboarders to expert canyoneers and intrepid trekkers — have discovered these islands, each of which has a separate identity and different advantages for hardcore adventurers. Overnight I hatched a plan, a shortcut if you will, to the ultimate Cape Verde multisport odyssey: hop from island to island putting myself at the mercy of these adventurers to better experience the stunning treks, crystal-clear dives, high-yield fishing trips, and monster winds.

After landing in Praia, the capital on Santiago, I hop onto a local flight to Boa Vista, where I have come in search of the godfather of Cape Verde windsurfing, François Guy. A Frenchman born in Hanoi, 53-year-old Guy is one of windsurfing's founding fathers, both as a competitor and instructor. In the mid-1980s, after years of teaching on the French Riviera, he studied sailing charts to home in on the ideal place to windsurf. He found it in Boa Vista — with its enormous white sand lagoons, powerful 20- to 25-mph winds, and 10- to 15-foot waves — and never left. 

As soon as I arrive Guy hops into the water and gives me a lesson. He preaches a Zen-like approach to the sport. "Breathe," he says, "and each time you exhale you will feel your sail pick up the wind." It sounds corny, but when I get on the board I see what he means. By forcing myself to relax through breathing, I stop fighting the sail and let the wind do the work. Soon I'm rocketing along the empty beach.

After a couple of hours Guy calls me in: "Rest, eat, relax now." He invites me up to the small turret above the windsurfing center on the beach, which has a view of the topless bathers down below — and the sunset. This is where he sleeps, lying in a hammock in the open air. "Early in the morning, right after sunrise, I often pull out a board and windsurf all the way down the coast," he says. "At that time it's just me and a few fishermen awake on the whole island. That's why I stay in Boa Vista."

I make my way to Sal Rei, a town of pastel-colored buildings and tiny bars that spill out into the street. At sunset I sit down on the stoop of a beachfront bar with a cold Sagres draft. Cape Verdean dance music blasts from a house next door, and an informal restaurant springs up: three charcoal grills, a mountain of spicy skewered beef, and a mangy mutt to lick up the scraps. In the morning I reschedule my flight; Boa Vista deserves an encore.

My next stop is Ponta do Sol on Santo Antão, where I trade my windsurfing harness for hiking boots and scuba fins. Waves crash into the village's old stone pier, and locals clean red fish on the rocky shore. Ponta do Sol feels like the end of the world — and in a way it is, the last outpost of the Old World before the long trip to the New.

Just a year ago Gómez, the author of 24 guide books on canyoneering and climbing, zoomed around Barcelona with his rope and gear on the back of his motorcycle and rappelled down tall buildings whenever an antenna or box needed emergency action. Then Gómez, who is in his early 40s, decided to trade in the concrete canyons of Europe for the volcanic slopes of Cape Verde, a destination he'd been scouting for years. He sold everything and moved to Ponta do Sol.

When I track him down, Gómez offers to show me around, starting with his favorite retreat. When the road peters out we dismount from his ATV and hike through a canyon filled with palm, mango, and papaya trees. After 35 minutes the path and canyon abruptly turn to the left, revealing a 300-foot waterfall. When we get back to the trailhead Gómez fires up his ATV, and I hang on as we careen down a cobblestone track where a few inches — and no guardrail — are all that separate pavement from plummet.

During a smooth stretch I glance across the lush mountainside and look down on the waves pounding the coast. That ocean is what first brought people to this land, and the labor of the sea, often aboard New England whaling ships, is what took so many people away. Much of the music I've heard in Cape Verde is about the longing inspired by separation; the Cape Verdeans call this feeling of exile, nostalgia, and sadness sodade. Even in the high peaks I can smell the sea breeze, and I understand why the sight and scent of the sea must bring memories flooding back of family and friends who left long ago.

I spend five days with Gómez in what amounts to a multisport boot camp. "After I mastered ropes I learned canyoneering," he tells me. "After I knew everything about rock types, guiding, opening new canyons, I became a dive master. I always need a new challenge to keep me going." Each day he wakes me up at 7 am and we explore, hiking six hours from the sea up to mountain peaks, fishing from a boat using line wound around a block of wood, and diving to see swordfish and moray eels. We return at sunset to sip caipirinhas made with grogue, the local sugarcane firewater, then devour simple meals of grilled fish washed down with a crisp Portuguese vinho verde. My balcony faces the ocean, and at night I leave the windows open and fall asleep to the muffled detonation of waves crashing on the pebbles.

My final stop is the up-and-coming town of Santa Maria on the island of Sal. Popular with intrepid Italian and Spanish sun-seekers, Sal also has powerful winds and heavy wave breaks that make it a premier surfing, windsurfing, and kiteboarding destination. On my first day I wander down to the beach and find Rod Smith, 39, an Arizonan who has lived here since 2002.

Smith suggests we pile some sailboards into his Land Rover and take off for a remote break. He says he hasn't been to America in 20 years. First surfing, then windsurfing, now kiteboarding all over Europe and Central America, Smith finally settled here in Sal because "it's got the best winds and waves in the world, all year long." Smith says the only other American to have settled in Sal is his friend Josh Angulo, a former windsurfing champion from the North Shore of Oahu who married a Cape Verdean woman and has a surf shop in town.

We power through a half mile of sand on our way to Ponta Preta, Sal's most famous break, which often tops 15 feet. It's late afternoon when we arrive, though, and the ocean is calm. I glide back and forth around the deserted point practicing jibes with Smith and Djo Silva, the best local windsurfer on the island, acting as my wingmen. After a couple of hours we all head back toward the truck and stand looking out to sea, mesmerized by the sunset. I ask Smith if he's explored the rest of Cape Verde. "Once I kiteboarded to Boa Vista and back," he says. "But normally I don't leave Sal. I've got everything I need right here."

On my last morning I hit the beach for an early jog. A full moon and the rising sun share the horizon. As my feet pound the sand, I weigh who has Cape Verde dialed most perfectly. Guy is likely watching this same sunrise from his hammock in Sal, Eduardo is waking up to the rocky red cliffs of remote Ponta do Sol, Rod is enjoying the lonely breaks of Ponta Preta. Each of these men has managed to snag a piece of paradise where he can live his passion on his own terms. But which island would I call my own?

At first the answer is obvious: Santo Antão, with its steep volcanoes, rocky coastline, and the feeling that you're perched at the end of the world. Then I'm not sure. When seeking that personal paradise, there can be no shortcuts, and there are a handful of other islands I haven't had the chance to see: ports you can reach only by stowing away on a cargo ship, uninhabited islets that hide secret coves, unknown beaches, hidden canyons. Clearly my search isn't over.