A Guide to the Island of Fogo, Cabo Verde
Fogo means fire in Portuguese, and it’s an apt name for this island, the only one in Cabo Verde to have an active volcano. All Cabo Verde’s islands are volcanic in origin, but the volcanoes on all the other islands spluttered out thousands of years ago. With its impressive mountainous terrain, Fogo, Cabo Verde dominates its island brothers. On clear days, its mountains can be discerned as a silhouette from its nearest neighbors, Santiago and Brava. This silhouette is even visible from remoter islands, such as São Nicolau, sometimes appearing to actually levitate into the sky.
Volcanic Activity in Fogo, Cabo Verde
The main cone itself has been inactive for over 200 years. But there have been eruptions around the ancient crater within, called the Chã das Caldeiras (Plateau of the Calderas). The last eruption was in 2014, and there have been previous eruptions in 1951 and 1995. More than 1,000 villagers were made homeless by the latest eruption, and only recently have people begun to slowly return. Between the twin villages of Portela and Bangaeira, only five homes survived the 2014 eruption. Half a square mile of prime agricultural land was swamped by lava, and the road and visitor center destroyed. Remarkably no one was killed, although 20 villagers needed medical attention.
The displaced crater dwellers have since shown their mettle. Not only have many homes been rebuilt in the crater since, but there is even a new hotel. Called the Casa Marisa (named after the owner’s wife), this magical hotel is located close to the Portela edge of the caldera. The lava beneath the floors has still not cooled, so the rooms can get very hot. Also check out the Casa Ramiro, a tiny bar located midway between the two villages which was one of the few buildings to survive the last eruption. Enjoy stew and rice, a glass of Vinho Tinto, while local musicians play the violin and strum the cavoquinho.
Fogo keeps its population guessing on the next time it will spit out its lava rock. This adds a unique tension to this island situated between Santiago and Brava. The worst eruption occurred over 70,000 years ago, causing an eastern flank collapse. The tons of falling rock into the sea created a 500’ high mega-tsunami. These super waves are believed to have ferried huge boulders as far as Santiago Island.
Geography of Fogo, Cabo Verde
Fogo’s lone, black volcano dominates the island, presenting itself like a steep, conical fortress to arriving boats. It rises to a height of almost 10,000′, and has a caldera which is 5.5 miles across and features incredible frozen seas of lava and ash.
Fogo also boasts the highest peak in the archipelago, the Pico do Fogo (Peak of Fogo), which reaches 9,729′. This black cinder peak rises from out of the Chã das Caldeiras crater, which forms part of the floor of the caldera. There is also the Fogo National Park with its fields of black, gnarled molten rock. The park is a protected area but you can get there by a single road that runs along the floor of the Chã.
Fogo is the fourth largest island in Cabo Verde, with a land area of 185 square miles. It was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1456, but not fully explored for another four years. For over two hundred years, it was called São Filipe, after St Philip. Once the true nature of the island’s volcanic activity became known, it was renamed Fogo. The first major volcanic eruption on Fogo occurred circa 1680. After that, the name São Filipe was transferred to Fogo’s capital.
Today São Filipe is the island’s main municipality, where approximately half the 40,000 population live. The two other municipalities are Mosteiros and Santa Catarina do Fogo. All three are divided into 31 civil parishes, or freguesia, and their boundaries meet at a point roughly central of the volcanic caldera.
Hiking and Climbing in Fogo, Cabo Verde
Hiking to the caldera is always a little risky because of the threat of eruption, however small. But crossing the floor of the Chã is a unique experience, where all around you is nothing but lava fields. It is reminiscent of a lunarscape. Explore the captivating lava tubes and caves formed like massive air pockets in the volcanic walls. You can even camp overnight in the larger ones.
Many visitors come to climb the peaks. The Pico de Grande is a popular climb, over half a mile at a 30 to 40 degree slope. The ascent can take up to four hours, while the ascent takes less than 30 minutes. You can also climb the Pico Grande but descend by the Pico Pequeno. This more arduous route involves a 200 yard descent through loose, volcanic rocks. You need to be in good physical fitness, but the stunning views once you’ve reached the top are well worth it. Fatalities have happened while climbing these peaks, so it’s advisable to take a guide and plenty of water. Also avoid the midday sun if you don’t want to suffer heatstroke.
Wine in Fogo, Cabo Verde
The ever present threat of eruption doesn’t stop villagers living within the caldera, and growing crops in its rich, fertile soil. They even grow vines in the same soil to make excellent, chemical-free wine, such as the popular Manecom. The 2014 eruption destroyed many of the vineyards, but wine is still being produced in good quantities from the ones that survived.
Fogo’s 140 year tradition of making fine wine was begun by a French duke, Francois Montrond, who lived on the island in the 187os. He was on his way to Brazil, visited all Cabo Verde’s islands and stayed. Fogo was his favorite, and it was here where he raised his polygamous family of three wives and at least 11 children. If you see any brown-skinned, blond-haired children, they are probably descended from Montrond. In fact half the former crater-dwellers of Fogo share the Montrond name, and there are 300 descendants living in the USA alone. The duke was also credited for constructing a road between São Filipe to Mosteiras, and even sank wells, of which some are still used today.
São Filipe, Fogo, Cabo Verde
São Filipe is the capital and only city on Fogo Island. It has an airport, sports complex, shopping mall, and several bars, hotels and restaurants. It’s one of the most attractive urban areas in Cabo Verde, having originally been a Portuguese colonial town. As such it contains almost 100 old colonial houses called sobrados, cobbled streets and leafy squares.
Typically two-storey, some of the sobrados are in varying states of disrepair, though others have been restored. With their pastel walls and terracotta-tiled roofs set against a sparkling, blue sea, they still look very elegant. They are a throwback to the old colonial days. Slaves living in these sobrados were restricted to the first floor, except once a year on Santa Cruz day.
In São Filipe, you can drink the locally produced Arabica coffee at the Dja’r Fogo, an art gallery. There’s a Museu Municipal de São Filipe, where you can learn about Fogo’s heritage from the artefacts on display there. These include a funco, a hut built from blocks of lava.
Every May 1st, the city holds a festival called the Bandeira de São Filipe. Black sand is sprinkled on the cobbled streets in preparation for the cavalhadas – death-defying horse races.
What To Do in Fogo, Cabo Verde
Fogo is Cabo Verde’s most popular island to hike. Hiking and climbing has been touched on already. There are also opportunities for mountain-biking along the rugged volcanic terrain. Offshore fishing is a popular activity too, as well as being an important livelihood for the inhabitants. From coastal waters you can catch blue marlin and tuna, even sharks!
There are beaches on Fogo, but because of the past volcanic activity the sand is black, not white. Swimming is usually too dangerous at Fogo because of the strong currents. But if the sea is particularly calm, it can be safe to do so at the Praia Nossa Senhora or at the beach by the port. (Check with the locals first.) Ponta da Salina offers great swimming too. There’s no sand; this is a natural cove of black rock formations. To swim amidst the sea spray crashing against the rock is an unforgettable experience.
With its coastal ring road, driving is a good way to explore the sights of Fogo. Many villages are located on the edge of lava fields. But Fogo’s geography is not only about lava fields; there are natural rock formations, deep ravines and thrilling waterfalls to be seen too.
Where To Stay And Eat in Fogo, Cabo Verde
Most of the accommodation is in São Filipe. There are about a dozen small hotels, many with balconies offering sea or volcano views. A few have their own swimming pools. Only the 4-star Hotel Xaguate has more than a dozen rooms (38). It also has a restaurant, swimming pool terrace, sea view balconies, AC, satellite TV and free Wi-Fi.
São Filipe also offers several restaurants. Some, like the Tropical Club, offer live music at the weekends. Pipi’s serves delicious Senegalese cuisine. The Restaurante Seafood is located near the old prison with a great view of the sea. Around here too you can buy fresh baked bread and cakes from Dona Maria’s Bakery.
Getting To Fogo, Cabo Verde
The best way to reach Fogo without doubt is by air. There is a daily flight from Santiago which takes half an hour. You can walk the mile or so from the airport to the capital. Or there are private taxis – or aluguers – which can be hired privately or shared to cut costs. These aluguers travel along the ring road daily in an anti-clockwise direction. Trips to the crater are pricier, because on these occasions the aluguers are never allowed to be shared.
There are also regular weekly ferries to and from Santiago and Brava. You can even charter a yacht to Fogo.
Getting Around Fogo, Cabo Verde
Getting around the island once you’re there is usually a matter of finding an aluguer. In fact you never usually have to worry about this as they tend to go out hunting for custom, except on Sundays. As do the chartered aluguers, bright yellow taxis found in São Fillipe. There is also one bona fide car hire firm on Fogo. But you should resist hiring vehicles from private individuals; they may not have the requisite insurance.
Without doubt, Fogo is the most visually mesmerizing of all Cabo Verde’s islands. Yet because it’s visited less by tourists than many other islands, it remains almost untouched. Fogo is Cabo Verde’s volcanic paradise, filled with mystery and beauty.
Chã das Caldeiras – Wikipedia
Fogo Island – Morabitur
Cabo Verde – Bradt Guide, by Murray Stewart, Aisling Irwin & Colum Wilson, Edition 7
Cabo Verde Islands – Berlitz Pocket Guide
West Africa, by Anthony Ham et al, Lonely Planet Guide, 8th Ed.