(Hitch)hiking Monte Verde, São Vicente

The Setup

Monte Verde is the highest peak on the island of São Vicente, Cabo Verde. As the bird flies, it’s only 6 kilometers 744 meters east of Mindelo, the island capital and Cabo Verde’s second-biggest city. The mountain and its plants are protected inside the Parque Natural Monte Verde. The island main ‘ring road’ surrounds the entire mountain, and is a cool trip for one or two people in itself; you can hitchhike, take an aluguer (minivan/pickup, public transit), or rent a scooter/car for a day to see basically the entire island.

The peak of Monte Verde is quite accessible; there is a 5km long paved road going all the way to the top. So the total distance from Mindelo city center to the peak is 11km. It’s totally doable to visit the mountain as a day trip if you’re hiking it up, or as a half-day trip if you use another form of transportation. The area next to the peak is an active military base, but – as you will see from my story – you can still access it. From the peak that’s on the edge of a cliff, you have really nice views of Mindelo and the island, depending on the weather.

Here’s my story of hitchhiking/hiking to the peak of Monte Verde and only spending €4 for two people that whole day.

Getting out of Mindelo

Events happened on Thursday 28 February 2019

The first order of business was getting up in the morning. I thought it was going to be a long day, so I set the alarm for an alarmingly early 6:40. I didn’t find the courage to get up, so at 7:50 my partner managed to get me out of bed. We prepared sandwiches and refilled bottles to carry 2.35 liters of water. That seemed like an appropriate amount to carry up the mountain in the sunshine.

Only at 9:15, we managed to leave our apartment in Ribeira Bôte, a neighborhood of Mindelo. We hiked past the big roundabout and encountered our first aluguer: a Hilux pickup truck. Jonas asked the driver if he was going out of town and if he could drop us off at the “Caminho com Monte Verde”. The answer was yes, for 500 CVE as a taxi instead of an aluguer. We thanked him and continued walking along the road to the end of Mindelo to find a shadowy spot to wait.

The next half hour, we spent walking towards the city limit, getting barked at by dogs, and refusing taxi rides constantly. Often, a taxi with a paying passenger in it would slow down next to us while we were walking on a narrow bridge or something, and hover around us until the driver really understood “naõ obrigado” as a “no”. This took a toll on Jonas’ mood.

A Hiace to the Crossing

Eventually, a Hiace (yasi) aluguer with the yellow sign on its roof drove by. The van said ‘Salamansa’ on the outside, so I knew that it had to come past the junction to Monte Verde. It was empty, but we stopped it and managed to convey to the driver that we would get out at the crossing to Monte Verde and that we’re not asking for a taxi, but an aluguer. He agreed and we got in.

At last, we were driving to our goal of the day. Roadworks slowed down our ride. Just a few weeks earlier, Jonas and I drove over this road on a 50cc rental scooter. The contract told us specifically to not try to drive up to Monte Verde on that vehicle, as it’s too steep for the mean machine. The roadworks had now moved closer to Mindelo. There was a traffic light to tell people from both sides when it was their turn, but it wasn’t working. So our driver rolled down his window, telling the construction workers something like “You guys… I’m going.” Jonas found it hilarious.

We drove on and climbed in altitude. I remember our scooter had struggled but persevered on this same stretch. The Hiace – though old – doesn’t struggle too much. The driver drops us off at the road, and Jonas hands over 200 CVE, which the driver accepts. Jonas and I have been gathering data points about how much stuff costs in Cabo Verde and the aluguer rates are some of the more baffling phenomena. To my surprise, the driver turns around his van and drives back to Mindelo instead of onward to Salamansa.

Sunscreen and Wind

An army of goats walks down the mountain in our direction. It’s a little after 10. We cautiously hike past them in the other direction, hoping not to get head-butted by them. Some of them are pregnant, others have a kid-goat in tow. Then the goat herder comes last, carrying two (live) baby goats in one hand, under protest. “Bon dia” we say in Cabo Verdean Creole, and it gets returned.

goat herder São Vicente Cabo Verde Monte Verde hike hitchhike

We hike up a little more until the first turn. We put on our first layer of sunscreen of the day. It’s very, very windy, so we’re struggling with the task, trying not to lose our hats. I’m basically done with applying and see a shiny rental car coming up the mountain. As a reflex, I make eye contact with the driver and put up my thumb. He looks to the guy in the passenger’s seat and stops. Jonas looks at me with surprise.

The window rolls down, and I ask in English if we can get a ride a little further up. The men approve, and we get into the backseat.

Hitchhiking to Monte Verde with Two Guys

We start driving up, and I hear them talking to each other. But I can’t make out the language with the loud hum of the engine and the wheels slapping against the cobblestones. I ask them where they’re from, and they answer with “Barcelona”. My guess is that they’re speaking Catalan to each other, which would explain why I couldn’t make out the language from the backseat. I decided against switching to Spanish.

Their names are Jorge and Paul (driver), and it’s Paul’s second time on São Vicente island. He says it was much greener last time he was here. They’re here on holiday. Paul tells us that you can’t go to the top, because there is a military base, so he will drop us off before that. In the next 10 minutes, we drive up higher and higher until we get a glimpse of what the view will be: dusty.

There is this weather phenomenon in Cabo Verde that has been following us around since our arrival in January: pó di terra, or ‘ground dust’. It’s a dry haze or fog created by the wind kicking up the dust in the dry season (December till the end of February), similar or actually the same as the Harmattan winds of mainland West Africa. As it’s our second time in Mindelo, we were already fully aware of this phenomenon. Still, it wouldn’t stop us from going up a mountain for the views.

When we drive to the zig-zag parts of the road, Paul gets more nervous about the approaching military base. Several times, Paul stops and says this is his turnaround point. Then we get ready to get out of the car. But Jorge says multiple times to drive a little further. I see a viewpoint on my offline map, so I say “in 400 meters there will be a nice viewpoint where you can drop us off” but we drive by it. Two turns before the peak, we stop. Jonas and I thank Jorge and Paul for the ride and say goodbye. They turn around their car.

Rental car Monte Verde São Vicente Cabo Verde trip travel hitchhiking

“I thought you wanted to hike it up?” says Jonas. “I thought I’d give it a try. I also didn’t know it would work out this well. Besides, why walk it if you can hitch it?” We hike a little further past the next turn. Jonas puts on his long-sleeved shirt, as it’s quite cold and windy up here. We see a cabin with a taxi in front of it. It’s next to two viewpoints on the map, and the building turns out to be a café. Before we celebrate with a coffee, we want to see how far we can get to the peak. So we walk past it towards the radars, the dishes, and the antenna’s that mark the military base.

Tour Guide in Uniform

We approach the base very slowly, giving people time to notice we’re here. Once we’re next to the walled-off complex, we see two men. Two dogs not on chains lie along the road, so we think this is how far we can get. Then one of the guys waves us to come in. So Jonas and I approach very slowly. The other guy commands the dog not to bark at us.

When we get closer, I see that the guy who waved us in wears a red beret and his uniform, face visible. The other guy wears a ski mask that only leaves the eyes and eyebrows uncovered. He looks friendly. He’s holding a rather large assault rifle in his hands, probably a Kalashnikov to my knowledge. At his feet, there are two puppies frolicking. It softens the whole situation.

The guy in the red beret tells us to come closer again and lowers the chain blocking a path next to the military base entrance. We follow him over it, as he leads us past some buildings to some edge. We admire the view and take some photos. The guy offers to take a photo of us together, so I hand him my camera. Now we have a picture of us together on a mountain top with Mindelo in the background to the west. Then he leads us to another point of the peak, from where you can see more in direction southwest. You can barely make out the shape of Monte Cara through the thick layers of dust.

Monte Verde peak mountain Cabo Verde Capo Verde Cape Verde Kaapverdië Kap Verde hitchhiking hiking rental car viewpoint Mindelo

Monte Verde Cabo Verde military base peak army beret uniform forces mountain hike tour

He says “Eu fico aqui” to us, which takes me some time to process, but then my hours and hours spend on Duolingo pay off; I translate to Jonas as “He’ll stay here”. The man repeats it back in English for confirmation and lets us walk back to the entrance alone. We thank the man for showing us around.

We hop back over the chain to the main road and start walking down. The guy in the ski mask is not around anymore, and neither are the puppies. The whole situation lasted only 10 minutes or so, and along with crashing a tour of the Paranal Observatory in Chile, this will go down as one of the coolest, most random and spontaneous tours I’ve done.

A Coffee Break

We walk back to the café a little further down. The little mountain hut has a sign on the outside saying Cabana de Chá do Monte Verde, a teahouse. An older guy seems to run the place, while a younger one – perhaps his son – helps out. Jonas orders two coffees, one with milk and one without, and we wait while the guy prepares the drinks and turns the milk powder into milk on a camping stove. We pay 200 CVE for the order and receive two snacks with it as well.

Cabana de chá do monte verde cabo mountain coffee café hiking peak relax view

An old wooden cable spool forms the tables outside. We pick the one in size Giant. Chopped up palm tree trunks form the chairs. Jonas identifies the snack as the fried dough type. We munch it with a great view and sheltered from the wind.

An aluguer drives up to the café, and two tourists get out. It seems to be a thing to hire a taxi driver for a day to drive people around. I hear them speak Dutch. By the time we finish our coffee and get up to leave, they get theirs. They sit down at the same spot. The woman asks me something in English, and I respond in Dutch. We get into a conversation.

She and her husband came back from neighboring island Santo Antão the day before. They’re on a two week holiday. She asks us what we’re doing, and I respond with “working and traveling”. She sometimes also works remotely, as she’s an online marketing person. I tell her that Jonas programs and I write. Now I’m stressed.

As there are no other cars, she asks if we got to the top on foot, and I say “by both hitchhiking and hiking”. We talk about how long we’re staying, and I say “eighty-eight days”, which takes a few tries for them to hear, because I speak silly Dutch and I’m stumbling over the throaty sounds. I kind of regret starting this conversation in Dutch. We say we’re going down and she asks if she’s supposed to offer us a lift down, and I say that this time, we’ll walk. We say goodbye and I stop tensing up.

Flora and Fauna of Monte Verde

Monte Verde means ‘green mountain’, but at this time of year, it’s not particularly green. On the way down, we took our time to look at the different types of plant species on the mountain. We encountered many types of succulents, including aloe vera and – I think – another type of aloe with a tree trunk. There were some lizards and many little purple butterflies. There was a lavender bush somewhere, and many stray tomato plants with tiny red tomatoes, which is probably an invasive/cultivated species. The plants were quite fascinating.

Flora fauna Cabo Verde Monte Verde aloe vera plant seed tree nature

wild lavender Cabo Verde Monte Verde flora fauna hiking

On the map, there’s a 200m long sidetrack that leads to a viewpoint. It was 13:00 and we decided to eat our sandwiches there. When we took the side track, I saw the taxi from the Dutch people roll down. From the viewpoint, we could see the asphalted coastal road between Baía das Gatas and Calhau. We’d driven that with our scooter as well, which was definitely a highlight of the day. Now, we could see the empty stretch of road, the coastal dunes, and the mountains breaking up the stretches. It wasn’t a bad spot to eat at.

São Vicente Baía das Gatas Calhau viewpoint hike Monte Verde peak hitchhiking beach mountain viewpoint

After this early lunch, we continued down the mountain. It continued to be really windy, which forced us to hold on to our hats every time we turned a corner. I turn my hat into the hardcore mode, which covers my face to protect it from dust. It was very nice that the hitch to the top of the mountain saved us so much time, energy and water. Only once another car passed us by, which either must have come from the military base, or driven up while we ate lunch out of sight.

When the road stopped zig-zagging and flattened out, the wind started blasting sand against our bare legs. There is a shortcut for pedestrians on my map, but the real-world option doesn’t look very nice to hike down. Besides, Jonas has a foot injury from a long hike in Santo Antão. So we vote against it and continue along the paved vehicle road.

From the road, we walk onto a side track to see if there’s a nice view southward. There isn’t, but we see the familiar inland road that goes between Madeiral and Mindelo. Jonas points out a building and says “Look, another prison”, but I think it’s the water park Aqua Fun that we’d seen a couple of weeks earlier. We’re still not sure.

The Hitch Back to Mindelo, also Two Guys

We arrive at the main road where we started. Jonas sits on a little wall on the side of the road. There is no traffic in sight. We discuss our plan of action: we try to take any vehicle that’s not a taxi the 6km back to Mindelo. I’m about to take off my Dakar-rally hat so I don’t look like a creep, when a light blue rental vehicle shoots around the turn. I’m still strangling myself with my hat as I lift up my thumb. The car stops.

Monte Verde Cabo Verde cape hat dakar rally windy dusty sun protection hiking hitchhiking sunglasses peak mountain

The window rolls down, and it’s obvious where we’re all going: the unavoidable Mindelo. We get into the car and introduce ourselves. The driver’s name is again Jorge, and the passenger is Lloyd – at least that’s what I understand. They’re Portuguese nationals and are staying south of the airport in São Pedro. They’re here for one month, for work. Something like a building project of a hotel or resort. They ask where we’re going, and I say “Bôte… Ribeira?” and Lloyd responds with “Ah, Ribeira Bôte!” Jonas looks at me weirdly, so I tell him that’s the name of the area/neighborhood where we’re staying inside Mindelo.

We wait again at the same construction site as before. This time, the traffic light seems to be working. Within 10 minutes we’re in Mindelo. The guys drop us off near the roundabout. We thank them for the ride and say goodbye. It’s a short walk to our apartment, but we first make a trip to the supermarket for some cold beverages. We’re back inside our home at 14:20. We agree that that was a very pleasant and cost-effective day trip.

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