The island country of Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean is probably best known to tourists as a package holiday destination.
Holiday brochure photos of Cape Verde nearly always show sandy beaches, tropical climate and large resorts.
However, if you are looking for an uncrowded destination for your next trip, then a visit to tranquil São Nicolau in Cape Verde, could be for you.
Visiting São Nicolau Cape Verde
São Nicolau is located between the major islands of Sal and Sao Vicente, part of the Cape Verde archipelago.
These 10 archipelago islands are located about 300 miles from Africa’s west coast.
Rustic and peaceful São Nicolau often gets overlooked when visitors come to Cape Verde.
If you are a fan of under the radar destinations, there are actually many reasons to visit São Nicolau.
Here you’ll find pine forests, volcanic landscapes, dragon trees, beautiful national parks and incredible trekking opportunities.
Things to do in São Nicolau Cape Verde
The island is still relatively untouched by tourism, as a result, the island has maintained much of its cultural and natural heritage. Few people speak English here, which only adds to its rural charm.
Despite its unspoilt surroundings, there are still lots of things to do in São Nicolau.
Activities include hiking, visiting colourful villages, swimming in lagoons and trying traditional food.
I would really recommend buying a Cape Verde guide book to help make the most out of your trip.
By buying a decent guide book, you’ll have access to well-researched travel information and in-depth history and cultural sections.
Inspired to visit Cape Verde? Check out my guide to reasons to visit São Nicolau Cape Verde and get ready to book your trip.
Explore Ribeira Brava
The island’s colourful capital has largely managed to stay off the tourist path.
You won’t find a Starbucks here, just small guest houses, markets and local shops.
Wander the cobbled streets of Ribeira Brava to discover pastel-coloured buildings, gardens, pretty churches and colonial guest houses.
This rustic town is located in between two mountains and is a brilliant base from which to explore the surrounding national parks and hiking trails.
There are a few small shops and cafes where you can buy local produce and feast upon Cape Verde delicacies.
After wandering around for a few hours I found a small indoor market that was selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
There was also a retro coffee stand selling incredible coffee and small ‘pastel’ snacks for around 30p!
Climb Monte Gordo, Cachaço
If you are after a challenging hike, I would recommend climbing Mount Monte Gordo.
This mountain is actually an inactive volcano and has a height of more than 1,300 meters.
It’s located in the picturesque Monte Gordo national park and is one of the more challenging hiking treks in Cape Verde.
I would recommend booking a Monte Gordo Guided Hiking Tour if you want to explore the mountain with an experienced guide.
That way you’ll have a local and knowledgeable guide providing directions and navigating the trails, as well as talking about the native flora and fauna.
A great way to finish the hike is walk back down through the stunning mountain ridge and end at the village of Praia Branca.
Mount Monte Gorde trail
The Mount Gordo trek starts at about 600 meters altitude in Cachaço, located at the entrance of the Monte Gordo Natural Park.
This awe-inspiring trek trail takes you through lush vegetation, remote mountain villages, down steep, winding paths and past a magnificent ocean backdrop.
The most popular walk goest to the top of the mountain. The trek starts from the entrance of the park, Cachaço and goes up steadily from there.
On the top of Monte Gordo, you will have an incredible view over Sao Nicolau.
If you love travel photography, be sure to pack a camera or a GoPro for this trek. You’ll get the most beautiful shots.
Swim in Juncalinho Lagoon
Definitely one of the best things to do in São Nicolau is to swim in the turquoise waters of the Juncalinho lagoon.
This natural basalt tidal pool is where you can swim in crystal clear waters, as waves break dramatically over the rocks.
The best time to swim in the pools is when the waters are calm, as the tide can come crashing over the rocks.
You need to be cautious when swimming here, the area is beautiful but the swells can get very choppy.
Getting to the Juncalinho Pools
The Juncalinho pools are around 30 minutes drive from Ribeira Brava and can be a little tricky to get to.
The easiest way to visit is to book a guided day tour to see the highlights of São Nicolau, including this aqua blue lagoon.
On a fully guided tour, you can see a fishermen’s village, visit beaches and go swimming in the natural tidal pools.
All your transport will be taken care of and you won’t have to worry about any details.
Visit the Carbeirinho rock formation
The unique coastal landscape of Carbeirinho is one of the best things to see in São Nicolau.
The limestone cave and rocks have been beautifully carved by the wind and the sea.
This area has an ‘otherworldly’ feel to it and resembles a lunar landscape with its rich colour palette.
Carbeirinho is located north of Tarrafal and is a great play for a day hike and picnic in São Nicolau.
It can be tricky to get to, so you can either book a guided tour, or speak to your hotel/guest house about organising transportation to Carbeirinho.
Find untouched beaches
To be honest, São Nicolau is probably not the best place for a beach holiday in Cape Verde.
Whilst the coastal areas are ruggedly beautiful, they can be difficult to access and the swells can be dangerous.
There are a few beaches in São Nicolau where you can swim and sunbath though.
Tarrafal is one of the few places on the island where the beach is accessible for swimming.
São Nicolau beaches
This coastal town is close to the ocean and has lots of beaches to choose from. There are also several black sand beaches, which are brilliant to photograph.
There are also several guesthouses and little bars and restaurants in Tarrafal, so it’s a great base for exploring São Nicolau.
If you are looking for unspoilt, white sand beaches then around 5km south of Tarrafal is the isolated beach, Baixo da Rocha.
This is a pristine white sand beach that can only be reached by footpath or by hiring a truck driver.
Because this scenic beach difficult to access, few people come here, so it’s really clean and quiet.
Discover São Nicolau hiking trails
One of the main reasons to visit São Nicolau is for the unspoilt and untouched hiking trails around the Island.
The island is still very much off the tourist trail but various organisations are working hard to promote the island as a top hiking destination.
The main hiking route in São Nicolau is almost 70 km long and is divided into five sectors, each having different hiking distances and difficulty.
The trails are maintained by locals and volunteers and cover a diverse range of landscapes and villages.
The landscapes in São Nicolau are very diverse and unique due to the differences in climate. In the north and northwest of the national park, it is very dry and dusty.
In the south and southeast, there are lush, wet areas. This means on longer hikes the landscape can change dramatically with each passing mile.
Where to hike in São Nicolau
Hiking in São Nicolau is a really peaceful experience. The island is off the tourist trail, so the hiking routes aren’t filled with selfie-taking tourists.
When I hiked through the national park, we didn’t see anyone else on our full-day hike.
It was great to have the trails to ourselves and have an uninterrupted connection to nature.
If you are a keen hiker who loves unspoilt trails, I would urge you to visit this quiet island for tough treks in beautiful surroundings.
Hiking tour São Nicolau
Hiking highlights in São Nicolau include dormant volcanoes, glorious coastal routes, the green Fajã Valley and lava carved plains around Mount Bissau.
Guided hiking tour
If you enjoy a hiking challenge, I recommend hiking in the Natural Park of Monte Gordo.
It’s a part of the National Network of Protected Areas and covers an area of approximately 952 hectares.
I would recommend booking a Guided Hiking Tour of São Nicolau if you haven’t hiked in Cape Verde before.
That way an experienced, local guide can show you all the highlights and you won’t have to worry about the details.
Visit Preguica fishing village
If you want to get an insight into the fishing culture of São Nicolau, then take a trip to the fishing village of Preguçia.
In earlier times, this small village was a trade harbour and a major whaling station.
It was also one of the first settlements in São Nicolau. Take a walk around and you’ll discover fragments of history with a few cannons and defence walls.
The town is on the very edge of the coastline and has a very rustic and tranquil feel to it.
You can watch the brightly coloured fishing boats bob in the water and reel in fresh catches.
We went as part of a guided tour and we spoke to the villagers and also asked if we could take photos.
This is always a really important aspect of travel photography when on the road.
Many cultures, like the Berber people in Morocco, don’t actually like having their photo taken. So you should always ask for permission when photographing people, it’s respectful after all.
Taste traditional Cape Verde cuisine
I’ll be completely honest, whilst the gastronomy of São Nicolau is full of fresh produce, it’s not my favourite cuisine.
It’s not that the food is bad, I just wouldn’t describe Cape Verde as a particular ‘foodie destination’. That’s just my personal take on it though.
Cape Verde is a West African cuisine largely influenced by Portuguese, Southern and Western European.
Like Aruba, the island has a mix of local and colonial flavours and traditions.
What to eat in São Nicolau
One of the speciality dishes in São Nicolau is ‘Modje São Nicolau’ which is a meat dish with goat and vegetables and green banana.
Fish and seafood is a staple in the island’s local cuisine, so whenever you eat a fish dish, you know you are eating a fresh and local catch.
Other typical dishes and foods that you can find on the island include:
- Caldo de Peixe
- Steamed Lobster
- Farinha de Pau
- Tuna Tartar
There’s a good variety of small cafes and restaurants and they are all great value, but there is not a huge menu selection.
Basically, whatever fish has been caught that day will be the only fish available in every restaurant.
Attend a Cape Verde trekking festival
If you are a keen hiker, I would recommend attending the Meetup Trekking Festival in São Nicolau.
It’s an annual hiking event held every November in São Nicolau. The purpose of the event is to promote the island’s potential for trekking development.
You can book a brilliant package to attend the festival through One Foot Abroad, the walking holiday experts.
This fantastic hiking event experience allows you to the island’s network of walking trails and paths with locals and volunteers. Many of the treks centre around the beautiful Monte Gordo Natural Park.
São Nicolau hiking trails offered at this event include:
- Ribeira de Calhaus – Hortelã – Tarrafal
- Belém -Morro Alto-Porto da Lapa
- Belém- Morro Alto –Juncalinho
- Vila – Monte Cintinha – PNMG – Canto de Fajã
In addition to hiking, the festival program includes cultural and recreational activities and thematic workshops with national and international experts.
Where to stay in São Nicolau Cape Verde
Hotels and guest houses in São Nicolau tend to be small, family-run businesses.
Unlike the large resorts in Sal, accommodation is a lot more rustic on this quiet, untouristy Island.
Guesthouses are cheap and cheerful here and offer great value for money for visitors.
Some of the best places to stay in São Nicolau include:
How to get to São Nicolau Cape Verde
There are no international flights to São Nicolau Cape Verde, but the island can be reached by plane from other Cape Verde islands.
Fly with TAP airlines from Lisbon to Praia (Santiago, Cabo Verde) and then with Cape Verde Airlines, who operate flights from Lisbon to the island of Sal.
From Sal, you can then take a connecting flight to São Nicolau Preguiça Airport.
You can compare and book flights with lights with Expedia. Search for discounted flight tickets from over 400 standard and budget airlines.
If you are after a package holiday, I recommend booking a Cape Verde holiday with On the Beach. You can get a fantastic deal when you book online and have all the stress taken out of travel planning.
Airport Parking and lounges
Save money on your Cape Verde trip by booking your airport parking in advance. You can find great airport parking deals online with Holiday Extras.
Get up to 70% off airport parking when you book in advance online. Keep your car secure and safe whilst you are on your holidays in an official airport car park.
You could also park your car at the airport with Car & Away. It’s the first person to person car-sharing service that matches car renters to car owners in a very simple and transparent way.
The service gives airport parking customers the opportunity to ‘rent and earn’ whilst on holiday. It’s a unique way to save money for travel, that’s for sure.
Why not spoil yourself with airport lounge access before your flight? Lounges don’t have to be super expensive, book online with Holiday Extras to save money on your lounge splurge.
Travel Insurance São Nicolau
You can get travel insurance for durations of 1 week to a year with World Nomads.
Their cover includes a huge amount of eventualities and medical support should you get sick on your travels.
Why risk travelling without insurance when you can get peace of mind at a reasonable cost?
Those medical bills abroad can add up significantly guys, make sure to cover yourself for those travel fails.
Practical Information São Nicolau
- Capital – Ribeira Brava
- Language – Portuguese, Creole
- Currency – Cabo Verdean Escudo (CVE)
- Drink only bottled water or use a Filter Water Bottle
- Visa on arrival, EU & UK exempt from visas for stays up to 30 days
- Get comprehensive travel insurance
- Take a travel first aid kit
Planning your trip to Cape Verde
Ready to book your trip to Cape Verde? Use these awesome travel resources to get you started:
- Search for the best flight deals with Skyscanner
- Search for the best hotel deals on HotelsCombined
- Get the best travel tips with a travel guidebook
- Book an Airbnb and have £25 towards your first booking
- Get the best destination recommendations from TripAdvisor
Check out all the best travel resources on my bumper travel resources page!
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