Guide to SAL – from Salt Mine to Ocean Paradise

The island of Sal and the beach of Santa Maria have the reputation of being super-touristy and overcrowded. While they certainly have more tourist infrastructure than other Cape Verdean islands – which tend to have close to none at all – it can be quite comfortable having some perks.

Boys playing soccer on the beach of Santa Maria on the island of Sal, Cape Verde
Some local guys playing soccer, since in Santa Maria the beach is by far not only frequented by tourists.

Would I spend an entire trip to Cape Verde at a hotel on Sal? No! Would I skip the island altogether? Neither – since there are some nice places to visit. And the beach is simply a dream made of sand, anyway.

Sal was supposed to be the last stop. After weeks of real Cape Verdean life, I didn’t really look forward to going there. I was told it was far too touristy and spoiled.

But no, it’s not bad at all. On the contrary.

A beach on Sal, an island that made it from Salt Mine to Ocean Paradise
The beach at Santa Maria – a dream within a dream – and definitely not crowded.

Of course, there are – just like on Boa Vista – a couple of these all-inclusive fortresses, but their guests hardly ever leave these places so the rest of the beaches remains undisturbed.

Compared to the other Cape Verdean islands, Sal is touristy, compared to other tourist destinations, it’s very moderate and relaxed.

Santa Maria

Santa Maria is the main tourist spot on Sal. The town and its surroundings are actually quite pleasant with many bars, restaurants, and shops.

Cute little streets at Santa Maria, on Sal, an island that made it from Salt Mine to Ocean Paradise
Cute little streets at Santa Maria.

Even though there are some big hotels further down the beach and some smaller guesthouses around the center, the African everyday life continues pretty much undisturbed.

Many of the hawkers and vendors coming from the African mainland. Compared to Cape Verdeans, they tend to be a bit pushy and rude. They import and sell handcraft from their home countries, mostly Senegal and Mali.

View of Santa Maria from the beach on Sal, an island that made it from Salt Mine to Ocean Paradise
View of Santa Maria from the beach.

Santa Maria’s strongest suit is undisputably the endless, clean beach. You can go snorkeling or windsurfing. Or you can spend lazy days reading or watching the clouds move by.

If you decide to move, you can take a local minibus and take a trip to the island’s capital Espargos. Now this place is completely untouched by tourism. Despite the international airport south of the city center.

School's out at Espargos.
School’s out at Espargos.

Island Tour

Yes, the beach is glorious, the sand golden and the water cool and you don’t want to abandon it for one minute. I totally understand, however, the island of Sal is far too varied, interesting, and beautiful to get to see only Santa Maria.

So do yourself a big favor and go on a tour – organized is fine since the groups are going in jeeps, hence remain small. I assume most tourists go on tours organized by their hotels so that local operators get the smaller groups.

Stepping on the Steppe

These unusual flowerpots are marking the premises of the Atelier Bar Mirage, probably the only spot where you can stock up on drinks in this otherwise quite inhospitable place – and they sell local handcraft, too.
On the horizon, by the way, you can spot the Monte Curral.

A very kind, knowledgable guide who spoke excellent English took us first to the desert region behind Espargos and from there to Terra Boa where we actually witnessed a Fata Morgana – totally fascinating.

An Ouril Game
This is the Ouril game that I’d bought at the Atelier Bar Mirage. In Cape Verde, this game is traditionally played by men. It consists of a hand-carved board which also serves as a storage box for the seeds that are known as ouris, because they are picked from the ourinzeira shrubs.
A Fata Morgana on the Island of Sal, an island that made it from Salt Mine to Ocean Paradise
I was so pessimistic since usually, I don’t see phenomenons everybody around me is awing at. But the fata morgana effect is so strong that I was even able to capture it: There is no water in the backdrop – it looks exactly like the gravel desert in the front.

Rough Waters

The next stop is the  Olho Azul – which translates to the blue eye – on the coast of Buracona. When the sun stands in a certain angle – which is around noon – the water in a small lava crater literally shines in an almost phosphorizing blue.

Next to it, you can take a refreshing dip in the lava pools. Our group couldn’t since the waves were so high and would have smashed us against the rough stones – ouchie!

Coast of Buracona
The rocky coast of Buracona: Beautiful, but dangerous.

After a stroll through the picturesque, authentic fishing town of Palmeira – however, Cape Verde’s third busiest freight port – we finished our trip at the famous highlight, the salt mine Pedra de Lume.

Boats on the Island of Sal
Definitely a port – and even the third largest.
School Kids on the Island of Sal
Hi, everyone! School’s out in Palmeira.

Salt – the Name-Giver

Pedra de Lume was founded in 1796 when the exploitation of the salt ponds began. Eventually, in the early 19th century, they added a tunnel to the salt ponds.
Salt production flourished until the main importer Brazil imposed a ban on imported salt end of the 19th century.

The current production is small and mainly goes into beauty and therapeutical products and thalassotherapy. You can buy all the products on the spot, as well as pure or mixed salt for your cooking.

And – great fun! – you have the opportunity to float in designated pools. The salinity is higher than in the Dead Sea, you cannot drown!

The Old Salt Mine of Pedra de Lume.
The benefits from the salt – to be experienced at the old salt mine of Pedra de Lume.  

Practical Information

How to Get There

Since Sal is Cape Verde’s most touristy island, there are many international charter flights as well as domestic flights coming into the Amílcar Cabral International Airport, Cape Verde’s main international airport.

The airport is located about 18 kilometers north of Santa Maria. Unfortunately, there is no scheduled public transport so that you have to take a cab or – if you don’t have too much luggage – an aluguer, a shared cab.

How to Get Around

Once in Cape Verde, if you want to visit other islands, the most convenient way to travel is, obviously, flying. At this moment, the best option seems to be going by Binter, a Spanish airline serving mainly the Canary Islands, but also other destination in that region, i. e. also North and Northwest Africa.

However, there are also ferries and catamarans and also organized day trips – albeit, they are crazy expensive.

Sal has a good public minibusses system, however, you should inquire for the last bus back.

Where to sleep

There are many different hotel options around Santa Maria and many Britons even own condominiums in touristy communities.
Since I knew that I wouldn’t spend much time in my room and I’m a bit cheap when it comes to hotel rooms, I booked myself into the Hotel Pontao at the town entrance.

Beach of Santa Maria on Sal
Cross the street, walk five minutes and…..this beach is yours.

The rooms are okay, they even have a pool, and the staff is really lovely and helpful.
You’re not on the beach, but you’ll get there in under five minutes. In another five you’ll get to all the points of interest such as bars, restaurants, and shops.
So if you’re looking for an unspectacular clean and comfortable room to rest between days on the beach and trips across the island, that’s the place for you.

Get more details, check out availability and the rates at the Hotel Pontao *

Where to eat

There are many restaurants catering mainly to foreign tourists. A rather authentic place in a great setting – overlooking the beach – is Restaurant D’Angela. Here you can enjoy fresh seafood as well as other Cape Verdean dishes.

Restaurant d’Angela
R. 15 Agosto
Phone:  + 238 – 242 13 62

They are open every day from 10:30 a. m. to 11: 30 p. m.

Money

Another remnant from the Portuguese colonial times is the name of the local currency. Just like in Portugal until the installment of the €uro, it is called Escudo respectively Escudo de Cabo Verde, abbreviated CVE. For 1 US$ you get 100,01 CVE, for a €uro 110,27 CVE (as per January 2020). You can check the current rate here.

Bills from Cape Verde
They don’t have only one of the most beautiful countries, they also have the most beautiful money, decorated with poems by local poet and musician Eugénio Tavares – and his portrait on the other side.

Credit cards are not as widely accepted as e. g. in Europe or Asia, even some small guest houses do take only cash. Some businesses add a small percentage if you pay by credit card – which can become a quite high amount if you pay for instance for a couple of nights at a hotel.

There are ATMs on the Island of Sal so that you won’t have a problem getting cash.

Some businesses even accept €uros. Since I didn’t do it, I cannot tell you if you pay a hidden surcharge.

Language

As Cape Verde used to be a Portuguese colony, the official language is Portuguese, but people speak krioulo. This is a local patois and, like many dialects, differs a tiny bit even from island to island.

People do speak some English and French. However, it is certainly helpful to have some basic knowledge of the local language.

Before my trip, I’d practiced using babbel. The first lesson is free and supplies you with the most important words to interact with people.

Do you want to read about all the other beautiful islands I’ve visited in Cape Verde? Then go to the main post and take your pick!

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