Cha das Caldeiras, Fogo, Cape Verde
UPDATE 2018: good news! Despite all the destruction four years ago, this place is back in business, on a somewhat smaller scale perhaps, but still. The guest house I stayed in is back, and from there volcano climbing tours are again organized. Even wine-making may resume. The place is now even more remote and desolate than in the outdated description below. In fact, the guest house I used (now bearing the name “Casa Marisa 2.0”) has been rebuilt on top of the 2014 lava flow, and this still is warm (so it can get stuffy inside the rooms). But still, it's good to learn that this exotic destination can be visited again … and I presume from a dark-tourism perspective it now has even more of an allure, as you can see the ruins of the old village and trail of destruction caused by this most recent eruption.
UPDATE 2015: the worst has happened - lava flows from the latest eruption of the volcano have completely destroyed the villages of Cha das Caldeiras, including the brand new visitor centre, the wine co-operative and all places that used to offer accommodation to visitors. The former inhabitants have been resettled, their livelihood crushed by nature's forces. It's obviously a great tragedy especially for them. It also looks like tourism inside the caldera is over for now, certainly in the form it used to have and that is described in the chapter below. Whether it will be rebuilt remains questionable. I will make enquiries. For now, read the chapter below as history. It will have to be substantially updated at some point ...
UPDATE 24 November 2014: the volcano is active again! It started Saturday 22 with earthquakes and ash plumes. Fogo's airport was closed. The eruption then assumed proportions at least as great as the latest previous eruption in April 1995. The inhabitants of Cha das Caldeiras are being evacuated. Lava fountains from two fissures at the older cinder cone started ejecting lava; a new lava flow has already cut off the only road through the caldera and apparently also destroyed some buildings.
Obviously enough, tourism is suspended for the time being. We'll have to see how things develop. Let's hope business can return to normal once the volcano quietens down again, hopefully without causing too much destruction in the meantime.
A huge caldera that is home to a fantastically surreal volcanic moonscape of lava flows, cinder cones, fields of ash and in the middle of it the mighty Pico de Fogo, one of the world's most perfectly cone-shaped volcanoes. Also right inside the caldera is one of the most precariously located communities you could imagine: a village living off farming the volcanic soil (wine especially) as well as off tourism. It's easily the most extreme and exotic place in the entire Cape Verde
archipelago. And with a buried village in the lava flow to boot it also qualifies as a suitable dark
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
All the islands of Cape Verde
are volcanic in origin – created by a hot spot in the Earth's crust near the Mid-Atlantic
ridge (along which are dotted other volcanic islands including Tristan da Cunha
, St Helena
, the Azores and Iceland
). The geologically older Cape Verdean islands, such as beachy Sal and Boa Vista, have eroded into flat sandy deserts since their creation, while the "middle-aged" islands, including the main one, Santiago, still show plenty of craggy mountainous evidence of their volcanic origin, though they no longer have any active volcanism.
Fogo is the youngest of these islands and the location of the current hot spot, i.e. it is
still an active volcano. It rose from the sea no more than a few hundred thousand years ago (i.e. basically "only yesterday" in geological time-scale terms). At some point a large part of its peak collapsed and partly slid into the sea leaving today's half-open caldera with its crescent of towering sheer cliffs of rock. Inside the caldera the current main cone gradually rose to its present height of nearly 3000m (9000 feet) – by far the highest point for thousands of miles around and after Tenerife's Teide (also a volcano) the highest point in the entire Atlantic and
The caldera is massive, some 5 miles (9 km) in diameter. The former crater walls rising to its north- to south-eastern side are almost as high as the Pico, i.e. towering some 1000m (3000 feet) above the caldera's floor, which sits at ca. 1700m above sea level. The Pico, a stratovolcano which features a ca. 500m wide and 150m deep summit crater, hasn't erupted in over two centuries, but the caldera is dotted with several secondary cinder cones from more recent eruptions. That's what "Cha das Caldeiras" means, in fact: 'field of craters'. Fogo, in turn, translates as 'fire' – an apt name chosen instead of the original Sao Filipe (now the island's main town's name) after the most violent eruptions of the 17th century, when even ships used the fiery mountain as a kind of lighthouse for navigation.
Fogo was one of earliest Cape Verdean islands discovered by the Portuguese explorers and was already settled by the late 15th century – thanks to the fertile volcanic soil. Large-scale eruptive phases in the late 17th and 18th century caused devastation and subsequent evacuation and emigration. At one point there was even a prison here for exiled convicts, as part of desperate attempts at repopulating the island.
And the volcano hasn't sat still in the 20th century either. A massive eruption in 1951 left a lava flow that breached the caldera on its southern side (still very well visible). The latest dramatic eruption occurred as recent as in 1995, lasted over a month ejecting lava bombs the size of houses, an ash plume several miles high into the sky and spewing out millions of cubic metres of lava every day. These lava flows destroyed significant parts of the settlements and agriculture within the caldera, but without breaching it … because, unusually, the lava flow took a westerly direction this time, i.e. towards the old caldera walls where the lava pooled and cooled. In the process, the lava almost completely buried the village of Boca Fonte (see below). Luckily, nobody was hurt, however. (In fact the only lives the volcano ever claimed fell victim to accompanying earthquakes, namely in the mid-18th century, rather than to any of the violent eruptions themselves.)
Amazingly, the people again returned to the caldera to resume their extraordinary lives inside the volcano only shortly after the 1995 eruptions. The road through the caldera was rebuilt (now dissecting the 1995 lava flow), new housing erected and agriculture, i.e. especially wine-growing resumed.
The people living here are famously distinct from other Cape Verdeans – also Creoles but with fairer skin and sometimes even blond(ish) hair and blue eyes. That's allegedly thanks to a French duke of the 19th century who not only brought viniculture to the island when he settled here but was also of a rather "fertile" type himself. A large proportion of the inhabitants of Cha can trace their ancestry to this Frenchman. Maybe that's why I found so many French tourists seemingly feeling very much at home here too …
The community living here has grown substantially over the last decade or so, partly due to the increase in tourism. This brought with it a somewhat wider range of accommodation options and other infrastructure for visitors. It has to be remembered, though, that this is a very fragile ecology and economy Water and electricity are extremely scarce and valuable commodities up here. Water has to be carted in from far away or collected in rainwater cisterns, and the only electricity there is comes from generators and solar panels. Using both water and electricity as sparingly as possible is thus part of the responsibility of any visitor to this place as well.
What there is to see: Even if you have no more than at best a passing interest in volcanology, the Fogo caldera is absolutely fascinating. It's a totally otherworldly wasteland that is mostly black, with reds and browns and greys thrown in. It's easy to estimate the age of the various lava flows: the rule of thumb is: the blacker, the younger … and there is an awful lot of black about here!
In between the lava flows and moonscape-like fields covered in lapilli (fine, black, volcanic gravel) several cinder and spatter cones stand out, including the most recent one dating from the 1995 fissure eruption (see background info
). Towering over all of this is the mighty cone of the Pico de Fogo.
The Pico is a picture-book, steep-sided stratovolcano of a deep reddish brown hue standing high within the huge caldera. It reaches a height exceeding that of the massive 1000m caldera walls to the south, east and north. Yet, when you are on Fogo outside the caldera, you can't even see the Pico … That's because the whole island is one massive volcano and the caldera only the collapsed older peak, much of which slid eastwards into the sea in prehistoric times.
You are most likely to arrive on Fogo by plane at the island's main town of Sao Filipe
's third largest settlement), and if the weather is right and you sit on the right-hand side of the plane you can get an impressive aerial view of the volcano. But once on land you can only see the caldera rim in the distance, not the Pico.
You'll approach the caldera by means of a long and winding mountain road, gradually climbing to almost 2000m (6000 feet), above sea level. The middle part, where the road turns north shortly after passing through Monte Largo, consists of a long series of breathtaking hairpin switchbacks, running partly along threatening-looking lava flows (from 1951). Downhill you can make out older, historic cinder cones, now used for agriculture.
Then you turn a corner and suddenly there it is in front of you: the mighty Pico de Fogo. It is indeed an immensely impressive first sight to behold in the caldera. Some hasty day trips don't go much further than this, but if (hopefully) you're on a longer itinerary, the car/minibus will proceed through the rebuilt road that goes straight across the caldera's floor, passing huge eerie lava flows.
Eventually you will come to the twin settlements inside the Cha das Caldeiras, called Portela and Bangaeira, respectively. The former is the "upper" village, the latter the "lower" and more northward one, closer to the end of the road. The distance between them is merely a hundred yards or so, though. So they are practically one village.
Most accommodation, shops, bars etc. as well as the agricultural "Cooperativa" are located in Portela, which is thus the somewhat "livelier" part of the Cha community – though I'm using the word "lively" very carefully here. It is really a very sleepy, very remote place. It feels quiet and almost desolate here – apart from the kids frolicking along the sides of the road (eager to engage with visitors … sometimes just short of begging).
UPDATE: note that this information is now outdated. The villages were destroyed by lava flows in 2014; but a few businesses have since been re-built. So the place can be visited again. It'll just be very different now ...
But that's part of the reason for coming here – feeling the isolation and unusualness of life inside a volcanic caldera. The other main reason is of course exploring the volcanic scenery on foot:
The one hike that has to be recommended primarily to dark tourists is that to the buried village of Boca Fonte – or what's left of it (not much). To get there from the settlement take the track branching off to the right near the south-western end of Portela where the road across the caldera starts going south in a more or less straight line. While the road passes the 1995 lava flow to its east, the track you are after follows the edge of the flow along its western side. First you walk over older layers of crazily warped 'pahoehoe' lava (the wrinkly type that looks like solidified skin scraped off cocoa). Soon you will be alongside the crumbly mass of the 1995 lava flow that has the form of 'a'a' lava – i.e. a messy tumble of blocks of porous lava.
The layer is at least as high as the typical single-storey houses here, so you have to begin to wonder how anything of the old Boca Fonte village could possibly still be sticking out of this mass of rocky lava. Right on the edge of it you pass a few orchards and newer huts built after 1995. Then after about 2000 yards (2 km) you can see on your right the ruin of the colonnaded front facade to a former wine co-operative, directly adjacent to the edge of the lava flow. Had the lava progressed a single yard further, it would have swallowed this gate too. As it is it remains standing as a stark reminder of the forces of the volcano and how they keep posing a threat to this little agricultural community.
The directions in my guidebook (Bradt) then claimed that one had to proceed another 100 yards or so and then climb up the lava flow and into it in order to see a ruined house marooned in the lava. However: I found it impossible to climb the steep crumbly edge of the flow. You simply can't get a foothold – wherever you step, the crumbly lava immediately collapses under your feet and you slide down to where you started out. I did have good sturdy hiking boots, fairly tough clothes and was wearing gardening gloves on my hands in order to be able to grab hold of the sharp lava blocks. But still I eventually had to give up. So I can't say whether that house ruin would have been visible from the top of the lava flow here. Searching beyond the point specified in the directions on satellite images (e.g. Google Earth), I also failed to make out anything remotely house-shaped in the dark lava mass.
However, I continued along the track further south and suddenly the crumbly mass of a'a lava gave way to a more pahoehoe-lava-like flow (which must have stemmed from a different phase of the eruption – which had gone through all manner of lava types as it progressed). This was now fairly easy to climb. And here I could indeed make out what looked like house ruins just a hundred yards or so further into the flow. I couldn't get close enough to it, though; so instead I took some long lens zoom shots with my camera. But looking at the pictures now I'm not sure if these were indeed old houses in ruins or rather rough shed-like new ones built on top of the lava flow after the event. Such constructions are very common here – parts of the more accessible lava flows are dotted with little sheds, houses, goat pens, etc. Looking again at satellite images of the area in question it does look a bit like ruins to me, but … I really can't be sure.
Anyway, it was cool to walk along this evidently destructive lava flow and to be walking on top of the pahoehoe lava … which here felt much more porous and covered in an ash-like top layer, which crunched under foot with every step, compared to the totally rock-hard older pahoehoe encountered earlier. This lava flow also showed deep cracks (so I had to watch my step carefully) and in places it appeared to have collapsed where lava caves had given way. So it was better to leave it and get back on the regular track.
In sum then: OK, you don't get much in the way of what clearly are relics of the buried village (not like you do in, say, the "modern-day" Pompeii
sites of Plymouth on Montserrat
or in Heimaey
). But still, it adds a dark edge to the already otherworldly and somewhat threatening-looking general scenery. By the way, continuing along the track south would take you right to the wine-growing slopes – which look truly bizarre too: the vines are planted in little hollows in the black flanks of an old cinder cone which thus looks like it's perforated with green holes! That's something different from your ordinary vineyard!
This Boca Fonte hike and back covers some 4 miles (6 km) and takes a good two hours (including a bit of clambering about). It would take much longer if you were to continue on the track and come back from behind the other side of the 1995 lava flows on the main road to make it a circular route. As it was getting late I found I had to turn back and walk the way I had come from to make sure I'd get back to Portela before sunset. You really do not want to find yourself stranded in this black landscape when the night makes it even blacker! Maybe I should have hired a guide – and I did contemplate this. However, the information office in Portela was closed that day, so it would have been tricky to find one.
Another walking option is the fairly easy hike to the 1995 cinder cone
, which is an easy climb of only 130m (450 feet) or so. That was the second hike I attempted in my short time on Fogo. But I was unlucky again. This time I was prevented from reaching my goal by the strong winds that were blowing dust down the Pico de Fogo's south-western flanks and right over the 1995 cone. It would have ruined my camera gear stepping right into those blowing clouds of ash. So I gave up on the last stretch. (I know that volcanic ash is absolute poison for cameras from the one I ruined on Montserrat
– that was warning enough; I wasn't keen on a repeat experience of this.)
Never mind – it was cool enough just walking around in this volcanic wonderland and taking in the views, both wide and in detail. For instance I was surprised to find tomatoes growing on scrawny little plants right in the volcanic soil. There are also stunningly bright red flower-like plants growing against the black. Much less enchanting was the sight of quite a lot of random rubbish: machine parts, or heaps of empty glass bottles, simply dumped in the lava fields. It seems that it's still a very tall order to get people here to understand things like recycling or a general concern about the environment … same as in mainland Africa (cf. Senegal
The top hike, literally as well as in popular demand and in how demanding it is as such, is of course the ascent to the summit of the Pico de Fogo. Now, make no mistake: this is not just hiking, it's serious mountaineering. You need to be physically fit for this and have the stamina for the difficult climb on treacherously loose lapilli on a slope almost 40 degrees steep. You have to a have a mountain guide for attempting this! And unless you have a private guide just for yourself there's no option of turning back, as you need the guide for the descent more than for the climb up! Going down on the loose soil is especially tricky, so many climbers simply slide down. To make it more graceful – and more sporty – there's the option of taking snowboards along and "snowboarding" down the ash slopes of the volcano part way down. Such activities are more in the category of adventure tourism – and I cannot report first-hand on this, as I did not attempt this myself. It is regarded as a stunning highlight of coming to Fogo, though. The ascent is said to take between 3 and 6 hours, while coming (sliding) down only takes 1½ hours or so. The regular route up is from the north of the volcano from a track leading eastwards out of Portela. But your guide will show you the way anyway. They tend to start very early, usually at the crack of dawn.
Other hikes include even more difficult mountaineering on/inside the almost vertical cliffs of the caldera rim (the "Bordeira"); somewhat easier options include hikes north and beyond the caldera to the village of Mosteiros (which can serve as an alternative base for caldera hikes). Some lava caves have also been made accessible to climbers.
It's not all about hiking though. An unmissable part of coming to this forlorn place is sampling the unique produce made here, and that means first and foremost tasting Fogo wine. It is indeed a very unique experience sipping this potent tipple, maybe accompanied by a bit of local cheese, whilst watching the sunset turning the backdrop of the Pico de Fogo first into deep reds and then into pitch black. Magical.
in the south of the Cape Verde
archipelago some 30 miles (50 km) west of the main island Santiago, and less than 10 miles from its western neighbour Brava.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: remote but possible to get to without much complication, not necessarily cheap.
Details: To get to Fogo it's easiest to get one of the up to twice daily domestic flights from Praia on neighbouring Santiago – or go on one of the day tripper flights from the beach holiday island of Sal. The only other possibility of getting here is by boat – and unless you have your own yacht that means by ferry. There have been regular connections to the neighbouring islands Santiago and Brava, but there have always been times when these were discontinued, so better not just rely on them; and check ahead in any case.
To get from Fogo's main settlement Sao Filipe, near where both the airport and the ferry port are located, to the villages in the Cha das Caldeiras you can either get one of the daily scheduled shared minibus services (called aluguer) or organize a transfer either through your accommodation/tour operator or directly with a local company (such as Qualitur). Most people visit Fogo as part of a package and that does indeed seem to be the most reliable option.
There are accommodation options directly within the community living in the caldera, mostly a bit basic, in guesthouses/homestays/B&Bs (some offering home-cooked dinners too), but that way you can get the opportunity for an early start for hiking/climbing. Alternatively you'd have to get a hotel room in Sao Filipe and get transport from there, which may be the more comfortable option but significantly detracts from hiking time in the caldera. The day tours offered from Sal (and sometimes other islands such as Boa Vista and Santiago) only allow for a brief glimpse of the volcanic scenery but not for any real hiking.
With regard to food and drink, don't expect any high quality restaurants in this remote location, but there are some local specialities that have to be tried. One is the cheese made here, which I found very palatable indeed. But the main focus is naturally on the wine made by the local "Cha" co-operative. Viniculture has a great, originally French inspired tradition, and is now supported by Italians. The most distinctive type is the white, the Vinho Branco, which is quite potent (14% vol.) but very drinkable indeed and quite complex on the palate; the red and rosé varieties can't compare to the white in my view. The sweet dessert type of the wine I didn't even try. They also make grappa these days as well as various fruit liqueurs. The best place to buy some local wine is directly from the Cooperativa, where they are significantly cheaper than anywhere else. Tasting the wines is also possible in several shops, bars and some of the guesthouses.
Fruit grown in the caldera (apples, pomegranates, quince) can also find its way onto visitors' tables (possibly in the form of jellies/preserves) as well as vegetables, including cassava and tomatoes. In general, though, the cuisine up here is rustic and simple. Most visitors will eat in their guest houses, but there are a couple of simple eateries as well. One place that in addition to wine tasting and a small grocery shop also offers some musical entertainment in the evening is to be found at the crossroads between Portela and the road down to Bangaeira and is called Casa Ramiro.
[UPDATE: the wine co-operative and most of the businesses in the caldera were destroyed by the lava flows of 2014. Some of the guest houses have returned, however, and the wine-making equipment was saved, so maybe one day viticulture may also return here ...]
Given the logistics of getting there, plus accommodation and food & drink, a trip to Cha das Caldeiras is not exactly cheap, but not excessively expensive either. You can keep costs down to a degree by staying in simple accommodation (for 20-30 EUR) and get to Cha das Caldeiras by aluguer (ca. 5 EUR) rather than by special transfers (the latter are around 80 EUR). Prices for organized packages with better accommodation, private transport and guided hiking/climbing can quickly reach several hundreds of euros/dollars (on top of the rest of your Cape Verde travel costs).
Note that climbing the Pico requires a guide! These can be arranged either in advance or locally through some of the guest houses or the information office in Portela. They charge in the region of 40 EUR.
Time required: depends on how much volcanic hiking you want to do. Some people come only for a day, which is enough for getting a decent flavour of the scenery, but to do serious climbing you'd need longer, at least a couple of extra days. If you want to exploit all mountaineering options within and beyond the caldera a whole week may not even be enough.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing on Fogo itself – but neighbouring Santiago, the main island of the Cape Verde
archipelago, offers a few dark sites, in particular Tarrafal
, the main concentration camp
where ex-colonial power Portugal
incarcerated political prisoners during the dictatorship and the independence struggles in the African colonies.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Other than hiking in the caldera, Fogo does not offer an awful lot to tourists in general. There are a few sleepy villages and the island's main town, Sao Filipe, boasts a number of hotels, including a rather upmarket resort with a swimming pool. But most people really only use these as a jumping-off point for the volcano. To find more attractions of a different sort you'd need to go to the other islands of Cape Verde
, especially neighbouring Santiago or to the beach-holiday enclaves on Sal and Boa Vista.
- Fogo 01 - the youngest of the Cape Verde islands
- Fogo 02 - apparently quite a political place too
- Fogo 03 - painting of the 1995 eruption at the airport
- Fogo 04 - slightly exaggerated map
- Fogo 05 - the mountain road winding its way up the slopes towards the caldera
- Fogo 06 - and there it is - Pico de Fogo volcano
- Fogo 07 - a lava and ash moonscape - but it is inhabited
- Fogo 08 - volcanic cone and cone-shaped hut
- Fogo 09 - the volcano seems to be calm at the moment
- Fogo 10 - the sun right behind the summit of the Pico
- Fogo 11 - the road through the caldera
- Fogo 12 - sparse vegetation gaining a foothold
- Fogo 13 - the settlement of Bangaeira right next to a recent lava flow
- Fogo 14 - living with a volcano - note the lava flows in the green fields
- Fogo 15 - houses dwarfed by big blocks of lava
- Fogo 16 - looks almost as if the lava is still flowing
- Fogo 17 - solidified pahoehoe lava
- Fogo 18 - shimmering piece of lava
- Fogo 19 - still life in a volcano
- Fogo 20 - the 1995 cinder cone and the main Pico
- Fogo 21 - colonnaded ex-gate to a co-operative buried by lava
- Fogo 22 - 1995 lava field with debris of houses
- Fogo 23 - not clear whether this is an old house marooned in lava or one built on it after the event
- Fogo 24 - walking on lava
- Fogo 25 - deep cracks in the lava flow
- Fogo 26 - collapsed lava cave
- Fogo 27 - wine-growing in volcanic soil
- Fogo 28 - apples too
- Fogo 29 - red flower, dusty volcano
- Fogo 30 - snowboarding down the side of the volcano
- Fogo 31 - abandoned wheelbarrow
- Fogo 32 - abandoned engine parts
- Fogo 33 - rubbish dumped in the lava
- Fogo 34 - water is the most precious commodity here
- Fogo 35 - school in Portela inside the caldera
- Fogo 36 - lame dog and wine tasting in the shadow of the volcano
- Fogo 37 - the Cha das Caldeiras co-operative
- Fogo 38 - where they make potent wine
- Fogo 39 - the Pico seen from Tarrafal, Santiago, in the sunset