Island of Sal, Cape Verde

The Isle of Sunshine and Salt

An Island Forged by Wind, Waves, and a Rich Cultural Melange

Amidst the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Africa, lies the sun-drenched Island of Sal, part of the archipelago nation of Cape Verde. With its lunar landscapes, azure waters, and vibrant cultural tapestry, Sal beckons travelers to its shores. The island's name, meaning 'salt,' hints at its savory past and the mineral-rich earth that has shaped much of its history. As we uncover the layers of Sal's charm, we invite you to journey through its past, explore its diverse geography, indulge in its rich cultural traditions, and visit the captivating sights that make this island a unique destination.

Sal's History: From Uninhabited Terrain to Melting Pot of Cultures

The history of Sal, while not as densely packed with events as some ancient locales, is marked by a series of transformations that have shaped the island into the vibrant destination it is today.

Discovery and Initial Settlement:

  • Sal, originally known as "Ilha Lhana" (Flat Island) due to its topography, was discovered on December 3rd, 1460, by Portuguese explorers. It remained uninhabited for over a century due to its arid conditions and lack of fresh water sources.

The Salt of Sal:

  • The island's economic narrative began to change in the 17th century when salt deposits were found in the low-lying areas, most notably in Pedra de Lume. By the 18th century, the salt industry was booming, and the town became a significant site for salt extraction, giving the island its current name, Sal, which means 'salt' in Portuguese.
  • The salt from Sal was exported to the Brazilian and West African coasts, and the industry prospered until the end of the 19th century, attracting workers from various parts of the world and fostering a modest settlement.

The Strategic Stopover:

  • With the advent of air travel in the 20th century, Sal's strategic mid-Atlantic location became important. In 1939, the Italian airline Ala Littoria established an air stop on Sal for its seaplanes, and after World War II, the airport was expanded and became a refueling and stopover point for international flights crossing between Europe, Africa, and South America. This brought in new economic opportunities and a more diverse set of influences to the island's culture.

Cape Verdean Independence:

  • Sal, like the rest of Cape Verde, was under Portuguese rule until 1975. The struggle for independence was relatively peaceful compared to other African nations, with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) leading the movement.
  • After independence, Cape Verde, including Sal, went through a period of economic hardship. The government focused on building a stable economy, with an emphasis on developing the tourism sector.

Tourism and Modern Development:

  • In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Sal's economy began to pivot significantly towards tourism. Its consistent warm climate, beautiful beaches, and the opening of the Amílcar Cabral International Airport in the late 20th century have made it an accessible and popular destination for European travelers.
  • Today, the island is known for its all-inclusive resorts, watersports, and as a sanctuary for holidaymakers seeking a blend of sun, sea, and cultural experiences.

Cultural Integration:

  • The influx of tourists and foreign residents has further diversified the island's cultural landscape. Sal's music, dance, gastronomy, and language are all influenced by this mix, making it a melting pot of indigenous Cape Verdean, African, Brazilian, and European cultures.

The history of Sal is a testament to human ingenuity in the face of environmental challenges, transforming a once uninhabited island into a flourishing tourist destination and a culturally rich community.

Geography and Climate of Sal Island: Nature's Canvas of Extremes

Sal is one of the easternmost islands of the Cape Verde archipelago and is part of the Barlavento Islands group. It is relatively small, with an area of about 216 square kilometers, yet it boasts a diverse range of landscapes.

The Terrain

The island is predominantly flat with a few hilly regions — the highest point being Monte Grande, which rises to a modest 406 meters. Its flatness is a stark contrast to some of the other volcanic islands of the archipelago, offering expansive views of the horizon and making it an ideal location for airstrips, which historically played a key role in transatlantic flights.

  • Coastal Geography: Sal's coastline is one of its defining features, with long stretches of white sandy beaches that are a major draw for tourists. The east coast is rougher and windier, making it popular for wind sports, while the western coast has calmer seas, perfect for swimming and diving.
  • Salt Flats: The island's name comes from its salt flats, the most famous being at Pedra de Lume, located in an extinct volcanic crater. These flats were once the heart of Sal's economy and are now a tourist attraction where visitors can float in the buoyant, mineral-rich waters.


Sal's climate is arid to semi-arid, which is typical for Cape Verde, marked by a lack of precipitation and a bounty of sunny days.

  • Temperature: The island enjoys a warm, tropical climate. Temperatures average around 26-30°C (79-86°F) throughout the year, cooled by trade winds, particularly from November to June.
  • Rainfall: Rain is scarce on Sal, with annual precipitation levels quite low. The island experiences a short rainy season from August to October, but even then, rain showers are infrequent and unpredictable.
  • Harmattan Winds: The dry Harmattan winds from the Sahara Desert affect Sal, occasionally bringing in sand and reducing visibility. These winds can also create temporary temperature drops and are responsible for the unique desert-like landscapes on the island.
  • Marine Influence: The surrounding Atlantic Ocean moderates the temperature on Sal, preventing extremes of heat and providing a refreshing sea breeze that is particularly appreciated during the hot summer months.
  • Environmental Challenges: The limited rainfall and absence of permanent freshwater streams pose challenges for agriculture on Sal. As a result, much of the food on the island is imported. Efforts to desalinate seawater have been essential in providing fresh water for residents and tourists alike.

The interplay between Sal's geography and climate creates an environment that's both challenging and uniquely appealing. The arid landscapes, shaped by volcanic activity and oceanic winds, coupled with the warm, sunny climate, define Sal's natural allure — a desert island surrounded by the rich, blue waters of the Atlantic.

Traditions and Culture of Sal: A Tapestry of Vibrant Heritage

Sal, much like the rest of Cape Verde, is a melting pot of cultures primarily shaped by its African and Portuguese colonial past. The island's customs, music, dance, and cuisine reflect this multifaceted heritage.

Music and Dance:

  • Morna: Often considered the national music genre of Cape Verde, it has been popularized internationally by the late Cesária Évora. Morna uses languid, melancholic melodies to convey a deep sense of "sodade," a Cape Verdean form of longing.
  • Funaná: Originally censored by the Portuguese for its sensual rhythms and African roots, Funaná is now celebrated and widely performed, especially in festive settings.
  • Batuko: Traditionally performed by women, Batuko is a percussive music genre that involves rhythmic clapping and singing, stemming from the times of slavery.


  • Carnival: Sal participates in the Cape Verdean tradition of Carnival with parades, music, and dancing. While not as large as the celebrations on São Vicente, Sal's Carnival is gaining popularity.
  • Santa Maria Festival: This is the island's largest annual event, taking place in September. It features a music festival attracting local and international artists, a vibrant parade, craft markets, and food stalls.


  • Catchupa: The national dish of Cape Verde, Catchupa is a slow-cooked stew of hominy, beans, vegetables, and meat or fish. On Sal, it's often enjoyed as a hearty start to the day.
  • Seafood: Given its location, seafood is a staple on the island. Fresh tuna, lobster, and octopus are commonly served, grilled or included in stews.
  • Grogue: A strong rum made from sugarcane, it is the base for the island's favorite cocktail, the "Ponche."


  • The island's artisans are known for creating products from locally sourced materials. This includes pottery and ceramics, basket weaving, and intricate embroidery, which are often sold in markets and serve as mementos for visitors.


  • The official language is Portuguese, but the majority of the population speaks Cape Verdean Creole (Kriolu), a rich language with African and Portuguese influences.


  • Catholicism, brought by the Portuguese, is the predominant religion and plays a significant role in the daily lives of the inhabitants. Festivals and holy days are observed with masses, processions, and celebrations.


  • Traditional clothing on Sal sometimes reflects the bright colors and patterns of West African influence, especially during festivals and dance performances. However, daily wear is typically casual, influenced by the island's warm climate and laid-back lifestyle.


  • Football (soccer) is a passion throughout Cape Verde, and Sal is no exception. Beach football is particularly popular, with locals often engaging in friendly matches at the end of the day.

Community Life:

  • The concept of "morabeza" is essential to understanding Cape Verdean culture. It describes the warm, hospitable, and friendly nature of the people, which is palpable throughout the island of Sal.

The traditions and culture of Sal are celebrated through daily life, community gatherings, and annual festivities that bring to life the island's African and European heritage. Despite modern influences and a growing tourism sector, Sal maintains a strong sense of identity and cultural pride.

Exploring Sal: A Guide to the Island's Quintessential Experiences

Sal's allure as a destination lies in its blend of natural beauty, cultural richness, and relaxed island vibe. Here are the key places to visit and experiences to seek out while on this captivating island:

Santa Maria:

The vibrant heart of Sal and the main tourist hub, Santa Maria is famed for its colorful streets, dynamic markets, and beautiful beach. The pier, Pontão de Santa Maria, is a focal point for local fishermen and offers a glimpse into the island's maritime culture.

  • Praia de Santa Maria: A stunning stretch of white sand and azure waters, perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and water sports.
  • Surfing and Windsurfing: The island's trade winds and waves make it an excellent spot for surfing, kitesurfing, and windsurfing, with several schools offering lessons and equipment.

Pedra de Lume Salt Crater:

A visit to the salt pans in an extinct volcano crater is a must. The high salinity allows for an effortless float, and the surrounding lunar landscape is strikingly beautiful.


The island's capital, while not as tourist-centric as Santa Maria, provides a taste of local life. The central square, markets, and eateries here offer an authentic slice of Sal.


Known for the "Blue Eye," a natural pool where sunlight creates a dazzling blue effect in the water. The area is also great for diving and exploring the rugged coastline.

Shark Bay:

Just a short trip from Santa Maria, this bay offers the chance to observe lemon sharks in their natural habitat, wading through the shallow waters.

Mirage of Terra Boa:

In the island's interior, visitors can witness a fascinating optical illusion where the desert appears to give way to a large lake.

Ponta Preta Beach:

A favorite spot for surfers and kitesurfers, this beach is known for its strong winds and large waves, offering challenging conditions for experienced water sports enthusiasts.

Mudejar Church in Palmeira:

This church showcases the island's colonial architecture and Mudejar influences. The town of Palmeira itself is a quiet fishing village worth exploring for its local charm and seaside ambiance.

Viveiro Botanical Garden & Zoo di Terra:

A conservation project that houses a botanical garden and a small zoo, showcasing the island's commitment to protecting its flora and fauna.

Morro da Pedra de Lume:

For those who enjoy hiking, a trek up to this viewpoint offers panoramic views of the island, including the salt flats and the coastline.

Local Distilleries:

Sample the local grogue, a traditional Cape Verdean rum, and learn about its distillation process, which has been passed down through generations.

Cultural Centers:

Visit local cultural centers to learn about the island's history and culture, watch traditional music and dance performances, and interact with the local artists and craftspeople.


Due to its remote location and minimal light pollution, Sal is an excellent place for stargazing. The clear night skies reveal a magnificent array of stars and constellations.

Scuba Diving:

Explore the underwater world of Sal, which is rich in marine biodiversity. Several dive sites around the island cater to all levels, offering the chance to see colorful coral, fish, and even shipwrecks.

The Salt Mines:

Although no longer the backbone of the economy, the historic salt mines are a testament to the island's past and are still operational on a smaller scale today.

Sal's attractions, from its sun-drenched shores to its desert interiors, offer visitors an array of experiences that are both rejuvenating and enlightening. Each site provides a piece of the puzzle that, when put together, forms a picture of this island's unique charm and spirit. Whether you're a beach lover, a culture enthusiast, or an adventure seeker, Sal has something special to offer.