Fogo means “fire” in Portuguese, and is a fitting name for an island where the local wine is grown, harvested and served inside the caldera of an active volcano. In fact, the entire island is one giant volcano – rising from the sea to 10,000 feet in the sky. It has continuously erupted throughout history; the last major eruption was in 1995. Fogo is one of ten islands in the Republic of Cape Verde, the Portuguese-colonized country located in the Atlantic, off the coast of Western Africa.
The minute I stepped onto the island I could tell it was like no other place I’ve ever been. Maybe it was just knowing that I was standing on active ground, but I swear I could feel that namesake fire brewing deep beneath my feet. I’m part of a group heading up to the volcano’s massive caldera, stretching nine kilometers across and enclosed by a lava-rock wall one kilometer high. We’re heading to Chã das Calderias, a small village located inside the caldera. This high-altitude hideaway has been evacuated during numerous eruptions and on occasion a lava path has carved it’s way straight through town. The caldera’s nutrient-rich lava soil is perfect for growing grapes and coffee beans.
I jump into a bus and began the 8000 ft ascent to the caldera. The road is so steep I feel like I’m tipping backwards against my seat for the entire ride. We drive past rippling fields of long golden grass and through small villages with brightly painted houses. As we climb the landscape changes. The grass grows shorter and the road winds up through rocky outcroppings and sharp, dizzying drops. Eventually the vegetation fades completely and we enter the lava fields.
Inside the caldera it looks like a black desert. Modest, rectangular lava-brick homes dot the dark, dusty ground. There is no running water or electricity for the residents inside the volcano. Some people have generators; any potable water has to be transported into the volcano by truck. We arrive at a small guesthouse for a wine tasting.
Both white and red wines are produced inside the volcano. I pour myself a glass of both (why not?) and grab a plateful of fresh fruit and local farmer’s cheese. I sit in the guesthouse’s arched courtyard, where all I can see is black ground, blue sky and the rocky rise of the caldera wall.
The red wine is better than the white. It has sweet, almost spicy overtones. After all, these grapes grow from a soil that was once liquid fire. I can taste the fire in everything, right down to the squeaky white sheep’s milk cheese from the villages below. Before I leave Fogo, I purchase a bag of roasted coffee beans, grown and harvested inside the volcano. I’m hoping to bring the flavor of Fogo’s fire home with me.
Just as the island of Fogo lives up to it’s name, so does Boa Vista. Meaning “good view” in Portuguese, this Cape Verde island is known for its sandy beaches, blue water and endless white dunes.
The large island has a small population, centered around the colonial-style capital village of Sal Rei. The vibe here is laid back. The island’s main tourist activity is hiking through the rolling dunes, so naturally I went on a hike through the dunes.
The hike was going well, but I had food on the brain. By the power of social media, someone from Cape Verde had tweeted me the country’s culinary specialty, encouraging me to try catxupa (pronounced cat-choo-pa). I didn’t know what it was, but I did know I wasn’t leaving the island until I found it. Breaking away from the dune hike, I headed back into town, determined.
I wandered into a tiny bar on the outskirts of the village, ready for a beer break. The few clientele are mostly older women, sitting at small metal tables, sipping their late morning coffee. This isn’t the kind of place that gets many tourists, but I was greeted warmly with smiles. English? No. Italian? Yes. It’s amazing to me how far my Italian skills have gotten me around the world. Here I am, in an African nation in the middle of the Atlantic, and I can order a beer, ask directions and somehow feel at home.
As soon as I mention the word “catxupa”, the entire room lights up. The bar owner and her friends are impressed, pointing me down the hill towards a restaurant on the main square. They’re so excited by my foodie mission, they encourage me to take the beer to go (no problem!) and wave from the open door as I head back out into the warm sun. With a little help from a local guide, I locate the Blue Marlin, a narrow tavern with wooden booths on Sal Rei’s central square.
Catxupa turns out to be a hearty spiced corn and bean mash, typically served with fish or meat. It’s the daily sustenance of these islands, found throughout Cape Verde. Given the choice between fish or meat, I go with the fish. We’re just one street away from the town’s sprawling fish market – the social and economic center of Boa Vista. The fish is only a few hours old. The market sees two separate hauls per day: the first bringing fish for breakfast and lunch, the second bringing the afternoon’s supply of seafood for dinner.
I have no idea what kind of fish this is, but it’s amazing. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had fresher fish in my entire life. It’s a thin, flaky whitefish with deep flavor and a silvery skin. It’s been lightly spiced and grilled to juicy perfection. The carb-laden catxupa gives the dish a hearty balance. I sprinkle on a few drops of fiery homemade hot sauce. The meal is so delicious that for one magical moment between bites I think I could probably stay in Boa Vista forever.
2011 Mileage Total: 44187