Mothers in shawls and children in bright-red bobble hats squatted in doorways, shielding their eyes from the sun. Chickens scratched at the dusty earth and goats gnawed at the bark of spindly trees. The cluster of huts made from sugar cane stood exposed on a windy outcrop of rock overlooking the Atlantic. In the distance someone was singing an old slave song. It could have been West Africa.
But this was Santiago, largest and most African of the Cape Verde islands, 400 miles west of Senegal. The similarities with the mainland abound, not least in the way this former Portuguese colony is currently experiencing another European invasion, this time by package tourists and property developers. Weekly direct flights go from Gatwick and Manchester. It's being touted as the new Canaries, with year-round guaranteed sunshine and beaches to die for.
The brochure writers are not wrong: the coast and weather are gorgeous. But perhaps they should have wrenched themselves away from their beach towels. If they had, they would have got a taste of the cultural hinterland, which is - especially on Santiago - rich and varied and more compelling than anything Tenerife can offer.
At the village, Nilza, our guide, asked Josefa, a 13-year-old who spends most of her time painting weird, pagan scenes to sell to passers-by, whether we could have a chat with the chief. "Spé ra um minutu. Talves okupadu," she said in Creole. And André, who has been chief of Espinho Branco for 30 years, did agree to see us, granting what was by all accounts a rare privilege.
His community of 500 are, to all intents and purposes, the African Amish and direct descendants of the slaves that worked the sugar-cane plantations. They scorn their compatriots' march towards modernity and cling to ancient ways, spurning television and radio and farming their land communally. "We are the real Cape Verdeans, los rebelados," André explained. "I know my ancestors right back to 1533. We fled to the hills to escape the priests and profiteers."
The previous day we'd visited Cidade Velha, the islands' old capital, where the cannons of Fort Real do Sao Filipe still keep watch over the harbour and the ruins of the cathedral, built by the Portuguese in 1556. The dried-up riverbed of Ribeira Grande snakes through a steep gorge, past Nossa Senhora do Rosario, a cool white church with delicate Portuguese tiles, where Francis Drake came to pray before torching a couple of towns. Nearby are thatched cottages, thought to be 500 years old, their gardens full of cacti, and beyond them fields of maize, and plantations of bananas and papaya. The contrast in landscape in the space of just five miles is as extreme as anything we'd ever seen: lush one moment, desert the next.
But the most arresting monument to the past is an uncomfortable one: the 16th-century pillory, which on the face of it is an innocent-looking post set in the village square. Only the iron rings and bars point to the cruelty meted out to thousands of slaves who suffered the indignity of being tied up for 72 hours to see how they survived before being put on sale.
Santiago, like the rest of the country, is volcanic and in its centre towering, tortured peaks of lava point fingers of rock to the sky while verdant valleys, with Caribbean-style vegetation, huddle beneath the slopes. The noisy market of Assomada is stuffed with produce from the fields. It is also the centre of Tabanka, the rhythmic processional slave music of Santiago, formerly played by women on conch shells, pots and thighs, but now, I was told, on bottles, plastic and even X-ray negatives. Its festivals - incorporating singing and dancing too, of course - are in July, but out of season you can visit the museum dedicated to it.
Nilza took up the story: "The slaves in the centre of the island were free to perform their rituals. It was the way of dancing off their sorrow, but it was also a means of communicating. Each slave group picked 12 potential brides and 12 potential husbands who were dressed up in African costume to attract a partner." Out of this has grown musical forms such as batuco, and torno, a sexy dance in which the women wiggle their buttocks, and the accordion-led funana.
Back in the minibus, as if by magic, our driver produced a CD of the Santiago group Simentera playing these haunting tunes; it ensured our drive north pulsated to the rhythms of Africa. In this multiracial yet contradictory country, one thing is ubiquitous and unifying: music. It's heard everywhere and at all times, the spinal chord of the archipelago's existence.
The tranquil coastal town of Tarrafal lies at the most north-westerly point of the island. It's a place of restful retreat, nowhere more so than at the Hotel Baí a Verde, the restaurant that looks down over the curved bay backed by craggy mountains. Our meal of fresh tuna, rice and salad, along with a bottle of rosé from the island of Fogo, was delicious. We slid back in our chairs and let the sound of the waves wash over us, before summoning up the energy to walk down to the beach to join the handful of locals for a swim.
There was one more historical shock awaiting us: the concentration camp that the Portuguese built in the 1930s to house anti-fascists. Known as campo da morte lenta, it held men in three-metre square cells that were completely cemented in, apart from two air vents which served little purpose because most died from the suffocating heat anyway. This chamber of horrors closed in 1954 but opened again to incarcerate the empire's independence fighters from Mozambique and Angola, until final closure on the death of Salazar in 1974. Somewhat subdued, we headed back down the coast road.
East from the capital Praia, the cranes are swinging into action and the dumper trucks hurtling around a gigantic building site. This is Sambala, a complex of 5,500 coastal tourist apartments, villas and townhouses that is transforming the local economy. The European developers seem enlightened, using solar and wind power and desalination techniques to supply water in this drought-prone land. They are providing hundreds of jobs, re-housing families in spanking new homes, building schools and providing computers. And their scheme to save the local turtles is on course.
During their tea break in the air-conditioned Nissen hut, the workmen were laughing and started to sing a favourite tune from Cesaria Evora, the country's much-loved barefoot diva. The dust on the table danced in time as their boots kicked out the rhythm. For these men, clutching their weekly wage packet of Cape Verdean escudos, this was payback time, courtesy of some modern-day Europeans who, at least, are not trying to expunge their culture entirely. As for the long-term benefits, though, the Santiago jury is still out.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Robert Nurden travelled with The Cape Verde Experience (0845 3302071; capeverdeexperience. com/travel), which offers a week's holiday incorporating island-hopping from £1,195 per person until April 2007. The price includes return flights from Gatwick, transfers, internal flights, ferries, two nights' half-board in four-star hotels in Sal, two nights in Sao Vicente and two nights in Santiago, excursions plus the services of a driver/guide.
The Best of Island Life
1. Grogue, Santo Antao
Watch men and oxen making the pure juice of sugar cane, with a 43 per cent alcoholic hammer blow, brought from Africa by the slaves. On Santo Antao's verdant northern side, there's a 500-year-old trapiche, the large wooden grinder driven by a beast of burden, still making the heady brew. The owner is one of the country's handful of Jews.
CONTACT: Ildo Benro's grogue factory, Paúl, Santo Antao, where you can taste - and buy - grogue and ponche, which has honey or fruits added.
2. Windsurfing, Sao Vicente
The world windsurfing speed record was set in the straits between Santo Antao and Sao Vicente. It was also where someone raced - and beat - the motorised ferry, but was arrested for his pains. Former champion François Guy runs a school in Cape Verde. All of which is proof enough that this is one of the world's best places for the sport - for all levels.
CONTACT: Foya Branca Resort (00 238 230 7400; foyabranca.com), Sao Pedro, Sao Vicente, where a full day's windsurfing costs 4,900 Cape Verde escudos (£33).
3. Music, Sao Vicente
To hear performances of morna, the Cape Verdean take on Portuguese fado, head for Mindelo, capital of Sao Vicente, where this haunting style of singing, to the accompaniment of the country's own minuscule guitars, can be heard nightly. Clubs open at around 11pm, but most restaurants will have a resident band playing earlier than this for a couple of nights a week.
CONTACT: Café Musique, Rua Libertadores D'Africa, Mindelo, Sao Vicente.
4. Trapiche, Sao Vicente
The middle classes of Mindelo have their own version of the Italian passeggiata called the trapiche. This is the word used to describe the circular motion involved in grinding sugar cane to make grogue. But at 10pm every night in the Sao Vicente capital, hordes of smartly dressed folk walk round and round the central square, chatting and gazing at the sights. There's even music composed for this activity.
CONTACT: Turn up at Praça Amícar Cabral, Mindelo, and see all the beautiful people of Sao Vicente on display.
5. Trekking, Sao Nicolau
Some of the archipelago's best walking is to be had in the lush interior and on the peaks of the little-known island of Sao Nicolau. Thread your way along spines of lava, with precipices on either side. The endangered dragon tree towers above the tree canopy and you may be lucky and spot a helmeted guineafowl.
CONTACT: Agencia e Traansporte Santos & Santos (00 238 235 1830), Ribeira Brava, Sao Nicolau, can advise on the best walks.
6. Beaches, Sal
Sal is very flat and makes Fuerteventura look interesting. But for beach lovers, it's near-perfect: the golden sands stretch far and wide from the tourist town of Santa Maria in the far south. The temperature never drops below 25C or rises above 35C and the sea is warm enough to swim in. No wonder this was the spot chosen to lure 178,000 tourists a year to Cape Verde's guaranteed sunshine.
CONTACT: Unotour (00 238 242 1771), Rua 15 de Agosto, CP 97, Santa Maria, Sal, a non-profit agency which acts as the tourist office.
7. Deep-sea diving, Sal
There are thought to be as many as 600 wrecks lying off the islands, most in the east where the reefs are found. Divers make a beeline for the freighter 'Santo Antao', which sank in 1966. There are colourful fish are in abundance as well as underwater caves to explore. Beginners' courses are on offer.
CONTACT: Odisseia (00 238 997 7441; odisseia.org), Hotel Morabeza, Santa Maria, Sal, has courses for all levels, as well as single dives with a guide.
8. Turtles, Boa Vista
Boa Vista is an important refuge for five different species of turtle, which stop off here when migrating between America and Africa, making it one of the world's most important turtle grounds. The best time to see them is from August to December. Don't shine lights near these endangered species, however, as they may get confused and then head inland.
CONTACT: Morena Tourist Agency (00 238 251 1445), The Square, Sal Rei, Boa Vista, organises trips to see turtles.
9. Come dancing, Santiago
Head for a nightclub in Praia, the capital of all the Cape Verde islands, to learn how to do more kinds of dance than you ever thought possible in one day. There's the Cape Verdean version of the Brazilian samba; zouk, which is exhausting; funana, which is popular on Santiago and uses the accordion; coladeira (it means glued together) is a sweet and slow hip-grinder; and posada, which is popular in Sao Vicente.
CONTACT: Quintal da Música (00 238 261 7282), The Plateau, Praia, Santiago, has music and dancing every night except on Sunday. The group Simentera often play there.
10. Volcano, Fogo
Fogo's still active 7,000ft volcano last erupted in 1995, emitting five million cubic yards of lava every day for a month. On the edges of the smouldering crater live a number of brave folk with blonde hair and blue eyes, the descendants of a randy 19th-century French duke who introduced the Fogo vines in the 19th century. Ten years ago, they refused to obey the government's orders to leave and grow coffee and fine wine in the fertile volcanic soil. Some of them take in tourists.
CONTACT: You can stay at the Pousada Pedra Brabo (00 238 261 8940), Fogo, a French-run guesthouse built of lava, with great views to Brava island.Reuse content