Travel & Tourism
The South Pacific may be a top destination for those seeking island paradises, but Africa holds its own, thanks largely to São Tomé and Príncipe. Uninhabited until the 15th century, these islands still offer visitors a sense of discovery, and their out-of-the-way location makes it likely you’ll have the beach to yourself. That said, more tourists have in recent years recognized São Tomé as the find that it is. As a result, luxury seekers can now find lavish resorts sprinkled along the beaches, but it also means that potential visitors should seek out these islands’ pristine natural environment and authentic, welcoming culture before the country becomes overcrowded.
What to Do in Sao Tome and Principe
1. São Tomé Town: The capital city of São Tomé is not only the first stop for newcomers to the country but a destination in itself. The town is home to some of West Africa’s most beautiful architecture, as well as the National Museum, open-air markets, and exciting festivals throughout the year. But its main draw is its laid-back culture, marvelous cuisine (heavy on tropical fruit, rice, hot sauce, and fish), and lively nightlife.
2. Beaches on Príncipe: Although São Tomé’s beaches are certainly not to be underestimated, Príncipe’s are quieter and have a serene charm all their own. The exceptionally clear water permits views of coral reefs, eels, and tropical fish of all kinds to snorkelers and divers. Banana Beach’s wide, golden strand is surrounded by forest and is one of the most popular among tourists, while the beaches on the nearby islets offer extreme solitude for those who prefer it. For a fee, visitors can arrange boat trips farther out from land to fish for barracuda, tuna, and other big fish; Club Maxel is a highly regarded local renter with facilities on both São Tomé and Príncipe.
3. Auto de Floripes: Príncipe’s biggest festival, Auto de Floripes is Portuguese in origin and commemorates the confrontation between the Christians and the Moors in the Middle Ages. The entire population participates in a dramatic reenactment of the battle, followed by music, dancing, sideshows, and the serving of special dishes.
4. São Tomé’s Rain Forests: Unlike its central African counterparts, the rain forest of São Tomé is fairly easy to navigate and has no dangerous animals. Hiking is easy and relaxing, and the colorful birds are among the world’s most beautiful (and loudest). If you hike during the rainy season, you’ll also spot large patches of orchids at the higher elevations.
5. Coffee Production at Monté Café: This coffee plantation, in the mountains outside of São Tomé town, offers tours and demonstrations for visitors, along with the chance to sample some of its world-class product. Its output was once the world’s largest, and the pleasant drive to and from the plantation affords some of the island’s best ocean views—after those from Pico de São Tomé.
6. Photography and Turtle Watching at Praia Jalé: While this tiny fishing village is entirely different from São Tomé town, a visit to it is worth the somewhat bumpy drive. The locals are even more welcoming here than in the city and are often eager to share stories about life in the town and São Tomé’s history. The main attractions are the nearby turtle beaches, which between November and March are overrun by throngs of females that lay eggs here. If you plan to stay at the Eco Lodge, do note that there is no running water or supplies, so come prepared.
7. Corallo Chocolate Factory: This chocolate factory, which ferments, dries, and sorts raw cacao beans from Príncipe, offers tours, demonstrations, and samples to visitors upon request, often arranged by the owner himself, Claudio Corallo. His spirited lecture bespeaks a deep knowledge of chocolate production, and he certainly knows what he’s talking about: his luxury sweets are popular abroad.
8. Ilheu das Rólas: Of the tiny islands and atolls that surround São Tomé and Príncipe, Ilheu das Rólas is undoubtedly the most popular among tourists, thanks largely to its superb snorkeling opportunities and upscale dive resort. Although the other islets provide more peace and quiet, Ilheu das Rólas is the most accessible and has the best accommodations.
9. Pico de São Tomé: The largest mountain in the country, in the middle of Obo National Park, Pico de São Tomé stands more than 6,000 feet tall. The trek there takes two days, and a guide is recommended but not strictly necessary. Although visibility is often low, the summit affords unparalleled views of the sea and the surrounding cloud forests.
10. Boca do Inferno Blowhole: Surrounded by palms, tide pools, and striking volcanic rock, this blowhole, whose name translates as Mouth of Hell, is similar to a small geyser, formed by waves crashing in a subterranean sea cave.
When to Go
Because of their location near the Equator, São Tomé and Príncipe have a pleasant, tropical climate with little variation during the year. The rainy season lasts from October to May, but that shouldn’t affect your plans much. When it’s not raining, you can enjoy the best beachgoing weather of the year.
Getting In and Around
Visas: São Tomé requires a visa, a valid passport, and proof of a yellow fever vaccination for entering the country. It’s best to apply several weeks in advance; visas are not sold at the airport, and though it is possible to apply and then pay when you’re leaving the country, doing so involves an elaborate process, and we don’t recommend it.
Transportation: Most direct flights to São Tomé from Europe and North America pass through Lisbon. Several African airlines, including the domestic carrier, STP Airways, offer flights from the African mainland.
The most reliable way to get to Príncipe is via STP, which runs flights a few times per week. If your schedule requires more flexibility, you might try to buy passage on one of the cargo ships that travel between the two islands.
São Tomé’s roads are quite good, and although there is no public transportation, you can rent a car or hire a taxi on both islands. Make sure to have a map on your person at all times; the roads are somewhat difficult to navigate, and having a help will help.
Safety and Security
Concerned about your safety as you plan travel to São Tomé and Príncipe? We at Africa.com, together with our friends, family and colleagues, travel extensively throughout the continent. Here are the resources we consult when thinking of our safety in São Tomé and Príncipe:
Africa.com comment: Very timely and frequently updated. Perspective assumes that you ARE going to travel to São Tomé and Príncipe, and seeks to give you good guidance so that you understand the risks and are well informed.
Africa.com comment: An annual ranking of the 54 African countries based on their relative personal security as determined by a highly qualified staff of an African foundation, funded by a successful African philanthropist. See where São Tomé and Príncipe ranks relative to the other 54 nations in Africa.
Africa.com comment: Can sometimes be considered as overly conservative and discourage travel altogether to destinations that many reasonable people find acceptably secure. On the other hand, they have the resources of the CIA to inform them, so they know things that the rest of us don’t know. See what they have to say about São Tomé and Príncipe.
1. The currency used on the islands is the dobra, issued in colorful notes that resemble the euro. There are no ATMs on either island (although there are rumors that some will be installed soon), and the use of credit cards is largely limited to big hotels. On the other hand, as in much of Africa, the cost of living here is much lower than what American and European travelers will be accustomed to. Take cash with you at all times.
2. Portuguese is the official language of São Tomé, although the local accent and vocabulary are rather different from those of European Portuguese. French is the reliable lingua franca; don’t expect locals to speak English except at high-end hotels.
3. São Tomé’s relatively mild climate (temperatures hover around 85 degrees year-round and rarely go higher) and humid haze disguise the risk of a nasty sunburn for careless visitors. Sunscreen of as high as SPF 30 is available at hotels and the supermarket, but if you plan on snorkeling, consider wearing a T-shirt over your bathing suit.
4. Most of São Tomé town’s nightlife revolves around its restaurant and bar scene. Locations like Café é Companhia serve as social centers for expats and locals alike, but they are also good places to connect to the Internet and find a newspaper—to say nothing of sampling the island’s famous seafood. The excellent São Toméan website Turismo-STP has a list of recommended spots.
5. Portuguese culture remains influential here, and Europeans will find that social customs are generally similar to those at home: shaking hands is expected, and casual attire is acceptable for both men and women. Still, beggars are more persistent than those you’ve encountered before, and children will often ask for doce (candy) or trinkets you are carrying rather than cash. A firm rejection will usually suffice to discourage them.