São Tomé and Príncipe rocked my world, for so many reasons that I’m not even sure if I can list all of them here. It was the first place I visited in Africa and it left me so fond of its breathtaking landscapes, beaches decorated with long palm trees leaning over the sand, its people’s smiles and affection, the delicious taste of its fish and fruit and the feeling of peace that would fill my soul up every single day. But São Tomé is not for everybody.
You have to be open minded, you have to prepare yourself to face sceneries of poverty and traces of a time that left profound marks, not only in an architectural level but also in a spiritual level in the life of its people. São Tomé sinks into us, but only if we allow it, only if we totally open our hearts.
Below you will find a Travel Guide about São Tomé and Principe filled with useful tips that will allow you to plan your first visit to this amazing country in the best way possible.
São Tomé and Príncipe (or the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe) is an archipelago consisting of 2 big islands (Príncipe and São Tomé) and several small islets (Rolas Islet, Santana Islet, Sete Pedras Islets, among others). It’s located in the Gulf of Guinea, 150 miles away from Guinea and Gabon, in the African continent.
STP Airways has direct flights that go from Lisbon to São Tomé. TAP and TAAG also fly to São Tomé from Lisbon. You can search for flights to São Tomé here.
History of São Tomé and Príncipe
The archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe was discovered between 1470 and 1471 by Portuguese navigators João de Santarém, Pêro Escobar and João de Paiva. While it’s not an absolute certainty, it is said that São Tomé and Príncipe was uninhabited until then, just a small paradise lost in the middle of Guinea Gulf. Thanks to its strategical location, this archipelago would end up becoming an importante port for the Portuguese.
The Colonization process started in the end of the 15th Century, when priests, African slaves and 2000 Jewish children were taken to the 2 islands. The sugar cane culture was also introduced to the archipelago around this time. In 1822, with the decline of sugar cane, cocoa and coffee are introduced. In 1900 São Tomé produced so much cocoa that it was the biggest cocoa producer in the entire world. This golden age extended itself for nearly 2 centuries with the creation of the famous Roça Plantations (“Roça”: word that was originated from the concept of “clearing up”, ”opening growing space”), that were dedicated to the farming operation process and composed of a complex structure that made them self-sustainable.
Roça Plantations and Slavery
Big Roça Plantations like Roça Rio do Ouro (aka Agostinho Neto), Água Izé or the Roça Porto Alegre were composed of one Main House,the Sanzalas (where servants lived), the Clerks’ Living Quarters, greenhouses, warehouses and dryers. Some Roças also had a Hospital and buildings dedicated to education and religious practice. Some of them were so big, that actually housed than 1000 inhabitants. These big Plantations were connected to smaller Plantations called “Dependências” (dependencies) , which were destined to small productions, product flow and expansion of the influence area of the main Roça Plantations. For centuries, the labor of these Roças was made of slave work. In 1876, slavery is abolished and in São Tomé people start signing work contracts that were later revealed to be very abusive and actually meaningless. In the 3rd of February 1956 one of the most tragic events in São Tomé takes place: the “Batepá massacre”, that was originated by the attempt from the Portuguese masters to force the people of São Tomé to work under horrible conditions in plantations and public constructions. This massacre resulted in the death of hundreds.
In 1960, the Committee for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe begins the process of independency in the country. In 1972 the Democratic Party changes its name to Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe/Social Democratic Party (MLSTP). After the Carnation Revolution, on the 25th April 1975, in Portugal, the Portuguese Government begins the negotiation for the independency of all its colonies and on the 12th of June 1975 São Tomé and Príncipe manages to obtain its much desired freedom, with MLSTP leading the Government as the only party. The first elections involving several political parties only took place in 1990.
Language in São Tomé e Príncipe
The official language of São Tomé and Príncipe is Portuguese and most of the population can speak it. However, there are other dialects like forro (which is the language of the first generation born in São Tomé), Cape Verdean Creole, angolar and principian.
Climate in São Tomé and Príncipe
São Tomé and Princípe has a tropical equatorial climate, hot and humid with temperatures that go from 22ºC to 31ºC. The dry season takes place from June to September, registering dry weather, less heat and less humidity. From October to May it’s the rainy season, with more heat and rain. I was in São Tomé and Príncipe in December and only got one day with strong rain, the rest of the days were characterized by plenty of heat, humidity and some moments where the sky was absolutely clear.
Money in São Tomé and Príncipe
The official currency of São Tomé and Príncipe is the Dobra (check the exchange rate here). My suggestion would be taking a considerable amount of euros/dollars with you due to the fact that it’s impossible to withdraw money in local ATM’s with international cards. You can exchange your money for Dobras in the local bank (and you should do it there, because that’s where you will find the better exchange rate) or with one of the many money exchange dealers that can be found in streets in the center of the capital. All you have got to do is ask in the street where you can exchange your money and you will quickly find someone who is able to help.
Average prices (December 2017)
- 1 meal in a local restaurant: €6
- 1 meal in a touristic restaurant: €15
- Car rental: 40€ – 50€ /day
- Liter of fuel: €1
- 1 bottle of water: €0.80
- 1 Rosema beer (local beer): €1
- Average hotel rate: €80 – €100
Visa for São Tomé and Príncipe
You don’t need a Visa if you come from a Shengen country, from the United States or Canada, if you are a holder of a UN Passport (UNLP) and if you are staying for less than 15 days. If you want to stay for longer, or if you’re from a country not mentioned before, you will need to obtain a temporary Visa in the São Tomé and Príncipe Embassy in your country. It’s granted with a validity of 30 days, for a single entry, with the possibility of extension up to 60 days, and it should be used within 90 days from the day it was granted.
It’s mandatory to have a passport with validity longer than 12 months in relation to the exit date and a photo. You will also have to fill in a form and pay a tax of €20 when leaving the country. The Visa will be provided in less than 5 working days.
Transportation in São Tomé and Príncipe
The best way to travel in São Tomé is with a car. You can ask for the services of a guide that will drive you around the island, for cost around €80 a day or, if you are a person who likes to adventure and discover things without any restrictions, you can rent a car to travel more comfortably and with a lot more freedom. I would recommend you rent a good Jeep or a pickup truck (between €35 and €100 a day) because the roads in the island aren’t exactly great and some of best places to visit are in the middle of the jungle. I was lucky that I was able to use a friend’s pickup truck that lives there, but I below you’ll find the contact of some car rental companies in São Tomé.
Car rental in São Tomé and Príncipe:
Healthcare in São Tomé and Príncipe
Malaria is pretty much inexistent these days in São Tomé, but one should always try to be careful and use mosquito repellent and/or do the malaria prophylaxis. In the “Pre-Travel Consultation” the recommendation of the Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Yellow Fever vaccines is very common. Mosquitoes are cruel, especially at dawn and nightfall.
To avoid stomach disorders, you should also take some precautions, such as avoiding unpeeled fruit, drinks with ice or raw food and wash your hands frequently.
Travel insurance is essential, due to the fact that the healthcare system in São Tomé is very precarious, as well as a medical emergency kit. I usually recommend the insurance from World Nomads, one of the most well-known in the market.
Below you can find a list of accomodations where I had the opportunity to stay in São Tomé, as well as others that, even though I didn’t have the opportunity to experience, were very well recommended by other travelers.
The first hotel I stayed in in São Tomé was, without a doubt, the most memorable one. Mucumbli is made of a set of wooden bungalows, with an amazing view over the Atlantic Ocean. It’s located on the north side of the São Tomé island, in Ponta Figo.
Location: Ponta FIgo, São Tomé | Bookings Mucumbli
Roça São João dos Angolares
One of the few Roça Plantations refurbished in São Tomé offers you the possibility of staying in one of its 6 available rooms. The rooms are very well decorated and the one that I stayed in had access to a terrace with an amazing view over the surrounding area. The Roça de São João, property of a local chef called João Carlos Silva (once the presenter of a famous Portuguese TV show called “At the Roça Plantation’s kitchen”), also features a great restaurant with delicious menus as well as an art gallery.
Location: São João de Angolares, São Tomé | Bookings Roça São João
Praia Inhame EcoLodge Hotel
The Praia Inhame Eco Lodge Hotel is located at Inhame Beach, in the south of São Tomé. It was the place I chose to spend my last days in this country. It’s made of a set of comfortable wooden bungalows and it was where I saw a turtle spawn for the first time! I would greatly recommend the bungalows that are closer to the reception to the beach.
Location: Praia de Inhame, Porto Alegre, São Tomé | Bookings Praia de Inhame Hotel
Other recommended hotels:
Miramar by Pestana Hotel (4*):
Location: São Tomé (capital) | Bookings Hotel Miramar
Omali São Tomé (4*):
Location: São Tomé (capital) | Bookings Omali São Tomé
Club Santana Beach & Resort
Location: Santana, São Tomé | Bookings Club Santana
Bom Bom Resort
Location: Ilha do Príncipe | Bookings Bom Bom Resort
Jalé Eco Lodge
Location: Praia Jalé, Porto Alegre, São Tomé | Bookings Jalé Eco Lodge
Where to eat in São Tomé
Money may be be lacking in São Tomé, but food grows in abundance in trees and in the sea. The huge variety of fish is aboslutely impressive: anywhere in the island it’s possible to find high quality fish, perfectly cooked. I have finally found another place in the world where they know how to cook fish as well as in Portugal. The side-dish usually consists of fried breadfruit and banana bread. Normal fruits are just as delicious: jackfruit, breadfruit, banana, guava, mango, papaya, among others. Food is definitely one of the highlights of this trip, especially if you are a person that prefers to avoid eating meat, just like me. Below you will find some recommended restaurants that I had the opportunity to try .
The Mucumbli Restaurant is irreproachable not only when it comes to the food (especially the shrimp and whelks curry), but also when it comes to the gorgeous view (oh, that view…). This restaurant belongs to the resort with the same name, where I stayed at for 2 nights in one of the beautiful bungalows with an amazing view over the sea.
Location: Ponta Figo, São Tomé (coordinates: 0°21’00.7″N ; 6°32’28.4″E)
Chez Teté was the chosen place to have my farewell dinner, right before getting on the plane back home, and I can only be happy about this decision. The food is great, the restaurant is very nice and the staff is incredibly friendly, especially Ms Teresa, the owner of the restaurant. It’s located in the capital but getting there is not easy, which means that it’s better to ask for directions to get there.
Location: Av. 12 de julho, São Tomé (coordinates: 0°19’41.6″N ; 6°44’26.8″E)
Located in the capital, Xico’s is one of the main meeting points of the Portuguese expats in São Tomé. Portuguese culture is very visible as soon as you enter: from the big screen regularly showing soccer games to the menu filled with Portuguese snacks and Super Bock beer (which you can find all over the island)
Location: Pç da Amizade e Solidariedade entre os Povos, 460A, São Tomé (coordinates: 0°20’19.9″N ; 6°43’52.3″E)
O Paraíso dos Grelhados (Grills Paradise)
At São Tomé’s city waterfront there is a red container that offers some of the best grills in the island, hence the name “Grill Paradise”. The service is not very swift, specially when there are more than 2 tables occupied, but it’s very much worth the wait, both for the view as well as for the food itself. The grilled squid is particularly delicious!
Location: Rua do Município, São Tomé (coordinates: 0°20’35.4″N ; 6°43’30.2″E)
Roça de São João dos Angolares
The Roça de São João dos Angolares became famous thanks to the TV show “Na roça com os tachos” (“At the Roça Plantation’s kitchen”), presented by Chef João Carlos Silva. Most of these plantations are owned by the Government but this one is one of the few that is privately owned. Its restaurant, managed, obviously, by João Carlos Silva himself, offers delicious menus accompanied by some amazing views over the luxurious vegetation that surrounds the Roça Plantation.
Location: São João dos Angolares, São Tomé (coordinates: 0°08’21.2″N ; 6°38’51.6″E)
Miongá restaurant is, just as the Roça de São João, located at São João dos Angolares. And just as the restaurant at the Roça, it also offers incredibly tasty and high quality menus. The view over the São João dos Angolares Beach is phenomenal and the staff is incredibly nice (but in reality this is something very common in São Tomé)
Location: São João dos Angolares, São Tomé (coordinates: °07’57.8″N ; 6°38’46.8″E)
If I tell you that I just had to go to the Santola restaurant twice, you kind of get an idea of how much I enjoyed the place, don’t you? The Santola restaurant is located in Neves village (north of São Tomé) and its main dish is, just as the name indicates, the Santola (a long legged crab). Freshly cooked, accompanied with fried banana bread and absolutely delicious. Oh, and by the way, ask Natália to teach you to how to properly eat santola, she has a delicious secret!
Location: Neves, São Tomé (coordinates: 0°21’32.3″N ; 6°33’04.8″E)
What to visit in São Tomé
São Sebastião Fortress (National Museum of São Tomé and Príncipe)
The São Sebastião Fortress, also known as National Museum of São Tomé and Príncipe, is located on the south end of Ana Chaves Bay, in São Tomé’s capital. It’s one of the few buildings that I found in São Tomé that remained exceptionally well preserved over the years. Inside the building you will find the whole story of the archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe, in a visit accompanied by one of the guides that can be found there. It’s worth the visit!
Location: Baía de Ana Chaves, São Tomé (coordinates: 0°20’46.3″N 6°44’22.4″E) | Ticket: €2 (w/ guided tour)
Watch the turtles spawn
Turtles, nowadays, are a (very) protected species in São Tomé. Its intensive hunting over the years to acquire their meat or their shell to create a variety of objects, brought this endangered species to the brink of extinction. The Tatô program dedicates itself to the protection, conservation and study of turtles in São Tomé and Príncipe. This made it possible to observe its spawning process during the period that goes from September to April, with technicians and specialized guides accompanying the visit so as not to disturb the animals. Inhame beach and Jalé beach, in the south of São Tomé, are some of the best areas to watch this extraordinary occurrence.
Visit the waterfalls
Waterfalls are part of the landscape in São Tomé. Two of the most know waterfalls in São Tomé are the São Nicolau Waterfall and the Nazaré Waterfall. The first one, called São Nicolau, located near a road, is the most popular in the island due to its easy access. The second one, called Nazaré (in the picture) is located in the middle of the jungle. Due to its difficult access (you need a good pickup truck or a jeep to go there, unless you are prepared to walk for quite a while) this waterfall doesn’t get a lot of visitors, but it still deserves a visit, it really does. You enter through the Ponta Figo Roça Plantation and, unless you have a guide, you should ask a kid in Ponta Figo to take you there (in exchange for some money, of course).
Pico do Cão Grande
When you start reaching the south of São Tomé, there is an element that is definitely noticeable: the imposing Pico Cão Grande. A structure with a volcanic origin and a pointy shape that majestically imposes itself in the middle of the Ôbo Natural Park, to an amazing height of 663mt above sea level.
São Tomé and Príncipe Roça Plantations
It’s unthinkable to go to São Tomé and Príncipe and not visit the aged Cocoa and Coffee Roça Plantations that can be found all over the 2 islands that make up the archipelago. Nowadays, most of these Roças are nothing more than ruins, making them nothing more than a memory of what they used to be before, but that doesn’t change the fact that visiting these plantations is an amazing mixed-feelings experience”: if on one hand we get impressed with the grandiosity of the buildings, on the other hand it’s impossible not to think about the history of human exploitation that these places underwent. Even though most are in ruins, the Água Izé, Monte Café and São João Roça Plantation, in São Tomé island have been recovered over the years and are still operating to this day. The remaining ones are home to hundreds of people that look for shelter in there, even if it’s among walls and ceilings that can disappear at any moment.
Visiting the Corallo Chocolate Factory
The Corallo Chocolate Factory is an almost mandatory point of visit to any chocolate lover. And these are, without a doubt, some of the best chocolates in the world. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, at 4:30pm, the factory offers a presentation of all the chocolates they produce (you can taste them, obviously) and each of their manufacturing processes. The name of this chocolate brand comes from its founder, the Italian Claudio Corallo with more than 40 years of experience in the production of chocolate and coffee. In the end of the presentation you will have the opportunity to buy some chocolate boxes to offer when you go back home. It’s a great gift, I guarantee!
The Rolas Islet, about 15 minutes away (by boat) from the south beaches of São Tomé, is a small paradise filled with white sand and crystal clear water beaches, located right over the Equatorial line. I only visited it for a day, but if you’re traveling for a longer period, maybe you should stay there at least one night. The only hotel in this small Islet is the Pestana Equador (4*), so thankfully you won’t have to lose much time looking for accomodation.
Diving and Snorkeling
If you normally include snorkeling and diving in your trips when visiting countries by the sea, then this is going to be another activity that you are going to love. The island has some amazing places to explore underwater life such as Rolas Islet, Santana Islet, Sete Pedras, Lagoa Azul, São Miguel, Kia and Diogo Vaz. The São Tomé e Principe Diving Center , located in São Tomé’s city waterfront, near the airport, is one of the many diving centers that can show you the extraordinary underwater marine life around the island.
Driving on one of the prettiest roads in the world
The road that goes to Santa Catarina, in the West side of the island of São Tomé, literally left me open-mouthed. This has to be one of the prettiest roads in the world (and, without a doubt, the prettiest that I’ve ever seen). This road, bordered in one side by a luxurious vegetation and some amazing, small waterfalls and in the other by a huge set of palm trees that hang, in a tilted way, towards the sea, is extraordinarily gorgeous. The road ends in Santa Catarina, forcing you to turn back, but it’s definitely worth roaming through this road until you are not able to go onward anymore.
Spending a few days in Principe Island
I didn’t have enough time to go visit Príncipe, but all the stories that I heard about it are the most positive. Even though this Island is quite smaller than São Tomé, it’s very common to hear commentaries such as “It’s even prettier than São Tomé”. Diving in postcard-worthy beaches such as the Banana Beach, and visiting Sundy Roça Plantation or Terreiro Velho Roça Plantation (this is where the cocoa used in Corallo chocolates comes from) are activities that you can’t afford to miss in this amazing island. Bom Bom Resort or the Roça Belo Monte Hotel are 2 of the hotels which can be found in Príncipe that may be a good accomodation option. STP Airways has daily direct flights between the two islands.
Spending the day at the Santana Club
Club Santana is a hotel made of bungalows, near the Santana Islet, on the East Coast of São Tomé. It has access to a private beach with warm and clear waters, an infinity pool, sun loungers and a bar where you can have lunch. And you don’t have to be staying in the hotel to enjoy a day or an evening at the Club. You will be given a bracelet that you will have to use during your stay at the club and in which all your consumptions will be credited.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos
In Monteforte, in the north side of São Tomé’s island, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries’ Monument) marks the place where the Portuguese navigators João de Santarém, Pêro Escobar and João de Paiva disembarked for the first time, in 1470, in São Tomé.
Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth)
On the way south you can find the São Tomé version of the Boca do Inferno (Portuguese for Hell’s Mouth) that earned this name due to the violent way waves collide with rocks at that point. The place is also associated with an old, old legend that said that the old governor of the Água Izé Roça Plantation was so evil that whenever he went on vacation to Portugal, he would mount his horse and jump directly into the Hell’s Mouth, coming out directly at the Hell’s Mouth at the place with the same name, that also exists in Portugal.
Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon)
Those who drive towards Neves, after Guadalupe, in the north of São Tomé, and look over to their right, can’t stay indifferent to the turquoise waters of the Lagoa Azul Beach (Portuguese for Blue Lagoon). The beach itself doesn’t have that much sand, but you won’t be able to resist the urge to dive into the water or to do snorkeling in there.
Visit the Almada Negreiros House Museum
The Almada Negreiros House Museum, located in the center of São Tomé’s Island, in the Saudade Roça Plantation, emerged from the idea and the initiative of a young tourist guide called Joaquim Cabangala Victor. The ruins of the house where Almada Negreiros was born in 1893 were totally recovered, and are now a museum entirely dedicated to the artist born in São Tomé, where it’s possible to see recovered objects and others kindly offered by visitors from Portugal. There is also a restaurant with an amazing view in that place.