One of Africa’s smallest country comprises two main islands — São Tomé and Principe. As you all know, I was lucky enough to visit this unique destination recently, and let me tell you one thing: São Tomé may be small but there’s A LOT to do here. The dense rainforests teeming with dozens of endemic species, wild cocoa and coffee plantations, magnificent beaches, incredible cuisine and culture, and extremely hospitable locals of African, Creole and Portuguese origin make this place unlike any other.
Here are a few facts before you get started on this incredible adventure: the population is very young, the main languages are Portuguese and Creole (so get an appropriate guide, if you possible), and the community spirit is strong. Don’t be afraid to interact with the locals and explore the island from north to south (it’s rather safe because everyone knows everyone else!).
What to do in São Tomé City
São Tomé City is always buzzing… with energy, life, motorbikes and mud-caked jeeps. The pavements are littered with happy teenagers hand-in-hand with their lovers, businessmen, CST sellers, school children, and mothers with their babies. The vibe is a super positive one. Here are some things you must do around the city.
Discover the bustling market
If you have just one day in São Tomé City, immediately make your way to the local market. It’s super colorful and pulsating with life. There’s so much to see and feel here. So many busy bees.
So many textures. So many food items that I had never even heard of before! Sounds of energetic chit-chat all over. Women deeply engrossed in piles of fabric, trying to find the perfect outfits. Oh, and not one tourist. Can you just imagine the smile on my face?
Just one point of note: be respectful of the locals, please. Even though they’re very friendly and open, not everyone wants to be photographed. Always ask for permission. Like I mentioned earlier, if you don’t know some basic Portuguese, get a local guide. Trust me, it’ll make things a lot easier.
Go to the Claudio Corallo chocolate and coffee factory
In this factory, they let you taste so many kinds of handmade chocolates that it’ll blow your mind (and your taste buds)! From 100% pure chocolate to chocolate infused with ginger, you can sample it all. Oh, and the taste of a particular coffee you get to try in the lab here will stay with you for a long, long time! As the cocoa aficionados will know, Claudio Corallo is an institution, so you really don’t want to sit this one out. The value of the visit will greatly outweigh the price of the ticket (merely EUR4).
Visit the National Museum
A quick stop at the museum, also known as the Sao Sebastiao Museum, housed in an old fort is also a must, especially if you want to learn about the history of São Tomé. The exhibits will tell you stories of the colonial times, slavery, voodoo and even facts about the turtle population. Basically, everything you’d want to know.
What to do up north
After the city, prepare to head up north for some additional adventures. You can either rent a small 4×4 and explore the area yourself, or you can get a private guide who will arrange a car and show you all the best places. I was lucky to be guided by Sipson who showed me multiple stunning beaches, local communities, old colonial buildings and so much more. His English was impeccable. (Contact him on email@example.com or Dream Island Tours).
Observe the fishermen
Along the way, don’t ignore the fishermen villages and acquaint yourself with the local life. In Kenya, just a few months ago, I was confronted with the results of drought. Thankfully, São Tomé doesn’t suffer such a fate and there’s abundant food everywhere. Luscious fruits and vegetables never cease to make appearance. According to Sipson, no one in São Tomé ever goes hungry, because everyone has access to free fruit and vegetables (thanks to the incredible nature) and clean drinking water. As I observed myself, this is totally true. I couldn’t even count the number of banana trees we passed by (in fact, I wonder why they don’t export this huge amount). It was a delight to see the local mamas carrying their children on their backs, adorned with colorful scarves, as they ferried baskets of food, washed clothes and other things on their heads.
The small wooden houses along the way, with scores of kids playing on the streets and locals washing clothes in the rivers, are also worth observing because they speak volumes about the simple yet rich lives these people lead. Small details make all the difference. For instance, Saturday is laundry day, so this is when you’ll see the most people out by the river, washing up.
Here’s a brilliant fact: education is free in São Tomé, so one group of children starts classes at 7 am and they last until noon. The other group heads to school at noon.
Stop by the Batepa Massacre memorial
Did you know that slavery ended in São Tomé in 1875? But did you also know that the violence and unrest continued even after? This past must be acknowledged and the many locals who died fighting for liberty deserve our respect. So do stop by the memorial, in the village of Fernão Dias, to pay your respects and to learn more.
The past of this idyllic place, like that of many African colonies, is also one tainted with bloodshed. According to many historical accounts, São Tomé was uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered it, but this has been disputed (there’s nothing written before the Portuguese settlement, or maybe it has been destroyed… who can say?). One particularly gruesome instance occurred on February 3, 1953. In what later became known as the Batepa Massacre, hundreds (and by some estimates, thousands) of creole peasants were massacred by the colonial administration because they didn’t agree to forced work as contracted laborers. Their bodies were dumped into the ocean at this very spot, the spot of the memorial. This day is commemorated by the locals till today, who gather here to pray and remember.
It was as late as 1975 that this tiny country was given its independence.
Enjoy the undiscovered beaches
At many of the undiscovered and breathtaking beaches (such as Tamarindo beach and Governador beach), you will find gigantic baobabs providing shade and comfort. (This was the first time I saw a baobab and I was floored!) The crystal blue waters, the small wooden canoes, the clean stretches of pristine sand, and the serenity truly make these beaches something to marvel at. Please be careful and don’t litter — we all have a role to play in keeping São Tomé clean. There are sorting bins on every single beach, and this itself is something I haven’t seen in many countries before.
Make a quick stop at Anambó
Approximately 30 km further up north is Anambo. This is where the Portuguese explorers first landed in São Tomé. The beach is quite pretty and for history buffs this location holds significance.
Check out the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon, known as Lago Azul, is beautiful and boasts water of the perfect temperature. Be prepared, though, because you need some off-roading skills to get here, especially if it has rained the last couple of days. Some friends got stuck on this 4×4 but our brave little Suzuki Jimny was an absolute trooper!
The swim here was splendid. Since São Tomé isn’t swarming with tourists, I swam alone for hours before a couple from Portugal, and then later one from France, joined me. Here, you can enjoy the tranquility and slowness of São Tomé to the fullest. I had to pinch myself to believe that this pearl hasn’t been ruined by tourism yet. This was truly paradise on earth… let’s just hope it remains as such in the years to come.
It was while I drifted here for hours that something happened: I made a pact to myself to come back to São Tomé very, very soon. Honestly, I have never been so relaxed in my life, and I can’t wait to experience that kind of calmness again. And again.
(By the way, quick note: don’t forget you’re on the equator, so bring lots of sunscreen. It would be great if you could get your hands on a natural one since that’s better for the oceans. During the night, I had to use my two-in-one aftersun with DEET — I learned the hard way!)
During the weekends, you’ll see trucks full of locals finding their way to the pristine beaches. In São Tomé, the community feeling is strong, so people go to the beach in groups, armed with lots of fruits and delicious foods and palm wine. The adults enjoy conversations with one another, while the children play football or play with the waves. São Tomé doesn’t have big waves, so it’s not the perfect surfing spot, but very safe for kids to play in the clear waters. I even noticed children picking out a single piece of plastic from the ocean and diligently putting it into the bin.
Observing these scenes of community spirit was truly enlightening. No tourists, no sellers going around with gawky souvenirs… just locals enjoying the beach with one another. Falcons flying around, seeking turtle eggs, and locals trying to save these eggs and take them to the turtle conservation center. What a life!
Go to the turtle museum
Definitely stop by the Morro Peixe, you will not regret it. Four different endangered turtle species (Olive Ridley, Green, Hawksbill, and Leatherback) can be spotted on both the southern and northern beaches of São Tomé. The beach where this is located is a typical fishermen village where you will always see kids playing about. The museum is small and charming and they even have a little shop where you can buy crafts that local women have made (perfect idea for sustainable souvenirs). The funds go back into the museum.
Here, they rescue turtle eggs and protect them from the falcons. Once they hatch, they let the baby turtles grow until a certain age before releasing them in the ocean. They release them during sunset or at night to increase their survival possibilities.
I got a chance to hold a one day old turtle! WOW. Mind truly blown. The entrance fee is just EUR 2, and it’s pretty much the best couple of bucks I’ve ever spent!
Stop by Neves
This is a comparatively larger village where you can easily fill up your gas tanks. It’s interesting to observe the local communities along the way. You’ll also see a lot of goats and pigs and the bustling African street life.
Enjoy some food at Mucumbli
We had the perfect lunch at Mucumbli Ponta Figo. The restaurant enjoys stunning views of the ocean and rainforest and you can easily relax with a coffee for hours. Best part? Everything about Mucumbli is sustainable and eco-friendly.
Not only is the food delicious (and not expensive) here, but so is the residential experience. If you can fork out EUR 70-120, spend a night or two in one of their ecolodges/bungalows. They’re smack in the middle of nature.
This is also the perfect starting point for a 1-4 day hike in the National Park. If you go for the single-day hike, take the boat to the south of São Tomé. Nevertheless, this is the perfect place for climbing, mountain biking, laying on the black beach, bird watching, and learning about the lush flora and fauna.
And that’s it for now, rebels (at least until my next São Tomé trip). Have you started planning your own sustainable São Tomé adventure yet? You must!