Located in the Gulf of Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe is made up of two islands. The country is the second smallest in Africa, with the Seychelles taking first place. The larger of these islands, São Tomé, holds the capital of the same name. São Tomé and Príncipe achieved independence from Portugal in 1975 but Portuguese remains the official language. With a total population of little more than 215,000, this country feels hidden away from the world. Not to mention it is one of Africa’s least visited countries. Uniquely, the islands use the Dobra currency. This currency is not used anywhere else. The low crime rate and feelings of safety make São Tomé and Príncipe an ideal holiday destination. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are a tropical paradise. While relatively unknown to many, the country boasts of beautiful scenery. There are countless breath-taking beaches with coral reefs and wrecks, rainforests and volcanic formations. Due to the history of the Portuguese colonies, there are also many historic buildings and sites. Despite its beauty, there are issues of tropical diseases such as malaria. However, new malaria vaccines are being proven to be highly effective. So this problem may be little more than a small bump in the road. If you can afford to get to São Tomé and Príncipe, you will have the time of your life.
The Island of São Tomé
Sao Tome is the larger of the two islands and roughly 155 miles from the coast of Gabon. The capital city shares the same name as the island and has a population of around 70,000. Translated to ‘Saint Thomas’, the town was one Africa’s first colonial cities. The island is situated 25 miles north of the equator and was used for sugarcane plantations in the 16th century. Plantations were in use up until countries such as Brazil exceeded them and effectively put them out of business.
The average high temperature in the city is 30 degrees and a low of 20 degrees. This climate is ideal for a laid back life. One fine example of cultures in the island living peacefully is the creation of a play known as Tchiloli. That is, The Tragic Story of the Marquis of Mântua and Emperor Charlemagne, a story based on a 16th century Portuguese drama.
Lagoa Azul is a small bay in the northern part of Sao Tome. The site is 4 kilometres northwest of Guadalupe and is a part of the beautiful Obo National Park. This lagoon is known for its pristine turquoise waters and marine life. A narrow rocky beach surrounds the waters and baobab trees decorate the scenery. Nearby, on a hill, stands a lighthouse. If a short hike sounds appealing, you will not be disappointed by the photography opportunities at the top of the hill. This lagoon is perfect for snorkelling or diving. By making the dive you are sure to see seahorses, eels, rays and so much more. To top it off, the locals are known for selling delicious roasted bananas and fish on the beach.
Obô Natural Park and Pico Cão Grande
Obô National Park is 195 kilometres squared and was established in 2006. The park spreads across 4 districts in São Tomé and is very accessible. Long bridges stretch from trees up near the jungle canopy and spectacular waterfalls are dotted around the park. The untouched jungle environment is full of endemic species of plants, flowers and birds.
While it is possible to make your own way through the national park, hiring a tour guide is recommended. A popular choice for hiking is to begin at Bom Sucesso, a botanical garden. The garden is full of gorgeous plants and birds such as parrots to enjoy and learn about. For the hikes, there are options for expeditions that are just a few hours or even two days. Often tourists will choose to make the trek from Bon Sucesso to Lagoa Amélia, a dried up crater lake about an hour and a half away. Upon reaching your destination chances are you will be told a story about the origin of the name of the location.
The most popular sight in Obô National Park is Pico Cão Grande, a skyscraper like volcanic rock that juts out from the ground. Pico Cão Grande’s summit reaches 663 meters above sea level, with the height at the peak reaching 370 meters. Travellers are able to get an astonishing view of the peak while driving along the main road on the island. It is possible to hike closer to the formation on your own. Pico Cão Grande is considered a very difficult rock to manoeuvre but rock climbing is a possibility if you are brave enough.
São Sebastião Museum
Built in 1566 to defend the city against pirates, this fort is in the capital city. São Sebastião is the only history museum in the country. It was established in 1976 and has been used to educate tourists and locals about the history of the islands. The small collection of artefacts and art covers the entire history of the country and manages to show what colonial life was like. This fort is located in the north-eastern part of the city centre in Ana Cheves Bay and allows those who reach the roof to have an exquisite view of the ocean. The museum is open weekdays from 8am to 12pm and again from 2pm to 4pm. On Saturdays the building is only open from 8am to 1pm.
Other Activities in São Tomé
Scuba diving is a must if you ever visit São Tomé. If you do not know how to scuba dive and are not qualified – no need to worry! The Atlantic Diving Centre is located halfway up the east coast of the island and can take care of your every need. Located in Santana, this diving centre is easily accessible and is in an ideal location. Here, you can have diving lessons with experienced instructors at a very affordable price. Not only do they offer diving lessons, but you can also rent gear as well as boats.
One you have mastered scuba diving you can go and test the waters. There are wrecks and reefs close by and a boat can take you to the sites a short distance away. You can choose to go day-diving or night-diving, both of which will give you a completely different experience. On these dives you are likely to see all kinds of marine life and beautiful scenery.
You can also go on snorkelling trips to various locations around the island and learn all about the endemic wildlife. When you are done scuba diving or snorkelling, the Club Santana Resort is the ideal spot on the beach to relax. The resort offers refreshments and its own swimming pool if you cannot get enough of the water. On top of that, you can spend hours on boat trips around the island, or kayaking.
The Island of Príncipe
Príncipe’s population barely reaches 8,500. The island is 142 kilometres squared and is also home to part of the Obô National Park. This island is considered to be even more unspoiled than São Tomé. Santo Antonio, the capital of the island, was founded in 1502 and is one of the smallest capitals in the world. Príncipe’s capital was also the colonial capital of the Portuguese from 1753 to 1852 in São Tomé and Príncipe. In its early years the Portuguese built a fort, Fortaleza de Santo Antônio da Porta da Mina, located in Santo António Bay. The fort, built in 1695, was destroyed by the French in 1706 and now lies in ruins engulfed by the forest. The island of Príncipe may be most famous for being the location of the Eddington experiment. This was the experiment that tested Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The location of the Eddington experiment, Roca Sundy is one of the most popular places in Príncipe to visit. This hotel consists of two perfectly restored plantation houses, meaning you will be surrounded by history. In total there are 15 unique rooms, nine of which are in the main Eclipse House and six in the more contemporary Cacao House. This facility offers many experiences. Meals at the Eclipse House are served on a beautiful veranda with a spectacular view and tourists have the opportunity to truly mix with the locals. Locals still live on the plantation, meaning that guests will be able to create memories with them, by dancing and playing music together.
Sundy Praia is located at the north-western tip of the island of Príncipe and is a tented luxury hotel. Offering a unique experience, this hotel is made up of 15 villas and is in what used to be the second largest cacao plantation on the island. The hotel has both public and private pools to enjoy on the premises, as well as an incredible restaurant. OCA Sundy, the attached restaurant, won the prestigious Versailles Special Prize for being the best architectural concept in Africa in 2019. This restaurant is shaped like a fish, making you feel like you have been transported to the beach side. Daily menus are prepared and local produce is used to make unforgettable meals.
Bom Bom Island and Resort
Translating to good good, Bom Bom Island and Resort is just that. The resort is located near Príncipe’s north coast and is connected to the mainland by a 242 meter long wooden bridge. Made up of 17 bungalows directly beneath the tropical rainforest canopy while also being on the beach, this is the top spot to go. Not only is Bom Bom beautiful and a slice of paradise, but it also has a spa and restaurant. While enjoying spa treatments made with local produce, you will be able to watch and enjoy the waves caressing the sand. Even the restaurant goes the extra mile and sets up its tables on the sand during the low tide! Bom Bom Island and Resort is truly the place that dreams are made of.
Kaxí Tetuga Museum
Kaxí Tetuga Museum is the first museum of marine biodiversity on Príncipe. It is an educational museum that teaches about the importance of marine life, with a special focus on sea turtles. The museum is located in Praia Grande do Norte, a beautiful and large beach in the northern part of Príncipe. This hidden gem was established in 2017 by the local community, who also maintains the museum. While this place is not the Natural History Museum, it is beautifully personal and you can tell that peoples’ hearts and souls have gone into making it what it is. Depending on the time of year you may have the chance to witness sea turtles nesting and spawning, an experience that you will cherish for the rest of your life. The location of the museum means that you can enjoy the nearby beaches as well as restaurants 5km away.
Unmissable Locations in Príncipe
Breath-taking resorts and luxury hotels are not the only thing that may pull you to Príncipe. Many other scenic places are dotted around the island that will make you never want to go home. Banana Beach, named so because of its shape, is one of those locations. Although relatively small compared to others, Banana Beach might be recognised by some as being the site of a rather famous Bacardi advert back in the 90’s. Hidden under the forest canopy is a small bar with seating, the perfect way to wind down after taking part in the snorkelling and kayaking that can be enjoyed in the waters.
The Bay or Spires, or Baía das Agulhas, is arguably the most popular destination in the whole of São Tomé and Príncipe. This immense popularity stems from the postcard-like skyline. Three large rock towers jut out from the jungle, named the Father, Son and Grandfather because of their varying sizes. This incredible view is best seen from the waters, so get your cameras ready and hop on that boat!
The last unmissable location in Príncipe is Pico Papagaio. This one is for the hikers. Although not the highest point on the island, Pico Papagaio is certainly the more accessible one. It is a half day hike to the summit that will take you through thick jungle and even past run down a roça. At the top you will be greeted by the beautiful view of the island below and will have the chance to get that perfect picture. Hiring a guide for this hike is recommended as the path can be difficult to follow or even find and thick vegetation may hinder you.
Why You Need to Visit São Tomé and Príncipe
Besides it being an untouched tropical paradise and stunning? São Tomé and Príncipe is full to the brim with unique culture and history. Whether you enjoy relaxing at beaches, going on adventures in the jungle or lazing at a resort, this place is right for you. You will get the chance to learn the importance of nature and marine life and maybe even witness it in action with the sea turtles. The cultural mix is one of the many charms of these islands. São Tomé and Príncipe may be one of the least visited countries in Africa but that does not take away how stunning it truly is. It is the hidden tropics that the world seems to have forgotten about.
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