Discovering the Beautiful Island of Sao Tome & Principe, Africa

As we were getting ready to land on the island of Sao Tome & Principe in Africa, the man sitting next to me on the airplane looked over and quietly whispered to me, “you must be going to the island for work, no?”

With a very confused look on my face, I smiled and said,

“No, I am going for tourism. I have been traveling alone in West Africa for the last 3.5 months and this is my last stop.”

He looked at me totally shocked, as if I had told him something that was absolutely absurd and unheard of.

“Look all around us and see if you notice anything in common with the majority of the people”- he mentioned

I awkwardly turned around, looking to my right and to the left. He was right, there was a commonality:  Couples, many, many couples. They were of all ages, the giddiest of them being the elderly couple sitting in the seat in front of us, which were kissing endlessly until the plane hit the ground.

So, what the man next to me was trying to determine with his original question is: why on Earth would someone travel to a beautiful island destination, full of lovers, COMPLETELY ALONE?!

Over my years of traveling, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the typical line: “One day, when I have the love of my life by my side, I will travel to that incredible destination I have always wanted to visit, but until then, I will wait.”

Many people constantly wait until another day, and the sad truth is that many will never actually visit their dream destination because they are constantly waiting on a future change or person to come.

Sure, Sao Tome & Principe is a beautiful island and there are many lovers that visit there, but it’s suitable for all types of travelers, even solo travelers. As I was looking out the window as we were landing I did not get upset by his random question to me, nor did I enter in a depression of the reality that I was there completely alone. In fact, I felt the opposite. I could feel the excitement building as we got closer and closer to the runway, knowing that I had 8 full days to explore this small island, which is the second smallest country in Africa.

Sao Tome & Principe was already on my good list before entering, considering the fact that as an American I did not need a visa for up to 15 days. That was an excellent plus, especially given the amount I spent only in visas in West Africa before arriving. In fact, the no visa applies to all European citizens and in many other parts of the world.

NOTE: Before booking a flight it’s important to check and make sure you need a visa. Many require visas in advance. 

Flying to Sao Tome is quite simple. Portugal and Ghana are the normal layovers to enter into Sao Tome through Tap Air. I was super impressed with the company, which had competitive prices, good amenities on board and good food options for the long international flight.

NOTE: Keep in mind that it is absolutely necessary to have you Yellow Fever Certificate. The moment you get off of the plane there is an officer at the door checking each card individually. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION 

Language: Portuguese

Dinero: Dobra, euro accepted in many places

This is a cash ONLY country. I made the mistake of visiting with little cash and when I arrived I spent a whole entire day trying to get money transferred in by Western Union.

After spending all day at the bank, the transaction was unsuccessful. I then started to investigate different ways to get money and I was informed that if you really need to take out money with your card then you can visit EcoBank and talk with the person in charge. They will then give you a code, which allows you to take out money from the machine. I obviously did not know this, or I would’ve done this in the first place.

If that does not work, there are small places available that you can transfer money by PayPal with 5% commission. In the end, this was the option that I ended up going with. The transaction was super simple and in an official building.

TRANSPORTATION

It’s quite difficult to get lost on the island. Throughout most of Sao Tome, its one main road, with few turn offs. The road conditions are not excellent and especially the more south you go, the more likely the chance is you will need a 4×4.

Without a doubt, the best way to get around is by renting a car. Public transportation is available (yellow minivans shared with many people), but it only stays on the main roads and will not take you to the waterfalls, plantations and all of the places that are worth the visit.

Renting a car will cost you €40 a day plus gas, and if you want to rent a guide, another €20.

I’ve visited the island half of the time by myself and then the other half with a local guide. Looking back, I am happy that I spent the extra money for a guide and the driver, because the roads were rough and as a passenger I was not responsible for any sort of damages that could’ve happened on the road.

In addition, a local guide can give you lots of interesting information, tell you stories and make the experience even more meaningful.

I was traveling alone in the beginning, but I found an elderly 73 year old man that was also traveling alone. We decided to split the travel costs and have a fun adventure together.

Motorcycles are also available, but you need an international motorcycle license. However, I was told by many people that the police do not ever check your license, but in the case that they do, you would be required to pay a fine.

ACCOMODATION

There are countless options for lodging, ranging from very luxurious, mid range, to budget AirbnB rooms. I decided to try many different places out in order to get a more well rounded opinion on the accommodation options available on the island.

For the low budget travelers, the cheapest option is Airbnb for around $12/night. These options are available more outside of the city, but still within walking distance. However, if you are a solo traveler and are looking to meet people, this is not the best option in my opinion.

GUEST HOUSES 

There are two main guest houses in the city, which can range anywhere from $40-100 a night, depending on how many people you are traveling with. This is an excellent way to meet other travelers, cook and share meals and have a common area to talk and have a community of people around you.

I really enjoyed my stay in the guest houses and if you are traveling with another person, the price comes out to be very reasonable.

The two main guest houses are: Sweet Guest House & Sao Pedro. They both have different atmospheres and are located on different parts of the city, so depending on your taste, you can easily decide which one is best for you.

Both are about a 10 minute walk to the city center and easily accessible by car. I tried both of the guest houses out and I can say with 100% confidence that either one of them are excellent choices.

SWEET GUEST HOUSE 

The best thing about here is the cozy atmosphere, the shared, fully stocked kitchen and common area. I met other travelers there and even learn how to cook some delicious Nigerian food with 2 Nigerian men that were there for work. The common area has a big TV and couches for people to sit and relax, as well as an excellent outdoor area, right off the kitchen, to eat outside.

The vibe is very good there and the rooms are spacious and comfy. Of all the places that I stayed, this one had the best air conditioning, which was a huge plus! The staff was helpful and even organized a trip for another traveler and I to the south of the island.  They did all the work and all we had to do was show up, pay and enjoy the trip.

Breakfast is available in the morning at an additional price, which included tropical fruits, coffee, eggs, etc.

Highly recommended.

For more information, click here

SÃO PEDRO 

The best part about this place, in comparison to the other places that I stayed in the island, was its distance to the beach. You literally walk out the door, down the street two minutes and the beach will be right in front of you. Also, if you plan on visiting the chocolate factory, it as well is just a 2 minute walk.

You can feel the vibes of this place the minute you walk in. The huge pool, surrounded by palm trees gives this place a very tropic feeling. It’s a perfect place to lay out by the pool and read a book, relax or even go for a swim.

This is a good place to meet other travelers, in a location that is ideal and safe. The guesthouse is gated,  so I had to fear in laying out by the pool in the evening or night.

The owner was very helpful in helping me to organize my stay, finding nice places to eat and organizing my transportation.

Breakfast is included in the morning for an additional cost and has a large variety of fruits, cereals and bread.

Overall, I highly recommend this place!

For more information, click here

HOTEL CENTRAL

After visiting the guest houses, I decided to try out a couple of hotels in order to see how they are different in comparison to my experience at the guest houses.

The first hotel that I stayed at was Hotel Central. It gets its name because of its location. It is centrally located, right in the middle of all of the action. It´s just minutes away from the main market and restaurants. Wifi was not available in the rooms, but there is a small couch downstairs where one can sit and use the internet.

The rooms were very comfortable, with air conditioning. A breakfast buffet was included in the morning, which offered eggs, fruits, bread and cereal.

A very great alternative if you want to be centrally located!

For more information, click here: 

SH BOUTIQUE HOTEL 

If you are looking for a place that’s more upscale, then look no further than this hotel. This hotel is just 15 minutes away from the airport, in the area “Vila Dolores.”

The rooms were very modern, spacious and elegant. The hotel had all the nice extra amenities that I love, such as a robe, slippers, hair dryer and a a mini fridge to store my drinks.

This hotel has 24 hour security and a good parking area if you have a rental car. This is a quiet place to go and relax, located 10 minutes by foot by the city center.

Breakfast was included in the morning, with different options of fruits, cereals, eggs etc.

For more information, click here: 

WHAT TO DO

CHOCOLATE TOUR 

If you are a chocolate lover, then this is your place to splurge! Years back Sao Tome & Principe used to be the world’s largest cocoa producer, but from what our guide explained, after the small country became independent, a lot of the plantations throughout the island were abandoned. The cocoa history is quite interesting here and you can learn about it at Claudio Corallo Chocolate Factory.

For just 4 euros you can join a chocolate tasting tour where you get the chance to try all kinds of delicious chocolates and learn about the history.

LOCAL MARKET 

It can get a bit wild, but the market is a great place where you can get a good feel for the local culture of the island. This place is packed full of people selling fruits, fish, meat, and everything you can possibly think of. They can get a bit rowdy in there, so hold on tight to your stuff.

They sell a lot of raw fish and meat, so if you have a weak stomach, you may want to just visit the market from the outside.

I highly suggest buying some Jackfruit and trying it out. It’s not available in all parts of the world, so it’s a fruit that everyone should try at least once.

SAO SEBASTIÃO 

This is a unique 1566 fortress which is now converted into a museum. This is great place to visit in the city center, with rich history and excellent places to take photos.

GASTRONOMY TOUR 

There are so many dishes available in Sao Tome, which are strongly influenced by the Portuguese. One of my favorite activities that I did within the city was visiting different restaurants and trying typical dishes.

The most common food on the island, without a doubt, is fish, banana and rice. Other local dishes that I enjoyed are:

Calulu: a traditional dish prepared with fish, veggies (eggplant, onion, spices and typically served with rice and plantain. This was my favorite dish that I tried.

Barriga de Peixe: traditional grilled fish, with comes served with rice, or breadfruit

Cachupa: delicious dish, made with green beans, corn and broad beans.

 

SOUTH

In my opinion, the south was the most impressive part of the island. Its a straight road to get there and is located about 2.5-3 hours by car from the airport.

I highly recommend spending at least one night in the south, but it is possible to just do a day trip, although it will be a bit rushed.

ROCA AGUA IZE 

This was one of our first stops on our way to the south of the country. This is one of the most original and largest cocoa plantations, which many years ago had thousands of locals employed.

There are many places for breathtaking views from there and it’s definitely a stop that you must visit.

BOCA DE INFERNO (HELLS MOUTH)

I absolutely loved visiting here. There are some amazing views and it’s interesting to see the water pound hard against the rock to create a large blowhole.

Although my guide told me it was not a good idea, I still decided to go down the hill closer to the rocks. Its interesting to see up close and its a better place to get a photo.

PICO CAO GRANDE

This rock is one of the most famous volcanic rocks in the hole world and it’s impossible not to see if you are traveling to the south. You can either take a hike towards the rock or get a nice shot from the road.

JALE BEACH (PRAI JALE)

This was such an impressive beach, with beautiful white sand. Out of all of the beaches that I explored, this was one of my favorites. The area was super clean, white sand and very peaceful.

The roads are unpaved to get there, so it’s recommended to go with an SUV. There are different bungalows available to sleep, which is an excellent idea for at least one night.

This is also a popular turtle beach between the months of September and April. Here you will be able to see female turtles lay their eggs in the sand, which is a pretty neat experience!

PORTO ALEGRE 

I took a long stop here to explore the area where the fishermen were hard at work, bringing in the fish and cleaning their boats. They were all so friendly with me and had no problems with me taking a few pictures.

From Porto Alegre you can visit Rolas Island, which is the area in which you can cross the equator. It takes about 20-30 minutes and will cost anything between 35-45 euros.

I did not make that trip, but I have heard from other travelers that its a beautiful experience!

NORTH

BLUE LAGOON 

On my road trip by car to the north of the island, I came across the Blue Lagoon. There is a very pretty view spot from the road, or you can go down and swim in the crystal blue water.

This is an excellent stop for divers or snorkelers who love to explore the underwater life.

PRAI DOS TAMARINDO 

This has the reputation for being one of the best swimming areas on the island. It easy to reach from the capital and its worth the visit. This is a good place to get some amazing views and to relax on the beach.

NEVES 

This is one of the most important towns on the island. What I loved about visiting this area was going into the town and getting the authentic feel of the people on the island.

I stopped and had a local lunch and had the opportunity to connect with the kids, listen to them sing and put on performances for the International Kids Day.

If you are feeling really adventurous, just outside of Neves you can find the beginning of climbing point for Pico de Sao Tome, which is the highest mountain in the whole island.

 

CENTER 

The center of the country is where one you can explore different waterfalls, see the forest and even bird watch. There are many different endemic species of birds and on a chilled out day, this can be a great option to explore.

MONTE CAFE 

This is the main place that one can go and learn about coffee, processing, harvesting and have a good coffee tasting.

Coffee is a huge part of their culture here and its a must see when visiting. It’s very close to the capital and can easily be done in just one morning.

Here you can also visit some of the plantations. If you are lucky, a cute kid might even come up to your window and hand you a cocoa pod so that you can suck the sweetness out of each bean. It tastes just like candy!

SAO NICOLAS WATERFALL

This is a waterfall that’s about 20 by car minutes from Monte Cafe. I went during the dry season, so it was impossible to swim, but my guide mentioned that many people enjoy swimming there. The waterfall is accessible by car and requires no hiking to access it.

Its located in the forest and the drive getting there is beautiful, but quite bumpy!

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION 

If you have a lot of time it is highly recommended to visit the neighboring country, Principe. At this moment there are not boats that take tourists between the two islands, but flights are available at different times throughout the week.

Prices range from €70-150 one way. Unfortunately I did not get the chance to make this trip, but I plan to go back in the future and check it out.

Don’t forget to also read:

HOW I GRADUATED WITH HONORS IN 1 YEAR WHILE TRAVELING FULL TIME TO 20 COUNTRIES

THE PERFECT DAY GONE WRONG: MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT IN KO SAMUI, THAILAND

7 GESTURES YOU MIGHT WANT TO AVOID IN OTHER COUNTRIES

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