The two islands of Sao Tome and Principe hover just above the equator, 250km off the coast of Gabon. While other tropical paradises have been taken over by resorts, Sao Tome and Principe remain thankfully much as they were when the Portuguese first discovered them in 1470, save for the addition of the odd cocoa plantation and charmingly crumbling colonial town.
The interior of the two islands is still predominately primeval rainforest and is a nature lover’s dream. Here you can spot over 100 types of orchid, giant snails, luminous tree frogs and dozens of endemic birds such as the iridescent purple and blue Giant sunbird. There’s also a fascinating collection of mist-shrouded volcanic peaks to test the avid hiker.
On the coast, the islands’ too-paradiscal-to-be-true white beaches continue to play home to four species of nestling turtles, including the endangered leatherback. Diving off Sao Tome and Principe reveals an undisturbed underwater kingdom of luminescent parrot fish, moray eels and octopus. A little further out to sea you can spot humpback whales and flying fish leaping out of the water.
And after a hard day stalking nature, you can unwind with the laid-back locals who love nothing more than throw open-air street parties. Go to this modern-day Eden before the rest of the world discovers it.
Women travelling on their own may find Santomean men quite persistent with their chatting-up. Consider wearing a ring or inventing a namorado (boyfriend) or marido (husband).
Capital of Sao Tome and Principe: Sao Tome
Population of Sao Tome and Principe: 212,679
Languages in Sao Tome and Principe: Offiically Portuguese, but at least three Creole dialect (Saotomean, Angolares and Principe) are widely spoken.
Time in Sao Tome and Principe: GMT
International dialling code in Sao Tome and Principe: +239
Voltage in Sao Tome and Principe: 220 AC 50 Hz
Visas for Sao Tome and Principe: Sao Tome and Principe visa
Money in Sao Tome and Principe: Saotomese Dobra (db). Few places accept credit cards and travellers’ cheques, particularly outside the capital.
Sao Tome and Principe travel advice: Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Sao Tome and Principe tourist board: Sao Tome and Principe Tourism
The climate is equatorial and maritime, so hot and humid all year round. There are two rainy seasons, February to May and October to December. The main dry season from June to September tends to be cloudier with moderate temperatures.
The rainy season is best for spotting orchids, but for comfortable hiking, come in January when the orchids are still in bloom above 800m.
You can see migrating humpback whales off the coast from August to October. From mid-January to mid-February, the island’s birds are sporting their mating plumage. Many visitors come between November and March to see marine turtles laying their eggs or September and April to see the hatchlings return to the sea. The best time to go diving in terms of visibility is between December and March.
Sao Tome (TMS) 5.5km from the town.
It’s a short flight between the islands in a comfortable two-propeller plane and flights run most days. There is currently no real regular, reliable boat service between the two islands.
There are a few tarmacked roads on the two islands, supplemented by countless dirt roads and tracks. Most of the locals use shared yellow taxis. These can also be hired individually by paying for all the seats. For more flexibility, hire a vehicle with 4WD or a mountain bike.
Accommodation in Sao Tome and Principe ranges from five-star resorts to a palm-leaf beach shelter created by your guide if you’re trekking overnight. There’s an increasing choice of places to stay with new city guesthouses, ecocamps and expat B&Bs cropping up all the time. High season is August and the Christmas to New Year period.
Sao Tomean cuisine is fish-focused. Fried flying fish and grilled swordfish are particular delicacies and fish also appears in calulu, Sao Tome’s signature dish – a stew made with lady’s fingers, palm oil, chilli and plenty of fresh herbs.
Gorge yourself on Sao Tome’s wonderful array of exotic fruits: jackfruit, bananas, pineapple, mangosteen, custard-apple, mango, pawpaw and casamangas, for example.
Vegetarians will find plenty of options, even if many Sao Tomeans don’t know what the word means. Just memorise the useful phrase “nem carne, nem peixe”.
The local beers Nacional and Criollo and Portuguese-imported Sagres and Super Bock are widely available. Ask around to sample palm-wine.
Check you’re up-to-date with your tetanus, polio, diphtheria and hepatitis A jabs. Although the cases of malaria are diminishing on both islands, the disease is still present so it’s recommended you take anti-malarials. Minimise the risk of being bitten by taking insect repellent with you, and, if you’re staying in budget accommodation consider buying an insect net. Stick to purified or boiled water.
Sao Tome and Principe is generally very safe. However, pickpockets do operate on the islands. Discos and beaches are the most common place for things to be stolen. Consider investing in a waterproof pouch, which you can put valuables in and take into the water.
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