Tucked away off the coast of Sub-Saharan Africa, spanning the equator, is one of Africa’s many hidden treasures, the twin island of Sao Tome and Principe (STP). Once a global leader in cocoa production, STP is made up of two naturally exquisite islands formed of volcanic rock with a population of only about 200,000. A popular destination frequented by the Portuguese, tourism is now increasing among other nationalities and specifically for those looking for a quick escape from Ghana. Serenity, amazing views, great food and happy people continue to draw back to STP over and over. What would draw you in? Hiking? White sand beaches? Whale watching? I started GlobaLuminary to help those less traveled to finally experience their dreams by curating itineraries destined to remove the hassle from travel and put you on the road to relaxation and a once in a lifetime experience.
So what’s the big hype?
Well, STP has a bit of something for everyone. It is ideal for family travel, solo adventures, nature lovers (there are about 5,600 species of birds between the two islands!), beach bums, lovers, foodies and baby-mooners. If you are based in Ghana, it is likely you know at least one person who has been to Sao Tome. However, organizing a trip to this pristine, mostly Portuguese speaking island takes some planning and navigating so one can make the most of their time on the island. Here are a few suggestions to help you plan an amazing escape to the island of Sao Tome. Before we go there, don’t forget to arrange for a visa. Ghanaian and other African passport holders need to apply online. An electronic visa will be sent to you that you MUST carry to the airport. Be sure to check your spam folder and remember to do this early as it can take time. Passport and Visa holders of the European Union/Schengen visa and the United States/American visa no longer require a visa for travel to the island. Find more information here.
Book Your São Tomé and Príncipe Ticket Early.
Typically the price of a round trip ticket to STP is $300. However, costs increase close to major holidays and around school holidays. Interested in traveling around one of these peak dates? Be sure to book early to save money and lock in this great price fare.
Take Money Honey!
This one is HUGE and often a vibe killer for many folks who travel on a whim to Sao Tome. Cash is a must. There is one live ATM at the airport, which works on occasion. This ATM is NEW so servicing cannot be guaranteed. It is best to travel with Euros as it is largely accepted at hotels, guest houses and by most tour companies. Euros by way of 100’s and 50’s are also the preferred currency by the local Forex. However, US Dollars can also do the trick. If using USD be sure to take 100 dollar bills so you can receive the best rate when exchanging to the local Sao Tomean currency, the Dobra. All other USD and Euro notes will elicit a poor exchange rate. Long story, short: Come prepared to pay for everything in cash. If you are not staying in one of the large hotels your accommodation is not likely to take credit card as a mode of payment.
Why Not Try AirBnB?
The main island, Sao Tome, has a few four- and five-star hotels that tend to be costly. If you are traveling on a budget why not try out one of the local AirBnB properties and don’t be afraid to lodge outside of the capital. For example, Santana is just a 20-minute drive from the city, making for a quick in and out. If traveling with a group, try and snag Casa Ondas Divinas. Perched on a cliff, you’ll have scenic views, access to a private beach and nothing but the sound of the waves around you. Be sure to let them know you’d be interested in dinner and breakfast or else no food will be waiting once you arrive. Upon request, they can also stock the house with snacks and drinks for your arrival. While accommodation options are increasing on the island they can still fill up quickly so do be sure to book early.
Explore the Island, Duh!
Don’t be afraid to hit the road upon arriving. Cars are easy to rent – be sure to bring a valid license – but are almost always manual. Here is a sample itinerary from GlobaLuminary that will allow you to see most of the island on a three-night stay in Sao Tome:
Day 1: Arrive and explore the city, visit the cultural center, listen to live music or try out some of the locally produced rum before heading out to dance kizomba.
Day 2: Head North and Northwest where you can visit one of the largest plantations on the island, stop at clear blue, white sand beaches for a quick swim and a top eye view, and later a swim at the Blue Lagoon.
Day 3: Head South to see one of the largest existing natural blow holes on the island, visit the Island of Rolas where you can visit the equator among other things and stop by the main existing fishing village still active today. Do be sure to stop and snap a photo of two with the phallic Pico Cão Grande.
Again, this is just an illustrative example of what you can do on a three-night stay, but of course you are not only limited to these activities. More interested in climbing the Pico Cão Grande? You can! A trek can be done in one, two, or three days if you want to reach the top. Not big on driving? No worries, these same activities can easily be done by hiring a local tour company with an English Speaking guide. Sound hectic? Not to worry, leave the heavy lifting to Global Luminary! We’ll work with you to craft an itinerary most suited to you and/or your group so you can immerse yourself in a unique, curated experience just for you!
Your Phone, Your New Best Friend
As soon as you arrive, see if your hotel can arrange for you to do a quick forex exchange and help facilitate the purchase of a Sim card. Registration is required so be sure to carry a passport. A sim costs about 2 Euros while 4 Euros will get you 1 GB of data. Be a bit patient, odds are there are no English speakers servicing the store. Before you go, be sure to download Google Translate if you are not a Portuguese, French or Spanish speaker. With this app you can quickly translate signs, menus and type in English to have quick questions translated for you. Best thing is, it works offline!
Naturally seafood is a main staple for folks on the island. If you are a seafood fan, prepare to indulge. If you are not into seafood so much, no worries there are still plenty of options for you. Dining in Sao Tome is an experience all on it’s own. Never be afraid to walk through the doors of a small empty restaurant; you will walk out amazed by your experience. The dining options are many. Feel free to venture outside of your hotel and hit the streets to see what is out there. Here are a few suggestions for eating out:
Roca Sao Joao: This beautifully restored rustic colonial plantation house is known for one of the most famous restaurants on the island. Here is home of the world-renowned and TV chef, Joao Carlos Silva. Come and enjoy a culinary experience like none other. The eight-course fusion lunch will excite your palate with intricately crafted combination of flavors placed before you. It culminates with a traditional Sao Tomean dish, like Calulu. Be sure to leave room for dessert and tea or coffee.
Santola: Santola means crab. True to it’s name, this local joint serves king crab with bread and fried breadfruit. If you order in advance they can make provision for chicken and fish. They only prepare what the local fishermen catch so be sure to get there by early afternoon and or call before hand to ensure Santola is on hand!
Papa Figo: Pizza! While this restaurant has a range of food, and offers more seafood options their pizzas are highly recommended.
Filomar: Overlooking the bay, you will find this no frills restaurant is popular with the locals during lunch. Feel free to try something local or opt for the dish of the day – choosing from a chicken, pork or fish protein option.
Omali Lodge: Do yourself a favorite and order the chocolate mousse. This decadent dessert should be shared but you’d regret such a decision later: go solo if you can! It’s rich, but it’s oh so good! Not a chocolate fan? Try the sour sop mousse or a caprinhina!
The people of Sao Tome are hospitable and kind. Slow down, take everything in, relax and enjoy your time in Sao Tome. There may be a few language challenges here and there but allow the aesthetics of what surrounds you to center you.
So there you have it. With these tips you should be well on your way to plan a successful escape to Sao Tome and Principe. Alternatively, feel free to reach out to myself and the Global Luminary team and we’ll help make it happen for you! Boa Viagem!
Erica M. Daniel is driven by passion and passionate to see the world, one country and experience at a time. She believes everyone has a purpose in this life and travel is one avenue to finding the road you are meant explore. Let her help you find yours.
Photos by Circumspecte, unless otherwise indicated
Circumspecte offers insights and perspectives on business, development, lifestyle, culture, careers and human interest issues related to Africa and Africans.