Sao Tome and Principe Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

São Tomé and Príncipe, a small island nation nestled in the Gulf of Guinea, offers a unique and unspoiled destination for travelers seeking an off-the-beaten-path experience. Blessed with lush rainforests, pristine beaches, and a fascinating blend of Portuguese and African cultures, this tropical paradise is a haven for nature enthusiasts and those drawn to secluded, untouched landscapes. São Tomé, the larger of the two main islands, boasts colonial architecture, bustling markets, and rich coffee plantations. Príncipe, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, captivates with its biodiversity and serene beaches. With a warm equatorial climate and a friendly local population, São Tomé and Príncipe invite visitors to explore a less-explored gem in the heart of West Africa.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? 📅

The best time to visit São Tomé and Príncipe as a tourist is during the dry season, which typically spans from June to September. This period offers more stable weather conditions, with lower chances of rainfall, making it ideal for outdoor activities and exploration.

Key considerations:

  1. Dry Season (June to September):
    • This is considered the peak tourist season due to the favorable weather. Expect warm temperatures and minimal rainfall, providing optimal conditions for activities such as hiking, beach outings, and wildlife exploration.
  2. Rainy Season (October to May):
    • The rainy season, especially from October to April, brings increased humidity and more frequent rainfall. While the islands are lush and green during this time, there’s a higher chance of showers and tropical storms.
  3. Whale Watching (July to October):
    • If you’re interested in whale watching, the period from July to October is when humpback whales migrate through the waters around São Tomé and Príncipe. Boat tours are available for this unique experience.
  4. Festivals and Events:
    • Consider local festivals and events when planning your visit. Cultural celebrations, such as the São Tomé Carnival in February and Independence Day on July 12th, offer a chance to immerse yourself in the local culture.
  5. Birdwatching:
    • Birdwatchers may find the rainy season appealing as it coincides with the breeding season for some bird species. However, trails and accessibility to certain areas might be affected by heavy rainfall.

While the dry season is generally recommended for its pleasant weather, the islands’ lush landscapes and unique biodiversity can be appreciated throughout the year. It’s essential to check weather patterns and specific activities you plan to undertake when planning your trip. Be mindful of travel advisories and keep in mind that São Tomé and Príncipe’s climate is tropical, with warm temperatures year-round.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? 🚌

Getting around São Tomé and Príncipe as a tourist involves a combination of transportation modes due to the islands’ unique geography. Here are some ways to explore the islands:

  1. Rental Cars:
    • Renting a car is a convenient option, especially if you want to explore São Tomé Island independently. However, roads can be narrow and winding, so driving requires careful attention.
  2. Taxis:
    • Taxis are available in urban areas and can be hired for short trips or day tours. It’s advisable to agree on the fare before starting the journey, as some taxis may not use meters.
  3. Public Buses:
    • São Tomé has a limited public bus system, primarily serving the capital and some major routes. Buses may not operate on a fixed schedule, and they might not be the most reliable option for tourists.
  4. Motorbike Taxis:
    • In urban areas, especially São Tomé city, motorbike taxis are a common and relatively inexpensive mode of transportation. Negotiate the fare before hopping on.
  5. Boat Tours:
    • To explore the coastal areas and neighboring islets, consider joining boat tours or hiring local boats. This is a great way to experience São Tomé and Príncipe’s stunning marine landscapes.
  6. Domestic Flights:
    • For traveling between São Tomé and Príncipe, domestic flights are available. Flights are relatively short and provide an opportunity to appreciate the islands from the air.
  7. Boat Ferries:
    • Ferries connect São Tomé with Príncipe, and there are also boats that can take you to nearby beaches and islets. Schedules may vary, so it’s advisable to check in advance.
  8. Walking and Hiking:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe’s landscapes are best explored on foot. Many trails lead to waterfalls, plantations, and viewpoints. Guided hikes are available for various difficulty levels.
  9. Local Guides and Tours:
    • Consider hiring local guides or joining organized tours to explore specific attractions and gain insights into the islands’ culture and history.
  10. Bicycles:
    • In some areas, especially around São Tomé city and popular tourist sites, you may find bicycle rentals. Biking is a leisurely way to explore certain regions.

Given the islands’ relatively small size and the unique experiences each mode of transportation offers, it’s common for tourists to use a combination of these options to explore both São Tomé and Príncipe. Always check local conditions, transportation availability, and schedules when planning your travel.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of São Tomé and Príncipe is Portuguese. While many people in São Tomé and Príncipe may also speak Forro (a Portuguese-based creole) and other local languages, having a few Portuguese phrases can be helpful for tourists. Here are some common Portuguese phrases:

  1. Hello – Olá
  2. Goodbye – Adeus (more formal) / Tchau (informal)
  3. Please – Por favor
  4. Thank you – Obrigado (for males) / Obrigada (for females)
  5. You’re welcome – De nada
  6. Excuse me / I’m sorry – Desculpe
  7. Yes – Sim
  8. No – Não
  9. Good morning – Bom dia
  10. Good afternoon – Boa tarde
  11. Good evening – Boa noite
  12. My name is… – O meu nome é…
  13. How much is this? – Quanto custa?
  14. Where is…? – Onde fica…?
  15. I need help – Preciso de ajuda
  16. Cheers! – Saúde!
  17. Can you recommend a restaurant? – Pode recomendar um restaurante?
  18. Where is the beach? – Onde fica a praia?
  19. What time does it open/close? – A que horas abre/fecha?
  20. Is there a pharmacy nearby? – Há uma farmácia por perto?

While many locals in the tourism industry may speak English, making an effort to use Portuguese phrases is often appreciated and can enhance your travel experience. The locals are generally friendly and welcoming, so don’t hesitate to engage in conversations and immerse yourself in the local culture.

Where to Stay? 🏨

In São Tomé and Príncipe, tourists can find a range of accommodation options, including hotels, guesthouses, and eco-lodges. The choice of where to stay depends on your preferences, budget, and the specific island you plan to explore. Here are some recommendations:

São Tomé:

  1. Hotel Miramar by Pestana:
    • Located in the capital, São Tomé city, this hotel offers modern amenities, sea views, and easy access to the city’s attractions.
  2. Omali Lodge:
    • Situated on the beach, Omali Lodge provides a tranquil setting with comfortable rooms and a swimming pool.
  3. Roça São João dos Angolares:
    • For a unique experience, consider staying in a restored plantation house. Roça São João dos Angolares offers a historical and cultural retreat.
  4. Pestana São Tomé:
    • This international hotel chain offers a comfortable stay with oceanfront views and amenities such as a pool and restaurant.

Príncipe:

  1. Bom Bom Príncipe:
    • Located on Príncipe Island, Bom Bom Príncipe offers beachfront accommodation, bungalows, and a relaxed atmosphere.
  2. Roça Belo Monte:
    • Stay in a beautifully restored plantation house surrounded by lush landscapes. Roça Belo Monte provides an immersive experience in Príncipe’s natural beauty.
  3. Casa Colonial:
    • This charming guesthouse in Santo António offers a cozy atmosphere and personalized service, making it a favorite among travelers.
  4. Roca Sundy:
    • Situated in a restored colonial-era plantation, Roca Sundy provides an intimate and luxurious setting on Príncipe Island.

General Tips:

  • Book in Advance:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe receive a limited number of tourists, so it’s advisable to book accommodation in advance, especially during peak seasons.
  • Consider Eco-Lodges:
    • Many lodges on Príncipe focus on sustainability and eco-friendly practices, providing a unique and environmentally conscious stay.
  • Local Guesthouses:
    • Consider staying in locally-run guesthouses for a more authentic experience and an opportunity to interact with the local community.
  • Check Reviews:
    • Before booking, check online reviews and travel forums to ensure that the accommodation meets your expectations.
  • Island-Specific Accommodation:
    • Depending on your itinerary, you might want to stay on both São Tomé and Príncipe to fully explore the unique offerings of each island.

Remember that the tourism infrastructure in São Tomé and Príncipe is still developing, so accommodations may vary in terms of facilities and services. Choose a lodging option that aligns with your travel style, whether it’s a beachfront resort, a historic plantation house, or a cozy guesthouse.

What to Eat? 🍽️


São Tomé and Príncipe offer a rich culinary experience influenced by African, Portuguese, and local traditions. Here are some must-try foods for tourists visiting these islands:

São Tomé:

  1. Fish Moqueca:
    • A traditional fish stew made with local ingredients such as fish, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and palm oil. It’s often served with rice.
  2. Calulu:
    • A dish featuring dried fish, vegetables, and spices cooked with palm oil. Calulu is a flavorful and hearty stew.
  3. Feijoada à São Tomense:
    • A local adaptation of the Portuguese feijoada, this black bean stew often includes pork, sausage, and other meats.
  4. Café São Tomé:
    • São Tomé is known for its coffee, and trying a cup of local coffee is a must. Look for Café São Tomé, a strong and aromatic coffee.
  5. Arroz Doce:
    • A popular dessert, arroz doce is a rice pudding made with cinnamon, sugar, and sometimes coconut milk.

Príncipe:

  1. Fried Breadfruit:
    • Breadfruit is a staple, and when fried, it becomes a delicious side dish or snack enjoyed with fish or other accompaniments.
  2. Pumpkin and Coconut Soup:
    • A comforting soup made with pumpkin, coconut milk, and spices. It’s a popular dish on Príncipe.
  3. Lagostada:
    • Lagostada is a lobster dish that showcases the abundance of seafood in the region. It’s often grilled or cooked in a flavorful sauce.
  4. Fruit:
    • Príncipe is known for its tropical fruits. Try fruits like guava, passion fruit, and star fruit for a refreshing treat.
  5. Bolo de Ginja:
    • A local cake made with ginja (a type of cherry) and often enjoyed as a sweet snack or dessert.

General Tips:

  • Seafood Delicacies:
    • Given the islands’ coastal location, indulge in the variety of fresh seafood, including fish, lobster, and shrimp.
  • Explore Local Markets:
    • Visit local markets to discover a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, and spices. It’s an opportunity to experience the vibrant local food culture.
  • Street Food:
    • Embrace street food experiences, such as trying local snacks and delicacies from street vendors.
  • Cacau de São Tomé:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe are known for their cocoa production. Don’t miss the chance to taste local chocolate and cocoa-based products.
  • Ask Locals for Recommendations:
    • Engage with locals and ask for recommendations. They may guide you to hidden gems and traditional eateries.

Sampling the local cuisine is an integral part of the São Tomé and Príncipe travel experience. Enjoy the unique flavors, and be open to trying traditional dishes that reflect the islands’ cultural diversity.

What to See? 🔍

São Tomé and Príncipe, with their lush landscapes, pristine beaches, and unique cultural heritage, offer a variety of must-see places for tourists. Here are some recommendations:

São Tomé:

  1. Pico Cão Grande:
    • A striking volcanic spire, Pico Cão Grande is an iconic natural landmark and a challenging trek for adventurous travelers.
  2. São Tomé City:
    • Explore the capital city, São Tomé, for its colonial architecture, lively markets, and the Presidential Palace. The National Museum and Fort São Sebastião are also notable attractions.
  3. Roca São João dos Angolares:
    • Visit this beautifully restored plantation house for a glimpse into São Tomé’s colonial history and the local way of life.
  4. Cascata São Nicolau:
    • This waterfall, located in the heart of the island, offers a serene setting surrounded by tropical vegetation.
  5. Boca de Inferno:
    • A dramatic rock formation on the southern coast, Boca de Inferno is known for the powerful waves crashing against the cliffs.

Príncipe:

  1. Pico Papagaio:
    • Embark on a trek to the summit of Pico Papagaio, a volcanic peak offering panoramic views of Príncipe’s lush landscapes.
  2. Santo António:
    • Explore the capital of Príncipe, Santo António, for its colorful colonial architecture, lively markets, and the impressive Roça Sundy plantation.
  3. Obo National Park:
    • A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Obo National Park is a haven for biodiversity, with hiking trails leading to waterfalls and dense rainforests.
  4. Jale Beach:
    • Enjoy the tranquility of Jale Beach, known for its pristine sands and clear waters. It’s an excellent spot for relaxation and water activities.
  5. Roça Sundy:
    • Stay at Roça Sundy, a restored colonial-era plantation offering a unique blend of history and luxury on Príncipe Island.

General Tips:

  • Explore Plantations (Roças):
    • São Tomé and Príncipe have several historic plantations, known as roças. These include Roça Agostinho Neto and Roça Monte Café on São Tomé and Roça Belo Monte on Príncipe.
  • Tinhosas Islands:
    • Take a boat trip to the Tinhosas Islands, known for their birdlife and stunning landscapes.
  • Explore Waterfalls:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe feature numerous waterfalls, including the Cascata São Nicolau and the waterfalls within Obo National Park on Príncipe.
  • Enjoy Beaches:
    • Relax on the beautiful beaches, such as Praia Inhame on São Tomé and Jale Beach on Príncipe.
  • Local Villages:
    • Explore local villages to experience the warm hospitality of the São Toméans and Príncipenses. Engage with the local communities to gain insights into their way of life.
  • Dolphin and Whale Watching:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe offer opportunities for dolphin and whale watching. Consider taking a boat tour to witness these majestic marine creatures.

These must-see places capture the essence of São Tomé and Príncipe’s natural beauty, cultural heritage, and the warm hospitality of the islands’ residents. Whether you’re interested in trekking, historical sites, or simply enjoying the stunning beaches, these destinations offer a diverse range of experiences.

What to Do? 📸

As a tourist in São Tomé and Príncipe, there are several must-do activities that will allow you to fully experience the unique charm and beauty of these islands. Here are some recommendations:

São Tomé:

  1. Hike Pico Cão Grande:
    • Embark on an adventurous trek to Pico Cão Grande, an iconic volcanic spire that offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes.
  2. Explore São Tomé City:
    • Immerse yourself in the capital city’s vibrant culture. Visit the bustling markets, explore colonial architecture, and learn about the island’s history at places like Fort São Sebastião.
  3. Visit Roca São João dos Angolares:
    • Experience the history of São Tomé by staying at or visiting a restored plantation house, such as Roca São João dos Angolares.
  4. Relax on Praia Inhame:
    • Unwind on the beautiful Praia Inhame, one of São Tomé’s serene beaches, known for its golden sands and calm waters.
  5. Attend São Tomé Carnival:
    • If your visit coincides with the São Tomé Carnival (usually in February), participate in the vibrant celebrations featuring music, dance, and colorful parades.

Príncipe:

  1. Climb Pico Papagaio:
    • Embark on a rewarding trek to the summit of Pico Papagaio on Príncipe Island for panoramic views of the lush landscapes.
  2. Explore Obo National Park:
    • Discover the rich biodiversity of Príncipe by exploring Obo National Park. Hike through the rainforest, visit waterfalls, and spot unique flora and fauna.
  3. Visit Santo António:
    • Explore the charming capital of Príncipe, Santo António. Wander through the colorful streets, visit local markets, and experience the laid-back atmosphere.
  4. Relax on Jale Beach:
    • Enjoy the tranquility of Jale Beach, known for its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. It’s an ideal spot for swimming and relaxation.
  5. Attend Festivals and Events:
    • If possible, attend local festivals and events to experience the lively culture of Príncipe. Check for celebrations like the Feast of São João in June.

General Tips:

  • Boat Tours and Water Activities:
    • Explore the surrounding islets, go snorkeling, or take a boat tour for dolphin and whale watching.
  • Engage with Local Communities:
    • Interact with local communities to gain insights into their way of life. Visit villages, participate in cultural activities, and support local artisans.
  • Birdwatching:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe are havens for birdwatchers. Explore the diverse bird species in various natural habitats.
  • Explore Plantations:
    • Visit historical plantations (roças) to learn about the islands’ colonial past and experience the local agriculture.
  • Photography Opportunities:
    • Capture the stunning landscapes, vibrant markets, and unique architecture. Seek permission before photographing people.

By incorporating these activities into your itinerary, you’ll have the opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty, cultural richness, and warm hospitality that São Tomé and Príncipe have to offer. Always be open to exploring off the beaten path and savoring the authenticity of these West African gems.

Culture and Safety 🦺

Culture:

  1. Cultural Diversity:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe have a rich cultural tapestry influenced by African, Portuguese, and local traditions. Embrace the diversity of customs, music, and dance.
  2. Warm Hospitality:
    • The locals are known for their friendliness and hospitality. Engage with the community, ask questions, and show respect for local customs.
  3. Language:
    • Portuguese is the official language, but locals may also speak Forro (a Portuguese-based creole). Learning a few basic Portuguese phrases can enhance your interactions.
  4. Music and Dance:
    • Music is an integral part of the culture. Enjoy traditional music genres such as soukous, zouk, and the local beat called “danço-congo.” Don’t be shy to join in the dance.
  5. Respect for Elders:
    • Respect for elders is a cultural norm. When entering someone’s home or a village, a customary greeting is often expected.
  6. Local Markets:
    • Explore local markets to witness daily life. Ask for permission before taking photographs, especially of people.

Safety:

  1. Low Crime Rate:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe generally have a low crime rate. Exercise standard safety precautions, such as safeguarding belongings and avoiding poorly lit or isolated areas at night.
  2. Health Precautions:
    • The tap water is usually safe to drink, but some visitors prefer bottled water. Take precautions against mosquitoes, especially in areas with a higher risk of mosquito-borne diseases.
  3. Traffic Safety:
    • Be cautious when crossing roads, as traffic can be unpredictable. If you plan to drive, be aware that roads may have limited infrastructure.
  4. Healthcare Facilities:
    • São Tomé and Príncipe have healthcare facilities, and medical services are available. However, for serious medical issues, evacuation to a larger medical facility may be necessary.
  5. COVID-19 Precautions:
    • Stay informed about any COVID-19 guidelines or restrictions in place. Follow local health regulations, wear masks in crowded places if required, and adhere to social distancing measures.
  6. Emergency Services:
    • The emergency number for police, medical assistance, and fire emergencies in São Tomé and Príncipe is 112.
  7. Local Customs:
    • Dress modestly, especially when visiting religious sites. It’s customary to greet people with a handshake and a polite “Bom dia” (good morning), “Boa tarde” (good afternoon), or “Boa noite” (good evening).
  8. Island-Specific Safety:
    • If engaging in water activities, pay attention to local guidelines and currents. Always use reputable guides for hiking and other outdoor activities.
  9. Travel Advisories:
    • Check for travel advisories before your trip and stay updated on local conditions. It’s advisable to register with your embassy or consulate.
  10. Local Guidance:
    • When in doubt or seeking information, consult with locals or your accommodation. They can provide valuable insights and ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

By respecting local customs, staying informed, and exercising common-sense safety measures, travelers can have a culturally enriching and safe experience in São Tomé and Príncipe. Always stay updated on the latest travel advisories and guidelines for a smooth and enjoyable journey.

Conclusion

In conclusion, São Tomé and Príncipe offer a unique and off-the-beaten-path destination for travelers seeking a blend of lush natural landscapes, vibrant cultural experiences, and warm hospitality. From the striking volcanic peaks to the pristine beaches, the islands captivate with their rich biodiversity and historical charm. Embrace the diverse cultural influences, explore colonial-era plantations, and engage with the friendly locals. While enjoying the low-key atmosphere, be mindful of safety precautions, respect local customs, and savor the culinary delights. São Tomé and Príncipe promise a memorable journey for those seeking a tranquil and authentic escape in the heart of West Africa.