Submitted by Cathie Johnson on November 18, 2015
An enchanting island off the Western coast of Africa, São Tomé & Príncipe is like a gem floating in the sea. Located near the equator, approximately 120 miles from the coast of West Africa, this island is known for its rich and diverse vegetation and for its beaches and water. An ideal location for any snorkeling lovers or those who appreciate dramatic vistas of mountain ranges, these islands are volcanic chunks of land, creating dramatic mountain tops scraping blue skies. Looking for sea turtles or whales? This is the place to go.
São Tomé & Príncipe is the very definition of relaxation -- a place where you can breathe in the fresh island air and enjoy the company of the warm and laid-back locals. There are no large or commercial resorts to be found, just local and hotels that embrace the culture of the island.
Once dubbed “the chocolate islands” due to it being the world’s largest producer of cacao in 1908, you’ll be able to enjoy some of the world’s finest dark chocolate in one of the most tranquil settings imaginable.
To get to these tiny, but breathtaking islands, you generally fly straight to São Tomé from Luanda or Lisbon. However, it is also possible to fly from Douala, Cameroon.
WHEN TO TRAVEL – WEATHER
When planning a visit to São Tomé & Príncipe take a moment to appreciate that there really isn’t a “bad” time to visit this lush paradise. While there are two rainy seasons on the islands, the temperature rarely drops below 70-degrees Fahrenheit at night and often stays around the mid 80’s during the day. When you decide to visit will be determined a great deal by what you are hoping to accomplish while on the island.
The shorter of the two rainy seasons lands between October and November and then the longer rainy season is seen between February and May. If looking for a time when the sun will always be beating bright in the sky, with blue skies to match, visiting São Tomé & Príncipe between June and September will offer the “driest” of the time to visit.
Visiting during the dry season is ideal for those who wish to spend a lot of their time trekking in the rainforest or lounging on beaches. However, if you are hoping to get some excellent bird watching time in, then you may consider visiting in December and January when birds have their brightest plumage intended to attract the best mates. If hoping to witness sea turtles nesting on the beaches, visit between November and February where you can then catch the eggs hatching a month and a half later. And if whales are the creature you hope to find, plan your trip between August and October when you can catch humpback whales, killer whales, and dolphins off the northeast coast.
São Tomé & Príncipe offers something for everyone almost every month of the year. When packing for the visit, be sure to bring clothes that are comfortable, lightweight, and are ideal for the ultimate relaxation. Be sure to bring adequate footwear if you plan to trek in the rainforest or along rocky beaches. For cooler evenings, bring along a sweater or light rain jacket to ensure you stay as comfortable (and relaxed!) as possible.
CUISINE AND DRINKS
Due to the Portuguese influence from the historical connection to Portugal, along with the island’s idyllic landscape for growing cocoa, you’ll find an abundance of unique and rare delicacies on these islands that are sure to linger in your memory.
For example, these islands are a chocolate lover’s paradise. Organic and Fairtrade chocolate and cocoa makes up almost 95% of the country’s exports and you’ll find no shortage of chocolate items to enjoy on the islands.
A lot of the staple meals are based in rice, potatoes, or beans. However, due to the obvious proximity to the ocean around, the majority of the local cuisine is based in fresh fish and seafood. You will find a great deal of spices used alongside the meals, which are often grilled over open flames and enjoyed while the food is still piping hot.
In addition, it wouldn’t be a visit to a tropical island without enjoying some tropical fruit. Here you’ll find the wildly popular banana (which is often transformed into wide varieties of tropical treats), pineapples, mangoes, papayas, and coconuts.
When reaching for something to drink, you’ll come across coffee, coconut water, and soda. The island is known for its coffee so be sure to stop at one of the many cafes and enjoy an excellent cup of local coffee. Or, if you really want to embrace the cocoa-heartbeat of the islands, take a drink of some cocoa while you’re there.
- Obo Natural Park: Labeled as one of the world’s 200 most important biodiversity areas by the World Wildlife Federation, Obo Natural Park is a dense and verdant mecca for flora and fauna lovers. With over 700 species of native plants and 143 different birds, there’s no telling what you’ll come across while adventuring in this green paradise. Located an easy 30 minutes from the city of São Tomé, you can trek through the rainforest trying to take in everything there is to see.
- Colonial “Roças”: In the 1800’s São Tomé quickly filled with coffee and cacao plantations, which were locally known as roças. You can still visit some of the plantation houses on the island and catch a rare glimpse of the historically significant structures. In addition, it also offers a window into the history the island shares with slave trading, as the island was used as a “holding center” for slaves taken from West Africa to the Americas.
- Lagoa Azul: The Lago Azul (the Blue Lagoon) is a sparkling natural marvel, with colors so bright and rich you won’t believe your eyes. Located right alongside the ocean, you’ll only find rocky beaches here. Take some time to enjoy some birdwatching, or climb into the water for some idyllic snorkeling. Located NW of São Tomé, you can get to the Blue Lagoon by taking a bus.
- Jalé Ecolodge: Located on the southern tip of São Tomé island, this lodge is a raw and authentic ecolodge created to help sea turtles as they nest along the beaches. The lodge is situated near the beach where the sea turtles lay their eggs. You have the opportunity to not only stay in this rustic lodge (the huts have no electricity), but you also have the opportunity to join the beach guards in the early morning. Quietly move down the cool beach to watch the sea turtles laying their eggs in the sand. In addition, you may also time your visit to watch staff releasing sea turtle hatchlings into the ocean in the early morning hours.
It’s important to apply for a visa on arrival/landing permit through the immigration office in São Tomé. You will need to email the immigration office with a scanned image of your passport information page and a completed visa application form. They will then send an invoice and once that has been taken care of they will create an application on your behalf. They shall email all of this information back to you, which you can then present to the airport officials when landing in São Tomé. Be sure to have both the entry visa and the receipt with you ready to present.
Banks and Currency
The official currency of São Tomé & Príncipe is the São Tomé & Príncipe Dobra (STD). The dobra is found in both coins and banknotes. Coins come in 100, 250, 500, 1000, and 2000 dobras and banknotes come in 5000, 10000, 20000, 50000 and 100000 dobras.
Before venturing to São Tomé & Príncipe, remember the relatively tiny size of the islands as well as the rather rustic vibe that comes along with them. While there are banks that have ATMs it’s important to know that these are used for local banking. They may not be reliable in locations or efficiency and often do not accept any foreign cards.
The preferred currency to bring for exchange on the islands is the USD or Euro. Be sure to exchange at one of the larger hotels, though Euros are virtually a second currency on the islands. In addition, travelers cheques are not accepted and should be left behind when coming to São Tomé & Príncipe and credit cards are usually only accepted at the larger, more high-end hotels on the islands.