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Africa's 'best kept secret': Sao Tome & Principe

Updated: Jan 30

This isn’t Maldives, Seychelles or Mozambique. This is Sao Tome and Principe, which lives up to its slogan of “a well-kept secret”. It is one of the 20 least visited countries in the world.

An island paradise, biodiversity hub and a jungle girl’s dream come true. In December, for our ninth anniversary, we spent six magical days here.

Africa’s second smallest country is located on the equator, to the west of Gabon. Few people may have heard of Sao Tome and Principe due to its isolated location and small size but that’s the best reason to visit. There are some places that grow on you, this was that kind of an experience. The blissful tranquility, the simplicity, the lush green landscapes, the sweet people. Need I say more?

These islands were first discovered by Portuguese mariners and got their independence in 1975. We spent 6 days on this undiscovered paradise and didn’t want to leave. Let's discover all the wonders of this tiny little nation.

Itinerary

Day 1 - Land and rest

Day 2 - South Tour - Pico Cao Grande. Praia Inhame. Ilheu das Rolas.

Day 3 - North Tour - Lagoa Azul.

Day 4 - Central Tour - Coffee Plantation. Obo National Park - Botanical Garden. Vegan Lunch. Cascata Sao Nicholau waterfall.

Day 5 - Santa Catarina. Black Beach. Chocolate factory.

Day 6 & Day 7 - Boca Do Inferno. Praia Sete Ondas


TABLE OF CONTENTS
Flights

This island is extremely remote - one of the reasons its least visited. There are just a couple of airlines that connect to the island, and even those are just once or twice a week.

We flew with Tap Portugal via Ghana. You can also connect from Portugal with a stop at Accra.


Heads up: you need to expect delays/cancelations with TAP Portugal. Our flight was canceled TWICE. I highly recommend having insurance and coming with a flexible schedule.


Visa, Immigration (if traveling with an Indian passport), Yellow Fever

If you have an Indian passport, you will need to have an "entry authorization" - your local guide can help with this. You will then need to get a visa stamped at EUR 30 per person.

We used our US visa at the immigration and the entry was free.

You will be asked for Yellow Fever card to enter. This is mandatory.


Language

Portuguese is the main language. People don't speak much English, so have google translate downloaded on your phone.


Best time to visit

This is year round destination - we went in December and it hardly rained for a few hours.


Currency

Dollars and Euro are widely accepted but you need to carry cash. Card payments are rarely accepted in smaller lodges. Also exchange local currency for tips and donations.


Cost

Let's get one fact out of the way: just because some place is under-developed, doesn't make it cheap. West Africa is one of the most expensive regions of the world to be backpacking in. This is not like hopping on a flight or a boat in South-East Asia.


As on any island with limited resources, there is also a lack of planning/infrastructure for tourism. There are only 200,000 people living in Sao Tome and barely 1000 in the smaller Principe.


Food, lodging options vary but you won't find any of the big chains here. While not exorbitant, some of the finer lodges do charge a premium. You can certainly expect to backpack through the island at $60-70 per day.


It is still nowhere as expensive as Seychelles, Maldives or Mauritius. Your biggest expense will be flying in and out of the country. If you stay at Eden Valley Lodge, you not only have an immersive experience but also a meaningful one where you won't be overspending on stay.


Where to stay in Sao Tome and Principe

There are just a few fancy resorts on the island but my pick was this stunner of a eco-resort Eden Valley Lodge & Farming tucked away in a lush jungle setting.

The room is spacious, well-equipped with a comfortable king-size bed. It comes with air conditioning and an open bath. Our favorite part was the hammock and the swimming pool. Just what you want to come back to after a warm day out in the sun.

There are just three cottages, so the exclusivity was a massive selling point for me. The ethically sourced local food which was also veggie-friendly, the sweetest staff, a rainforest to wake up to and a waterfall right inside the property. What's not to love?

Before booking the property, I was speaking to the owner, Erikson, who has invested everything he has into the resort & to bring some sort of tourism to this magical island. One step at a time but I admire his passion beyond the business. If you are looking to take it slow and make a sustainable choice, pick this place. Make a small different to the livelihood of the kind folk who work here. It was a 10/10 from us.

Vegetarian Food at Eden Valley

Being vegetarian in African is no easy task, add to it the complications of not speaking Portuguese. After speaking to the owner of Eden Valley, I was confident our dietary requirements will be no hassle.


We opted for half board. Breafast spread was homemade bread, jam, organic fruits, juice from the island. Dinner was just as fresh and served hot every evening. It was a three-course meal. There was so much variety too.

Choosing a guide vs renting a car

While this may be an island, this is NOT Bali or Seychelles. You are perfectly welcome to land, rent a car and wing in. In countries with poor roods, language barriers, we are never comfortable doing this since we are usually on a timeline. If you are backpacking your way through Africa, and have unlimited time to wing it, by all means, you can rent a car here.


This is a trip I have been planning since 2021. I got in touch with the owner of Ban Be Non Tours to tell him exactly what I was looking to do. He was so patient and helpful and had all the right connections to get our approval sorted before arrival. Our driver was Simpson, who spoke impeccable English, was insightful and had much knowledge about his country. If you ever plan a trip to Sao Tome, these are the guys to go with.


Highlights

We took the evening flight from Ghana. It's a short 2 hour flight from Accra. The views from the sky that evening were LIT. However, once we landed, the first we noticed was the darkness. There were no street lights, no traffic signs, barely any cars. Just people in road side shops huddle together under a candle. It was quite the reverse culture shock for us coming down from a jazzy city like Dubai.

The lodge was a 30 minute drive from the airport. We checked in, had a decadent dinner and crashed.


South of Sao Tome

Woke up to the most peaceful sunrise over the jungle surrounding our villa. Hearty breakfast was had to explore the South of Sao Tome.


If you are discovering São Tomé for the first time, this extinct volcano will be the image you see. Pico Cão Grande is a large monolith rises above Obo Natural Park.

The park is made up of a dense primal forest that coats the uninhabited southwest of the country. This hike to Pico Cão Grande gave us major Jurassic park vibes. The rock sits 663m above sea level, it’s made of magma and it looks like it’s been there since the beginning of time. It is almost always covered in fog which adds to the allure. We managed to catch the sun setting over the rock and it was an incredible sight.

The drive in this part of town was pretty stunning, we stopped so many times along the way.

As on any island, the best thing to do is beach hop. Extra brownie points for these near-perfect isolated ones in Sao Tome. This one is called Praia Inhame. We took a small boat to get to this island with just 200 inhabitants. Met the local kids playing. It was an overcast day, not another soul around for miles.

The beach was rough that day but with waters so clear, it was hard not to jump in.

There is one thing cool thing to do on this island, which is being able to hike to the center of the earth. Yes, the exact point where the equator crossed our planet is right here on this miniscule islet.

On our way back, we caught the spectacular sunset over the Pico Cao Grande. When we arrived back to our villa, dinner was served fresh. What a start to the trip.

North of Sao Tome

Today we drive down to the North part of island to discover a historic town where we met the sweetest kids, and learned more about the history of São Tomé and the Portuguese colonies.

This idyllic town with just 10,000 odd people was like taking a step back in town. There were so many abandoned buildings, hospitals with moss growing over them.

Our next stop was the beautiful Lagoa Azul or blue Lagoon.

The striking blue waters is a fantastic place to snorkel or just chill with the locals fishing. Even the random roadside pit stops are picturesque. This trip was equal parts enlightening and rewarding.

Every time we stopped, my heart did a happy dance.

African Galapagos

The African Galapagos, this incredible volcanic island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Deep in the Gulf of Guinea, the island of São Tomé is packed with endemic plants.

In the lush jungle we walked through massive coffee plantations, found begonias growing high as a house, and crushed on hundreds of orchid species and birds in every hue.

A visit to the botanical garden is a must when here. We spent a few hours walking through the forest, guessing the names of each of these unique plants around.

Peering carefully into the foliage, and we spotted blooming flowers & creatures that are yet to be documented by the scientists. Is it any wonder that this jungle girl left a part of her heart here?

Sao Tome is famous for its coffee. You cannot miss a visit to the coffee shop and plantations. Watch the ladies astutely prune through thousands of beans every morning.

We stopped for a vegan lunch at this fantastic local place called Almada Negrerios.

You will find plenty of waterfalls and one of the most accessible ones on the island is the Cascata Sao Nicholau waterfall. It’s 60meters high and hidden by dense vegetation in the middle of a forest. Much like the ones in Bali, the setting is entirely enchanting.

The clear waters flowing through the lush green forest is quite a sight. Spending a few hours here should be on top of your list when here.

Santa Catarina Bridge

Today we took a drive down the prettiest corner of the island. The North side black beach and the picture-perfect Santa Catarina Bridge. This is the only bridge in the country. It's certainly worth checking out.

Right next to the Santa Catarina is a charming volcanic black beach. The pristine beach lined with palm tree is striking.

You can easily spend a few hours in this area. Grab a coconut, sit and enjoy the slow life.

Before heading back to our lodge, we spent a couple hours at the Chocolate Factory. Apart from coffee, Sao Tome also has delicious chocolate - don't miss out on this visit. So many treats to enjoy at reasonable prices.

Hell's Mouth and Seven Sands Beach

Our last two days were spent exploring a different side of the island. After a 2 hour drive from our lodge, we arrived at the Hell's mouth. It had such an eerie and intriguing feel to it.

This place is the result of years of rock erosion, which led to rock packages and sea saves. It was so incredible to wash the massive waves crash into the rocks, generating a waterfall through the caves' apertures. The black rocks and the blue waves make for stunning photos. You don't want to miss this place.

Later that afternoon, we went to Praia das Sete aka 'seven wavers' beach. I swear it felt like this entire island was meant to be our playground. Every place we went was this empty.

This immensely stunning long beach is lined with beautiful black boulders. We spent a few hours just getting drenched in the drizzle. Talk about romantic, eh?

Final thoughts

I read somewhere that over 87 million people landed in France in 2017. That same year, around 25,000 people made it to São Tomé, where it’s possible to have an entire island to yourself, The difference between the most and least visited countries is stark.

Anyone who visits this incredible country, will inevitably be blown by the untouched nature and stunning landscapes at every turn. What draws me to the least visited places in the world is the thrill of the unknown, as well as the allure of experiencing a country that few have seen before. This is a trip I have been planning since January 2021. With all the restrictions in place, I could never get the timing right. When we finally made it, it exceeded every expectation.

Maybe you want to beach hop or journey to the center of the earth, but like any explorer, you need to come here with a certain degree of flexibility. These islands are specks in the ocean so weather and circumstances change fast. Arrive with no plan, enjoy the untouched landscapes, live and LOVE the slow life without another tourist in sight…

By being that rare traveler who makes it here, you can help protect the country's unique yet delicate ecosystem while also providing economic opportunity for its citizens.

Sao tome, you were astonishing.

Drop your comments below and show some love. Feel free to shoot me an email with your feedback.

Cheers,

Anki


To explore more African destinations, be sure to check out other blogs for additional insights.



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