Top 10 things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe
Two tiny, almost unknown, paradise islands lie on the west coast of Africa and make up one of the continent’s smallest countries - São Tomé and Príncipe. Accessible by only four flights a week and having somehow remained under the radar until now, these islands remain virtually untouched by tourists. However, with vast unexplored jungles, abundant biodiversity, idyllic beaches, characterful towns and delicious cuisine we can’t imagine they will stay so quiet for long. The landscapes are enticingly dramatic with volcanic rock formations dotting the coast and erupting from the jungle further inland. Yet the beaches are peaceful and calm, offering visitors a private slice of paradise.
The islands are great year-round, but we would especially recommend visiting during the dry seasons that fall January-February, May-August, October and December. Despite their small size, there is no shortage of things to keep you occupied in São Tomé and Príncipe. Here are our top ten things to do:
- São Tomé City
- Plantation Houses
- Porto Alegre
- Obô National Park
- Bird Watching
- Praia Banana
- Turtle Hatching
- Pico Cão Grande
Cathedral in São Tomé City
São Tomé City
The nation’s capital, São Tomé City, is a fascinating place. What ought to be a thriving port town to rival any of the world’s greatest harbours is in fact a collection of decrepit colonial buildings, decaying architecture and infrastructure that has seen better days. But the character of the city is unmistakeable. Local people live with a cheery, easy attitude and a ‘leve leve’ (slowly, slowly) rhythm.
Hospital ruins at Roça Agua Izé
São Tomé and Príncipe’s rich, volcanic soil bore a thriving coffee and chocolate production industry in the 1800s which resulted in the islands becoming the world's largest producer of cocoa in 1908. To support the industry, roças (plantation houses) were created by the Portuguese who had colonised the island. Each roça would employ up to a few thousand people and were autonomous settlements that provided food and housing for the workers and often had their own churches, hospitals and train tracks.
Following independence in 1975, many of the roças were abandoned and following a period of neglect, were reclaimed by the jungle. Some of the buildings have been restored and turned into cafes or hotels. Travellers can visit both the abandoned and restored roças and each provides an interesting and informative experience.
Roças worth visiting include: Roça Sundy, Roça Paciência and Roça Agua Izé.
The equator mark on Rolas Island
Porto Alegre is a small settlement in the south of São Tomé island with a population of 795. Although the town itself doesn’t boast much to interest travellers, there are a selection of fantastic eco-lodges and stunning beaches in the surrounding area. It’s also an access point for Rolas Island, where you can find the equator mark and a number of secluded beach coves nestled amongst volcanic rocks and lined with palm trees.
Obô National Park
Obô National Park
Covering almost 60% of the surface area of São Tomé island, Obô National Park was created to prevent agricultural land from encroaching too much on the forest habitats of the island that are home to over 700 species of native plants and many bird and mammal species. The national park also boasts many dramatic landscapes from gushing waterfalls to looming mountains, sheer cliffs and dense rainforest. There are many hikes of varying difficulty in the national park that will showcase these landscapes and offer a chance to see some of the diverse wildlife and plant life that reside within it.
Newton's Sunbird in São Tomé
São Tomé and Príncipe are bursting with 28 endemic bird species including Newton’s sunbirds, giant sunbirds, São Tomé Grosbeaks and Príncipe Kingfishers. The islands boast the highest density of unique species in the world, with 17 on São Tomé and 11 on Príncipe and are a must-visit for any birding enthusiast. Although all the bird species can be spotted year-round, more areas of the islands are accessible during the dry season, making your chances even higher. June-August and December-January are the driest periods and therefore the best times for seeking out these fascinating birds.
View of Praia Banana from the clifftop
This golden, banana-shaped beach was once featured in a Bacardi advert and the iconic clifftop view can be accessed through the Roça Belo Monte resort. From here, descend to the palm-fringed sands for a relaxing swim, excellent snorkelling or a paddle in a kayak. The beach is incredibly picturesque, with fine, blonde sands and crystal-clear turquoise waters that give way to a teeming reef wall.
You might expect a beach this beautiful to be overrun with tourists but as with most places on these islands, you’re almost guaranteed to have it to yourself.
Drying cocoa beans
São Tomé and Príncipe has a long history of chocolate production, but the industry collapsed following the nation’s independence from Portugal. However, in recent times there has been something of a revival of cocoa production and the industry is gathering momentum once again. Since the 1990’s, an Italian by the name of Claudio Corallo has been overseeing two cocoa plantations in São Tomé and Príncipe. He believes the only way to make great products is to work in harmony with nature, the environment and local people and through this ethos he has developed a cacao bean that is not bitter and created some of the purest chocolate available in the world.
Visitors can take a tour of his chocolate factory in São Tomé City which takes you through the production process and the experimentation that went into the bean development. There are, of course, plenty of delicious products to sample too!
Turtle hatchlings making their way to the sea
Leatherback, Olive Ridley, Green and Hawksbill turtles head for the beaches of São Tomé and Príncipe in their hundreds to dig nests and lay eggs. A visit between November and February is the best time to spot females laying eggs and recently hatched baby turtles can be seen making their way to the ocean for the first time until the middle/end of March. The nest areas are carefully protected by conservation rangers who log the nests and ward off wild dogs looking for an easy snack.
We recommend Praia Grande in Príncipe as our favourite spot to observe turtle nesting and hatching.
Pico Cão Grande
Pico Cão Grande
Standing at 663m above sea level, this needle-shaped volcanic peak dominates the landscape around it. This dramatic protrusion is the hardened magma remains of an ancient volcano following the erosion of softer outer rock. Nature’s skyscraper does attract a few risk-loving climbers but for the rest of us, the magnificent view of it jutting proudly from the rainforest at its base is thrill enough.
Pico Cão Grande is located in the south of Obô National Park and is easily accessible by road and then a 3km hike through the jungle.
No visit to São Tomé and Príncipe is complete without a stint on some of the many postcard-perfect beaches. It seems as though there are endless golden-sand, turquoise-water, palm tree-laden coves dotting the coast of these paradise islands, so our Travel Specialists have offered their two top recommendations – Praia Jale and Praia dos Tamarindos.
Praia Jale sits on the southernmost tip of São Tomé island. It’s a little harder to access than some of the other beaches due to poor road conditions but well worth the effort. The secluded, romantic atmosphere and alluring scenery make this the perfect place to while away the day.
Praia dos Tamarindos is positioned in the north of São Tomé island and is not far from the airport, making it a great final stop for some pre-flight relaxation. This beach is often considered to be one of the best on the island and is a popular spot for locals on the weekends. To have it to yourself, we recommend a weekday visit. A beautiful, white crescent of sand leads you gently into warm waters that are excellent for swimming.
Feeling inspired? Take a look at our São Tomé and Príncipe holidays.
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