It is almost impossible summarise São Tomé and Príncipe in a single post. Believe me – I tried. So bear with me, or, if you are short on time, ‘fav’ this post and come back later. But please do come back. Maybe when your day is too rainy or too cold and you just want to be taken all-the-way across to another world.
São Tomé, the largest of the archipelago islands (which also includes the island of Principe and some islets, like Rolas, we will get there), is a water drop 50 km long and a little over 30 km wide. And yet, it goes beyond definitions and spreads itself in adjectives and details that we can’t leave behind because they are as – or more – important to its essence as the main points of our visit.
We had heard almost everything about São Tomé. Mostly, that it was a paradise. Friends, colleagues, travel blogs, even the guide we carried with us throughout the trip (and which barely survived): all sources gave us the same idyllic image of a destination almost untouched, with simple and friendly people, and a generous nature in all aspects. They were all right.
São Tomé is one of those places that grows on us. Slowly, some places can grow roots in our bodies and souls and suddenly we discover they are already ours, as we are theirs. It happens in so many ways: how we become accustomed to waking up in the warm hours of the early morning, eating fruit with names we didn’t even know, avoiding the sea urchins on the beach, shouting “bom djiá” to people passing by and smiling to kids which break into smile as soon as we arrive.
São Tomé is an entire world. But luckily for those arriving, it is small enough (in size) so that a few days can give you a sense of the extraordinary natural wealth of the island.
In future posts, we will try to help those who, as we did, look for information and tips before their trip. For practical reasons, we will organize the trip geographically.
Every day, a small speedboat connects São Tomé to the islet, at two different times – first at early morning and then at the end of the day. The trip (round trip) costs 14 euros per person and includes the transfer all the way from the airport. But bear in mind the TAP flight arrives rather late and if you can’t make it until dawn you can’t sail directly to the islet. In that case, your Pestana Equador booking should be transferred (free of cost) to Pestana São Tomé, a hotel in the city, from where you can try again at 7:30 am.
The third day in São Tomé, it already feels like home. For the first time since we arrived, we wake up with nothing scheduled but the transfer back to the main island at 16:30. Elsewhere in the world, perhaps it would mean sleeping until we couldn’t stay in bed any longer. Here, where night starts at 17h and day begins early at dawn, we leave the bed early.
After breakfast, we visit Miradouro do Amor – “Love Viewpoint”, overlooking the beach of Santo António, deserted like most beaches we find throughout these days, both in islet and the island. No wonder so many people choose to wear absolutely no clothes when bathing on these beaches.
We have the first taste of the famous “leve-leve” when we get to Ponta Baleia. At 17h, the sun soon begins to disappear, the bats begin to cover the trees with shouts, and our driver, Osvaldo, is nowhere to be seen. When he shows up, the justification is simple: he was painting his house and forgot about the time. You can’t help but smile. Actually, it’s the only thing you can do.
The destination is Jalé Ecolodge, a sustainable tourism project with a low environmental impact, at the immense Jalé beach, it has just reopened after the works that destroyed the old bungalows and built new homes. Since this new ecolodge is only a few weeks old, there is nobody who we can ask for trustworthy feedback. Still, there are many observations when we explain that that’s where we’re heading: we’ll stand alone in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do. Anxiety accumulates with doubts but, having paid already, we have no choice but to rely on our first choice and let ourselves be guided by Osvaldo through the dirt road, passing by Porto Alegre, the “city” where he lives and where he has a small shop and which is also the last point of civilization before we reach the Jalé beach.
When we arrive, it’s already dark and were greeted by a small flashlight. The ecolodge is “full”, meaning that, besides us, two other couples have ventured to stay here, “alone in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do.” Our host explains that in order to avoid disturbing the turtles, and because this is a sustainable project, we’ll only have only electricity between 17.30 and 21.30 – after that, we have candles scattered around the room. Hot water is nonexistent. And to walk the path of sand that separates our bungalow from the small building that serves as a restaurant we only have that flashlight.
It could be a nightmare in the eyes of many. For us, it is a small piece of paradise, a refuge away from everything and everyone, where nature is who orders and we just manage to escape it a few times throughout the day. All steps are taken with the greatest care so we won’t step on the dozens of crabs at dusk when they become lords and masters of the way.
Embraced in the dark with a not so great flashlight and jumping over the crabs, we get to the “restaurant”. Inside, a couple of unclear nationalities is already eating and drinking. We meet Ney: chef, master, cook … call him whatever you want. Basically, he’s the responsible for some of the best meals we eat on the island, showing us each new product with passion – and trying the same with the other couple, speaking more slowly and loudly in a vain attempt to break the linguistic barrier. His efforts are useless. They smile but they can’t understand him. Maybe it’s not important: they can understand the flavours, the textures, the love in every dish that Ney prepares, full of mata-bala, micocó, fruta-pão and other words that we quickly fall in love with.
Staying in the south is the purest definition of leve-leve. You don’t have to do anything except contemplating, eating, dreaming and bathing. And also venturing out on these dirt roads so you won’t leave anything unseen.
We rented a jeep with Adilson (45€/day), a contact we brought from Portugal, and visited all the southern beaches, including the understandably famous Piscina beach, where the clear water is full with life and there is no one else besides the two of us and a couple of fishermen that quickly disappear into the sea. At lunch, we visit Inhame Ecolodge, where we have a second experience of popular “leve-leve”: they only bring one plate to the table, believing only one of us would eat. We are the only tourists present, the only occupants in the restaurant. Suddenly, the vision of an electrical outlet (and wi-fi !!) is like an oasis in the electrical desert that is Jalé. We charge our phones, send emails to our family and assure the world that we are healthy and happy. Even without lunch.
It is also in the South that we have one of the most immersive experiences in São Tomé nature: a canoe trip of two hours along the Malanza river, where we even get to observe monkeys – the same monkeys which I swear I photographed, but who simply do not appear in any of photographs. A magical effect of the witches tree? Perhaps there are some things that can only exist there, in the middle of the swamp that borders the river.
As there are some things that you can only taste at Roça São João dos Angolares, one of the most famous “roças” in the country thanks to its owner, chef João Carlos Silva, best known for the television show “Na Roça com os Tachos”. We take the the trip in the rain that announces the end of the dry season – soon the rain will be constant, but the sky will also become cleaner. When we arrive, all the tables are filled by people who taste the chef’s specialties – there is no choice a la carte, only a tasting menu that costs 15 euros per person – cooked by the chef in an open kitchen in the middle of the dining room. These are modern interpretations based on local products such as the excellent fish or the many fruits of the island. Spicy, sweet, sour … the journey is made through sensations and flavors that sometimes surprise, sometimes lead us back home, with a special note to the main dish, a curry chicken and pimpernel (chayote) that we will stay in our memories as one of the best dishes of this trip.
It’s our last night in Jalé and we are the only ones in the ecolodge. At night, Ney serves us the same octopus we saw a young man catching, in the morning, just in front of our bungalow. We walk slowly back to our “home”, with the nostalgia already ingrained in us. To think how close we were to abandon the plans, to cut the ecolodge out of our map… Life, however, made us arrive. Or like Saramago said, “In the end, we always arrive at the place where we are expected”
The yellow fever vaccination is no longer mandatory for passengers coming from Europe. There are other vaccines that are recommended (but not mandatory), including typhoid and hepatitis A. Filipe took the first, I took the second – because we went to different travel doctors (and they helped us a lot in preparing everything). The most important is perhaps the malaria prophylaxis.
I have heard many different opinions. In the end, for safety reasons, we have chosen to take the malaria prophylaxis with Malarone. The pills should be taken one day before the trip, every day during the trip, and for 7 days after returning home. In our case, we took the frist pill two days before, so we could predict the symptoms and deal with them still in Portugal. Filipe didn’t have any symptoms but I embarked on a journey of annoying side effects. Luckily, after two days, the effects subsided and I spent the trip much more relaxed about the possibility of contracting malaria. However, it is important to stress that it’s possible to take the malaria prophylaxis and contract it anyway. The most important is to have all possible care against mosquitoes: using mosquito repellent, especially in the worst times of the day (between dusk and dawn), covering the body with long sleeves and pants (in paradise that’s the last thing you want to do but you’ll feel much more assured), sleeping with mosquito net whenever possible (sometimes it’s not).
Another important aspect is the water: it is not drinkable. Therefore, even for brushing your teeth you need a bottle of drinking water.
A physician prepared a travel kit that took up almost ¼ of a backpack: band-aids, adhesive (holy adhesive, which was used for repairing mosquito nets along the journey!), betadine, alcohol gel, disinfectant wipes, anti-pyretic, analgesic, antibiotic, gel for sore muscles, powder ice bag and endless medicines for intestinal problems (which, yes, were useful).
And do not forget that we are in the Ecuador: although I’ve always used a strong sunscreen, and we have not spent more than a few hours on the beach, I ended up with a tan worthy of the best summer days.
The currency of São Tomé is the dobra, and although the official rate is 24.500 dobras for 1 euro, many sites calculate it to 25.000. It makes the math easier, especially when dealing with millions of dobras. It is normal that sometimes the change is not 100% accurate, especially on the street.
Most guides, restaurants, and shops also accept euros (and dollars), but you should always carry a few dobras with you.
From my research and conversations with friends, I knew that São Tomé didn’t have an ATM network (although in town I ended up seeing at least two ATM machines, but I’m not sure if they work with every card). That meant that, except for flights and hotels, which could be paid in advance by transfer, we would have to take enough money to survive for 10 days. We took 500 euros each. In São Tomé, we exchanged 200 euros for dobras and saved the remaining money in euros. I arrived in Lisbon with 30€ in my pocket, which I used to pay the taxi home. And this happened after buying the mandatory “souvenirs”. Anyway, there are banks in the city of São Tomé where you can always withdraw money through the payment of a fee.
Guides and cars
Life in São Tomé isn’t expensive. But tourism is. The prices of the guides vary widely – we have come to pay 70 € per person for a day (with lunch and car). There are travel agencies in the city that can handle everything, but there’s also no shortage of people who will volunteer to guide you through the wonderful island. It all depends on what you are willing to risk. A jeep will cost you between 40 and 50 euros per day – more affordable but less safe when it comes, for example, to the interior of the island, where the forest takes care of the “roads” (spoiler alert: no roads here, just dirt paths) and the rain makes it even more complicated.