Why should you travel to São Tomé + Príncipe?
My trip began with an overnight stop in Lisbon, the perfect city to set the scene for my exploration of São Tomé and Príncipe, two tiny Atlantic Ocean islands off the coast of Gabon that were discovered by the Portuguese. As with all truly amazing places, getting there is not entirely straightforward. My flight from Lisbon took me to the Ghanaian capital, Accra, from where I travelled to São Tomé.
The journey gave me plenty of time to consider what to do in São Tomé and Príncipe, why I was so instantly drawn to this remote place. Was it the jaw-dropping images I had seen of mountainous landscapes covered with lush, green rainforests? Or the immense rocky pinnacles soaring high in the sky that could compete with any city skyscraper? Or was it the photographs I had seen of the clearest, turquoise waters that I imagined were brimming with colourful, tropical fish? Of course, these were all instant pulls, but I was undeniably also inspired by the fact that no one I knew had even heard of this miniscule island state lying off the west coast of Africa, let alone been. It seems this lush tropical paradise has remained almost entirely untouched by the tourism industry, with only a trickle of visitors recorded each year.
The two-island nation’s history is one of many reasons for going. On discovering the isles, the Portuguese found that the fertile soils were ideal for growing sugar cane, cacao and coffee. Soon the land was turned into vast plantations (or roças), slaves were brought over from the mainland and Cape Verde, and the roças became mini-cities, each consisting of workers’ quarters, drying sheds, storerooms, a school, a hospital and, of course, the owner’s grand mansion.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse in 1975, when the Portuguese left the archipelago. The once-thriving roças, which had been the centrepieces of island life, quickly went into decline, cacao production ceased and the local populations turned to fishing and subsistence agriculture. The estates were left to rack and ruin, as the forest enthusiastically enveloped these once grand, tiled houses and wildlife found these beautiful buildings the ideal place to call home. However, in more recent years, the production of cacao here has been revived and the archipelago has once again sprung to life. In fact, the continuing rejuvenation story is quite epic.
There is no doubt that Príncipe is the golden child of the two and where you would want to spend most of your time. It is a tiny speck, measuring only 20km long and 12km wide, with a population of just 7,000, most of whom live in the ‘flatter’ north of the island. San Antonio is the capital city and, in fact, the only town to speak of. The rest of the population live in forgotten villages nestled among the thick jungle, cut off from each other because of a lack of roads. The south remains almost entirely uninhabited, due to its geography, and is the home of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which is home to a mass of new species and sub-species of flora and fauna.
So why should you come to Príncipe? Here are six amazing experiences we can arrange on the island:
1 Embrace the David Attenborough in you
It has been said that there are more endemic species on São Tomé and Príncipe per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world. Because of this, the islands are often referred to as the mini-Galápagos of Africa. Excitingly, researchers have so far only scratched the surface of what is out there. They are regularly sighting new species of birds, reptiles and fish, so there is every chance you might see, or even discover, a previously unrecorded type of flora or fauna.
2 Explore the island’s marine world
Príncipe is a haven for endangered green hawksbill and leatherback turtles and there are ample opportunities to head out with the island’s trust researchers and spend time visiting the protected beaches where, between November and March, you might see these prehistoric reptiles nesting and hatching. The isle is also the perfect place to spot humpback whales propelling themselves out of the water as part of their magnificent displays during their annual migrations (from June to August) and dolphins, which can be spotted year-round.
3 Go hiking in the jungle
Exploring the rainforest on foot is quite an experience. While exciting new trails are constantly being uncovered by guides, there is already an eclectic choice for all levels. The treks offer the chance to discover hidden waterfalls, such as the Pipi falls, which is a glorious spot to cool off in, as well as giving you ample opportunity to discover unique birds, reptiles and insects. Our fantastic guides will introduce you to the local vegetation, of which many species are used in the islanders’ everyday cooking. Another unique aspect to walks here are that some routes take in some of the ruins that are dotted across the isle. Our favourite is one that takes you to Ribeira Izé, the first settlement here, which gives you an insight into a profusion of enthralling stories of Príncipe’s glorious history.
4 Feast on chocolate + other culinary delights
With the rebirth of cacao plantations, the production of chocolate is gaining momentum. Chocolatiers, such as the Claudio Corallo Chocolate Factory, have sprung up, selling some incredibly flavoursome pure chocolate products, most of which you can test before buying. Not only this but at the fabulous tented hotel, Sundy Praia, you can create a fabulous three-course meal with their resident chef. This is an experience in itself, as you are encouraged to taste familiar and unfamiliar ingredients, all of which come directly from the rainforest that surrounds the property – the lodge’s natural ‘vegetable garden’. A visit to Roça Paciãancia is also a must. This old plantation house has been turned into an organic farm and now produces some of the most delicious herbs, jams and muesli that are available to buy in their rustic shop.
5 Enjoy the beaches
Príncipe is framed by breathtaking stretches of golden sands, and with temperatures in the early 30s year-round, going to the beaches by boat or on foot is a must. Those found on the north-eastern tip of the island have a very definite ‘wow’ factor and offer sheltered, calm and azure-blue lagoons to swim in. Something we love to arrange for our clients here is a spectacular picnic full of delicious organic produce made here. You could spend an entire day exploring one of these pristine bays, with the guarantee that you are unlikely to see another soul.
6 Learn about the island’s history
Príncipe is littered with crumbling remains of roças, so we recommend discovering these old cacao plantations with an expert guide who can recount ancient stories. It is a fascinating way to learn more about life on these vast estates and the communities that lived on them, as well as how the island – which was once one of the highest producers of cacao in the world – suddenly became unknown. Walking through the ruins, picturing what life must have been like for the workers and landowners, gives a very real and raw insight into life as it was back then.