São Tomé Town
São Tomé Town has to be the sleepiest capital city anywhere in the world. Founded in the 15th century by Portuguese slavers, the small town is full of fading colonial buildings, giving it a charming ambience and making it a great place to wander round, especially in the late hours of the afternoon. The town has a handful of good restaurants, many overlooking the water, which make for a scenic and relaxing place to grab some food and a beer and watch the fishermen bring in their catches.
Most nationals, including British and other European citizens require a visa. This can be obtained through a Sãotoméan Embassy or Consulate (few and far between). For those travelling from a country where São Tomé has no diplomatic representation, i.e. the UK, there is an online electronic visa application process which takes about 1 week and the visa is then issued on arrival. The cost of the visa is usually in the region of €20, which will be payable in Euros cash on your arrival.
Departure tax is US$21 and generally not included in your ticket. Therefore it is payable in USD cash or Euros equivalent on departure.
Health and Immunisations
As with travel to most parts of Africa, we strongly recommend that you contact your doctor’s surgery or a specialist travel clinic for up-to-date information, advice and the necessary vaccinations. For a visit of less than one month, almost certainly you will be advised to have immunisations against the following: Diphtheria and Tetanus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Meningitis. Anti-malaria medication is also required and the use of a DEET-containing insect repellent is highly recommended.
In addition we strongly advise that you hold a valid Certificate of Yellow Fever vaccination. Although you may not always be asked to show this, we know that delays or problems can occur if you do not hold the certificate.
- What should my travel insurance policy cover?
- medical and health cover for an injury or sudden illness abroad
- 24 hour emergency service and assistance
- personal liability cover in case you’re sued for causing injury or damaging property
- lost and stolen possessions cover
- cancellation and curtailment (cutting short your trip) cover
- Extra cover for activities that are commonly excluded from standard policies, such as certain sports
The policy should cover the whole time that you are away.
Your policy may also have:
- personal accident cover
- legal expenses cover
Common travel insurance policy exclusions
always check the conditions and exclusions of your policy:
- most policies will not cover drink or drug-related incidents
You must take reasonable care of your possessions or your policy will not cover you.
The currency is the Dobra (Db). For current exchange rates visit www.xe.com. Our advice is to preferably travel with Euros, otherwise US dollars. You should also avoid taking large denomination notes such as €100 bills as these may be difficult to exchange.
Where currency can be exchanged
Our advice to exchange sufficient funds in São Tomé town, as there are few reliable exchange facilities outside of the capital other than the Pestana Equador Island Resort. Further information will be given by your local guide.
Credit cards and travellers cheques
As a general rule we advise against taking travellers’ cheques as they are difficult to exchange, but it is possible to exchange them in Sao Tome town. At the time of writing there are no ATMs, however you may be able to make a cash withdrawal over the counter at the country’s principle bank in São Tomé town. You should check availability with your card issuer before travel and consider this to be an emergency option only. In addition the Miramar Hotel and the Pestana Equador Island Resort both generally accept Visa and/or Mastercard.
Best time to go
Due to the good trekking opportunities we would recommend a visit outside of the two rainy seasons, of mid-February to the end of May and mid-August to mid-November. Being on the equator one can expect humidity to be high. It should also be noted that although June and July can be cooler, it will often be cloudy, and beach lovers may be disappointed.
Portuguese is the main language. As a second language French is probably more widely spoken, although those working with tourists will generally have a sufficient understanding of English.
About 80% of Sãotoméans belong to the Roman Catholic Church, although traditional animist beliefs are still strong.
Food and drink
Food in Sao Tome and Principe is influenced by Portuguese cuisine, with wine often used in stews and other dishes. Curries, often served with mango chutneys and chopped peanuts are popular, as is chicken, often made piri-piri style with much use of peppers. As you would expect, the seafood here is excellent and forms a large part of the diet, with prawns, lobster and shrimps from the surrounding waters considered to be among the most delicious in the world.
If you have any special dietary requirements you must notify us at the time of booking. While we will make every effort to cater for you, we cannot guarantee that this will be possible.
For visitors São Tomé is a cheap country. In addition many of your costs are pre-paid including some meals. However, drinks are not included. A 1L of bottled water or can of coke will cost from $1.20. A bottle of wine of Portuguese wine will cost from $15 to $20.
Our tour in Sao Tome uses private vehicles – usually 4wd vehicles or buses. We also use private boats to transfer to and from our island resort.
Travelling in the destinations that we visit requires a good deal of understanding that often standards simply won’t be as they are at home. While we aim at making your trip as comfortable as possible, please be aware that we are often visiting remote or less developed regions that may have little infrastructure. While we aim to make your trip run as smoothly as possible there may be times when we need to ask for your patience while we rectify any problems.
What to take with you
First Aid Kit
The first thing on your list should be a first aid kit. Whilst there is no undue cause for alarm, travellers are best advised to travel well-prepared: adequately immunized, with sufficient supplies of prescription drugs, along with a medical kit.
When it comes to clothing it is usually recommended that lighter clothes are worn through the day, and warmer ones at night. A hat is also advised to be worn through the day to protect from the sun, along with at least one piece of waterproof clothing for any days that the weather may be wet or windy.
Footwear is a main priority on this tour. Comfortable walking shoes/boots are recommended. Rainproof walking boots with good soles are important if you are planning to go hiking.
Your luggage should not exceed 20kgs (44lbs). One large suitcase/rucksack, and one small hand luggage rucksack is acceptable.
Suncream/sunblock is a must. Insect repellent, including a bite spray will also be useful to have. If you will be using a camera which needs film, it is recommended that a supply is taken with you, as it is not always available in Sao Tome and Principe. You may want to bring your own snorkelling equipment for the beach and a head torch and binoculars plus a day rucksack and a mosquito net are also good when for when you are going inland.
No special level of fitness is required but you should be moderately fit to enjoy the walk to Bombaim.
Cultural and environmental guidelines
You may come across beggars while on tour. We do not recommend giving money, sweets, pens etc to children as this can encourage a begging mentality and can lead to children choosing to beg rather than go to school.
Doce, doce, doce…!
This is a cry that you will probably hear when driving in the rural districts. It means ‘sweets’, and you may also see both children and sometimes even grownups begging for sweets along the road side. Why? Because over the last few years the contact between the population in remote areas and tourists has intensified, then someone got the bright idea of throwing sweets out of the window while driving by.
The same is happening to some of the plantation estates close to city. And yes, it may be difficult for you just to drive on in your 4WD, ignoring the pleas of half-naked children on your way to your next meal but São Tomé and Principe doesn’t need any more sweets. For every sweet thrown, the problem of begging is increasing, thus creating a serious problem for one of the only sustainable economic sectors in the country: Tourism.
We suggest you make a donation either of things you don’t need or money to an organisation that works in São Tomé and Príncipe, like the RED CROSS, MÉDECINS SANS FRONTIÈRES, ECOFAC, MARAPA, or ALISEI.
Haggling is a way of life in Africa when making many purchases, especially with tourist souvenirs, usually but not always, the vendor will start with a price that is higher than they are prepared to accept and the buyer is expected to haggle. There are no hard and fast rules with this – some vendors may initially quote a vastly overinflated price, others may start with a price close to the true value, while others may just present you with one price and not be prepared to discuss it. Although many tourists may feel uncomfortable with this, it’s important to remember that this is best entered into in a relaxed manner. Once you have agreed upon a price, it is extremely bad form to then not pay this. Please also bear in mind that a small amount of money to you can be a relatively large amount for the vendor, and that it is not necessarily best practice to ‘beat the vendor down’ to the lowest possible price. Remember that they also have a living to make.
Please make sure that you take any rubbish back to the hotels with you where it can be properly disposed of – this includes cigarette butts as well.
Please do not buy any products made from endangered species – this is not sustainable and hastens the species’ decline.
You should always ask permission before taking anyone’s photograph and respect their decision if they say no. In more remote areas women and older people often do not want to be photographed. Some people may also ask for some money – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – in return for a photo. Taking photos of military installations, state buildings, and airports can lead to problems with local authorities. If you are unsure about whether it is acceptable to take a photo, please ask your tour leader or guide.
Tipping is common practise in Africa. If your local guide has been helpful then you could think about tipping. This amount can obviously be left to you. When tipping a driver, a guide or hotel staff a few dollars will always be gratefully received.
Foreign Office Advice
We constantly monitor the advice posted by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). In particular we will always advise clients of any travel warnings. At the time of writing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not advise against travel to Sao Tome and Principe. Please feel free to contact us should you have any specific concerns or if would like to know in detail what measures are being taken to ensure visits remain trouble free and without incident.
It should be noted that this information applies to British citizens. Other nationals are asked to check the current position of their respective government.
Public Holidays in São Tomé and Príncipe:
1 Jan New Year’s Day
3 Feb Heroes’ Day
1 May Labour Day
12 Jul Independence Day
6 Sep Armed Forces Day
30 Sep Agricultural Reform Day
1 Nov All Saints’ Day
26 Nov Argel Accord Day
21 Dec São Tomé Day (Catholic)
25 Dec Christmas Day
Dates are for guidance only and may vary year to year
Generally electrical supply is 220-240V AC (50 Hz) and plugs are of the European two-round-pin variety.
Sao Tome and Principe – The Bradt Guide
IMPORTANT NOTES – PLEASE READ
Please note that the information provided is correct at the time of writing but may change. It is intended as a guide only. Further information regarding vaccinations and travel health visit www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk or contact your local healthcare provider.
In addition we strongly advise you to check the information and any travel advice provided by your government. For British citizens you should visit the Foreign Office website www.fco.gov.uk.
Furthermore, you should be aware that any travel warnings or advisories may affect the validity of your travel insurance. Therefore, at the time of booking your tour it is essential you check any restrictions on cover with your insurance provider.
Issue Date – 20/3/14 AE
For possible changes to this dossier please visit www.undiscovered-destinations.com or call +44 (0)191 296 2674
Most people have never even heard of the tiny islands of Sao Tome and Principe, nestled in the Gulf of Guinea just at the start of Africa’s big bulge out to the west. And that’s part of the beauty of them. Sao Tome and Principe cross the radar of so few people that they barely have any visitors – but those who remain ignorant of the charms of these little slices of paradise don’t know what they are missing. With 75% of the islands covered in tropical rainforests, some of the most gorgeous beaches you’re likely to see, and a friendly people who have little concept of tourism, Sao Tome and Principe are ripe for careful exploration and will reward the curious traveller no end. Add to these rambling colonial mansions, great seafood and superb wildlife and you start to wonder what the world has against this miniscule island nation to ignore it. But no matter – their loss is our gain. To spend time here is to step into another world – explore Sao Tome and Principe and regain that sense of wonder in exploring lost worlds.
Nothing is really known about Sao Tome and Principe prior to their discovery by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century, and so we must take their word that they were uninhabited. While the rest of Europe slumbered, the small kingdom of Portugal sent sailors to explore the Atlantic coast of Africa, setting out where none had dared to go before, inspired by a number of different motivations. Not least of these was a desire to break the stranglehold of the Moors on the trade across the Sahara, and avail themselves of the riches that mysteriously appeared from the camel caravans making long journeys through the desert. Secondly, the Portuguese wanted to find a sea route to the Indies. And of course, a desire to establish overseas colonies for itself played no small part. But perhaps the most intriguing of these causes was the search for the mysterious priest-king Prester John, a mythical figure from the east who had supposedly sent letters to the courts of Europe centuries before and spoke of a land of immeasurable riches whose subjects were devoted to Christianity. This notion never left the imagination of medieval Europe, and over the hundreds of years that passed since these letters several expeditions had been sent out in different directions, often never returning, none of which managed to establish the precise location of this land. However by the fifteenth century it was generally accepted that the kingdom of Prester John lay in Ethiopia, known to be in the east of Africa but so far ‘undiscovered’.
Portuguese ships went ever further around the Atlantic coast, hoping to round the continent and reach this fabled land.
On one of these journeys, in 1470, they stumbled upon two small islands which were uninhabited, and promptly claimed them. These were first granted as royal charters, but quickly taken over by the Portuguese crown. Sao Tome was first settled in 1493, with Principe following shortly afterwards in 1500, with the intention that these islands would make convenient bases to trade with the mainland of Africa – at the time Portugal was reaching further and further down the Atlantic coast and establishing contact with the kingdom of Kongo. The islands proved also to be fertile ground for plantations, and several sugar plantations were established here, this being a valuable commodity at the time. However this was also a period when the slave trade began to rear its ugly head, and many ruthless traders based on the islands established themselves as suppliers of slaves to the New World, just recently discovered and with an insatiable appetite for cheap labour. In addition to this slaves were used to work the substantial sugar plantations that had arisen on the islands, and by the 1600s Sao Tome and Principe were the largest exporters of sugar in Africa.
Despite the odd slave revolt towards the end of the century, Sao Tome and Principe prospered. In supplying slaves to work the plantations of the Americas however they had bred their own downfall – sugar produced in the New World proved to be of a better quality than Sao Tomean sugar, and the industry fell into decline. The slave trade became the most important commercial factor on the island, with Sao Tome becoming primarily a transit point for ships engaged in the slave trade between the West and continental Africa. Sometime in the 19th century, coffee was introduced to the western world, and Sao Tome put its plantations and slaves to work once more to become a significant global exporter of both this and later cocoa, still the country’s most important crop. Effectively Sao Tome and Principe were large plantations with a captive labour force, dedicated to maximising production and profits and with little thought for the welfare of most of their inhabitants.
Although slavery was finally abolished in Portugal in 1875, little changed for the freed slaves on the islands. Instead of being slaves they were now contract labourers, existing in lamentable conditions that were not that different to what had gone before. Slavery had disappeared but to all effects and purposes those left working the plantations were part of a system of forced labour, treated terribly by the plantation owners who exercised complete authority over them. Periodically small scale rebellions broke out but these were typically put down with force. Growing external awareness of the conditions under which these workers existed led to an international boycott of the islands in the early 20th century. Faced with such pressure, Sao Tome’s authorities began to relax their system – but only a little – and introduced minor welfare reforms for the labourers. These were insufficient to placate growing dissatisfaction with the plantation system however and while Sao Tome did not experience a liberation struggle as such, workers voiced their growing discontent through marches and a nationalist political party. One particular march, now commemorated annually on the islands, saw 1000 workers massacred by Portuguese forces nervous about relinquishing their stranglehold on the islands’ economy.
Portugal was the last European power to grant independence to its African colonies, but in the face of increasing pressure, and the overthrow of the dictatorial Caetano government, Sao Tome and Principe were granted independence in 1975. Almost immediately most of the Portuguese left the islands, and the loss of the plantation owners meant that the cocoa industry virtually collapsed overnight. Sao Tome and Principe were ruled under a Marxist government under Manuel Pinta da Costa and the plantations were nationalised. In 1978, the former health minister Carlos de Graca, now based in Gabon, attempted to stage a coup but this was put down with the help of troops from Angola, another African country falling into the Soviet orbit. Following the departure of the Portuguese and their expertise in running the plantations, Sao Tome and Principe became dependent on international aid and could barely sustain themselves, with riots breaking out as a response to a shortage of food in 1981.
In the early 1990s, the plantations were once again privatised and with the end of the Cold War Sao Tome began to open itself up more to the outside world. Today it is a multi-party democracy, and a peaceful nation coming to terms with its past and looking hopefully towards the future. The discovery of oil offshore may mean an upswing in the fortunes of Sao Tome, but that remains to be seen as yet.
With Sao Tome potentially on the brink of change, now is the time to go and explore these idyllic little islands while they are still unknown by the outside world. With superb hiking opportunities through lush forests, on the lookout for endemic wildlife, or relaxing in one of the old plantation guesthouses that now accommodate what few tourists there are, Sao Tome today offers its visitors a secret slice of Eden. Whether you want to wander on deserted beaches, lazily wander through charming Sao Tome town, get close to nature or simply kick back and watch some of the most gorgeous sunsets on earth, there’s always a reason to visit this hidden paradise.