A Week in the Second Smallest African Nation: Sao Tome and Principe

My trip to Cabo Verde in December 2021 was a great success. And I decided to check out another former Portuguese colony in Africa: Sao Tome and Principe. An island nation, it is located off the western coast of Central Africa and right on equator. In fact, many tourists to Sao Tome make a point to travel to this geographic divide, and take a picture while standing on equatorial lane with two feet being in two different hemispheres. As the name suggests, the country consists of two islands: São Tomé (main island) and Príncipe (much smaller in size) which are about 150 km (93.21 mi) apart. On my trip, I visited only “bigger brother,” the island of Sao Tome.

With the territory of 1,000 sq kilometers (386 sq miles) and population of just above 200,000 São Tomé and Príncipe is the second-smallest and second-least populous African nation after Seychelles.

The islands were uninhabited until their discovery by Portuguese in the 15th century. Gradually settled, they first simply served as a center for the Atlantic slave trade. Later on, thanks to the rich volcanic soil and proximity to the equator, São Tomé and Príncipe developed lucrative plantation economy producing sugar, coffee and cocoa. Today, the ruins of many “rocas” (former plantation estates) are popular destination for visitors to Sao Tome. Here are a few which are worth checking out: rocas of Agua Ize, Sao Joao de Angolares and Bombaim.

Full independence from Portugal was peacefully achieved in 1975. Today, São Tomé is widely regarded as a free democratic country with high level of political freedoms and freedom of speech. Bad news is that after gaining independence, in 1970-80s, Sao Tome was heavily supported economically by the countries of Communist block: with Soviet Union and Eastern Germany in the first place. As Communist system crumbled and Soviet Union broke apart, this support stopped. The centrally directed (“Communist style”) economy, with most means of production owned and controlled by the state, turned out to be inefficient. The country went into long period of economic stagnation and uncertainty. On a positive side, clealry, Sao Tome has great potential for tourism and it is a very safe and attractive country to travel.

The people of Sao Tome are predominantly of African and mestiço descent. The legacy of Portuguese rule is visible in the country’s language (Portuguese is state language, with French being also widely spoken) and culture which fuses European and African influences. The climate of Sao Tome is tropical: hot and humid. The rainy season is from October to May, and, in order to avoid it, I came here in June.

Speaking of “coming here,” most direct international flights connect Sao Tome with Portugal, Angola and Gabon. My choice was obvious: 4 hours flight from Lisbon by Tap Portugal. The first appearance of the country from the window of the plane was quite pleasant: it was some small island, part of Sao Tome archipelago, with a lighthouse on top of it.

We landed and the first impression was that the main international airport of the country looked very “humble.”

T took a picture, hurried to immigration officer, gathered luggage and in less than 30 min. was out of the airport.

First minutes in Sao Tome

A pre-arranged driver was waiting outside to take me to the first destination: a small resort, on the coast, 15 miles southeast of Sao Tome city which is called “Nge D’ Ai EE” or “Center D’Aqui Nge” (you can easily Google both names). It was dark and late, when I arrived, but the expertly prepared dinner was served and waiting: octopus Portuguese style – one of my very favorite dishes.

There were no other visitors this night at the resort, and the cute kitten made a great company through my dining al fresco (the restaurant is like a big open gazebo).

Next morning, on the same table, I found beautifully arranged “tropical breakfast” which was accompanied by the locally grown coffee. Speaking of the latter, coffee is an excellent choice to bring as a gift from Sao Tome.

After breakfast, I finally had a chance to meet and chat with the owner of the place: Celia. Celia is an expat from Portugal who has deep love for Sao Tome and is passionate to introduce visitors to its culture, nature and people. A successful businesswoman with international experiences of work and life, she discovered Sao Tome by chance a few years ago. On her first visit, Celia found and loved the sleepy coastal village of Agua Ize (where her resort was later built) and decided to stay there for a while. She “mingled” with locals (which is culturally not always an easy task), felt more and more “at home,” and, eventually bought property and settled there. Then she realized that by developing her property into a small resort, she can not only make some money, but also generate income for a local community by bringing tourists to this picturesque corner of the island and offering locals some jobs.

Celia, the owner of the Center D’Aqui Nge

If someone would ask me to describe Center D’Aqui Nge in just two words, I would say “humble and gorgeous.” “Humble,” because bungalows are comfortable but – by Western standards – simple (no air-conditioning or hot water). “Gorgeous”, because both property and surrounding nature are visually very appealing. Here are couple pictures from the grounds of the Center D’Aqui Nge.

Celia’s place is also right next to one of the most popular tourist attractions on Sao Tome: Boca do Inferno or Hell’s Mouth. Roca do Inferno is a product of coastal erosion by the ocean which resulted in strange rock formations, passages, and sea caves. When the waves hit shoreline, they funnel powerfully through these caves and vertical shafts and produce impressive fountains from the apertures of the shafts and mighty howling sounds. Unfortunately, when I was there, the sea was calm and I did not see the “show.”

Boca do Inferno

And one more “praise” for Center D’Aqui Nge. If you are a person with love for good local food, this is the place to be. Both Celia and her local employees can cook expertly, present dishes nicely, and take into account visitors’ requests and preferences. One of my greatest food “adventures on Sao Tome” was “calulu.” It is a hearty stew prepared with fresh or dry fish and shrimps. Other ingredients include okra, onions, tomatoes, eggplants, and finely chopped greens such as leaves of sweet potato or cassava. Cooking calulu is a long ordeal: it takes several hours. Hence, I was very pleased when Celia prepared this Sao Tomean delight. I know, the picture does not look very appetizing, but calulu was very tasty…

Calulu, the quintessential dish of Sao Tome

The first day I did not go anywhere and spent most time on a nearby beach called Praia Ize. Google maps give it only 3.9 stars, but I loved it. First, it is a truly local beach which is mostly used by the fishermen to launch their boats and it does not attract any tourists. Second, it is situated in a well protected cove: the waters are calm, shallow and warm.

Praia Ize

Third, the beach is wide and sand is fine and clean.

Finally, I love to observe the local social life and Praia Ize is a great place for this. Fishermen going in and returning form the ocean, village’ families having their picnics on weekends, or teenagers passing by on the way from school to home.

Early afternoon. Kids go home from the school.

In the early evening, little kids from the village started to show up and attempt to socialize with me regardless of linguistic barrier.

Sunset on Praia Ize

By the time of sunset, I returned home, but instead of taking shortcut through the village, made a small loop: walked to highway, along the road, and then back to Celia’s resort. While walking along the road, I saw first (but definitely not last) time the typical “laundry process” on Sao Tome. Clothes, beddings, everything were washed in creeks and streams. Just lake that:

Laundry process in Sao Tome

Most people come to Sao Tome first of all because of the beaches. And, indeed, there are plenty of them and they are quite different: some more accessible and some more remote; some with calm waters and some rather “wavy” being good option for surfers; some fairly deserted and some with bustling social life. And so, the next day was the day of beach hoping: checking out several of them, all along the East coast and to the South of Center D’Aqui Nge. First stop was Praia das Sete Ondas – the Beach of Seven Waves. This one is right next to the highway and attracts plenty of visitors. It also has decent bar/cafe.

Bar on Praia das Ondas

When I first arrived, it was right after the rain and the beach was deserted. But in one hour or so, the local young folks started to come in sizeable groups. Clearly it was one of these beaches with abundant social life.

Praia das Sete Ondas

Further South, the next stop was at Praia Micondo. I first saw it from the highway.

Approaching Praia Micondo

Praia Micondo requires a little bit (like half a mile) of driving or hiking on a dirt road. Not a big deal. For me, it was better than Sete Ondas: more private and nicely enclosed in the cove with calm water and surrounding lush vegetation. It looks that there were some fishing activities there, but definitely not recently. These boats and house appeared to be fully abandoned.

Praia Micondo

The last beach of the day was Praia Grande. You would need to make a little more effort to get there from the major highway. In fact, dirty road to it (about 1 mile) was built only recently. Prior to that it would be necessary to hike through the thick rain forest. Praia Grande was my absolute favorite. Wide, clean, scenic and fully deserted.

Praia Grande

The next day was rainy. The only option was to go to the capital, the town of Sao Tome, and check out a few local attractions and some shops. I walked from Center D’Aqui Nge to the coastal highway and waited for minibus which isthe main local public transportation. The minibuses on Sao Tome do not follow particular schedule. Typically, the driver at the station of origin waits until his bus is full or nearly full and then drives to final destination. People can get on and off at any place, but the problem is that often buses remain full all along the route and there is no way that they can take more passengers. This was my case. I waited for an hour, and a few minibuses passed by but none stopped. I ended up hitchhiking which was surprisingly easy. When I arrived to the town, it was around noon, and the streets were full of kids marching from the school back home.

Early afternoon in the capital of Sao Tome

I walked a little bit around and found two great shops. One was bakery called Padaria Moderna I love baked goods, pastries, etc., and this place had wide variety of choices, low prices, and excellent quality of everything what I bought there.

The second shop (and very close to Padaria Moderna) was place called Kua Tela. This is an ultimate destination for any type of handicrafts, souvenirs, and “eatable and drinkable” goods produced in Sao Tome. The prices are a bit higher than at the local producers, but then everything is nicely packed, the staff speaks English, and all what Sao Tome is known for can be found in one place. Physically, it is a rather small shop – just two rooms – but variety of products was impressive, and I spent nearly one hour looking, choosing and buying.

The shelves of Kua Tela store are full of local products and handicrafts

I wrote already that coffee production used to flourish on Sao Tome and – while no longer an important export item – it is still grown there. A fun place to go and to learn more about history of coffee in Sao Tome and to try some freshly prepared brew is “Monte Cafe.” It is old coffee plantation which offers a museum, guided tours, cafe and restaurant. It is located outside of Sao Tome city, in an attractive natural setting and also on the way to popular St. Nicholas Waterfalls. Instead of searching for minibus going in a right direction (which was somewhat challenging task), I simply nailed a taxi and negotiated a price to Monte Cafe. My understanding was that the cab will be for me only, but no. As we drove through the city and its suburbs, driver picked up more and more passengers. I ended up in a car with seven more persons. Here is my best attempt to take a picture of our joint ride.

Taxi “Sao Tome” style

Unfortunately, when we arrived to Monte Cafe a strong rain began. Hence, I did not have a chance to go on a tour through plantation or to continue hike to St. Nicholas waterfalls. But I enjoyed sitting in cafe and sipping hot aromatic coffee.

Monte Cafe: all about coffee in Sao Tome

When I returned to Sao Tome city, it was late afternoon, and the streets were full of cars, scooters and motorbikes: the rush hour began.

I walked through what is considered the central part of the city and along embankment facing the ocean. Neither were particularly appealing.

I found a bus station, spotted a minibus going in a right direction, and then simply waited for about 20 minutes until it was full of passengers

Waiting for minibus to be fully loaded with passengers and cargo

After three nights in Center D’Aqui Nge, the next destination was famous beach called Praia Piscina. I planned to stay there couple nights at a place called Gombela Ecologe. Praia Piscina is situated on the southwestern corner of the island. In order to get there from Center D’Aqui Nge, I needed to go around half the island. Instead of dealing with minibuses, I hired a local driver and used this private ride to see a few sites en route. The first stop was Cascata de Praia Pesqueira – a waterfall which drops into the ocean. It was nice, but nothing too special. Also, the scenery was a bit obstructed by a bunch of local ladies who used waterfall as an excellent spot for laundry.

Cascata de Praia Pesquires

But the panoramic view towards the ocean (with waterfalls being behind me) was truly spectacular.

Back on the highway and shortly after waterfalls, there was a big road-stand offering good variety of handicrafts made out of the local woods. The selection was impressive and prices quite decent.

And then the highway has sort of “disappeared” and the road became more like a country road. At this point, I was glad to be in a four wheel drive – not in the local minibus with – typically – quite bad suspension.

The Southern portion of Hwy 2 on Sao Tome

The speed dropped to about 20 miles per hour and suddenly the magnificent peak Cao Grande – the “postcard symbol” of Sao Tome – came into the view.

Cao Grande, the symbol of Sao Tome

The Pico Cão Grande (in Portuguese: “Great Dog Peak”) is a needle-shaped volcanic peak. Its summit is 663 m (2,175 ft) above sea level. Cao Grande was formed by magma solidifying in the vent of an active volcano. Although the peak rises only 370 meters (1,200 feet) above surrounding terrain, it is difficult to climb, because of the moist moss growing on the rocks and the presence of snakes. The first attempt to conquer Pico Cão Grande was made in 1975 by Portuguese climbers, but it was not until 1991 that a group from Japan finally succeeded. A few more miles and Porto Alegre – the southernmost fishing town in Sao Tome – appeared.

Porto Alegre

The highway 2 ended here and – without stopping in Porto Alegre – we drove a few more miles on a dirt track finally arriving to Gombela Ecolodge

Gombela Ecolodge from the distance
Main building and restaurant at Gombela Ecolodge

Gombela has just a few bungalows. They are simple but new and fairly attractive: both from outside and inside.

The lodge’s territory is sprawling, its grounds and plants are nicely “manicured, and the views are stunning. Combined with remoteness, the resulting vibe is a “small private paradise hidden in the nature.”

My favorite spot at Gombela ecolodge to spend lazy afternoon
Another good place at Gombela to have a picnic with ultimate view

As noted, Gombela is remote. That is, there are no nearby restaurants or shops. At least, not in a walking distance. But the good news is that the staff of the lodge can cook very well. There is no menu: you need to simply discuss (a bit in advance so they can get supplies) what do you want to eat and it will be prepared to your liking. One of their specialties is crab cooked in a curry sauce. I had it for dinner on first evening and it was delicious.

Crab curry, a specialty of Gombela Ecolodge

Breakfast is included in the price of accommodations and although the choices are limited (eggs, toast, marmalade, yogurt, etc.), I was fully satisfied with big plate of various fruits and a pot of local strong coffee. The breakfast was, of course, accompanied by a panoramic ocean view.

Breakfast at Gombela ecolodge

I feel that at this point the reader may ask: “Okey. It is a beautiful place with good food, but is this the main reason to stay at Gombela?” The answer is: “No.” The main reason to spend here couple days is Praia Piscina – the “Pool Beach.” Essentially, Praia Piscina is indeed like a pool which is filled with ocean water, but separated from the sea and waves by the natural wall made of stones and rocks. Surrounded by lush vegetation and clean white sand, it is both very picturesque to see and fun to splash around. And it is right next to Gombela.

Praia Piscina: a natural pool in tropical paradise

If you decide (and you should) to visit Praia Piscina either with a day trip or staying at Gombela, pay attention to the tides. When it is high, the pool is full and great for swimming. But when the tide is low, it is more like a puddle. I was lucky to be there at the high tide and enjoyed Praia Piscina to the fullest.

High tide is a good time to be at Praia Piscina

I stayed two nights at Gombela, but then it was time to say “Good bye!” My big thanks goes to Eajir, who is an on-site manager of the lodge: a very attentive and kind host. If you decide to book Gombela directly (not via Booking etc.), here is Eajir’s cell phone which is on What’s Up: +239-993-4585

Eajir and myself: last minutes at Gombela

Returning from Gombela, I decided yet to try the minibus option. The starting point for the one running along the east coast in north direction was in Porto Alegre. Eajir promised arrange transportation to the bus station and I was not worried. Yet, it was a surprise when – instead of the car – a young fellow came on a light motorbike. First, I was not sure how all my luggage (a suitcase, small backpack, another bag) can be transported. Second, I remembered bumpy dirt trail (from coming to lodge by car) and was somewhat apprehensive of navigating this trail on a heavily loaded motorbike.

My “limo” chauffeur from Gombela to Porto Alegre

Well, the ride was not exactly smooth, but surprisingly efficient and even fun. All three pieces of the luggage and myself were delivered safely to the spot in the town where locals were waiting for minibus.

Nothing is exactly on time in Sao Tome, and – while waiting for the bus – I had plenty of time to observe the street life in this dusty fishermen town. Perhaps, most touching and somewhat troubling, was to see small children helping their families in various heavy chores. Like this small fellow drugging tree trunk.

The sight of working children is common in Sao Tome

Finally, the minibus came. It filled up to capacity and beyond with passengers and luggage, and I was on my way to the destination of this day. Remember, at the beginning of this post, I mentioned “rocas” – old plantations with once stately mansions which are popular destinations for many tourists. While most rocas are in the conditions of decay and dilapidation, a few have been restored and offer visitors upscale accommodations with “colonial ambiance.” Among most known, is Roca de Sao Joao de Angolares.

Roca de Sao Joao des Angolares

The main reason to come here are actually not accommodations as such, but famous multi-course lunches and dinners prepared by Chef Joao, a former cooking show celebrity from Portugal. The description of their meals sounded interesting (creative “fusion” style dishes, made with locally grown ingredients, farm-to-table supply) and I decided to give it a try. Plus, food is served on open terrace with the view of ocean and tropical forest.

Roca is located in the town of the same name (Sao Joao de Angolares), but a bit up the hill from the coast. I booked dinner at roca, but choose to stay in a small hotel-restaurant called Mionga which was right next to the highway and also very close to a local beach. The reviews on Google maps praised Mionga for genuine hospitality, good accommodations with much lower price than at roca, and (!) also outstanding restaurant with owner, Nelitu, being also a main chef. When I arrived in early afternoon, the place was jam-packed with tourists who came here specifically for lunch. The view from restaurant was great and food looked delicious. In fact, I nearly regretted that my dinner is already booked at roca.

The room was also very good: spacious, clean, and nicely decorated.

My room at Mionga Hotel

I had a few hours before dinner at Roca de Sao Joao dos Angolares and walked to the nearby village beach. It was surprisingly clean (no empty bottles, beer cans, cigarette butts), and I decided to stay for a while: to take a swim and also observe local social life.

A good beach near Mionga hotel

In about half an hour I was rewarded with the free sport show: the local guys played soccer and did so quite masterfully.

And then I felt asleep on a warm sand until strange sounds woke me up. A bunch of pigs came to the beach and were “roaming” around strange lying object – me.

It was getting dark and it was time to go for my fancy dinner at Roca Sao Joao de Angolares. Fast forward, dinner was Okey, but it did not live up to expectations which were based on numerous praising online reviews. I guess it was one more reminder that while traveling it is not a good idea to have any preconceived notion of what we will get or see. Otherwise, the chances of disappointment would be great. On one hand, the service at the dinner was impeccable and the “story” of each dish was interesting. On the other hand, however, some of dishes were fairly boring in terms of flavors, portions were very miniature, and the number of courses smaller than promised. While being somewhat disappointed with food, I greatly enjoyed conversation with Ivan, the manager at Roca Sao Joao de Angolares. A native of Angola, he spent some time studying in former Soviet Union and developed a taste for classic Russian literature. Hence, we ended up discussing virtues of novels and personages by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, etc.

Ivan, manager at Roca Sao Joao de Angolares and literature connoisseur

I woke up early next morning at Mionga hotel and walked downstairs for breakfast. The restaurant was absolutely empty (I was the only overnight guest) and brightly lit by the sun.

Morning at Mionga hotel and restaurant

But the kitchen was busy already: Nelito and his son were getting ready for the coming lunch crowds. I thanked them for hospitality and comfort, and promised to be back for an abundant meal at their restaurant (which I missed this time).

Nelitu, the owner and chef at Mionga hotel, and his son

This was my last full day at Sao Tome. I returned to Celia’s Center D’Aqui Nge and spent most time on a nearby beach.

My last sunset on Sao Tome: low tide, calm waters, and sleepy village of Agua Ize

I asked Celia to cook dinner and decide herself as to what would it be. Somewhat predictably, for this “last supper,” she has chosen my favorite octopus Portuguese style. And I still had a bottle of an excellent dry Riesling made by my German friend, Helmut Darting, a winemaker and owner of vineyard in Pfalz.

Last dinner on Sao Tome.

Seven good days on Sao Tome were over. Will I be back? Perhaps, but may be not: there are always new countries to go. Point is that I was very grateful to everyone who made my time there interesting, rewarding, comfortable, and meaningful. Big thanks goes to Celia, Ejair, Nelitu, Ivan and many other people whom I met in Sao Tome.

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