Top 10 things to do on Sao Tome and Principe Islands
Our Sao Tome and Principe expert Alistair gives us the low down on the top ten things to do
24 Jun 2020
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Sao Tome Island
Sao Tome and Principe is a tiny dual island nation in the Gulf of Guinea West of Africa. The jewel in the crown is the smaller and older Principe Island and most people just use Sao Tome as a stepping stone on arrival before heading to Principe. I think they are missing a trick and there is much to be found exploring on Sao Tome.
1. Obo National Park
The Obo National Park (covering over 75 square miles of the island – almost 1/3) is known internationally amongst conservationists for its biologically rich dense virgin rainforests with over 700 plant species, 95 of which are endemic. There is an abundance of waterfalls littering these forests and the birdlife, with 16 endemic species, is fantastic – making hiking and birding an absolute pleasure. Where the primary forest has gone there are coffee and cocoa plantations (both current and from years gone by) to stumble across and explore. At the working plantations there is generally someone about to show you round. For those that are in ruins, you have these relics to explore on your very own. You can easily get a guide in Sao Tome Town – just ask at the tourist office.
Pico de Sao Tome – A 2 day climb to the summit and the highest point on both islands.
Volta a Ilha – 2 day trek from Santa Catarina to Porto Allegre on the remote west coast
Caminho do Fugido – Fugitives’ Path – a 5 hour loop that leads up to the Lagoa Amelia
2. The South Eastern Beaches
Arguments roll on about where the best beaches on the island sit. Some say the northern coast where turtles nest and hatch (see later on) but in my opinion one of the best day/s out you can have if you head down the eastern coast towards Porto Allegre and Ilheu das Rolas. Its not often you find incredible bleach white squeaky-sand beaches with only a few locals to avoid desertion.
Praia Sete Ondas (Seven Wave Beach) is a big long sweeping surf beach which will have locals on it either playing football or practicing capoeira. It’s a great spot for a swim or walk and is easily accessible from the road.
Praia De Micondo – Another great swimming beach and also good for enormous land crabs as well as excellent birdlife. There is a beach bar here for local refreshments (think coconuts, not Pina Coladas) too.
Praia Angobo and the dark sanded Praia Angra Toldo are nice but in this company, the poor relations.
3. Pico de Sao Tome
Pico de Sao Tome is the highest mountain in São Tomé and Príncipe at 2,024 m and is a sight to behold. Even if you just trek to the base. The mountain is thickly wrapped in forest. Coffee and cocoa plantations dominate the lower slopes, higher up are large trees draped in an embarrassment of riches: orchids, lichens and other tropical plants. The upper parts of the mountain are often swathed in mist making it all the more mysterious and magical. It’s a sight you will never forget.
Treks to the base can easily be organised and are well worth it. For the more adventurous, climbing to the top captures the imagination. The ascent is generally made over 2 days but can be made in a single eighteen hour hike from Ponta Figo, although this makes it rather rushed and a bit of a shame. The trek is not difficult but the often rainy weather tends to make the path very slippery and you are often clambering over fallen trees or even scrambling. One to tell the grandchildren about.
4. Explore Sao Tome City on foot
The capital city on Sao Tome Island with the same name, Sao Tome City, in the north east of the island is home to about 60,000 people. It was made the capital by the Portuguese King in 1535 and has been ever since. Today it still bears its colonial history in the form of buildings from the period that have either fallen into disrepair or have been refurbished and now stand out with their bright colours, along with one of the oldest sub Saharan cathedrals. As with any African country, there is hustle and bustle – be it the yellow taxis jostling for position or the street traders dealing in their various wares, all in the vicinity of the market. It is what can only be described as a small working African city, meaning that it’s not clean and not necessarily all that pretty, but still it more than captivates and offers some superb photo opportunities and insights into San Tomean life. There is also the National Museum, which displays Santomean art.
5. Turtle nesting and hatching trips
Between November and March, you’ll have the opportunity to join turtle nesting and hatching trips on Sao Tome. The Santomean NGO MARAPA are working hard and fund beach rangers to protect turtles on the beaches at the important breeding grounds of Morro Peixe and Micolo. All nests are carefully moved from nesting sites to hatcheries as this is the only way to protect them and research is being done to compare hatching success with those left in their original positions.
Beach and sea rangers, who were previously turtle fisherman, are now paid to protect the turtles not fish them, and you arrange to go out with them on Turtle Patrol, helping protect the turtles and help clean up part of the beach as you go doing your bit for the environment.
Principe is the older but much smaller sister island of Sao Tome, located in the Gulf of Guinea West of Africa. With incredible landscape, very few inhabitants, lush forests rich in endemic biodiversity (UNESCO Biosphere) and some of the best beaches in the world, this island is a must on everyone’s bucket list – that is for those who have heard about it.
6. Whale Watching
The ocean surrounding Principe is a great place to spot whales migrating between feeding zones during the months of July and November. The whales are humpbacks, and if you are lucky, pass close enough to be seen from land. There are various operators that run whale watching trips and they generally last about 2 -3 hours.
All year round there is also a good chance of spotting dolphins who will often come and play around the boat. Whilst these activities are not exclusive to these islands, due to the low numbers of visitors, the chance to experience time with the whales and dolphins, more than likely without any other boats, is one that you will remember for ever.
7. Banana Beach & other deserted beauties
Incredible beaches here on Principe are ten-a-penny and one of the best ways to discover them is to stumble upon them. Occupied only by birdsong and the odd turtle, they are just waiting for you to go and explore!
This beach needs no introduction. Think of the famous Bacardi advert a few years ago, or even as it’s claimed, the bikini clad lady indulging suggestively in coconut chocolate. The beach, as the name suggest, is a banana shape with beautifully fine golden sand, a thin band of colour between the turquoise ocean and the emerald forest. It is still pretty deserted, great for swimming and genuinely one of the best beaches out there – it won’t last forever, go now before the crowds!
Located just around the corner from Banana Beach is a good swimming beach and has a turtle project.
Now the site of an upmarket boutique hotel in the style of a luxury safari Camp is a stunning wide beach ideal for swimming. You might even see the odd turtle nesting or a hatchling making a break for the sanctuary of the ocean. Birdlife here is superb and beach lounger ornithology is often the order of the day. Sundy Praia’s sister hotel Bom Bom Island Resort also has a super beach, some say its even better…which to visit is a real first world dilemma on a remote paradise island.
8. Trekking and Walking
A really rewarding activity that once again makes you feel like you may be the first (and momentarily the only) person to venture along that track.
For the majority of treks you must take a guide, it’s for your own safety and to avoid people getting lost in what is a deserted and impenetrable jungle. You are also likely to get a bit wet – you are after all in a rain forest. Take a decent pair of walking shoes as the going can get quite muddy if the rain has been heavy the previous night. Mozzie repellent and snacks are a good idea too.
Translated as Parrot Mountain is formed from volcanic basalt (reaching approximately 700 metres above sea level) and is a really rewarding ½ day trek with views over Santo Antonio (cloud cover permitting). The walk is leisurely and for all abilities, walking through both primary and secondary rainforest. You’ll be treated to an abundance of monkeys and birds, as well as stunning orchids (some endemic to the islands).
O Que Pipi Waterfalls
A short but steep 45-minute hike through rain forest with the reward at the end to swim under this beautiful waterfall and have it all to yourself.
9. Discover ruins of yesteryear plantations
This was the original capital of Principe and is now consumed by the jungle. It’s a 2-hour trek to get there through the dense jungle but this is the kind of thing that is fairly unique to modern day travel.
As you stumble upon the 400-year-old church that is steadily being eaten by the greenery, you realise that this was what it felt like to be an explorer. Whilst this is not Machu Pichu, it is your very own ruin, with no other cameras and selfie stick wielding tourists. Kids will love being part of this adventure and will be telling their friends the tall stories for weeks to come.
Another ruin to visit is the old plantation of Roca Infante. Abandoned by colonials after independence it is now a ruin that is worth having a look at and the walk to get there is home to various monkeys, as well as beautiful wild plants and flowers. There is a circuit that can be done which finishes at on old harbour before you enjoy a boat ride back – a brilliant day out for adults and children alike.
10.The Bay of Needles and other water-based activities
The BaÍa das Agulhas or Bay of Needles is really a must when you visit Principe. You can enjoy the most spectacular views of the west side of the National Park from the best place to see it – out at sea. The bay gets its name from all the phonolite towers that rise up, offering some of the best photo opportunities of this unique landscape.
The Bay of Needles can also be enjoyed with other boat trips that will visit some of the more remote beaches on the island or indeed to enjoy some ‘tag and release’ deep sea fishing – mainly marlin or sailfish. Diving and snorkelling can be organised and for enthusiastic divers there are some excellent dive spots.
For one day only...
Finally, if you happen to be in Principe mid-August you will be treated to a completely unique festival performed by almost the entire population of the island – Auto de Floripes.
It is a stunning and colourful interpretation of the struggle between Christians and Moors (or good and evil), with reference to ancient times. On this special day, the town of Santo António do Príncipe wakes up to the sound of horns and the dawn is pierced by sword blows, reminders of old disputes and battles. The performance runs late into the night, and into the streets and alleys: the theatre takes the city by storm. And, in this game of make-believe, actors and audiences, past and present, Christians and Moors, intertwine in a long, vibrant and unexpected show. There are incredible colours and costumes; fake beards and ties; the whole island population takes part, but there are no words, only actions. A festival like no other you are likely to see.