The duo of far-flung islands that is Sao Tome and Principe is hardly Africa’s best-known tourist destination. Nor is the tiny country the most glaringly of African places. For starters, the whole spot is Portuguese-speaking (save for a couple of pockets of earthy Creole). And then there’s the colonial feel of the towns and villages, which ooze the character of the New World more than that of sub-Sahara. However, there’s still a vibrant approach to life that’s undeniably African, not to mention a kitchen of spiced fish cuts and banana pap porridge that straddles the culinary traditions of both east and west.
If that’s tickled the travel glands, then add a wealth of gorgeous golden-sand beaches to the mix, rare sea turtles and beautiful mountain towns, along with the soaring spires of volcanic mountains, rare monkeys and more, and the wild and wonderful Sao Tome and Principe becomes pretty darn hard to resist!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Sao Tome and Principe:
1. Sao Tome
A chocolate box of beautiful Romanesque churches and ornate colonial buildings, palm-lined boulevards and pretty plazas, Sao Tome is the only real city on these islands.
The capital, and the economic hub, the political center and the main marketplace, it’s loaded with the likes of the Presidential Palace and Independence Square – marking the year that this Atlantic archipelago gained freedom from the powers of Europe.
Delve into the Central Market here and weave between terracotta-tiled townhouses, beautiful Baroque facades and the cannon-dotted bulwarks of Fort Sao Sebastian, all before hitting the fascinating exhibitions of the National Museum.
After that, you’ll discover lazy coffee shops spilling onto the cobbles, and plenty of places for strolling along the shoreline of beautiful Ana Chaves Bay.
2. Obo National Park
Otherworldly and awesome, the Obo National Park is one that rarely fails to take the breath away.
Covering a vast area of more than 230 square kilometers on the southern side of Sao Tome, the great wilderness ranges from salt-washed mangroves on the shore to virgin Atlantic rainforests in the highlands.
And what highlands they are! Crowned by the mighty, needle-like bluff of Pico Cao Grande, the park soars straight into the clouds.
And along the coast, the mountains take the form of great square-cut escarpments; lofty and proud above the waves of the Atlantic Ocean below.
Safaris and treks here will reveal beautiful tropical backcountry, along with grey parrots, mona monkeys and oodles of uber-rare birds!
3. Santo António
The capital of tiny little Principe – the smaller half of this archipelago – is a pint-sized town on the north shore of the island, and home to the bulk of its population (and that’s just above only 1,000 individuals!). A sleepy place of age-stained colonial edifices and mud-splattered pueblo-style homes, it’s got a certain authentic charm.
The winding channels of the Palhota River cut through the heart of the town, bisecting the seaside streets as they weave along the shore through palm groves and swamp flats.
Meanwhile, the verdant volcanic hills of the island’s inland beckon on the horizon, and local fishermen bob in their boats by the riparian jetties.
A popular spot for beach lovers and luxury seekers in search of Sao Tome’s fabled cocktail of sand, sea and sun on the Atlantic, the little town of Santana spills down to the shoreline on the eastern edge of the island, emerging from the lanky palms of the jungle and the volcanic hills like some forgotten village in the land of Robinson Crusoe.
It’s known mainly for the acclaimed Club Santana Resort, which offers bungalows and pretty cabanas just a stone’s throw from the golden sands of the Santana Beach.
There are also rooms set atop the craggy bluffs along the shore, along with diving operators, boat tour opportunities and more.
5. Monte Café
You’ll have to head deep into the volcanic mountain ranges that rise to the skies in the heart of Sao Tome island to find the aged colonial factories and coffee-growing haciendas of Monte Cafe.
As you might imagine, even the drive there is one for the travel journals: sweeping vistas of primeval rainforest; endless valleys of misty woods; the occasional rusting hamlet of tin-shack homes.
Once there, you’ll enjoy beautiful views of the palm-dotted highlands of the country, along with one acclaimed coffee museum, chronicling the cultivation, sales and history of the island’s major industry.
6. Rolas Island
Languishing in the Atlantic like the teardrop of Sao Tome, just a short boat ride away from the southern tip of the island, the speck on the map that is Rolas Island is famed for its sparkling white-sand beaches and paradisiacal veneer.
The sands are invariably totally secluded, cascading down from the jungle-covered coast in a medley of boulder-spotted coves and long stretches of sun-splashed ivory hues.
There’s also an acclaimed hotel resort here (perfect for a remote and romantic tropical stay away from the archipelago’s more-trodden spots), along with a monument to the courses of the equator, which crosses right over the middle of Rolas.
Trindade is one of the few possible destinations in Sao Tome that’s not on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Instead, this small town sits high above the capital, atop the rising ridges of the inland hills.
It’s surrounded by the great swathes of coffee plantations and cacao growing fields (the main economic drivers here) that make up the larger Me-Zochi District.
However, it’s the haunting and dilapidated character of the old colonial frontispieces that really strike visitors to the town – they stand like ghosts of a former age all along the pot-holed roads.
8. Boca de Inferno
The curious geological formations that poke out to meet the swells of the Atlantic on the eastern shore of Sao Tome find their zenith with the strikingly-named Boca de Inferno (that’s Hell’s Mouth in English). Visitors flock to this spot just a short drive south of the capital, to see as the salty whitecaps crash against the shore, and the currents draw water into a subterranean cave, all before they shoot sky high like some marine geyser.
The sight is really something on its own; made all the better by the gorgeous black-rock cliffs and volcanic headlands jutting out and erupting from the coast all around.
9. Jale Beach
For folk who flock to Sao Tome to see the rare phenomenon of turtles clambering over the beaches and laying their eggs, there’s perhaps no better destination than the arc of golden sand that is Jale Beach.
Curving its way around the bends of the southern coast, this bay is known as one of the top places to spot endangered sea turtles during the mating season.
It’s also popular with local swimmers, and there’s a clutch of rustic beach huts made out of bamboo and palm boughs – if you don’t mind bedding down to a backing track of crashing Atlantic waves, with no electricity and mod cons, that is!
10. Porto Alegre
Porto Alegre is hardly anything like its Brazilian namesake.
Instead of one million inhabitants, this one clocks up just over 500 in total.
Instead of endless barrios and sprawling modern districts, this town is a ramshackle conglomeration of earthy huts, stilted longhouses and faded fishing canoes.
Still, it’s got real charm, and is one of the starting points on the Sao Tome whale watching circuit (which runs the length of the east coast). It’s also a great place to launch further explorations along the pretty beaches of the south shore – Jale, paradisiacal Praia Piscina – and the gorgeous reaches of Rolas Island to boot.
11. Principe Ecological Zone
This huge area of greenery occupies a colossal cut out of the small island of Principe.
It’s much like its tropical brother to the south, and the hinterland displays many of the same rare virgin forests and mist-topped canopies as the Obo National Park.
However, this far-flung biosphere is much less explored.
The great Matterhorn-esque mountains soar straight from the jungle; cloud forests cascade down to the shimmering bays of the Atlantic; rare reptiles scurry through the undergrowth, and whales wallow in the waters out at sea.
For intrepid types there’s really nothing quite like it!
12. Santo Amaro
Santo Amaro is slowly becoming conjoined with the growing suburbs of the capital at Sao Tome city, which sits just a little to the south-east.
However, for now it remains separate; bathed in sleepy, lethargic vibes, and ticking over to a slow, island rhythm.
The center itself has just a smattering of low-rise homes and tiny squares.
There’s the occasional ad hoc café, along with a charming ochre-hued church to see.
What’s more, Santo Amaro has easy access to the nearby area of Bela Vista – a part of the capital – and the runways of the archipelago’s only international airport.
Neves is – unlike most all of the other cities that dot the shoreline of pretty Sao Tome – an industrial place at heart.
Factories, depots, breweries and one particularly productive electricity plant pepper its shoreline, all of which were raised on account of the useful deep water harbor that was built back in 2012 under a partnership with the Nigerian government.
There are also a couple of hotels and guesthouses here, along with a smattering of local restaurants.
But don’t expect Club Meds and the like – Neves is down-to-earth, and largely undeveloped.
14. Sao Joao dos Angolares
Set to the curious Creole sounds of the local vernacular and set just back from the beautiful arc of sand that is Praia Sao Joao dos Angolares, this 2,000-person-strong town on the east coast is a great choice for laid-back holidays.
There are oodles of guesthouses with swinging hammocks and earthy little kitchens touting Sao Tome’s medley of Portuguese-infused curries and Creole-style plates.
And the setting itself simply oozes chilled vibes: the jungle sways in the sea breeze, the homes are painted in pretty Carib-esque colors, the people smile, and the days go slowly.
15. Neves Ferreira
Beset by colossal table-top mountains and jungle-dressed cliffs, hemmed in by the primeval rainforests of the Principe Ecological Zone and the wilds of this tropical region, the tiny little hamlet of Neves Ferreira is perhaps the most inaccessible destination in the entire of the Sao Tome archipelago.
However, the isolation has ensured an enticing lack of development, while the beaches around the mud-sprayed huts that make up the center are still trodden by the huge carapaces of sea turtles and oodles of other rare and endangered species besides.
Planning a trip here won’t be easy, but the natural wonders might just be worth it!