The title sounds so harsh for this little paradise island but that is the way things worked out for me when visiting Sao Tome. An initial trip of 4 days was extended by a full week because of things out of my control. Another one of those moments were traveling felt so frustrating and asking myself the question why am I doing this...
Reaching my goal of visiting every country in the world was still very far away but when traveling to Cameroon I knew that this was also my chance to visit Sao Tome & Principe. I didn’t plan on visiting this island nation only about 4 days before my trip.
But let me put things straight away into perspective! Visiting Sao Tome was amazing and the longer I stayed in this little paradise, the more I started to appreciate. This destination really grew on me and asking me if traveling to Sao Tome & Principe is worth it: YES ABSOLUTELY!
Being a former Portuguese colony I knew that it was a visa free destination for Europeans and I found a one-way flight with Afrijet from Douala to Sao Tome for $230 USD. The flight is only 1.5 hour but this is a normal price for flights in Central Africa. It doesn’t get much cheaper around here. Traveling in Central Africa is not the best place in the world for backpacking or people traveling on a budget.
Through my Instagram stories I asked for Sao Tome travel tips and surprisingly I was bombarded with uncountable message. Really? Sao Tome? A country I thought most people had never even heard about, but nevertheless my inbox was full of travel tips. That said it were mostly other avid world travelers or people from Portugal that were trying to help me out. From Portugal there are direct flights to Sao Tome & Principe and most of the tourists you will meet when visiting Sao Tome are actually also Portuguese. Oh for the record the official language in Sao Tome & Principe is Portuguese.
Renting a car in Sao Tome
Almost all travel tips for Sao Tome included renting a car and so did I do. Through an Instagram friend I was put in touch with Didi, a super friendly and laid-back local guy who had a good solid car (jeep style) for rent and he charged me €25 per day.
Here is one of my best Sao Tome travel tips for you: +239 99 37 375. Send Didi a Whatsapp, he speaks good English and get yourself a car when visiting Sao tome. Tell him you come through Traveltomtom and that you know that I paid €25 per day. Getting a rental car in Soa Tom is the best way to get to all the cool places to visit on the island.
Driving in Sao Tome island is fairly easy as there is only one main road that almost circle-navigates around the whole island and big plus is that there is very little traffic. In some areas roads are terrible, but in general it is ok and doable. Only in the most Southern point of the island the road is horrible. Unfortunately if you want to go to one of the best places to visit in Sao Tome you have to endure this shitty road. But trust me Jale Beach is worth it! Although some people seem to claim the opposite, a 4x4 car is NOT needed. My car was NOT a 4x4 and I had no problems getting everywhere I went around the island.
Sao Tome city
On arrival at Sao Tome Airport Didi was waiting for me to hand me over the car. Everything was arranged with him based on good faith. There were no car checks or forms to be filled out or even checking my drivers license. Welcome to Sao Tome, a place where island life vibes are still leading!
At the airport I wanted to buy a local prepaid sim card for Sao Tome, but the kiosks where closed. Didi drove me to the city center which is just 5 minutes from the airport and helped me buying a prepaid sim card. Click on the link to read my complete guide for buying a sim card in Sao Tome & Principe. You will need it for navigating around the island and it is cheap anyway.
Sao Tome city center didn’t look great, rather dirty and of course chaotic, a typical African city center to be honest. But I learned from my many trips in Africa to not judge a country by its capital and therefore I drove out of the city straight away, direction North.
North & West Sao Tome
As soon as I left the city I found out what local life in Sao Tome is really life. I am sure most Western people would say that people in Sao Tome live in poverty. Houses around the island are almost everywhere simple wooden structures, often on stilts. You will also find loads of farm animals running around freely, streets are packed with people selling their goods on the side of the road and sadly but the truth every village that you cross is very polluted with garbage.
It is the sad reality of a beautiful lush green island, but although the people in these villages are super friendly and love seeing tourists, these are not the places to visit in Sao Tome. In the North I went to Roca Agostino Neto, the oldest and grandest plantation in the country. The main building of this mountain village was shown on an old 50,000 Dobra banknote, which would be worth $250 nowadays. The abandoned building is nowadays more a symbol of the decline of a nation.
Nothing too special, but nice to add as a stop in the North of Sao Tome on your way towards the West. Great thing is that you can walk around here and local people will welcome you with a big smile and offer you to walk you around the village. For a small fee of whatever you can miss they show you the local village life around.
Next stop on my Sao Tome itinerary was a restaurant called Santola Neves on the West coast, famous for its massive crab meals. Never had I eaten anything like this before and I literally had no clue what to do with it so I asked the help of the waiter. In the end he ended up personally feeding me for 10 minutes. Eating crab at Santola Neves is more than a meal, it was an experience! Definitely one of the best things to do in Sao Tome.
Before I reached Neves I found a Lighthouse along the coastal road and met 2 young ladies. They showed me the road to get there and guided me up the hill from where I had amazing views of the west coast of Sao Tome.
Last on my itinerary for today was one of the most iconic places to visit in Sao Tome: the picturesque tunnel! The road to get there was surprisingly good and a very well paved tarmac road led me through beautiful landscapes.
Unfortunately by the time I reached the tunnel it was already dark. Distances are not too far at all in Sao Tome, but I underestimated the driving time and missed the sunset.
It was a great way to end my first day in Sao Tome though. It was time to find accommodation and I started to look on the internet and found Mucumbli.
An amazing boutique hotel completely surrounded by jungle vibes and of course on the ocean. I went to check it out, but it was already dark and the next day I would had to move on early because I needed to fix a PCR test for my trip to Gabon. Therefore I decided to not stay here for the night, but I would everyone traveling to Sao Tome recommend this place.
Driving back to the city only took about 1,5 hour but in the dark it was pretty challenging to be honest. I ended staying in Sweet Guesthouse, recommended by many people on Instagram and it has my go to. When staying in Sao Tome city this is your place.
The next morning I headed out early to get my PCR fixed because unfortunately there is only one laboratory on the island and it Is in the capital city. The whole process took 3 hours and it was $125 USD.
Sadly, it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth, as people with a Sao Tome passport only pay $65. Not a nice way to make money on tourists… but we all know by now that covid wasn’t just about our health or well being! This was pretty disappointing.
South Sao Tome
It took way longer than expected and I pretty much lost the whole morning, but I jumped back into the car and started traveling south. My first stop was Praia Sete Ondas which translates beach of 7 waves. There was a kind of beach bar, meaning a hut, two tables, a couple chairs and surfboards outside. It looked very easy-going and that was exactly what the vibe was of the 4 local guys hanging out there. The immense beach in front was completely deserted. “Busy on weekends”, the guys said!
Although pretty boring to be here all by myself it is an absolute must see when traveling to Sao Tome, great place to visit.
Heading more South the roads become very windy through amazing landscapes. Green rolling hills on your right side with some spectacular jungle views and the beautiful coastline on your left. There are uncountable places to stop and take pictures. But the most iconic place to visit in Sao Tome & Principe is Pico Cão Grande.
Don’t worry it is impossible to miss when driving south as it suddenly pops up at the horizon. A pretty damn spectacular site, very unique in the world. This rock formation alone is already reason enough to travel to Sao Tome.
I met a little boy there who I trusted to take a couple photos of me together with Pico Cão Grande, but that wasn’t a success. Meeting him was good fun though and the little boy made good Instagram stories and covered me in oil.
There are several viewpoints along the road to take pictures with Cão Grande Peak and I am sure you can also hike up to it. You have to leave your car on the side of the road and head into the jungle either winging it or find a local for a couple dollar that is willing to show you the road. I have seen pictures online from nearby the Pico itself, so it is possible.
My destination for the day was not this beautiful Sao Tome landmark but Praia Jalé all the way in the most southern tip of the island. This place is known for its stunning beach and hatching sea turtles.
Because I made many photo stops on my way south and the road after seeing Pico Cão Grande becomes incredibly shit, I only arrived late in the afternoon, but I fell in love immediately. Jale Beach is very remote and there is nothing around apart from Jale Ecolodge and Domus Praia Jale. Both accommodations are located right on the beach with Jale Ecolodge a little more upscale and of course a little more expensive.
I opted to stay in Domus Praia Jale and paid $50 for the night including breakfast. It was incredibly quiet down here and I had the beach all for myself. My beach hut was basic but nice and clean with a good shower (cold water) and a mosquito net. The only thing missing was a fan as at night it was pretty hot. But it was an amazing experience to sleep so close to the beach hearing the massive waves crash on the beach making the hut shake a little.
It reminded me of my days living in Costa Rica on the beach of a deserted island back in 2008. Especially since I was volunteering there with a sea turtle project in Tortuguero and coincidentally that is what Jale Beach is exactly like.
At night the beach is patrolled by conservation workers protecting endangered sea turtles. If you happen to travel to Sao Tome between September and April and get to Jale Beach it is very likely you will see sea turtles at night. A night tour with the conservationist cost €15 per person and they will find you a big female sea turtle coming up to the beach and laying its eggs.
If you bring your own red light you can walk on the beach at night and probably find your own! White light is strictly forbidden as it scares sea turtles away.
Unfortunately the next morning I had to pack up after breakfast and check out. As long as I could I chilled at Jale Beach until it was my time to head back to Sweet Guesthouse in Sao Tome city, as the next day early morning my flight to Gabon was leaving.
Another cool place to visit just 30 minutes South of Sao Tome city is Boca do Inferno or Mouth of Hell. Rock formations in the water create a kind of channel where the crashing waves push their way through and blow holes appear. The landscape around is beautiful. From the main road it is just 5 minutes walk.
Solo traveling in Sao Tome
As you know most of my trips are solo traveling, simply because I never plan my adventures ahead and it is very hard to keep up with me. Visiting Cameroon with my friends from @kasoest was amazing, but that trip was a coincidence more or less. Going around the island on my own was fun, but I wouldn’t advice Sao Tome as a solo travel destination. Not that it is not safe to travel in Sao Tome, the opposite... I think it may be even one of the safest countries to visit in Africa.
So why no thumbs up for solo traveling in Sao Tome? It is a bit boring all by yourself! It isn’t a very touristy place in the first time because of its remote location, but also because it is a very unknown holiday destination, not the country where you meet a bunch of other travelers. Most of the people that I met on the island were older couples, mostly from Portugal.
Bye Bye Sao Tome
After 3 nights on the island it was already time to travel onwards. Unfortunately I had to choose to stay either 3 nights or 7 nights in Sao Tome as my next destination was Gabon and there were only 2 flights per week from Sao Tome to Libreville.
Staying 3 night in a country goes against my travel style, as normally I take it slow and hang around a country to take in its vibe. However, recently I decided that if I really want to travel to every country in the world I have to change my travel style at least a little bit. There are still around 70 countries to go and although I am not in a rush, I realized that I can't stay everywhere for 2 weeks, especially not a small country like Sao Tome & Principe.
Well… as often things didn’t go as planned, but this time I experienced something never happened to me before: I was refused to board my plane to Gabon as according to the Afrijet representative I needed a visa prior to traveling to Gabon. Complete bullshit! European passport holders are able to get a visa on arrival. Although it is everywhere on the internet stated as such, they simply didn’t let me board my plane at Sao Tome Airport. I was in disbelieve, I created a lot of havoc, but in the end... what could I do? I couldn't force myself into the plane.
I desperately jumped on a moto taxi and urged him towards the Gabon embassy only to find out it was of course closed... it was Sunday morning. At that time I realized I lost my flight. I lost $200, but what could I do!?
I took my loss and the next morning I went to the embassy again to get myself a Gabon tourist visa. I only needed to fill out a form and pay 35,000 XAF ($60) and I could pick up my visa the next day. End good, all good! However, there are only 2 flights per week from Sao Tome to Gabon so I needed to wait another 2 days, an extra 4 nights on the island.
The morning of my second scheduled flight to Gabon I was contacted by Afrijet telling me the flight was cancelled. Really? NOOOOOO! "The next flight out is in 3 days, we will change your ticket sir!". Unbelievable, but again what could I do? Must add to this that the Afrijet passenger service for the cancelled flight was impeccable! They arranged me a hotel in Sao Tome city including 3 meals a day for the next 3 days, all for free! Big thumbs up for that Afrijet!
My life as a full time nomad doesn’t have a set schedule and wherever I am and I have a good internet connection I can catch up on work stuff on my main business: this travel blog! For those still not in the know this is my way of how I afford to travel!
Many people on social media suggested me some places to visit in Sao Tome, but it wasn’t that easy. First I needed to arrange the Gabon visa which took 2 days. Then I needed to do an extra PCR test, then 2 days later another PCR test and all of this was in the city center of Sao Tome. Luckily not far from my hotel through.
As mentioned before I wasn’t a fan of Sao Tome city and I am still not. I wouldn’t really recommend anyone spending much time here. There is nothing glamorous or fancy about it and most importantly it simply lacks tourist facilities. Most of my time I stayed in my hotel room working and in the afternoons you could find me in the only nice coffee place in Sao Tome: Diogo Vaz, an upscale chocolateria. A modern place to hang out with AC and a Nespresso machine, although somehow the coffee was terrible, but I still liked the place.
Therefore... stuck in 'paradise'! It is not a bad place to be trapped, but it wasn't as glamorous as it could have been. I was simply too busy arranging stuff, adapting travel plans, blogging, doing laundry, running around to get things sorted out and most important thing: my mindset was not right! The constant change of plans didn't make me wanna explore more of the island.
Luckily the last two days things were set and everything was arranged for my upcoming plans and I felt like going away from the city a little bit. I traveled south a little by public transport, grabbed some coconuts from the side of the street, found some really cool hidden gems, etc. Yeah towards the end I started to get the hang of Sao Tome and on my way out I actually felt sad leaving the island.
Thank you for keeping up with the travel adventures of Traveltomtom and I hope my tips for visiting Sao Tome were helpful. Country 123 down, still 70 to go!