Meet São Tomé and Príncipe – one of the least-visited countries in the world.
Two green jewels can be found just off the coast of West Africa, tucked away in the Gulf of Guinea.
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It’s rarely mentioned on any big bucket lists or must-visit island destination brochures, but that’s what makes it even more alluring – a place that hasn’t yet succumbed to the pitfalls of overtourism.
Volcanic towers, dinosaur-era jungles, delectable chocolate and a crumbling colonial legacy, São Tomé won’t remain hidden for long, and for South Africans, the journey to this unspoiled paradise is not that difficult – or expensive – either.
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What you need to know
Visa: South Africans have to apply for an eVisa on the country’s online application portal. Passports must have a validity of 12 months. There are no São Tomé and Príncipe embassies in South Africa.
Medical info: Visitors are advised to take mosquito repellents. If you're travelling through Angola to the country, it's advised to have a yellow fever certificate.
Language: Portuguese (official) and Forro (Creole)
Currency: Sao Tome Dobra (This changed to the new dobra – STN - in 2018).
Capital: Santo Antonio
Airport hub: São Tomé International Airport and Príncipe Airport (only direct flights from the main island is available to here)
Time: Two hours behind SA.
Best time of year: Temperatures remain moderate throughout the year, with the rainy season falling between October and May. June to September is considered the best time for hiking, and December to March is the best time for diving.
How to get there
To get the best deals with direct flights, TAAG Airlines fly for the best price on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays direct from Johannesburg, and from Cape Town you'd have to do a stopover in Angola’s Luanda. September offers the cheapest prices.
You should budget around R5 300 if you get the best deal, but it can go up to R7 000 for busier times.
How to get around
Taxis are available on the main island and tourists generally rent a car or a scooter to explore São Tomé. To get to Príncipe, most opt to fly there from the main island, or you can charter fast boats. Príncipe has less road access, and tourists instead will hire a boat to get around or on-foot.
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São Tomé is most known for their seafood, especially fish stew called calulu and sea snails.
They also like giant land snails called buzios and serve on the side breadfruit, mashed cooked bananas or banana chips and a wide range of tropical fruit. Like South Africans, they like a good braai and have a lot of grill restaurants.
Baía das Agulhas: Nestled on Príncipe, the Bay of Spires creates one of the most rugged and beautiful skylines of any island, best seen by boat from the sea. It’s made up of phonolite rocky towers and one of them is even called Table Mountain.
Fort São Sebastião: This is a 16th-century Portuguese fort that sits right on the edge of São Tomé in Ana Chaves Bay. Today it houses the São Tomé National Museum and is full of exhibits about African and colonial artefacts, as well as depicting the life of slaves on the island’s plantations.
Monte Café: Once a colonial plantation house, today it’s a coffee museum right in the mountains. One of São Tomé’s most famous exports, coffee thrives being grown in the volcanic soil of the island.
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Cão Grande: This is the most well-known sight of the island – a giant pinnacle jutting out of a Jurassic jungle. It was once a volcano, but its outer parts have eroded away to leave behind its hardened centre.
Obo National Park: Around 35% of the country – on both islands – is a protected area, preserving their fragile natural beauty. The park offers a variety of hiking trails, curios birdwatching, over a hundred species of orchids, neverending waterfalls and the Boca de Inferno – a massive blowhole where waves put on quite a spectacle for visitors.
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What to do
Taste your way through their chocolate: São Tomé’s other famous export is chocolate, considered one the best quality producers in the world. The most well-known chocolatier is the Claudio Corallo Chocolate Factory, and tours are available on request.
Shop at a local market: Art and craft is a revered skill in the country, with various art centres and markets dedicated to artisans. The biggest and most colourful is São Tomé’s Mercado Market on Rua do Municipio.
Dive and snorkel the Gulf of Guinea: The Gulf of Guinea surrounds the islands, and is filled with dolphins, turtles, stunning corals and – for the experienced divers – underwater caves formed by volcanoes. A popular spot on São Tomé is Lagoa Azul, and on Príncipe it’s the sharky Pedra.
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Sunbathe on isolated beaches: If the idea of white and black beaches surrounded by palm trees sounds like the perfect holiday getaway, then this country has another amazing benefit – they’re almost completely empty. For an even more deserted island feeling, Príncipe is the place for those who hate people.
Explore crumbling colonial plantations: The Portuguese left their mark on the island with various plantations known as roças. Some of the 16th-century buildings have been taken back by the jungle, offering unique photo opportunities, while others have been renovated into quaint accommodation options.
Hike up Pico de São Tomé: For avid hikers, tackling the green tooth of the island is a must-do, exploring your way through the vertical jungle on an overnight hike. The peak stands at 2 024 metres, and you must organise a guide to take you.
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