São Tomé and Príncipe (often called just "São Tomé" for short) is a small island nation off the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, located in the Gulf of Guinea, straddling the Equator, west of Gabon. Discovered and claimed by Portugal in the late 15th century, the islands' sugar-based economy gave way to coffee and cocoa in the 19th century -- all grown with plantation slave labor, a form of which lingered into the 20th century. Although independence was achieved in 1975, democratic reforms were not instituted until the late 1980s, and the first free elections were held in 1991.
This small poor island economy has become increasingly dependent on cocoa since independence 34 years ago. However, cocoa production has substantially declined because of drought and mismanagement. The resulting shortage of cocoa for export has created a persistent balance-of-payments problem. São Tomé has to import all fuels, most manufactured goods, consumer goods, and a substantial amount of food. Over the years, it has been unable to service its foreign debt and has had to depend on concessional aid and debt rescheduling. São Tomé benefited from $200 million in debt relief in December 2000 under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) program. São Tomé's success in implementing structural reforms has been rewarded by international donors, who have pledged increased assistance in 2001. Considerable potential exists for development of a tourist industry, and the government has taken steps to expand facilities in recent years. The government also has attempted to reduce price controls and subsidies. São Tomé is also optimistic that substantial petroleum discoveries are forthcoming in its territorial waters in the oil-rich waters of the Gulf of Guinea. Corruption scandals continue to weaken the economy.
At sea level, the climate is tropical—hot and humid with average yearly temperatures of about 27 °C (80.6 °F) and little daily variation. The temperature rarely rises beyond 32 °C (89.6 °F). At the interior's higher altitudes, the average yearly temperature is 20 °C (68 °F), and nights are generally cool. Annual rainfall varies from 5,000 mm (196.85 in) on the southwestern slopes to 1,000 mm (39.37 in) in the northern lowlands. The rainy season runs from October to May.
The equator lies immediately south of São Tomé Island, passing through an islet named Ilhéu das Rolas.
Visas are issued on arrival ONLY if prior arrangements are made through the foreign ministry. A visa or letter from the foreign ministry is required to board an airplane bound for Sao Tome. Local travel agents (e.g. Gold Tours) can process visa application through the ministry in a week if you email the information page of your passport and the application found on their web site. In this case you pay a service fee to the tour operators in addition to US$100 (Oct/09) to immigration on arrival to have a 30 day visa stamped in your passport. Yellow fever vaccination is checked on arrival at Sao Tome airport.
As of October 2009, the Sao Tome Embassies in Washington, DC, Lisbon and UN Mission in New York and appear to have been abandoned with all listed phone, fax and e-mail addresses failing.
In Europe, a STP visa may be obtained in Brussels: Square Montgomery, 175 Avenue de Tervuren, +32 2 734 89 66. There is no STP diplomatic mission in Oceania. For travellers arriving from mainland Africa, there is a STP diplomatic mission in Gabon: B.P. 49, Libreville, (241) 72-15-27.
There are few embassies in STP. The embassies with dual accreditation to STP are: Libreville, Gabon (USA); Luanda, Angola (UK); Yaoundé, Cameroon (Canada); & Abuja, Nigeria (Australia). The nearest New Zealand embassy is in Namibia.
There are two weekly flight with the Portuguese airline TAP from Lisbon to São Tomé, on Fridays and Saturdays. This stretch is flown by Air Luxor . On Sundays TAAG Angola Airlines flies to São Tomé from Luanda. TAAG also serves São Tomé from Cape Verde. Aerocontractors flies on Saturdays from Lagos, Nigeria, to Sao Tome.
The official language is Portuguese, and due to the comparative lack of English-speaking tourists, the visitor should assume that it will be necessary.
The waters around Sao Tome are clear and rich with life. Consequently, diving, fishing and boat tours provide much to see. One of the few operators that offers these activities is Club Maxel .
Walk Around. Traffic is light, the sea breeze is cooling, and you can admire the architecture and people. The capitol city of Sao Tome is replete with public art. Painting and carvings by local artists, in addition to old Portuguese statues, can be found throughout the city. Often times you will walk down the street and turn a corner to come up suddenly against a colorful and sprightly painting right in front of you.
Shopping is limited, but there are a few things worth purchasing, and possibly of export quality:
Claudio Corallo Chocolate. Tours of his chocolate factory are give on request. He or one of his sons will gleefully describes the shocking inferior stuff that passes for chocolate around the world. Claudio maintains complete control of the chocolate making process, from growing the pods on his own plantation on Principe through to packaging the chocolate in his own vacuum-sealed clean rooms. He gives copious free samples during the demonstration, and sells all his products right there in the demonstration room. Expensive but worth it.
Coffee. Sao Tome was famous for its coffee. The quality suffered a bit after the newly-independent Sao Tome government broke up the old rocas into sharecropper lots, but given the quality of the volcanic soil the coffee was still great. There has been a recent surge in interest in Sao Tome coffee, mostly due to Claudio Corrallo’s work, but you can walk into any shop in Sao Tome and get great coffee cheap.
Rum. Sao Tome has two rum factories within an easy trip: Gravana, which is sold out of a car repair shop next to the Central Market, and Me-Zochi which is in Trindad behind the church. Prices of a one liter bottle of rum vary from USD 3 – 7 depending on the price of sugar. Gravana rum is dark and sweet, and is best served over ice and savored like a scotch. Me-Zochi rum is also good, but the factory also sells different types of liqueurs made from local fruits. Most of their product is shipped to Europe.
Baskets. Baskets are part and parcel of everyday life in Sao Tome. Therefore they are plentiful and cheap. They are not fancy but have their charm.
Miscellaneous Tourist Stuff. Ossobbo is across from the Fort Sao Sebastiao. The shop features local artisans and products of Sao Tome, from coffee, chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla to carvings, t-shirts and thumb drives. Prices are reasonable, but the best part is the shop is run by the non-profit Sisters of Misericordia; all profits go to the craftsmen or charitable works.
São Tomé and Príncipe uses the Dobra, which is a restricted currency (the import and export of local currency is prohibited). The import of foreign currency is unlimited subject to declaration, and you may export only up to the amount you import. Travelers' cheques are generally not recommended. Euros, and sometimes dollars, are commonly accepted at larger restaurants and shops.
Fish is a staple of the São Toméan diet, often served with breadfruit and mashed, cooked bananas. The variety of fish is wide, including flying fish at certain times of year. Inland, many São Toméans get their protein from buzios, large land snails. Sea snails are also quite common along the coast. In spite of the abject poverty, São Toméans can always count on some sustenance from the wide array of tropical fruits. The hotels in the capital offer European-style fare at European prices.
Café e Companhia. The expat hangout in Sao Tome. This is THE place to let people know you have arrived in country. Café and Companhia is popularly known as “MJs”, after the owner and former manager Maria João. MJ leases the business to a new German manager but makes appearances when she is in country. C & C is known for Thursday night jazz and the “Atomic Penis”.
Sum Secreto. Standard grill fare, but they can handle large groups without a reservation. Service is generally very good, and the meat and fish are excellent. Nothing fancy, but the place is popular because it has that secret something.
Bigodes. Located near the airport, if you decide to wait for your flight here the airport will call to let you know when your flight is boarding. Good lunches and great view.
O Pirata. Located next to the Pestana Hotel, it is one of the few places open on Sunday morning, but one suspects they just party through Saturday night. Good place to nurse a cup of coffee and an omelet and just watch the ocean. A sunken ship is right off the restaurant…hence the name “The Pirate”.
Roça São João dos Angolares. Make reservations as far in advance as possible, but it is worth it. Gourmet meals served as a multiple course prix fixe are worth the extra workout you will need.
Beer is readily available everywhere, though São Toméans are not known as big drinkers. Local brands include Creolla and Rosema. Inland, palm wine is available very inexpensively from vendors along the road. In the capital, whiskey and other spirits are popular among the elites. Wine, especially Portuguese vinho verde, is popular with fish dishes.
A small handful of hotels exist in the capital. Near the town of Santana lies an idyllic bed and breakfast with stunning views. Opulent resorts have been built at the very northern and southern extremes of the country, on the small island of Ilheu das Rolas, and at Ilha Bom Bom off the coast of Principe.
In the main city of Sao Tome several small pousadas (B&Bs) can be found. There are three main hotels in the city.
Pestana. The brand new Pestana Hotel is advertised as the only five-star hotel in the capital, and could comfortably be described as a high four-star. The hotel is owned by the Pestana hotel chain from Lisbon. Most rooms have a great view of the ocean, and a full breakfast is included. Good restaurant, great bar, a decent gym and two infinity pools.
Agosto Neto. This hotel could be described as either a large B&B or a small boutique hotel. This quiet hotel is on a side street a couple of blocks from the Presidential Palace. The hotel is relatively new, spotlessly clean, and will open the kitchen upon request. Full breakfast is included. Internet access in the lobby, and the desk TRIES to speak English.
Miramar. The grand dame of Sao Tome hotels, this place has seen better days. In its heyday you could sit in the lobby and anyone that was important would walk past. The hotel has open wi-fi, so lots of local people still come by. A bit overpriced for what you get. The neighboring Pestana Hotel bought out the elderly German owner last year and is rumored to be converting the Miramar to a conference center.
Bom Bom Island Resort is a true haven of luxury and calm, offering the ultimate in comfortable and secluded accommodation.
In addition to an ensuite bathroom, air-conditioning and other modern amenities, each bungalow has its own veranda with wonderful views across the green palm fronds and the bay. Bom Bom’s restaurant, bar and marina are located on a tiny islet, which can be reached by crossing the 230-metre wooden walkway. What better location for enjoying a cocktail or a choice of local as well as international delicacies than the outside deck of this restaurant, overlooking the secluded beaches, the bungalows and the marina pier!
Safety is not an issue in São Tomé and Príncipe, though the roadway traffic is hazardous as in other parts of Africa. Violent crime in public is almost unheard of. However, with an increase in tourism there has been an increase in crime against tourists. Road blocks near Santana have been reported, as well as scams targetting tourists in the main city.
Malaria is extremely common and sometimes lethal, making malaria prophelaxis, bed netting, and mosquito repellent essential for the traveller. Water must be boiled before drinking, or purchased and consumed from bottles.