São Tomé 2009

This is a trip report from our family vacation to the small African country of São Tomé & Princípe – situated right on the Equator in the gulf of Guinea. We are Birgitte, Erik, Anders (4) and Johanne (3) from Denmark.

The inspiration started with a short article from my travel club: (Translated with Google here): http://www.berejst.dk/027/Saotome.htm – so I got curious - where was São Tomé? And later this article in Wanderlust: http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/article.php?page_id=847

So here we had to go at some time. After visiting Iran last spring, we had a place in mind where the children could spend much time at the beach and hopefully also do some trekking and meet nice people.

Highlights: Pristine beaches, beautiful country, leve-leve (easy, easy) atmosphere.

Lowlights: Communicating with the locals was difficult; Portuguese only with a few exceptions that could speak French. We cannot speak French, so when addressed in French we asked them to speak Portuguese, so at least we could understand a little (somewhat similar to Spanish/Italian which we speak).


Much of the transportation and hotels were pre-arranged through Navetur a week before arriving. The flight tickets were booked through TAP-air Hamburg-Lisbon, Lisbon-Sao Tomé. What was strange was that for a long time I was searching Hamburg-Sao Tomé (costing 1400€), but by buying the tickets separately, it only cost around 1000€. I have never figured out why that is.

Vaccinations: We all had Yellow Fever and took Malaria tablets – also the children – Malarone for the Children and Lariam for us adults.
Visa: Is required - in Europe you e-mail the embassy in Brussels for an application sheet, which you send with your passport. The money for the visa is transferred to a bank-account. When they sent me the account-number, it wasn't correct, so the can't get an too many applications each week.

Guidebook: We used the new Bradt guidebook - first edition was recently released, and it was extremely useful - clik the link below to buy it.


 Friday 23.1 – São Tomé

The flight from Lisbon went well; we even slept much of the time. The departure was delayed a bit, so we arrived around 6:00. Yellow Fever vaccination check (nurse ready to vaccinate us if we couldn’t produce a certificate), Visa control and luggage pickup went fast and we were on our way with the Navetur van within half an hour. 4 other people from this week visitor list were also in the van: Ania & Marek, Ad & Annelies.

A quick stop with a street money changer near the Navetur office (22.000 Dobra/ €). Changing money this way seemed to be the standard and the rates seemed fair. Then on to Recidencial Avenida. We walked to the Parliament and the Pestana hotel nearby and had breakfast (3 x 10€). This is a new hotel but we saw just 3-4 tourists there. The children had their first (but not last) swim at a small beach just south of this hotel. Back at Avenida for a afternoon nap and then shopping at the main square, the cathedral, buying postcards and stamps at the post office (25.000 Dobras /each postcard!). Dinner at Café & Companhia at the Praça de Amizade.

This weeks visitor list, which will be referred to in this travelogue:

Ania & Marek – Poland

A French couple

Ad & Annelies – Holland

Nick – Botswana

(+ 10 Portuguese tourists, visiting Pestana only)


24. January, Saturday. Bom Successo (N00°17.324' E006°36.739')

Up at 4:00, and pickup by the Navetur bus at 4:30. The idea was that today was Erik’s day off – for trekking, and Birgitte would have the next day to trek. We could not all fit in the van, so Birgitte and the children went back to the hotel room to be picked up later. Ania & Marek were already in the van, and after picking up Nick, we went on to Bom Successo – a ‘botanical garden’ and the start of today's trek most of the way up to Pico São Tomé. After morning coffee and marking the start point on the GPS at Bom Successo we were on our way at 6:00. First through some farmed land, then into the Obô National park (surrounding most of the mountains) and after one hour through good paths to Lago Amelia – the volcano crater, but now just a swamp. It was not that interesting. Some places with giant bamboo to prevent mudslides. We all got walking sticks from our guide José – the same time it started raining and the paths narrowed and got steeper. Our other guide, Etienne, who spoke English and did the organizing and talking – had an accident the day before and had a bad foot – which was not that good a combination with steep mountain hiking. We walked a couple of hours south on a mountain side – all lush jungle. We could hear many birds, but did not see any. The side dropped down quite steep to our left. Glad I brought my jacket, but next time I’ll bring Gore-Tex socks and rain trousers as well, since I had to empty my shoes quite often – besides that I quit enjoyed the walk. At Pico Carvalho (‘Oak tree peak’) at 11:30 and after that we basically walked on a mountain ridge southwards. Very slow since it was slippery and sheer drops to both sides. At this time we didn’t have a view since it was cloudy. We had to climb several places, but there were lianas and roots everywhere to grab. At 13:15 José said we would be there in ’15 minutes’ – and we all were happy that we would be home for lunch. When we where ‘there’ – which was ‘Sousa’ (N 00°15.684' E006°33.538') – we were all surprised that we were not home, but at the farthest point of the hike – and now we had to go the same way back.

The clouds lifted and from the ridge we could see the whole island. The path was slippery and full of mud and it was hard going down. Several from the group were quite tired and we slowed down. José was getting annoyed and nervous about the time. It started getting dark, and we were happy that most had brought torches. At 18:15 it was pitch dark. I could see on my GPS that we were still a couple of kilometres from Bom Successo – and there was a hill between us and home. There was no wind and you could hear all the noises from the jungle. Good thing that there not really is many dangerous animals here. We returned at 20:00 – after 14 hours of trekking. I felt good that I was not totally exhausted, and my gym training had born fruit. Birgitte and the children had been a bit bored since there was not that much to do in the 'botanical gardens'.

25. January, Sunday. Bom Successo to Bombaim (N00°14.710' E006°37.985')

Birgitte hiked this route today and it was a super, she said. She was a bit afraid it would be as challenging as the one yesterday, but Etienne assured her that it would be a nice and quiet walk. From 8:00 to 13:30. Nick also walked today. Erik and the children where put up in Navetur's apartment for 2½ hours (together with Marek and Ania). The apartment is 3 rooms that Navetur rents out for 20€/night. Did a small walk with the children and watched a Pentecost church having service. We bought a grilled corncob and dried our wet clothes on the balcony – the climate is typical for a mountain island with clouds on the mountains and sunshine along the coasts.

The manager of Roça Bombaim was a little grumpy looking, but we had a nice lunch. We spent the afternoon walking around the plantation. Behind the roça, there were some old buildings where we met a beggar and talked a bit with a young boy who had caught a small bird for dinner together with snails from the forest. The guidebook says that since most people can get fruit to eat, they often cannot afford meat or fish to get proteins so they collect these snails.

Good food and good coffee. Red wine on the terrace – and it was quite cosy when the generator was turned off at 21:40.


26. January, Monday. Bombaim – Roça São Joao

Nick, Ania & Marek had another day of hiking – after a good lunch, we drove to Roça São Joao, on the south east coast. The road along the coast was not good so it took some time to drive. The roça was super nice with views over the coast, town, beach and to the interior on the other side. São Joao de los Angolares is a small local society with own language. We walked to the south end of the beach (at least a couple of kilometres) – relaxing and swimming. The beach had black sand. Many children passed by. It took an hour to walk back – the children were not in a hurry. We bought shampoo on the market, creating much fun and interest for the locals. Anders and Johanne were starving, but the staff at the roça came up with bread and fruit in a second after a couple of hints in Portuguese – they only spoke Portuguese and French here (as most places). The dinner was a culinary fusion of all kinds of things. Dinner starts at 19:30 here, so our children are always starving and sleepy at this time – they are used to eating around 18:00. We both fell asleep with the children afterwards, by accident.


27. January, Tuesday. São Joao de los Angolares.

Today's beach: Colonia Açoreana

We said good bye to Nick; he was going back to São Tomé city where he had half a day at the beach and a visit to Monte Café – then two dreaded days in Libreville, Gabon. He was quite negative of Gabon, except the jungle tours. He didn't see any surfing hippos – one of the things I really would like to see some day in Gabon.

We were going to the next beach, Praia Angobó, 4 kilometres to the north. Public transportation is very scarce, but after a little waiting, Erik entered the back of a pantechnicon, and Birgitte sat in front. We drove 25 minutes, and at a stop, we got off. Birgitte told that the driver kept saying it was further on, even though she pointed at every secluded beach we passed. But no problem, a couple of children from the village showed us to the nearest beach at km 28 – Colonia Açoreana. And it turned out to be perfect. Funny, 5 men and a woman joined the two children who showed us the way. The waited in the shadow the whole time we were swimming and relaxing. One came with coconuts for us. There was a little stream where Anders, naked, spend much of the time. We left at 13:00 since we did not know how much time it would take to get back. The brothers helped us on a school bus (we should not pay) and were back at 13:40. Lunch and trip around the farm. Then a walk to the market. Again a lot of fuss. A couple of small children were placed in front of our snow-white children and started crying – such strange children they had never seen before.

Again gourmet dinner; we brought our own red wine, which seemed to be ok.


28. January, Wednesday. Jalé Ecolodge

(N00°02.407' E006°30.751'). Today's beach: Praia Jalé

Today was a little clouded and drizzle. The Poles were on the mangrove tour and the Dutch (Ad and Annelies) were with us in the small Jalé Ecolodge on the southwest coast. The road was bad the first leg from São Joao, though with good views of the pinnacle Cão Grande protruding 663 metres out of nowhere. The 'lodges' are managed by people from the nearby village, Porto Alegre, where we had lunch. Fried fish with lemon, fried bread fruit and bananas. At the cottages, some local workers climbed a palm and picked and cut coconuts for us. Of course there were only us two couples – as all the other places we had been. The 3 bungalows were basically huts with a small veranda and two beds. Two fishermen came ashore with their catch – they were catching their colourful fish with harpoons on the rocks nearby. I had brought my shorty wet suit, and there was a lot of fish to be seen. We had the biggest for dinner – grilled – it was fat and delicious. There is something great about the thought that your dinner is caught right outside your hut. Mosquitoes and pitch dark at 18:15. The night temperature was very comfortable. People from the village (4 km away) came with dinner and served in one of the huts. There was an armed guard at all times. The huts are 10 meters from the ocean and the children just loved to paddle, building sand castle and catch small crayfish and sea urchins.

29. January, Thursday. Jalé Ecolodge.

Beach: Praia Piscina

It was clouded today, but a very comfortable temperature. There is quite stable temperature of 28 degrees most of the year. A great breakfast: Avocado, home made doughnuts, coffee, mango juice (from Lebanon…).

At 10:00 the clouds disappeared and we walked the short way to Praia Piscina. What a beach! We both agreed that it should be no.1 on our all time favourite beach. Quite small, but with black basalt rocks at both ends, white crescent beach, small alcove where the waves are broken 25 meters out, so the water was crystal clear and no problem for the kids to swim (with their arm wings). Small water inclusions in the rocks (probably the reason for its name) which the children also loved. No one there during our stay from 10-12:30.

The afternoon we stayed at Jalé. My mask and snorkel was missing; I could see from two photos that it was there yesterday evening, but was missing this morning. So there probably was a reason why they kept armed guards. The children's mask was quite big, so luckily I could use it – and my fins were still here. I even had time to read a book since we took some time each to look for the children.

The sunset was beautiful and we had candles on the table. The villagers had made S.Tomé bean stew for dinner.

30. January, Friday. Rolas Island, Pestana Equador.

Beach: Jalé and the swimming pool

Again the sleep was not too good. The Dutch had not slept at all because of the noise from the waves. I think we did not sleep too well was because the beds were not too good and a bit narrow for the 4 of us to sleep in only two beds and mosquito nets taking up space. But again a great breakfast. Did a little more snorkelling on the 'house reef' – it is actually quite good. Jalé was fine and the local did a lot for the security and cooking – the two women from the village were at the lodges almost constantly. But it is basic – you should be aware of that. On the other hand some of the best beaches in the world are here. When the driver came to pick us up at 11:15 there was a little confusion. We had said no to the transfer from Jalé to Ponta Bailero from where the boat is to Rolas and it is only 10 kilometres away. And it would cost 70€. But the driver had said Wednesday that he would take us all, so I had not done any researching for other options (probably arrange something with Vado, the contact from the village). The driver had been told that we could not come unless we paid 40€. Hmm, OK, now we just had to get going. The transfer was swift and we were soon on our way with speed boat to the Rolas island - to the Pestana Equador resort. We were greeted with coconuts. Friday – meaning the weekly plane for Europe. Marek and Ania were returning today, and we could also see that there were new people we had not met the last week.

The rooms (all are small houses divided in two) was luxurious and Birgitte and Johanne hurried for a hot shower. Pizza and sandwich in the café. There were 12 couples at the resort. Among these the Dutch and the French couple. The rest are Portuguese tourist visiting only this resort. A couple of honeymooners. The pool was great – the biggest in west-Africa it says. A children's pool where Johanne and Anders spend all afternoon. Super views towards the São Tomé island – all the south of the island can be seen – the different weather systems and the beaches. Dinner was a bit late (19:30) but many different courses so the children were satisfied. 10 minutes of internet at the front desk before dinner, so had the chance to mark São Tomé on my WhereIveBeen.com and status update on facebook. Red wine on the terrace. 'President Obama' on CNN – I still have to get used to saying that.

31. January, Saturday. Rolas.

Beach: Praia Café.

Had to find equator – walked a few minutes to the eastern point on the equator (00°00.000' E006°31.601') – close to the viewpoint. Good breakfast and we went to today's beach, Praia Café which should be the best on the island. It is on the west side and right on the equator. We took some nice pictures of the children's first steps on the southern hemisphere (00°00.000' E006°31.144'). We swam, played and relaxed until 13:30. A small boy played with the children. Two São Toméan families had arrived for the weekend so it took some time to get our lunch. Afternoon at the pool. 'Caipirinha' competition for the guests – very funny to watch. First it took an hour with announcements that it was going to start, and then a lot of wriggling while they took turns creating and tasting the creation. Umm, delicious barbeque for dinner with lots of meat, marisco and red wine. This place is one of the few places in the country which works well – probably because it is Portuguese owned – AND supervised by a Portuguese. The manager was always around, and directing the work – even for dinner and breakfast.

1. February, Sunday.

Thunder today and an hour of torrential rain. Today's outing was to the Equator mark (N00°00.046' E006°31.326') 46' south of equator :-) It was probably positioned here because of the view over the island and towards São Tomé. Afternoon at the pool and family photo session at sunset at the beach.

2. February, Monday.

A little drizzle and cloudy – comfortable temperatures. A trip to find 'middle earth' – the closest point to 0.0 was supposed to be around here. The candidates were the rocks on the north end of Praia Café (N00°00.070' E006°31.135'), the Equator on Praia (00°00.000' E006°31.144') and the small protruding south of Praia Café. It was the latter (S00°00.023' E006°31.068'). After returning home, I did a little measuring with Google Earth where it is 730 km from 0.0 but there is actually a landmass in southwest Ghana which is only 570 km away.

Had a beer with Ad and Annelies. He had dropped his camera in the pool while photographing the infinity pool, so after testing his SD card in my camera he was more relaxed. After the weekend, there was not many left in Equator village. A long waiting time and the departure was postponed until 16:30. The boat was filled with staff. Those from the village right on the mainland used pirogues. All in this boat continued with the hotel bus to São Tomé city. Two hours drive (17:00-19:00) – lousy road, remember. Thought (wrongly) that the driver knew where we were getting off, so when we saw the antennas from Voice of America, I could see we had come too far – so we drove 5 kilometres back to Club Santana. Nice huts and just in time for dinner. Good food, but the children just tasted it. And then the bill said 80€, even though I had asked if the few choices on the menu was part of 'meia pensão?'. Well, I should just sign and they would fix it in the morning (year right, maybe if this was not in Africa). We have half board included all nights, so this was irritating. 80€ for a meal…

All visitors to this club/resort are French and you are greeted in French by all staff. How difficult it is with language here. French and Portuguese are not our favourite languages.


3. February, Tuesday. Club Santana

Club Santana: Lots of ants, no mosquitoes (because they are always cleaning, as the manager says), clean, super expensive.

Embarrassing! Took hold of the manager who walked towards the restaurant to talk about the bill yesterday evening – what that was about since we had half board. He called for our voucher – and it said BB. Embarrassing. I never found out why Navetur did not book half board as we had asked for – but I did not check my itinerary well enough. Shit. Went to the office to have it changed to half board. Saw my first baobab trees ever. They were quite tall those in the area. Clear skies (unusual) and hot. There is a small private beach which is wonderful; we spend all day here building sand castles, swimming and snorkelling (which is great here).

At dinner they again presented the menu, and I asked if there was anybody around who could speak English. There turned out to be one of the waiters who did. So we asked if this was part of the half board – yes it was. And again we were surprised of the huge bill we should sign? No problem, he would check about the half board for us – just sign. Dream on. We are quite displeased about this place; everything we ask for – 'yes of course', but nothing is done.


4. February, Wednesday. Santana – São Tomé City

Morning at the beach. Did some snorkelling all the way around the cliffs to below the restaurant. Here there was a 'wall' – it was going straight down at least 30 meters. Besides the usual black and yellow striped small fish, there were shoals of sand eel-like (long, thin), 20 cm long gray/transparent with yellow tails. Also other shoals of big fish. We saw fisher men selling their catch – one of them a almost one meter long tuna (or similar)!

And as predicted, it went wrong by check-out. Nothing was changed to 'meia pensão' as promised and the bill was very expensive. We have at this time tried 4 times to explain it and have it changed and every time it was 'sim, sim' and nothing was done, hoping the 'problem' (us guests) would go away or passed on to someone else. We cannot recommend Club Santana unless you are French and carefully control everything you sign – and insists to have it changed if it not is correct. And be prepared that it is the most expensive menu in the country. Paying was also a show. The receptionist called to have my Visa card controlled – not valid, she responded. She tried Brigitte's card – not valid, she responded. Then we tried a MasterCard, and after checking two times, it suddenly was ok. Coming home we were surprised that the money had been deducted from our 'invalid' VISA card – and are still expecting the same amount one day to show up on our MasterCard…

One very nice thing is that they have a free shuttle to São Tomé city (3 times a day) and it went swift – to Avenida. Lunch at the cozy Café & Companhia. Phew, it was hot today. Visited the market (interesting, very hectic, small variety of the fruits being sold – could be the season). Passed Navetur to book a trip for tomorrow and they would fix the departure tax in advance. Supermarket. Coffee at the hotel, posting of the last postcards.

Dinner at 'Jasmin'. A nice café-restaurant in Casa del Cultura. The waiter even spoke English. Internet: Found out that I had become uncle to a small girl yesterday.


5. February, Thursday. Monte Café / Nova Moca / São Tomé

Today's excursion was to the coffee factories. It was Etienne who was our guide again. His foot was a little better. 3. February was the Heroes day and we drove through Batepá where the massacre took place, which started the independence movement.

Monte Café is not 'working' at the moment. Typical African where the factories are waiting for new investors. So the old drying halls, the new 'Brazilian' machinery (quite dusty). Monte Café is situated in a low altitude (500m), so they were only growing Robusta (Arabica only grows in higher altitudes). Many children begging – especially for candy. Nice view from the adjoining hospital. We had asked to see Nova Moca, since it is a working plantation, quite close by. It did not seem to be on the usual schedule, at least not Etienne. Nova Moca is the only one that really works – and the only one with low-yield Arabica (800-1500 m). The Robusta tastes grounded (had it for breakfast most days). The Arabica is very expensive, and we found it 3 places (Ossobô, Intermar (140.000 Dobras/250 g) and 9€ at the Airport. The Robusta is cheaper. At Nova Moca, there were just a few people at work. They were quite helpful and found different beans (coffee and cacao) to see, touch and taste – and it was interesting. First time we have seen cacao. The roasting is done at Corallo's factory in town. Lunch at Filomar – a restaurant between the airport and São Tomé town. Came out expensive even though it was part of the tour – because of the children's food and soft drinks (380.000 D). We were dropped off at the Museo Nacional – an old fortress. They found a guy who looked like the cook – who spoke English and showed us around. He did that very well, and it was good to have a guide. Turtle room. Massacre room, things from churches and roças. Funny that in the beginning they did not have chandeliers but a big fan in the same place - operated by small boys. Out of money. Picked up our passports, changed 20$, bought 2 small bags of Selecciao (the Arabica coffee from Nova Moca) at Intermar. Dinner again at Jasmin.

6. February, Friday – Travel home

VIP 'lounge' in the departure hallUp at 04:00 and went to the airport. Check-in took a long time even though it was a point-to-point flight. The service-desk woman searched my passport for a long time for the visa to Portugal - never heard of EU. The incoming plane was full and several more tourists were coming. The president was arriving with the plane.

The flight home went according to the plan, except we got in to Lisbon somewhat delayed, so the plan of going to the Aquarium was dropped and we stayed at the airport.

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