Going Off-Grid in São Tomé and Príncipe…

Until we moved to Angola, neither of us had ever heard of the tiny island nation of São Tomé & Príncipe. Apparently, we are not alone in this, as São Tomé is largely undiscovered by American tourists. Located off the coast of Gabon in western Africa, it is the second smallest African country. A few European and Chinese tourists have made their way to its lovely, palm-lined shores, and last week we traveled there as well, to celebrate our twenty-ninth anniversary.

São Tomé & Príncipe is a former Portuguese colony, which gained its independence in 1975. Since that time, the country has struggled to find its way financially, as so many former colonies do. You see, when the Portuguese left, they took with them the knowledge and contacts used to mass-produce and trade the coffee and chocolate grown on the island, which were its major source of income. São Tomé & Príncipe was once the largest cocoa producer in the world. Now, the buildings used in this process are half-empty and falling apart. Several countries have invested in São Tomé through hotels and various businesses, but investment dollars are coming in slowly and have not alleviated the lack of jobs.

Currently, there is fifty-five percent unemployment and an increasing birthrate in this mostly-Catholic nation. The government is trying to build up the fledgling tourism industry to fill in where coffee and chocolate production has dropped off. The island certainly has the raw materials needed for tourists: dramatic scenery, blue waters filled with colorful fish, and lovely, friendly people.

Sao Tome cocoa plant
This is how chocolate starts, and the rest is…temptation!

While São Tomé does not appear to suffer from the extreme concentration of wealth and corruption of many other African countries, it still faces an uphill battle should foreign investment and tourism not materialize.

São Tomé is by far the most remote place we have been to date. Luanda actually feels civilized in comparison! Not that the island is unsafe for tourists. On the contrary, we were told by our hotel manager that it is quite safe. What made it feel so remote, is the fact that flights are few, and tourists are in the distinct minority on this country of nearly two-hundred thousand people. English-speaking tourists are even rarer. In São Tomé & Príncipe, the residents speak Portuguese, Creole, and a little French.

On previous vacations, we have always spotted at least a few other American tourists, no matter where we have been. The truth is, while many of us try to “blend”, we still manage to stick out like a sore thumb! This trip was the one exception. During our five days in São Tomé, we never saw another American or British tourist. And yes, you Brits stand out, too!

Not that the lack of Americans is a bad thing, mind you. We had the feeling that we were fortunate to visit São Tomé now, while it is still somewhat of a secret. I found myself lamenting the inevitable junky souvenir shops, crowds, and commercialism that come with an increase in tourism. For now, the island is still unspoiled, and we were able to see how the São Toméans really live.

Sao Tome washing by the river
Washing day by the river…
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Two local cuties!
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See how handsome you are!

Our lovely hotel, the Club Santana, is located about a half-hour north of the main town on the island. Set amongst lush vegetation and palm trees, the resort consists of thirty or so bungalows placed high on a cliff above a lovely beach, pool and restaurant. The clear, calm waters offer great snorkeling and diving, too.

Club Santana Sao Tome
A view of the Club Santana pool and beach area.
Sao Tome Club Santana
Club Santana Bungalows set among the trees.
Sao Tome beach
Club Santana beach area. Ahhhh!

While lounging in the clean and well-appointed beach area, sipping our tropical drinks, it would be easy to forget that we were in a small, poor, African nation – except that immediately adjacent to the Club Santana there is a small encampment of fishermen and their families.  This made for an interesting backdrop, as we watched the fishermen come in and out of the village in their dug-out boats with hand-stitched sails.

Sao Tome
The village next-door to Club Santana
Sao Tome fisherman
Local fishermen in the bay…

Our first afternoon there, we took a Jon Boat ride to a tiny nearby island to do some snorkeling. The island looked like something out of a movie, it was so perfectly formed and topped with pretty palm trees. The water around the island was quite deep (we could not begin to see the bottom), but pretty coral grew on the rocks and we saw some colorful fish as well.

Sao Tome
Our Jon Boat captain gets a little fishing in on the way to our snorkel site.
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The tiny island just a short ride from our hotel.
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Exploring a cave that runs right through the island.
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Colorful fish and coral…
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The coral almost looked like flowers!

On our second day, we headed out for a São Tomé island tour with a local guide, named Nilson. He spoke excellent English as he mapped out the day for us, starting with a trip to a cocoa processing facility, then a drive up to Mount Cafe to see where coffee is grown, and lastly a visit to a local fishing village. As we drove through the cocoa processing area, Nilson pointed out former slave housing and overseer buildings, most of which looked abandoned. We parked in front of a large, run-down warehouse and walked inside, our eyes straining to see in the near dark.

One lady stood over a table filled with cocoa beans, sorting through them, and then bagging up the ones that passed her quick inspection.

Sao Tome cocoa
Sorting through cocoa beans.
Sao tome cocoa
Cocoa beans dried, sorted and ready to sell…
Sao Tome cocoa
The people of Sao Tome were all very friendly and happy to welcome tourists like us…

She was more than happy to pose for pictures, as was another man who assumed the role of tour guide for his facility. He walked us around, from one nearly empty building to another, showing us the process of fermenting and then drying the cocoa beans, and seemed very proud of the work they were doing.

Sao Tome coffee
The facility also processed coffee beans.
Sao Tome cocoa
This oven heated up a large area above, which had cocoa beans spread out on it. The roasting green fruits are called breadfruit. We tried it, and it was definitely an acquired taste and texture!

By the sheer size of the buildings, it was obvious that this was once a huge industry for São Tomé, but without ready customers and the business knowledge required for trade, things had definitely slowed to a trickle.  Unlike the US, there were no gift shops or t-shirts available here. We did manage to buy some São Toméan chocolate, but only in the airport as we were leaving.

Next, Nilson drove us to the coast and an area called Boca do Inferno, a blow-hole formed in the volcanic rocks by crashing waves.

Sao Tome boca do inferno
Boca do Inferno, a small blow-hole formed in the rocks.
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Lovely coastline by the Boca do Inferno.

We saw a man bagging up sand along the beach, and Nilson said he was stealing the sand to sell to people building houses. With fifty-five percent unemployment, you could hardly blame the guy. On the way up to see Mount Cafe, we stopped to see a lovely waterfall and then continued up, finally reaching an area where clouds swirled through the very tall trees.

Sao Tome
São Nicolau Waterfall.
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Coffee beans growing in the mist.
Sao Tome Mount Cafe
Mount Cafe, where coffee is grown on the island.

After walking around a bit and learning about the different kinds of coffee grown there, my husband said he was feeling ill. He admitted that he had felt dizzy all morning, but thought it would pass. We asked Nilson to take us back to our hotel, which was about a half hour away. By the time we got back to the hotel lobby, Hubby was feeling even worse. The hotel manager offered to drive us to the local clinic to see the doctor. Once you reach our age, it is not smart to brush aside such symptoms.

Let me tell you, this was unlike any clinic I have ever seen. In one open room in the middle of the small run-down building, there were about eight beds lining the wall, and all had ladies of various ages laying in them. The young woman in charge, who the manager said was a doctor, showed us into her cramped office and took Hubby’s blood pressure. Then, we went to the small room in the back of the building, for a finger prick to check his blood sugar. After a few short questions, translated for us by the manager who had kindly stayed with us, the doctor shrugged her shoulders and said there was nothing she could do for him. Looking around at the lack of equipment and staff, we knew she was telling the truth.

We asked what we owed her for the exam, and she told the manager it was 10,000 Dobras, roughly the equivalent of forty-five cents!  In this country, where the average annual income is less than three hundred dollars a year, we should not have been surprised by any of this. We gave her about ten dollars, which she accepted reluctantly, and then we were on our way back to the hotel.

Thank goodness, the dizziness went away after a short rest. After much discussion, we determined that it must have been caused by a bad reaction to the malaria medicine we were both taking. I had experience dizziness with the medicine on previous occasions, but Hubby had never had a problem before. But, he had taken two pills the previous day in an attempt to change from a morning dose to an evening dose. A little too much Portuguese wine with dinner probably played a role as well.

Okay. Bullet dodged. Note to self: do not get sick while one vacation in a tiny, third-world nation.

That evening, we enjoyed a lovely beach-side buffet dinner, complete with live music, and thanked our lucky stars that Hubby was back to his usual healthy self.

Club Santana Sao Tome
Lovely buffet dinner by the beach

The setting of the hotel is quite lovely, so we soaked in every detail and enjoyed listening to the waves and the music. The weather was perfect, with no mosquitos in sight – a real treat coming from Texas where they are huge – and hungry.

On our last day, we climbed over the rocks that marked the end of our resort property to distribute some toys we had brought with us to the island.  As we approached the “village”, the five or six kids that we had seen playing on the beach disappeared amongst the buildings, and we wondered if we had scared them off.

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But, as we approached the main village dwellings, dozens of kids came out of nowhere, all running excitedly towards us! Uh-oh, this is not good. We didn’t have enough toys to go around – a cardinal sin! As expected, the kids who got to us first were all smiles, but the others were decidedly not.  Oh well. Our intentions were good anyway. Another note to self: next time bring twice as many toys!

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Happy kids with their new toys. I hope they will share them!
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All smiles with his prize!

After a final evening of relaxation on the beach, followed by a lovely sunset, it was time to grab a few hours sleep before our 1:30 AM wakeup time.  The 5:15 AM flight back to Luanda was the only option for several days.

Sao Tome
Lovely sunset view over the bay.

The airport was a lesson in patience, as the check-in process was painfully slow and all done by hand. Our boarding passes were even hand-written on blue paper! Then, we had a two-hour wait for the customs agent to arrive. After another hour wait in the boarding area, we finally boarded the plane and had a quick nap on the way back to Luanda.

Travels in this part of the world are all about managing expectations and staying calm when things don’t go exactly as they would in the US or Europe.  I’d like to say that is how I handle things every time, but those of you who know me would probably say otherwise! Nevertheless, I do try to take each place for what it has to offer and ignore the things that fall short.

Despite a few bumps, I’m happy to say, São Tomé exceeded my expectations considerably. I hope others will soon enjoy this lovely island paradise while it is still unspoiled and charming – just remember to bring lots of toys…and stay healthy!

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© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

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