November 2019: My favorite places to travel to tend to be islands especially island nations that are seldomly visited. The ex-Portuguese colony of Sao Tome with its mysterious mountainous interior full of rainforests, abandoned Portuguese plantations and smiling people is one of my travel highlights. It lacks mass tourism. There are no mega resorts and Sao Tome is full of new discoveries. I traveled to Sao Tome as part of a larger Western Africa trip to Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Senegal. To reach Sao Tome, my friend Richard and I took the daily direct flight on the Portuguese airline, TAP Airlines from Accra, Ghana.

About Sao Tome

Sao Tome consists of two islands-Sao Tome and the more remote one that I didn’t visit on this trip Principe. The country was once a Portuguese colony and a legacy of this being that the people are Portuguese speaking. Sao Tome Island is very undeveloped and there are few roads. Most of the people live in fishing villages along the coast or in the capitol city, Sao Tome. One paved road with long stretches of rough parts riddled with potholes and un-paved parts encircles the island with the exception of the west coast, which is wild and roadless- protected under the Obo Reserve. This is the area of Sao Tome that I hoped to visit. The best way to see the island of Sao Tome is by self-driving. 

 

Location of Sao Tome

Island Map

A Hard Landing

Day 1: Our flight was a little scary arriving into Sao Tome. We arrived in the evening in a thunderstorm and the runway is located in a precarious location at the base of a mountain. It seemed the pilot forced our plane down to land in order to avoid an uncomfortable missed approach that involved negotiating the mountain and another go with the thunderstorm that was producing some heavy thunder and lightning outside our window on the approach. Of all the landings I have had including the ones I have made flying in my own general aviation Cessna planes, the one into Sao Tome was the hardest landing of them all. When we hit, there was a huge back breaking jolt, and a collective scream from the passengers that left me thinking that we missed the runway and were about to crash into an obstruction like a tree or building. I braced for more impact but luckily the plane slowed to a stop, and we taxied to the terminal.

Our plan was to pick up our rental car at the airport and drive it all the way across the island to the sea turtle nesting beach of Pria Jale. The drive would take approx. 2-3 hours and involved some rough stretches of remote road in a storm. A Portuguese man, who lived on the island, seated next to us strongly advised us against driving at night for our safety. This was probably good advice, but we had a schedule to keep to and besides I always like challenges.

There were no working ATMs on the island and credit cards were not widely accepted. This was also the case with the rental car I booked. I had to wire money to rental car company in advance of the trip and the manager drove the car to the airport to hand it off to us himself. The car could not have been smaller with less ground clearance. It was far from ideal for our rough drive ahead in the rain. Plus, it was given to us with an empty tank of gas. The manager apologized and gave us directions to a nearby gas station.  Driving in Sao Tome is similar to driving in England-opposite side of the road and the rental car was a stick shift with a very fussy clutch. But this kind of fun is all part of the adventure. After about 20 minutes of trying to figure out how to fuel the car while being honked at by a line of impatiently waiting vehicles, we set off for our long drive in the rain with my maps.me GPS that operates without internet.

 

The coastal road was empty. There were no other vehicles sharing the road at night once we departed the capitol. The road was windy and up and down through mountainous stretches of jungle and cliffs that hugged the coast. Thankfully the rain stopped, and the three-hour drive was actually enjoyable. The last hour was scary. There pavement ended and there were muddy steep stretches that were borderline 4wd and I thought for sure we would get stuck but somehow, we managed to finally arrive at our remote guesthouse situated on the turtle nesting beach-Pria de Jale and at the end of the road.  Beyond this beach there was no more road and to visit the western coastline you could only do so by boat. 

Green Sea Turtle laying eggs

Our guesthouse is operated by the local village and is part of a joint effort between a sea turtle conservation organization and the village to promote turtle conservation and eco-tourism. There are only a few beach cottages, and they are without electricity. When we arrived, we village caretake was waiting for us and led us to our rooms which were lit by candles. We quickly dumped our bags and set off for the beach with the man to look for sea turtles. It didn’t take long before we came across a green sea turtle that was busy laying her eggs. We spent about 20 minutes watching her before we walked the beach looking for more turtles, but we were just too tired to put much effort into the search before retiring to bed. 

Villager taking measurements of sea turtle laying eggs for research 

Day 2: I woke up in the morning to a paradise. Before my rustic cottage stretched a long sandy beach that clung to a lush jungle, and I jumped out of bed upon the first bit of dawn light and set of to explore. As I walked the beach, I came across lots of fresh tracks from sea turtles that had laid eggs the night before, but I didn’t see any turtles. I kept a watchful eye on the coconuts trees that occasionally sent coconuts crashing down from their towering heights above.

Jale Beach Guesthouse

Jale Beach

We had breakfast on the beach with a few sea turtle researchers from Portugal and discussed places to see in the area and learned about their work in Jale. With their help we arrange a local fishing boat and village crew to take us to the remote western coast of Obo Reserve. My goal was to land on some of the remote coves and explore the rainforest and do some snorkeling.

Jale Beach

We met the boatman and his boy in the nearest village and from there wet set off on our day trip to the remote roadless western coast along the Obo Reserve

Village kids playing along the beach

Village kids with homemade body boards

The boat trip was amazing as we crossed along the wilderness of the west coast. Volcanic plugs or huge, towering volcanic obtrusions towering thousands of feet high climbed from the primary rainforests drenched in dark rain clouds. We passed isolated coves, some of them with ruined Portuguese plantation buildings.  Clear turquoise waters  met black sharp volcanic rock and dark sand beaches. I wish we had a week to properly explore the Obo reserve and its rainforests.

Obo Reserve

A waterfall I hiked to from a remote cove

Volcanic Plug

Plantation ruins

We stopped on a beach with plantation ruins and hiked into them only to find a family ling in the ruins. The family was friendly and greeted us with smiles and showed around their house and introduced us to their pig. Throughput my trip in Sao Tome, finding locals living in old, ruined Portuguese buildings would be a common occurrence.

Family living in Plantation ruins

Fetishes of animal parts hanging in doorway believed by family to ward off evil spirits

Plantation ruins

After our day trip to the Obo Reserve, we headed back and found a different hotel on a white sand beach-Priaha Inhame Eco lodge, one with electricity and a restaurant, although it never seemed to be stocked with food. It did have very strong caipirinha drinks, however. 

Hotel Beach with lots of giant sea crabs 

Day 3: In the morning, we set off in our rental car along the coastal road to explore fishing villages with no real plan. We pulled into villages where people would gather around us smiling and waving. In one fishing village, I asked a man if they had any coconuts we could buy, and he headed down the beach for a mile to the nearest coconut, climbed it and returned with an arm load of coconuts for us to drink. It was common for little kids to walk alongside us, holding our hands whenever we entered a village. 

Man looking for coconuts for us

Fishing village

In villages we came across ruins of Portuguese plantations and as we discovered before, no matter how ruined the building there would still be a family living inside. 

Plantation Ruins on Roadside

Our progress was hindered by all of the flat tired we kept experiencing. I discovered our spare was punctured and flat. But luckily each time we had a flat tire, we were near a village and a mechanic would quickly come to our assistance to help patch up our tire. In total we would have 3 flat tires and each time, the tire would be repaired in a nearby village. The repairs would cost about 10USD. 

We also had a brush with some corrupt checkpoint police. On the main coastal road, there were occasional impromptu police checkpoints. We mostly had no issues. The police would review our rental car documents and my drivers license and send along our way. On one occasion, a police officer demanded that we pay money because our vehicle documents were incorrect. I knew this was a lie, since previous police officers seemed to have no issues. I just smiled and pretended like I had no idea what he was talking about until eventually he grew weary with us especially after I started to call the rental car manager. 

from time to time we would come across villagers selling bushmeat on the side of the road like monkeys or even snakes like in this photo. 

Then of course we came within sight of Sao Tome’s most famous sight, the huge volcanic plug-Pico Cao Grande that rises up in the distance

Pico Cao Grande 

The most interesting Portuguese ruins we came across were of the Roca Agua Ize hospital built in 1928 and now abandoned except for the families living inside it. This was maybe the most touristy place we visited. Local guides fought over who would lead us into the hospital and we did end up paying a guide 10USD to take us around town, which was probably a good idea because walking into ruins were people live was uncomfortable at times and the guide would help to make the situation less awkward.

Portuguese era hospital 

Portuguese era hospital 

Portuguese era hospital 

Portuguese era hospital 

Day 4: On our last day on the island, we did some exploring on our way to the capitol to catch our late afternoon flight back to Ghana. In a random village we drove down a road with a sign indicating plantation thinking we would find another ruin but instead we were surprised to come across a magical working plantation, hotel, fine dining restaurant owned and operated by Sao Tome’s only Michelin starred chef and his family.  We were so overwhelmed with the establishment that we took a nap in the hammocks overlooking the balcony and the bay just relaxing and soaking in the ocean breeze. It turns out the chef is famous is Portugal and France and is well known for his local Sao Tome dishes. We decided that we liked the place so much that we would wait until dinner time to try the food and we were not disappointed. The food and restaurant were masterful. The dining staff brought course after course out for us to try and by the time we were finished we were stuffed. Then the proud smiling chef greeted us and thanked us for eating at his restaurant.

Roca S.Joao dos Angolares-Sao Tome’s Only Michelin Starred Restaurant Run By a Local Chef

Fancy Dishes

View from Roca S.Joao dos Angolares

Sao Tome town

Before flying out from Sao Tome, we walked around the charming capitol with its street markets and Portuguese buildings.   

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