Celebration Time (C’mon!)
Landing in São Tomé on New Year’s Eve was nothing short of a miracle (many, actually), and serious cause for celebration. São Tomé and Principe was country #162 for me, and ceremoniously, the last of seven new countries on this end-of-year mid-pandemic West African adventure. I won’t spend time re-hashing the horror stories, hold-ups and Hail Marys that seemed to fly at me just about every step of the way on this trip, but if you haven’t checked out the last six blogs on this website, they will certainly provide some great context as to why I was just so darn happy to actually be in São Tomé. It almost didn’t happen – five or six times! This was it – the finish line – at least for this trip in particular; no doubt the most challenging trip of my lifetime!
I would actually be celebrating two things: 1. the fact I made it here at all in the first place, and 2. São Tomé was a bucket list destination in general, that I’d really been excited to visit for many years. The country is an island paradise, one of the least-visited nations on the planet (always a plus for me), and a Portuguese-speaking country to boot. (I study and love speaking the language!) I was in heaven! Sadly, due to the pandemic’s slaughter of the airline business, schedules and routes were cut drastically, affording me only have two nights here – it was two nights or nothing. I’d have to make the most of it. If you’re ready, c’mon! Let’s explore São Tomé!
New Year, New Nation
I enjoyed a New Year’s Eve dinner with a fellow traveler I knew from a Facebook “extreme travelers” group. I practiced my rusty Portuguese with our waiter Flavio, while Mette and her daughters and I discussed travel, America, Denmark (their home), and how they’ve been enjoying the island over the past week. They were lucky enough to have nine days here! Then, it was off to bed, falling asleep before the stroke of midnight, to a New Year’s Eve special on TV, broadcast from Angola. Fireworks (or gun shots?) woke me at midnight. I smiled at the reminder I’d made it to São Tomé before fading back to sleep.
FUN FACT: I’ve spent four New Year’s Eves in foreign countries recently, falling asleep before midnight in each of them! New Year’s Eve 2016 was spent in Tripoli, Libya; New Year’s Eve 2018, Ceuta, Spanish Morocco; New Year’s Eve 2019, Karachi, Pakistan…and I was asleep for each one!
I hit the ground running the next morning, jumping in my rental car to visit as many beaches as I could before dark. I’d passed on swimming in the ocean waters of The Gambia and Sierra Leone on this trip – I wanted to save myself for São Tomé. I headed south, stopping at the first beach I came across, Praia Izé.
Waves and Smiles
Next up, a few miles down the road, Praia Sete Ondas – or, “Seven Waves Beach.” Spoiler alert: This was my favorite! Though I wouldn’t get to every beach on the island, Sete Ondas was the big winner for so many reasons. First, there weren’t many people there at all! I had almost the entire beach to myself. The sand stretched out, so clean and flat – with a little mini “lagoon”/trench that you could bathe in like your own little swimming pool! My favorite part about this beach was its waves. Not too big, not too small, not too frequent, not too far apart – a boogie boarder’s paradise! I spent some time body surfing and planning to come back the next day, with a board, if I could find one. Praia Sete Ondas is the perfect beach to spend the entire day, sunning, surfing and snacking.
The next beach I rolled up on was actually part of a village. I felt a tad out of place as I pulled into the asphalt-turned to dirt road that ran between the sand and the village residences. I certainly attracted my share of stares from the locals. It was apparent that this was not a “tourist” beach, but it was too late – I’d already pulled in. I parked and walked around for a little bit. This would be my first real interaction with the locals. I discovered that–just like in Guinea Bissau–a smile and a Bom dia! disarms just about everyone. It wasn’t long before the boys playing soccer invited me to join. I passed – I didn’t want to embarrass America.
The Village People
I think I may have underestimated the size of the island. While it looks small on the map, it took me a good three hours to reach the southern end. I guess I’m used to places like Nauru and Tuvalu: tiny islands that you can completely circle in less than two hours. But don’t get me wrong, I certainly was in no rush this New Year’s Day and savored the long journey down.
Besides the beaches, I just adored driving through the little villages of São Tomé. Seeing the people: playing, working, socializing…it felt like I was in a movie. I was just ultra-careful to drive slow. At times there was just so much going on around me and I wanted to look closely and admire everything. How horrified would I have been if I hit someone…or something!? Oh yeah, lots of “things,” including bunches of goats and pigs wandering the streets. My favorite scenes were when I’d round a corner and come upon a group of little piggies, scurrying down the street like they were late for an important meeting. I also loved that almost every river included the scene of dozens of women washing clothes on the rocks. It was a throwback to simpler times. The actual drive itself through the villages of São Tomé, while not a part of any guidebook or “to do” list online, would be one of my most memorable moments on the island – or anywhere, for that matter. It was pure joy to be an observer of such happy and simple island life.
A little over halfway down the island, that beautiful asphalt (which I’d come to not take for granted traveling throughout Africa) suddenly and without warning turned to gravel. This greatly slowed down my journey, but who’s in a hurry? I passed a few more cool little villages before finally reaching Porto Alegre, which on the map looked like a city, but in truth was just a tiny fishing village. Passing through the other end of Porto Alegre was where the road was its worst: By the time I was second guessing my choice to slowly and bumpily jerk up that steep hill of giant rocks, I’d already managed to work my car halfway up – there was no turning back. I imagined the horror and embarrassment of getting stuck – having the villagers have to push my car free, or waiting hours for the car rental company to come help. By the grace of God, I made it up, though there were more rough roads ahead. Soon I was completely off-road and fearing getting stuck in the wet mud or sand.
I finally made it to my destination: Praia Inhame Eco Lodge. I was surprised to see so many normal cars (as opposed to Jeeps, off-road vehicles, etc.) parked at the lodge. Did they take a different route??? That’s a rhetorical question, as there is indeed only one route to the resort. Perhaps I was just a big scaredy cat. Either way, the fact that there were a dozen regular cars here gave me a some much-needed solace and confidence for the ride back.
I had fully planned on grabbing the ten-dollar boat ride over to Ilhéu das Rolas to visit the equator line, but just as the skipper pulled the motorized pirogue up and waved me over, the biggest downpour began and did not let up. I’m not afraid of a little rain, but this was a massive storm with no sign of going away. I was relegated to the shaded restaurant, where I chatted up the owner Luisa and her friend Fatima for a while, before finally retreating to my car. I wanted to get back to the city before nightfall and couldn’t imagine navigating those rough roads without daylight.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Book a night or two on the south end – I do recommend Praia Inhame Eco Lodge. There’s even a resort on Ilhéu das Rolas. The equator line passes through the tiny Rolas Island, while it do not touch São Tomé – so if you want to see the line, you have to visit the little island. You can see the hotel I stayed at downtown, HERE.
Back to the Hotel
I was happy to leave the bad roads before dark. The rain cleared up as I headed back up North and I enjoyed rolling through all of the villages again. The sight I will forever remember was a group of locals dancing in the middle of the street–in the rain–as I entered the village. These guys were really going to town – a big dance party! I almost had to come to a complete stop, as they weren’t really paying attention to the road. Finally a young man helped move the “dancers” out of the way so I could pass. I didn’t mind; I loved what I saw. I wish I could’ve taken some video!
The other experience I witnessed warmed my heart unlike anytime I can remember. There were two kids that I saw, playing in the rain, with the innocence of a child in a Lil’ Rascals movie. The first was a girl–who must have been six or seven–laying belly-down in a soccer field that was getting flooded by a storm. She was flailing and splashing and laughing and screeching with not a care in the world. It was so muddy and wet, and this little girl was just having a good ol’ time and enjoying the moment. Again, I thought, what a great photo this would be. But how could I ruin her special moment with an interruption? I smiled so big as I drove by. Minutes later, a scene even more magical: a little girl–about the same age as the last–lying flat on her stomach, on the side of the road against the curb, as the rapids of the fresh downpour came rushing over her face and body. She screamed and giggled and laughed and squirmed as the rainwater crashed into and over her, like an amusement at a water park. How badly I wanted to stop the car and just observe. I will do my best to preserve these amazing images of pure childhood in my brain. They’re two of the best highlights of this trip and a reminder of how fun and innocent being a kid is supposed to be.
War of the Roças
I’m fascinated by so many aspects of the colonization of Africa, especially what happens after the Europeans left. As in former Portuguese colonies like Guinea Bissau and Moçambique, I really enjoy looking at all those old beautiful buildings that have been left to decay and deteriorate. On one hand it’s sad, but on the other, all the weathering and wear definitely give these buildings character. It’s fun to imagine fixing some of these up, into a bed and breakfast, restaurant or new apartment, etc. I bet The Property Brothers could make miracles happen!
The word roça (pronounced “rosa”) is the equivalent to fazenda (Brasil) and hacienda (Latin America). During the 19th and 20th centuries, when São Tomé was an important producer of cocoa and coffee beans, there were up to 150 roças in activity on the island. After the country gained its independence in 1975, most Portuguese left, abandoning the farms. Later, a land distribution plan was enacted by the local government, and small portions of land and housing were given to the people living there.
HERE is a great webpage explaining the history and current use of São Tomé’s roças. Fascinating stuff.
I Have Questions: Why didn’t the production continue after the Portuguese left? Why would valuable, arable land just stop being utilized? Who made this decision and how fast did it happen? What did the last crop look like?
I pulled into Roça Agua Izé on my way back to the hotel, just in time to take a stroll through its streets before the sun set. Like Ribeira Alfonso village, all eyes were on me. It’s kind of a weird/awkward feeling to have everyone staring at you – but that’s when you smile, wave and belt out a friendly, “Boa tarde!” Most people waved right back with a smile. A gentleman named Alvaro Tavares introduced himself and offered to be my guide through the roça. I knew it would cost me a few bucks, but would be well worth having a local show me around. We walked up a big hill to an abandoned hospital which I would’ve never discovered alone. Then, back down to the village, Alvaro even showed me his living quarters. It was a great stop and an interesting look at São Tomé life. I tried to explain to Alvaro that there was a famous American Funk and Disco band from the 70s and 80s called Tavares. If anyone reading this visits the village, bring Alvaro a Tavares CD please!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: I stayed at a little place called Hotel Central, in the heart of the city. While it wasn’t luxurious nor modern, I really liked it for a few reasons. It’s very clean, in a great location, has a restaurant on-site and feels authentically old school – they even give you a key to the front door which you are in charge of locking and unlocking after hours. I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing (in my shaky Portuguese) with the hotel’s owner, Helena. She was lovely and nice enough to give me a (very) late checkout without an extra charge or any drama. I will definitely return. You can see a list of hotels in São Tomé’s center HERE.
Hikers Gon’ Hike
On my second and last full day, I booked a tour to see Angolar Falls which included an incredible and exhilarating hike through the forest. We drove uphill over some pretty rocky roads before parking and continuing our ascent on foot. One of my favorite parts of the hike was eating along the way – not snacks we’d prepared ahead of time, but instead, the fruit from right off the trees! I sampled fresh raspberries right off the vine, and my favorite, cocoa fruit! The trek was just difficult enough to get my blood pumping and heart racing. I did my best not to show my huffin’ and puffin’, but this hike was kicking my butt! I really felt the burn. I hope it shed some calories – I’m on a mission to lose some L-Bees (pounds) for the new year.
The coolest part of the hike, no doubt, were the tunnels. Built buy the Portuguese in colonial times, the six tunnels house small canals used to bring water down to the island. The complex system starts at the spring on the top of the mountain and uses a series of pipes and aqueducts to deliver the water first to a treatment plant, and then down to the residents. Throughout the hike I walked over the aqueducts (covered by big concrete slabs) before eventually reaching a series of long, dark tunnels. And you guessed it, we walked through said tunnels, waist-high through the rushing, cold water. It was something I would never ever do on my own in a million years, but with guides…absolutely! Coolest thing ever! Except for the spiders!
João’s Crab Shack
After the big trek, it was on to lunch. I ate some amazing crab at a little traditional restaurant called Santola in the village of Neves. The wooden, two-story house served freshly-caught crab, freshly-baked bread and my first Coca-Cola of the trip. The ambience was just as delicious as the crab, as we looked out on the quaint village below. What a treat!
The Blue Lagoon
My guide Derio was kind enough to take me to Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon) on the way back to town. With its clear waters and lush scenery, it’s no wonder The Blue Lagoon is a favorite spot for swimmers and snorkelers. I enjoyed a refreshing dip that felt extra good on my tired bones after the long day of hiking. Kids splashed in the water, soon introducing themselves to the foreigner (me), with the standard, “Oi, Branco!” salutation. The Blue Lagoon is another idyllic spot that deserves at least half a day of its own. I hated leaving so soon.
Old Town Road
I barely had time to partake in one of my favorite pastimes before leaving: exploring the crumbling, colonial buildings in the center of town. There was less than two hours of sunlight left and one last chance to bop around the city streets to marvel at the old Portuguese-built edificios. I have to laugh at myself: Just as I started to feel some confidence in my driving in São Tomé, I took a wrong turn down a one-way street. Dozens of guys on the street hooped and hollered at me to get my attention before disaster struck – luckily no one was hurt!
Truth is, I could’ve walked the city for days – there was so much to see! I traversed as many streets as I had time for, including a walk to the water’s edge and a pass-by that gorgeous cathedral with a Christmas tree made of tires on display outside. I really wanted more time to explore the center, but it was time to go.
“What am I, Chopped Liver?”
Sadly, because of the super-tight schedule, I was unable to see Principe. Believe me, I tried. But with only two days in São Tomé, I barely scratched the surface on it! There have been plenty of African countries that I was content leaving after just one or two days, trust me – but São Tomé is definitely not one of them. This place deserves, at minimum, a week to fully enjoy and explore, and that’s not including a Principe pop-in. I’ve added São Tomé e Principe to my list of places I’m coming back to after I complete all 193 countries. Até a proxima and stay tuned to this page for my return!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: I used SÃOFERIAS for my rental car and tour. It seems as though they do it all, and can be your one-stop shop for tours, accommodations, cars and more.This entry was posted in Africa