Beautiful São Tomé and Príncipe, remote rainforest islands sitting on the equator and within warm seas in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea. A frontier of tourism where your effort reveals rewards of untouched, pristine and empty beaches, primary forests full of birdsong, gorgeous small-scale boutique accommodation, warm and friendly local guides passionate about their island home. All of this is true but I found it impossible for me to travel here and only focus on these indisputably stunning natural delights.
Beautiful São Tomé and Príncipe, independent since 1975. Portuguese rule came to an end on the 12th of July 1975 and the effects before and after can clearly be seen today. With the end of the Portuguese rule came an end to the Portuguese financing of the infrastructure and buildings. Portugal maintained the plantation hospitals until the 1990s (when a new agreement between China and São Tomé required the end of Portuguese help).
Beautiful São Tomé and Príncipe, discovered by Portuguese sailors in the 1470s who saw potential for agriculture and trade. The first people to live on the islands were Portuguese undesirables but the sugar plantations quickly needed labour and slaves were brought from the African mainland. Slaves and sugar supported the economy until the early 19th century when coffee and cocoa were introduced and the Roças (large plantations) were created. Portugal abolished slavery in 1876 however in the 20th century modern slavery took place on the islands as Angolan and Cape Verdean workers were forced into long working days, 7 days a week.
Beautiful São Tomé and Príncipe, this varied history producing the human geography of the islands today. Nowadays the Roças are largely passed over to community ownership and the rather grand stone built buildings (of the typical Portuguese colonial style) are variously being overtaken by forest growth and segmented into houses and shared living for Santomeans.
The story of the islands and the subsequent removal upon independence of the Portuguese financing and skills is clear everywhere but for me, no more so than at the hospital of Roça Água-Izé:
The plantations functioned as independent units and this included hospital care, to keep the slaves functioning. Each Roça had it’s own sanitorium and the hospital at Roça Água-Izé was the largest of all the hospitals on São Tomé. After independence the Portuguese maintained the services and the building – until 1991 when they were asked to leave as part of an agreement between São Tomé and China. The building today is a dilapidated shell. Walking up the grand sweep of the staircase it’s hard to imagine the sights and sounds of the functioning building of thirty years ago. From the first floor you can look through the now-skeleton roof structure of the hospital wings to the Santomean forest beyond. Greenery is overtaking the building. Walking around the remaining internal structure I find each room is inhabited by a family. Sanitation is non-existent and although there’s an air of genuine calm and happiness in the community, it’s impossible to fully reconcile with the scene: an impressive colonial building built to care for slaves or at best forced workers, their free descendants now living in poverty within the crumbling walls, whilst the once-untouched Santomean forest works to reclaim the site as it’s own.
It’s this power of nature that’s perhaps the best resource the islanders have with which to bring money in. Tourism (at an appropriate scale) is a clear benefit to the islands today.
My transfer to Club Santana waits for me to clear customs and collect my hold bag from the tiny carousel. Soon we are bouncing along the surfaced-but-potholed roads along the ocean front of São Tomé city. Along with the weather, it’s the traffic that often provides that feeling of being somewhere other than home. It’s Saturday night and the roads are alive with people walking and driving the streets. Motorbikes make up the majority of the traffic, solo riders, two-up, three-up, some helmets, some bare heads, all travelling at a relaxed pace and flowing through the tarmac and dirt streets, horns beeping. We exit the city and the stone buildings subside into hand built wooden shacks that the majority of Santomeans call home. The road is lined with these wooden houses, mostly on stilts so that the underside can be used for storage, animals, outside living and the like. Either side the dark roads are bustling with people on foot, walking, socialising – life takes place on the streets.
Arriving at Santana village, we turn off into forest and bump down the drive towards Club Santana. The resort is of plush bungalows set on the ocean front of Santana bay and my room is fresh and cool, the air conditioning pre-prepared. Dinner is in the warmth of the outside air on the beach front, a barbeque prepared in front of us.
The morning is bright and I walk along the beach before breakfast. After breakfast my guide introduces me to the local forest. With the experience of two weeks I can now say that the ninety-minute walk is an excellent taster for the São Tomé experience! We walk through dense forest and past huge trees laden with exotic fruit, along old plantation paths and down to a deserted beach looking out to Santana islet.
Later in my first week I travel to Praia Inhame on the south coast of São Tomé island. The closed surface of the east coast road ends some 20km before my destination and the minibus transfer bumps along increasingly uneven stone and dirt roads. I feel that I’m getting closer to the São Tomé I thought I was coming to see – the road quality lends a remote feel to the south of the island and the short journey takes an enjoyable age. It’s immersive travelling through such a beautiful area at this leve-leve pace.
We drive through fishing villages of houses on stilts, again people everywhere. Beyond Porto Allegre the road gets considerably even worse and the final 2km is at walking pace. It’s not long before dusk by the time the Praia Inhame eco lodge sign comes into view; we turn into the forest along their drive, the plants brushing the vehicle. I walk down to the reception based in an open-sided building which I’ve come to realise is typical of the country. My lodge is awaiting me, wood-built and comfortable.
There’s a glimpse of the beauty of the beach from the lodge windows.
I walk through the trees, up and over the storm bank, to the soft golden sand. Emerging alone from the overhanging trees on to the sweep of the beach, I have to sit down to take the beauty in. It’s profound, stunning, empty, perfect and it’s the experience of untouched natural wonder that I expected to find.
For over 20 years the team at Archipelago Choice has travelled extensively to all the special destinations we offer. We’ve unrivalled knowledge which is based on our own personal travel experiences.
Sao Tome and Principe are incredibly special islands to visit and if you think these islands are for you, then we’d love to hear from you.
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