A small but perfectly formed West African island nation that’s well off the tourism radar, with virgin rainforests, warm people, great marine life and the highest avian endemicity of any country its size.
Uninhabited until Europeans first arrived in 1470, São Tomé & Príncipe (STP) is the second-smallest country in Africa and practically unknown to most travellers. Yet the former Portuguese colony, which used to produce most of the world’s cocoa, is a fascinating destination. With dense rainforest sheltering endemic birds and a myriad of medicinal plants and trees; striking volcanic outcrops; sandy, palm-fringed turtle beaches; atmospheric plantation estates; a fascinating colonial and cultural history and friendly locals, this micro-state on the Equator is so much more than just a tick on the bucket-list.
An African creole society built across 500 years with slaves and contract workers from Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde, STP is a charming, safe, democratically governed and diverse country with a relaxed, quasi-Caribbean feel and without ethnic or religious strife. The two-island nation is also surprisingly gastronomic, with the freshest grilled fish, traditional Portuguese dishes, glorious exotic fruit – have you ever tried a cajamanga? – and some of the best chocolate in the world, washed down with locally brewed beer, Portuguese wine and sugarcane rum cocktails, not to mention smooth Arabica coffee.
Tourism is still in its infancy, with Portuguese visitors from the former colonial power in the majority and a smattering of other Europeans making up the rest. Wildlife lovers will find magical rainforest, a density of endemic birdlife surpassing even the Galapagos, extensive walking trails and numerous dive sites – all without the crowds. Naturalists are constantly making new discoveries of plants, reptiles, butterflies and fish, feeding a growing movement for the conservation of the archipelago’s natural wealth.
If you have the time and inclination, perhaps explore further afield. Now it is possible to combine the island attractions of STP with mainland African destinations such as Namibia, Gabon and the Republic of Congo for larger fauna and a complete country contrast, creating unique itineraries which satisfy all the criteria for a perfect Reef & Rainforest natural history holiday.
The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are extraordinarily rich for birdwatchers, with such endemics as the giant weaver, giant sunbird and dwarf olive ibis to seek out. Ornithologists on the islands have counted over 143 species in 40 families. The number of endemic birds on both islands – 28, with 11 endemic sub-species – equals that of the much more extensive Galapagos Islands and exceeds the Seychelles; they are also much easier to find than those in Hawaii. These factors make them possibly the easiest and most concentrated group of island endemics anywhere in the world. The best birding months are October through to March but other times of year are good too, when you are sure to see the many African grey parrots which live on the islands.
Four species of endangered sea turtle inhabit both the main islands of Sao Tome & Principe: olive ridley, green, hawksbill and leatherback. At various beaches, such as Praia Grande on Principe, one can watch the chelonians haul themselves onto the sand to dig holes and lay their eggs, later on seeing the hatchlings scuttle back to the water for their precarious journey into adulthood. Nesting is mainly observed from October to January, and for hatchlings the best time is December to April.
From July to August, humpback whales can often be seen off the coast of Principe on dedicated whale watching boat trips. If lucky you will see the leviathans breaching and slapping their pectoral fins.
Although the islands have few coral reefs as such, snorkelling can be very rewarding and there are numerous dive sites displaying plenty of marine action, with nurse sharks, moray eels and some very large groupers to be seen.