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Located a few hundred kilometres west of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe have been blessed with a relatively peaceful independence, thus avoiding the stigma of tension and a bloodstained past worn by most countries of mainland Africa. It adds infinitely to the relaxed, calm appeal of the islands - who wants to be thinking of war and bloody coups while trying to take it easy by the warm Atlantic waters?
The volcanic origin of the islands grants them a magnificent look and makes them perfect for hiking. The Portuguese also left a handful of treats for tourists when they hurriedly departed the islands' shores in the 70s: attractive (though somewhat rundown) colonial architecture graces the streets of São Tomé, adding that little bit of Portuguese style to the islands' Afro-Latin vibe.
The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe were uninhabited before the arrival of the Portuguese sometime around 1470. The islands were discovered by João de Santarém and Pedro Escobar. The dates of discovery are sometimes given as December 21 (St Thomas's Day), 1471 for São Tomé, and January 17 (St Anthony's Day), 1472 for Principe, though other sources give different nearby years. The first successful settlement of São Tomé was established in 1493 by Álvaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the crown. Príncipe was settled in 1500 under a similar arrangement.
The cultivation of sugar was a labour-intensive process and the Portuguese began to import large numbers of slaves from the mainland. By the mid-1500s the Portuguese settlers had turned the islands into Africa's foremost exporter of sugar. São Tomé and Príncipe were taken over and administered by the Portuguese crown in 1522 and 1573, respectively. In the early 19th century, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced. The rich volcanic soils proved well suited to the new cash crop industry, and soon extensive plantations (roças), owned by Portuguese companies or absentee landlords, occupied almost all of the good farmland. By 1908, São Tomé had become the world's largest producer of cocoa, which remains the country's most important crop.
By the late 1950s, when other emerging nations across the African Continent were demanding independence, a small group of São Toméans had formed the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (MLSTP). After a period of transitional government, São Tomé and Príncipe achieved independence on July 12, 1975, choosing as the first president the MLSTP Secretary General Manuel Pinto da Costa.
In 1990, São Tomé became one of the first African countries to embrace democratic reform, and changes to the constitution - the legalization of opposition political parties - led to elections in 1991 that were nonviolent, free, and transparent. Miguel Trovoada, a former prime minister who had been in exile since 1986, returned as an independent candidate and was elected president. Trovoada was re-elected in São Tomé's second multi-party presidential election in 1996. The army seized power for one week in July 2003, complaining of corruption and that forthcoming oil revenues would not be divided fairly. An accord was negotiated under which President de Menezes was returned to office.
The cohabitation period ended in March 2006, when a pro-presidential coalition won enough seats in National Assembly elections to form and head a new government. In the 30 July 2006 presidential election, Fradique de Menezes easily won a second five-year term in office, defeating two other candidates Patrice Trovoada (son of former President Miguel Trovoada) and independent Nilo Guimarães. Local elections, the first since 1992, took place on 27 August 2006 and were dominated by members of the ruling coalition.On February 12, 2009, there has been an attempted coup d'état to overthrow President Fradique de Menezes according to sources of the authorities.
The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, situated in the equatorial Atlantic and Gulf of Guinea about 300 and 250 kilometres, respectively, off the northwest coast of Gabon, constitute Africa's second smallest country. Both are part of the Cameroon volcanic mountain line, which also includes the islands of Annobón to the southwest, Bioko to the northeast (both part of Equatorial Guinea), and Mount Cameroon on the coast of Gulf of Guinea. São Tomé is 50 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide and the more mountainous of the two islands. Its peaks reach 2,024 metres - Pico de São Tomé. Príncipe is about 30 kilometres long and 6 kilometres wide. Its peaks reach 948 metres - Pico de Príncipe. Swift streams radiating down the mountains through lush forest and cropland to the sea cross both islands. The equator lies immediately south of São Tomé Island, passing through an islet Ilhéu das Rolas. The Pico Cão Grande (Great Dog Peak) is a landmark volcanic plug peak, in southern São Tomé. It rises dramatically over 300 metres above the surrounding terrain and the summit is 663 metres above sea level.
São Tomé and Príncipe is divided into 2 provinces, which corresponds to the two major islands.
Ilhéu das Rolas is a small island on the equator close to the southern tip of the island of São Tomé. It is a marvellous island and is a great place to go and enjoy the beaches, snorkelling and diving. There is even a fancy diving resort but you can also just come for the day and have a great time. Porto Alegre on Sao Tomé is the place to try and find transport to this fantastic place.
Obo National Park is a protected nature park on Sao Tomé, part of it being the remains of what used to be plantations. The park consists of tropical forests on higher land. There are many walking trails bringing you to waterfalls, lakes and animals like treefrogs and special snakes. For more details, check the Obo National Park website.
The Cascadas de São Nicolau are best visited from the town of Trinidad. It is a relatively small waterfall but the lush green surroundings make up for that. In the area you can also visit a cacao plantation and if you still have enough energy you can climb the Pico São Tomé, the highgest mountain on the island at 2024 metres above sea level.
Lagoa Azul is located close to some secluded beaches near Praia das Conchas and Praia dos Tamarindos. It has absolutely fantastic opportunities to go out snorkelling. The beaches here are less impressive though. In the area are giant baobab trees which are home to numerous bird species as well.
When you have enough time left in the country after a visit to the main island Sao Tomé, you can go to Principe. It has a spectacular landscape of volcanic mountains covered in thick virgin forest. The island is surrounded by crystal clear turquoise water and palm fringed beaches. Snorkelling, dving and fishing are excellent and locals can provide boats to go out. Biking around the island is good way of seeing the interior.
International Workers’ Day, or Labor Day as it is locally known, takes place on May 1 every year. This public holiday is marked by events celebrating the historic International Labor Movement, the development of trade unions in the country (which fight to protect workers’ rights), and the contribution of every worker to the nation that São Tomé has become today.
On July 12, São Tomé e Príncipe celebrates the attainment of full sovereignty from the colonial rule of the Portuguese. This public holiday is filled with displays of tradition and culture in many different cities. Travelers can expect to see musical performances, dance shows, and theatrical interpretations of the centuries during which the region was a colony.
Every year on November 26, São Tomé celebrates the national holiday of Argel Accord Day. Prior to the nation being granted independence, the Argel Accords - which promised to grant sovereignty - were signed in Portugal. These accords came about from the actions of Portuguese civil society against the then dictatorial government. Argel Accords Day then not only commemorates the signing of these historical documents, but the efforts of the Portuguese people who fought for the freedom of Portuguese colonies around the world.
São Tomé has a large Christian population, accounting for about 80 percent of people in the country. Understandably then, Christian religious holidays like Christmas Day on December 25 are a big deal. Christmas marks the birth of the Christian messiah Jesus. The day is celebrated by going to mass and the enjoyment of feasts with friends and family. The day has taken on a cultural aspect as well as it is considered a non-working day and most people in the country, religious or not, partake in the festivities.
Located along the equator, Sao Tome and Principe has a climate typical for this region. The islands have high temperatures, high humidity, heavy rainfall, and much cloud around the year. Annual rainfall is around 2,000 mm. June to September is the driest period of the year with only a few days with some showers. During most of the rest of the year, rainfall is high, with two rainy seasons: one from March to May, the other in October and November. December to February is fairly dry as well, but with some more showers compared to June-September. The northern parts of the islands are less wet compared to the southern areas, where influence of the southwesterly winds is greater. Temperatures are around 30 °C year round during the day, and around 20 °C at night with extremely little variation.
To São Tomé there are flights with TAP Portugal to and from Lisbon and Accra on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday; with TAAG Angola Airlines to and from Luanda in Angola and to Cape Verde. Air Luxor flies to Lisbon once a week. Aero Contractors serves Lagos in Nigeria.
There are no passenger services, but there is a cargo ship that leaves for São Tomé from Libreville (Gabon), though the journey is not recommended or safe, and won’t save you that much money either, so take a flight instead.
Sao Tome and Principe Airways has several flights a week between Sao Tome and Principe.
Roads on Sao Tome are mostly paved, but some parts are potholed and some back roads really require a 4WD vehicle. Rental cars are available at the airport or in Sao Tome city, including a few hotels. You can also rent a car with a driver that doubles as a guide. Some guides only speak Portuguese though. Traffic drives on the right and you need a national driver's licence or international driving permit.
There are minibuses and shared taxis on Sao Tome which cover the main roads between Sao Tome city and the main towns and villages to the south. On Principe there is only one red minibus that covers the 12 kilometres of road.
Ferries ply the waters between Sao Tome and Principe several times a week.
Visas are not issued on arrival without prior arrangements. To get an electronic visa, you need Visa application São Tomé e Príncipe eVisaST. Citizens of the United States and certain other countries can enter for tourism without a visa for up to 15 days.
Local travel agents can process visa application through the ministry in a week if you email the information page of your passport and the application found on their web site.
See also Money Matters
The dobra is the currency of São Tomé and Príncipe. It is abbreviated Db and is divided into 100 cêntimos.
Coins come in denominations of 100, 250, 500, 1,000 and 2,000 dobras. Banknotes come in denominations of 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, and 100,000 dobras.
See also Portuguese phrasebook
The official language is Portuguese. It is spoken natively by over half of the population, but basically everyone (95%) can speak it. The other main language is Forro, which is a Portuguese-based creole language spoken natively by 43% of the population and as a second language by just as many (85% in total).
As a rule, Portuguese is the main language in the northern part of the São Tomé island, whereas Forro is more common in the south. On the Principe island the main language is Portuguese.
English is virtually non-existent in this country. Although it is taught in schools starting from grade 7, given that English-speaking tourists are rare and the islands are not well connected to English-speaking Africa, few locals find it worth while learning. You will however have better luck with French, which is taught in schools from grade 5, relatively easy to learn for Portuguese-speakers and is more practical given the commercial links to Francophone Africa.
Fish is a staple of the São Toméan diet, often served with breadfruit and mashed, cooked bananas. The variety of fish is wide, including flying fish at certain times of year. Inland, many São Toméans get their protein from buzios, large land snails. Sea snails are also quite common along the coast. In spite of the abject poverty, São Toméans can always count on some sustenance from the wide array of tropical fruits. The hotels in the capital offer European-style fare at European prices.
A small handful of hotels exist in the capital. Near the town of Santana lies an idyllic bed and breakfast with stunning views. Opulent resorts have been built at the very northern and southern extremes of the country, on the small island of Ilheu das Rolas, and at Ilha Bom Bom off the coast of Principe. Bom Bom Island Resort is a true haven of luxury and calm, offering the ultimate in comfortable and secluded accommodation.
In the main city of Sao Tome several small pousadas (B&Bs) can be found. There are three main hotels in the city: Agosto Neto, Pestana and Miramar.
Beer is readily available everywhere, though São Toméans are not known as big drinkers. Local brands include Creolla and Rosema. Inland, palm wine is available very inexpensively from vendors along the road. Wine, especially Portuguese vinho verde, is popular with fish dishes.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is required upon entering Sao Tomé and Principe. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering by ship (so not by plane).
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Sao Tomé and Principe. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Safety is not an issue in São Tomé and Príncipe, though the roadway traffic is hazardous as in other parts of Africa. Violent crime in public is almost unheard of. However, with an increase in tourism there has been an increase in crime against tourists. Road blocks near Santana have been reported, as well as scams targeting tourists in the main city.
The only dangerous animal in the islands is the black cobra, which can be found in southern and eastern areas of Sao Tome island. Young ones are completely black, adults have yellow-white scales on the front. They are afraid of humans and will normally slither away when you approach. Be alert when hiking and very careful of where you stick your hands. Anti-venom is available at local hospitals.
See also International Telephone Calls
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