Backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe is almost like undertaking a trip to a completely untouched destination. Hovering around the equator, it is the second smallest country in Africa, and also one of the least visited in the world.
It is made up of two main archipelagos: Sao Tome, which consists of more than 95% of the nation’s population, and Principe, it’s a much smaller and uncharted brother. Backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe is not only very safe but also comes with almost no visa restrictions.
The island nation’s unique history and its vivid cultural roots from both Europe and Africa, make its atmosphere one that cannot be found anywhere else. Unlike most tropical paradises, Sao Tome and Principe retain its raw and undisturbed beauty.
Backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe: An Overview
Sao Tome and Principe is one of the most exotic countries I have set foot on. However, it is also tricky when it comes to travelling. Backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe is definitely not something you can just go for. It’s not one of the ‘I’ll wing it’ trips.
Additionally, since it is rarely visited by travelers, very little information exists on the internet. So, here’s a brief overview of the place which will come in handy while planning your trip. By means of this blog, I hope to help more and more backpackers visit the paradise that Sao Tome and Principe is.
West Africa (Gulf of Guinea)
Predominantly Portuguese and Forro; French spoken by some
A little more than 200,000 inhabitants
The currency used in this island nation is to Sao Tomean Dobra (STN). Some places also accept Euro (EUR). The conversion rates between STN, EUR, and the American Dollar (USD) are as follows:
1 EUR = 24.32 STN; 1 USD = 21.9 STN
Snorkeling, diving, hiking, trekking, boating
All nationalities are either visa exempt or eligible for an e-visa
From Portugal, Gabon, Cape Verde
|Best time to visit
All year round
|Nearby Countries to visit
Ghana, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria
One thing is for sure – it is not a country one would visit on a tight budget. No matter how much you try, you’re going to have to shell out a decent amount of money to thoroughly explore these islands.
However, in this Sao Tome and Principe travel blog, I’ll try my best to offer the best possible solutions to travel cheap in the country.
Costs Involved while Backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe
This is the key question for anyone traveling on a budget: how much does it cost? Here, I’m going to lay down the tentative costs of all the things you would have to spend on while backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe.
High-end resorts can cost as much as more than 40 EUR per night.
On the other hand, a little research can land you at reasonable BnB’s and guesthouses. These can cost as little as 10-15 EUR.
Dining at resorts and hotels will set you back 20 EUR a meal on an average.
If you’re looking for budget-friendly alternatives, eat at wooden shacks, locals’ homes, and roadside stalls. This way, you can enjoy a meal for 2-3 EUR.
It isn’t safe to drink water from the taps in Sao Tome and Principe. A bottle of mineral water (1.5 liters) at the supermarket will cost 0.5 EUR.
For obvious reasons, it will be much more expensive at restaurants and hotels.
Renting a 4-seater, 4×4 would roughly cost you 35-40 EUR a day.
A good price for renting a two-wheeler for a day is 15 EUR.
A litre of gasoline is roughly priced at 1 EUR. This is of course dynamic.
Prices of flights to Sao Tome city would vary depending on where you’re coming from, the airlines, the time of booking, etc.
Local flights (Sao Tome to Principe) on average cost about 150 EUR in return.
Prices have further been elaborated on in the article. I have also tried offering details on hacks that will help you save money while backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe. Read on.
Sao Tome and Principe Trip: The Nitty-Gritty
Here are a few nitty-gritty that you need to bother about before setting out to any country. Let me tell you about it all in detail because as I said, Sao Tome and Principe is not widely written about.
Now, what a lot of blogs won’t tell you is this: the currency of Sao Tome and Principe has a history you should know about, to avoid confusion of any sort. The first dobra (STD) was introduced in 1977 and its recent conversion rates were somewhat like this:
1 EUR = 24,000 STD
|However, due to increasing inflation, the currency was re-denominated (changing the face value of notes/coins) at a value of 1000 to 1. Thus, the current conversion rates of the Sao Tomean Dobra (new code being STN) are as follows:
1 EUR = 24.32 STN
I have and will be using the new currency throughout my blog. However, in case you’re going through other blogs or articles, keep this in mind. Rates might not be updated if the blog was published before 2018.
When it comes to currency exchange, remember that this is a restricted currency. This means that export of the currency is prohibited – you can only get dobras within Sao Tome and Principe.
Furthermore, there is no official money exchange – not even at the airport. Money exchangers can be found on the streets, generally around restaurants, gas stations, and hotels in Sao Tome.
Tip: You might not find them once it’s dark and on weekends, so be prepared.
Get all your exchanges done while in Sao Tome. Principe has close to 0 opportunities for the same.
Additionally, there is almost not a single ATM that accepts international cards in the country. So, make sure you carry enough cash, credit cards are accepted in some big hotels, resorts and restaurants. However, do not completely rely on it.
In Sao Tome and Principe, the standard 220V dual pin power plug is used. So, carry travel adapters if your devices do not align with this.
Additionally, power cuts are quite frequent in this island nation. A large number of houses still do not get access to a steady supply of electricity. So, make it a point to carry torches, headlamps, and power banks.
Cheaper than activating international data plans and roaming on your phone, would be buying a local sim card once you land in the country. This can be done in Sao Tome city (Sao Tome) or in Santo Antonio (Principe).
|As advice, simply purchase a sim card (3-5 EUR) and a few euros worth of credit to make local calls. On other occasions that you require internet, try using free Wi-Fi offered by most restaurants, hotels, and resorts. This will save you a lot of money (20-25 EUR) that you would have to spend on the data plan otherwise.|
The two leading mobile networks in the country are CST and Unitel STP. Although you can compare plans and prices for both, CST is generally said to have better services and connectivity.
Before you start backpacking to Sao Tome and Pricipe, get yourself vaccinated for yellow fever. In addition to your passport, you must carry your yellow fever card/book – one that confirms you’re vaccinated. Most of the time, immigration officers will check your vaccinations even before your passport.
Remember that if you don’t have the yellow fever vaccination, you will be sent back to the country you came from right away.
Apart from yellow fever, immunization against Hepatitis A, tetanus, and typhoid, malaria is generally recommended. This, however, is dynamic. So, make sure you consult your travel doctor before your Sao Tome and Principe trip.
Here’s an important question to ask: Is Sao Tome and Principe safe?
Generally, Sao Tome and Principe is deemed to be one of the safest African nations to travel to. However, it goes without saying that you must exercise basic caution and care when traveling. Some women travelers in the past have faced situations of harassment, or eve-teasing. Friendly chats might sometimes be misunderstood as romantic interests or advancements.
Furthermore, the per capita income in this country is quite low. So, an expensive camera or smartphone left unguarded could be tempting. Take my advice and carry a waterproof pouch you can keep your valuables in, even in times when you’re going for a swim. This is especially important for solo travelers backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe.
The principal Sao Tome and Principe language is Portuguese – spoken by a majority (90-95%) of the population. Forro is the second language. English speaking people are almost nonexistent in the country. You might get lucky with French because it’s a language taught in schools.
On fewer occasions, you might find Spanish or Italian speaking locals.
Backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe: Getting Around the Island Nation
Getting around while backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe is not easy for budget travelers. Technically, there’s no existing system of public transport. This can be gruelling especially for those who are used to traveling by bus, trains, or shared taxis. So, how do you really get around in this country and how expensive is it?
Most travelers would recommend you to rent out a 4×4 for your Sao Tome and Principe adventure. In the absence of public transport, the only option really is to have your own vehicle.
There are a number of companies on the islands that could help you out with this. If you’re confused or short on time, you could simply ask around at your place of stay. My personal recommendation is Tortuga Car Rental. They have a website that’s easy to navigate, 24 hours assistance, and an English-speaking staff. (Trust me, that’s something you’ll be grateful for.)
Tip: Carry an international driving permit to avoid problems on that front.
Rental charges per day would roughly be as follows:
|A 4-seater 4×4: 35-45 EUR|
|A 9-seater Volkswagen van: 75 EUR|
|Fuel: 1 EUR for a litre|
Cars are in great condition, and they have it delivered at the point you want. Charges, of course, vary depending on your pickup and drop points. Additionally, fuel charges are excluded.
Note: Here, you must drive on the right side of the road.
Airports on both islands are close to the city center – 3 to 5 kilometers. You could either have the car dropped at the airport, or ask your hotel (if you have already booked one) to arrange for transport. You could also avail of a moto-taxi if you do not have much luggage.
Keeping in mind the unpredictable road conditions on the islands, a 4×4 would definitely be better. However, that not be viable for everyone. An alternative would be to rent out a motorbike or a scooter on a per-day basis. While you’ll find a lot of companies willing to rent out 2-wheelers to you, try striking a chord with a local and renting out from them.
A lot of them have spare 2-wheelers and would be more than willing to rent one out to you. While fares for motorbike rental are more dynamic, about 15 EUR a day would be a good price.
If you’re not comfortable driving or are a solo traveler, you might not want to rent out a 4×4 all to yourself. You certainly have the option of commuting by cab. These are most commonly found within the city, and prices are generally fixed.
|Identification: Bright-yellow coloured cars|
|Stopping them: Simply hail them by raising your hand|
|Drawback: They’re unlikely to go off the main road/ to the interiors|
Note: While it is easy to get taxis from the city to the outskirts, it’s difficult when you need to travel the other way around.
So, as a piece of advice, stick to renting out your own vehicle. If you’re traveling alone, try mixing around with other travelers that come your way – maybe, you could rent a vehicle together?
This is one of the best ways of getting around cheaply for budget travelers. However, this is not as popular in Sao Tome and Principe due to the lack of vehicles. There are high chances that you’ll come across as few as 10 vehicles on a 200-kilometer-long drive.
You could get lucky if you try to stop one of the many motorbikes. A lot of them are motorcycle taxis, whereas some might just take you along for a really small fee. I mean, they have nothing to lose, right? Although this is an uncertain and flimsy option, it’s worth it when you think about all the money it will save you.
Getting There – Sao Tome and Principe Flights
As of now, the only way to get to both Sao Tome and Principe is by air. First, let’s talk about Sao Tome.
This is the only island of the 2 that has an International Airport. So, no matter where you’re coming from, you are first going to set foot here. Even when it comes to taking the flight, options are limited.
|From Europe – Tap Air Portugal and STP Airways run flights from Lisbon to Sao Tome. This is quite literally the only way to get to the island nation from Europe. Each service operates one weekly flight. Flight duration is 5 hours.|
|From Africa – CEIBA operates 2 weekly flights that fly from Gabon to Sao Tome. TAAG also operates 2 flights a week – from Cape Verde and Angola|
Unfortunately, as of now, there are no flights to Sao Tome from continents other than Africa and Europe.
Since the number of Sao Tome and Principe flights is limited, consider booking them way in advance. This will save you a great deal of money. Additionally, always fly on a weekday. Most of the time, this is cheaper than flying on a weekend.
If you thought getting to Sao Tome was difficult, it was because you hadn’t read about Principe by then. The airport at Principe is almost like a huge bungalow, no kidding. It is located in Santo Antonio – often referred to as the smallest town in the world.
|Tip: While you can book flights in Sao Tome City, it’s often cheaper online. Make sure you check multiple options before settling for a flight. Expect to pay about 150 euros to and back from Principe.|
As of now, there’s just one flight operating between the two islands. It’s a short flight, and the aircraft consists of less than 20 seats. Sounds utopian, right?
Note: You can also make it on a cargo boat like most locals do, however, I would advise you against it. Owing to unpredictable timetables, a rough sea, and an overnight journey, getting from Sao Tome to Principe is extremely risky.
Food in Sao Tome and Principe is Expensive: Myth Busted
So, if you think about the geography of Sao Tome and Principe, you’d get a fair idea about what’s widely eaten here. Yes, seafood. Lots and lots of seafood. Meat and food grains are also used, but most of it is imported.
If you look at eating out in a good restaurant or resort, be ready to shell out anywhere between 15-20 EUR or more, per person for a meal. However, this is not to imply that cheaper options do not exist.
While backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe, keep an eye out for small eating establishments. They’re generally set inside small wooden shacks. Here, you could get a good, fulfilling meal for as little as 5 EUR.
To save some bucks, you could also check out one of the many roadside stalls that line up the streets. Corn-on-the-cob, grilled fish, and stews can be found here for really small prices (3-4 EUR).
Eating Out for Vegetarians
Vegetarian food is relatively difficult to find, but it is really all about getting your point across. “Nem carne, nem peixe” – this phrase must be your go-to throughout your trip.
Additionally, check out the pastelarias if you have a sweet tooth. Here, you’ll have the chance to choose from a host of homemade pastries – an especially great option for vegetarians.
|Tip: Always carry snacks, energy bars, and chocolates with you. This will prove to be extremely useful when you find yourself stranded in a location where all you can find is an average meal for 20 EUR or so.|
Additionally, a great variety of fresh tropical fruits can be found in Sao Tome and Principe. Some of them include jackfruits, pineapples, bananas, mangoes, guavas, and custard apples. This makes for a great choice for health freaks, vegetarians, vegans, as well as backpackers.
When it comes to beverages, do not leave without trying out the local coffee and sipping on fresh coconut water. If you want to try some local alcohol, palm wine is a must-drink.
Cheap Accommodation on this African Isle Does Exist
Accommodation is no exception when it comes to things being pricey in Sao Tome and Principe. Most resorts on the 2 islands cost more than 40 EUR per night.
However, spending on accommodation seems abstruse to a number of backpackers – I’m one of them. In this case, I would recommend you book via Airbnb. Alternatively, Navatur is a popular tourism agency with accommodation, car rental, and other services on the island. You can check their website and find cheap options for staying.
Staying in the capital city (Sao Tome) will be much cheaper than staying on the outskirts where options are few. Maria’s Place (11 EUR a night) on Airbnb is a recommendation.
When in Principe, you could stay at Santa Casa de Misericordia – a simple room here will set you back 10-12.5 (EUR) per night. If this one’s sold out, check out other cheap options for staying in the vicinity.
DO NOT spend 40-50 EUR per night on accommodation if you’re backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe on a tight budget. Cheaper options exist – do your research.
What to See on Sao Tome Island?
There’s so much to explore while backpacking to Sao Tome and Principe, that it could get difficult to narrow down on places. Following are a few places that must definitely be part of your Sao Tome itinerary.
Sao Tome City – The Capital
From picturesque beaches to colonial heritages, the capital city has an endless list of sights for its visitors to see. You can get around easily with the cheap yellow-painted local taxi van or simply by strolling down the coastal walkways underneath the palm trees.
Be sure to stop at the white Sao Sebastiao Museum, a fort built by the Portuguese turned into an exhibition of historical artefacts. Also, don’t forget to visit the busy central market to experience getting lost in a sea of Sao Tomean mamas trying to sell you all sorts of fish.
Morro Peixe is a fishing village westward of the capital and just a 30-minute drive from there. Here, you can learn all about the lifestyle and routines of the local fishermen. Go scuba-diving or hop on a boat and go whale-watching.
Morro Peixe also hosts an incubation centre for the local sea turtles, due to their frequent appearance on neighbouring beaches.
The lagoon just west of Morro Peixe features a lighthouse built 20 years ago by the Portuguese Navy. The small red-white watchtower that runs on solar energy is a perfect spot for a rest and some pictures.
Keep going west and you will finally reach the town of Neves, famous for its crabs.
|A standard crab dinner should cost around 300,000 STD (~12 EUR).|
Without any other significant attractions, it might be hard to justify coming all the way here, but just have a meal in one of the restaurants and you won’t regret it.
Driving south from the capital, you will come across a small settlement called Dona Augusta. Make sure to stop and climb up the plateau and get a view of the sea of greenness in the heart of the island. Amidst the forest you will also find the perfect sight of Pico Cao Grande – the iconic 650 meters tall volcano plug.
Porto Alegre is a town on the southern tip of the island. Stroll around and enjoy the curious gazes of the locals. Also, be sure to visit some of the most beloved beaches in the nation that are just nearby – Praia Priscina and Praia Jale.
Illheu das Rolas
Local fishermen will be more than happy to take you to the little island.
|Tip: Make sure you negotiate the right price beforehand: a round trip should cost around 500 STN (~20 EUR).|
Once you are there, a short hike will lead you to the equator landmark. Don’t miss the chance to hop on the southern hemisphere a couple of times!
Obo National Park
If you’re an avid hiker or simply someone who loves lush greenery, visit the Obo National Park. It spans an area as vast as 230 square kilometers.
Entry to the park is free.
Boca de Inferno
Translated as “hells’ mouth” in English, Boca de Inferno is a beautiful site studded with lush green coconut trees. It is visited by travellers for its unique geological formations.
Things to See in Principe
Sao Tome’s majestic counterpart Principe is no less when it comes to its beauty. To be honest, there’s no spot on the island that’s not worth seeing. Literally, all you need to do it set out – hop on to a bike, or start walking. However, some spots that you absolute cannot miss are:
The capital of the tinier island of Principe, Santo Antonio is home to most of the inhabitants that occupy Principe.
|Everyone who visits Principe is going to have to explore Santo Antonio for this is where they land. Budget travelers, here’s where you’ll find the cheapest accommodation on Principe.|
A town with cutting river channels, hospitable locals, authentic homes, and spectacular views, Santo Antonio is absolutely beautiful.
This is the most popular beach in Principe, and this is for a reason. As goes the name, the sand strip of this beach somewhat resembles a banana in terms of both its shape and its colour. The waters look crystal clear – light blue with patches of dark blue.
This is also a great spot to engage in snorkelling – you might just be lucky enough to spot a sea turtle or two.
Cascata Oque Pipi
This is a waterfall that is hidden in the lush green forests of Principe. To get there, you’ll have to set out on a beautiful trail in the National Park in Terreiro Velho. There are also cocoa plantations you can visit, along with spending hours observing the flora and fauna of the region.
Life in Sao Tome and Principe is slow, age-old, and sublime. It’s a little too out of the way and takes a whole lot of planning to get there. However, all my efforts, time, and money were more than compensated for by this Utopian African island.
My tryst with Sao Tome and Principe was magnificent. Now, it’s time for you to resign yourself to the island, and get ready for a real Jurassic Park adventure.
Happy wayfaring 🙂