Discovering The Cuba Of Africa

Discovering this country was a watershed moment for me. Although I was visiting a Portuguese-speaking island nation, it was my first time in Sub-Saharan Africa. In less politically correct terms, it was my first time stepping foot in “Black Africa.” Yet it was here where I successfully exercised my white privilege. You will see how in a moment…

Wait, which country are we talking about??

Located off the west coast of Central Africa, the country is formally named Sao Tome and Principe. As you might imagine, it consists of two islands — Sao Tome and Principe. More technically, the country consists of two archipelagos (yes, more archipelagos), as there are smaller islands surrounding the two main ones. We will soon discover a very central location in the world that is on one of these islands…

Sao Tome Island

During my 10-day stay, I only visited Sao Tome Island, as well as this other mystery island. I skipped Principe. And to avoid confusion — or maybe add to it — I will let you know that the capital city of the country is also named Sao Tome. So I was staying in Sao Tome on the island of Sao Tome within Sao Tome and Principe, which is also known simply as Sao Tome. Makes sense? Let’s carry on.

Sao Tome is a former Portuguese colony (as is the case with Macao, though the two places are vastly different in appearance and wealth). Everyone in Sao Tome speaks Portuguese. Though I speak Spanish, I have never grasped Portuguese, and because of that, I had some difficulty speaking with locals. But I did manage to make some friends.

As a whole, Sao Tome is a fusion of Portuguese and African cultures. So is its food, which makes for an interesting mix.

So what’s the Cuban connection? you may ask…

Not so pretty

Like Cuba, Sao Tome is a poor country with crumbling colonial architecture and deteriorating infrastructure that has more or less had a communist regime, or at least a socialist economy. But also like Cuba, Sao Tome has a relatively high literacy rate, very friendly people and it is a secure country, meaning it’s safe to walk around alone at night. The same cannot be said about most other African or Caribbean countries.

Safe at night

Starting out cashless

Sao Tome has beautiful beaches and lush rainforest and it makes for a cheap island getaway. But it’s not a very accessible country when one is outside of Portugal or various African locations that offer flights to this island nation.

I arrived in Sao Tome on one of the daily flights from Lisbon, having made a brief stopover in Accra, Ghana.

Accra, Ghana

The first thing I needed upon arrival was cash. I quickly found out the Sao Tomean dobra is a challenging currency to acquire. The government does not allow the circulation of dobras outside the country, and inside Sao Tome it is impossible to withdraw money from the ATMs using foreign bank cards.

It was like Transnistria, where my friends and I had to go to a bank to withdraw cash. I went to a bank, but my problems persisted. After waiting for two hours, I found out the bank teller would not allow me to withdraw money unless I handed him my passport. I didn’t have it on me. I managed to survive my first day in Sao Tome without any money.

The following day I returned to the bank and had to wait again. When I finally got up to the counter, my card did not work. Smh…

Eventually I managed to withdraw about 300 euros in dobras, an inflated currency. Even though I was staying in Sao Tome for 10 days, that turned out to be quite a bit of money.

Dobras

The capital

You may be well aware from my plans for world underwater domination or my time in Australia or French Polynesia etc. that I am fascinated by marine life.

I arrived in Sao Tome with the intention to snorkel. I thought there would be good marine life, but the beaches around the capital were not so interesting and the water was rough.

Weather could have been better at times

Sao Tome, the city, did not have a whole lot to offer. I spent a lot of my time in the capital working, making use of the surprisingly good internet.

Probably the nicest building in the country

You may ask, what was it then that I liked about Sao Tome? The capital city has two nice hotel chains. Though I was staying in a private room in a hostel, using my white privilege, I managed to walk right into one of the hotels, go for a dip in their pool and access their private beach, as well as other facilities. Due to my European appearance, I fit right in. No one questioned me. I actually repeated this process multiple times.

Exercising my white privilege = entry free of charge

Venturing out to the real Sao Tome

Swimming, relaxing and being a privileged white person at the nicest hotel in the country did not give me a very good glimpse of life in Sao Tome. Venturing out of the capital allowed me to enjoy the beauty the islands have to offer while also seeing how typical Sao Tomeans live.

While out exploring the main island, I crossed a bridge and found a river flanked on both sided by beautiful greenery. Inside the river, to my surprise, there were hundreds of Sao Tomeans doing laundry. This gave me a look at a more African, as opposed to Portuguese, practice that is part of daily life in Sao Tome.

Laundry time

Elsewhere, I found some of the many children who inhabit Sao Tome joyfully paddling in a creek aboard makeshift boats. The kids were wearing nothing; their boats were merely wooden planks or logs shaped kind of like canoes; and their paddles were simply sticks. But their smiles were infectious.

Happiness

The main island is also dotted with the ruins of colonial-era mansions. Local villagers now use the previously luxurious homes as shelter. Some large Portuguese style buildings are also used for planting a cash crop — cocoa. Sao Tome has a lot of cacao trees, and hence cocoa beans and chocolate, providing a yummy addition to the Portuguese-African cuisine.

Colonial Mansion Ruins

Despite the poverty, many of the young people who grow up in Sao Tome end up staying in the island nation. In addition to producing and exporting cocoa, Sao Tome has ample subsistence farming. The fertile land allows locals to grow crops for themselves without putting in too much work. A stable political system and peaceful society also keep Sao Tomeans from emigrating.

A dangerous climb and troubled waters

I set out of the capital on three trips around Sao Tome — to the north, center and south of the island. The trip to the south was the most exciting.

On the southern part of the island, though seemingly right in the middle, stands a 668 meter peak. Pico Cao Grande, or Great Dog Peak, is more daunting than the Himalayas, which I have seen from above.

Pico Cão Grande

Rising up from the surrounding jungle, this volcanic plug formed by hardened magma is an extremely steep climb, which only a handful of people have ever completed. On at least one occasion, the climb ended with a helicopter rescue.

Farther to the south, I hit the southern tip of the main island. This is where I hopped on a boat with my tour group. Our boat was a little larger than the ones the little kids were riding, but it didn’t turn out to be much better.

As we headed south for a small island, our boat ran out of fuel. Like the little kids, we had to start paddling. After paddling for a while, another boat arrived and towed us to the mystery island.

Boating, Sao Tomean style

Actually, it’s not a secretive island. It’s called Ilheu das Rolas, or Rolas Islet, and it is known for being right on the equator. It’s also not too far east of where the equator meets the Prime Meridian at O degrees latitude and longitude — essentially the center of the world, but not in the Jules Verne sense.

But Rolas Island, as it is also called, has a very exclusive feel. Very few people live on the island, or islet, and it has a fancy private resort — like something you would find in the Maldives.

Unable to access the resort, we walked around the island and found its tourist attraction — a landmark taller than me marking the exact spot the equator passes through.

Standing on the equator

Cashing out

10 days is more than enough time to see Sao Tome if you do not go on snorkeling or diving adventures. For just visiting the island 3 days will do. But while my stay was plenty long, it wasn’t long enough for me to spend my 300 euros worth of dobras.

On the way out of Sao Tome, I forgot I had dobras stashed in my jacket and I didn’t exchange them. No one stopped me though, so I smuggled the money out of the country. Oops.

Actually, it was a worthwhile mistake. That is because I have a tradition of bringing back all of the different currencies I accumulate to my hometown when I visit yearly around Christmas time. I have an aunt who is very interested in all of these different currencies. She collects the money, sorts it and determines how much it is worth. My aunt was surprised at the value of the dobras I returned with. Along with Transnistrian rubles, dobras are her favorite currency I have returned with.

My aunt’s collection

The watershed

So what made my Sao Tome visit a watershed moment in my perpetual traveling career? It wasn’t my success with smuggling dobras, nor was it my discovery of the Cuba of Africa — though I really should be credited with that discovery. 😉

Rather, the turning point for me was my discovery that I can get the best of both worlds in Africa. I now know I can enjoy the very low cost of living and beauty that comes with being in a troubled, or at least impoverished, African country that has natural wonders. Yet I can also walk around securely and exercise my white privilege there. For these reasons, you can count on me returning to Sao Tome in the future. Just expect an upgrade in my accommodation on the island, so I won’t be flaunting my white privilege as much. I will just be enjoying it — in the same way the naked black boys in the river are enjoying their lot in life. 😊

I will return to this undiscovered gem

Stay: While Sao Tome has its share of luxury hotels with the Pestana chain, I opted for a single room in thethe nice Sweet guesthouse. Although situated in a poor local area, the owners are very nice and the internet surprisingly good.

 

Eat: Sao Tome is famous for its chocolate – and many of their dishes are made more flavourful with cocoa as well. Local pig with chocolate sauce – delicious!

 

Drink: Coconut water from Sao Tome is delicious and on offer everywhere. Fruit juices and local ron also abound. There are some watering holes around, but for a nice bar go to the luxury hotels.

 

Connect: While Google Fi does not work on Sao Tome, the local Wifi connection was surprisingly stable and quick. No worries as a digital nomad.

 

See: You can basically see the island of Sao Tome in 4 days. That is the amount of tours on offer, concentrating on the north, south, central and capital of the island. The south tour with a cruise to Ilha Rolas is definitely the most interesting.

Do: If you want to snorkel or dive, you should stay in the Pestana hotel. An amazing adventure I had to skip due to the weather is hiking to the top of Sao Tomes volcanoe mountain. You need approx. 3 days return.

Go there: TAP flies daily from Lisbon over Accra, Ghana. There are discounted sales once in a while. There are also local connections to Gabon, Nigeria, Ghana and Angola. There is one weekly flight to the Cape Verdes – another Portuguese colony.

 

Go next: While Sao Tome is now visa-free 2 weeks for Germans, most of the surrounding countries have a rather hard to get visa. For example visit the neighboring islands of Equatorial Guinea – if you get into.