Sao Tome : The Chocolate island perched on the equator in Africa

The pilot begins his descent. A look through the porthole: An endless sea, scattered clouds. We don’t see Chocolate Island yet. Suddenly, the water becomes clearer, we can see a part of the island and its lush vegetation. 10 hours of travel: Sao Tome has to be earned.

This small island located 300 kilometers from the coast of Gabon, right on the equator, is a former Portuguese colony, which became independent in 1975. On the tarmac of the airport, young Santomeans welcome us by improvising a capoeira. In the Jeep that takes us to the Pestana Sao Tomé hotel located in the city center, the landscape passes by: old colonial buildings wrapped in vines, a rough sea, children in uniform returning from school… And then, a boutique, uncluttered, that of Diogo Viaz, which produces chocolate “from bean to bar”, to understand “from the bean to the bar”. We then learn that Sao Tome is a treasure to be cherished, filled with riches, which must be crunched to the fullest.

Sao Tome, a chocolate island above all

And this treasure, Jean-Rémy Martin, from the Landes, did not want to let it slip away. The roça Diogo Vaz, a century-old plantation which he now takes care of, is used to produce around 400 tonnes of cocoa per year, thanks to 150,000 cocoa trees planted on 420 hectares of land. At our feet are oval, red, green and yellow pods, which local teams have detached by hand using short hooked blades mounted on long poles to reach the highest fruit. A little further on, women seated in a circle open these pods to extract the cocoa beans by hand. A real team effort.

At a time when all the raw material is sent abroad to produce chocolate, the cocoa beans of which have however been harvested in Africa, Jean-Rémy Martin’s bet is fair and ecological: Produce everything on site in order to offer a very high quality chocolate, while offering work to Santomeans in decent living conditions. On a daily basis, 250 employees work at the very heart of the roça Diogo Vaz.

Jean-Rémy Martin and the chocolatier Filipe who works in the laboratory, have this desire to trace the origin of each cocoa bean, to control the process of fermentation and drying and roasting of the beans, in order to create high-quality chocolate. quality that they will sell in the Diogo Vaz shop and tea room and will export throughout the world.

While waiting for its marketing in France, Diogo Vaz will present its range of chocolate (65%, 70% or even 75% unroasted) for the first time at the Salon du Chocolat 2018 in Paris, from October 31 to November 4, 2018 (Stand C23).

What to do in Sao Tome?

To visit absolutely in Sao Tome: The municipal market, the presidential palace and the changing of the guard, the Cathedral of Nossa Senhora da Graça, the Fort of São Sebastião, the Lagoa Azul and its turquoise waters perfect for snorkeling or even the volcano Pico do Cao Grande (which culminates at 663 meters).

For an even more beautiful getaway, we head for the island of Principe, still untouched by mass tourism, or that of Rolas, a small islet of 3 km² south of Sao Tome, which has the particularity of being crossed by the Equator line (A small monument has been erected on top of a hill to mark the exact point where the Equator line intersects with the Greenwich meridian.) Zero point is one of tourist attractions the island which only has a small fishing village and a hotel-resort, the Pestana Equador, which looks like a lost paradise. All around the islet, there is a multitude of small beaches such as Praia Café, Praia Bateria or even Praia Joana with turquoise waters and white sand for holidays placed under the sign of relaxation.

How to get to Sao Tome and Principe?

From Europe it is only possible to travel to Sao Tome and Principe starting from Lisbon. The Portuguese flag carrier TAP travels several times a week to this destination making a one-hour technical stop (you don’t even have to get off the plane) in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The local airline STP Airways – Transportes Aereos de Sao Tomé e Principe does it once a week  with somewhat lower prices and being able to carry up to 80 kg of luggage at no extra cost (in TAP the maximum allowed is 23 kg).

How to travel between islands?

The best way to go from São Tomé to Príncipe Island and vice versa (they are separated by 150 km of ocean) is by plane. Only STP Airways does this route every day in the morning (be careful, they only allow 15 kg of weight to check in + 5 kg in the cabin). It is a small plane with barely a dozen rows that takes just over half an hour to make the trip. The prices are around 50-100 euros one way and the views upon arrival in Príncipe are wonderful (Note: To enjoy them on the way out, it is better to sit in the seats with letter A, while on the way back in those with letter C) .

Occasionally boat trips between islands are organized (minimum 7 hours depending on the state of the sea) although without following tourist criteria. Safety criteria are not met and they are not particularly recommended (in fact there was a shipwreck in April 2019 with many fatalities). In addition, depending on the state of the sea, and between islands it is moved, its departure can be postponed one, two days or the time that is necessary. In case there are no possibilities of traveling by plane, you can ask if there is any departure in boat in the port of the city of São Tomé or in Santo Antonio, the capital of Príncipe. Of course, forget to book in advance. And, of course, I do NOT recommend it at all.

Why travel to Sao Tome and Principe?

There are fewer and fewer places in the world that have escaped the focus of mass tourism. Sao Tome and Principe is one of those last paradises that have managed to maintain its essence without getting lost in urban speculation or cheap tourism magnets. Its inhabitants adore their country and are aware of the many natural resources it possesses. It has also been lucky that those who have invested in tourism infrastructure, especially accommodation, have avoided the temptation of going easy, opting for sustainable development in which ecotourism is playing an essential role. The motto of São Tomé and Príncipe is “leve leve”, something like going everything in small steps, slowly, without being overwhelmed. And that applies not only to a way of life but to the way they are growing up and want to show themselves to the world.

If being a little-trodden destination is already a remarkable virtue, it is enough to add postcard (and wild) beaches, a very important portion of virgin forest (which is also declared a Biosphere Reserve) with the Ôbo Natural Park as its main banner, numerous cocoa or coffee plantations (known as roças), stunning landscapes with incredible volcanic chimneys emerging in the middle of nowhere, a huge number of endemic animal and plant species, in addition to others such as sea turtles, birds and whales, which They are part of the objective of many nature lovers who visit the country. And it is not convenient to forget the delicious and well-cared Saotomense gastronomy, the friendliness of the people you meet along the way, its many trekking options and, of course.

Is it a destination for all types of travelers?

Sao Tome and Principe constitutes a magnificent proposal for hard-core travelers who mistakenly believe that it is already difficult for them to be surprised, for others with fewer kilometers behind them and who want to knock on the door of Africa without worrying about security , for couples who want to combine adventure with relaxation and even for families trying Africa with their offspring. Fans of hiking, birds (it’s wonderful for ornithologists) and marine fauna such as turtles, whales or dolphins, photography, scuba diving and good food, places with little traffic and beaches without artificial additives, have in mind Sao Tome and Principe one of the best trips you can do in your life.

For all kinds of budgets and all kinds of demands, with modest guesthouses or lodges in the purest African style. It really is hard to be disappointed in a country like this. Of course you have to go with an open mind and be aware that Sao Tome is not rich and still has a lot to improve. So do not be alarmed by “problems” such as power outages, that there are many areas that do not have the best road communications or that you cannot order pizza Bolognese anywhere. It’s Sao Tome and Principe, not Miami.

Why is Sao Tome and Principe on the list of least visited countries?

Actually, to be honest, I don’t get it either. Perhaps the fact that there are so few air frequencies (only 2 companies communicate this destination with Europe) has something to do with it. But that reflects a very low demand from visitors (approximately 20,000 travelers a year, mostly Portuguese and Angolans). My opinion is that it is still a highly unknown country that does not enter the plan of many travelers because they know absolutely nothing about it. There is not much travel literature about it, nor too many magazine articles, blogs, etc.

How many days are recommended to visit the country?

It is advisable to spend a minimum of one full week in Sao Tome and Principe (not counting the round trip by plane) so that you have time to find out something. Although, I think that ten days already allow us to see enough. And perfect to see the two main islands well (assuming that there will always be things left, even if they are small) and not have to request a visa, for a couple of weeks.

When to travel to Sao Tome and Principe?

Taking into account that in São Tomé and Príncipe it rains a lot as a tropical country that it is, there are some periods where it does a little less. Between June and September, coinciding with the European summer, there is a kind of dry season that is popularly known as “Gravana”. With little rain (in Príncipe perhaps a little more than in São Tomé) and somewhat milder and more pleasant temperatures. Likewise, December, January and February do not record the same amount of water as in the other months (Little Gravana), although they do experience strong humid heat. It should also be noted that when water falls it is not constant rain but rather momentary downpours, albeit extremely strong. It is also better to get used to the idea that cloudy days are much easier than sunny ones (and more bearable, since with the sun the burden due to the heat is tremendous). In other words, it is a destination of nature and beaches, but not abundant sun. That must be clear before leaving. There is a constant average of temperatures that are around 27 degrees all year round (with a lot of humidity).

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