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Ilhéu das Rolas
Straddle the equator on Ilhéu das Rolas and explore the island on foot, bicycle or kayak.
If you want to just stand on the Equator mark once in your life, Rolas Island can be visited on an organised lunch trip, but for relaxation and to really enjoy the island, a four to five night stay is ideal, longer if you are planning to do a lot of diving. When the Pestana Equador resort was built in 2000, the Angolares villagers of São Francisco had to move, receiving some compensation. Later, the Pestana Group tried to entice the villagers to leave the island entirely, but there was some resistance and criticism of the low level of compensation offered. The state has since moved the school to Porto Alegre. Meanwhile, Pestana has provided energy provision, a community TV, etc. Resort jobs are very sought-after locally, despite a waiter here earning only the minimum wage, about €45 a month.
Panoramic views of Rolas Island from the southern coast © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com
What to see and do
Beaches and snorkelling
The best beach on the island is Praia Café, a ten-minute walk from reception across the staff area and past the Praia Pesqueira fishing beach with a beached, rusty wreck, where you can make friends with the local kids, especially if you’re willing to share your snorkelling mask. The Praia Café bar is only open in high season, but there is lovely sand and good shade here. Snorkelling yields sightings of various colourful fish (asma preto, boliao, caqui, garoupa), with the occasional turtle or moray eel on the little reef to the right.
According to the locals, the next beach along, down from the abandoned cemetery, Praia Pombo, is also good for snorkelling. Hiring a mask, fins and snorkel costs €7 a day. A volta a ilha trip round the island of Rolas, with snorkelling gear included, costs €25.
The beaches at the northern tip, around the restaurant, are great for hiding away with a book or for following the daily dramas in the lives of the hermit crabs played out in the sand, only interrupted by the occasional thud of a falling coconut.
There are several walks you can do, and the island is criss-crossed by a number of little trails cutting through the dense forest of coconut palms, but it is quite impossible to get lost. The resort tidies up more than 20km of trails around the island. If in doubt, just plough on straight until you hear the sound of waves. You will hit the path going around the island; following that in either direction will get you back to the resort. Guided walks are offered free of charge at 09.30. My guide was very knowledgeable, showing me all kinds of medicinal plants, ferns and trees along the coast trail, leading past blowholes and steep rocky cliffs.
Diving off the island reveals an undisturbed underwater world of snappers, sweetfish, stingrays, octopus, sea horses, turtles, fan coral, moray eels, sea slugs, etc. There are plenty of surprises for those who haven’t got a fixation with the big fish. Sharks are visible, but are not guaranteed on every dive. Whales have passed by occasionally. There are fewer colours than in the Caribbean; visibility is also not perfect, and the open Atlantic brings a strong swell. In 2013, diving operations were taken over by Portuguese operator Costa Norte for Pestana (www.costanorte.pt). If you are organising your diving through the resort, the price comes down if you do ten dives or more. Diving with your own equipment costs €40, with hired equipment €45.
Depending on how many of you there are, submarine fishing (pesca submarina) costs €360 for a four-hour trip (to be divided up between the passengers) to €500 for seven hours. There are three boats available for high-sea sport fishing (pesca de alto mar). In the resort restaurant I saw a group of Portuguese visitors happily tucking into the sea bass (corvina) they’d harpooned earlier in the day. Line fishing is available at €40 a day.
As well as swimming, bike rides (€5 per day to hire a bike), kayaking trips (free to hire), walks and maybe even a romantic lunch at the Miradouro de Amor, a small picnic shelter only a 5-minute walk away, the resort offers a range of excursions that allow you to make Rolas your base and still see much of what the main island has to offer. These include a half-day (€30) and day trip (€50) by boat around São Tomé island, visiting beaches and dolphin spotting; a day trip to the sights of the capital, including lunch; a trip to the Bombaim plantation; a journey south, including the plantations of Porto Alegre and São João, with lunch at the Roça or Mionga restaurants; and a trip to the central and northern regions of São Tomé, including a visit to the National Museum and the plantations of Monte Café and Agostinho Neto (€80). In season, you can join the nightly turtle patrol at 23.00.