João Carlos Silva has been a man on a mission: to transform the former slave trade hub of São Tomé into a hub for culture.
Overlooking the bay of Santa Cruz, this rural ecotourism plantation venture (tel: 226 1140, 222 5135 (office in the capital); https://www.saotomechoice.com/accommodation/roca-sao-joao/) has a cosy inviting feel, with paintings and sculptures by local artists everywhere. For the past 20 years, João Carlos Silva has been a man on a mission: to transform the former slave trade hub of São Tomé into a hub for culture, especially for the countries sharing the Portuguese language.
This is where the first Bienal was held in 1995, and artistic creation continues in the form of residences and other projects. A bit set back, past the calabash trees and passionfruit hedges, is the former hospital, which has spaces for art and music classes, and workshops where local girls produce woodwork as part of the Agarra a Vida and Roçamundo social projects.
This pretty Hospital da Criação (creative hospital), also has two simply furnished rooms (one double and one single), used as overflow for tour leaders, for instance. Especially when you’re on your own, sensitive minds will feel the heavy history of a plantation hospital.
Cookery classes can be arranged here, and it’s educational and enormous fun to pull out manioc by the root, cut some okra shoots, piri-piri and Taiwanese lemons, and then to prepare a feijoada a modo da terra (meaty bean stew), salted mangoes, coconut slivers with cinnamon, pineapple rice and maybe a filled breadfruit. There are various guided nature trails on foot, by bike or canoe (reserve at least a day before as there are no bikes on site); picnics cost €8–10, a guide €45 per day. A bulaue band also can be organised (€60). Birdwatchers can track down the rare endemic dwarf olive ibis with friendly guide Zeca (though he told me when I visited in 2013 that its habitat has now shifted due to the encroachment of oil palm plantations).
You can spot other fabulous endemic birds, including: the speirops, olho grosso; Newton’s yellow-breasted sunbird, tsélélé; the Gulf of Guinea thrush, toldo; and the oriole, papafigo. You may also get tantalisingly close to the elusive emerald cuckoo, ossobó.
For most of the time, you are walking on the old Bombaim road (a 12-hour walk in total, requiring camping; if you fancy it, one of the guides could probably take you, with advance planning), passing the palm wine seller’s place, marked by cut-off plastic bottles upended on sticks, and the abandoned plantation of Vale do Carmo.
Zeca can also take you on a giant sunbird mission to Dona Augusta and around the peaks of María Fernandes or Cão Grande. The services of the guides for this trip cost €20 for half-a-day, €40 for a whole day There is a waterfall 30 minutes’ walk away, but I’m told it’s only worth a visit in the rainy season.