The world’s lush centre is in São Tomé and Príncipe, where the tropics are a combination of jungle, sea, history and simple happiness.
One hundred years ago, in 1919, Gago Coutinho – an officer in the Portuguese Navy, later famous for being the first to cross the South Atlantic Ocean by air, alongside Sacadura Cabral (Lisbon-Rio de Janeiro) in 1922 – concluded his Geodesical Mission of São Tomé and Príncipe Report 1915-1918, which outlined the coordinates of a small islet adrift in the Gulf of Guinea. Here was the centre of the world, where the equator meets the Greenwich meridian.
In the exact place where a monument, built in 1936, marks zero degrees longitude and zero degrees latitude, we can leap around happily between the southern and northern hemispheres, take a single step from east to west and be stunned by the magnificent landscape before us. This is a rare, magnetic place, where coconut palms rise above the jungle, cheek by jowl with the sea, and florid trees cascade down the hill, offering a horizon depicting the volcanic contours of São Tomé on the other side of the sea. There it is, shrouded by a bluish mist, the Pico do Cão Pequeno and, beyond, the Pico do Cão Grande, natural monuments of the mother island.
A mere 20 minutes by boat from the fishing village Porto Alegre, Ilhéu das Rolas is a must see for cartography enthusiasts, those seeking a reinvigorating immersion in nature and the right place for those hankering after memories of paradise-like locations.
As we get closer to the island small harbour, the old plantation buildings become clearer, particularly the administration house and the beautiful Santo António chapel. As soon as we disembark, beyond the palm trees, we can see the bungalows and pool of the Pestana Ecuador resort, where we settle in after a refreshing welcome drink. It’s only 28º C, but it’s so humid that we feel like we’re in a Finnish sauna, excuse enough to enjoy the saltwater pool instead of exploring the island immediately.
When we finally pluck up the courage to get out of the water, the sun starts playing hide and seek with the clouds gathering on the horizon, offering an amazing spectacle of light before the sky falls upon our heads. A downpour and translucent curtain blown by strong winds that sweep over us and cleanse our souls in the centre of the world.
The following morning everything is serene, with a cool breeze from the east. The sun has just risen and we’re entering the jungle, ready to explore the island for about three hours, equipped with boots and socks, hats, water bottles and camera. We start with the gorgeous viewpoints overlooking the sea on the hotel perimeter – Amor (Love), Esperança (Hope), Sete Pedras (Seven Stones)– although each has its own story, what really impresses are the views and colour of the sea.
Things get tougher when we choose a trail flanked by palm trees that will take us to the other side of the island. Jaílson, who is part of the local community of 150, suddenly falls at our feet, from the heights of a coconut tree. He’s a born climber and is soon up the trunk, returning with a fresh coconut, which he cuts open for us to drink. The sea roars in the distance. We’re close, in fact, everything is close, and anyone can navigate the island with the basic map offered by the hotel.
Suddenly, the jungle becomes less intense and there’s a clearing through which we can see the tropical Joana Beach. We choose to stick to the left, always by the shore, passing through a hole gouged in the rock that spits geyser-like spurts of water into the air. Further on, buried in a small and inaccessible bay, we find Escada Beach, where the waves dance, entering a cave and colliding with one another. It’s of such rare beauty that it requires unhurried, silent contemplation, out of respect for nature’s creativity.
It’s starting to get hot. We decide to climb up to the point that marks the Ecuador before we are too exhausted. After skipping from one side to the other and walking on the world map painted on the floor, we head down the hill, passing the vibrant fishing community, and dive headfirst into the appealing sea of Praia Café. We buy freshly caught fish, which is grilled right there on the sand, and munch on fried bananas and drink beer, chatting with the fishermen. Never has the equation for happiness seemed so simple to us.
by Patrícia Brito /// photos Verónica da Costa
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