I wanted to go to Africa for the week of President’s Day. After searching almost every country, discovered that flights to Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo were half the price of any of the other countries nearby. The flight cost just over $1,000. However, after further research I discovered that the landing fees were $750 and that the airline only received about $300 for the flight. Figuring this was as cheap as it could be, I booked the flight leaving on a Friday night and returning 9 days later from Pointe-Noire (the second largest city in Congo) on a Sunday morning.
The cheap airfare was somewhat misleading, as I soon learned that Congo is one of the most expensive countries in the world to travel through/live in. First, I had to pay $300 for the visa (the actual fee is only $205 but once you add in the cost of getting the materials and shipping it to the embassy in DC you get to an amount slightly over $300).
In order to get my visa, I had to book my hotels. Unfortunately, hotels are very expensive in Congo. Most reputable listings in Brazzaville were around $200/night. After a lot of searching and cross-referencing with Google Maps, I settled on the Residence Hoteliere de Moungali for $65/night. This is out of my self-imposed $60/night limit for hotel stays, but I really had no other options. The price also included a free breakfast.
Finally, I had to figure out what to do in Congo. There are very few tour operators in this country and all but one exclusively ran luxury safaris in the remote northern national parks. The only option I could find was the snarky Congo Tours and Travel (http://congotravelandtours.com/). I later found out that they actually contracted my tour out to Jeffrey’s Travels out of Kinshasa (http://jeffery-travels.com/) . To save money next time, I would email Jeffrey’s directly. That said, the Congo Tours and Travel representatives served as a good middleman, answered my questions and organized everything.
For my itinerary, I decided to do half guided tours and half solo exploration- mainly due to the incredible costs of the guided tours in this country. The gorilla trekking adventure was $1,000, a village homestay was $500 for the overnight (both tours were bring your own food) and a bus ride between the two major cities with paperwork was $60 (I had originally planned on taking the train but learned a week before the trip that the train got bombed over a year ago and was not operational). All three of those experiences ended up being in the life-changing category and were well worth it.
My final itinerary got set 5 days before the trip. Everything all-in cost me between $3500-4000 for the week. While this was the most expensive week I have ever spent on travel, I felt it was money well spent to truly see the country and some wildlife.
The Journey to Congo
At 11:50pm on Friday February 16, 2018, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 505 took off with me aboard en-route to Addis Ababa. The flight took 18 hours which included a fifth freedom refueling stop in Dublin. On the flight, I met Rob from Santa Cruz who was going to visit his new girlfriend’s family in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We arrived in Addis around 5am and both had 3 hour layovers. So naturally, we went to the airport bar. Much to our surprise they had the esteemed Johnny Walker Blue Label for just $17/drink, less than half the price that you could find anywhere in the US. We drank it and wandered around the incredibly expensive gift shops before saying farewell.
I then cleared security and headed to my flight to Brazzaville. The flight was packed with a very diverse crowd. While there were many Africans, there were also many Chinese, Middle Easterners and Europeans. I met someone in line from South Africa with a BP backpack and sat next to a Congolese girl studying abroad in South Africa and a Chinese lady who spoke only Chinese. While most people on the plane spoke English (and worked in oil), the flight attendants spoke to us in French and I soon realized my 2 months of French lessons on Duolingo were not going to be good enough.
4 ½ hours later, we landed in Brazzaville. The landing was quite spectacular with views of the city, the Congo River and nearby Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On the tarmac, I saw the president’s plane plus a few other ruined planes.
You may be wondering at this point how two national capitals came to be across the river from each other. It has to do with both the history and geography of the region. The French and Belgians both explored the Congo. The French took the northern bank and the Belgians the southern bank. In order to export resources and ultimately ship them to Europe, they used boats to transport goods along the Congo River.
Unfortunately, the bottom 300 miles of the river has waterfalls and rapids that are completely impassible to ships. In 1880, both colonial powers built cities at the very top of the rapids- the lowest navigable point on the Congo River. Those cities were Leopoldville and Brazzaville (Brazza didn’t name it after himself, but the name came around very early in its history). From these cities, both colonial powers built railroads, roads and pipelines to the coast.
Due to their strategic location, these two cities eventually became the capitals of their respective colonies. Upon independence, the cities remained the seats of power and Leopoldville changed its name to Kinshasa. Today, Kinshasa has over 11 million people, while Brazzaville has about 2 million.
Immigration and customs were a breeze and they had an ATM dispensing Central African Francs (XAF) right there in the shiny new Maya Maya International Airport. Just like clockwork, my hotel was there to pick me up. The man did not speak English so it was a quiet 15 minute ride to the hotel. My first impressions were that the streets were in very good condition. I soon would learn that very specific areas have good roads and the road from the airport to town was one of them. This was probably a good move by the government.
I then checked into the hotel. Thankfully, the manager was from Cameroon, which speaks both French and English. He was from Douala which speaks French, but thankfully had enough knowledge of English that we could carry on conversations.
For the rest of the afternoon, I wandered around. Brazzaville has neither tourist attractions nor tourists.
The neighborhood around my hotel, Moungali, was quite lively. While the Avenue de la Paix was paved, the rest of the streets were not. Since it was a Sunday, many people were hanging out at home and on the streets. There were a few pickup soccer games, some dance-off that I didn’t quite understand the rules and people talking. Naturally I got stared at a lot and some people called out “blanc”, but nothing felt egregious or dangerous.
I must spend time talking about the people. Nearly every woman wore the most incredible brightly colored and crazy patterened fabrics. Many women also carried unbelievable loads of stuff on their heads- baskets with fruit, a tv, live chickens you name it! Some men (5-10%) also wore the same crazy fabrics in what looked like long-sleeved rompers. I am a huge fan of many of the fashion choices made in Brazzaville and wish I could pull it off. The people-watching was probably my highlight of Brazza.
All the markets appeared to be set up near mosques- there were 3 in my neighborhood. The mosques weren’t all that large, but they were all definitely the largest and tallest buildings in the area. Some of the markets were covered by tarps. Others were open air, but every stand had a brightly colored umbrella. If you’re looking for a profitable business venture, the Congo umbrella market seems like a good bet.
Eventually I reached downtown, which had a few tall buildings and nice hotels including a Radisson Blu. The whole place was empty- most likely because it was a Sunday. The only place with any sort of activity was a small Chinese casino.
Just past downtown is the Congo River. The city built a nice pathway with views of the massive river and Kinshasa on the far bank. Unfortunately, it was so hot and treeless, the place was unbearable. I tried to go to a local restaurant known for its fish, but the army was there and told me it was closed- most likely because they wanted to eat all the fish. I settled for a Lebanese restaurant for shawarma and passionfruit ice cream. Prepared Congolese and French food is expensive here, so I ended up saving a lot of money by going for the shawarma.
I continued to wander around for the rest of the day. There was nothing really of note to mention other than I felt completely safe. Never once was I approached by a beggar or did I feel threatened in any way. I went to bed around 11.
Renting A Taxi For the Day
The next day, I asked the hotel manager to arrange a taxi to tour some sights near Brazzaville. Instead, he told one of the employees, a girl in her early 20’s named Desi, to design a tour and hang out with me all day. Desi did not speak any English, but she did have Google Translate (a lifesaver).
We planned on starting the tour around 11, but Desi didn’t show up until 12. This tardiness is a classic example of a phenomenon known as African Time. My guess is that the widespread tardiness in Africa is partly due to the difficulty of traveling around (roadblocks, bribes, traffic) and partly a cultural mindset. Perhaps the two reasons are related and maybe the cultural aspect of being late has stemmed from the difficulty in getting around.
We got in a taxi that was owned by Desi’s friend. During the ride, they had many discussions in French that I couldn’t understand. Some got quite heated. We passed by the Parliament building and various embassies in the center of town. Further out, we passed by the city’s roadside largest market in the Bacongo neighborhood. It was unbelievably busy.
Eventually, we reached Les Rapides, the top of the rapids of the Congo. It was surprised by how violent the rapids really were. There is no way any ship could possibly navigate these although I could see this being a great extreme whitewater destination.
The roads in the outskirts of town (or really any road outside of the city except for specific Chinese built roads) were truly terrible. The beat-up taxi maneuvered through the biggest potholes and stretches of water I’ve ever seen. I now have a newfound respect for what sedans can handle.
On the way back, we struggled to maneuver through town. Armed police had blocked all the roads and it was chaos since cars, taxis and buses were forced to make U-turns on narrow roads. All the while, everyone was honking. It was- in every sense of the word- a clusterfuck.
A long period of time later- we made it through and stopped at the Brazza Memorial. This surprisingly nice white marble structure was built in 2005 to honor Pierre de Brazza, the French explorer/founder of Brazzaville. Later in life, Brazza returned to French Congo to rule the colony after hearing stories of the mistreatment of the Africans. Today he is generally regarded in high standing as a champion of the rights of Africans. Inside the memorial, there were English (!!!!) descriptions of the history of the area. Brazza’s tomb was on the lower level, but was off-limits to the public.
We then tried to go to the brand new soccer stadium on the north side of town. The Chinese built an impressive road running to it from downtown. Unfortunately, the police holding rifles were not letting us through. My cab driver tried arguing for about 15 minutes but to no avail. I did not leave the car to argue- it’s possible I could have gotten through with a bribe.
We tried another road, but there was a physical roadblock with tires set up. I later learned that the other road cratered due to the rain a few days ago.
Finally, we tried the national highway- a horribly rutted road through the hills. Due to the other two options not working, this road was unbelievably busy. At one point we didn’t move for an hour at which point I decided to call it a day and head back. The cab driver was relieved especially since I said I would pay the same amount. After arriving back at the hotel, I gave the driver $30 plus a $5 tip. He was very pleased. Although not expected, I also gave Desi some money for her help as I felt it was the right thing to do.
The rest of the day was uneventful and I went to bed early again in anticipation of the gorilla trek tomorrow.
While the sights in Brazzaville were lacking, there initial culture shock of being in an African city was able to pique my interest for two days. It also was certainly not a bad place to be- most importantly it was safe. If you’re looking for a good jumping off spot for an African trip, Brazzaville does the job.