Kinshasa is the capital and the largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Formerly known as Leopoldville, it was once a trading post before becoming the country’s administrative center in 1920. It sits on the southern bank of the Congo River, facing the city of Brazzaville, which is the capital of the nearby Republic of Congo.
Kinshasa is known for its art galleries and vibrant nightlife. The Academie des Beux Arts is not only a school for the artistically inclined; it runs regular art exhibits showcasing the works of its gifted students.
The Jardin d’Eden along the shores of the Nsele River offers beers and local dishes at affordable prices. You can listen to live bands playing Congolese music, or even hire a boat and cruise along the river.
For a warm-up of your ecotourism expedition, the Lola ya Bonobo offers a glimpse of how fragile Congo’s ecosystem is. The 30-hectare forest has been converted into a bonobo sanctuary. The bonobos, like gorillas, are some of our closest links to the animal kingdom. The adult primates are hunted down for their meat, and the offspring are either left to fend for themselves or sold as pets.
A visit to the sanctuary is a must. Not only does it serve as an educational tour, the presence of tourists lends a voice to the growing need to protect this critically endangered animal.
Virunga National Park
The Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa. This UNESCO World Heritage site covers 7,800 square kilometers of forests, mountains, volcanoes, and swamps. The park is home to mountain gorillas as well as dozens of other wild animals. The Nyiragongo Volcano, whose crater never stops spewing lava, is a breathtaking sight especially for visitors camping out at night.
Virunga not only serves as a sanctuary for the DRC’s diverse wildlife, it also reflects the political state of the country. The park was well preserved before the Belgians left. Soon after the country’s independence, the facilities rapidly deteriorated. Nine years passed before the government took action to restore the park’s natural beauty. However, the conservation efforts of the Mobutu government went to waste after the Rwandan genocide and the Kivu war drove refugees, soldiers, and poachers inside the park.
Tourists began returning in 2008. Not only were they charmed by the gorillas, they also found the scenic treks across the snowcapped Rwenzori Mountains to be quite an experience.
Situated on the shores of Lake Kivu, Goma is a mere kilometer away from the Rwandan border. The city was once a very important tourist destination until an ethnic cleansing, two civil wars, and a volcanic eruption destroyed much of the city. Goma still serves as a starting point for tourists going to the Virunga National Park, but its prestige has been largely diminished.
Aside from being a dramatic entry point to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Goma boasts of a nightlife that’s vibrant and interesting. The bars serve all kinds of Congolese beer and play local and western music.
Goma’s woodcrafts and jewelry are prized the world over. Some hotels have gift shops for souvenirs, while town center halls are the best place to hunt for bargains.
Close to the Zambian border is the city of Lubumbashi. It is the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is the capital of the Katanga province. The urban center is relatively modern and prosperous, thanks to the mining industries fueling the provincial economy.
Lubumbashi is a pleasant place to visit. Apart from golf and tennis courts, a botanical garden and a zoo are also found in the city.
The National Museum of Lubumbashi has a collection of archaeological and ethnologic artifacts. The city has also restored some of its old buildings, such as the Palace of Justice, the Cathédrale Saints Pierre et Paul, and the Grand Hotel. These edifices were constructed during the colonial times and were art deco inspired.
Okapi Wildlife Reserve
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The reserve is located along the DRC’s borders with Sudan and Uganda. It is home to a large number of okapis, close relatives of giraffes (although they look more like zebras). Forest elephants and monkeys also call this patch of forest their home.
Within the reserve live a tribe of Pygmies called the Mbuti. Bantu farmers also live in the area. While these groups of people find deep respect for the forest, new immigrants threaten to upset the balance within the park. The government of the DRC is planning to develop the reserve into an ecotourist destination.