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.
Little information is known about Muanda, except that it is located along the coast and its beaches are its main attractions.
This little jut of land is the Democratic Republic of Congo’s only gateway to the Atlantic. Its tourist potential has yet to be realized, but the locals seem to enjoy what the other Congolese on the other side of the country seldom see.
Muanda has a hotel built in the 1960s. Recent information reveals that it is rundown and might be in need of repairs.
Formerly known as Stanleyville, Kisangani is the third largest urbanized city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The city has seen countless wars during the Congolese civil wars, but the arrival of immigrants from other countries turned this city a melting pot of ideas and cultural exchanges.
Kisangani is known for its colonial architecture. Its brick apartment buildings show Belgian architectural influence. Some of the important landmarks are the Rosaire of Notre Dame Cathedral; the Place Dela Femme, which is a monument dedicated to Kisangali women; and the banks in downtown Kisangani.
There is also a protected forest island nearby. The L’lle Mbiye is managed by the Stellenbosch University of South Africa and is home to a population of wild animals.
Mbandaka at first may not be regarded as a tourist destination. With large parts of the city still without running water or electricity, guests’ accommodations are something the locals may see as the least of their priorities.
But Mbandaka is important for many things. It is the site of the first Habitat for Humanity project, which has now gone global. The organization’s founder, Millard Fuller, served as missionary with the Disciples of Christ. He must have realized the value of building houses not with hired workers, but with hands of people who will call the dwelling their home.
Mbandaka is also home to one of the finest botanical gardens in Central Africa. The Botanical Garden of Eala covers 370 hectares of savanna, marsh, and forest ecosystems. It has thousands of catalogued plant species within the park. However, the garden is neglected, and there are reports of illegal logging. UNESCO has already stepped up its drive to promote understanding between the people and their environment.
The city of Bukavu lies on the southern tip of Lake Kivu. It shares a border with Rwanda and saw the brunt of fighting during the Congolese civil wars.
While peace within the city has been restored, land travel between Bukavu and Goma is strongly discouraged. Instead, a boat ride across the lake is the safer option.
The boat ride itself can be both a blessing and a curse. Bribes usually pass hands before you’re allowed to board the vessel, but the trip grants a scenic view of the lake. A more romantic alternative is to ride a wooden boat that passes Idjwi Island.
Other points of interest are a convent close to the airport. The sell homemade cheese and ice cream.
Bukavu is also the closest city to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, home to the endangered eastern lowland gorilla. The Kahuzi-Biega National Park has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Much of everyday life in Kikwit revolves around the Kwilu River. The town was founded in 1910 and has remained the center of commerce and political activity in the region ever since. In 2009, the new constitution has allowed the creation of the Kwilu Province. Kikwit became its capital.
Kikwit has a stadium and an airport, but its traditional dances are what make the town so important. The Festival Culturel d’Idiofa is held every July in the nearby town of Idiofa. It’s a celebration of traditional art, dance, music, and costumes.
Kikwit is known for its Bapende dancers, whose origins can be traced back to the village of Gunguin. The performers wear costumes made from raffia palm trees. They also have colorful masks to complete their attire.
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