Brazzaville | Kinshasa | Is The Congo Safe? | Visas and Airport Hassles in Brazzaville | Visas and Airport Hassles in Kinshasa | Doing Business In The Congo | Health Considerations | Getting To The Congo, Getting Around In The Congo | Our Included Travel Insurance | Our Vehicles
Since the civil wars of the past decades up until the 2000’s and the ongoing “World War” of Africa, Congo had been assigned to obscurity and often horror as a backwater, basket case, and international catastrophe of nine warring nations and 14 warring parties that constituted the most atrocious and infamous violence and corruption in Africa, and for a long time remained the symbol of colonial arrogance, African ineptitude in and corrosion of government, and the wholesale exploitation of the African continent. Today the region is going the way of Angola, or perhaps of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Colombia, and emerging from the long stagnation of civil war into an open environment for business, exceptional environment for adventure, and a volcanic upwelling of opportunities that sees Asia, Europe, and America grappling for a hand in the region.
Congo has not been a classic tourist destination since the 60’s, and has over the past 30 years been the preserve of the most daring or adventurous of travelers and businessmen…but that Congo no longer exists. Despite troubles in the Great Lakes district, thousands of miles from Kinshasa and Brazzaville and away near Goma and the borders of Rwanda, the region around the inlet and path of the great Congo River, and its forests, volcanoes, and mountains rippling out and sprawling ever eastward, constitute some of the most beautiful riches of Africa in resources, but moreover – in amazing scenery, beauty, and wildlife.
Chinese and other investment and infrastructure building have meant that roads and trains link more of the Republic of Congo and the DRC now than ever before. Roads are better and more easily traversed. A host of airlines have scrambled in including not only Ethiopian, Kenya Airways, South African, and Asky (African Sky), but Lufthansa, Air France, Brussels Airlines, British Airways, and a growing que of new entrants from further afield in the Middle East and Asia, which means cash waiting to come in and boldly forge a future for what was once the foreign investor’s elusive “heart of darkness.” Kinshasa is growing at a furious pace, has about 20 airlines going into the capital, and is barely able to keep up with itself in utilities and services for all the new construction, and internet access is now plentifully available and reasonably fast compared to the rest of Africa. European, Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisine are to be found all over the cities of Congo now. Its raucous nightlife and music, however, trumps the liveliness of the cities of any of those lands’ capitals.
In the heart of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest tropical rain forest after the Amazon Basin, the Congo offers the greatest river journey in the world. Even better according to shipping professionals and veteran tourists than the Amazon, of which the Congo was once a part of a long long time ago when the continents were linked. River cruises are now possible with the right homework, and trekking and safaris in the jungle are supported by the first lodges and comfortable hotels. 5 star hotels are being built all over the Congo and there are now about a dozen tourist-class hotels as well. Hostels are not a concept understood here, as generally the price of a budget hotel room comes in at cheaper than a dorm in Europe or Asia anyway.
Hotels in the capitals of Kinshasa and Brazzaville run from about $40 (but more likely a low figure for an acceptable, tourist friendly room is $80) up to $300 (5 star hotels can start at $120 however.) Hotel Africa and Ledger Plaza are known as the best hotels in Brazzaville by everyone excluding tripadvisor, who ranks Mikhael’s Hotel as the best, but most guests of ours refute this, as Mikhael’s is reliable and well-located but the service has fallen very far below the expectations of business travelers and tourists. In Kinshasa this is likely to change soon since American luxury brands and European rivals are poised to open some luxury chains in the capital of the DRC, with Kempinski already on the scene. Most of all of these hotels except the smallest ones can arrange an invitation letter and visa for you within a week. Visas are now relatively easy and have drastically been eased since 2008. DRC is harder to obtain a visa for at your embassy than at the border with Zambia, Angola, or Republic of Congo. You can also often cross to the other side away from the capital without turning many heads, though of course it’s not advised and the best way is to pay what you must to go legally, which may amount to no more than a bottle of whiskey or a small bribe. On the question of money, you do not need to carry all your cash with you to the Congo anymore as a tourist (let alone a suitcase full for business.) Both countries have ready ATM’s, but carrying cash outside of the cities is still the only way to go.
June to December is the best time to travel – It is cool and there are lots of active animals out to spot. The Chinese finished a comfortable train in 2013 that links the coast and the Atlantic Ocean to the interior, and conveys passengers (mostly businessmen and tourists) in plush first class seats. It has instantly become one of the greatest train journeys available today and the best in Africa.
The future will see a bonanza of tourist companies, mainly from South Africa and France, rushing in to set up high end safaris or else link the long overland trail to rival the popular Cape Town to Cairo route. Right now it is only Angola that prevents such a “pan-African” highway for tourists, with its stubborn visa regulations and super-expensive hotels.
There has never been a better time to visit the Congo, as popular and conventional wisdom and the press is out of tune and hasn’t caught up with the change and opportunities there yet. It is the cheapest place in Africa to have a truly incredible and totally unmanufactured journey, and by far the cheapest place to see the large African wildlife including, importantly, wild mountain gorillas.
Brazzaville was named after the Italian navigator in the French Navy who “discovered” the Congo River and set up a French “embassy” to grant freedom to African slaves. Today it’s the quieter of the two rivertowns and has a great share of nightlife and dining, friendly locals, and none of the problems with police intimidation that Kinshasa does, not to mention it is much safer to walk around even at night as a foreigner.
Taxis from the airport to anywhere in Brazzaville cost $4 (2000 CFA) and taxis around the city anywhere cost $2 (1000 CFA) Among the Congolese, many are afraid to take river rides because they believe the spirits of the dead reside and haunt the river. For the ones who make their living from it, however, the river is their home and distribution network, a nature-made distribution system of thousands of kilometers in total of navigable waterways and tributaries. The boatmen give rides ranging from 5,000 CFA down the river ($10) to $200 and up for a longer journey within the scope of the day. Port Autonome in Brazzaville is a dirty, squirming mass of humanity carrying strange and smelly cargo back and forth, while the boat launches in Kinshasa extend for easily a mile of different “ticket offices” and operators, belying the city’s sprawling population of 13 million plus.
You can, yes, buy your own pirogue (boat) made from a tree, at 200,000 to 1,000,000 CFA if you know someone local who can help you (or ask us,) $400 to $2,000. You will need an engine and fuel, the latter of which is not very expensive except in the inner Congo tributaries, and then can steer your own way with the right papers and guide down the Congo river. Every small town in DRC has a “police” who may – and if they can, will check your passport, your yellow fever, make up some needed document, and delay you or scare you into payoffs. Beware. Speedboats or anything of that sort have to be imported.
From Brazzaville cars, trucks, trains, and local domestic airlines go to Point Noire (Pointe Noire) and North all the way to Ouesso and as far as Central African Republic and Gabon or Cameroon. Owando, Oyo (the nicest place to stop,) and Ollombo are easy stopovers on the way north. They are all free-standing if not charming villages with surrounding forests and traditional homes and lodging can be found here for around 40,000-60,000 CFA a night ($80-$120). Oyo and Owando are on tributaries of the Congo River and can arrange for a small price boat trips down the fingers of the Congo, deep in forest and away from the hurly burly of the main boatway. Etoumbi is about a further day’s drive on from these towns, and is a great springboard for visits to spectacular Odzalla National Park. Entrance fees are 25,000 CFA ($50) and you can see lots and lots of different large and small African animals here and countless birds.
Further afield, another day to the north takes you to Ouesso, where accommodation can be negotiated for 50,000 CFA ($100) and you can stage a visit into the grand jewel of Central Africa, Ndoki national park. Entrance is 50,000 CFA ($100) and you can see just about any animal here including leopards, giraffes, wild gorillas, hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and countless more. 2-3 days here is enough, but there is no flight back to Brazzaville. You either have to take the road back or else go on into C.A.R. (where travel is very difficult) or Cameroon (where travel is good,) and eventually into South Sudan, Chad, or Nigeria (where travel is not entirely safe and infrastructure is poor.)
Restaurants outside of Brazzaville and through towns in the north can cook you dishes for between 5,000 CFA and 10,000 CFA, but you can get away with 20,000 for nice restaurant food per day. Beers come in at about 500 CFA at a supermarket, 1,000 CFA at a local restaurant, and 2,000 CFA at a bar or nightclub in the capital. Back in Brazzaville, Mami Wata is by far THE place to have a bite or a drink, get wifi, and admire the river traffic and Brazzaville and Kinshasa. It is also a place to arrange river transport, but without keen bargaining skills or a large group you are likely to be charged 3 or 4 times the going price and you’d be better off and safer taking a tour. The same goes for road transport, in which a 4×4 car with fuel for 6 people in RC and DRC can be commandeered for about 50,000 CFA ($100) a day by those with relationships and connections, but will be hard to budge below 150,000 CFA ($300) by an independent traveler or someone who looks new.
If you’re spending some time in Brazza, definitely do not miss the finer and funner restaurants, bars, clubs, and music scenes, such as Lampadere for outdoor barbecue in BaCongo, Espace Kubia (“Gladis”) nearby for the best music and cheap beer in town (dance the night away,) and if you have a late night yearning and money, head to Ram Dam for an upscale and dressed-up nightclub the likes of which you’ll find nowhere else in Brazzaville. For Vietnamese and Asian food, it’s Hippocampe. Noura is the spot for Middle Eastern fare. For value-priced food, you’re plain out of luck in Brazzaville but the places mentioned above are the best in town, including best value.
In Pointe Noire, the “second” city, (though some expats prefer it to Brazza) often visited for business, there are plenty of eating options, yet sleeping is absurdly expensive and approaching the prices of Angola, the most expensive place in the world. The best hotel by far is Villa Madiba, on the beach, which soars up to at least $380 for a room, followed by Hotel Twiga nextdoor (a little less but still expensive.) The best value beachside may be Hotel Logis Manthey at $130 and up, and out in Chimbamba, 15 minutes away, you will find the budget stuff (but it is not a nice nor even remarkable area – looking like anywhere in coastal west or central Africa and rather ugly.) Some Indian-built hotels such as Mumbai Residence, India Palace, G Marius, and others, can give you great value accommodation for around $80 and up. The worst ones, by the road, are $50, but it does NOT go cheaper than that.
The train to Pointe Noire, leaving at often-changing schedules it seems since we started booking it in 2013, AKA the “Jungle Train” (Gazelle Train, or Congo-Ocean Railway,) is a total and utter pleasure – With a cafe car that serves food and drinks, comfortable first class seats and air conditioning, and stupendous views of the forests, villages, mountains, and scenery cruising by. It arrives after 13 hours. Tickets cannot be booked more than 14 days prior to your trip.
As a point of disclosure, this website is created by a tour operator which runs tours in the Congo, however it is created as an honest and reliable and up to date resource for people who want to travel themselves as well. It is not very easy at all, and certainly not at all cheaper or safer, to travel yourself in the Congo. You should at the very least take a buddy and a LOT of cash if you want to travel in the Congo freestyle, and a good insurance policy. (WorldNomads can cover you for about $60 a week.)
A ferry platform barge takes you to Kinshasa for about $15 (6,000 CFA) – an overcrowded, sweaty, dirty barge loaded with a thrashing mess/mass of humanity and portage and cargo…It isn’t safe, and not in the least bit comfortable, but most people cross and come out fine. The next level further is a fast canoe with runs at $35 (17,000 CFA) and crosses in 5 minutes once full, but you have to wait all morning and are invariably hassled by police and solicitors. The safest and surest way to go is a VIP service, where a private boat is arranged and the police and immigration give assistance instead of nuisance to get you over. That includes access to the business class lounge at Brazzaville beach, where nice attire is required (pants and shoes.) For this escorted secure crossing service, see our TRAVEL SERVICES section at the main menu bar.
There is a flight across the river on the safe, reputable Cam Air Co (Cameroon Air Company) which is allowed into the EU and is managed by German mechanics as for maitenance and security. The flight is only 30 minutes but costs $200. The advantage is that entering Kinshasa is much more hassle-free and smooth from the airport, without the gaze of opportunistic vultures and thieves in plain clothes and uniforms who may see the opportunity for extortion. Going into Brazzaville via ferry is not typically a problem however. The CamAirCo flight’s credentials are impressive for the price though. They cultivate to ensure safety strategic partnerships with reputable companies globally recognized for their expertise and proven competence:
- Lufthansa Technics aircraft maintenance.
- Servair and Doual’air for services on board.
- Euro-cargo for routing and tracking of your parcels and freight.
- Amadeus to manage flight reservations
Boats down the river are hired for the right price of $180-220 (90,000-110,000 CFA) per day with gas, and 4×4 or any sort of car for as many people as you can fit are yours to go where you like for $300/day with driver (that is the standard all over the 2 Congos, although lesser or desperate drivers and vehicles strapped for cash have been know to go down to $200 or even $100, but turn up with an ancient peugeot with no 4-wheel drive and absolutely no hope of getting to where you want before the next ice age.) It is best advised to have someone organize your travel for you and certainly to organize your tours and sightseeing, as they will be experienced with the worst roads and how to deal with officials and show you the best experience without losing time or money running around. According to the Russian embassy and cultural center in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, independent tourists/travelers in the Congo who leave the main cities have to change or buy new return flights an average of 3 times, and according to the French Cultural Center (CCF,) spend about 4 times as much money as they planned. Often independent travelers just get stuck in the Congo, and wait for weeks to get to their planned destination or national park if they haven’t arranged it beforehand.
Flights into the Congo are available with domestic air companies, some not so sound. and run variably $50-100 one way to places further in the interior. With the exception of Lubumbashi, Kisangani, and Pointe Noire, the only places where reputable flyers enter the Congo are the capital cities.
“Kin La Belle” became a long-aged long-gone misnomer, as is evident in this hideous monster of an electric African city as soon as you hit its streets. Yet Kinshasa hosts some of the most vibrant faces of Africa and is no more dangerous and a great deal less dangerous than other oft-traveled cities in Africa – Lagos, Nairobi, and Johannesburg among them. Kinshasa is famed for its music, and there is a Bonobo (only endemic to DRC) preserve within an hour of the city that is very well-kept and in a natural setting that is popular with visitors. The DRC has the best hotels in Central Africa however, from the magnificent new 2014 Kempinski Residence, the Fleuve Congo Hotel ($300-400)…to little budget business hotels built by Indians like Hotel Tex and Hotel Picasso (which you will not find online. – $50) There is more energy and buzz in Kinshasa, and it feels much more like an actual city than Brazzaville, which can feel largely laid back like an African oversized town.
The downside to this Kinshasa buzz is you can’t walk as many places at night besides the downtown area of 30th June Street and the areas around the embassies and nicer hotels, while in Brazza you can walk pretty much anywhere you want at any hour of the night alone and be fine and unbothered. Kinshasa is worth a visit for a few days for its music, history and culture (which is VERY strong in Africa and exported around the continent as well) and for the amazingly cute and well-run bonobo orphanage, (with the underwhelming and overrated McVallee Lake nearby which no doubt all Congolese will insist you visit)…The river journey and the national parks are the grand draw. DRC is the place to go if you want to cross Africa by river. This is the launch for the boat to Kisangani, a long way away after many twists and turns into the heart of an immense darkness.
“Avenue du tourisme” in Kinshasa is the best drive on the river, like the Pacific Coast Highway of the jungle!, totally beautiful and worth a whole day just stopping and taking in the views of the twin river capitals.
Road travel in DRC is subject to annoyances in green uniforms, and these soldiers may or may not ask for money from foreigners, but be prepared to part with pocket change or even a coca-cola along the way several times over. Keep your good humour and smile. It will smooth things with everyone you meet. Road travel is also subject to people remarking on the color of your skin in loud voices if you happen to be white. Learn to laugh as well. – You probably do look ridiculous here after all.
If you want to take the commercial public ferry ALL the way down the river to Kisangani, (as it is dangerous to try to procure your own boat or even hire a smaller one for that entire length, for reasons to be elaborated on further down in this page.) it leaves Kinshasa with 2-4 platforms in tandem which become floating, filthy marketplaces, every 10-20 days. It takes about 15-20 days to traverse the river. This boat does not go into any of the natural, secluded, and more beautiful parts and fingers of the Congo River, but it is a culture shock par excellence. You need to wait and be flexible in order to secure a bunk (you probably have to rent the whole 4-bed room but that does not guarantee you’ll have it to yourself. Theft and mosquitoes and diseases are rampant on the ferry, and passengers have paid prices ranging from $100 to $800 for the same bunk. This is not a cruise ship. This is not predictable. That said, you are 100% guaranteed to have a wild time and with proper politeness and especially if you have a buddy with you, it is doable. It is very hot and not clean, and not “entirely” safe. Perhaps entirely not safe. but you can indeed see fish for sale on the platforms that have never been documented in science before.
The other option is to go with an operator like us or Go Congo (we are the same company and run the same watercraft and routes and safety systems) who include a private, covered boat with powerful engines, a full team of cooks and porters, and camping gear and all permits. Foreigners quite regularly get hassled for papers and permissions at every port, and so that is another advantage of going with an operator and guide.
Unfortunately, the far bend of the river on the DRC side running up to Kisangani has developed a man-eating crocodile problem, the locals having killed all the bushmeat and tossed their adversaries bodies in the river following their rowdy fighting over the years. The river crocodiles took 170+ people last year in 2012, often cleverly leaping up OUT of the water to pull them out of their boats. It is not advised to canoe or kayak in the 400km stretch of the Congo River in the DRC south of Kisangani.
The river journey is fine on the RC side up until the fork that takes you to Kisangani near the Central African Republic and Mbandaka, but your should always keep aware and safe anyway. This is not a Caribbean Cruise. It is not advisable to paddle or navigate yourself. Boats (but not usually the main ferry) are also occasionally attacked by river pirates in the DRC, who show much more speed and skill than their Somalian counterparts away in the Indian Ocean. The Somalians can’t quite jump out of and then dissappear back into a bush. The good news, however, is that as of 2014 the entire river from Kinshasa to Kisangani is fine and cleared for tourist travel.
The DRC’s other famous region is the Great Lakes, near Bukavu and Goma, more than a thousand miles to the east from Kinshasa. There are plenty of points of interest here the foremost of which is the Mountain Nyiragongo and its lava lake. The UN’s pathetic failure here in tandem with ongoing tribal and retaliatory violence has made this part of Africa the most dangerous place in the world at times, maybe in competition with Afghanistan. Not even Somalia is as rowdy nowadays. As of summer 2014 it is fine to travel to this area, but check with us and your embassy.
Travel in DRCongo can be as safe as travel in other African countries. The scenery is rich and the parks are spectacular, and both sides of the river share some common tribes languages and cultures. In all parts of the Congo vigilance and alertness pay off and keeping abreast of news is advisable. Do not walk alone at night, just as in the rest of urban Africa. And remember to relax! Being careful pays, being paranoid will only cheapen your experience.
Once you are ready to get out of Kinshasa, you can fly out via about 20 different airlines to Africa or Europe, or else take the ferry to Brazzaville which comes in at about $20 or $25 for the older crowded or the newer more empty ferries. Crossing the land border to Angola is possible but only with a visa you’ve arranged ahead of time. Visas are affirmatively NOT granted to people who show up at the border, not even with a bribe in recent years.
IS THE CONGO SAFE?
In a word, yes. – The Congo’s capitals, tourist sites, and accessible regions are actually safer than the most popular African destinations. Brazzaville and Kinshasa are safer than Johanessburg and Nairobi, where the crime rates and murder and rape rates are astronomically higher. Travel in the Congo for all places tourists are concerned is safer than travel in South Africa or Kenya, despite the heavy reliance of those 2 nations on tourism. Popular vigilance is required, however the bad reputation of the Congo has not kept up with the times and today it is a very rewarding destination for tourism. The national parks accessible from Brazzaville or Pointe Noire are some of the best and most untouched and rich with wildlife in Africa. Although there are nuisances with police bribery and corruption, Brazzaville is one of the more tame, friendly, and relaxed of all the African capitals, and Kinshasa has plenty of 5 star hotels and recreation opportunities. Like Lagos, Johannesburg, even Cape Town, there are some parts you should not walk at night. In Brazzaville it is genereally OK to be out at night, but you should never walk out in the night alone in Kinshasa aside from a few areas (where you’ll most likely be, so don’t be afraid to go out, however always in a taxi and never alone.) None of this should not dissuade you from going, however, the Congo is in somewhat of a renaissance with a bonanza of construction and investment going on, and this is one of the most culturally rich, raw, and real parts of Africa. Statistically and practically, the Congo (excluding of course the ferocious border with Rwanda) is safer and easier and cheaper than many of the most visited places in Africa.
It was generally said that under the Belgians and then Mobutu, horrors were committed and stability was ensured. Mobutu ruled as a sort of “King of Congo” and established security – Kabila could not, and it disintegrated into violence, rape, and banditry. It is hard to tell which of the 3 periods were worse. Most people who visit Congo are familiar with many darker sides of its history, but the local people see it in terms mostly of Kabila and Mobutu only, as just about nobody was around to see the Belgians who is still alive now.
Great reads to the effect of educating yourself about the region include the books “Kind Leopold’s Ghost,” “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters,” and “The Scramble for Africa.” If you can only read 3 before you come, kick back with these. None of them accurately describe, or even mention at all, the current safety situation for most people in Congo, which is like most media in general. The business media is slightly ahead of the rest, but it too largely describes Congo (and sometimes Africa) as a land of happy animals and miserable war-torn people. That Congo is not the one you as a tourist will find, even if you try. Kinshasa is becoming a world-class city with all the trappings of business travel and industry, and many expats thrive here and spend decades without ever being bothered.
You will notice lots of military in green or grey uniforms, who may nod at you and exchange friendly gestures, and possibly make you feel a bit safer. Almost zero of them carry weapons in the streets, though sometimes they are known to drink heavily after hours and wander the streets stirring trouble. By and large, however, they just kill time sitting by roadsides or pacing the streets.
For hotels in Kinshasa, we’ve never seen any that are unsafe to stay in. The ones we recommend in downtown (where is where you want to be) are Hotel Fleuve Congo (the best – $300 and up, with breakfast wifi and AC) Hotel Leon (The best value – $150 and up including buffet breakfast, wifi and AC and the best location and service in the city,) and Hotel Ave Maria (Best super-cheap hotel – $50 and up and includes wifi and AC.) Others of note are the luxury standout Hotel Memling ($400 and up) and Hotel Royal ($150 and up.) The old Intercontinental had its management and brand pull out of DRC in the 90′s when there were gunfights between commanders in the hallways of the hotel. Now it is known as the Hotel Grand, which is just abysmal compared to what’s around now, yet super overpriced. The Grand remains one of the most famous hotels in the city, but is a terrible value. Others around downtown that are fine for a stay are Hotel Fortune ($100) behind the Hotel Leon….If the only thing that matters is budget, Hotel Tex and Picasso ($50) are very far from anything. It is worth paying up for security and convenience. You will not see Kinshasa, after all a city of many many miles, 13 million people, spread out over different faces and places, the same way if you are far from everything.
A word to the wise is that the most beautiful view of Kinshasa and Brazzaville can be had on the 21st floor of the Fleuve Congo Hotel. It is easy to pull an “oops” and wander into the lounge, as you usually need to have access to an executive suite to have the privilege of coming in here.
The best bar around town is Tucanos on 30th June in Kinshasa, under the iconic Gecamines building, where they have the most cultivated selection of everything from Japanese whiskey to Brazillian Caxaca, and a super coffee shop and Brazillian BBQ on the weekends. For supermarkets, Kin Mart is the best on 30th June Street, while for food courts, there is no better place to head than Kin Deliceux, behind Kin Mart.
Every source around will tell you to check with your embassy and keep up to date, which is smart. However these are of course the cover-all, lowest-common-denominator ultimatum issued to prevent anybody from visiting anywhere with any risk. Travel everywhere in the world is risky, and while you are responsible for your safety, you should be informed but not afraid. The Congo has some serious risks, but they are often overblow and always played up by the media. There are plenty of foreigners living and traveling here today, and your home city in the west may be a great deal more dangerous than anything you see in your trip here.
VISAS AND AIRPORT HASSLES IN BRAZZAVILLE
Brazzaville has a gleaming emerald-city-like new airport that travelers to China will probably recognize for its semblance to the interior of Beijing terminal 3 in miniature. Built by Chinese work crews, the terminal and facilities are impressive and are even more modern-looking than New York, LA, or Miami at first glance…yet the process of arrival can be intimidating. Officials can at times nudge you playfully for gifts before they stamp your passport, but while a refusing but polite smile or a small gift will speed you through and nothing can happen to you. (They never detain anyone or block their entrance if you have a legitimate visa) they are playful and skilled at weaseling out liquor or cash. – One poor American backpacker transiting BZV airport had his passport paraded off by an official and when he explained he was just catching another flight, the official replied “I know I know…(smile)…but, well, my friend, what’s in it for me?!”… They are just playing with you, and even this rarely happens, so just be nice and conversational and they will give you as much welcome as anyone, often a high five or a handshake included. Most countries in the former Soviet Union will give you a far harder time at immigration than here, where they are relatively relaxed.
Visas are a snap for Congo Brazzaville. Congo Travel and Tours (CTT) or a hotel can issue you a reservation and an invitation letter and with that and proof of flights you can pickup a tourist visa at most embassies in 3 days.
VISAS AND AIRPORT HASSLES IN KINSHASA
You’d be forgiven for laughing at the miserable excuse for an airport that greets you in Kinshasa. While it is abundantly obvious that the government never put many cents into this place, it sees much more traffic than its cousin across the river. Expect scrutiny for details and discrepancies that can be capitalized upon by DRC immigration officers, and just smile and maybe hand them a bottle of whiskey or $20-50, and their confusion may miraculously evaporate. It is best to have airport pickup waiting for you, but barring that, ask around the airport officials and security to point you to a reputable taxi. Expect to pay $100 minimum (in 2013 money) for a quality taxi to anywhere in the city from the airport, but if it’s your first time you may not get away with that price without extensive argument, which is a time and cost-effective Congolese sport.
When you get to the airport it REALLY pays to have someone meet you, and getting out necessitates a $50 departure tax and if you want smooth sailing, about $25 worth of 5-dollar bills to bribe just about 3-5 people in uniform. As of 2014 Rawbank also instigated a new $5 fee for something that isn’t specified but everyone must pay that to leave too. There is little assistance and lots of hassle, and you cannot speak to anyone from the airlines at the check-in, only the miserable airport authority. Money solves everything, however, and relatively little is needed. You can as a consolation pay $40 to use a “luxury” lounge with a whole free drink (!) Keep receipts of everything, otherwise their absence WILL be capitalized upon. You will make it, so just have some humor and bare it out. If you are leaving and have lots of time to kill, there is an extension of the Grand Hotel upstairs that caters to luxury travelers if you have around $30 extra to kill.
For ATM’s, and for the country in general, local currency and U.S. Dollars are dispensed and accepted. EcoBank dispenses US Dollars, which are accepted and easy everywhere in DRC. There is also a CitiBank in town next to the American Embassy.
Visas in DRC are in theory and even in law arduous. There are lots of obstacles to getting them overseas, and they NEVER give “tourist” visas. Do not try to get a tourist visa to DRC, but a general or business visa is understood and can be granted with the right papers in order. You need to obtain a business visa if you are going to do it in advance. That said, it was as simple as $40 to show up at the Zambia border with Lubumbashi and make your way across, and $50-200 at the Angola border with the right luck. However, a crackdown has led to an end of those free passes at the end of 2013 when some embassies were heard to be profiteering from the practice. Easiest of all is to land in Brazzaville with a week to spare and do all of the major sightseeing, then cross and explore Kinshasa and the DRC for a few days. If you have an invitation from a friend or a hotel or a business contact in the DRC it is easier, however CTT and other operators regularly arrange visa invitations as well and facilitate entry and crossing.
At the end of the day you will have an easier time getting a visa to DRC than to Angola, so don’t be too confident at doing it the other way around and showing up at the Angola border hoping to finagle a visa. It has never and will never work.
DOING BUSINESS IN THE CONGO
The wild frontier of capitalism.Top
The Congo is brimming with opportunity and rampant with underinvestment to underemployment to undervaluation in lots of its commodities, services, and potential. Congo Kinshasa and Congo Brazzaville were together ranked the most difficult place in the world to do business, but that doesn’t seem to hold on the ground as legions of foreign investors and businessmen are filling the hotels to capacity and causing a sprawl in business tourism services and infrastructure buildup. You will not be the first, and while hotdogging miners and gem traders used to be the Congo’s profiteers, you will see everyone coming to sell and buy and build everything a modern city needs. In perhaps a particularly African calamity, lots of the money changing hands never materializes in any public services, and what public works are built are usually done by Chinese with their Chinese work crews, but the Congo is being conquered, although lots of it feels like the wild west and a frontier destination.
Chinese are among the most common travelers in the Congo and have been little liked at times, having built a reputation for cost, not quality, and surrounding them are half-truths/half-myths of wholesale robbery and extraction with and without permits of lots of the massive states’ resource wealth. They are respected and courted for their money, however, by the urban middle and upper classes. (They come into almost no interaction with the lower class) and do not face targeted violence. However, wholesale skepticism is generously lavished on the Africans as well by the Chinese- for their work ethic and capacity for trickery. The Chinese embassy in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville has better citizen services then most African’s have access to from their own governments, and plenty of Chinese restaurants abound in the capitals of the Congos and the adjoining countries as well.
Indians and Lebanese have been in the Congo since almost its conception as Zaire and as 2 adjoining nations. Lebanese were gem and metal traders, and Indians were merchants of every ware and now have expanded into selling the nervous system of Congo’s communications and IT. Indians are a respected and accommodated class in Congo. The largest hospital in Africa was built this year (2013) in Kinshasa and is staffed mainly by Indians in the hopes of making DRC a destination for African medical tourism.
Nigerians and Cameroonians abound here as well and although they trade and work in just about every sector Congo needs, unfortunately they are most famous for illicit and black market sectors and are looked upon with general skepticism by the Congolese as well.
Of course the French are all over Congo as well, in various capacities as companies, expats, oilmen, aid workers, and advisors and consultants to all sorts of public processes and works.
Americans were generally the last one at the table and especially late to take advantage of the Congo’s escalating opportunities. The future looks to see more Americans do business here if investment laws and foreign corrupt business practices legislation undergoes needed reform. They are missing opportunities, and missing the party here where as everyone else has already arrived. The only Americans to make it en masse are missionaries, to a peculiar effect: Christianity married and marred with local religion.
You will always be treated with smiles and big open arms and friendliness by Congolese suppliers or clients, way more often than not…however Congolese remain initially reluctant to make a first concession or first finance a project in a partnership. Paying or giving a concession in advance is the only real way in Congo to assure a commitment, and then that may not even be enough if your client or supplier is particularly attuned to foreign courtship and has leverage. If you want to buy or sell something, or form a partnership, until you hand over your side of the deal or give a concession of commitment or investment, Congolese are very averse to budge on their position. You should try to avoid coming across as a fool or too loose with your money, as caution and scrutiny is respected, but an advance gift or deposit or assurance of some kind means everything in this part of Africa.
Aid organizations have been notorious for giving too many concessions or foolish incentives for Congolese that are taken without delivery of service or performance. A rational businessman in Africa, and especially here, will demand to hear details and see how a plan is to be executed in minutiae.
Something very important is to never accept “no problem” or “yes” or “ok” at face value. This is as often as not a ploy to make you feel good rather than confirm your question. Ask your client or supplier to explain in details or walk through how they are going to do and deliver whatever it is you’re asking. Lying and stealing are sadly and thinly veiled into accepted business and everyday behaviors among Congolese, and so make it clear from the beginning of your interaction that those are strictly monitored and guarded against and that you are not naive enough to be exploited, and that they will not be tolerated. Keep in mind that lots of these preventions are evidence-based and factual though they will appear racist, though you needn’t and shouldn’t be racist, or feel yourself that way. Even Congolese friends or employees going back decades have been found stealing and price-gouging – though business aside you can also make the best friends in your life in Congo over enough years. Set up safeguards and know where your weaknesses lie and what your liabilities are, and make contingency plans for when they get exploited and what to do. Know friendship from opportunism. Lots of stress can be avoided this way.
Triple-checking quality and delivery, even when you’re told yes, is mandatory. Expect that opportunities for theft or profiteering will be taken by the people you hire in either Congo, but in DRC where business is easier and the culture is more business-oriented, thefts from employees are not as severe nor as blatantly selfish and short-sighted as on the Congo-Brazzaville side, where service is dismal and short-term thinking infinitely more dismal.
Keep in mind that Congolese are not out to rob foreigners. They are out to profit mutually and form bridges and partnerships. They are also out to learn and while they see westerners and Asians as rich, they see them more as enriching, and don’t seek a zero sum game. You should be friendly and affable, but skeptical and always ask in detail.
Travelers to Congo, like travelers to Africa in general, should consult a doctor before coming to Congo, but after that everybody should bring and use malaria medicine. Doxycycline and malarone are the most popular, but a 3-day morning and evening dose of Artemether/Lumefantrine (“Cofantrine” is a readily availiable and reputable brand at pharmacies in Congo) will also kill off any malaria you may have in your system in the 3 days following your trip. Doctors will not tell you that in truth preventative antibiotics are not always effective, and most expats and doctors in Congo will administer this simple but potentially life-saving medicine. That said, many expats live for years there without taking any medicine at all and report feeling fine. It should be taken as a precaution especially on a visit and especially if you are going into the jungle.
You are best advised to have travel insurance, and to seek embassy help in the event of an emergency for recommended hospitals, but evacuating to better care in Europe or South Africa is probably a better bet if it is serious.
GETTING TO THE CONGO, GETTING AROUND IN THE CONGO
Most airlines fly into Pointe Noire or Brazzaville or Kinshasa from Nairobi, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, and an array of European capitals. At this point there are not yet any direct flights from America or Asia. It helps to book far in advance, but expect a roundtrip to cost about as much as going to any other continent, provided you don’t make too many connections. There is a domestic airline called Equatorial Congo Airlines (ECAir) that is overseen and maintained by the Swiss luxury airline MRO and flight support PrivatAir, and flies 3 times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) from Paris to Brazzaville, and once a week to Pointe Noire. As of 2014 it is also flying to Dubai, and has its sites set on, excitingly, Guangzhou and Washington DC next. It also connects Ollombo in the interior of the Republic o the Congo, and has an international flight to one of the cheapest logistical West African ports, Cotonou in Benin. ECAir is of a top standard, and is the only domestic airline the U.S.A., Russian, and Chinese embassies allow their personnel to fly because of safety concerns. All bets are off for the other domestic “scarelines,” in ROC whose notorious crash record precedes them.
Within DRC, Korongo Airlines is the most solid, operated by Brussels Airlines and flying only between Kinshasa and Lubumbashi and Johannesburg. The only other airline which gobbled up the majority of its competition and flies to just about every city in DRC, CAA, is blacklisted – but truthfully crashes less than AirFrance. Fly at your own risk. There have not been any bad reviews, however we are keeping a close eye.
Within Africa, it can be cheaper to fly with one of the new class of African emerging air carriers. Asky (African sky) is a safe, good quality, reputable new operator. The South African and Tanzanian LCC’s (low cost carriers) don’t reach Congo yet, though they will be competitivee when they do. Neither do any of the Gulf’s expanding airlines except for, to the delight of travelers, Turkish Airlines. – Turkish Airlines has positioned itself to cover traffic into most of the untapped opportunities in Africa. If you plan to travel to Africa regularly and widely, having a frequent flyer program with a Star Alliance airline (United, Turkish, Ethiopian, etc.) well pay off handsomely in slashing your inter and intracontinental airfare in Africa, including to Congo. Expensive all business-class airlines like Swiss-owned Privatair cooperate with Star Alliance as well to bring business-class travelers to the Congo, and their luxurious jets fill quickly with European, Chinese, and African business travelers.
Some of the new Congolese domestic airlines, such as Trans Air Congo and Canadian Airways Congo are not flying into Europe or USA yet and so caution should be exercised when deciding whether or not to fly with them. Equatorial Congo Airlines flies to Paris and has a safe operation, perhaps even better than Air France, which uses its jets non-stop without much turnaround time all year long and commands far higher prices yet poorer service to boot. Charter flights through a travel agency are sound if expensive, and CTT can organize these too for up to 15% discount, but private jets and helicopters based around Africa have a reputation for more security than the larger domestic airlines, who are on the blacklist. Congolese national and private airlines have some of the worst safety records in the world, so you may want to pay a bit more for the assurance.
A neat trick is to get somewhere else in Africa that is cheaper as an entry gate to the continent, and then use frequent flyer miles to get to Congo, which counts as a regional flight and so takes relatively few miles even though a price for the same ticket would be very high Adventurers and budget travelers who are flying from outside Africa have honed this trick and it works wonders. If combined with another African destination on a big continental trip, Congo can be a very affordable adventure, and compared with the prices tourists are paying for safaris or just general travel in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda/Rwanda, and South Africa (God Bless them all), Congo is far far better value and shows you almost all of the same big wildlife and better scenery, and none of these other places have the river.
You can enter DRC from Tanzania in Tanganyika Province by taking a $50 boat. This is one of the more pleasant border crossings out there.
Plane charters run about $10,000 for getting to Basankusu- which hosts hundreds of thousands of Bonobos in the real heart of Congo (from Kinshasa or Entebbe the price is much the same.)
Coming overland, it is possible to cross into the Republic of Congo near Bangui in C.A.R. or from Cameroon, where the borders are relatively straightforward and hassle-free as long as you have a visa. Crossing into the DRC, the Angola border is VERY intimidating and even having a visa doesn’t guarantee you a smooth ride through. Several people pose as “officials” at various points of the crossing, and demand your passport or a fee or both, some even equipped with “forms” and pens and uniforms. There have been cases of foreigners with visas in order thrown in Angolan holding cells and having to pay upwards of $1000 to get out. If you are crossing into DRC, do so at Cabinda.
From Zambia, crossing near Ndola towards Lubumbashi is about $40-60 visa at the border for anyone, no questions asked, and you’re on your way. (Though some tourists angrily refute this after being tricked and turned away for lack of a steep fee or in the face of intimidation.) Of course, Lubumbashi, the Congolese mining region, is a long way from Kinshasa, but travel is never entirely predictable here though a great deal safer than the Great Lakes region near Goma.
The Katanga region will go all the way to Kinshasa on a brilliant, sometimes* spotless future national highway “1” which is being built by French, African, and Chinese hands to connect the spoils of Congo’s mining region to the ocean and river ports in the Atlantic side, away at Matadi. The crossing of the DRC in ANY direction puts you at odds with 2500km of terrain to traverse. Botswana has almost exactly 100 times the amount of paved roads that the entire DRC does. A better bet is traveling by water on almost 15,000km of navigable waterways. They are safer than the roads, but not safe.
Matadi can be reached with a $13 bus from Kinshasa. Boma for $20. These buses leave when full from the bus station, and plan on an all-day, sweaty, crowded affair to make the trip happen.
Bas Congo is full of history around Boma and the inlet of the Congo River from the Atlantic Ocean, and everyone from Diego Cao to Stanley made there way up here, about a hundred kilometers of navigable waterway before you hit the abominable Livingstone Falls and the series of waterfalls that makes onward passage past Matadi literally impossible for any ship. A road (and an old railway) goes around the falls and rapids to reach Kinshasa from Matadi, where the river becomes navigable again for the whole next length up until Kisangani. Matadi has not much of note physically save a bridge (which is rare in Congo, and so for locals it’s a fascination) and the old faded colonial gem, the Hotel Metropol. In Boma you will find nearby the incredible Inga dam and Inga waterfalls, which rival Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe for beauty, and which are little known. There are also entire villages built on oyster shells around here as well as old slave forts. Cargo ships up to a certain size can enter here at Matadi, not Panamax vessels, and the importers at the dock vie for favoritism with DRC customs.
One company, Congo Futur, is controlled indirectly by Hezbollah in Lebanon and may fund terrorism, so stay away from dealing with the company if you are thinking of doing trade in Congo. In almost all circumstances whoever you are importing with will have rivals paying and cajoling the customs to make your rates higher so their prices are cheaper and you lose the market.
There are plenty of NGO’s in Goma and it is popular to couchsurf (see couchsurfing.com) with a foreign aid worker, or make advance contact with any NGO worker, rather than to stay in a hotel in the city – which aren’t entirely safe either. If you have to pick a hotel, however, Hotel Ihusi is the best, nestled on the lakeside with a view of the blue Lake Kivu. Or ask us. There are plenty of hotels in Goma and more going up all the time. Crossing from Kigali is a snap – via Gisenyi. Have your DRC visa ready and it is one of the more comfortable gateways.
The Ituri region of the DRC hosts the Okapi wildlife reserve, which can be visited from Isiro, and hosts itself African pygmy tribes living inside the reserve as well as hundreds of birds and chimpanzees, apes, and occasional forays by renegade armies and poachers who have made tourism evaporate and murdered park staff and – anybody found inside the park. It is not advised to visit. Garamba and Okapi Park are both off at the moment.
The journey to the massive “3rd” city of Kisangani takes an unspecified number of hours or days by bus from Goma, along unlit roads some of which are occasionally overflowed by lava from the volcano. It can take as little as 3 days and as long as a week, changing buses at Butembo and Beni ($30 each but prices for foreigners can be inflated) and passing through M23 and FDLR rebel checkpoints where passports are checked relatively politely and the United Nations vehicles occasionally travel. The route to Kisangani from Bukavu is a wholesale total gamble with your life or at least your possessions and runs through a completely lawless and ungoverned tribal part of Africa. It is not under any circumstances advised to do this road. If you have to travel to Kisangani, the road from Goma is better, and you should allow at least a week and several hundred dollars in local currency. There are no ATM’s and no health care.
In the time of the crown jewel of Belgium’s African empire, the 1940’s road from Isiro south to Kisangani or eastward to Mombasa was a speedy throughway that breezed you over the mountains to the coast in 6 hours or south to the river city in 2. Nowadays it is a complete mess, subject to banditry, potholes and washouts, political terrorism, and occasionally marauding murderers…and left to rot and crack beneath trucks and in the wrangle of vines and debris, with the specter or savior of Chinese construction to get the Eastern DRC back on track all these decades later. From Isiro, expect 3 days’ travel east to the ocean (through Eastern DRC, Uganda, and Kenya) and at least 1 day’s travel south to the river at Kisangani. From Isiro, you can dip straight into the steamy equatorial Congo rainforest, or flee for the open savannas of Eastern Africa’s Great Rift Valley. If you are reading this you have likely came from the latter of the 2, and so have in mind to either turn back or else make your way further into the Congo to Kisangani. You can get a bus ticket for $13 (51500 CAF.) Bring water and mosquito repellant, and keep your wallet tight at hand.
Katanga province, home of the second largest city in DRC, Lubumbashi, is a generally safe destination and transit hub. There used to be great great wildlife in Upemba Park, northwest of the provincial capital, and even great lodges (see them at congostarsafaris.com – no longer working,) but now it is all poached out and no animals remain, unless you go very very far from the people who live in the area. Gran Karavia Hotel and Hotel Holly Bum are the best hotels in town now, but nothing to write home about.
The main use of Katanga in the eyes of Kinshasa and the world is its vast reserves of almost every metal conceivable. – Coltan, Copper, Tin, Gold, Manganese, Bauxite, Silver, Diamonds…and much more. Katanga, the source of many minerals today and the former source of the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb, is now illegally exporting uranium via Zambia. Besides this, however, it is false and uninformed to connect Katanga minerals with blood, war, rape, or child soldiers, a connection all-too generously and tenuously made by western media who do not realize that the Kivus region is hundreds to thousands of miles away through terrible jungle and that the mining there under rebel eyes has nothing to do with the long-running mining projects in Katanga.
Nevertheless, most western writers on conflict minerals have never been to DRC, and so we encourage visitors and discerning individuals to draw their own conclusions. There are a lot of rumors at play in Africa regarding this.
Kisangani is a dusty, heaving, monster of a rivertown with which you can board the slow long ferry to Kinshasa. Proceed at your own risk between Kisangani and Kinshasa. The ferry takes 15-20 days. There are infections, dangerous river marauders, man-eating crocodiles, and boat-riding thieves. There is also unrivaled adventure in taking the public barge…along with legendary discomfort. If you want an easier, more comfortable, and more safe way, contact us.
That covers all of the inhabited parts of the Congo. The rest is all unpaved jungle. (Most of the country is unpaved jungle.) We were unable to do research on the ground in the rest of these areas. All information in this website is for reference only. We are not held liable for any travel you do in the Congo (RC or DRC) on your own accord based on our information.
OUR INCLUDED TRAVEL INSURANCE
Congo Travel and Tours includes comprehensive travel insurance with all of our tours that last for more than 2 days.
Our insurance policy includes:
|Travel insurance for CTT (Congo Travel and Tours) is provided by World Nomads, the preferred provider for Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Rough Guides, and HostelWorld.com. It covers over 150 nationalities who wish to travel to the Congo on our tours.||
Pays for emergency medical expenses incurred while on a Trip. Includes emergency dental expenses. Refer to the description of coverage for complete details.
Hospital room & board
Hospital charges, most common Hospital room and board.
|$3,000($100 per day)|
Mental, nervous or psychological disorder treatment
Treatment for a mental or nervous health condition including, but not limited to: anxiety, depression, neurosis, phobia, psychosis; or any related physical manifestation.
Pre-existing medical conditions
Refer to the description of coverage for complete details.
Adventure sports and activities
You’re covered for medical expenses and medical evacuation/repatriation expenses if you’re injured whilst participating in over 100 adventure sports and activities while traveling abroad or over 100 miles from home.
|Adventure sports coverage|
Baggage & Personal Effects Loss
Car Rental Collision Coverage
Accidental Death & Dismemberment
Travel Medical Assistance & Worldwide Travel Assistance
For tours less than 2 days you are advised to find and purchase your own if you wish to have travel insurance. CTT does not provide insurance for tours less than 2 days.
CTT supplies 4-wheel drive SUV’s, Toyota Hiluxes, and luxury LandCruisers, with experienced and professional drivers who have years working as drivers for oil professionals or government staff. They are used to all the road conditions in the Congo.
We have ironclad and strict criteria for our drivers:
a. All of the vehicles must be equipped with operational safety seat belts.
b. Driver not to start driving until everyone buckled
c. All of the vehicles must be equipped with air conditioner
d. Clean, well-maintained vehicle
e. The drivers should always drive safely (no speeding up)
f. The drivers should never use cell phone while driving
g. The drivers should drive on central streets when applicable and avoid driving on backstreets
h. The drivers should never pick a ‘friend or comrade” or anybody else while transporting our delegates
i. The drivers should never smoke in the vehicle, not before or during transporting our delegates
j. Professional driver with excellent safety record
k. The drivers should always be polite with the delegates and willing to help
l. Drivers must be instructed to meet travelers inside the airport with a visible sign upon exit from Customs/baggage claim.