The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC and formerly Zaire) has a history that’s difficult to take in. From the mismanagement of Belgium’s King Leopold, to the corrupt leader Mobutu Sese Seko, to the battlegrounds of Africa’s horrific “world war,” the country has experienced long periods of instability. But the second largest African nation is staging a comeback and by most accounts, is headed in the right direction. There are regularly travel advisories for DRC, but during times of stability, there is a magic wilderness to explore here. The country is covered in UNESCO designated national parks. They’ve got active volcanoes, raging rivers, and all the wildlife you expect of Africa. Caution is needed but the DRC is the literal and figurative heart of Africa. Let’s have a look at the best places to visit in Congo!
The capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as one of the 11 provinces, is Kinshasa. It’s chaotic and buzzing with energy and really huge – with over ten million residents. Established by Henry Stanley in the late 19th century as a trading post it’s now likened to an African New York City. Enjoy a boat ride on the Congo or a BBQ picnic on its shores. The Marche des voleurs, or the city market, is colourful and intense and loads of fun. There is a great street art culture here and if you sit in one of the small cafes off the 30 Juin Boulevard, the artists will come up and show you their pieces for sale. It’s a great way to talk to locals and relax.
2. Lola Ya Bonobo
Lola Ya Bonobo is a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Kinshasa area. The bonobos are hunted for bush meat, and when a mother is killed, the babies are often taken and sold on the black market as pets. The sanctuary tries to recover as many as possible so that they can live out their lives in safety. One of the four great apes, bonobos have been relatively isolated until the 20th century. The sanctuary covers 30 hectares of forest and you can visit the several feeding stations that the staff use to help track the apes. The sanctuary also accepts volunteers.
3. Kahuzi Biega National Park
Named after the 3,000+ metre Mt. Kahuzi and the 2,700+ metre Mt. Biega this spectacular national park is located in the South Kivu Province and stretches from the Congo River basin to Bukavu. Kahuzi and Biega are extinct volcanoes that now afford some incredible hiking. It was created in 1970 in order to protect the Eastern Lowland Gorillas and just ten years later was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gorilla poaching has been a problem for decades but thanks to the park authority, a dedicated education effort is ongoing. Today, the gorillas are still endangered, but their quality of life has improved and conditions are improving year each year. You’ll find incredible biological diversity in the park like endemic plants, elephants, chimps, genet, antelope, and serval.
4. Nyiragongo Volcano
The skyline of Goma in the DRC is dominated by Nyiragongo. This unbelievable, 3,000+ metre volcano last erupted in 2011, destroying up to 15% of the surrounding land and leaving over 120,000 homeless. Erupting 34 times in the last 130 years, Nyiragongo is located at the junction where the African tectonic plate is breaking. The landscape around Goma is striking, with black solidified lava so wide that the place looks like an above ground coal mine. There is an active lava lake inside the crater which can sometimes be visited. The area has recovered nicely from the last blast and you’ll find plenty of new shops and markets to discover.
5. Virunga National Park
Located along the borders of Rwanda and Uganda, Virunga National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the country’s oldest national park, it’s also the most biologically diverse. You’ll find lava plains, savannas, forests, valleys, active volcanoes, swamps, and even glacier peaks in the Rwenzori Mountains. Roughly 25% of endangered mountain gorillas call the park home, and Virunga is the only park to have three of the four great apes in one place. The Okapi, an endangered species that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a zebra, also make the park their home. You can spot hippos, lions, elephants, and a number of rare and exotic birds. The park has three distinct areas, all worth a visit: The Rwenzori Mountains, Lake Edward area, and the Mikeno volcano area.
6. Lake Kivu
Straddling the border between the DRC and Rwanda, Lake Kivu is the sixth largest lake in Africa. One of a series of freshwater lakes in the region, Lake Kivu offers lovely scenic drives between the towns that dot her shores. From Cyangugu to Gisenyi, the gently winding road affords breathtaking vistas as you leisurely make your way. Tons of banana and eucalyptus trees line the road and the locals will pause and wave as you pass by. Gisenyi is the largish town that was once a colonial beach resort and so has some nice old mansions and great places to stop for a sundowner’s cocktail.
7. Garamba National Park
This national park is filled with unending grasslands and savannahs. And these are filled with elephants, giraffes, hippos, black rhinos, and white rhinos. Garamba National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and an amazing sanctuary for several endangered species. It’s rare to see so many different classifications of large mammals sharing the same space and that makes a visit to the park an absolute must.
9. Salonga National Park
Salonga is both the DRC and Africa’s largest tropical rainforest. In this UNESCO World Heritage Site you’ll find several endangered species including the Congo peacock, dwarf chimpanzees, forest elephants, and the slender-snouted crocodile. The park is quiet isolated and you must take a boat to reach it. This vital ecosystem is so large that it plays an important role in climate regulation for the entire country.
10. Okapi Wildlife Reserve
This UNESCO World Heritage Reserve is unique for the large variety of primates and exotic birds that call it home. There are incredibly opportunities for trekking to some even more incredible waterfalls within the reserve. The landscape along the Epulu and the Ituri rivers is simply stunning. Also calling the reserve home are the pygmy nomad tribes of the Efe and Mbuti hunters. It’s a great place to see the endangered Okapi (about one-sixth of the entire population are found here).
In a country of remote locations and national parks, Maiko is the DRC’s most inaccessible national park. It is also the only park where you’ll find all three of the country’s endemic species: the Okapi, the Congo peafowl, and the Grauer gorilla. And don’t forget chimpanzees, elephants, leopards, and bongos. Though it’s not well known or well visited, the forest represents an enormous carbon sink and its future protection is globally important to addressing climate change. Within Maiko’s borders are the Simba Mai Mai people, who fled here in the 1960’s seeking a kind of political asylum. Today, the government is working to resettle the roughly 700 inhabitants in order to protect the forest.
12. Falls of Zongo
Located in Bas-Congo (about 130 km from the city of Kinshasa), the Falls of Zongo represent Mother Earth at her best. If you’re looking for a few days outside of the city, the Falls are a great option. You can tent camp or rent a bungalow and explore the area for a couple of nights. Enjoy hiking and taking a cool dip below the falls.
13. Boyoma Falls
Once called Stanley Falls, Boyoma Falls is a long series of cataracts located along the Lualaba River. After an overall drop of 61 metres and at the end of the seventh cataract, the river merges with the Congo River. The Wagenya fishing tribe live in the region and after generations of living along this unique river, they’ve developed special methods to catch fish. You’ll see their wooden tripods in the rapids, resting in the natural holes formed in the rocks by the running water. The tripods hold baskets that serve as nets for the fishermen.
A two hour boat ride from the city of Bukavu will take you to Idjwi, a lush island of green mountains and incredible biodiversity. Idjwi feels like an entirely different world within the DRC – newcomers are often greeted with fresh fruit, and motorcycle or walking are the two primary modes of transportation. Hiking around the island is idyllic and peaceful. The inhabitants are proud that they have never seen war on their land and you’ll quickly feel the difference this makes. Accommodation is sparse, but for those adventurers who arrive on this beautiful island, Mother Nature will more than make up for it.
Kisangani, formerly Stanleyville, is the third largest city in the DRC and lies completely within the tropical forest. The city’s new name originates from the nearby Boyoma Waterfalls and means “the city on the island.” Kisangani has great shopping (check out the avenue de l’Eglise) and fantastic local restaurants. It’s also known for its striking architecture and surprisingly makes a popular convention destination. Be sure to check out the many museums, botanical gardens, and zoo. The Rasaire of Notre-Dame Cathedral in the Central market is particularly appealing to visitors. At the University of Kisangani you can view an impressive collection of East African and Congolese archaeological artefacts.