Andreas Spaeth gives his travel tips for the Angolan capital, notorious as the world’s most expensive city.
It’s never dull in Angola. Since its civil war ended in 2002, this country in south-west Africa has gone from a poor, divided, former communist country to super rich oil powerhouse, only to see the oil price slump in 2014/15 returning it to being strapped for hard cash.
These days, many international companies have drastically cut back on their expat staff. This fall in demand by 25-30 per cent has meant that Luanda, the capital, a five-million inhabitant metropolis in the north of a country twice the size of France, has lost its title of the world’s most expensive city for expats to Hong Kong again for 2016.
It’s fair to say that traveling here is still not a bargain, however. Hotel prices are said to be down by about 20 per cent, meaning there is a decent chance now to secure an average four star-hotel room for just under US$400 a night.
Routes to Luanda used to deliver the highest yields for airlines worldwide, due to the high business traveller share. With demand now down, British Airways, flying twice weekly overnight from Heathrow, has been known to sometimes carry less than 40 passengers on its Boeing 777s.
As landing rights for Luanda are highly restricted, all international carriers nevertheless maintain their presence, although some have cut back frequencies. The only airlines serving Luanda daily from Europe are the local TAAG (double daily soon from Lisbon) and TAP Portugal.
SAA flies daily from Johannesburg and Emirates from Dubai. From Europe there are also non-stop connections with Air France, KLM, Brussels Airlines and Lufthansa. African carriers Ethiopian and Kenya Airways fly via their respective hubs.
Luanda’s aging and cramped Quatro de Fevereio Airport leaves much to be desired. It boasts just four international departure gates, from where passengers are bussed to their aircraft. Connections from domestic to international flights are a nightmare, as taxi rides from terminal to terminal can take an hour during peak periods.
A new airport has partially been built by Chinese companies 40 km south of Luanda, but currently has just one runway, an empty shell of a terminal, and no proper access road. When it will open is uncertain.
Angola is not very welcoming to visitors. Tourist visas are non-existent and all other visas are very expensive and a bureaucratic nightmare to obtain. Still, when you do get one, the country issues high-tech visas including a photograph of the bearer and a hologram.
Even if you have all necessary paperwork to obtain a border visa on entry, it can still mean you have wait for up to a few hours, as the complex visa issuing systems are often down. Doing the lengthy application process at home and having the visa in your passport on arrival might be worth the effort.
Although downtown is only about 7 km or 10 minutes drive in little traffic, some taxi drivers are known to charge US$100 or more, sometimes demanding even more “ransom” to release a bag. Remedy: Engage the services of the only trustworthy local agency, run by an expatriate Brit, EcoTur Angola.
For a flat fee of about US$300 a day it provides an experienced and reliable English-speaking driver, and helps you organize your itinerary before arrival according to your needs, which can be a huge challenge otherwise in Luanda. With the city spread out and traffic especially bad between downtown and the business suburb Talatona, having a strategic plan in place to tick off an itinerary is a must.
It is essential to base yourself near your work in Luanda. That might be in downtown, which saves you from spending hours in traffic jams between venues and to/from the airport, or in the South, eg: Talatona. Agencies can often get you better deals, as hotels are still among the most expensive in the world. Recommended in downtown is the Hotel Tropicó.
Although 40 years old, it is sleek and modern after a major renovation and has a nice pool area. Going for dinner at the hotel buffet will set you back about US$100, without alcohol, although at that price you might need a drink. Nearby is the Skyna Hotel, opened in 2009, but now in need of some renovations, which is slightly cheaper.
Prices in Talatona, near the convention centre, are a bit lower, and the Ibis Styles is a good base.
What to do in Luanda in free time
Downtown is safe to walk, bike or run, especially on the new Marginal, opened in 2012, a palm and bikepath-lined promenade around the Bay of Luanda. For views, the Fort is a must, housing the Military Museum, but also amazing Portuguese-style tiles.
The Iron Palace (Palácio de Ferro) built by Gustave Eiffel in 1890 is a hidden gem, now a cultural centre, and the subterranean Money Museum (next to the National Bank cupola) is said to be the best in Luanda. The Slavery Museum is a bit further out to the south, but well worth it, if just for the setting.
Where to eat
Eating out on a budget is possible in Luanda, but only the locals know where. In Chicala, on the edge to Ilha, one can find big fish plates serving two for just 2,500 Kwanza (about US$12), a real steal, but in rather non-descript backyard eateries. More elaborate are the offerings on Ilha de Luanda, the 10 km stretch of sandy island reaching out into the bay. Café del Mar is a favourite of expats and local elite, and is casual with a semi-private beach.
Nearby are two top restaurants by the same expat owner, Assador Lookal (serving Argentine-style asado, meaning beef and lamb) and Lookal Marisqueria (seafood, even European live lobsters) at very steep prices. Great spot with ocean views. Kitanda da Esquina (Luanda’s branch of two Lisbon restaurants) offers excellent, casual Portuguese food and sometimes live music.
Again, there is only one choice, EcoTur Angola. Owner Paul Wesson and his team offer fantastic one-day or multi-day itineraries which are safe, fun and enlightening. Try at least a one day safari to Kissama National Park, including a stop at the stunning Miradouro de Lua (“Lunar Viewpoint”), a kind of Bryce-Canyon-like natural wonder overlooking the Atlantic.
A boat tour on the mighty River Kwanza is part of the day tour, and great for bird and monkey watching. The safari normally gets you close to giraffes, elephants, zebras, antelopes and lots of Baobab trees. About US$280 (per person with six passengers).
Andreas Spaeth (text and photos)