Angola has only recently emerged from decades of civil war between the Marxist MPLA forces and the democratic, free-market leaning UNITA troops. The internal fighting ended with a ceasefire and political settlement in 2002. There is still occasional fighting between separatists and government forces in the oil-rich Cabinda region, but most of the country is eagerly on its way to rebuilding the damage caused by the war and starting a new chapter in Angola’s history. The development of tourism, unfortunately, has been hampered by the decades of violence. Infrastructure is underdeveloped, but travelers who don’t mind this drawback will find miles of beautiful beaches, rarely-visited wildlife parks, and Portuguese colonial architecture in cities such as Luanda.
Angola sits on the western coast of Africa, bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo in the north, Zambia in the southeast, and Namibia in the south. Most of the interior of the country is dominated by the Benguela highlands, its vast plateau reaching heights as high as 8,400 feet before leveling off in the north as it reaches the Congo River Basin. In the south, Angola consists of the Kalahari Desert. The Congo River in the north drains through to the interior plateaus whereas the Okavango runs along the boundary between Angola and Namibia. In the east, Angola is touched by the Zambezi River, which is sourced from South Africa.
The majority of the people in Angola, about 75%, are Bantu natives. The largest of the Bantu groups is the Ovimbundu; they occupy the central regions of the country. The Ovimbundu are known as traders and are the most European-oriented of the groups. They were the leading supporters of the UNITA during the civil war. The Kimbundu live in the north close to the capital, Luanda. They are also more Europeanized than other Angolan groups. They hold many of the government, business, and industrial jobs in the big city and were also supporters of the UNITA. However, some Kimbundu live in the rural interiors and still engage in subsistence farming. The Bakongo live in the northern coasts of Angola and are mostly farmers growing peanuts, corn, and potatoes. Their culture revolves around music and sculpting. The remainder of the Angolan population is comprised of mixed African and Portuguese ancestry, and are scattered throughout. Almost all of the Portuguese population left the country when Angola gained independence in 1975.
Most tourists adventurous enough to travel to Angola visit Luanda and its greater region. Luanda, which is built around a bay, offers beautiful beaches within the city with the Ilha beach and just outside of the city in the south with Palmeirinhas; bathing in the latter though can be hazardous and is ill-advised. North of Luanda, you’ll find the Santiago beach, which is excellent for fishing. The Mussolo Peninsula is a great place for other water sports.
In and near Luanda, there are some notable museums such as the Museum of Slavery, the Museum of Armed Forces, and the National Museum of Anthropology, which is located in a Portuguese colonial fortress.
To explore some of Angola’s natural beauty, visit the Kissama National Park about 45 miles south of Luanda; the park is home to various wildlife and has eco-lodges and bungalows where you can stay. Also visit the Calandula Waterfalls in the Malanje area, especially during rainy season.
Angola’s climate is tropical in the north and desert-like in the extreme south. In the higher altitudes of the interior plateaus, the climate is temperate, with alternating rainy and dry seasons. The coolest and driest months are between June and September while the hottest and wettest time of the year is between October and May.
Various Bantu tribes from Central Africa moved into Angola during the 14th and 15th centuries, joining a small group of Khoikhoi and San natives who had already been living there. The Bantu established several kingdoms in Angola, including the Kongo, Luba, and Lunda kingdoms. The central region was invaded during the 16th century by the fierce Jagas, a group of warrior people. They settled in the highlands but were eventually assimilated into the Ovimbundu and Kimbundu.
The first European to explore Angola was the Portuguese explorer, Diogo Cao. He ventured along the Congo River in 1482 and explored the Kongo kingdom. Kongo became a vassal state of Portugal and many of the people of Kongo were converted to Christianity. From the 16th to the 19th century, the Portuguese remained in Angola, setting up forts and ports along the coast.
In the mid-19th century, the Portuguese began venturing into and conquering the interior. By 1918, all of present-day Angola was firmly under Portuguese control. After WWII, Angola became a province of Portugal. In 1961, however, armed revolts and insurgencies broke out in northern Angola, triggering an independence movement that led to an overthrow of the Portuguese government in 1975.
Having achieved independence, Angola plunged into a civil war between the MPLA communists and the UNITA capitalists, which became a theatre for the cold war. Foreign nations became involved. The MPLA were supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union, and the UNITA were supported by China, the United States, and South Africa. The war finally ended in 2002 after a ceasefire agreement, but has devastated the country’s economy and left it in shambles.