On April 10 we were in Luanda, a port that is rarely visited by cruise ships (we could only find one other cruise ship scheduled to stop here this year). Angola has a long history and it isn’t pretty. It was a Portuguese colony for some 400 years (with a 7 year hiatus of Dutch rule) and for 250 years they used Luanda as a hub for the slave trade, especially to Brazil. It obtained independence in 1975 and immediately fell into a civil war that lasted until 2002. They are still recovering from that civil war. Today Luanda is one of the most expensive cities in the world and its plentiful oil reserves have created a class of very wealthy folks, both Angolan and foreign, who can afford to live here. But most of its 6 million residents are quite poor and have trouble making ends meet in this expensive economy.
When reading up about Luanda before the trip the main theme of advice was that this was a dangerous place to visit. Avoid walking the streets by yourself, and taking pictures of most places is forbidden with possible confiscation of your camera. This was reinforced by Barbara, the port guide, who presented a long list of safety admonitions, including not only avoiding drinking the local water but avoiding even touching it. After this we received a letter from the Captain repeating many of these same admonitions, along with an additional warning to be skeptical of anyone who speaks good English!
As you can imagine, the question everyone was asking after all this was: why are we even stopping here?
As it turned out this port was interesting and not unpleasant at all (at least for most folks). It seems that the Angolans would like to have more cruise business so they were very welcoming. We heard of no one who had a problem with the police & several police were on the dock when we left enthusiastically waving goodbye. No one tried to interfere with taking pictures; in fact we heard that on one of the tour busses the guide was taking pictures as much as the passengers. So maybe things are slowly improving here for visitors.
With this port’s reputation for being dangerous, it seemed before we arrived that the only safe options were to take a HAL tour (expensive & short) or stay on the ship. We travel to see new parts of the world and sure didn’t want to just stay on the ship all day. So we signed up for a HAL bus tour. As it happened, we saw a number of passengers who went out on their own and walked all the way to the fort (between one and two miles) without problem. Several small buses made up our excursion & we travelled together in a caravan with a police & ambulance(!) escort.
Our first stop was about a third of the way along the Marginal. This is the long expanse of waterfront between the port and the Fortaleza, a large fort on a hill across the bay. The Angolans are in the middle of a 15 year project to upgrade this area. The first part, completed in 2012, is a concrete path along the waterfront with its edge descending into the water, a number of small foot bridges and very colorful gardens along the way. There was a noticeable police presence (just for cruise ship day? we don’t know) and it felt very safe. The slanted concrete leading to the water was not safe; we heard that two people fell in (despite Barbara’s warning not to touch the water) and one had to be rescued by police.
Tracking the Marginal across from the water is one of the city’s main streets. On the other side of it were some pretty drab looking buildings. Maybe the redevelopment plan will get to them later. We suspect that while the Marginal park appears to be safe for visitors, walking a few blocks into the area across the street might be asking for trouble. We heard later that one passenger was accosted in that area and was rescued by local folks. Of course, he was carrying a lot of expensive looking camera equipment, despite the captain’s warning, so his running into trouble shouldn’t really be surprising.
A block or so from the Marginal, just past the blue building below, is a small 17th century Portuguese church that is often featured as one of the sights in this city. But we didn’t see it. Luanda lacks a professional tourist infrastructure so our tour was kind of ad hoc. The guides were recruited from other day jobs, mostly because they could speak English. Our guide normally worked as a translator, not a tour guide. So they are amateurs. She walked with a few of the passengers in our bus to see this church but because she never said a word about it to the rest of us we didn’t know it was there until we saw them crossing the street on their return. Very frustrating, but that is pretty representative of the current state of Luanda’s facilities for travelers.
Boarding the buses we drove along the Marginal, past the Fortaleza and out onto the Ilha do Cabo. We passed the pink National Bank of Angola (a local landmark), the monument to the unknown soldier, and the Largo de Baleizao, a plaza laid out in 1765 that served as a slave market.
No longer an island since it was connected to the mainland by a bridge, the Ilha is a 5 mile long sandy outcropping, no more than 550 yards wide at its widest point, that separates the bay from the ocean and makes it one of the largest ports in Africa. It is a popular beach spot and houses many bars and restaurants popular with Angolans. No one was swimming today, but we saw many people along the road. At the end of the Ilha was a candy colored lighthouse.
We drove back to the first stop across the bridge to the mainland, the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel (St Michael Fort). First erected in 1576 it was improved over the centuries through 1916. It has served as a slave depot, a prison and a museum. During the Angolan war for independence between 1961 and 1975 the Portuguese used it as their central military command post.
We spent most of our visit on the ramparts looking at the panoramic views of the city and the bay. We were told later that there are a couple of rooms with old Portuguese tile walls worth seeing but, true to form, our amateur guide didn’t tell us about them.
On the ocean side of the fort was a neighborhood with a lake or inlet where fishermen were plying their trade. Some of the houses don’t look too shabby, but we were told this is a poor neighborhood.
In the central courtyard on the first floor of the fort was a row of large statues. From left to right the first three are Diogo Cao (the first Portuguese to step on Angolan soil), Paulo Dias de Novais (founder of Luanda), and Salvador Correia de Sa (governor of Angola). Outside the walls was a giant statue of a 17th century African queen named Njinga, widely celebrated here and in Brazil for standing up to the Portuguese (although she also sold some 200,000 people to their slave traders). Inside the fort is a bust of Jose Mendes de Carvalho, a celebrated fighter in the war for independence who was killed in 1968. The front gate includes pictures of fighters from the civil war or the war of independence on the left and resisters to Portuguese slavers on the right.
We had one more stop after leaving the Fortaleza, the Mausoleum of Dr Antonio Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president. He died in Moscow in 1979 after a cancer operation and the Russians made a start on building this monument in 1981. They soon abandoned it and it finally opened only in 2012, completed by Brazilian and then South Korean companies. Inside is supposed to be his sarcophagus, but we were only allowed to view the outside from the gates. This is a soaring, if somewhat ugly, metal monument shaped like a rocket, visible all over Luanda. There was a bust of Dr Neto in the Fortaleza. Behind the mausoleum one could see the shiny pink dome of the new National Assembly building opened at the end of 2015, looking a little like the Capitol building in Washington.
After our excursion bus returned to the ship we walked out to a market that had been set up in a square outside the port gates. Locals were selling mostly clothing and paintings. We bought a little something (remember, this is one of the world’s most expensive cities!) then walked back to the ship for the sail away.
As we sailed out of the harbor the hillside on the starboard (right) side of the ship was covered with hovels, slums that are called musseques in Angola. Luanda was a town of about 60,000 in 1940 and grew to about 475,000 by 1970. But during the 40 years of the war for independence and the civil war tremendous numbers of refugees fled from the strife in the countryside to the relative safety of Luanda. Today the city has some 6 million inhabitants and a very large percentage of them, mostly former refugees and their descendants, live in these musseques that surround the city. For a country so rich in oil revenue it is quite a sight. Maybe after they finish building the high rise office buildings in the city center for the oil companies they will do something to improve the lot of these people. On top of the hill were many nice looking houses and modern buildings, while along the water line in front of the musseques stood long lines of huge oil tanks.
As we pulled out past a long cliff extending to the sea looking very red in the late afternoon light, we saw a rainbow. Bidding Angola farewell, we headed out for five restful sea days on our way north.