Thursday, July 05, 2012

Guide to Libreville

A guest post about a recent visit to Gabon 

Getting There: Kenya Airways has direct flights from Nairobi to Libreville (via Douala) and flies 3 times a week. It’s around US$1400 and the flight isn’t usually full.

If you don’t have a visa you'll need to buy one upon arrival. It costs €70 and you’ll need a letter of invitation. The airport terminal is new and clean and very easy to navigate. They often check yellow fever certificates but there are no unexpected taxes or other charges. The airport is very close to town so it’ll cost around US$5 to catch a ride to the centre.

Getting Around:  - French is the main language spoken in Gabon and you hear this on the streets more than local languages. There aren’t any English language papers.
- Prices vary considerably between local and tourist places so it’s hard to give a standard daily spend, but around US$ 20-30 should be reasonable.
- Libreville is a small and quiet city, which feels very safe to walk around, although you shouldn’t walk alone at night or take a taxi alone at night.

Shared taxis are the usual means of transport – a private car that picks up people by the side of the  road – you have to flag them down, tell the driver where you want to go and what you’ll pay (it’s around 200 CFA per kilometre). The driver then chooses whether to take you to the destination if it’s on his route and he’s happy with the price. You’ll need to double the price at night. If you want to be driven alone (i.e. for the driver not to pick up other passengers), the price is 3 or 4 times higher - you just spot an empty taxi and ask: “une course pour “(your destination)”.

Where to Stay:  Hotels are expensive, the best are L’Hotel du Phare in la Sabliere (2 mins from airport), Maisha (further along the main road in La Sabliere) and Le Meridien in Glass (5 mins after the Presidential Palace). Expect to pay around US$ 300/night. Cheaper options include l’Etoile d’Or in La Sabliere, a new Chinese-run hotel with purely Chinese furniture and fittings (everything from the soap dispenser to the toilet has Chinese writing on it and ridiculously bad English and French translations... although the food is pretty good!

Communications:  You can get full BlackBerry service although data speeds are slow and voice can also be problematic. There's a new cyber cafe at the entrance to the Montee de Louis (entertainment district with lots of bars and restaurants) and WiFi hotspots at Dolce Vita restaurant at Port Mole and Hotel du Phare in la Sabliere (diplomatic district near the airport). Electricity supply is pretty reliable.

Dining: You can eat like a king in Libreville – the quality and variety of restaurants is surprisingly good. There are great French restaurants, ethnic restaurants from many parts of the world (Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese), gourmet African food and more down to earth little “maquis”. Prices vary considerably - from dizzyingly expensive top range French restaurants such as Le Bateau Ivre and le Phare du Large, through to local joints which are much more affordable. The best value is often found in Lebanese restaurants (called “Cuisine Mediterranéenne”). They sell both Lebanese and French/Italian food for around $10. There’s a great open air pizzeria near the airport called Rivoli with an amazing selection of homemade pizzas. Also, Gabon specialises in bushmeat so you can find python, crocodile, porcupine and even monkey if you look in the right places...

You can get a beer in all bars very easily – local beer is great and cheap, and while prices vary depending on the establishment, usually for a dollar or two, you’ll be happy! . In bars, they talk about politics, business (theirs and those of their neighbours), sports and weather.

Shopping & Sight-Seeing: For shopping, Centre Mbolo is the main commercial centre with supermarkets and international brands. It’s a useful place but there’s nothing really special here. The town centre is also full of interesting shops - mainly imported goods but if you can’t afford travel to France you'll find French fashion at French prices... For local arts and crafts, there’s a great artisan market in the town centre selling art, masks, clothes, leather goods and other souvenirs.

The best thing you can do is take a boat from Port Mole to the island opposite Libreville – La Pointe Denis, where you see pristine and deserted white sandy beaches, backed by tropical forest – it’s an incredible place. Alternatively, you can drive to Le Cap, which is also a beach but you reach it through the forest so it’s an unusual and beautiful drive. The beach isn’t as good as La Pointe but lots of Gabonese (as opposed to tourists) have beach huts there so there’s a great atmosphere with family and friends hanging out and chilling.

Biggest surprise:  Gabon is a calm and beautiful country; 85% is forest as Gabon is part of the Congo Basin, the earth’s “second lung” and there are 13 national parks, in line with the Government’s commitment to protecting biodiversity and promoting sustainable development. There are beautiful waterfalls and huge rivers running through the forest and you can visit pygmy communities who still practice traditional rituals and preserve their culture. Gabonese art is unique and impressive – painting, sculptures and masks are all highly collectable although many of the top Gabonese artists live abroad. 

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