Angola travel guide
Angola may take up a lot of space on the map of southern Africa, but it’s almost invisible when it comes to travel in this region. This former Portuguese colony is only just opening up to travelers, after 27 years of war left it cut off from the world. Both a civil conflict and a proxy Cold War, with the Soviet Union, Cuba, South Africa and the USA all involved and vying for mineral and oil resources, the war began after Angola won independence from Portugal in 1975 and continued until 2002.
Angola’s civil war kept the country closed to tourists, and inadvertently preserved the lifestyles of the many tribespeople living in the south of the country.
Today, the conflict is over, but high prices, a tricky visa application process and almost zero infrastructure outside the capital Luanda mean traveling here is challenging. It’s definitely an expedition rather than a vacation, organised by experts with local contacts, able to tread respectfully into a world rarely seen by visitors. The privileged, intrepid few who come here discover desert oases, prehistoric rock art, Portuguese colonial towns and, most fascinating of all, tribespeople following traditional lifestyles unchanged in centuries.
a fascinating, unexplored chunk of southern Africa and an anthropologist’s dream.
an easy option. There’s barely any tourism or infrastructure.
Angola map & highlights
You’ll need to join an organised tour to visit Angola. These are always small group trips, lasting around 10 days, and typically only departing once a year, starting and finishing in the capital Luanda. Tours rarely spend more than half a day or so here – enough time to see a few sights – before traveling into the southwest of Angola for a cultural tour that focuses on meeting ethnic groups and learning about their traditional lifestyles. Reaching this remote region involves an internal flight from Luanda to Lubango. From here, a 4x4 will transport you over rough roads and often trackless wilderness; expect some long and bumpy journeys.
Chibia is a center for the Muila people, known for their incredible body decorations, and the Mukumba tribal market is a great place to meet them. The Muila (also Mumuila or Mumuhuila) are semi nomadic and retain their animistic religion. The women are famous for their thick nontombi mud-coated dreadlocks and their mud necklaces, made in various styles, each one corresponding to a life stage.
Angola’s oil and mineral wealth has seen its capital city expand rapidly to around 2.5 million people, but there are some good museums and impressive old colonial buildings, including the Sao Miguel fortress, built by the Portuguese in 1576. From Luanda, it’s a short drive to Santiago Beach, one of Africa’s biggest ship cemeteries where rusting hulks litter the sand.
Colonial heritage mixes with vibrant local culture in Lubango. It’s the main city in southern Angola, sitting in a large valley, overlooked by a statue of Christ and the Chela Hills, and the chief jumping off point for exploration of this region and its traditional tribespeople. Lubango has an elegant colonial center dominated by the Art Deco style Cathedral of St Joseph, and a relaxed feel.
This quiet fishing town on the Atlantic coast is the capital of the remote Namibe Province. It was founded by the Portuguese in 1840, and is still home to fading colonial relics. Most interesting of these is the cemetery, which has both Portuguese tombs and a curiously colourful collection of ornamental tombs, decorated in ‘Namibe style’, which is a fusion of Portuguese and African symbolism.
Oncocua is a former Portuguese settlement in the middle of a ‘cultural island’, where three different ethnic groups live: the Himba, the Mucawana and the Mutua. It’s a full day’s drive south of Lubango, passing villages belonging the Mugambue people. This is one of the most traditional places in southern Angola, and visitors are rare, although you can expect a warm welcome.
6. Tchitundo Hulo
The prehistoric rock art here includes paintings of animals, plants and men, possibly dating back 20,000 years. Drive here from Namibe across desert landscapes and see bizarre welwitschia plants that can live for 1,000 years. Enroute, stop in Virei, a center for the Mucubal people, whose women wear wicker-framed headdresses, iron anklets and an oyonduthi string around their breasts, which serves as a bra.
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More about Angola
The best time to visit Angola is during its dry, mild months from June to October, but as so few trips run to this unexplored part of southern Africa, you’ll be limited to traveling when they do – and that’s usually July.
Angola’s tribal groups are numerous and fascinating, following lifestyles and traditions that have barely changed in centuries, and living in isolation in the deep south of the country.