My Experience in the Central African Republic

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a very volatile place. The country and its capital, Bangui, have seen its share of coups and violence over the past several years. There is heavy United Nations (UN) and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) presence all over Bangui including the airport and the surrounding areas. Basically Bangui is a mess that is always teetering on the edge of violence. The US State Department has issued a standing travel warning and the US Embassy has been moved to Yaoundé, Cameroon. Sounds like a lovely vacation destination, right?
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, airport
I arrived in the Central African Republic on the weekly Air France flight from Paris after a night in London and Paris en route. Flights in and out of Bangui within Africa are few, usually very expensive, convoluted with many stops or long layovers, plus they’re often cancelled or delayed with no reason given. I had flown into Bangui once before several years ago but didn’t leave the airport for said reasons. So since I was going to be in the neighborhood anyway, I figured I’d pop in and check it out. I always try to go back places if I have the opportunity, especially if I didn’t have a good or quality visit the first time.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, airport
The best part about it is my good friend Joe, who I’m traveling with this trip in Central Africa, who has also come to the North Pole and a few other places with me had never been to Africa. So his first ever Africa experience was the Central African Republic. I got a real kick out of the shock on his face with some of the things that you become accustomed to when you travel in and around the continent. But if you’ve never seen it before then it can be really eye opening.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, airport, shantytowns
The Bangui airport is a total disaster. Shantytowns surround it, which isn’t that unusual for Africa. There are tons of people just walking around the airport runway area from the surrounding villages as planes are landing and taking off. There is a massive UN presence and there are hundreds of people trying to get into the airport at all times for who knows what reason. It reminded me of the chaotic airport in Conakry, Guinea. It’s a real clusterfuck.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, driver
After making it thru the sea of people outside arrivals to find our driver I had prearranged, we took a tour of Bangui. Bangui is not a nice place. I’ve been to worse capital cities, like Bissau, Guinea-Bissau or Juba, South Sudan but it’s right there on that level.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, street
The most striking thing for me about the current state of Bangui is the amount of armed UN soldiers who basically parade around like a freedom fighter militia in the back of pickups with automatic weapons. There were armored cars that looked like tanks driving around and when you passed the random UN blockades it looked like a war zone with bunkers, barbed wire and soldiers. It was really weird and you never really felt at ease. I didn’t take any photos of this for obvious reasons.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, monument
There’s honestly nothing of note to see in the city in terms of sites. The roads in Bangui are reasonable for Central African standards but certainly not good. The main drag is paved decently and any side roads are drifting dirt roads. We got lucky because it had been raining just before we arrived so the dust level was very manageable.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, Ledger Plaza Hotel
The Ledger Plaza Hotel is by far the best place to stay in Bangui and is your typical nice hotel in a bad African city that you find all over the region. Each capital city will generally have one decent hotel for expats, NGO workers, diplomats and the occasional tourist to stay in.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, sunset, Ledger Plaza
However, they really gauge you for the pleasure. We paid nearly $300 each for our rooms; which isn’t bad for US standards but the quality wasn’t there. However, it seemed secure, it did have a nice pool, decent breakfast, crappy casino, a pool table, spa, gym and a nice outdoor patio and bar. Unfortunately the outdoor patio was closed for a Spanish soldier event of some kind and the air conditioning in my room didn’t work. Shockingly, no refund was given!
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, Mocaf, beer
After checking in, watching the sunset, and having a Mocaf beer to celebrate our arrival to Africa, we headed back into town to have dinner at the best restaurant in the Central African Republic or so I was told; Relais des Chasses. It was decent enough but nothing special. However, if you were in Bangui I would certainly eat there. It was definitely popular with expats, old white guys accompanied by young CAR girls plus a big VIP security detail that was seated next to us. We never did ask what they were doing there.
My Experience in the Central African Republic, Central African Republic, Bangui, Relais des Chasses
Anyway, the Central African Republic is not a nice place to visit at the current time and likely won’t be for some time. It’s unfortunate but this is very typical of this region in Africa. It’s also unfortunate because there are some remote parks and areas of the CAR that are supposed to be very nice. However, it’s dangerous to travel outside of the surrounding Bangui area and it’s just not worth the risk. We were happy to get in and out without any incidents after the 27 (literally) security checks at the airport when we left. I can’t imagine I’ll ever return to the Central African Republic.

Comments

  1. I would never even consider going to a place like this! Youre nuts!

  2. This is pretty rad that you went to CAR given all that’s been going on. I don’t think I’d have it in me. That must’ve been cool seeing those UN militia guys but also unnerving at the same time. Thanks for sharing bro!

    • That’s a pretty accurate description. I’ve seen a lot of UN soldiers before but this was the first time I’ve seen them militia style in the back of pickups. If they weren’t wearing uniforms you never know they were good guys theoretically!

  3. I’ve always thought it was a joke for some reason because of the name Central African Republic. Why is that the name of the country? Simply because of geography?

    • You know I literally just had this conversation and I got a round about answer and I forgot what it was. My memory is slipping big time as I get older! So I’m not sure and would say reference the Google!

  4. I haven’t been to CAR but I’ve been to many countries in Africa, not only Southern Africa either. If CAR was my first intro to the continent as opposed to Morocco like mine was I don’t think I would’ve gone back for more! Good for your friend for taking a chance and taking it like a man. I’m sure he was lucky to have your experience with him of course. Great post!

    Michelle
    From New Jersey living in Prague

    • Haha yes mine was Egypt then South Africa and the southern countries…had it been CAR I’d have never come back! He’s a trooper but I do take some Credit for prepping him 😉

  5. This post stressed me out! I’m glad you went and made it out safely but there’s no need to put yourself in harms way. I imagine your family doesn’t appreciate it.????

  6. I’ve heard Bangui has nice architecture and isn’t that bad. Maybe I’ve heard wrong. I’ll probably go there soon, I’ve got 13 more countries to visit.

    I have to take issue with you saying Bissau is bad. Sure there are potholes and dirt roads but I thought Bissau was pretty charming in a run down colonial way. Interesting Portuguese architecture, the X club, and some decent restaurants. I guess we’ll have to disagree on that.

    • Wow congrats that’s an awesome achievement! It’s all subjective of course and maybe Bangui isn’t as bad during times of peace and calm but currently it’s not exactly a honeymoon destination! Bissau is fine, we had a rough experience as I recall with no power, awful roads and had some intersting run ins. A place I’d like to return to at some point along with the others over that way.

      • Lee-

        Did you get a visa in advance for CAR? The State Department consular information on CAR sheet says that since April 1, 2015 Americans don’t need a visa, but I find that sort of hard to believe. Do you know if it’s true?

        Did you get a visa from the embassy in DC and did you need/have an invitation letter? I’d like to stop by CAR for two days next month so I’d appreciate any info on how you handled the red tape, if any.

        • Yes you need a visa and I got one in advance at the embassy in Washington DC. I didn’t get an invitation letter but my visa service took care of everything but my application and fee of course. I remember hearing you didn’t need a visa but I 10000% advise getting one because you don’t want to deal with any bureaucratic crap when you arrive in what is already a highly chaotic environment!

  7. Thanks for your honest post about CAR. I traveled a lot in the African Continent in the last 6 years and I have to say that each African country has his own beauty. You also have to consider that you cannot compare the South with the North – this are totally different parts of the world. I feel bad for the people who live there. Because no matter where I went in Africa the people always have been amazing and outstanding. They have been helpful friendly and I always got a very warm welcome. So I think you should maybe not only put out the sights there – because it is Africa – Africa is more about nature and people – than about sights…;-) and yes this area of Africa is a very difficult area, but I think there is still hope for this area and for the people who live there. And yes I wouldn’t recommend this country for a family holiday – there is a reason why the UN and a lot of NGO’s are there…;-)

    • Thanks Eva! I agree you cannot compare north and south of east and west or any regions of the continent. That is what makes Africa great-it’s diversity of its regions. But no matter where you travel the real people are always very friendly. It’s unfortunate that the few, elite and power hungry or corrupt ruin it so often.

  8. I’ve traveled extensively in Africa through my work and I can definitely say you give a pretty accurate description of what it’s like in Bangui. Glad you made it in and out without incident. I think they may be done fighting for a while but until the situation is truly settled it will always be dangerous. I’m currently in Nairobi and if you ever make it back this way give me a shout. We have much better restaurants than in Bangui!

  9. I haven’t been everywhere but I’ve been a lot of places in Africa and CAR is the worst place I’ve visited.

  10. Hi Lee, I don’t know if you remember me but we met in Malawi several years ago at the lake. I was the one from Kansas (Jayhawks) and was with that awful girl who was in my program. It’s great to see you’re still traveling and what a life you lead! I’ve just stumbled across your page and was like is this the same guy and it is! Just wanted to reconnect, say hi and congratulations on all your success and achievements. I’m living and working in Kansas City, Missouri now and wishing I could be back in Africa where my heart is. Look me up if you swing by this neck of the country. I’ll take you to a real basketball game at KU!

    • Hi Ashley and yes of course I remember you and your “friend”!

      Thanks for saying hi and glad to hear you’re settled into KC. It’s too bad I was out there last year for a Royals playoff game and actually saw them win the World Series in person in New York last year. Best BBQ in America for my money and definitely hit you up if I’m out that way again or if you’re in NYC. Take care and thanks again!

  11. Hello! I thought this was a great post! I’ve been looking all over your blog. SO INSPIRING!! I’m 18 myself, and have been to about 7 countries… (Mexico, Canada, Netherlands, France, Spain, Tanzania, South Africa.) so nothing compared to you! Traveling seems so incredibly interesting and all I want to do in life is travel and see the world. I am so inspired and impressed by your travel and the record you hold. As soon as I finish school, I plan on traveling full time!! And of course for spring break, summer break, etc. I first discovered you several weeks ago thanks to Drew Binsky on snapchat.. so I just want you to know I am a HUGE fan already! 🙂

  12. Greg Harden says:

    The C.A.R is no doubt a really rough place. For awhile, in the 1970s, it was known as the “Central African Empire” and run by a lunatic who could have given Idi Amin a run for his money. The violence between the “Seleka” and “Anti-bakala” groups in recent years has been really terrible. Lee, you’re right in that there are some great national parks there, including one bordering Cameroon that has a large population of lowland gorillas and forest elephants. Sadly, poaching is taking a toll… All the best in your travels!

  13. These are some great photos, Lee! I especially like the sunset photo that you took as it gives a small positive picture of not Central African Republic, but Africa in general. But, why do all travel bloggers that go to CAR love taking the same MOCAF Export beer photo? It’s like you haven’t been to the Central African Republic until you have photographic evidence of drinking their national beer. 🙂

    • Great post!

    • Haha…I hate being cliche. I was also unaware of any travel bloggers who have been there. Thanks Ray, hope all is well with you.

      • Been doing well, Lee. Thanks for asking! As for other travel bloggers, the only two I have really seen post about their time in Central African Republic are Johnny Ward from OneStep4Ward (attempting to be one of the youngest people to visit every country in the world), and this Danish guy named Thor who blogs on “Once Upon a Saga.”

        Thor’s story is an interesting one in that he is attempting to to visit every single country in the world without flying while raising awareness of the Red Cross at the same time. I know Graham Hughes was the first person to visit every country without flying, but Thor’s story is different in that he is spending at least 48 hours in each country and also not returning back home to Denmark until he completes his journey. Pretty cool story to read about if you ever find the time!

  14. Can you please do a 30 worst places haha – wouldn’t that wind up the masses !

  15. Joe Tourtelot says:

    Big Thanks to Lee for getting me out of my comfort zone here in California many times and making trips like this happen. Yes, making Bangui my first stop ever in Africa was intense, but it’s just that feeling of awe, uneasiness, shock, sympathy (just to name a few) that makes travel so addictive. I don’t have much to add, as Lee does such a good job of capturing the vibe of these trips. Must be that he’s usually on his laptop at the airport, getting things into words before leaving! The only funny recurring theme that is worth mentioning was the weird look people gave us throughout the trip when we just said we weren’t there for work, or the UN, or and NGO….Just there to check it out! hahahaha

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