Cow-Town in Equatorial Guinea

As I left on the 25 minute flight from Douala to Malabo, I got a great view above the clouds of Mount Cameroon which is the highest mountain in West Africa and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Kilimanjaro which put me in a great mood heading over to Equatorial Guinea. Considering the squalor I was expecting, it could only exceed any expectations that I had. As you fly into Malabo, you will see tons of oil platforms scattered around the harbor, tankers steaming and coastal refineries shooting off flames day and night. Malabo is “Cow-town” Africa: make no mistake; the city and in fact the country is run by big foreign, mostly American oil and it looks like it’ll be that way for a while.

As I got off the plane, I started sweating immediately, it is even hotter on Bioko Island, the island that Malabo is on, than it is on the mainland. The steamy and unbearably humid temperatures are typical of the Equatorial region but what shocked me was just how nice the island was. As I flew in, I saw tons of beautiful mansion type houses, usually clustered together and right near oil sites. Obviously this was the oil companies building “camps” so to speak so their workers could live together and in nice digs much like I’d imagine it to be like in Saudi Arabia.

My trip to Malabo was strange as the island couldn’t decide whether it liked me or not as I will illustrate. As soon as I got through immigration, I was standing outside trying to get a non-existent taxi as there are no tourists to taxi around, when some little homeless looking seemingly retarded local guy whacked me in the arm with his hat really hard. In shock, I spun around and was like, “What the fuck?!” The guy seemingly couldn’t help himself and all of the workers started laughing and saying in Spanish that he is stupid and has many problems and don’t worry about it. I was like “Great, nice start to this trip”. Anyway, I finally did get a person to drive me to my hotel.

Hotels in Malabo and Equatorial Guinea in general are ridiculously expensive. There are only really 4 or 5 hotels on Bioko that you can stay in. The best is the new Sofitel which costs between $400-$500 per night. There was no shot I was paying that when the average price is about $200 per night. I ended up going with a Lonely Planet recommended hotel called the Hotel de Bahia which was right on the harbor overlooking all the oil rigs and construction. It also featured a very good restaurant and a patio filled with the best patio products which can be found on, for evening drinks and dinner over the water. Mind you, over the water may sound romantic or whatever but with dump trucks dumping, rigs blazing and people yelling it wasn’t exactly as tranquil as you may think.
So I check in and negotiated the price to $100! I was pretty psyched until I saw my room which was deplorably small and the air conditioning wasn’t working. Now I am pretty easy with places to stay and have stayed in some real shitholes all over but that’s if I am paying $5, not $100. So I asked them to fix the AC and they couldn’t and I pleaded for an hour or so for another room which finally they agreed and sent me to an equally awful room where to AC didn’t work again. So the lady said she’d call the “tecnico”, which is Spanish for some guy who masquerades as a fix it guy but really has no clue what he’s doing. I’ve seen this episode before. Nonetheless, he comes and doesn’t help the situation except to suggest that they bring a wall unit and put it on the small table in my room.

Works for me I thought, as he carries it down caked in clumpy dust. So he takes my bath towel and wipes it down. I wasn’t too irritated because I had no intention of using the filthy shower as I was leaving in the morning and would shower the next day-not that it even helps in this heat. So after the white towel turns completely black he throws it onto the freshly laid linens on my bed. This obviously displeased me as dust and grime was now all over the pillow and sheet and I grabbed it and scolded him in Spanish. He apologized and set up the AC. Finally, I had just had enough and wanted to go to bed.

I finally kind of relaxed and dealt with the sputtering AC and the TV that didn’t work and was about to fall asleep when straight out of a bad movie, the original AC above the bed dumped a bucket of water on my face. I was thrilled as you can imagine and totally freaked out. I didn’t realize at first what it was and then went down soaking wet to the desk to scream at them and demand they do something, etc. The lady looked at me in horror and to her credit generally felt bad after all the inconveniences I had been through with the hotel. So she just offered me one of the better rooms facing the ocean.

This kind of pissed me off because I had asked several times if there were any other rooms open and she repeatedly said no. So I asked why and she said they were holding that room just in case someone showed up. Flabbergasted, I just simply said please give me the key and went to my new perfectly air conditioned room and went to bed.

It’s hard to aptly describe just how long and annoying this situation was. With the waiting time and the apathy and lack of service, I was astounded and very frustrated to go along with exhaustion. However, again to their credit, they didn’t make me pay for the room after I insisted so at least I can take a somewhat positive memory of that horrible hotel.

Aside from getting whacked by some guy and the hotel disaster, Bioko Island was much better than I expected. The colonial city of Malabo was something out of the Caribbean and the beautiful buildings and houses made you think twice about where you were. The cathedral in Plaza de Espana was gorgeous and was even better with the backdrop of the lovely Sofitel Hotel and the harbor.
The island itself was very lush as I took a tour around the small island. You are not allowed to take pictures on the island so I was reluctant to do so but obviously did manage to sneak a few in. They will confiscate your camera if you are caught or even arrest you and I did no videotaping. The police are all over the place and are notorious for their corruption and threats of arrest if you don’t give them some money

The whole island is run with US oil money. Equatorial Guinea is one of the richest countries in Africa if not the richest. Perversely, they still rank at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index while reporting torture, forced child labor, arbitrary arrests and corruption from judicial officials. This is not shocking for Africa but the US funded President Obiang has seemingly taken all the money he is given and padded his own bank accounts back in the US while his people suffer. They actually have an election coming up soon and his election signs are up everywhere. I mean everywhere. The only problem is the whole time I didn’t see one sign for one other candidate. Of course I realized there were no other candidates as nobody wants to challenge the iron fist of Obiang. It’s too bad because the former Spanish enclave is a nice place with much potential.

For now, Bioko Island along with the mainland portion of Equatorial Guinea called Rio Muni will be at the mercy of the government and the US exploitation of their oil wealth and natural resources. That said, Malabo is an interesting place to be. It’s kind of another world where the streets are dead during the day because everyone is working the oil platforms and at night it buzzes with “Roughnecks” (the self proclaimed name the US oil workers told me they go by). They just kick back and crush San Miguel and Mahou beers straight from Spain while complaining about how stupid all the locals are and how much they hate it on Bioko. Such is life as a roughneck I guess. However, you won’t see me signing up for that job-I can guarantee you that.

I highly recommend checking out Bioko and the rest of Equatorial Guinea as it will surprise you by how pleasant it is but don’t stay at the Hotel de Bahia and be prepared for one of the most expensive places you have ever been. But any way you slice it, it’ll be an experience and Equatorial Guinea is certainly off the beaten path and one of the more unique places in the world.
I flew on some truly random airline called Ceiba Intercontinental Airlines to Gabon with a nice little unexpected stopover in Sao Tome and Principe. This was great because I was going to go there anywhere and this saves me having to buy tickets and stay there etc. and gives me more time accomplish everything else. The island itself was very hot and steamy but very lush. The main town, Sao Tome Town was pretty nice and very influenced by the Portuguese as you’d imagine. I was really rushing around because of the time issue to catch my flight to Libreville so I really didn’t get too much time to explore. It’s unfortunate but sometimes these things happen. I will certainly make up island time in the Indian Ocean!

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  1. Amazing story about the hotel disaster. I can just picture myself in that spot and I would’ve blown up myself certainly. Sounds like it’s a struggle but a great trip. I look forward to reading more.

  2. LOL great post today and sounds like a place I’d rather avoid but always good to read great travel stories. I love your site. I just found it and have been reading your trip blogs all night. Good luck and be safe on the rest of your journey.

  3. Bonjour Lee! I love the webpage. I am on Malabo right now and wish we could have met. I am not a rough neck but many here are as you see, I work in assurances. I read your page with some regularity and I am saddened I missed you. Hopefully one day we can meet in GE or somewhere else. Have a safe voyage.

  4. Your holiday in Africa is wonderful. Quite a itinerary you have I’ve read. I shall be reading each day to see where you go. Please be safe and continue to upload pictures of these exotic destinations. It must be quite an experience for you.

  5. Keep it real in the motherland!

  6. How funny, I checked up that airline you flew, Ceibu Intercontinetal Airlines, apparently not only is it totally banned by the EU, but even more interesting is the fact, in Feb 2009, the boss of that airline flew off in what was supposed to be a biz trip to West Africa (with $6.5 million in tow) to negotiate deals with aviation authorities there to get his airline access to fly there and totally vanished with all the cash and hasn’t been seen since.

  7. That’s really funny. All you have to do is see their office in Malabo to see they are shady.

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