The Republic of Congo (or Congo) is one of the more developed countries in Central Africa. It is a land characterized by vast virgin forests and abundant wildlife in the north, waterfalls, rapids, and swamps in the central and south, and sandy plains, lagoons, and the Mayombe Mountains near and along the coast. Congo is often confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had long been known as Zaire before it changed its name in 1997. “Congo” usually refers to the Republic of Congo and not the Democratic Republic of Congo. The two countries stand on opposite sides of the Congo River.
Congo is divided into several regions. The shores of the Atlantic Ocean consists of low, treeless plains while inland from the coastal plain and running parallel to the coast is the Mayombe Escarpment, which rises to average elevations of over 2,500 feet. The escarpment is also forested with dense jungle vegetation, forming a natural barrier that makes it difficult to reach the interior of the country. The inland regions are defined by huge swamps alongside the Congo and Sanga Rivers.
Running through the heart of the country is the mighty Congo River, one of the continent’s great rivers. There are also numerous other rivers like the Sanga, Ubangi, Niari, and Kouilou, which all create the rapids and waterfalls that crisscross through Congo.
The Republic of Congo is made up of 15 distinct ethnic groups and more than 75 tribes, almost all of them of Bantu origin. Most of the people in the country live in the southern portions of the country around Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. In the dense forests, you’ll find the Pygmies, a group of short people no taller than five feet who still follow the traditional ways of their ancestors. The coast, on the other hand, is dominated by the Vili. Around Brazzaville, you’ll find most of the Bakongo. The M’Bochi and Bateke live inland. There are also a minority of Europeans, mostly French. Compared to other African countries, the Republic of Congo is highly urbanized. More than 60% of the population lives in the country’s five major cities: Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire, Dolisie (or Loubomo), Jacob, and Nkayi. These cities are fairly modern and people wear Western-style clothing.
Tourism in Congo revolves around the country’s big cities. Brazzaville, for example, offers charming old architecture, highlighted by the Basilique Sainte Anne and its famous green tiled roof. You’ll also find the landmark Nabemba Tower, the Temple Mosque, the Congressional Palace, and the house of Charles de Gaulle, which was designed for the former French president when Brazzaville was the capital of Free France. You can also visit colorful markets like Moungali and Oluendze.
Pointe-Noire is another major city in Congo and offers several excellent beaches nearby in the Cote Sauvage region. The suburban village of Loango has an historical appeal; it was the embarkation port for millions of slaves to the New World. You should also check out the Gorges of Diosso nearby; it is a set of spectacular cliffs created from wind and sea erosion.
Outside of the city, you can enjoy some of Congo’s natural features, including the Congo Rapids to the south. Waterskiing along the Congo and Kouillou rivers is particularly popular, but make sure the region is not embroiled in any violent conflict when you go. Congo also has some impressive waterfalls in its countryside, including the Loufoulakari Falls and Trou de Dieu.
In the region near the city of M’Be, you can visit Lac Bleu and the Valley of Butterflies to enjoy some good fishing.
Located close to the equator, Congo is a very hot country. Temperatures average between 27°C (80°F) and 32°C (90° F) year-round when very minimal seasonal change. Rainfall is heavy, except in the Bateke Plateaus inland from the Mayombe Escarpment, where long dry seasons occur between May and October.
The kingdom of Kongo was established in Congo about 400 years ago and grew to become the largest in Central Africa, stretching from the Congo River to Angola. The kingdom reached the height of its power in the 16th century, but then stumbled into internal economic and political problems, contributed by the arrival of the Europeans.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the region in the late 1400s. The French, though, were the first to colonize the area when they set up trading and slave centers in the 17th and 18th centuries. After slavery was abolished, France used Congo as a naval and trade base.
In 1880, Brazzaville was established as a post and was used in the early 20th century as the seat of government for the colony of French Equatorial Africa, which included Congo, Gabon, Ubangi-Shari, and Chad. The French Equatorial Africa was dissolved in 1958 and the Republic of Congo gained full independence in 1960.
The country was originally run by a Communist-style government led by Alphonse Massamba-Debat, but he was deposed by the military in 1968. Socialist military governments ran the country until 1979 when the legislature and elections were restored. The country operated under a single political party system until 1992. However, Congo was plunged into a civil war in 1997 when long-standing ethnic and regional rivalries came to full boil. Sassou-Nguesso, who had lost the first multiparty elections in 1992 to Lissouba, seized control of Brazzaville, destroyed much of the city, and felled the Lissouba government. Sassou-Nguesso declared himself president, and a civil war ensued until a ceasefire was struck in 1999. In 2002, “multi-party” elections were held but Lissouba was prevented from competing. Sassou easily won the election as he was effectively the only viable candidate, reverting the country back to the days of single-party rule.