West Africa Series: Angola

Title: A Journey Beyond Expectations: Exploring the Contrasts of Luanda, Angola

Upon setting foot on the shores of Luanda, Angola, I was immediately met with an indescribable, overpowering stench – an assault on the senses that lingered in the port. This visceral encounter transported me back to the pages of Robert Kaplan's "The Ends of the Earth," a literary companion from my college days where Kaplan chronicles his journeys across West Africa, Central Europe and Asia. Although Angola is not mentioned in the book, Kaplan’s opening section on West Africa is particularly disturbing.  Kaplan's poignant narrative, “an odor of sour sweat, rotting fruit, hot iron and dust, urine drying on sun-warmed stone, feces and fly infested meat" serves as a stark metaphor, shedding light on the environmental and human degradation embedded in the fabric of West Africa.  Kaplan’s narrative delves into the profound impact of colonialism, illustrating how the weight of history stifles the vibrancy of the present and its obstructs forward thinking 

As I delved deeper into Luanda, it became evident that the city defied the initial olfactory narrative.  Contrary to expectations, Luanda revealed itself as a progressive metropolis, adorned with modern museums and towering skyscrapers. 

As I strolled along the vibrant waterfront of Luanda, the 5-kilometer walkway unfolded with surprises. The waterfront featured picturesque walking paths with gardens and inviting children's playgrounds. I observed young adults engaged in spirited basketball games, their laughter echoing against the backdrop of the city. Further along, a spontaneous dance performance by another group added an unexpected rhythm to the park.

Continuing the walk, the extended promenade led me towards a modern mall, providing a captivating view of the island across the water and the impressive silhouette of high-rise buildings on the horizon. The juxtaposition of contemporary architecture against the natural beauty of the surroundings made the stroll a visual journey, where the palm trees that lined the walkway swayed under white clouds and the highrise buildings reflected on the water. Sadly, the waterfront was marred by the unfortunate reality of plastic pollution.

Venturing into the heart of Luanda's history, I explored landmarks such as the Church of the Lady of Remedies, a venerable structure dating back to 1628, and the distinguished pink colonial-style building housing the Banco National of Angola headquarters. Across the pink colonial style building, we found the modern Museu da Moeda, and a modern bridge. From the front angle, the structure looked like the letter "X".  A few minutes' drive from the waterfront, we found the Mausoleum of Agostinho Neto.  The juxtaposition of the historical and the contemporary painted a multifaceted portrait of a city in transition, balancing its heritage with aspirations for a modern future. 

Delving deeper into the city's past, I visited the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel, an imposing fortress that now served as the museum of the Armed Forces. From its commanding heights, an array of cannons pointed towards a panorama that encapsulated Luanda's diverse scenes – from serene beaches and soaring high-rise buildings to remnants of dilapidated housing and the dignified silhouette of the presidential palace.  Each historical site offered a multifaceted lens into Luanda's rich tapestry, blending the old and the new in a captivating exploration of Angola's cultural and colonial heritage.

One standout aspect of Luanda's social life was the bustling beaches at Luanda Island,a magnet for locals and visitors alike during weekends. The shores teemed with people, creating a vibrant atmosphere filled with colorful beach umbrellas, and market stands where colorful caftans fluttered in the breeze, and beer houses on the opposite side of the beach. This communal spirit added a layer of authenticity to the city experience, challenging preconceived notions and stereotypes.

Yet, the paradoxes persisted. The juxtaposition of the lively beach scenes against the backdrop of plastic-strewn waterfront underscored the dichotomy between progress and environmental challenges. Luanda's journey towards modernity seemed intertwined with the pressing need for sustainable practices to preserve its natural beauty.

Navigating a reddish sandy road, our guide proudly pointed out the traces of bauxite beneath our wheels, a testament to Angola's wealth in natural resources. As we traversed the landscape, he enthusiastically shared insights about the country's abundance of minerals including diamonds, gold, copper, lithium, etc. His narrative shifted to the significant role played by the Chinese in Angola's post-war reconstruction efforts. Our guide emphasized how Chinese investments had been instrumental in rebuilding the nation, fostering economic development, and creating essential infrastructure. It became evident that the enduring collaboration between Angola and China was shaping the trajectory of the country, offering a glimpse into the complex tapestry of global partnerships and their impact on local landscapes.

My trip to Luanda, evolved into a journey of contrasts and surprises. The initial sensory connection to Kaplan's vivid descriptions faded into the background as Luanda unveiled its dynamic character—a city striving for progress while navigating the complexities of its past and present. The experience served as a poignant reminder that, in travel as in literature, the most profound discoveries often arise when expectations are left at the shore. 


the waterfront park and walking path w/ view of the island and the city skyline

Banco National de Angola Headquarters

Museo da Moeda

A modern bridge across the waterfront

Fortaleza de Sao Miguel

Mausoleum of Agostino Neto



All photos by the author


  1. Wow! As usual, your travel narratives are beautiful and astonishingly breathtaking.
    I like the way you described very vividly the atmosphere and the mood of the scenery, It really touched my senses, especially the part when you set foot on the shores of Luanda – the overpowering stench and then being mesmerized by the captivating view of its metropolis.
    This tour was different from the other places you’ve been to. Contrasting yet enchanting.


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