Equatorial Guinea

29 December 2015

After visiting Africa's largest country (Algeria) and its most populous (Nigeria), I explored one of its smallest, least populated countries: Equatorial Guinea ("EG").

My friends at Undiscovered Destinations have begun offering trips around this far off-the-beaten-path country. I was the first to visit under their auspices. Their local team did a nice job in a country that has neither a tourist infrastructure nor many tourists, although EG does have good hotels for oil company employees.

Geographically, the country is the odd collection of remnants of Spain's one venture into sub-Sahara Africa. And Spanish remains the official language. Lucky for EG, their territorial waters encompass some enormously oil-rich plots discovered in the 1990s.

I stayed in Malabo, the capital, located up on Bioko Island. I spent all my EG days on Bioko.

With fine black volcanic sand, the pristine Ureka beach is spectacular. The clean, striking, peaceful beach goes for miles, unsullied by seaweed or by lots of loitering, littering locals or foreigners. Even the ocean waves seemed subdued and mellow. The backdrop for the wide seashore is a wall of thick, deep green tropical forest.

The hazy day gave me less luminous photos but subtracted ten degrees from the tropical heat and made it pleasant with the ocean breeze.
As if the beach alone were not enough beauty, waterfalls spill over the cliffs as streams come down from the high interior mountains even in the dry season.
With my guide Ricardo at a Ureka Beach waterfall.

Farther down the beach are areas where four endangered species of sea turtles (who perhaps appreciate this Eden) have chosen to lay their eggs each year. It is considered one of the most important nesting areas in central Africa.
The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program affiliated with Drexel University has for many years been studying and protecting both the sea turtles and the several species of endangered primates. The commitment and intellect of two young women I had a chance to talk with was impressive and encouraging.

Speaking of nature, I was awed by the giant ceiba trees (aka silk cotton trees). They grow 200-230 feet tall, a tree the height of a twenty-story building. While several tree species (like redwoods and sequoias) can grow even taller, there was something especially dramatic about these ceiba trees — perhaps because they were freestanding and looked like a regular tree that had morphed into a giant.

The ceiba tree is featured on the country's coat of arms which is also in the middle of its flag.
Ceiba tree towering over the US Embassy in Malabo;
a surely intimidated regular tree stands nearby.

While driving all around the island, Ricardo took me to some villages (including where his mother grew up) and small towns (including one where many in his father's family still live and I got to meet cousins on their way to church).

On the right is the old Batete church, a wooden structure that is surprisingly ornate on the inside.

Reflecting the Spanish heritage, most people are Catholics.

Sign: "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" and wishing "many more years"
With lots of oil money since the 1990s and fewer than a million people, Equatorial Guinea is technically the wealthiest country (highest GDP per capita) on the continent of Africa. Yet most people live in poverty.

The President-for-life has enriched himself, his family, and his cronies with obscene wealth, and mansions or palaces throughout the country. And yet, heresy to say this, with so much oil money some of it does spill over to do some good. Based on what I observed:
  • Roads are among the best I've ever seen anywhere
  • Lots of public housing has been and is being constructed
  • Many rural villages have been provided with electricity
  • A big new, modern university is being built from scratch

And to keep the population further pacified:
  • Many now have jobs in big new state bureaucracies. (You've never seen such a small country with so many twelve-story ministries of this and that.)
  • Many young men get a military paycheck. (Online sources claim the military is small, but I saw posts and barracks everywhere I went on Bioko.)

Nonetheless, the corruption and human rights record is apparently even worse than in most authoritarian states of Africa.
Note EG's perfect petrodollar-paid highways and to the left are some of the over 50 luxury villas (one for each African head of state) that Pres. Obiang Nguema had built at Sipopo for an ostentatious week-long conference of the African Union.
Another Presidential Palace rises above slums in old Malabo.

Plaza de la Independencia with the Sofitel opposite the Santa Isabel colonial cathedral.

Equatorial Guinea is said to be one of the world's least visited countries, number six according to one estimate last year. Getting tourist visas have ordinarily been a nightmare but recently visas have been inexplicably waived for all Americans. If you like obscure destinations, add this country to your list.

EG is my fourth and final country named "Guinea," having already be able to visit Guinea Bissau's lovely islands, Guinea's sad Conakry, and exotic Papua New Guinea.