Central African Republic

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Introduction to Central African Republic

If you want to get away from the Africa of souvenir sellers and slick willy tour operators, the Central African Republic (CAR) may be the place for you. It has pristine forests and lively cities - but also a lawless countryside and crumbling roads.

If you can manage to get to it, the CAR's national park is one of Africa's best. Pygmies guide you through forest that's home to elephants and rare lowland gorillas. Dense rainforests explode in riots of colourful butterflies, and out on the plains you can spot elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos.

The towns and cities have bustling markets, palm and banana wine for sale by the side of the roads, green hills and giraffes close by, and beer halls to do a Bavarian proud. Unfortunately, muggings, petty theft and police extortion are commonplace.

Caution

The security situation in the CAR has deteriorated in recent years and sporadic fighting and extensive looting has been reported throughout the country, including the capital, Bangui. Security is unstable throughout the country and events are subject to rapid and sudden change. Foreigners are favourite targets for armed gangs. Check with government travel advisories before any travel.

Full country name: Central African Republic

Area: 622,980 sq km

Population: 3.44 million

Capital City: Bangui (pop 670,000)

People: Baya, Banda, Sara, Mandjia, Mboum, M'Baka, European

Language: French, Sango, Arabic, Swahili

Religion: Catholic (25%), Muslim (9%), indigenous beliefs

Government: republic

Head of State: President François Bozizé

Head of Government: Prime Minister Celestin Gaombalet

GDP: US$5.5 billion

GDP per capita: US$1,600

Annual Growth: 5.5%

Inflation: 2.5%

Major Industries: Agriculture, diamond mining, timber, brewing

Major Trading Partners: France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Cote d'Ivoire, Spain, Cameroon, Eqypt

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Only nationals of Israel and Switzerland do not need visas. There is a CAR embassy in Washington DC, but none in the UK and only a few in Europe. In most African countries where there's no CAR representation the French embassy can arrange CAR visas.

Health risks: malaria, schistosomiasis (bilharzia) (This makes swimming unsafe everywhere), HIV/AIDS (Many adults, particularly prostitutes, are affected in Bangui), meningococcal meningitis, yellow fever

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1

Dialling Code: 236

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The CAR celebrates all the Christian festivals, and in the north, all the Muslim ones. Their dates vary according to the Muslim lunar calendar. Tabaski (Id al Kabir) is also known as the Great Feast, and is the most important celebration in northern central Africa. Muslims kill a sheep to commemorate the moment when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son in obedience to God's command. (God intervened at the last moment and suggested a ram instead.) It also coincides with the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. New Year's Day is a holiday throughout the country as well. 13 August is Independence Day and on 29 March the anniversary of the death of Barthelemy Boganda is celebrated.

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Best time to Visit

Rain is the most important point to consider when planning a trip to the CAR, because a wet season downpour can strand you for days. In most of the CAR the best time to travel is from November to April, but the rains come by late February in the south and around Bangui. Most of the national parks are open year-round, but St Floris in the northeast is open only from 1 December to 15 May.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Central African Franc

Meals

Budget: US$0.50-3

Mid-range: US$3-5

High: US$5-10

Deluxe: US$10+

Lodging

Budget: US$3-10

Mid-range: US$10-50

High: US$50-80

Deluxe: US$80+

The CAR will put a happy grin on the face of most budget travellers. It's cheap, and if you're careful, eat in the markets or on street stalls and stay in the cheapest accommodation (or camp in the bush for free) you could get by easily on US$15-20 a day. But if you're used to a few more creature comforts and like to splurge occasionally, expect to pay around US$50 a day, which will get you more restaurant meals and more of a choice with accommodation. It would be difficult to spend a lot more than US$100 a day, unless you are mugged often or constantly stay in the best hotels, eat out at the best restaurants and go drinking and dancing every night.

The exchange rate for cash is much lower than for travellers cheques, but the two banks that change cheques charge commissions. The Banque Internationale pour l'Afrique Occidental (BIAO) charges a small set rate whatever the size of the transaction, and the Union Bancaire en Afrique Centrale charges a 1% commission. Bangui and Berbérati are the only places where you can change money, so you'll have to organise your trip and your finances around the banks there.

Tipping is a problem because there are few clear rules that can be applied to everyone. Travellers at expensive hotels would be expected to tip, but not those at cheaper hostels. Expect to tip 10% of the bill at better restaurants, but at African restaurants with all-African customers no one is expected to tip, nor would you tip at street stalls. Where there are few other travellers, try and follow local custom as closely as possible.

Bargaining, on the other hand, is normal. Most travellers should expect the initial price to be three or more times the 'real' price. This is not always true; with African cloth sold by the metre and with gold and silver, don't expect to bargain. If you try, the seller is likely to refuse to deal with you any more.

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Attractions

Bangui

Bangui does have charm, but travellers rarely have any praise for it, and parts of town are downright seedy and dangerous. The town is bordered by the river and thick green covered hills, it has a charming administrative district, and enough to see to keep you going for a day or two.

The heart of the African quarter is the unmarked 'K-Cinq' intersection, 5km (3mi) from the centre of town. It has bars, dance clubs, the largest market and plenty of public transport. Unfortunately it is also the most dangerous place in town, with muggers and thieves on the prowl day and night.

M'Baïki

M'Baïki is a major timber and coffee growing area, and home of the Lobaye people and pygmies. There are a few permanent settlements just south of town, and some of the residents allow themselves to be photographed for a fee.

About 10km (6mi) northeast of town is a village of ébonistes where you can watch men carving ebony and, if you bargain, you can buy pieces for a good price. There is a lovely waterfall near M'Baïki, and you should be able to find someone to guide you there if you ask around.

Sibut

Sibut is where the paved road peels east to Bambari and Bangassou and north to Kaga Bandoro. This makes it a major crossroads and an active town, with most of the action along the northern fork of the road, where the market, the gare routière and most of the hotels, restaurants and food stalls are.

Zinga

Zinga is a beautiful and friendly town on the Oubangui river, furnished with wooden houses - rare for this part of Africa. All boats going either way on the river stop here to go through customs formalities, making it an excellent place to catch boats.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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