The areas around Goma has striking and natural scenery consisting of forests, hills and mountains. Its location outside the Virunga National Park has made it a tourist hub in East Africa. A key feature is the majestic Nyiragongo Volcano which will be a subject of discussion later on. Goma also has restaurants, museums and theaters as we shall see later. If you are in Goma or planning to visit and wondering what to do during your free time, then this might just be the article for you.
Note: Before going to Goma or the Eastern part of DR Congo, it is important to note that it is not an ordinary tourism destination. The area is blessed with pristine wilderness, landscape and wildlife but has had a history of civil unrest and conflict. Although the security situation has normalized and the Virunga National Park opened, you need to know what you might be getting into. It is important to remain cautious and know the latest security updates especially if you are planning to visit the interior or rural areas. It is also important to know that many of the local the people in Goma have had to endure suffering, war and even the recent Ebola crisis which is now under control. The result of all these challenges are tighter border controls and an unusually high number of armed security personal to protect civilians and tourists. The United Nations also has a large peacekeeping team around the Goma area to protect their staff and help the government maintain normality. For more information, read about the things to do in Congo.
Tourist Attractions and Top things to do in Goma
Visit Virunga National Park: Formerly known as Albert National Park, Virunga covers an area of 7,800 sq. km. It was established in 1925 and is the oldest national park in Congo and Africa. Virunga National Park is a UNECO World Heritage site with several mountains like Mikeno, Nyiragongo, Nyamuringa and the Rwenzori Ranges within its boundaries.
The park is home to most of Africa’s famous mammals and some rare ones like Mountain gorillas, the Okapi and Bongo. The Park also shares its borders with the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The park authorities have had to deal with a lot of challenges in the last two decades’ years ranging from illegal settlers, poaching and militias. Things have normalized and people are once again visiting the irresistible park and amazing attractions. If you are in Goma, you need to spare a day and visit the park offices or take a nature walk before planning for the major activities like tracking the gorillas or hiking the Nyiragongo Volcano.
Hiking Mount Nyiragongo: Mount Nyiragongo is 3470 meters high and found inside the Virunga National Park. Its main crater is 2 kilometers wide with a lava lake at the center. This famous Volcano erupted in 2002 and lava flowed up to Goma town. Lives were lost, property damaged and half a million people had to be evacuated. The Goma airport was not spared either.
The runway was covered with ash and other remnants of the explosion as the lava found its way up to Lake Kivu. The Volcano has calmed down ever since and there is no chance of it erupting any time soon. Scientist have established base in Goma to monitor the mountain and any volcanic activity. Hiking the Nyiragongo Volcano is considered one of the most adventurous activities while visiting Africa. It is the only mountain with a boiling lava lake that is open to tourists. Nyiragongo Hiking starts at Kibati village and takes two days.
Gorilla Trekking in Virunga National Park: Mountain gorillas are only found in three counties – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Congo, the Mountain gorillas are only found in Virunga National Park. Gorilla trekking in Congo is popular because of the lower prices for gorilla permits. Gorilla permits in Congo cost $400 compared to the $1500 charged in Rwanda and the $600 in Uganda. Gorilla trekking in Virunga national park can be combined with hiking mount Nyiragongo to make for one of Africa’s most memorable experiences. If you are in Goma, you should take the opportunity to track the gorillas and discover more about Africa’s oldest national park. If you find the permits too expensive, then you can simply visit the Senkwekwe Centre for Mountain Gorilla orphans.
Visit the Senkwekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage: The Senkwekwe Centre is the only mountain gorilla orphanage in the world. One of the advantages of gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park is that you can actually visit this Centre for free – that is if you choose to stay at the luxury Mikeno Lodge. The Centre is named after a great Silverback Gorilla named Senkwekwe. He was killed in 2007 by militias taking refuge in the park at the time.
Two young gorillas were rescued and taken care of by park authorities for some time until the idea of opening up a gorilla orphanage that would cater for young mountain gorillas came up. Most of the gorillas at the Senkwekwe Centre were rescued from poachers or animal traffickers after their parents were killed. Mountain gorillas defend their young to the death. You can visit the Centre and make a donation as you learn more about gorilla conservation in Congo. You could even request to volunteer and work with the dedicated caretakers in the Centre. The sanctuary is built in a large forest enclosure which offers the same environment that their wild relatives live in. There is no chance that they could be reintroduced into the wild given the extra care they have grown accustomed to.
Visit Kahuzi Biega National Park: Kahuzi-Biega National Park is one of the many UNESCO World heritage sites in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is located in the town of Bukavu which is next to Goma. The park was established in 1970 and named after two dormant volcanoes – Biega and Kahuzi. It remains relatively pristine and undiscovered. Kahuzi-Biega National Park is home to chimpanzees, several smaller primates, bush elephants, buffaloes, giant forest hogs and countless antelopes among many other creatures. The key attraction in the park are the Eastern Lowland gorillas (also known as Grauer’s gorillas). They are larger than mountain gorillas and 3,800 are believed to be remaining in the park. Goma city can be used as a strategic base to visit not only Mountain gorillas but also the lowland gorillas in this amazing national park.
Visit Lake Kivu: This is one of the largest lakes in Africa. It lies on the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Lake empties its waters in River Ruzizi which then flows all the way to Lake Tanganyika. Lake Kivu is famous for containing methane gas underneath its floors. Scientist believe that if a major accident occurred like a volcanic eruption or earth quake. It could release the methane gas into the air that could suffocate most living things surrounding the lake. The lake itself looks safe, calm and beautiful.
Tourists can take part in several activities while at Lake Kivu including fishing, swimming and island hopping. The best way to tour the lake is to take a boat or canoe to the different fishing villages and landing sites. Kayaking is also possible when the weather permits. If you are not keen on any of these activities, then you can just go and relax by the lake shores as you enjoy the amazing scenery and views of the Virunga Volcanoes.
Eat fish: We have not discussed the types of fish caught in Lake Kivu in detail. The Lake is home to several fish species including Sambaza, capitaine and tilapia. Sambaza is a special diet in Goma and if fried well, the result can be very delicious. Capitaine and Tilapia can be served whole or in smaller pieces with spices and lemons. If you want to find out how the fish caught in Lake Kivu tastes, you can visit one of the hotels in Goma. The best place to get grilled fish is at VIP Palace Hotel in Goma.
Eat at one of the Restaurants: As we already mentioned earlier, Goma has a large international expatriate community working with various governmental and non-governmental organizations. The UN has one of the largest peacekeeping forces in the Congo. Because of their presence in Goma, a number of quality restaurants have sprung up to cater for the high demands of these expatriates. There are several restaurants and eat outs like Au Bon Pain which is known for tasty sandwiches, salads, pastries and coffee. Le Chalet on the other hand has well prepared pizza and meat dishes. They have amazing gardens with beautiful views of Lake Kivu. Nyumbani Lounge also has excellent food and with several options for vegetarians. If you are looking for tasty local Congolese food, you can check out Village Fatimata for their goat ribs, fish and grilled chicken. For the best Indian food, look no further than Pili Pili. Other restaurants worth mentioning are Petit Paris, Le Petit Bruxelles for barbeque and Il Rasentino for arguably the best Italian food.
Ride on a Motorcycle Taxi: The most common type of transport used in Goma is the motorbike taxi. This is probably because car taxis are quiet expensive in Goma. Motorcycles are flexible and can go to almost any place compared to the vehicles. When using these motorcycles, it is important to have your own helmet or ask the rider for one. Police can be strict regarding helmets and you never known when they will stop you. If you want a cheaper transport option than the car taxis, you can use matatus (buses).If you are the adventurous type and want to do as some of the locals do, you can use a bicycle or ride on the back of a truck.
Go out of town for a night: The area around Goma has remarkable scenery. What better way to find out than to take a ride or drive outside the city? The best place to visit is the convent in Miti-Murhesa outside Goma. Like most catholic founded convents, it has spacious gardens that are perfect for meditation, walking and picnics. The nuns at the convent make their own cookies, wines and ice cream and can be sold to visitors. The other place to visit outside Goma is Lac Vert. This green lake is a conservation site but prepare to pay a small fee to access the premises and enjoy the Lake view.
Visit the Night Clubs: Chez Ntemba is the most popular night club among the locals but is very crowded especially during the weekends. If you are looking for a more modern place to hang out, party and meet people in the international community, then you should try Kivu Club. Kivu Club has a swimming pool and giant screen where you can watch some of your favorite sports teams.
Check out the art shops or Try local beer: Village des Artistes has one of the largest collection of local art pieces in Goma city. Here you can find wooden masks, drums, carved sculptures and local music instruments at a good price. In the evenings, you can relax by one of the joints and order local beer. The common beer brands in Goma are Peak, Primus, Tembo and Simba. You can see postures and billboards advertising these beer brands everywhere as you first enter the city. Beer is served in glass bottles. If you are in one of the bars or nightclubs, ensure that you ask for a cold one.
Important Considerations when visiting Goma city
It is important to note that getting the Congo VISA is not as straight forward as in many of the neighboring countries. The VISA fee is more expensive and while crossing the Goma border, you may be asked to share a lot of information about yourself apart from showing the passport and yellow fever card. Tourists can apply for the VISA with the help of their tour operator or directly with the nearest Congolese embassy. If you are visiting Virunga National Park specifically, the park or your tour operator can help you acquire a special VISA for activities in the park.
The main language spoken in Goma is Swahili and followed by Lingala. French is used in schools across the Democratic Republic of Congo but Lingala and Swahili in particular are important for basic communication with the locals and when buying things in the streets.
It is important to select the right accommodation facility if you are traveling alone or without the assistance of a tour operator in Congo. Apart from the major hotels like Mikeno, there are several guesthouses and hotels run by individuals, organizations and churches. Some individuals can rent out nice rooms for a short period of time on special arrangement. If you are planning to visit places outside Goma city, don’t expect to get many quality accommodation facilities because even in the city itself, electricity is a luxury. Most people use batteries, solar panels and generators.
Goma lies on an area with high altitude and volcanoes. The evenings and mornings can be very cold especially during the rainy months. Pack sweaters and warm jackets so that you are not caught by surprise even if you are living the winter behind. Good hiking boots are important especially if you plan to visit areas outside the city during the rainy season.