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  • Jeannette De Wyze

Vacation Travel to the Magical Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

By Jeannette De Wyze

In an earlier blog post, I focused on why someone might want to travel for a magical eco-vacation at the Lola ya Bonobo endangered ape sanctuary, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Now let’s turn to the practical considerations involved in going to the bonobo rainforest paradise.

The COVID-19 virus and all its ramifications have made travel less predictable and more subject to disruption than it has been for a long time. But that’s probably good preparation for any trip to the Congo! Travel to the DRC has always been complicated. If you’re braced for possible bumps in the road and can build as much flexibility as possible into both your arrangements and your mental attitude, that’s a great way to start.

After that, setting up a trip to Lola involves several key components. There are a few companies that organize tours to Congo, but we chose to plan our own trip in January of 2020.

Organizing your travel

People llined up on tarmac waiting to board a RwandAir plane.
Flights from Kigala, the capital of Rwanda, depart for Kinshasa several times a week.

At the moment, more than a dozen airlines provide regular service into N’Djili Airport (Kinshasa’s international hub, aka FIH).

These include daily flights offered by Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways, as well as less frequent but nonstop options from Brussels, Paris, Entebbe, Kigali, Istanbul, and Johannesburg.

N’Djili Airport
N’Djili Airport is the international hub for the DRC.

Airline offerings can change at any time, of course, and that’s never been truer than at the moment. Online resources that can help track the available options include the website, which provides a good initial overview.

For more detailed information into connection options and pricing I like to start with Google Flights and Skyscanner, followed by checking directly with the carriers’ websites.

Navigating the bureaucratic hurdles

Open passports showing visas to DRC.
They aren’t the fanciest visas in the world, but they can be difficult to obtain.

When my husband and I landed at N’Djili, all we had to do to walk out of the airport was show the immigration officials our passports, each containing a Congolese visa. Some young women dressed like nurses also asked for our proof of vaccination against yellow fever. Arrival thus felt like a breeze. But what preceded it was more nightmarish.

The only place that issues visas for American citizens to travel to the DRC is the Congolese embassy in Washington, D.C. You have to send the officials there not just money (at least $175 per person), but also your passport, two copies of the completed (complicated) visa-application, a letter of invitation from your host in the Congo, color photographs, copies of all your airline tickets, and a prepaid envelope. You’re supposed to submit this no more than 45 days before you leave on your trip. And then you must pray that it all gets processed and back to you on time.

I had heard at least one horror story from someone I knew, a major bonobo supporter, who had arranged a trip to Lola for a group of family and friends. She had paid for all the non-refundable airline tickets, applied for all the visas – and then learned the critical stamps would not be available in time. She had to cancel the trip and forfeit all that airfare.

My husband and I waited with bated breath.

In an attempt to avoid this, I turned to a recommended visa-processing agency (Travel Visa Pro) and paid for expedited service. To obtain the requisite letter of invitation, I corresponded with the staff at Lola and sent them all the information they needed. Then my husband and I waited with bated breath.

When we finally received the crucial documents, we understood why the sanctuary charges a hefty processing fee. The completed letter bore more stamps and signatures than I had ever seen on any other piece of government paperwork. We later learned that collecting them all required shocking expenditures of time and patience.

DRC letter of introduction
Our letters of introduction, necessary to get visas. Note all the official stamps and signatures required.
Vaccines and medication

My husband and I had been immunized against yellow fever years ago, before a trip to Peru. That vaccine provides lifelong protection so all we had to do was dig up our yellow fever vaccine cards.

But while yellow fever is the only vaccine currently required to enter the Congo, it is hardly the only health consideration. Mercifully, The CDC website says travelers face little risk of contracting Covid there. But even fully vaccinated travelers must undergo a Covid test upon arrival in Kinshasa. To learn if these requirements have changed, one resource is the Skyscanner Travel Restrictions page.

Beyond the coronavirus, travelers to the DRC are advised to make sure all their routine vaccines (e.g. polio, shingles, flu, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) are current. The CDC further recommends that travelers to the DRC get vaccinated against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis, and typhoid.

Malaria is endemic, so taking antimalarial medication is strongly recommended. There are a number of drugs for preventing malaria, all of which you must start before your trip. The CDC gives detailed information on the options.

No vaccinations exist for African sleeping sickness, tick-bite fever, chikungunya, dengue, leishmaniasis, plague, Ebola, Marburg hemorrhagic fever, monkeypox, hantavirus, or TB, but all these diseases can be found in the Congo. Wearing the proper clothing, using insect repellent, and taking other common-sense measures can provide a lot of protection.

Steve and I suffered no adverse health consequences from our trip. But in my opinion, consultation with a knowledgeable travel-medicine specialist is essential before any adventure in the Congo.

From the Airport to the Bonobos

Once we were out of the airport, our visit to the sanctuary was flawless. The Visitor’s Guide to the sanctuary that Lola provided in advance of our trip answered most of my questions and prepared me for what we would experience.