Benguela, the second-oldest Portuguese-founded city in Angola, has existed since 1617 and is in the western part of the country. As a coastal city — a cidade das acácias rubras (city of the Royal Poinciana tree) as Benguela is known — it is spoilt for beaches, fresh seafood, the type of climate that makes you want to be outdoors and gorgeous people with open hearts.
It wasn’t always like this.
Perhaps the darkest part of this city’s history coincides with its colonial past, when Benguela was a slave port. No other country in Africa exported more slaves to South America, specifically Brazil, than Angola, and a countless number of them left from these very shores.
From Benguela’s Praia Morena, where slaves were loaded, it’s a straight shot to Salvador da Bahia on the other side of the Atlantic.
Paradoxically, Benguela’s colonial past richly contributes to the architecture that gives this city its charm. The wide, tree-lined avenues are dotted with centuries-old churches and palaces, gardens and plazas, and on the edges of the city are sprawling shanty towns to remind us of all the refugees that arrived from the interior, driven by Angola’s decades-long civil war .
A city of more than 600 000 people, Benguela is surprisingly small, compact and easy to navigate. The best way to get around is by kupapata, the motorcycles that carry everyone around (trips start at 150AKZ — about R3.54), but sometimes, especially in the historic centre, it’s better to go on foot. There are sidewalks, something those from the capital city Luanda have forgotten exists, and the varied architecture of houses, cinemas (the open-aired Cine Kalunga and the majestic Teatro Monumental are a must) and government offices are visually arresting.
To further delve into Benguela’s past, the Archeology Museum, one of the oldest buildings still standing in the city, is a must. The museum no longer houses much, but in centuries past slaves were held here before being put on wooden vessels that sailed to Brazil and Cuba.
To clear your head, exit the museum and take a stroll down Praia Morena, Benguela’s urban beach (the water has seen cleaner days, though), and enjoy the casuarina trees and the people-watching, then down a Cuca beer or two at nearby O Boteco.
A deeply Catholic city, Benguela has several significant churches. Among the more famous ones are the Our Lady of Fátima Cathedral, an imposing triangular structure that took 40 years to complete, and the unmistakable Our Lady of Pópulo, an architectural treasure built in the 17th century with stones brought over from Brazil to steady the slave ships as they made their journey back. Close by, the Palácio das Bolas, a palace built in 1920, is one of Benguela’s most recognisable landmarks; today, it serves as the ruling party’s provincial headquarters.
You can’t visit Benguela without taking a swim off one of its beautiful beaches. The best one closest to the city is Baía Azul, a short, breezy 25 minute drive along the coast. Baía Azul is where Benguela goes to unwind, and many locals and out-of-towners built holiday homes on the hills overlooking the blue waters. For 5 000AKZ (about R113), have freshly caught grilled fish or lobster with a side of feijão de óleo de palma (beans stewed in palm oil) and a beer on the picnic tables at Restaurante Bodona, with your feet firmly planted on the sand as your eyes scan the Atlantic’s horizon.
Bodona is good and the setting is hard to beat, but perhaps the best place to eat in town is at Tudo na Brasa. Their specialty: traditional Portuguese roasted suckling pig, in which the pork meat is juicy and tender while the skin is satisfyingly crisp. It’s served alongside a sauce made of lard, a splash of white wine, garlic and lots of white pepper. (It’ll set you back about R141.) Such is Portuguese influence in coastal Angola and especially Benguela that one of its favourite dishes is a perfected version of this Iberian favourite.
The band África Tentação sang about the city in their iconic 1982 jam Quando Fui à Benguela (When I Went to Benguela). Even though the song is in Portuguese, you’ll be able to make out some of the landmarks mentioned here.
“When I went to Benguela I didn’t want to leave,” they sing. “When I saw Praia Morena I started dreaming.”
This first appeared in The Continent, which you can download here to get your free copy