From Libreville and Loango National Park to Lopé and Pongara, here are the best places to visit in Gabon.

“We need the Gabonese to value their forest, to understand how to protect it rather than just chopping things down.”

Jean Norbert Diramba, Minister of Tourism for Gabon, Libreville, January 2023.

In January 2023, I visited Gabon as a guest of the Ministry of Tourism. The Central African nation, which until now has been reliant on oil reserves and mineral wealth, is at a crossroads, and the government wanted a few journalists to witness the launch of their new tourism drive.

Sharing borders with Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, Gabon’s in the heart of the Congo Basin. With a population of just 2 million people and a land area of almost 270,000 square kilometres, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that as much as 88 per cent of Gabon is covered in rainforest.

These levels of biodiversity are unheard of these days, and the Gabonese government are finding innovative ways to encourage the protection of this rainforest while also benefitting from it as a resource. Amongst this wilderness can be found the largest population of forest elephants in Africa, tens of thousands of gorillas and species as diverse as mandrills and hippos.

Gabon’s Minister of Tourism, Jean Norbert Diramba, told me that the country is selling ‘Carbon Credits’ – a form of carbon offsetting that Western countries and companies like Amazon are buying into – to protect these rainforest habitats, but he also wants to a build a tourist industry (although from my experience, there’s a long way to go!).

“Tourism can help diversify our economy away from oil,” said Mr Diramba. “But right now, it’s just a drop in the ocean. People don’t even know where Gabon is on the map, or that there’s this vast carbon basin full of untouched rainforest!”.

This truly is a rare wilderness, and to help put the Central African country on the map, here’s my guide to the best places to visit in Gabon.

Places to visit in Gabon

Gabon is styling itself as the ‘Last Eden’, but despite its vast rainforest reserves and incredible biodiversity, it has a long way to go in terms of sustainable tourism. I was a guest of the Gabonese government, and after meeting with several ministers, my overriding impression of Gabon’s tourism drive is that the oil money is running out and they need new ways to shore up their bank accounts. The President at the time was Mr Ali Bongo, who seemed to have built an entire national park around one of his mansions!

Despite rampant cronyism, Gabon has been relatively stable compared to other Central African nations – aside from the 2023 coup which ousted Mr Bongo – with one of the highest GDPs in Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund. That provides opportunities to develop tourism, but still, I found there were few hotels or wildlife lodges, it was difficult to book gorilla trekking permits, it was hard to find reputable guides, and the gorilla sanctuary I visited really needed a cash injection (where was all that tourism money the ministers talked about actually going then, I wondered?).

But you have to start somewhere, and Gabon has the resources to be a world leader in eco-tourism (the Costa Rica of Africa, as one minister put it). The question is, do they want that? With that in mind, make sure you do due diligence when researching your Gabon itinerary. Research your hotels, lodges and safari guides in advance, and be prepared for long and unpredictable journeys!

A lowland gorilla splashes around in the Fernan Vaz Lagoon.

1. Libreville

Libreville is the capital of Gabon, and the city on the banks of the Gabon Estuary is where your journey is likely to begin. Founded in the mid-19th century by freed slaves, the city’s name means ‘Free Town’, although Gabon didn’t gain independence from the French until 1960.

As the largest city in Gabon, Libreville is the heart of the nation’s political and economic activities, hosting the Presidential Palace and numerous foreign embassies in grand colonial buildings and contemporary ocean/riverfront residences. Culturally, the city is home to the National Museum of Arts and Traditions, the colourful Nkembo Market (where I picked up a handcrafted wooden elephant as a souvenir) and a long stretch of Atlantic coastline lined with rustic bars and beach shack restaurants.

Libreville is the gateway to Gabon, and the wilderness is closer than you think. Just over the estuary, you’ll find Pongara National Park, President Ali Bongo’s favoured getaway before he was ousted in 2023’s coup.

A market in central Libreville.

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2. Pongara National Park

“The people in Gabon are beginning to see the value of conservation, they appreciate their nature,” said Clyde Onanga, who worked for the National Agency for National Parks. “We have well over 80 per cent forest cover, and incredible mangrove reserves right here in Pongara. But as you’ll see, we have areas that are being affected by climate change, rising sea levels are destroying the beaches and communities are being forced to move.”

Clyde summed up the environmental issues affecting Gabon’s Atlantic Coast, where the rainforest truly does meet the jungle. You can see this side of Gabon very easily with a trip to Pongara National Park, which lies on the opposite bank of the Gabon Estuary to Libreville. I was surprised at how accessible the area is, and there are several hotels lining the Pongara side of the river bank, just outside the boundaries of the national park. Inside the park, you can stay at Pongara Lodge, which is run by Luxury Green Resorts.

Pongara National Park is a remarkable area of biodiversity and natural beauty, covering approximately 929 square kilometres. This park is part of the larger Pongara Protected Area Complex and is a crucial component of the Gabonese system of national parks established in 2002. The impressive mangroves are vital for biodiversity – providing breeding grounds for a variety of fish and shellfish, and serving as a buffer against coastal erosion – while the beaches of Pointe-Denis are a vital nesting ground for leatherback and olive ridley turtles between November and February.

The park’s diverse habitats, including savannahs, forests, and coastal waters, support an array of wildlife, including lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, and numerous bird species such as the Damara tern and the African river martin. Take a buggy safari, kayak tour or guided walk to learn more (contact Pongara Lodge for more information).

Safari buggies drive along Pongara National Park’s Atlantic Coast.

3. Wonga Wongue Wildlife Reserve

From Libreville or Pongara National Park, you can organise a boat through the mangroves and river deltas to Wonga Wongue Wildlife Reserve (plus a bumpy jeep ride over the savannah!). The reserve is hoping to develop an eco-tourism, although there are big conflicts with elephants and local communities (the elephants rampage through villages in search of mangoes) and the lodge I stayed in had a caged crocodile, which was hardly a shining example of conservation.

I joined a walking safari with local guide Lionel Ndong (in the Nyonie Reserve, a subsection of Wonga Wongue), who told me how he’s been charged by elephants on at least 20 occasions (Gabon is certainly an adventure!). “Elephant numbers have increased,” he said, explaining how conservation schemes are in place. “Tourism has lots of benefits that our communities can enjoy. Villagers can lead treks, cook food for guests and drive safari jeeps.”

Covering an area of over 500,000 hectares, Wonga Wongue is an excellent opportunity to see elephants in the wild, while on the coast, you can spot hippos and whales. A system of electric fences being established across Gabon by Space For Giants should help limit the elephant-human conflicts that are ongoing in Gabon, too.

A herd of elephants crossing the savannah in Wonga Wongue Wildlife Reserve.

4. Port-Gentil

Port-Gentil is the second-largest city in Gabon, and it truly is a city of contrasts. I know, I know, that’s a serious travel writing cliche to use, but when you’re stood on a white sand beach, drinking beers and cocktails in the sun, and you look out across the Atlantic Ocean to see oil rigs firing up on the horizon, you’ll understand!

Located on Mandji Island along the Atlantic coast, Port-Gentil is both a hub for the country’s oil and timber industries and home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Gabon. After hitching a ride on a speedboat down south from Pongara National Park (there are no easy road links from the capital), I spent a few nights at Trois-Rivieres, a burgeoning tourist hub set around three rivers that empty into the ocean on the island’s tip.

The beaches alone are worth the journey, but Port-Gentil is also an excellent base from which to explore the rainforests and rivers to the south, including places like Loango National Park.

Oil platforms off the coast of Port-Gentil.

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5. Fernan Vaz Lagoon

One of the most interesting parts of my trip was a visit to the Fernan Vaz Lagoon, which is found to the south of Port Gentil. This fascinating lagoon is centred around the small settlement of Omboue, and you’ll need a boat to get around. A quick boat ride across the lagoon will bring you to the Saint Anne Mission, a steel and wood church designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It’s quite the find in the middle of the rainforest, and it’s been variously repaired using local materials since it was first shipped over from France, piece by piece, in 1899.

Fernan Vaz Lagoon is also well-known in Gabon for its gorilla rehabilitation project, where I saw the potential for Gabon’s tourism industry to boom and the pitfalls it currently faces due to lack of government funding and interest. A research centre occupies Ile de Evengue, where I met with Dr. Martin Kabyaya, a Congolese scientist who runs the rehabilitation project. Martin explained how the centre cares for sick and injured lowland gorillas, which face countless challenges in Gabon.

“They’re an endangered species. They’re threatened by human activities like poaching, viruses like Ebola and Covid,” he said. “The illegal trade of wild animals also threatens the gorillas, because people want the babies as pets.”

The gorillas are kept in woefully small cages, due to a lack of funding, where many have been held since Covid-19 broke out and complicated operations. When it’s safe, the gorillas are released onto islands in the lagoon, where they’re free to roam until they can be rehabilitated back into the wild. With more funding, the project could be vastly improved, but there seemed to be little interest in doing this when I spoke to ministers. Contact the project directly if you wish to visit, and they should be able to help you organise transport from Port Gentil.

The gorilla sanctuary in Fernan Vaz Lagoon.

6. Loango National Park

Many of the gorillas being cared for on Ile de Evengue come from Loango National Park, which begins 25 kilometres to the south of Fernan Vaz Lagoon. The park is your best bet for a gorilla trek (there’s at least one family of habituated gorillas here) but permits are incredibly restricted for the safety of both the animals and humans. We’d originally been meant to join a gorilla trek, but the permits had all gone by the time the Ministry of Tourism got around to organising things.

Still, it’s a spectacular area of primary rainforest, and well worth a trip even if you can’t get hold of an elusive gorilla trekking permit. Spanning over 1,550 square kilometres, the park encompasses a variety of landscapes, from rainforests and savannahs to wetlands and a stunning coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.

I’d recommend booking a stay in one of the camps and lodges within the national park. You can expect to see forest elephants, buffaloes and (if you’re lucky) gorillas. The park is particularly famous for its surfing hippos, a rare sight of these giants playing in the ocean waves. The beaches are crucial nesting sites for several turtle species, including the leatherback and olive ridley turtles, while the tree branches sing with the noise of over 200 species of bird.

Gabon is home to 13 national parks.

7. Lopé National Park

Ah yes, another national park. With 88 per cent forest cover, Gabon is going all out and establishing national parks left, right and centre. A total of 13 have been created since 2002, when the National Agency for National Parks was formed to protect the country’s biodiversity. One of the best is Lopé National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Central Gabon covering approximately 4,910 square kilometres of rainforest.

The park serves as a critical conservation area for both forest and savannah species, but it’s particularly renowned for its large populations of primates, including mandrills and chimpanzees. Lopé is also home to forest elephants, buffaloes, and numerous antelope species, such as the sitatunga and the elusive bongo.

Lopé’s landscape is marked by the Ogooué River, which meanders through the park, creating a rich ecosystem that supports an incredible variety of birdlife, with over 400 species documented. The park’s archaeological significance is highlighted by well-preserved petroglyphs and ancient tool sites, offering insights into human history dating back over 400,000 years.

Buffalo in Gabon.

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8. Ivindo National Park

Ivindo National Park is another UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the heart of Gabon. Few tourists make it to this remote part of the country, but if you do, you’ll see a spectacular showcase of Central Africa’s rainforest ecosystem. The park covers roughly 3,000 square kilometres and is home to the famous Kongou and Mingouli waterfalls, which are among the most impressive in Central Africa.

The park’s dense rainforests are home to a wide array of wildlife, including forest elephants, lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, and numerous species of monkeys. Ivindo is also a haven for bird enthusiasts, with over 430 species recorded, including the rare and colourful African grey parrot.

The river systems within Ivindo, particularly the Ivindo and Djidji rivers, are essential habitats for fish and serve as a corridor for wildlife movement. The park’s conservation efforts are crucial in protecting these ecosystems, offering visitors a unique opportunity to experience one of the most untouched and diverse parts of the African rainforest.

Forest elephants abound in Gabon.

9. Akanda National Park

Akanda National Park, located in northeastern Gabon, is distinguished by its rich mangrove forests and tidal flats, which are vital habitats for migratory birds and marine life. Covering approximately 540 square kilometres, the park encompasses two primary bays, both known for their extensive mangrove ecosystems and the lush, biodiverse rainforests that line the shores.

This park is especially great for birdwatchers, as it hosts significant populations of migratory and coastal birds, including the Damara tern, the African spoonbill, and the osprey. The mangroves are not just crucial for birdlife but also act as essential breeding grounds for fish and crustaceans, supporting local and regional fisheries.

Akanda is also known for its spiritual significance to local communities, particularly the Fang people, who consider parts of the park sacred. The park’s close proximity to Gabon’s capital, Libreville, makes it easily accessible for visitors looking to explore its natural beauty and observe its diverse wildlife, which also includes monkeys and several species of marine turtles.

Akanda National Park is best known for its dense mangroves.

10. Crystal Mountains National Park

What a name for a national park! The Crystal Mountains truly live up to their lofty title too, and you’ll be awed by the scale of the landscapes found in western Gabon. Covering an area of approximately 1,200 square kilometres, the park is, of course, named for its spectacular mountainous terrain, which offers some of the most picturesque views in Gabon, including mist-covered peaks and lush, verdant valleys.

The park’s high altitude and cooler climate support a unique blend of flora and fauna. It’s a haven for botanists and nature enthusiasts due to its rich biodiversity, including numerous endemic plant species and a variety of orchids that thrive in its montane forest and grassland habitats. Wildlife in Crystal Mountains National Park includes forest elephants, mandrills, and several primate species. The park is also a critical habitat for birds, with over 150 species recorded, including the African grey parrot.

Roads are a rarity in Gabon! The author pictured here enjoying the tarmac after a bumpy ride.

Map of the best places to visit in Gabon

Here’s a map of the best places to visit in Gabon:

FAQ: Best places to visit in Gabon

Here’s an FAQ on the best places to visit in Gabon:

Q1: What is the best time of year to visit Gabon?

A1: The ideal time to visit Gabon is during the dry season, from May to September. During these months, the weather is more conducive to wildlife viewing, and the reduced rainfall makes it easier to navigate the country’s roads and national parks.

Q2: Do I need a visa to visit Gabon?

A2: Most visitors require a visa to enter Gabon. However, the country offers an e-visa option for tourists, which can be applied for online before departure. It’s advisable to check the latest visa requirements based on your nationality before planning your trip.

Q3: Can I see gorillas in Gabon?

A3: Yes, Gabon is home to several national parks where you can see gorillas in their natural habitat. Loango National Park and Moukalaba-Doudou National Park are among the places where visitors have the opportunity to observe these magnificent primates, alongside a variety of other wildlife.

Q4: Is Gabon safe for tourists?

A4: Gabon is generally considered safe for tourists, but, as with any travel destination, it’s important to exercise common sense and stay informed about the areas you plan to visit. Petty theft can occur in urban areas, so it’s advisable to take standard safety precautions.

Q5: What language is spoken in Gabon?

A5: French is the official language of Gabon, but there are many more indigenous languages across the country. While English may be spoken in some tourist areas, it’s not widely used. Learning a few basic French phrases can enhance your travel experience.

Q6: What currency is used in Gabon?

A6: The Central African CFA franc (XAF) is the currency used in Gabon. Credit cards are accepted in major hotels and some businesses in Libreville and Port-Gentil, but carrying cash is recommended when travelling outside of major cities.

Q7: What are some must-try foods in Gabon?

A7: Gabonese cuisine is rich and varied, with staples including cassava, plantains, and fish. One must-try dish is Nyembwe, a traditional chicken dish cooked with palm nut sauce. Another popular delicacy is smoked fish, often served with manioc or plantain.

Q8: Are there any health precautions I should take before travelling to Gabon?

A8: Visitors to Gabon should ensure they are up to date on routine vaccinations, and it’s highly recommended to get vaccinated for yellow fever. Malaria prophylaxis is also advised, along with taking precautions against mosquito bites. Always consult with a healthcare provider for the most current travel health advice.

There you have it, the best places to visit in Gabon! What’s going on your Central African bucket list?