Calabar, capital of Nigeria’s Cross River State, is an important sea port, agricultural hub, and one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Indeed, it’s surrounding natural beauty is one of the city’s most lucrative offerings. It is also one of Nigeria’s oldest cities, having once been a major centre for trade, as well as a centre for the British slave trade. As such, Calabar’s sad history and situation make for a fascinating visit.
Getting there and away
Calabar is one hour from Lagos by plane and is serviced by Margaret Ekpo International Airport. There are now flights in and out of the city every day and major airlines, including Virgin Nigeria, Arik Air and Aero Contractors, will get you to other major cities in Nigeria with ease. If you are travelling from Cameroon, boat services are available at various points along the coastline as well. From the airport, car rental is a good option. Remlords offers the option of driving the car yourself or having a driver assigned to you.
While efforts have been made to improve the conditions of the roads, including the widening of roads and the filling of potholes, it is not highly advisable to take a taxi as drivers are young and inexperienced and the vehicles are invariably ancient. If you do take the chance, however, look out for the identifying colours: Cross River State Taxis are compulsorily blue with a stroke of green at the bumpers. Short trips start from about N300 (US$) and the hourly rate is around N1,000 ($). Other options include minibuses or ‘kekes’, small, three-wheeled vehicles that are mostly found away from main throughfares.
Where to stay
Overlooking a unique artificial lake, connecting the Calabar River, Tinapa Lakeside Hotel is a beautiful option for your stay. With courteous staff and an ideal location, it is an excellent base for events, conferences and meetings as well. Transcorp Hotels Calabar, although quite pricey, is located in the heart of the city. Formerly the Metropolitan Hotel, the Transcorp is a Calabar institution. The Channel View Hotel is described as one of Calabar’s best and is ten minutes from the airport. The restaurant in particular is popular with clientele.
Calabar is associated with good food and it is a must-do to sample the famous Calabar soups, such as Edikaikong and Afang. Freddy’s Restaurant is a local institution in Calabar. The main cuisine is Lebanese but there is a great variety of salads and fish as well. The Mirage Hotel is home to the simply-named Chinese Restaurant, which earns rave reviews for its fried rice; while if your taste runs more to fast food, Apples, Crunchies, Fiesta Fries and Pepperoni are all located on the famous Marian Road.
As Calabar’s tourism profile has risen, so has the city’s liveliness after dark. There is a variety of bars, clubs, lounges and live music venues, all in secure surrounds, where residents mix with tourists. Popular clubs include Jaspers along Marian Road, Mayfair Lounge at the Channel View Hotels, Pinnacle Club and Base Bar. For dancing hotspots, try the T Club, which offers one of the most well-known club venues. You can also visit the Discotheque Peru for dancing and a great variety of drinks and music.
In the city
If your trip happens to fall over the Christmas period, the Calabar Festival and Carnival runs from the end of November to the beginning of January and is a great time to visit the city. Activities during this period include the famous street carnival and party, a regatta, markets, live music and much more. For the rest of the year, it is well worth visiting the Calabar Slave Museum. Overlooking the waterfront, this former colonial mansion now documents the region and its slave history. The Marina Resort, a long promenade along the Calabar River, is a great tourist area and a fun boating destination.
Calabar’s old town has a large variety of small shops where almost anything can be bought for almost any price. Expect to find many interesting treasures but expect to bargain for the. There are two particularly good markets in Calabar, the Watt Market and Marian market, where again you can buy almost anything. The Marian is great for fresh vegetables. Calabar is also home to the huge Tinapa leisure and business resort; a veritable mecca of shopping and entertainment. Interestingly, this complex is also home to one of Nollywood’s premier movie production houses.
Out of the city
A five-hour drive out of the city is the famous Drill Monkey Rehab Centre, a sanctuary for the endangered Drill Monkeys, set up and run by two Americans. Now government funded, the centre protects and rehabilitates rescued Drill Monkeys, which have long been hunted in the region of the Afi Mountain range. The Afi Mountain ranch offers cabins for accommodation and 25-metre high forest canopy walkway. The Kwa Falls within the Oban Hills is a beautiful waterfall within a narrow, steep gorge on the headwaters of the Kwa River. You can find it in the Cross River National Park.
Language and culture
Cross River State is composed of three major ethnic groups; the Efik, the Ejagham, and the Bekwarra. The Efik language is therefore spoken widely across the state. Calabar has been recognised as an important international sea port since the 16th century and was a major centre for the British slave trade. The city, as a result, has a rich cultural seam of music and literature. The Calabar Carnival is without a doubt the biggest, best and longest tourism event in West Africa. It attracts over two million revellers and features participants from over 25 different countries. For a fascinating look into the history of Calabar, try The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey by Randy J. Sparks or White Queen of the Cannibals: The True Story of Mary Slessor of Calabar by A.J. Bueltmann.
Health and safety
Be aware that there are currently travel warnings issued for non-essential stays in Nigeria. Calabar is relatively safe, but a high degree of caution is still advised. Also be aware that yellow fever shots must be had before travel to Nigeria and authorities are extremely strict on this. It is also advisable that you do not travel at night, as violent crime is a concern in Nigeria’s larger cities. Do not carry large amounts of cash and be wary of using your credit card. In addition, be sure to always ask permission before taking photos.