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Neither the internal nor the external boundaries of the Kongo group can be defined with any precision. The northern part of the Kongo territory is forested, whereas the southern is mainly savanna grasslands with forest galleries. The Zaire (Congo) River fights its way to the sea by a series of cataracts from Malebo Pool, between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, through the rugged Crystal Mountains, whose elevations range from 200 to 400 meters. The vegetation does not differ from that of other parts of tropical Africa; the soil is predominantly lateritic, varying in fertility from the forested bottomlands to the coarse grass and sparse orchard-bush of nearly barren hills. The long dry season lasts from mid-May to September, the short rainy season from October to mid-December, the short dry season from mid-December to February, and the long rainy season from February to mid-May. The average temperature in Brazzaville is 25° C. Because the upper waters of the Zaire extend north of the equator, the flow of the river is fairly constant; high water levels occur in mid-December, low water levels between 15 July and 15 August. Until about 1900, the fauna included lions, hippopotamuses, leopards, elephants, several species of antelope, chimpanzees, giant otters, buffalo, gorillas, and snakes of many kinds, poisonous and nonpoisonous. Animals frequently hunted included wild pigs, cane-cutter rodents, civet cats, bats, and field rats. Fish abound in the rivers. Virtually all large animals except crocodiles have now been killed off by hunters and, since 1970, as a consequence of increasingly rapid destruction of forest habitats. Natural resources include petroleum (in the Cabinda enclave, on the coast) and noncommercial amounts of gold, bauxite, and copper.
In 1960 the Kongo population in Zaire (Belgian Congo) was approximately 951,000, not including the city of Kinshasa, whose population of 70,000 was about half Kongo. A similar number of BaKongo were located in Congo (formerly the French colony of Moyen Congo), with a corresponding concentration in Brazzaville. By 1970, the population of the major urban areas had tripled; it continued to grow thereafter, although, since 1990, there has been some return to rural areas, for economic and political reasons. Demographic information pertaining to the BaKongo of Angola is lacking; northern Angola was embroiled in civil war during most of the thirty years after 1960, when thousands of Kongo refugees moved temporarily to Zaire. In general, the BaKongo of Zaire are much better documented than those of either Angola or Congo.
The legendary origin of most of the Kongo peoples is Mbanza Kongo, the capital of the Kongo Kingdom, founded perhaps in the thirteenth century but long since reduced to a village—Sio Salvador—in northern Angola. In 1485 the Portuguese sailor Diego Cao brought the first Europeans to Kongo. Shortly afterward, most of the nobility converted to Christianity. During the sixteenth century, Kongo maintained diplomatic relations with Portugal and the Vatican.
Besides the capital cities of Brazzaville (Congo) and Kinshasa (Zaire), the principal urban centers are the ports of Pointe-Noire, Matadi, and Borna. BaKongo predominate in the many towns of their home region but are also found in towns and cities throughout their respective countries. In their own rural areas, BaKongo live in scattered villages varying in population from a few dozen to a few hundred persons. Constructed of adobe, burned brick, or wattle and daub, with roofs of thatch or corrugated iron, the houses shelter single individuals or married couples. Usually, there are two rooms, the inner one reserved for sleeping and storage. A separate kitchen at the back of the house is the center of the female house.
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