City Guide: MAPUTO
At one time Maputo, formerly Lorenco Marques, the colonial capital of Portuguese East Africa, was one of Africa's busiest seaports. On the back of vicious system of forced labour imposed by the colonialists, Portugal had developed a massive agricultural sector whose produce was mainly exported through this port.
After 10 years of a bitter war of liberation followed by a brutal civil war sponsored by Rhodesia and later South Africa - designed to destabilise the Marxist FRELIMO government - a fragile peace was negotiated in 1992 followed by multi-party elections two years later. The country was often viewed as a hopeless case and few believed it had any sort of future, but it stunned the world with its recovery. Despite the recent disastrous floods, there is still a palpable sense of optimism about Mozambique's future, especially if the promised debt relief is realised, infrastructure improved, off-shore gas fields can be developed and the Maputo corridor project made a success.
Echos of Maputo's colonial hey day are still evident in the central commercial district where the wide avenues, European-style cafes and still-impressive architectural styles of the Portuguese are evident alongside the modern tower-blocks so beloved by banks and big business.
Welcoming and honest people
I had been told before this, my first visit to Maputo, to be very careful as the city has a reputation for street crime and robberies. My experience was somewhat at odds with this advice. I found it far less menacing than many African cities I could mention and local people invariably welcoming, honest, helpful and courteous towards a stranger who could barely muster a few words of Portuguese.
Mavalene, just five miles from the city centre, is Mozambique's only international airport. It's a very modest airport and formalities are executed with little fuss. Mozambique's currency, the metical, is a soft currency, non-negotiable outside the country. A bank at the arrivals hall will change cash only; if you want to change a travellers' cheque you must go to the departure hall next door. A taxi from outside the small terminal will take you downtown for the equivalent of $10.
As one of Africa's poorest nations its a little surprising to find that budget and midrange hotels are expensive by regional standards. This is partly explained by heavy government taxes, both direct and indirect. VAT is imposed on all transactions and there is also a 2.5% tourist tax. Indirectly, the cost of running a hotel is determined by how much of the fittings and furnishings are imported. In practice everything is imported, from air-conditioning units (there is no local manufacturer) to bed linen, catering equipment to computerised accounting systems. All these items carry heavy import duties which have to be passed on to guests.
There is another reason for the high charges imposed by hotels - the financial system. If a hotelier accepts a credit card it might take two to three weeks for the banks to clear it to the hotel's account. Similarly, one hotel manager claimed, if payment is made by travellers' cheques, bank charges can amount to 20% of face value and clearance time is measured in months.
Finest hotel in southern Africa
That said, Maputo boasts one of the finest luxury hotels in southern Africa. The Polana was built at the beginning of the 19th century and has recently been lovingly restored. It has hosted a number of VIP guests including Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela. Its four storeys are crescent shaped, overlooking a large outdoor swimming pool and elegant gardens. Most rooms have magnificent views over the Indian Ocean. Interior decoration is lavish, and even the more modest rooms are spacious and well furnished. About its only competitor in Maputo is the Lonrho-owned Hotel Cardoso, similarly priced and of international standard but lacking that indefinable sense of quality that the Polana possesses. …