Calabar, an ancient port city once central to the slave trade, is among the prettiest towns in Nigeria. With clean, safe streets and a real sense of civic pride, it has long sought to position itself as a tourist centre and jumping-off point for exploring “The Nation’s Paradise” of Cross River State.
Calabar snakes along the southern bank of the Calabar River and is intersected by two main streets, Murtala Muhammed Way and Ndidem Usang Iso Road. These two roads meet at various intersections, the main ones being IBB Way, MCC Road and Atekong Drive. Murtala Muhammed Way is identifiable by the series of large roundabout sculptures reminding drivers of local landmarks like the famous Ikom stones.
The focal point of the town centre is the football field, UJ Esuene Stadium — a useful landmark for those seeking directions to other points in the city.
Once you have your bearings, the best place to get a lay of the land is the Calabar Museum. This unique site is the former Colonial governor’s residence, and was chosen because it has a commanding view over the old city and the river beyond. From this vantage point the governor would watch for his goods-laden ships on the river, and when one would arrive, he’d ring the large brass bell that stills sits on the lawn. This was the signal for the local workers to gather and empty the ships’ holds of goods, and unload their cargo of slaves.
The building was prefabricated in the U.K. before being shipped out and rebuilt in Calabar. It has stood the test of time amazingly well, and contains numerous artifacts from the colonial era. However, the house is the real star of the show with many original features including the punkah fans and screens behind which slaves would operate the fans without fear of offending their masters by meeting their eyes.
After going to the Calabar Museum, descend the hill to the Marina. Where the width of the river becomes apparent, there is a series of colonial style houses. The main house now contains Atlantis (a popular night club), while further along the banks, there is a newly built cinema along with the Calabar Slave Museum, which houses numerous relics of the slave era.
Beyond the museum there are a number of ornate wooden bars in an area called Tortuga Island, and a couple of boats which are said to have been confiscated from illegal logging crews and pirates. At the marina, local ferries charge N1500 to run up to Creek town, a nearby village that houses an old colonial walkway built by Germans more than a century ago. While there, it’s also possible to visit the house of Mary Slessor, a Scottish missionary who devoted her life to preventing the killing of twins in a culture that once viewed them as evil. Her mission was achieved so effectively that it is now seen as good luck to have twins. Boats are also available for larger groups of five to 16 people for a couple of hours, at a price around N15,000.
Continuing up Marina Road you’ll find numerous examples of Colonial architecture, along with the tomb of Mary Slessor. If you head up Garden Street through the old town, you will inevitably come across Watt Market, a bustling bazaar the size of several city blocks. Here you can find a range of domestic goods, African fabrics, and a small range of handicrafts.
Continue down Goldie Street (named after a local chief who worked with the British) to the botanic gardens. It once housed a range of indigenous animals, but after several monkeys escaped, they were rehoused elsewhere. It’s a lovely green oasis with numerous large trees that provide shade for locals to sit and talk in the midday heat.
A copious amount of shopping is available at Tinapa, located just north of the city. The location features 54 retail outlets ranging from designer labels, to furniture, to jewelry. For a little mental break, you can play in their large games arcade, or cool off from the heat in the water park. The complex also features an area of restaurants and pubs called the Fisherman’s Wharf, complete with great views over a scenic, albeit artificial lake.
If you happen to be in Calabar during December, be sure to check out the Calabar Festival. Throughout the festival, there are several events such as the colorful Calabar Carnival, billed as “Africa’s Biggest Street Party,” as well as a Christmas village, and boat regatta. The festival has featured performances from famous Nigerian artists such as Ice Prince, Wizkid, and P-Square, as well as international artists such as Akon, Nelly, and Young Jeezy.
If you are on the lookout for wildlife, visit the Cercopan or Pandrillus sanctuaries. Cercopan is a Canadian-backed charity that rescues primates captured from the wild and sold into the illegal pet trade in Nigeria. It houses five species of Guenon, as well as red-capped Mangabeys. The Calabar site is a collection centre that holds animals before they are rehomed to the Rhoko Forest release site two hours north. The organization works with the local community in order to educate them about the plight of these fast-dwindling species.
Another worthwhile site for animal lovers to visit is the Calabar Drill Ranch off Ndidem Iso Road. It’s where drills and chimpanzees are sent before they are re-homed in a sanctuary in Afi, four hours to the north. Taxis won’t know where this one is, as they don’t have the high profile of Cercopan, but it’s arguably the more rewarding of the two. To find it, look for Frenchie’s fast food restaurant and Asha guest house, then follow the road around to the left towards Vanel hotel. Follow the dirt road, then look for the discreet sign saying “Drill Ranch.”
The director of Pandrillus is Peter Jenkins, a force of nature and courageous fighter for Cross River’s last remaining wilderness. With the support of the state governor, Peter has been appointed head of the local task force. His job is to prevent logging in protected areas, educate the population, and alter attitudes through local campaign slogans such as “Monkey population don over small, If people continue for catch them for bush, them go finish all all.” Somehow, he still finds time to run the world’s most successful Drill monkey breeding program. It’s made him a hero to some, and a figure of hate for others, receiving death threats, attempted bombings, and assassination attempts.
A good tip is to disengage the services of the airport cabs once they drop you at the hotel. They have a monopoly at the airport, and city cabs are banned there, so you will have to negotiate to get a good price, N2,500-3,000 to most hotels, and N4,500 to further destinations like Tinapa. Once at the hotel, politely let them go then use city cabs, noted by their blue livery. These can normally be negotiated for around N1,000 an hour, or used in the same way as local buses that can be flagged down for N50 on a short trip.
Unlike other cities in Nigeria, okadas (motorbike taxis) are banned from the most of city centre, and only a small number of kks (three wheeled tuktuks) are allowed in limited numbers on side roads for short trips. This means the city centre is clean and quiet, but it can make travel more expensive.