While winter brings chillier temps to us in the northern hemisphere, destinations in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the peak of summer and often their best weather all year, making December and January the perfect time to go across the pond—to South Africa. With its rich culture, diverse landscapes and ongoing battle to overcome its haunting history, this is one destination you’ve got to visit as soon as possible.
Before deciding to head roughly 9,000 miles away, there are a few things to consider. Airfare to South Africa will be the most expensive part of your trip. However, if your plans allow you to be flexible, you can expect to pay around $1,400 roundtrip from New Orleans (and even less from a larger airport) for a trip in December/January according to November airline searches. That said, anything that you can imagine doing—eating, drinking, sightseeing, accommodations, shopping, etc., is incredibly affordable and can work in your favor to soften the blow of the airfare. The South African Rand is currently worth about .073 USD. To give you some perspective, lunch at a local cafe will run you about $7USD and a local brew will run about $2USD with no tax or tip necessary, making it relatively easy to get by on $25 or so per day. Accommodations in hostels run approximately $15-$30 per night in a shared room, and can increase based on proximity to major attractions (such as Table Mountain in Cape Town). Transportation is undoubtedly the most complicated part of visiting the country as even the major cities of Capetown and Johannesburg largely lack effective public transportation routes and driving here can be nothing short of a terrifying experience. (Although the same could be said of my home city New Orleans.)
Due to high levels of unemployment, many South Africans operate independent “taxis” which are essentially vans with the seats ripped out and replaced by backless benches in order to accommodate more riders. Pedestrians looking for a taxi will motion from the side of the street with several hand motions (thumbs up for wanting to travel north, for instance) and taxi drivers scan the sidewalks (often instead of the street they’re driving on) for anyone sporting a hand motion that matches the direction they’re traveling. Once a taxi driver spots a potential rider, it is commonplace for him to suddenly stop without warning in the middle of the street while the pedestrian makes her way sometimes across several lanes of oncoming traffic to jump inside. That said, licensed taxi drivers and bus routes are generally the ‘safest’ way to travel around.
Traveling on foot when possible should be every traveler’s rule of thumb as it truly is the best way to familiarize yourself with the area and to experience things you may otherwise overlook if you don’t afford yourself the opportunity for exploration off the beaten path. However, there are destinations where females may not feel threatened as much as ‘observed’ if traveling alone— particularly so if enjoying a beer or two alone—and South Africa is no exception. Still, while crime rates throughout the country for violent acts such as rape and murder are dramatically higher than in many other countries, violence against tourists is typically very low in South Africa, thus making a visit to the country as inherently risky as traveling in any large city stateside.
Images of safaris and The Big Five (elephants, lions, buffalos, leopards and rhinoceroses) are often the first things that pop into people’s minds when they hear of South Africa. While the country is home to Kruger National Park where many of these animals do live, the country is also home to some of the most stunning coastlines and delicious wine-producing regions in the world. Pair this with a culture long ingrained struggle and a heart-breaking history and it’s clear that the complexity of South Africa is unparalleled.
While civil rights still seem fairly recent in our own nation’s history, the struggle for equality between black and white South Africans is one that was only ‘amended’ in the 90s, with blacks only getting the right to vote or enjoy the same freedoms as whites in 1994—just 21 years ago. Nelson Mandela, affectionately referred to throughout the nation as Tata (father) devoted his life to fighting for equality between blacks and whites. Even after his death, he remains revered by both whites and blacks for his many accomplishments, specifically for inspiring and leading a peaceful human rights movement. In order to fully understand race relations in apartheid-era (segregated) South Africa, visit Robben Island and take a tour of the place that Mandela called home for 27 years, while held there as a prisoner before his release in 1990. (Mandela went on to serve as the first black president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.) Tours are given by former prisoners of the island whose firsthand recollections are invaluable as they will eventually cease to exist as the generation ages. Visitors are also allowed to pass by Mandela’s four-square-meter cell although you are not allowed to go inside. History buff or not, visiting Robben Island puts Mandela’s life and work into perspective and is not to be missed.
While Johannesburg is the largest city in the country, Cape Town is undoubtedly the more metropolitan of the major cities, as evidenced by its title as World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design in 2014. With market squares and surrounding streets full of locally owned boutiques and cafes, some streets in Cape Town offer a similar feeling to any larger western city. Greenmarket Square, which was once a slave market, now operates as a market for locally made handicrafts Monday-Saturday and offers everything from souvenir T-shirts to figurines of dogs and bicycles made from discarded Coke cans and hand-carved wooden elephants. Nearby tapas restaurant Fork serves up tapas with a unique South African influence and is definitely worth checking out. If you’re seeking something more traditionally South African, try Bunny chow, which thankfully does not involve the harming of bunnies. Bunny chow is a hollowed out small loaf of bread filled with curried vegetables (or meat if you prefer) and although it’s heavily influenced by Indian cuisine, it remains one of South Africa’s most popular dishes today. Be sure to also check out Beerhouse, which offers nearly 100 craft beer options as well as live music in the heart of the buzzing city center.
While beautiful views of Cape Town may seem to be a dime a dozen, there are three particular views that you must see. On the edge of the city lies Cape Town’s crown jewel, Table Mountain. Aptly named due to its flat top, the mountain is often covered by clouds which are referred to as its “tablecloth.” Visitors can either opt to take a cable car up the mountain or to hike to the top, which takes one to three hours depending on experience. In either case, at over 3,550 feet in the air, the top of the mountain offers an unparalleled view of the gorgeous city below as well as the South Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps the only view in Cape Town that could possibly rival the one from the top of Table Mountain would be the view from Blouberg Beach, both a gorgeous beach and host to the best view of the entire Table Mountain in the city. Enjoy the sunset at Blue Peter, which serves affordable dishes and drinks with a stunning view of the mountain from their outdoor seating as well as from their second floor. If these views aren’t enough, picture rolling hills littered with vineyards and stunning 180-degree mountain views, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the town of Stellenbosch, home to Stellenbosch University, and South Africa’s wine-making capital. Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading varietal of wine that the area produces although Shiraz and Merlot are popular as well. Sample these intoxicating wines while soaking up the mountainous views at the Glen Carlou Winery, which also hosts a small art gallery inside. Since you can’t take the view with you, take a mental photograph…and a case or two home so you can go back anytime you wish.
-Accommodations: Ashanti Lodge Green Point hostel or the Amber Tree Lodge Backpackers
-Mandela House where Mandela lived before being taken to prison at Robben Island and the Apartheid museum (if heading to Johannesburg)
-Boulder’s Beach in Cape Town to get up close (but not so personal) with penguins
-Walk around the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, famous for it’s colorful houses and Cape Malay food
-Drive along Chapman’s Peak for a view of Hout Bay from above