[ Maputo skyline from cruiseship East Africa: Photo by Andrew Moir. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License ]

CNN paints new picture of Maputo City

Maputo is rising. Literally rising. Across the city, cranes stretch up alongside new towers to house luxury hotels, corporate offices and posh condos — all with price tags that seem more like Manhattan than Mozambique. Billions of dollars are pouring into the country to develop offshore gas wells. They won’t start producing for a few more years, but Maputo is already taking its first steps out of poverty with a definite swagger. Newfound confidence and optimism pervade the city, from small theatres that stage Hamlet as comfortably as reggae, to a lively restaurant scene and a renewed sense of pride in the nation’s history.

When Mozambique’s civil war ended in 1992, Maputo’s streets had more potholes than pavement. Buildings were rundown, or occupied by squatters. The scent of sewage hung in the air. For the next decade, it wasn’t clear how the country would put itself right. The mood now is more like Southeast Asia in the early 1990s. Mozambique has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies for more than a decade, but it’s only now starting to show. The main roads are paved and new pipes and cables are being run under sidewalks.

Parks and museums have been scrubbed up. Hotels have undergone multi-million-dollar makeovers, and new ones are being built. Taxis and tuk-tuks jostle with 4x4s during rush hour. Shop windows have filled up again, with a Hugo Boss across the street from fishmongers in the Municipal Market.

Maputo is making real efforts to welcome tourists. In the historic downtown area known as Baixa, maps are posted at street corners indicating sites of interest, making it easy to do a self-guided walking tour. Even getting lost is a pleasure, especially in the mornings, when the worst-case scenario ends with an espresso and a pastel de nata egg tart pastry at a sidewalk cafe. Getting lost is harder than it used to be. Long-missing street signs are being replaced with new ones that also explain who the streets are named for: Rua Gabriel Makavi honors a Presbyterian minister who was a respected Tsonga-language poet and Rua Ngungunyana remembers the 19th century king who was the last ruler of Gaza, now a province of Mozambique. Taxis and tuk-tuks are cheap and easy to flag, but a walk through the Baixa is a pleasure, if you can take the heat. Street side book vendors carry Thomas Piketty, Plato and Portuguese romance novels. Some of the buildings are noteworthy only for their faded glory. Many have been bulldozed to make way for high-rises, which makes the survivors even more interesting.

For a fuller story of the city’s sites, the charming Jane Flood also leads walking tours in English that explain the history of Maputo’s architecture. Scattered around the city are small but surprisingly well-curated museums that look at particular slices of Mozambique’s past. The National Coin Museum (Museu Nacional da Moeda)admittedly sounds like it could be a bore. But the building itself, known as the Yellow House, is one of the oldest in the city and worth a visit on its own. A 70-cent entrance fee opens the door to a collection of the many currencies that have circulated in Mozambique’s long history.

Some of the earliest were bracelets and farming implements once used for cash, along with a sprinkling of precisely 4.83 grams of gold dust, a standard called a metical that’s now the name of the national currency. In between are plastic chips that served as cash when the country was run by private Portuguese companies and a series of banknotes displayed to illustrate the changes in the country’s rulers.

Across the plaza from the Coin Museum is a building usually just called the Fortress, which also hosts a small museum that holds the carved coffin of King Ngungunyana. A few blocks up the road is the Iron House, one of the world’s first pre-fabricated buildings, designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). Unfortunately, he didn’t take into account the tropical heat, which turned the interior into an oven, so it was hardly used for decades. Now it’s air conditioned and contains a small display of artefacts from some of Mozambique’s medieval cities and trading posts, which once connected Zimbabwe and other inland countries to commercial routes stretching to India and China.