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As the shared home of the spectacular Victoria Falls (Zambia borders its northern side), the ancient civilization of Great Zimbabwe, and two spectacular game parks, Zimbabwe is often described as breathtaking. The country's borders are formed in part by the famous Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, which are famous for their rapids and their crocodiles.

The land Zimbabwe now encompasses was once home to one of the largest and most complex African societies roughly between the 11th and 14th centuries, which was likely the basis of modern-day Shona culture and society. Great Zimbabwe served as both a fortress and a site of religious worship, but eventual segmentation of the dynasty led to the creation of independent states. When the region was at its most fractured, Cecil Rhodes entered the region from the Cape in search of gold, diamonds and an empire that would stretch, in his words, "from Cape to Cairo."

In 1895 Queen Victoria approved Rhodes' new colony, now called Rhodesia, and a white legislature was established. White settlers moved in by the thousands almost immediately, and battles by the Shona and Ndebele for liberation began just as quickly. By the 1920s and ?30s black Africans in the colony were excluded from land ownership, political participation and skilled professions, and were forced to work nearly exclusively on white farms. The colony's president, Ian Smith, sought independence from Britain in order to further press the colony's racist policies through his Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1964. Despite United Nations sanctions and pressure from Britain, Rhodesia continued its policies as an independent state, prompting guerrilla warfare in a quest for independence. Eventually Smith was forced to hold a non-racial election and Abel Muzorewa won. In 1980 Robert Mugabe, a former guerilla leader, was elected president and established a one-party state. Mugabe's government - while celebrated during the 1980s and early 1990s for its advances in health, education and economic growth - has since been criticized for its human rights abuses. Recent elections have not been free and fair, according to observers, and newspapers have been shuttered and government critics are routinely arrested and intimidated.

Contemporary Zimbabwe's population of about 12.3 million people is roughly 98 percent Shona and Ndebele and two percent Asian and white. Most of the population adheres to Christianity and/or indigenous beliefs. English is the official language but most people speak Shona or Sindebele.

Arts and music across Zimbabwe reflect a proud culture and history. In particular, Shona sculptures, which are acclaimed worldwide, can be viewed in galleries throughout the country as well as directly from the artists in places such as Tengenenge Art Colony. Zimbabwe's most famous music is made with the marimba, a type of wooden xylophone. Local arts and music combine in the halls of several independent African churches as well as in international Christian churches. Zimbabwean cuisine includes British staples in combination with sadza, a stiff porridge made of maize meal, and nyama (meat) in a stew. Local brew, known as chibuku, is often served from a communal barrel.

The ideal time to visit Zimbabwe depends on your interests. If you want to see green landscapes, the ideal visiting time is from November to April. The dry season from May to October is the most accommodating for travelers, as roads are dry and the weather is cooler. However, game spotting is more difficult when there is less water to lure animals out during the day.

Only 20 years ago, Zimbabwe was amongst the richest countries in Africa, boasting a solid infrastructure and an impressive education and health system. However, the present economic and political situation has taken its toll. Inflation is rampant and the former ?bread basket' of the region now depends on imports to feed its population. Most of the country is safe to travel, but movement may be hampered by petrol shortages. By observing certain precautions, travelers to Zimbabwe can avoid many common problems and experience the best of what the country has to offer -- its friendly people, lively arts, Victoria Falls, diverse wildlife and the city life of Harare and Bulawayo.