The Republic of Guinea-Bissau, a small, little-known country in western Africa just south of Senegal, is an ideal spot for adventurers seeking off-the-beaten-path travel opportunities. Though it is one of the world’s poorest nations and has limited tourist facilities, Guinea-Bissau has much to be commended, too: gorgeous beaches, ultra-fresh seafood, and a local population known for being especially friendly and laid-back. A visit to Guinea-Bissau practically guarantees an authentic African experience, and adventurous travelers willing to make the trip can enjoy some real finds and relative freedom from tourist traps.
1. Varela: Just south of the Senegalese border, in the Cacheu region, this beach can be a challenge to reach, but its stunning views, pine forests, and remote feel make it worth the trip.
2. Bolama Town: Bolama Town, on the landward side of Bolama Island, provides a look back at the past grandeurs of the Portuguese empire. Crumbling mansions, decaying colonial buildings, and leafy avenues make a lovely backdrop for an evening stroll.
3. Praia da Bruce: This isolated beach on the island of Bubaque, in the Bijagó Archipelago, boasts pristine stretches of sand and shady cashew trees. Rent a bike and journey to the beach along Bubaque’s straight, forest-lined road.
4. Orango: One of the many Bijagó islands, Orango is home to stunning tropical beaches and a population of salt water–dwelling hippos.
5. Bafata: This small, picturesque town is a good spot for wandering among the red, Portuguese-style houses. Maimouna Kape, a hotel in the town’s center, also has a popular outdoor bar.
6. Local Fare: Feast on the country’s many specialties, like kaldo branco (fish in white sauce) and grilled king prawns while sipping the national beverage, cashew wine.
7. Fiesta: Soak up the sights at Bissau’s annual carnival, which takes place in February or March and draws people from all over the country to check out the fierce dance and music competitions.
8. Local rhythm: Tap into the Bissau-Guinean culture through gumbe, a samba-like type of music that is sung in Crioulo and reflects both indigenous musical traditions and Portuguese influences.
9. Move It: Seek out a performance of Broxa, the traditional dance of the Balante people. Near Mansôa, in the Oio region, Broxa dance troops travel from village to village dressed as warriors, dancing and playing centuries-old instruments.
10. Street Market: In Gabú, the country’s most significant eastern town, stroll along the street market in the early evening; there you’ll find everything from locally made crafts to just-picked fruit.
In Guinea- Bissau the weather is hot and humid averaging about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6 degrees Celcius) year-round. The monsoonal-type rainy season typically lasts from June to November, and the dry season runs from December to May.
Visas: Because of Guinea-Bissau’s lack of consular representation in the United States, it’s difficult to obtain a visa to travel there. Since most visitors to the country fly in or cross the border from Senegal, however, you can apply for a visa at either the Bissau-Guinean embassy in Dakar or at the consulate in Ziguinchor, where 30-day single-entry visas are issued on the spot. Take note: Visitors should also travel with a return ticket, a notarized passport copy, and a certificate stating immunization against yellow fever.
Transportation: Because of restrictions on flights to Guinea-Bissau, many travelers opt to fly into Dakar and then take another flight to Bissau. Another option is to fly into Dakar and continue to Bissau by car. From Dakar, look for bush taxis heading to Ziguinchor and Kolda in southern Senegal. After spending a night in either town, take another bush taxi to Bissau in the morning.
Guinea-Bissau is such a small country that it’s best to get from place to place by car. Bush taxis and minibuses called toko tokos gather in central locations and tend to leave early on most mornings. (The fare for a trip from Bissau to Bafatá, which is an approximately three-hour journey, averages CFA 1,500.)
Mobile Phones: Check with your phone provider to learn whether your phone will work abroad and what the charges will be. You’ll likely be charged extra for incoming calls. If you live in North America, you’ll need to have a GSM/triband cell phone. Consider buying a SIM card on your arrival for making inexpensive calls.
The U.S. embassy in Bissau suspended its operations in June 1998 during the country’s civil war. Today the U.S. embassy in Dakar has jurisdiction over Guinea-Bissau, and U.S. citizens traveling to Guinea-Bissau are urged to register with the embassy there. (The former U.S. embassy in Guinea-Bissau is now operated by local staff members, who are not equipped to handle consular services but may be contacted in an emergency. The office is located at Edifício SITEC, Rua José Carlos Schwarz 245, Bairro d’Ajuda; telephone/fax: 245-3-25-6382, 245-595-4647.)
ATMs are not available, credit cards are not accepted, and local currency may be obtained only from banks or hotels. Wire transfer possibilities are very limited, so travelers are encouraged to secure ample amounts of the local currency before arrival in Guinea-Bissau. Though the country’s civil war ended in 1999, visitors should be aware that political tensions still exist; therefore, political gatherings and demonstrations should always be avoided. Another consequence of the war is the scattering of unexploded land mines throughout the country, including in Bafatá, Oio, Biombo, Quinara, and Tombali. To reduce their exposure to land mines, travelers should limit driving beyond towns to daylight hours and always stick to well-traveled roads.
Check the U.S. Department of State’s travel page on Guinea-Bissau for up-to-date travel information.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Guinea-Bissau or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
Guinea-Bissau was under Portuguese rule for nearly a century before the country succeeded in securing its independence, in 1974. Since then, the tiny nation has suffered from persistent political and military upheaval. In 1980 a military coup installed the army chief João Bernardo Vieira as president. Though he attempted to revitalize the country by establishing a market economy and a multiparty system, his regime was characterized overall by a suppressive stance toward political opponents and rivals. Despite several coup attempts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Vieira remained the country’s president and in 1994 was elected president in the country’s first free elections.
Four years later Vieira dismissed his army chief; that jump-started a civil war and led to his ouster in 1999. The following year the opposition leader Kumba Yala was elected president, only to be overthrown in 2003 in a bloodless military coup that was prompted by the worsening economic and political climate. In 2005 the former president Vieira was reelected but was killed in 2009 by renegade soldiers who purportedly wanted to avenge the killing of a military chief that had taken place earlier that day. The longtime politician Malam Bacai Sanha was elected president in an emergency election held in 2009 and remains in power today.
1. Roughly the same size as the state of Maryland, Guinea-Bissau is made up of eight regions—Bafatá, Biombo, Bolama, Cacheu, Gabú, Oio, Quinara, Tombali—and one autonomous sector, Bissau. The interior regions—Gabú, Bafatá, and parts of Oio—consist mostly of large swaths of savanna; the coastal regions—Cacheu, Biombo, Bissau, Quinara, and Tombali—are swampy and lined with mangroves. Bolama, which comprises the Bijagós Islands, is where you’ll find the country’s best beaches.
2. The local currency is the CFA franc (Communauté Financière Africaine franc). One U.S. dollar is equal to approximately 500 CAF.
3. Guinea-Bissau has four major newspapers: No Pintcha, which is state run, and Correio de Bissau, Fraskera, and Banobero, all of which are private.
4. Though the country’s official language is Portuguese, the majority of Bissau-Guineans speak Crioulo, a Portuguese-based Creole, or one of the many indigenous African languages, the most common being Balanta-Kentohe, Pulaar, Mandjak, Mandinka, and Pepel.
5. Smoking is permitted in most public places in Guinea-Bissau.