Hello, I have been to Southern Africa (South Africa, Lesothi, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia) and I would like to return to Africa but this time instead get a feeling about the West-Africa area.
I have a month to my disposal, and I am not a person who value comfort but rather surroundings and getting a feel of the local culture, so which safe countries would you recommend for that purpose?
I have been told that Senegal is a good base to start from, and that Gambia/Guinea Guine-Bissou also can be interesting, but I would appreciate all information that could be useful for a West-Africa experience. Thanks!
I traveled from Marrakech to Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau last October. You can track the route on my Travellerspoint.com map for 2015. I had a driver/guide, Alberto Nicheli, of Lome, Togo, based TransAfrica. He has been taking visitors around West Africa and the Sahara for more than three decades. We used a Toyota Land Cruiser on rough roads and tracks during the dry season. Many roads are impassable during the wet season. We didn't use much public transportation, except an all-night ferry from Dakar to Ziguinchor, Senegal, thereby bypassing The Gambia. We also used a calash in Saint-Louis, Senegal. We hired a boat to take us around Guinea-Bissau's Bijagos archipelago, including Poilau island, where Green Sea Turtles nest.
There aren't many tourists in Guinea-Bissau, except for sport fishermen. Guinea-Bissau does not have an embassy in the United States, so if you're an American, you'll have to get a visa overseas. I got mine at the consulate in Ziguinchor. All you need is one photo; and a mandatory copy of the front page of your passport (no photocopy, no visa). A 30-day visa costs 20,000 XOF.
Senegal does not require U.S. citizens to have a tourist visa for stays of 90 days or less.
If you're going from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau, please note that your best option for getting out of the country is either to return to Senegal, or fly with Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca and onward. TAP, the Portuguese airline, no longer serves the former Portuguese colony. TAP suspended service in 2013 after crew were reportedly forced by Guinea-Bissau authorities to take on board 74 Syrian refugees with false documents.
There are numerous police and military checkpoints along the way. In some instances, you will need to make payments to speed the process of going through the checkpoints. Some are nice about it; others aren't, refusing to return papers on a timely basis. So it's advisable to carry small currency notes. Also, have extra copies of the main page of your passport to show, instead of the document itself. If traveling with others, make sure you all prepare and distribute copies of "la liste," with passport information, dates of entry into the country, visa number and profession. Often, you can hand out copies of "la liste" at the checkpoints instead of having to show actual passports and other documents. And it beats having to get out of the vehicle and wait to have the information recorded.
There often are more checkpoints on market days; and locals pay, too. People are friendly and hospitable.
Although Senegal is relatively more prosperous than some other countries in West Africa, our vehicle was stopped in Dakar; and payment was made to the police officer who questioned the weight of the vehicle, which was loaded with camping gear on top. When traveling in southern Senegal, which has a large Christian population, beware of mines (you'll see signs). There is a heavy military presence in that part of the country, which borders Guinea-Bissau. We dimmed headlights in the evening when approaching checkpoints; and turned on the light inside the vehicle to show who we were.
Accommodations more than likely will be basic, with limited electricity in some places. Lodging also can be located outside towns and villages. So you'll need to find a way to get there. There are hotels in larger cities; and prices aren't cheap.
The preferred currency for exchange is the euro, not the U.S. dollar.
I'll soon be back in West Africa. Culture is the main attraction; there isn't much wildlife as in other parts of Africa. If this is your initial trip there, it might be wise to join a tour (groups tend to be small) to get the "lay of the land." You can always go back independently. There's no shame in joining a tour. Sometimes they are more convenient; sometimes they are cheaper than going it alone; sometimes you see more, particularly if you go off the beaten path to more-remote areas.
I first visited Africa several years ago by joining an "adventure" tour from South Africa to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I then traveled independently. I also joined tours when they better served my interests. For example, it's difficult to travel and camp in the Sahara without a guide and sturdy transportation. In hindsight, I should have joined a tour to Ethiopia's Danakil Depression. Instead, I traveled independently, hiring four Ethiopian Army soldiers (required) to accompany me; and a guide. Plus I had to pay bribes to get into the Depression; and bribes to get out, after police threatened to jail my driver.
Sometimes there are no tours to places where you want to go. So you have to decide if it's worth going there alone. Two years ago this month I traveled independently to Gambela, Ethiopia, along the border with South Sudan. I wanted to see wildlife in the seldom-visited Gambela National Park, which has significant populations of antelope and birds. But there also was a huge influx of refugees. Recently, there has been an increase in lawlessness there, resulting in deaths. Would I travel there now? Not likely. So you have to judge the risks and the rewards of some of the places you want to visit.
Hope this helps.
P.S. You can view photos on my Travellerspoint.com maps.
[ Edit: Edited on 26-Apr-2016, at 15:59 by berner256 ]
Thanks for a very interesting and informative reply.