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Stuffed in the African armpit between Senegal and Guinea, Guinea Bissau is a low, wet land marked with swamps and an estuary-invaded coastal region. National parks are located around the coast, as well as offshore, where the islands of the Bijagos Archipelago block waves from reaching the mainland.
Unfortunately, the merits of Guinea Bissau remain largely undiscovered, since civil war and further violent unrest have made the nation a less-than-appropriate holiday destination. Recent elections, however, were conducted in a relatively democratic fashion, bringing hope that the future may be looking up.
Although the rivers and coast of this area were among the first places colonized by the Portuguese, since the 16th century, the interior was not explored until the nineteenth century. The Portuguese presence in Guinea was therefore largely limited to the port of Bissau and Cacheu, although isolated European farmer-settlers established farms along Bissau's inland rivers.
An armed rebellion beginning in 1956 by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) under the leadership of Amílcar Cabral gradually consolidated its hold on then Portuguese Guinea. Unlike guerrilla movements in other Portuguese colonies, the PAIGC rapidly extended its military control over large portions of the territory, aided by the jungle-like terrain, its easily reached borderlines with neighbouring allies and large quantities of arms from Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, and left-leaning African countries. By 1973, the PAIGC was in control of many parts of Guinea. Independence was unilaterally declared on September 24, 1973. Recognition became universal following the April 25, 1974 socialist-inspired military coup in Portugal which overthrew Lisbon's Estado Novo regime.
The country was controlled by a revolutionary council until 1984. The first multi-party elections were held in 1994, but an army uprising in 1998 led to the president's ousting and the Guinea-Bissau Civil War. Elections were held again in 2000 and Kumba Ialá was elected president. In September 2003, a coup took place in which the military arrested Ialá on the charge of being "unable to solve the problems."
In June 2005, presidential elections were held for the first time since the coup that deposed Ialá. Ialá returned as the candidate for the PRS, claiming to be the legitimate president of the country, but the election was won by former president João Bernardo Vieira, deposed in the 1999 coup.
In November 2008, President Vieira's official residence was attacked by members of the armed forces, killing a guard but leaving the president unharmed. On March 2, 2009, however, Vieira was assassinated by what preliminary reports indicated to be a group of soldiers avenging the death of the head of joint chiefs of staff, General Batista Tagme Na Wai. Tagme died in an explosion on Sunday, March 1, 2009 in an assassination. Military leaders in the country have pledged to respect the constitutional order of succession. National Assembly Speaker Raimundo Pereira was appointed as an interim president until a nationwide election on June 28, 2009, which was won by Malam Bacai Sanhá.
Guinea-Bissau lies mostly between latitudes 11° and 13°N (a small area is south of 11°), and longitudes 13° and 17°W. At 36,125 square kilometres, the country is larger in size than Taiwan, Belgium, or the U.S. state of Maryland. The terrain of Guinea-Bissau is mostly low coastal plain with swamps of Guinean mangroves rising to Guinean forest-savanna mosaic in the east. The lowest point on Guinea-Bissau is at sea level at the Atlantic Ocean. The highest point on Guinea-Bissau is 300 metres above sea level at an unnamed location in the northeast corner of the country.
Guinea Bissau is made up of 8 regions and an autonomous sector; the capital Bissau.
Ilha de Orango is located west of Bubaque and is part of the Orango Islands National Park, together with several other islands. Getting there is half of the adventure as it involves several boat trips before ending in Eticoga on the west coast of Ilha de Orango. From here, you can enter the beautiful park with palm groves and light woodland. Also there are mangrove areas and mud flats exposed at low tide. There is some extraordinary wildlife here including the the rare saltwater species of hippo and crocodile. To add, numerous birds species call this place home and it is also one of the largest green and Ridley turtle-nesting sites on the entire West African coastline.
The island chain of Dos Bijagós is perfect getaway with beautiful white-sanded beaches, turquoise waters, fringed with palm trees. The islands are protected by swift tides and treacherous sandbanks and up until now the independent Bijagós people still retain a large degree of autonomy from the federal government. Although regular travellers make it to here, many people are fishermen or biologists, which gives an impression of how special it is here. It is a biosphere reserve and several islands fall under the national parks administration. There are salwater hippos at the Orango group and sea turtles at the João Vieira group.
Ilha de Bolama is also located just off the mainland, 40 kilometres from Bissau. The capital, also called Bolama, once was the capital but since then it has been decaying and nowadays there is nothing more left then colonnades and papaya trees sprouting from stately living rooms. Still, this is a good thing and only adds to the eerie charm of this fantastic little place. There are some beaches close to the village and yet better ones in the southwest of the island, reachable by 4wd only.
In this quiet coastal town in the northwest of Guinea Bissau you will find a fort dating back to the time of the slavery. There are also several bronze statues, among which is one of Lenin! The cannons that were used in the old days are still to be admired in their original state.
Like the rest of the world, Muslim festivals in Guinea-Bissau are timed in accordance with the different phases of the moon. Ramadan, which precedes Korité, is a month-long fast. There is a huge meal to mark the end of the season. The Feast of the Sacrifice is another widely celebrated Muslim event.
Held in the Bijagós Archipelago, the Bubaque Festival is a colorful event that celebrates the local music scene. It attracts musicians and personalities from all over the country to perform all kinds of Guinean music. Dates need to be confirmed as there seems to be no fixed time for this event.
The local Carnival features exciting programs that showcase great Guinean talents, ethnic traditions and cultural presentations. It is a big celebration that takes place annually at Easter time for about four days before Lent. Guineans enjoy traditional dances accompanied by instruments and people dress up in flamboyant costumes crafted from leaves, cow horns and shells. Parades take place on wooden boats and big trucks in this unique celebration.
West African countries are big on music, and the Movimento Hip Hop Festival is just one of the many sought after events in Guinea-Bissau. The first festival was held in May 2009, but dates need to be confirmed for future shows. Artists from all over the nation and neighboring countries participate with lyrics that often discuss the political and social issues of the region.
Guinea Bissau has a hot and humid tropical climate with temperatures around and sometimes well over 30 °C during the day most of the year. Night temperatures are above 20 °C but can drop below more inland, although it rarely gets colder than 15 °C. The rainy season lasts from June to October with most rain falling from mid-July to September. The hottest months are February to April when temperatures can rise above 40 °C in the east and well above 35 °C still in the western part and the coastline. The best months are probably November to February with sunny and dry days and still not overly hot.
Osvaldo Vieira International Airport (OXB) near the capital Bissau is served by Royal Air Maroc and (Air Senegal International). TAP Portugal has discontinued service to Bissau. There also are flights by TACV Cabo Verde Airlines.
The border crossings with Guinea and Senegal usually are open but not always (see below). Be sure to have a 4wd, papers, insurance and all the right documentation regarding the car and yourself, and humor: it can take long across these not-so-hasslefree borders.
To Guinea, bush taxis usually go to the border daily from Gabú and Koundara, just a 100 kilometers which can take most of the day. A less-travelled route, open only in the dry season, links the southeast of Guinea-Bissau with the west of Guinea via Quebo and Boké.
To and from Senegal, most traffic passes through Ziguinchor and the Guinean border town of São Domingos and on to Bissau. Sometimes the border regularly closes due to government clashes with Cassamance separatists so be sure to check safety situations. Crossings are also possible at the border between Farim and Tanaf by shared taxis. And there might even be transport from Gabú to Tambacounda (via Vélingara), though road conditions are poor and journeys long.
Boats travel between Kamsar in Guinea and Bissau in Guinea Bissau. The boat stops in Cacine and Kamkhonde in Guinea Bissau as well. There is no set schedule so check in the port of Conakry or Bissau, depending on weather you are going to Guinea or Guinea Bissau.
There are few domestic services in the country, but there are regular flights (mostly daily) between the capital Bissau and Bubaque and Orango Island.
The road network in Guinea Bissau is surprisingly good, although minor roads might be impassable during the wet season. Tarred roads connect Bissau with the towns of Gabú, Cacheu and Farim, as well as with the border crossing at São Domingos. Most other roads are gravel but are being paved or improved during recent years. Cars can be hired in Bissau but at a relatively high cost. Traffic drives on the right and you need a national driver's licence or international driving permit. Many connections involve crossing rivers by ferry, so don't expect to travel fast either.
Minibuses and shared taxis (Peugeots 504 usually, sevenseaters) travel around the country between the main cities and towns. They leave when full and can be overcrowded. Still, they are relatively fast and cheap. Trucks travel along the minor roads between smallers towns but are very uncomfortable, but adventurous!
Canoes and pirogues connect Bissau to several offshore island, including Rubane, Bubaque, Galinhas and Bolama. Since 2007, there is a faster ferry between Bissau and Bubaque as well, travelling there on Fridays and going back on Sundays.
Guinea Bissau is a pleasant country to travel around by bike. Roads are ok, you can rent bikes in smaller towns as well and many parts of the country are flat or just a bit hilly. People are friendly and it is generally safe, though avoid biking at night.
Visas are required for citizens of most non ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) countries. If you are coming from a country where Guinea-Bissau does not have diplomatic representation, you have 2 options at your disposal. The first is to obtain a visa at the Guinean embassy in Lisbon. The embassy processes tourist visas same-day, within 2-3 hours. Call ahead to confirm this though before making travel plans for Portugal and Bissau. The second option is to obtain a letter of invitation and arrange for a visa on arrival in Bissau. Whatever individual or organization that is hosting you will need to make these arrangements and there is not a clear well-defined policy regarding this. This second option is also more expensive than getting the visa in Lisbon. If you are going overland, a good place to get a visa is from the Guinea-Bissau Consul in Ziguinchor, Senegal. At the consulate, the cost of a 30-day visa is 20,000 XOF. It is 60,000 XOF for a visa valid for a year. Bring one photo and a photocopy of your passport.
Check the Guinea Bissau Governmental website for more information about embassies and consulates of the country.
See also Money matters
Guinea Bissau uses the CFA franc as a currency. The CFA franc is divided into 100 centimes. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 500 francs while banknotes come in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 francs.
The exchange rate is fixed at approximately 656 CFA francs for one euro. It's easier to exchange euros than U.S. dollars.
In Guinea Bissau the West African CFA franc (XOF) is used which has the same vallue as the Central African CFA franc (XAF), but it's not possible to use both currencies in the same country.
Fourteen countries in Africa use this currency, eight in West Africa and six in Central Africa. The West African CFA franc can only be used in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo, while the Central African CFA franc can only be used in Cameroun, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
There are numerous NGO's, missionaries and international organizations (UN, EU, WHO, UNICEF, The Global Fund) working in Guinea Bissau.
Portuguese is the official language and the language used for writing; however, a Portuguese creole is the language spoken among the locals. There are several local languages such as Fula, Balanta, Mandinka, Pepel, Bijago etc. But you will always find people who speak English and French from other African countries (Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Mauritania, Nigeria).
Most Guineans eat rice with fish, because the country is rich in fish, and rice (homegrown or imported from Thailand) is relatively cheap. The more costly meals contain beef, goat, chicken or pork. Meals are also made with palm oil and peanut sauces and diverse vegetables. Guineans also eat wild/game meat (deer, monkey, beaver etc.) but these animals are considered to be in danger of extinction and so it is not recommended to support this. Guineans are known for their warm heartedness and so you will always be asked to come have a bit with a group of people (it is common to eat from a large bowl)..."bin kume, no kume"
Fruit available depends on the season, but mangos, papayas, oranges, grape fruits, bananas, cashews and peanuts are abundant. Also try the sour "fole" fruits and the baobab fruit juice (sumo de cabaceira). Imported fruit can be bought in "fera de prasa" in the center of Bissau (apples, pears, pineapples, watermelons etc.) but is more expensive than in Europe.
Vegetables sold in the markets include lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, parsley, okra, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, chili, sweet potatoes.
Street snacks are typically sandwiches with hardboiled egg, omelete, fish or beef - or donuts, cake or hardboiled eggs. Frozen juice in small plastic bags is popular among locals.
Hotels in Bissau are generally overpriced.
In most of the towns outside the capital, there are possibilities to find hotels or other rentable rooms.
There are also mainly French-run hotels on the Bijagos islands which are recommendable.
The people of Guinea-Bissau love to drink a sweet green tea known as "warga", the non-Muslims also enjoy drinking cashew wine or palm wine. There are also possibilities to buy Portuguese beer, wine and soft drinks but these are more expensive. It is recommended that foreigners only drink bottled, filtered or boiled water.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is only required upon entering Guinea Bissau when you have been to an infected country within 7 days of entering the country, or if you have been to Zambia, Belize or Costa Rica. This requirement does not apply when you are travelling via Argentina or Paraguay. Still, it is recommended that you take the yellow fever vaccination anyway. Also you have to have a cholera stamp (proof of the fact you don't have the disease) when entering Guinea Bissau overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Guinea Bissau. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people and time of year.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Guinea-Bissau has one of the highest rates of petty and violent crime on the continent, which should not be underestimated, a lack of much law enforcement, and a very dysfunctional government. The country is home to several drug kingpins and a large volume of narcotics passes through remote islands and airstrips en route from South America to Europe.
Avoid any political demonstrations and stay clear of any large presence of military on the streets. Many western nations lack a diplomatic presence in Guinea-Bissau, which means you will have a much harder time if arrested, detained, or in need of consular assistance in an emergency.
White Europeans are especially vulnerable, and will be singled out by natives seeking to enact racial crime. White Europeans tend to be left alone if it is believed they are part of foreign aid efforts, or far left activists. Guinea-Bissau has had several Marxist Governments, providing a safe haven for Marxist radicals worldwide.
Do not trust hotel safes, and stay away from any nightclubs not attached to major hotels.
If you are arrested, be prepared to pay a bribe. However, it is not recommended to bribe officials directly. Simply ask if they can pay the fine for you, because you do not understand the customs procedures. Then leave the country as soon as possible.
See also International Telephone Calls
Guinea Bissau's international telphone code is 245.
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