Ah, West Africa. Those who have been are familiar with the mishmash of beauty and hassle that comes with traveling here. And Guinea-Bissau is the perfect example of it.
Why visit Guinea-Bissau? This interesting ex-Portuguese colony features fascinating culture, a vibrant way-of-life, and some impressive scenery to go along with it. Open up Google Maps and Guinea-Bissau’s blue water stands out from miles away.
We had long been intrigued by the island life of Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos islands, including Bubaque, and we were determined to make it there.
Guinea-Bissau COVID-19 Travel Restrictions
As of December 1, 2021, negative RT-PCR results taken within 72 hours are required to enter and exit Guinea-Bissau.
Our experience was that these were not checked crossing by land into Guinea-Bissau.
Leaving Guinea-Bissau by plane, our covid test results were cross checked via barcode against the national database.
Finding a Covid-19 Test in Guinea Bissau
There are several Covid-19 testing centers in Guinea-Bissau, and these typically return test results by the end of the next day, except Saturdays.
The official government center is found at:
- UDIB (Uniao Desportiva Internacional de Bissau) across from the Royal Hotel Bissau.
We had luck using NôLab, offering PCR tests for 30K XOF per person. They are located across from the main hospital in town, Simão Mendes.
Traveling by land from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau
We charted our path across West Africa from Dakar through The Gambia and down to Guinea-Bissau by land.
Zinguinchor, Senegal is a great place to stop on the way to Guinea-Bissau. It’s extremely easy to get a visa for GB here, with a convenient consulate right in town. Plus, there’s much to do in Senegal’s fabled Casamance region.
In Zinguinchor, you take a taxi (5000 XOF) to the “Gare Routière”, where you can find shared 10-place vans. Ask around, many of these are heading for Guinea-Bissau.
The fare is typically 2500-3000 XOF per person, plus an additional 1000 for bags. As the buses never depart without every placed cramped, it can get full.
Tip: You can pay for additional seats or even the whole 10-place van. An entire row is 4 seats, so about 10000 XOF.
Crossing the border from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau
The shared transportation will take you to the first border control on the Senegal side, where you will be stamped out of the country. You can leave your bags in the van.
Afterwards, you’ll take the van across to the Guinea-Bissau side. It’s about a 5-minute drive away. There are 2 stops here:
- One stop is to verify your visa, and check your bags if you took them out the van like we did
- The next stop, which you walk to, is to stamp you into the country
Our Covid tests were not verified via land borders, but nothing is guaranteed.
After getting stamped in, you’ll get back into the van and continue down to the city of Bissau.
Between the waiting for the van to fill up, processing through customs, and horrendous roads on the Guinea-Bissau side, the entire journey will likely take over 5 hours.
After arriving in Bissau, you’ll take a taxi (500-1000 XOF) to your final destination in town.
Expect the unexpected: a story about crabs
About 2 hours past the border, something strange happened.
When I put my foot down, I felt something hard under my flip flops. Very hard.
Then it started moving.
My brain, not registering what it could be, immediately displaced my foot away thinking maybe it was a big African beetle. But then I turned on my cell phone light….
A crab. It was a river crab.
That’s when I realized the odor I had smelled on the long ride down was because the lady behind me was transporting a bucket filled with crabs!
TL;DR: you never know what’s right under your foot. 🤣
Police stops and hassle in Guinea-Bissau
Along the drive across Guinea-Bissau, you’ll run into seemingly endless police stops. Often times, the driver will have to open the trunk to reveal the cargo and luggage.
Although police officers asked what our bags were, nobody actually went through them.
We were asked to show our passports at one of the stops, and they verified our visa.
Why we didn’t love Guinea-Bissau
We had a marvelous time visiting The Gambia and Cape Verde, and we had wanted to visited Guinea-Bissau for a long time.
Unfortunately it left us disappointed. Here’s why.
1) Infrastructure (or lack thereof)
Although this wasn’t the first country we visited in West Africa, it was the first where the lack of infrastructure really hit us.
The inefficiency and lack of resources make life tough, especially with Covid-19.
For example, we had to contact 7 hotels in Bubaque to find a speedboat over as there is only one return public ferry per week. And getting them to respond took an act of god.
2) Our interactions with the locals
Compared to the genuine kindness and true interest we received from locals in much of West Africa, what we felt in Guinea-Bissau was kind of a slap in the face.
First off, communication in Guinea-Bissau is a huge issue. We are fluent in French, English, and even Spanish. We had no issues conversing in Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde and most Portuguese and Spanish speakers readily admit the languages are similar enough to communicate. But not in Guinea-Bissau.
Secondly, the locals are not very friendly – unless you are paying them for something. There is a general disregard for tourists, and something even worse than that – we couldn’t help but feel that we weren’t welcomed.
At times, we even felt disconcerted and uncomfortable. It seemed we were threatened walking around the islands, and we were certainly admonished for things like walking on one side of the street instead of the other.
It doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouth.
3) There isn’t that much to see (easily)
Aside from the wonderful Bijagos islands and their incredible nature, there is little else to see – and it takes a long time and lot of effort to see. But this is true of a lot of West Africa.
Downtown Bissau is a mostly uninteresting African capital that doesn’t seem special in any way. The highlights are some quite bustling local markets if you enjoy chaos.
There are a couple national parks and some beautiful marshlands, but nothing spectacularly exciting. And anything that is exciting is super hard to get to.
Other points of interest include the cute towns of Bolama and Bafatá, the national parks of Dulombi, and perhaps some of the more elusive river inlets and islands spread around the country.
Plan to spend lots of time here if you want to see much.
What we love about Guinea-Bissau
Though our interactions with locals weren’t the best, there still remains much to love about Guinea-Bissau.
For example, it’s Bijagos islands are totally unique and fabulous. Here you can see:
- Sea hippos at João Viera
- Thousands of turtles at Orango
- Magnificent, lush negation and pristine, untouched beaches
However, tours are hard to get. You have to pay for a full speedboat – whether it’s full (10 people) or just you onboard. And the prices are extremely high;
Prices departing directly from Bubaque are about half of those listed above, but still excruciatingly high.
Until a tour agency pops up and takes responsibility for the organization of tours, it’s impossible to guarantee any shared tours and reasonable prices to see the best of Guinee-Bissau. Which means you might have to eat the upfront cost yourself.
Ultimately, that’s disappointing too.
Everything you should know before departing Guinea-Bissau by plane
I don’t think anything in this section will surprise you. Everything you should know about leaving Guinea-Bissau by plane:
- Plan for traffic on the way to the airport. It’s always worse than what Google maps says.
- They will check your Covid-19 PCR test results against the online national database before you can enter the airport
- Check-in lines are excruciatingly slow. Everything is done by hand and it takes at least 5 minutes per person just to get checked in for a flight.
- You should show up to the airport at least 3 hours early. And I’m saying that as an airline pilot who doesn’t like wasting his time.
- It’s better to have your documents printed out to reduce the chance for confusion.
- Security may ask for a bribe. They’ll claim they saw prohibited items in your suitcase and they let it slide if you “buy their boss some tea”. This happened to us.
My experience here was the slowest I’ve ever seen. And I’ve flown out of Juba, South Sudan.
Conclusion: Guinea-Bissau is a wonderful country to visit – with a couple stipulations
Overall, Guinea-Bissau is a beautiful country that offers a lot to see. Between the sparkling Bijagos islands and colonial towns frozen in history, there’s something for almost everyone.
But it requires patience – even more so than other countries in West Africa. And it requires abundant time too.
So if you have the patience and time, plus the money it takes to stay visit the hard-to-reach places, Guinea-Bissau really is a gem.
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