Corrupt and complicated, complex and challenging, West Africa is often discarded as an unworthy travel destination. But in reality, it’s one of the world’s last true hidden gems and a treasure for those willing to give it a chance.
Why you need to visit West Africa and what it’s known for
An epiphany of vibrant culture, genuine people, beautiful scenery, incredible ingenuity, and surprising variety, there’s enough to savor here for years. But let’s start with a month for now.
The most incredible thing about West Africa is its diversity. Countries mere kilometers wide, such as The Gambia, offer vastly different cultures and ways of life than even their next door neighbors.
A multitude of surprisingly distinct ethnicities mix, mingle, and cohabitate amongst each other in some countries. In others like Guinea-Bissau, the culture is much more homogenous and unique. And all of this in countries smaller than most states in the USA.
Although West Africa is notoriously complicated to travel, a little preparation goes far. Even during COVID-19, we managed to make our way across much of the region almost unimpeded. I say almost – as we did almost get arrested crossing the border from Senegal into The Gambia.
The five top countries you need to visit in West Africa
Although West Africa isn’t geographically large, it is extremely dense and filled with things to see.
You’ll find that even with just the included countries, your days will be filled with rich, rewarding experiences and you won’t regret seeing more.
This itinerary will include the highlights, along with optional excursions for those with a little or time (or planning to skip some countries).
Cabo Verde: One Week in West Africa’s Paradise Archipelago
The first country you should visit if you have one month in West Africa is Cabo (Cape) Verde, a fascinating and rich archipelago of surprising beauty.
From massive, active volcanos to some of the best kitesurfing in the world, you’ll never be bored in Cabo Verde.
More importantly, the culture and ethnicities are very unique and homogenous. The people here are incredibly friendly, warm, and welcoming. And there’s a fascinating history to learn about regarding the Portuguese colonization and slave trading.
Cabo Verde Travel Restrictions
You’ll need a a COVID-19 RT PCR test done 72 hours before boarding or an antigen test (Ag-RDT) done 48 hours before boarding to enter Cape Verde.
Recently changed, this also applies to vaccinated and recovered people.
Getting to Cabo Verde
With convenient flight connections from many cities in Europe, such as:
- Lisbon, Portugal (LIS) with TAP Air Portugal
- Ponta Delgada, Azores (PDL) with SATA
- Luxembourg (LUX) with LuxAir
- Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) with Edelweiss
You’ll find it very accessible.
For Americans reading, it’s easy (and cheap) connecting in Europe, but there are also relatively cheap options connecting in
- Dakar, Senegal (Air Senegal)
- Morocco (Royal Air Morocco)
The Ultimate 1-Week Cabo Verde Experience
To really get a good taste of these intriguing islands, plan to go island hopping! Some of the islands you should visit include:
- Santo Antão
- São Vicente
Every activity you don’t want to miss out on in Cabo Verde
- Kitesurfing on Sal’s pristine white beaches
- Trekking/hiking between colorful, colonial towns on Santo Antão’s mind blowing volcanic north shore
- Diving on some of the coolest ship wrecks off of Santa Maria
- Swimming in the natural pools and volcanic beaches of Tarrafal, Santiago
- Enjoying the freshest Tuna of your life
- Visiting a local art shop and abandoned airport in Ponta do Sol
BestFly is the local airline providing convenient ATR72 Turboprop service between the islands.
There is also a local boat ferry called CVInterilhas, more convenient for the islands closer to each other. Here’s how we got around Cabo Verde.
Senegal: 5 Days of Fascinating West African History
You’ll fly from Praia, Santiago (the capital of Cabo Verde) to Dakar, Senegal on Air Senegal. They have flights connecting these cities at least 5 times a week.
Senegal Travel Restrictions
To enter Senegal, you’ll need either:
Masks are worn on and off, although technically “required”.
First stop: Dakar and it’s surrounding rich history (2-3 Days)
As the westernmost peninsula of continental Africa, Dakar has historically served as a hub of imports and exports – and that (unfortunately) made it a massive center during the slave trade era.
But that’s what makes Dakar so important for you to visit. There’s no better way to get a real sense of the atrocities and monstrosities committed by European colonizers not-so-long-ago, and no better way to learn from it and pay homage to the victims of history.
Some of the must-see places in Dakar include:
- Ile de Gorée, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most beautiful islands in all of West Africa
- Ile de Ngor, which was very important during the slave trade era
- The Marché Soumbédienne, a market filled with characteristic and authentic local art
- The “Lac Rose”, or Lake Retba, a pink lake just north of the city
And for those who are inclined to surf, the coast of Senegal is known for its world-renowned surf. It’s a great way to meet locals and enjoy the wonderful scenery.
Where to stay in Dakar, Senegal
We recommend staying in the heart of town, Dakar Plateau, where you’ll find an ample number of great restaurants and hotels. Plus convenient transportation (taxi and ferry) options.
Our hotel of choice in Dakar was the Union Amicale des Corses, renowned for its epic poolside waterfront views of the Bay and excellent customer service.
Optional day trips from Dakar: Touba, Saint Louis, Loumpoul
Those looking to explore a little more of Senegal’s rich history should endeavor to make a day trip (or longer) to the gorgeous Islamic city of Touba, with its elegant mosques and interesting city markets. There’s an annual ‘magal’, or religious pilgrimage here every year.
Saint Louis, another UNESCO World Heritage site, is a very historical town in the north that also played a huge role in slave trade. It’s a wonderful place to meet locals and hear about the fascinating, turbulent history of Senegal. It’s known for its colonial buildings and Faidherbe Bridge preserved from the late 1800s.
Between Dakar and Saint Louis, you should visit the quaint fisherman town of Mboro Kandio, where you can buy incredibly beautiful clothing made of rich fabrics.
There’s also the desert of Loumpoul, known for its orange sand dunes forming a landscape that is more akin to that of the Sahara and Mauritania than of the surrounding area of Senegal.
The best way to get around Senegal: Sept-Place
For those looking to experience the real authentic side of Senegal, head to the Gare Routiere de Dakar by taxi and take a Sept-Place.
The “Sept-Place” is Senegal’s answer to public transportation, private 7-seater old Peugeot station wagons turned into public taxis. You can go anywhere with these for cheap.
For those not willing to squeeze themselves in a small, old station wagon with 6 strangers, worry not. It’s possible to pay for more seats, such as an entire row or even the entire Sept-Place!
Every town has a “Gare Routiere” – or “road station”, like a bus station or train station but for Sept-Place and other shared vans.
The quicker way to get around Senegal: private transportation
It’s also possible and quite easy to book a private taxi or shuttle to get around the country.
You’ll pay much, much more than for a Sept-Place, but you won’t be encumbered by frequent stops, slow driving, no air conditioning (meaning open windows and tons of dust), and general discomfort.
Senegal Shuttle has a convenient website to order a private shuttle which we actually used several times. Alternately, most hotels can arrange or explain transportation for you.
What you need to see on your way from Dakar to The Gambia
We’re headed towards The Gambia, but there’s a lot more to see on this side of Senegal, such as:
- The Réserve Naturelle de Popenguine, with its ecosystem of gorgeous cliffs and untouched besches
- The Foret de Bandia, a safari park with giraffes, rhinoceroses, zebras & other wildlife
- Saly, a hotspot of local tourism catering to French sunbathers and fishing enthusiasts
And lastly, Delta du Saloum – which you won’t want to miss.
The Delta du Saloum: Senegalese paradise
We had tons of fun making a pitstop at the Delta du Saloum. Its the best place to enjoy an incredible array of rivers, marshlands, salt pools, vibrant villages, and jungle lodges – all in one placd.
The Hakuna Lodge was our accomodation of choice – and only accessible by boat (speedboat or local Senegalese pirogue). This was the ultimate place to relax, so estranged from society and intertwined with nature. Plus the service, food, and activities here are top notch.
On the way, make sure to stop at the Baobab Sacré, a really authentic little market off the road hidden under an amazing, ancient, sacred Baobab Tree.
How to cross the land border from Senegal into The Gambia (Keur Ayip crossing)
Though most people are inclined to cross the border from Senegal into The Gambia at Karang on their way to Serrekunda, we decided to go the “back route” through Keur Ayip for a truer experience of The Gambia’s wild side.
We ended up taking a private taxi to the border, walking across and completing all formalities, then taking a taxi on the other side.
The fee on The Gambian side for a visa on arrival is 3000 Dalasi, equivalent to about $60 USD. If you do not have Dalasi, expect to have to negotiate exchange rates with the customs agent. You will likely be asked for 40000 CFA.
There is a sort of exchange office before you reach the customs area that has decent exchange rates, slightly better than you can negotiate with the customs officers.
How we almost got detained crossing into The Gambia
Funny story, actually.
My partner wanted to document the process of crossing a land border in West Africa. This involved taking some footage. Naturally, she wanted everything to appear candid, so she did not ask before filming.
This was a very bad idea, as instead of cameras, there are unmarked officers all over watching you at all times.
We spent about an hour begging them not to confiscate her brand new iPhone, or format it. After all, she had about 15000 photos and videos of her travels around the world that were not saved anywhere else.
After she completely deleted all the footage, and after much, much pleading, they finally let us through.It was such an insane relief. And in the end, they even let us take selfies together!
So, definitely don’t take photos or videos when dealing with customs in West Africa!
The Gambia: 3 days exploring this jewel of relaxation in the hustle and bustle of West Africa
Though there are plenty of inexpensive bush taxis leaving from The Gambia side of the border, we decided to take a private taxi to our amazing river lodge 2 hours away for about 2000 Dalasi, split 3-way to about $20USD per person.
The Ultimate Gambian Getaway: Bintang Lodge
The amazing river lodge? Named the Bintang Bolong Lodge, after its truly offbeat location in the heart of the Delta Gambia, it was the most relaxing stay of the entire month.
Our bungalow was right on the river, where we watched some of the most amazing sunrises (and moonrises) with little puddle jumpers slinging themselves on the low tide mud below us.
For lunch, we took a river cruise on a local – but decked out wooden boat specially designed for the area.
And in the afternoons, we met locals from the tiny town and learned about their fascinating stories – like one who had an engineering exchange program all the way in Japan!
Crossing the border from The Gambia into Senegal’s Casamance (Jiboro to Seleti)
We took a taxi for about an hour and a half down to the border for 1500 Dalasi or so.
Crossing the border luckily wasn’t as eventful as last time. Phew.
There’s no payment to be done, but our bags were inspected in detail on The Gambia side. They are looking for any pills without a prescription – and obviously a bribe if they find any.
On the Senegal side, they did check our COVID-19 vaccination status on entry.
2-3 Days Exploring one of West Africa’s Richest Historical Regions: Casamance, Senegal
A great place to base yourself is Ziguinchor, Senegal. It’s a popping little Senegalese town with lots of action; hotels, restaurants, markets, and a beautiful river rushing through.
You can, and should make day trips from Ziguinchor to:
- Cap Skirring, for pristine white sand beaches
- Ile Karabane, for more fascinating slave history and a slow, friendly pace of life
Where to stay in Ziguinchor, Senegal
There aren’t many hotels in Ziguinchor, but there is one I highly recommend: Hôtel Kadiandoumagne.
We loved its riverfront location, amazing food (especially seafood), and colonial-style rooms.
The easy way to get your Guinea-Bissau Visa: the Embassy in Ziguinchor, Senegal
It’s a super, super easy process to get your Guinea-Bissau visa in Ziguinchor.
The location for the Guinea-Bissau Embassy on Google maps is correct. It’s in the heart of town and walking distance from many hotels.
There are many different pricing options for single entry/30 days (25000 XOF) to unlimited entry/5 years (90000 XOF) and everything in between.
The officer was very friendly and welcoming. We had our Visas within 5 minutes and we’re already on our way!
How to travel from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau (it’s tough!)
The recommended way to get from Senegal to Guinea Bissau by land is:
- From Ziguinchor, take a taxi to the “Gare Routière” (2000-3000 CFA per person)
- Find a shared van headed all the way to Bissau. Make sure to verify it’s going all the way to Bissau (city), as some only take you to the Mpak border (5000-6000 CFA per person)
The van driver will stop and wait appropriately at each border crossing. You can leave your suitcases in the van during processing at the borders.
The tougher and worse way to get from Senegal to Guinea Bissau that we took for no good reason
Regrettably, we took a more piecemeal approach and spent a lot more time sweating in the West African sun than we had to. We had to
- take a taxi to the border with Guinea Bissau for about 5000CFA per person
- cross the Senegalese side and take a bus for 2000 CFA to the Guinea Bissau border crossing (or walk 45 minutes – no thanks)
- wait in the scorching sun at the “garage”/departure point for shared shuttles on the Bissau side. They won’t leave until the van is full.
- Pay more (2000CFA per person+1000/bag) to take a bus from the border to Bissau. You can buy additional seats for more comfort.
You can avoid our discomfort by taking a bus from the Gare Routière in Ziguinchor all the way to Bissau, as described in the beginning of this section. It’ll save so much headache versus the method we used.
Senegal to Guinea Bissau border formalities
The border formalities leaving Senegal at Mpak were very easy. You stamp out of Senegal and then you’re on your way.
If you don’t have a ride prearranged across to the Guinea Bissau side, it’s a 45 minute walk. Alternately, you can negotiate a ride for 1000-2000 XOF.
In Guinea-Bissau, the first check in a blue building is just verifying your visa and eligibility for entry. You’ll notice locals paying an entry tax – don’t worry about that, it’s covered by your visa.
Next up you’ll walk 5 minutes to a building where it says “police”, and that’s where you actually get stamped into Guinea-Bissau.
The van that took you across the border should take you to the “garage”, or Bissau version of a “Gare Routière” – or all the way to Bissau, depending on what you negotiated.
5 Days in Guinea-Bissau: the jewel of West Africa… or not?
Looking at Guinea-Bissau in Satellite view on Google Maps, it looks like a treasure of turquoise blue water and magnificent islands.
It was perhaps the country we were most looking forward to visiting, but it in the end we were totally disappointed.
We drove several hours on dusty roads in a hot, cramped van – not without a crab related incident – until we reached the town of Bissau, where we took a taxi to our hotel.
Guinea-Bissau Travel Restrictions
Entry and exit into Guinea-Bissau is permitted only with the presentation of a negative COVID-19 test result (done within 72 hours from the start of travel).
- Masks are “required” as much as anywhere else in West Africa
- Restaurants and hotels are mostly reopened
- COVID-19 testing for travel purposes is available at Liceu Agostinho Neto (near the Ministry of Education) and Sede da Uniao Deportive Internacional (known as UDIB) for 30,000 CFA.
- COVID-19 test scheduling and test results are available online
We got our tests done at NoLab for quicker, more reliable results with longer opening hours.
The best places to stay in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau
Bissau is not a terribly interesting nor fabulous town, but it’s where the ferries depart for the marvelous Bijagos islands and also most convenient for COVID-19 testing – which you need to exit the country.
We stayed at, and enjoyed both the:
- Hotel CEIBA, for its 5-star amenities, amazing food, and central location
- Dunia Hotel Bissau / Azalai, for its 4 star amenities at a great price
I’d also recommend the Royal Hotel Bissau. I’ve heard great things about it, plus it’s located right across from not one, but two COVID-19 testing centers.
Getting from Bissau to the Bijagos
If you want to take a public ferry to and from Bubaque in the Bijagos islands, you’ll have to leave on a Friday and return on Sunday.
Alternately, most hotels can arrange a private speedboat from Bissau to the islands.
What to see in Guinea-Bissau
Make sure to explore Bubaque and arrange tours to see the:
- Sea hippos at João Viera
- Thousands of turtles at Orango
- Magnificent, lush negation and pristine, untouched beaches
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.
The best way to travel from Guinea Bissau to Guinea (Conakry): land or air?
Strangely, the crossing from Guinea Bissau to Guinea is the toughest one of this entire journey.
Not only that, it’s one of the most complicated and strenuous land crossings in West Africa, and perhaps the world.
We did not attempt it, but if you do, be prepared for 20+ hours of hot, dusty roads, switching from van to motorcycle to canoe to motorcycle to van and dealing with corrupt police, baggage checks, and lots of bribing.
Instead, we flew on Air Senegal from Guinea Bissau (OXB) to Dakar (DSS) to Conakry (CKY). It was about USD $260 per person, took about 5 hours total, and so, so worth it.
We were able to connect in Dakar without having to recheck our bags.
Guinea (Conakry): The Best Guinea of West Africa (5-7 Days)
We were just as surprised by the Conakry Guinea as we were by Guinea Bissau. Only difference was the surprise was a good one this time.
Guinea is a country filled with natural treasures, amazingly friendly people, and incredible artisanal handiwork!
How to apply for a tourist visa to enter Guinea
We obtained our Guinea E-Visa online, both receiving a response the next day (though my partner’s was denied multiple times for image upload issues). After arrival at the airport, we proceeded to customs to get stamped in, and then were directed to a “Visa on Arrival” booth. Strangely enough, this requires turning around after getting stamped in.
At the booth, they simply take a picture and your fingerprints, and print out a Multiple Entry visa that lasts a couple years. Nice and simple.
Guinea Travel Restrictions
You must be vaccinated and bring negative PCR results taken within 72 hours to enter Guinea.
Testing is available at PALAIS DU PEUPLE, N.1, CONAKRY, GUINEA NEAR JARDIN 2 OCTOBRE. Information is available here. You’ll have to pay 650K GNF to Ecobank before getting tested – bring your passport.
Results take 1-2 days, which may not work for those planning a return to the USA. Here’s how you can still meet the US restrictions from Guinea.
Alternately, Guineans are very accepting of, let’s say “tips”, to help improve the speed of service.
Where to stay in Conakry, Guinea
Two of the best hotels, in completely different parts of Conakry:
- Hotel Petit Bateau, for its location in Kaloum along the water, and great value
- The Sheraton Grand Conakry, for true luxury in the city of Conakry
What you need to see in Guinea
Truly a hidden treasure, Guinea offers SO much incredible beauty to see. Much of it takes some work to get to, but here’s what you cannot miss:
- Iles de Los, just outside Conakry, for a laidback island experience
- Markets of Conakry, including Madina, Bambou, Kobayah, and more
- Soumba Cascade and mountain, a lovely cascade and natural wading pool
- Kambadaga Waterfalls and Pita, some of the most beautiful waterfalls in West Africa
- La Dame du Mali, a fascinating natural cliff structure that looks like a woman
Some of these do take longer to visit, but they’re all totally worth it. Learn more here.
Is one month in West Africa enough?
By now, it’s been a month exploring this part of the world that deserves so many more visitors.
You’ve experienced true beauty, authentic friendliness, a taste of corruption, luxury, and stress. You’ve seen markets, waterfalls, epic beaches, volcanic mountains, busy cities, and quaint towns.
Is it enough? There’s still more to explore, after all.
But to me, one month is perfect. After that, the travel loses some of its magic and intrigue. And one month in West Africa is the perfect amount to get a good taste – without getting too much of that good taste.
I hope this guide helps. Comment below and let me know your experience – or any questions you still have!