Guinea-Bissau travel guide
The old Portuguese quarter of independence hero Amílcar Cabral's hometown sits picturesquely on a bend in the Geba River. The centre is plastered with beautiful colonial architecture; most strikingly are the facade of the covered market, the old governor's house and the Catholic church. Many of the buildings here are now occupied by government offices, easily recognizable as they are the only colonial buildings that have been renovated. The rest are in advanced stages of decay. A small museum pays homage to Amílcar Cabral and many murals of him, wearing his characteristic knitted hat, adorn walls all over town. Outside business hours, the old centre resembles a ghost town. To find everybody again, walk up the hill to the square and market that constitutes today's city centre. Drop by the square in the early evening to experience the modern Africa as the square is occupied by gangs of youth taking advantage of the free internet hotspot there.
Once outside the main towns of Guinea-Bissau and away from the not-too-bad roads that interlink them; once roads turn to dirt tracks, and the dirt tracks turn to… well, something that used to be drivable long ago. When the "roads" are in such a terrible depleted state, when they have never been paved and not been repaired for a past decade – at least – how does the local population get around? The answer, in Guinea-Bissau, is big heavy trucks and small dirt-bikes. The trucks are awesomely nicknamed "banana wagons". The name derives from the fact, that these trucks' primary task is to transport fruit and produce from the fields to the markets during harvest. For the rest the year the drivers support themselves by driving passengers. The waits for the trucks to fill are long. The rides are bumpy and uncomfortable. Brake downs almost a given and with an average of less than 10 km/h, speed isn't a factor. However, these trucks are often the only option off the beaten path and – with everybody equally bumping around in the back – often surprisingly social places to be stuck in for hours.
Eighty-some islands and islets make up West Africa's largest archipelago. Only some of the islands are inhabited, others are used solely for farming or fishing, and some again are considered sacred – one these latter ones, permanent structures is forbidden. Any visit to the archipelago requires either plenty of time or money. The choice of transportation here are, in descending order of expensiveness, private chartered plane, chartered speed boat, negotiating the use of someone's pirogue or public pirogue. Once the time has been taken out of the calendar (or the money has been taken out of the bank), the archipelago is an almost endless row of paradise islands. Bubaque is the usual starting point. From there the island of Rubane host a range of sacred forests, Orange is home to rare saltwater hippos, João Viera and do Meio is nesting sites for sea turtles, and all hide abandoned beaches that otherwise only seem to exists in tourist magazines. Just to add to the fun dolphins play in the waters all around the islands, which is about as close as sport fishers come to Heaven on Earth.
Because, where else in Africa can you find Greek style pillars? Well, we're just asking. Bolama, the former capital of Portuguese Guinea, has the finest colonial architecture on the Guinean coast – and probably also anywhere between Saint-Louis (Senegal) and Ghana's coastal forts. Though everything here is falling apart and overgrown. From the old Town Hall's Greek pillars, over the electricity towers to the warehouses on the port. The town has been suggested as Guinea-Bissau's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, but have yet to get the organisation's approval. Should the crumbling architecture fail to make a lasting impression friendly locals and the islands many small hamlets and hidden beaches more than make up for it.
Bubaque Island is home to the largest and, without a doubt, the most important town in the Bijagós Archipelago. The island isn't just important to locals. For tourists and travellers who hope to go further out into the archipelago, Bubaque is the first stop. It's from here most transportation to the outlying islands depart, and it's the only place in the archipelago there are any facilities in the form of shops, restaurants and entertainment (read: a handful of bars and a night club). Home to Guinea-Bissau's only real tourism industry, here's also a broad range of accommodation. Although the most comfortable cater almost excusably to European sport fishers. Visitors who sit around waiting for a departure and not fluent in the fishing-lingo should consider renting a bike and make the 30 km round-trip across the island to it's best beach, Praia da Bruce.
By far the most pleasant of West Africa's capital cities. The small city centre of Bissau, called Praca, has more in common with a provincial town in Portugal than with the chaotic atmosphere usually associated with West Africa's big cities. The streets are lined with Portuguese-era buildings, usually only one or two stories high; traffic is relatively light; and it's safe to take a stroll after daylight has fainted - restaurants, rather than bars or nightclubs, keep Bissau awake once the sun has set. Granted, "only" 400.000 people call Bissau home, but it is still more than five times as many as in Guinea-Bissau's second city, Batafá. Thus, Bissau is, no doubt, the country's first city and the country's only large city. The markets lie in the sprawling suburbs and keep the hectic characteristics of trade outside the centre, and the port, while right next to the central city, is too small to be of any real annoyance. To sum up, Bissau's central district is pleasant and inviting, without been too dull.
5 km of unspoilt, human-free tropical beach (you'll have to share all that sand with a handful of cows) sounds like your thing; we have a place that will get your heart pumping with excitement. The coastal village of Varela is blessed with a truly fantastic beach that is all but deserted. Actually, it has two such beaches. The main beach stretches north, for more than 5 km towards Senegal, while a smaller beach to the south sits in a lovely, palm-fringed cove. The reason for the paradise's absent of tourists? First of all, very few visitors bother to come to Guinea-Bissau. Secondly, Varela sits at the end of an appalling bad road, on which it takes the one daily minibus, four hours to navigate just 45 km. But the hardship of getting here is definitely worth it.