Long side-lined for its poor human rights record and extensive repertoire of political instabilities (no president has ever managed to complete a full five-year term since independence here!), the Guinea-Bissau of today is actually much more of an amenable place than many travelers think.
Of course, always stay abreast of the latest FCO developments (things have been known to change for the worse overnight in this section of West Africa), but also look forward to the exotic line-up of treats that awaits.
Yep, from the desert ridges of Muslim Gabú in the east to the throbbing port sides of Bissau (the capital) in the west, this country’s got chimps and rolling savannah, rainforests, wending rivers, colonial architecture and more.
And that’s not even mentioning the fabled archipelago of the Bissagos Islands; a place of salt-water hippos and truly beautiful, turtle-dotted coastlines! Check out this list of all the top places to see in oft-overlooked GB…
1. Orango Island
Galumphing hippos drift in and out of the brackish lagoons of Orango Grande, one of the undisputed jewels of the Bissagos Islands and a distinct national park in its own right.
In fact, wildlife lovers flock to this small land mass in the Atlantic to see the rare salt-water creatures in their natural habitat, and there are oodles of local guides here that operate wetland safaris out into the waterways and mangroves to see them.
Add to that a series of sparkling white beaches, a single, community-run hotel, and a clutch of curious local tribes with long-held traditions, and it’s easy to see why Orango makes so many a Guinea-Bissau itinerary!
2. Bubaque Island
Nearby to Orango, just across a short strait in the Atlantic to the east, the whitewashed tropical sands of Bubaque come totally deserted; peppered with salt-sprayed driftwood and leaning palms, all looking like something out of Castaway.
This is the gateway to the greater Bissagos Islands, thanks to the presence of Bubaque airport and the archipelago’s largest town, also called just Bubaque.
And what a gateway it is! A couple of age-stained colonial edifices line the streets of the city, stilted ports shoulder their way above the water, and the inland is dressed in deep forests that give way only to secluded coves like Bruce Bay and the nameless sands around Ameta.
3. Dulombi-Boe National Park
A land unknown and unmapped, the largest of Guinea-Bissau’s national parks is one for only the most intrepid of travelers.
It’s packed with winding river channels and pockets of riparian woodland, endless swathes of grassy savannah land that sways in the West African breezes, and the bending courses of the Corubal as it flows from the inland hills towards the Atlantic in the west.
Of course, there’s wildlife too, with the chimpanzee being one of the rarest.
You can also expect to see the likes of African cats and oodles of grazing herds amidst the fields.
4. João Vieira Island
The duo of João Vieira and Poilão, another set of specks amidst the much-vaunted archipelago of the Bissagos Islands, is where endangered Atlantic sea turtles clamber over the shells and sandbanks to lay their eggs.
Given the exoticism and sheer beauty of their backcountry and coast, it’s hardly surprising that the whole area is now encompassed by a national marine reserve.
Rare groups of tourists pass through, eager to hop aboard a carved piragua (a traditional Guinea-Bissau canoe) and weave between the inlets and wetlands, the sandy stretches and palm-peppered dunes in search of rare marine creatures.
The political and financial hub of the nation is a place steeped in heritage and culture.
Come here to wander between the pollution-stained facades of the old Portuguese center of town: Bissau Velho.
This is where the pink-hued palaces of old Iberian governors still line the dusty streets.
Also, don’t miss the grand Presidential Palace, now left empty following the destruction of Guinea-Bissau’s civil war.
Closer to the sea and it’s the jetties of Pidjiguiti that buzz with life; fishermen hauling the daily catch and bobbing piragua boats waiting to depart for the sun-kissed Bissagos Islands.
Other musts include the great Fortaleza (also a top-notch museum), while the nightlife booms after dark with the beats of gumbe and West African kizomba.
The fabled birthplace of the celebrated independence revolutionary Abel Djassi, little Bafatá is a riverside town with panache.
Proud of its political traditions and beautifully imbued with green areas, swaying palm trees and the meanders where the Geba joins the Colufe, it’s a place to come and sample the laid-back bucolic vibes of one of the country’s provincial hotspots.
But that’s not it, because Bafatá is also surrounded by the rolling gallery jungles that occupy the heart of the nation; the home of crocs, interesting West African mammals, rare monkeys and more…
7. Lagoas Cufada Natural Park
A playground for hippos and huge waterbucks, for galloping herds of African buffalo and laughing hyenas, snapping crocs and stalking leopards, the Lagoas Cufada Natural Park is one of the most biodiverse regions in all of Guinea-Bissau.
Sandwiched between the Rio Grande de Buba to the south and the wide Corubal to the north, the reserve gets its name from the countless lagoons and wetland habitats that erupt along its fringes.
And between the lot are swathes of palm oil groves, where even chimpanzees have been reported to swing in the branches!
Cacheu has sat on the meandering courses of the river of the same name for hundreds of years.
Many consider it to be one of the earliest European settlements in West Africa; once prized for its prime location on the edge of the great waterway that leads up and into the continental highlands and the turns of the Canjambari River.
That all made the town a slaving center from the 1600s onwards, and today many of the ageing relics here stand as testimony to that dark history, like the soot-smothered fort that was first raised by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
There’s also an enthralling local craft market, and sweeping vistas of mangrove swamps to explore.
9. Bolama Island
Complete with a welcoming NGO-run hotel and a smattering of fascinating (and dilapidating) colonial builds, Bolama Island is the closest of the Bissagos to the mainland and the capital of Bissau.
Regular piragua canoes take the few travelers who head this way straight across the Atlantic waters from the harboursides of Pidjiguiti.
Once they arrive it’s a medley of old colonnaded state buildings and crumbling Portuguese mansions that’s on the menu, all dating back to the nigh on forgotten days when this island city reigned as the capital of the country as a whole!
Continuing on the with fabled handsome beachfronts of the Senegalese Casamance region – which is actually contiguous with Varela – this stretch of gorgeous coastline in the extreme north of the country is now a national park to boot.
And for good reason too! Just check out those shimmering, scintillating West African sands that come punctuated by the occasional stream of muddy mangrove rivers, the populations of sea turtles, or the dusty dunes where sea grasses bristle in the salty breeze.
And away from the shore there are more treats: savannah grasses and dense forests; Nile crocodiles and hippos; Djola tribal villages and plenty, plenty more!
11. Rubane Island
Five hours by regular ferry from the archipelago hub of Bubaque, Rubane beckons travelers with its patchwork of verdant backcountry forests and ivory-white sands.
Groves of tall palm trees fringe the shorelines all over the place, punctuated by the occasional cliff, or even the timber villas of the Ponta Anchaca resort – the only place to stay here.
There are clusters of small fishing hamlets to wander around the isle, the boats of locals forever bobbing around the shore, along with oodles of totally deserted coves, where the powdery yellow sands lift oh so softly from the water.
Set deep in the heartlands of Guinea-Bissau, the regional kingpin of Gabú hails in as the second-largest urban spot in the country.
It’s a place very apart from the capital at Bissau.
For one, the dominant faith here is Islam, while the meek meanders of the dusty Rio Compossa are nothing on the roaring Atlantic rollers out west.
The result is a cultural hotspot that that oozes all the charm of a Saharan trading post.
And talking of trading: The market bustles and throbs with chatter and exotic goods brought in from Senegal, Guinea and the Ivory Coast – don’t miss it!
Set to the scents of peanuts and cashews, of raising cattle and palm oil plantations, the outback town of Farim is one of Guinea-Bissau’s more off-the-beaten-track stop offs.
It was first raised by the country’s onetime Portuguese rulers as an outpost against tribal attacks in the north.
Soon, it grew into a fully-fledged market town packed with trading caravans from as far afield as Libya and Morocco.
Today, the place is a charming, if rustic, affair that rises from the green, green banks of the Cacheu River in a medley of tin-roofed homes and traditional yurt-style hamlets.
A small stretch of river way that runs through the heart of untouched jungles close to the town of Mampatá, some 30 or so kilometers from the capital at Bissau city, Saltinho offers a glimpse of GB’s beautiful backcountry.
An arched steel bridge silhouettes against the red-glowing sky.
Bobbing canoes laden with arched-back local fishermen move side to side on the currents.
Children jump and dive from the rocks.
The piece de resistance has to be the eponymous Saltinho Waterfalls though, which gush over a series of stepping stones and escarpments – it’s all truly breathtaking!
15. Florestas de Castanhez National Park
Take the untrodden tarmac road into the deep south of Guinea-Bissau, where dusty plumes of mud rise and fall in the heat, and the colossal trunks of palm trees pepper the ridges.
Here, the Florestas de Castanhez National Park host some of the last remaining tracts of GB rainforest.
Those who venture in – and few do – will be able to hike the rambling trails and see groups of baboons and chimps in the palms above, while the reserve also spills out onto the Atlantic, where African manatees and salt-water hippos rarely fail to get the cameras snapping!