How Dangerous is Guinea Bissau? What You Need to Know

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Guinea Bissau can be a challenging travel destination. Once seen as a shining beacon of development potential, it is now largely propped up by international aid.

Old colonial house at the port of Bissau (Guinea-Bissau) Photo © Getty Images/Abenaa

Guinea Bissau is definitely not on the usual tourist trail through Africa, but for adventurous travelers there's plenty to discover, most notably the Bijagos Archipelago – Africa's only archipelago.

But before you ignite your sense of adventure, there lies some real danger here. Struggling infrastructure, language barriers, political unrest and widespread smuggling of drugs, weapons and people make trouble a common theme in the country – and if you get stuck, you could have a hard time finding help.

This means a trip to Guinea Bissau needs thorough planning and serious thought about the dangers you may face. Here are some of the things you need to know about safety in Guinea Bissau.

Civil unrest and political trouble in Guinea Bissau

Guinea Bissau's poverty is largely the result of a string of conflicts and power struggles. Since winning independence from Portugal in 1974 after a bloody and long-lasting conflict, the people of Guinea Bissau have suffered through civil war, countless coups and political assassinations.

The political environment is very unstable here, and the people tasked with maintaining order are often the first ones to upset the public.

Frustrated with the ingrained corruption, in 2010 the EU abandoned its mission to reform the nation's security forces and bring an end to the political power grabbing.

Avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings. They have the potential to turn violent very quickly.

You should also have an exit strategy in case things get truly out of hand. While foreigners aren't generally targeted in these political struggles, you don't want to find yourself stuck in the middle of widespread violence.

The Bijagos Archipelago is largely removed from mainland conflict, but while you may feel safe and secure, it's best to listen to any travel warnings.

If you can get to Bissau's international airport, TAP Air flies direct to Lisbon and there are several services to Dakar.

Traveling overland, the highways of the north passage to Senegal would be your most reliable, if not your safest route.

Guinea Bissau's official language is Portuguese, but indigenous languages or creole are just as common, which can make it difficult to gather information. If you're unsure of the situation or how to respond, one of the many NGOs doing aid work in Guinea Bissau should be able to get you up to date and on the right track. It's a good idea to have some of their numbers written down, as well as their bases of operations.

Smugglers cove: Arquipelago dos Bijagos

The beautiful Bijagos Archipelago is the feather in Guinea Bissau's tourism cap. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere reserve, there's plenty of diving and fishing to be done while you explore the islands. But whether you're there to admire the marine life or conquer it, the relaxed, and insulated atmosphere is intoxicating.

Unfortunately the same sense of isolation and privacy that attracts adventurers to this archipelago also appeals to drug smugglers, who use it as a platform between Latin America and Europe.

Several hundred kilos of cocaine are thought to pass through the islands each week, but smugglers are a surreptitious lot and chances are you'll be none the wiser.

If you come across any packages washed up on the beach, don't let your curiosity get the better of you. It's best to turn around and head back the other way.

The same applies if you stumble upon any strange clearings while wandering. Chances are it's one of the many secret airstrips used to unload packages, and probably not somewhere you want to hang around.

Don't assume uniforms deserve your trust here, either. The nation's corrupt leaders and security staff are thought to play a big part in the drug trade. In fact, the Chiefs of Staff of both Guinea Bissau's Navy and Air Force are on the US State Department's drug kingpin list.

For traveling around the coast or between the Bijagos islands, your main choices are the cheap but rickety motorised canoes or the more modern and expensive (but safer) boats owned by the many fishing lodges dotted throughout the archipelago.

Some places let you hire out boats, but the confusing currents that run through the islands make for dangerous conditions, and it's best if you leave the navigation to a local expert.

Bandits and black markets

Despite the crippling poverty, serious crime is relatively low in Guinea Bissau. As drug trafficking through the country has become more prevalent, so has narcotics use and the crime that comes with it. In short, you shouldn't be strolling around like you would in your home neighborhood. There are still plenty of dark corners and shadowed streets to avoid. In fact, because of unreliable public power, almost all the streets and alleys are dark after dusk. It's best to stay off the streets at night.

Travelers are few and far between here, and will inevitably draw attention – mostly friendly and helpful – but flashy displays of wealth could attract the wrong kind of interest. Keep any jewelry or expensive gear hidden away, and be wary of watchful eyes.

There are very few ATMs in Guinea Bissau, and outside the capital it is hard to use credit card facilities. It's a cash economy, so you'll likely be carrying more than you're usually comfortable with.

If possible, try to work out what you need for the day, with perhaps a little emergency money stashed somewhere on you (in your shoes, perhaps). Keep a small amount handy for little purchases like food and trinkets. You don't want to be thumbing through a wad of bills in plain sight.

The Bandim Markets are a trove of the black market by-products of drug and gun smuggling, and you can find a weird array of stuff here (just be careful about taking it home). But with the produce come the suppliers, who can be rather shady characters. You need to be very wary of pickpockets while here. The same goes for other markets or crowded places throughout the country.

It's particularly important to look after your documents in Guinea Bissau. Between anti-trafficking efforts, roving militaries and aid organisations, you could be flashing your ID quite a bit. A lack of international embassies and officials also means it can be rather difficult to replace a lost passport here. Your best bet is usually to duck over to Senegal, but this can be tricky without a passport.

To avoid the inconvenience, it's best to carry copies of all your important documents and keep the originals back at your accommodation (locked up safely) or stashed deep in your backpack.

Getting around Guinea Bissau safely

Guinea Bissau's transport system can be a little unreliable. Minibuses (toca toca) and taxis service the cities, while sept-places (seven seater 4WDs) and candongas (big commercial vehicles) run between the cities. However this can be a struggle in the monsoonal wet season, so you may find your best option is to hire a 4WD.

The roads aren't well maintained, even in the capital, and driving standards here are a little less uniform that you are probably used to. Restrict your travel to daytime to reduce the danger of accidents, and also because there are reports of banditry on some rural roads at night.

During the wet season (June–October) lots of roads become completely impassable. There's not much traffic in Guinea Bissau, so if you try your luck and get stuck, you could be there for days. Make sure you always have plenty of food and water, and don't overestimate your car in dodgy conditions.

Landmines are a threat in Guinea Bissau. A legacy from the country's conflicted past, the landmines have been cleared from the capital Bissau, but still lie scattered around the countryside in the Bafata, Oio, Biombo, Quinara and Tombali regions. Stick to driving on paved roads whenever possible, and talk to locals if you're planning to head off the beaten path. They obviously won't be able to point out individual explosives, but they will warn you of any danger zones or previous accidents.

Parasites, bacteria and viruses

There isn't much in the way of modern medical facilities in Guinea Bissau, so any sickness is a serious situation. As they say, prevention is better than cure, so plenty of preparation on your behalf is wise.

A yellow fever vaccination is essential, as well as anti-malarial medication. Both diseases are carried by mosquitoes, so you should always cover up at dawn and dusk (when they are most active) and wear plenty of strong insect repellent.

In 2008 there was a cholera outbreak in the south of the country, which then spread to other provinces, eventually claiming more than 200 lives. For this reason any stomach upsets or diarrhea should be taken very seriously.

There is an oral cholera vaccine, Dukoral, that has the bonus effect of protecting against traveller's diarrhoea, so see your travel doctor prior to your trip to see what vaccinations are right for you.

Dukoral doesn't provide 100% immunity, so you will still need to be very careful with water and any uncooked food.

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1 Comment

  • Adam Hacking said

    I have been to Bissau many times and it is a charming place full of charming people not however underestimate the poverty you will get by most places with French no problem but very little English is spoken , and you can forget credit cards entirely.

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