Opinions differ about the safety of travelers in Sierra Leone. According to official government warnings, it's a crime-riddled, corrupt and dangerously un-regulated country. Some travel bloggers disagree, saying Sierra Leone is one of the friendliest places in West Africa with the most beautiful beaches.
The truth is, it's a bit of both, and your view of the country will be determined by your own personal experience.
Sierra Leone is also one of the poorest nations on earth and experienced an atrocious civil war from 1991 to 2002. Economic development is only just starting to show gains. Where poverty exists, so do high levels of crime, especially petty crime such as pickpocketing and theft.
Sierra Leone is an adventure, not a holiday destination. This may change in the future as conditions improve and the rest of the world wakes up to Sierra Leone's stunning beauty.
Travel outside the capital Freetown is problematic and dangerous, due to very bad roads, poorly maintained vehicles and bandits.
Here are a few of the other challenges travelers may face while traveling in Sierra Leone.
Lungi airport is situated on the far side of a wide estuary from Freetown. It's a three-hour drive by road from Lungi to Freetown, a one-hour ferry ride across the estuary or a 30 to 40-minute water taxi ride.
The ferry is government owned and operated, and has Wi-Fi and air conditioning. This is the most common method of transport for locals, however, the maintenance standards of these vessels is not great. Consider all your options and pick the safest method of transport for you.
Traveling after dark from the airport is not ideal, as the roads are congested and you might feel uneasy crossing a wide waterway in a shabby boat at night.
If your flight arrives late at night, it's a good idea to book a room at one of the Lungi Airport hotels – but book this in advance, as there's limited availability.
Your safest option is to get around via a privately owned or rented vehicle rather than taxis or "poda-podas" (minibusses). Be aware that pickpocketing and robbery is pretty common on public transport.
Don't drive outside Freetown after dark. Most roads in Freetown and all roads outside Freetown are unlit. There are no regular police patrols along them and often no traffic for long periods. There are no vehicle breakdown services in the country, either.
Traffic accidents are common in Sierra Leone. You should arrange in advance to be collected at the airport by a competent driver in a car suitable for travel on badly-rutted roads. There are no car hire facilities at Lungi airport.
Research reliable helicopter transfer services available from Lungi airport to Freetown if you have the cash to splash and don't want to go via road or ferry.
Just be aware that helicopters in Sierra Leone are not required to meet the maintenance standards or pass the safety checks that would be required in the West.
Schedules are erratic and subject to frequent last-minute cancellations.
Sea-going vessels in Sierra Leone are not required to meet the maintenance standards or pass standard safety checks found elsewhere in the world. There is no scheduled service with full maintenance records available for public inspection. There will be no public emergency service response to any problems at sea. Independent travelers will find it very difficult to make arrangements for a private emergency response service.
The ferry service terminates in Freetown in the eastern end of the city, which is notorious for civil unrest and crime.
The drive from the ferry terminal to the hotels along Lumley beach (Aberdeen district) takes around an hour, but can take up to two in bad traffic.
You should avoid using the ferry alone or as a foot passenger, as pickpocketing and mugging of passengers, especially tourists, is common.
The ferry was warned by the Port Authorities in January 2007 about overloading and has been known to operate in poor visibility without lights. There is a lack of basic safety equipment on board, including navigational aids, lifeboats and accessible life jackets. Emergency procedures are unclear.
Pelican water taxis provide a service across the estuary. They have some limited safety equipment and rescue capability and have been known to operate in poor visibility without lights.
Pirogues, as they are known locally, frequently operate over-capacity and regularly capsize. Avoid this mode of transport.
The commercial hovercraft service was suspended in May 2008 when it crashed into the terminal at Mahera Beach damaging the wall of the building. None of the passengers waiting in the terminal was hurt.
The main road from Freetown to Makeni and Mile 91 is sealed and suitable for most types of vehicle. The majority of other roads outside Freetown are constructed from rocks and mud, with frequent potholes.
During the rainy season (May to October) rural roads can become difficult to use, even for off-road vehicles.
Illegal roadblocks are sometimes put up by youths, who will often ask for a small "donation" for mending the road. Occasionally they will be armed.
Roadblocks are most common at the weekend and on roads to tourist beaches in the Western Area. They are easily distinguishable from the legal checkpoints erected by police, who are uniformed and normally use marked barriers or vehicles to indicate where drivers should stop.
The safest response to seeing an illegal roadblock ahead of you is to turn the car around before reaching it and use an alternative route. Stopping at a roadblock and winding down your window could allow someone to reach into your vehicle. Roadblocks will sometimes be lifted if you indicate with your horn that you do not intend to stop.
The official warnings say Sierra Leone is a high crime nation, with a significant risk of pick pocketing, theft and also aggravated robbery. This is not the place to flash lots of cash and wear expensive cameras around your neck.
The nightclubs and bars of Lumley Beach and Aberdeen areas of Freetown are favorite haunts of criminals, muggers and pickpockets.
There are occasional riots between rival groups of youths in the central and eastern areas of Freetown around Siaka Stevens Street, Lightfoot Boston Street and Sir Samuel Lewis Road. These disturbances normally disperse quickly, but if you encounter an incident, you should leave the area immediately.
Travelers will tell you Sierra Leone has the most beautiful beaches. One of the reasons many expect it to become the next destination to be developed for mass tourism. Hopefully, the high-rise hotels won't spoil it.
But the official warnings say you should not walk barefoot on beaches, particularly Lumley Beach in Freetown, where there can be hospital waste, including needles.
Strong currents are common and there is no life guard or emergency service in the case that you get caught in a rip or are seeking help. In February 2011 two British visitors drowned in separate incidences at beaches along the Freetown peninsula.
Be cautious walking alone on remote beaches, and give the beach stroll a miss after dark.
Check the quality of any gems you purchase before legally removing them from the country. All precious stones require an export license. Diamond and gem smuggling is treated similarly to drug trafficking – expect a lengthy jail term.
Sporting events and concerts at the national stadium pose a high risk to personal security and safety. Pickpocketing is rife. Poor crowd control and overcrowding make the general stands - and sometimes even the VIP area - uncomfortable and unsafe. Rioting has occurred at previous events and could occur again in the future.
You should carry ID (passport or residence permit) at all times, particularly when driving or taking a taxi when the likelihood of having to produce it is high.
Sierra Leone is predominantly a Muslim and care should be taken not to offend. Homosexual acts are illegal, so avoid showing any public displays of affection or speaking about your sexual orientation while traveling here.
Do not expect traveling in Sierra Leone to be cheap. Import duties mean that everything you want to buy in a supermarket is probably double what you would pay at home. Plus as a foreigner, you will pay 10 times more than a local would for the same item.
You will need a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate to enter Sierra Leone. You'll need it to leave, too. Some airlines won't let you board if you can't produce it. You'll certainly need to show it to border control agents at your next destination.
Lassa fever, previously prevalent in Kenema and the east, has spread to northern Sierra Leone. 48 deaths were reported in 2010. If you have traveled in these regions you should seek urgent medical advice if you suffer from any fever not positively identified as Malaria.
Speaking of Malaria, it is common in Sierra Leone.
Cholera remains a problem, there are infrequent outbreaks. Never drink the tap water – you must boil any water for more than one minute, and avoid ice cubes in all drinks. Pack water purification tablets and a water purification system with you (check out Grayl). If you have to purchase bottled water, be aware that even bottled water has been shown to be contaminated by bacteria. Check with the local health unit for current safe brands.
There can be water shortages in the Freetown area, especially at the end of the dry season (March to June), which lowers the quality of the drinking water. If you suffer from diarrhea you should seek immediate medical attention.
Since sanitary conditions are poor and refrigeration is unreliable, avoid eating uncooked vegetables, salads, seafood, or meats at restaurants and hotels.
Swimming in the ocean is safe, but swimming in rivers is not.
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