Sierra Leone Travel Guide
Beaches, islands, rain forests, mountains, old cars and new friends… If this sounds like vacation to you, Sierra Leone should be at the top of your travel bucketlist. After years of conflict and the notorious Ebola crisis, it’s finally time to visit this beguiling country on the west coast of Africa.
When I think back on the five months I spent wandering through seven African countries, including some other really off-the-beaten-track gems, Sierra Leone is where many of my trip’s most memorable moments – fun, challenging, and perplexing – went down.
If you’re patient, can keep a sense of humor when things get weird, and are ready to embrace the wacky and unpredictable nature of travel in Africa at its finest, then give Sierra Leone a chance to take you for a ride.
Common Travel Questions About Sierra Leone
Before we get into the details, here are quick answers to a few things you might be wondering while considering travel to Sierra Leone.
While safety is never guaranteed anywhere in the world, I would say Sierra Leone is safe enough, and safer than most people think. Your biggest risks while traveling in Sierra Leone are transportation accidents, rip tides (if you swim in the ocean) and disease. Crime is relatively rare, but do watch out for petty theft, especially in the city of Freetown and busy areas of larger towns, as tourists really do stick out. Keep reading below for more nuanced information on safety in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone has a hot and humid tropical climate with two seasons: rainy/wet and dry/dusty. Rain means mud, exponentially longer travel times on unpaved roads, and more (malarial) mosquitoes. If that sounds like your cup of tea, don’t let me stop you, but for everyone else try to hit the dry season: December to roughly April in the north, and ending a little earlier (around March) in the south.
English is the official language of Sierra Leone, spoken when needed by educated people, especially in Freetown. Most of the population communicates in Krio, an English-based Creole that is harder than you might think for an English speaker to understand. Most of Sierra Leone’s population also speaks a local mother tongue, such as Mende or Temne, depending on which region they’re from.
Is Sierra Leone safe for travelers?
Let’s get this out of the way first. The answer is yes, mostly. Your biggest risks while traveling in Sierra Leone are transportation accidents, rip tides (if you swim in the ocean) and disease. Try not to travel after dark if you can avoid it, don’t swim at beaches the locals don’t swim at, and take care with your vaccinations and malaria precautions.
Crime is relatively rare, but do watch out for petty theft, especially in the city of Freetown and busy areas of larger towns. Violent crime is rarer still but if it’s going to happen, it’ll probably be in a bad part of Freetown late at night so just avoid that scenario. Follow these basic travel safety tips for adventurous destinations and you’ll likely be fine.
The 2018 presidential elections were considered free, fair, and mostly peaceful (yay!) but this part of the world does struggle with political instability. Check the latest before you go.
For what it’s worth, I’m a youngish white woman and I traveled solo for my entire time in Africa. I can’t promise you’ll have an incident-free trip, but it’s safer than most people think.
Who should travel to Sierra Leone?
This isn’t one of those places I would recommend to everyone. Probably not my parents, for example, or a first-time gap year backpacker leaving their country for the first time, or a timid traveler accustomed to guided tours. A bit of maturity and patience are needed to gracefully navigate Sierra Leone on your own.
If you’re a “responsible adult” (I’ll let you define that for yourself) with a bit of travel experience in developing countries, patience, a sense of humor, and a taste for adventure, then you’re a perfect fit.
Go for the experience. Don’t go for the food (I hope you like rice), comfort, or to meet other travelers (though the ones you do meet will be very interesting).
It’s worth noting upfront that Sierra Leone is not a budget travel destination, at least not comparable to Southeast Asia for example. A very basic guesthouse may run you $10-$15 per night and hostels aren’t really a thing.
Things to do and see in Sierra Leone
Hop over here next for a complete list. In the meantime, here are some highlights:
Beaches. Whether it’s people watching on Lumley Beach in Freetown, or enjoying a solitary stretch of sand near River Number Two, Sierra Leone’s palm-lined beaches are gorgeous.
Mountains. Hiking to the highest point in the country, Mt. Bintumani in the Loma Mountains, is no easy feat. The elevation profile is just as challenging as negotiating with the village chief for your guide.
Rainforest. Lush, humid, and full of interesting flora and fauna.
Hiking. From short jaunts up a hill just outside of town, to multi-day adventures on Mt. Bintumani or in Gola Forest, you’ll find adventurous hiking in Sierra Leone.
Surfing, kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, diving. Go to the right beach or river and you’ll find a thatched hut to outfit you for the water sport of your choice.
Curious and friendly locals. If you leave yourself open to it, you can learn a lot from chatting over beers or while crammed into the back seat of a shared taxi. Sierra Leone doesn’t see many travelers, and while traveling in the interior the most common question I got was “So which NGO do you work for?” Locals will be delighted to hear about why you chose their country to visit when so few other travelers do.
Wildlife. Tiwai Island is home to 11 different species of primates, one of the most diverse and highest concentration populations on the planet.
History. Unfortunately Sierra Leone was at the epicenter of the slave trade during the 1500’s – 1800’s. It’s worth paying a visit to historical sites like the slave fort of Bunce Island in order to ensure this dark history is not forgotten.
Adventure. If you venture away from the beach resorts, you’ll find Sierra Leone to be an unpredictable, perplexing, frustrating, rewarding place to test your travel skills.
Thought-provoking moments. Cultural differences will leave you scratching your head and marveling at how many different ways there are to view the world. Vacationing in one of the world’s poorest countries is bound to make all but the densest travelers ponder the state of the world we all live in. It’s important to travel mindfully in Sierra Leone.
The Best Time to Visit Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone has a tropical climate with two seasons: rainy/wet and dry/dusty. Rain means mud, exponentially longer travel times on unpaved roads, and more (malarial) mosquitoes. If that sounds like your cup of tea, don’t let me stop you, but for everyone else try to hit the dry season.
Dry season runs from December to roughly April in the north, and ends a little earlier (around March) in the south. The rest of the year, from March/April through November, is rainy season due to the African monsoon.
The other key thing about the weather in Sierra Leone: it’s hot. Hot and humid. Locals were amused by my constant and extravagant sweatiness, even just sitting in the shade. Thank goodness for stink-proof merino wool clothing.
How much time do you need?
Depends on what you want to do. Here’s what I’d recommend:
- 1 week: see the Freetown and hang out on the beaches
- 2 weeks: Freetown, beaches, a nearby town or two and some wildlife
- 3-4 weeks: A solid tour of the country, including less-visited towns in the north and a hike up Mount Bintumani, Sierra Leone’s tallest mountain
I spent almost three weeks exploring the destinations and experiences described here. That included a few days of recovering from malaria; hopefully you’ll manage to avoid that. I moved pretty quickly through Freetown and Kenema, and skipped a few towns I would have liked to see.
Sierra Leone is not the place for traveling quickly and precisely, especially not by public transport. Build in a full travel day between each town, and don’t plan on doing anything else besides getting from point A to point B on that day.
I had the luxury of a flexible schedule since I was continuing overland to Liberia, but I would say that if you have a flight out of Freetown, build in a buffer of at least a day at the end. Maybe better to plan a few days of relaxation in and around Freetown for the end of your trip, rather than the beginning, so you don’t have to worry about missing your flight if the car breaks down or the roads turn to muddy sludge.
Getting To and From Sierra Leone
Most people fly in and out of Freetown, and there’s plenty of information about this elsewhere online and in the Bradt guidebook.
I was on a longer journey all the way from Senegal to Cote d’Ivoire, so I entered Sierra Leone at the border with Guinea and exited at the border with Liberia. If you have the time, I highly recommend making Sierra Leone part of a longer overland trip in West Africa. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of crossing an international border between two small wooden shacks in a small wooden boat. West African borders are exciting, sometimes frustrating, and definitely an adventure.
Overland Border Crossing Details
Guinea: If heading to Guinea you’ll want to speak at least a little bit of survival-level French. The border crossing is on a major transportation route and the roads are paved, though much smoother and less potholed on the Sierra Leone side. Cars run regularly between Freetown and Conakry, a journey of at least 8 hours, probably more like 10 or 12. Start early because you don’t really want to arrive in either of those cities late at night, but chances are good that you will anyway. My advice (learned the hard way, as getting robbed in Freetown while arriving at night was the only truly scary experience of my trip): pre-book a hotel in a nice part of town, charter a private taxi to get there, and choose the driver carefully.
Liberia: The southern border crossing with Liberia is not as heavily used and you may have to take a moto taxi from the nearby town of Zimmi. On the Liberian side you can find shared taxis heading to Monrovia. Optionally you can get off about halfway, at Robertsport junction, and find transportation to Robersport from there. It might take a couple hours to catch a car from the junction to Robertsport, or you can find a motorbike taxi pretty quickly.
Visas: As with pretty much everywhere in West Africa, you’ll need to get visas ahead of time at an embassy for both Guinea and Liberia. If coming from Sierra Leone, the embassies in Freetown should be able to hook you up, but do your own research on this because things change fast in this part of the world.
Where To Go and What To See
If you’re going to be spending some serious time in Sierra Leone, I recommend you get yourself a copy of the Bradt Guidebook. I used it and thought it was pretty good. It obviously covers the country as a whole WAY more comprehensively than I can.
For a real itinerary to give you some ideas, especially if you want to venture inland to the places where fewer tourists go, check out my detailed list of things to do and places to see.
Public transportation in Sierra Leone means shared cars and swarms of battered motorbike taxis. What you take will depend on where you are going, what the roads are like, and how well traveled the route is. If your budget allows you can enjoy the relative comfort and reliability of hiring a private 4×4 car and driver from Freetown. But personally, I would not have sacrificed my experiences on public transportation for any amount of functional air conditioning (and that’s saying a lot!).
Shared taxis, also known as bush taxis, are the most common way to get between towns in Sierra Leone. They are uncomfortable, unreliable, in bad condition, and probably not very safe. Their bumpers may be tied on with twine. The doors may not stay closed, or may not open when they’re supposed to. They are comically overcrowded, hot and dusty – don’t even think about things like air conditioning or working windows. They will probably break down at least once. Despite all this, or maybe because of it, I recommend you take them! Nothing can match them for meeting locals and feeling like you are connecting with the places you pass through.
Motorbike taxis are a common form of transportation within towns, on sparsely traveled routes, and on very bad roads. The price is always negotiable and it’s best to ask a local how much it should be. I found that some drivers attempted to overcharge me a lot (the famous African white person tax) and others were quite fair, so don’t assume you can negotiate every price down dramatically. Short rides should be very cheap. Longer rides are still decent value but more expensive than shared taxis; three or four hours may be $10 – $20 depending on road conditions and your negotiation skills.
Motorbike Taxi Tips
If you’re not familiar with this common but rather dangerous form of transportation in sub-saharan Africa, here are some tips.
Usually motos in Sierra Leone are easy to flag down and will often honk or slow if they see a foreigner walking, which can be annoying if you actually want to walk. They also tend to hang out in packs near major intersections. You tell them your desired destination, which they will usually know, but if not they will just ask other drivers or locals until they figure it out. They can be a good way to find a guesthouse if you just arrived in town and don’t know of any. You can ask them to take you to a guesthouse in your price range and they will usually be able to do so.
Moto taxis can be dangerous, especially if traveling a long way on a smooth, fast road. Some expats and volunteers are even forbidden from taking them. In some cases you may get lucky and find a driver with a spare helmet, or when you are negotiating a longer ride in advance you can request that he bring one. Check the bike’s tires if you can; they should have some tread. It’s a generalization but older drivers may be more willing to drive at a safe speed than the younger speed demons, and may be a more comfortable choice for female travelers. Try to pick a driver you can communicate with, and don’t be afraid to ask him to slow down. Usually sticking your hand out horizontally and patting downwards a couple times, accompanied by “slow slow” or “small small,” will do the trick in Sierra Leone.
It’s worth repeating what I already mentioned in the safety section: transportation accidents are your biggest risk. That doesn’t mean you can’t take public transportation, but do take the steps mentioned above to mitigate the risk.
Hotels and Accommodation
Outside of Freetown I’d be surprised if there’s a single backpacker hostel in all of Sierra Leone, and I’m not even sure Freetown has one. Instead, the equivalent budget accommodation is a family-run guesthouse catering mostly to traveling Sierra Leoneans. They are almost always self-contained (bathroom in the room); if you should come down with a bout of food poisoning you’ll be thankful (no personal experience there I can assure you…).
In Freetown and the most visited towns you can find decently modern places (usually only one per town, except Freetown) but they will cost quite a bit and still not be as nice as you’d expect for the price.
Off the beaten track look for a small local guesthouse with a night security guard or gate, and a room with (in this priority order) locking door, mosquito net, working fan, and a bucket of clean water in the bathroom. Don’t expect running water, even if there is plumbing in the bathroom – for whatever reason they almost all have plumbing and it almost never works. In this case the toilet, which incidentally is probably missing its seat, can be flushed by pouring water into the bowl.
The typical budget guesthouse probably doesn’t have 24/7 electricity. In towns where central power is available, it may not work all day or may have frequent outages, so generators are used as backup. In some towns with no central electricity at all, generators are used exclusively. Most guesthouses, even the cheap ones, will have a generator that provides power from around sunset through midnight. More expensive hotels may run their generators round the clock.
Outside of Freetown expect to pay between $8 – $15 for a basic room, $20 – $40 for a nicer room that might have air conditioning, and upwards from there if you’re in a place with nice tourist accommodation and you choose to take advantage of it. You can sometimes negotiate, especially if you are obviously a budget traveler and show up on foot with only a dingy backpack to your name. Still, since you’re a (presumably) rich tourist with high standards, they may not show you to the cheapest rooms unless you ask specifically for them.
It always helps to find a place with friendly owners and a good vibe and make friends with the staff, both for fun and safety. Many of them are not used to tourists and will be quite interested and happy to talk.
Outside of Freetown it’s pretty rare to find a guesthouse with an online presence, so don’t worry too much about booking accommodation in advance. If you want to make things more predictable, you can choose a place in advance from the Bradt guide and call them to make a reservation, but I never once was turned away for lack of one.
It can work well to pick out a couple options in the right price range from the guidebook, ideally near each other, and then ask to see a room in each before making a choice. There are also many towns and guesthouses not covered in the guidebook, so another good method is to simply ask your taxi driver, fellow passengers, or a moto taxi driver if they know of a good hotel or guesthouse in your price range.
Money and Currency
Sierra Leone uses the aptly named Leone currency, which converts to US dollars at a current rate of 7,700. The biggest note you can get is 20,000 Leones, which is about $2.60 USD. What this means for you: fat bags of cash!
Even one day’s worth of Leones is not going to fit in your money belt (or pocket underwear, which I definitely recommend using), so just split them up into a few different places in your bags and hope for the best. Also don’t change too many at a time unless you’re going somewhere rural for a while.
Do not count on finding working ATMs in Sierra Leone. Freetown has them, and I heard that Makeni and the other bigger towns do too, but they are notoriously unreliable. They may not be working on the day you need money, or they may only give out a small amount. Do not rely on them. I started my travels through West Africa with a couple thousand dollars (!) hidden in my underwear, and did not use a single ATM until Monrovia, Liberia.
US dollars and Euros are both easy to change into Leones, provided you have new, crisp bills without wrinkles or tears. Hundreds and fifties will get you the best rates. You can check at banks, but in West Africa money changing is often done by shop owners. Ask your guesthouse if they know a good place, because frequently they don’t advertise it as a service.
Make sure you know what the exchange rate should be and don’t be afraid to ask for it. I had an app on my phone that stored exchange rates offline which was super helpful. In some places it’s impossible to get the official rate, but if you negotiate and ask around you can avoid being totally ripped off. In some places they will gladly give you quite a good rate.
Always count the money in front of the money changer before leaving, even the small bills that come wrapped as packets which the changers will count out in a group. It’s not uncommon to be ripped off by unscrupulous money changers, and it’s easy for even the honest ones to accidentally miscount when there are so many small bills to deal with. Heck, sometimes I miscounted too. The best approach is to have everyone recount together in a non-confrontational way until both sides agree the amount is correct.
After changing money, go put whatever you don’t need in a safe place before continuing to explore. You’ll want to anyway, rather than carry the big bags of cash around.
Connectivity and Local SIM Cards
The best way to stay connected in Sierra Leone is to buy a local SIM card or two, depending on where you’ll be. They’re cheap and easy to buy in pretty much any town. I used Africell and it worked fine in most major towns. In the northern areas some people told me Airtell worked better. In small villages or national parks, don’t expect connectivity at all.
Once you have a SIM card, you purchase credit that gets loaded onto your phone number and can be used to make calls or buy packages. You can buy credit on practically every street corner, either by purchasing cards with a code you dial, or giving your mobile number to someone with a machine who can load the credit for you (tip: write your own phone number down when you buy the SIM card!). In Sierra Leone this is often called “topup,” but you can also ask to buy phone credit, or just name your carrier and point to your phone and you’ll be understood.
Using specific short codes based on the carrier (write them down!) you can use your credit to purchase a package or check your balance. Every carrier has different packages, but usually they’re some amount of minutes or MBs that expire after a certain time period. Shorter time periods may be cheaper because they’re less convenient.
Mobile data: I found it most convenient to purchase medium amounts of daily or weekly data when needed, and use WhatsApp to communicate to friends and family back home and any locals who had a smartphone. WhatsApp is very popular in Africa, in part because it uses so little data and works well on a patchy connection. You can expect to spend a few dollars a week on mobile data, maybe more if you’re doing a lot of uploading pictures or browsing the web.
Phone calls to locals: Many locals have SIM cards from multiple carriers, and therefore multiple mobile numbers, because often it’s cheaper to call a number on the same network. This is why people or businesses may list two mobile numbers. You can usually use either because, unlike the US, it’s common for phones in Africa to hold two SIM cards at once. If you can, pick the number that’s on the same network as yours, usually identifiable because it will start with the same numbers.
WiFi: Wifi is not common or fast in Sierra Leone. The nicer hotels may advertise it as a feature, but frequently it doesn’t work anyway or is too slow to be useful. If you want to be connected to the internet, I recommend buying data packages on your mobile SIM card. It will cost you a few dollars but it’s more reliable than searching for wifi.
Food in Sierra Leone
Let me be honest: no one travels to West Africa mainly for the food. There were days when I ate rice for all three meals, or drank Ovaltine for dinner because the chili sauce was so mind-blowingly hot that I literally could not eat it. Of course, there was also one day at a beach lodge on the Freetown Peninsula where I enjoyed amazingly delicious food (for American prices), so a lot depends on what you find.
Sierra Leonean food, as with West African food in general, involves a lot of rice, spicey sauces, cassava, beans, groundnuts, sometimes chicken, and fish near the beaches. Common dishes in Sierra Leone include pepper (“pep-pay”) soup, groundnut stew, acheke (fermented cassava with the consistency of couscous), and stews made from leaves of cassava or potato plant. Bread and egg “omelettes” can be found for breakfast, but many locals just eat rice.
Sierra Leonean food can be shockingly spicy. Personally I think it rivals Thai food in that regard. You can try asking for “small pepper” (pepper is pronounced “pep-pay”) but results will vary.
Sub-saharan African food in general is heavy on carbohydrates, and it can be hard to get enough protein. Tip: buy a jar of peanut butter in a bigger town like Freetown or Makeni. You can buy cheap cookies and crackers almost anywhere, and smearing them with a glop of peanut butter makes them much more filling when you’ve just arrived in a tired mess after dark and decide to skip dinner. You can also easily buy milk power and Ovaltine, which you can mix with cold water for some added nutrients.
Instant coffee and Lipton tea bags are easy to find. You can also find Ataya, the sugary West African tea. Don’t expect to find much good-quality coffee though, unless you’re staying at high-end tourist hotels.
Mangoes are plentiful, cheap and delicious, especially during mango season between April and July. For snacks, buy some mangoes, bananas, or a little bag of groundnuts from the lady on the corner and start a chat.
Language and Communication
Conveniently for me and many other English-speaking travelers, Sierra Leone’s official language is English. This is somewhat unusual in West Africa where many countries speak French instead (and boy did I fumble my way through some of those!). Sierra Leone was easy by comparison, but don’t expect that just because English is the official language you will actually be able to understand everyone.
When speaking to each other most locals use Krio, an English-based Creole language with a few French- and Spanish-derived words mixed in. There is nothing quite like the distinctive rhythm of Krio. I still remember the fascinating dissonance of a ten year old blonde girl, a missionary’s daughter born and raised in Sierra Leone, rattling off rapid-fire Krio with the locals. You’ll be so busy trying to parse the occasional English-like bits that you won’t even notice you can’t actually understand what anyone is saying.
Educated Sierra Leoneans have learned English in school, but you will still sometimes be puzzled by each others’ accents and turns of phrase. People who have not completed their schooling, especially in rural areas, may not speak much English at all. To complicate things further, people from different regions also speak different mother tongues, completely unrelated to English, like Mende and Temne. However, as an English speaking traveler you can certainly find your way around, ask for what you need, and enjoy the occasional nuanced conversation when you encounter a local with a strong grasp of English.
Locals will appreciate your attempts to learn a little bit of Krio. Start with learning to greet and be greeted: “Aw di bodi” (sounds a lot like “How the body?”) means “How are you?” A good response is “Di bodi fayn” (“the body fine”), or if you’re less confident in your Krio pronounciation you can always just say “Fine thanks. And you?” The name “Sierra Leone” itself is abbreviated to “Salone” in Krio, which you will hear often.
The only downside to Krio being somewhat English-like is that locals seem to think English-speaking tourists can understand it. So you may have to be clear that don’t understand (don’t just smile and nod) if it’s an important exchange and you’re not grasping the details.
Culture and Religion
The culture in Sierra Leone is a bit more relaxed and westernized than its West African neighbors, with the exception of Liberia. which is similar. One reason for this is that Sierra Leone is about 1/5 Christian and 4/5 Muslim, which is a higher Christian percentage than neighbors like Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. Sierra Leoneans are often very religious and consider it an important part of their lives, but they wear their religion lightly and everyone – Christian, Muslim – gets along with each other just fine. One man I met on a ten hour taxi ride told me his mother is Muslim and his father is Christian. He grew up attending services at both, though he’s now Christian.
It will still serve you well to observe some basic cultural practices common throughout much of Africa. Always give and receive objects and eat with your right hand only. Shake hands enthusiastically and often. Smile a lot. Greetings can be formal and lengthy; when in doubt, it’s always nice to ask an acquaintance how they are doing and how their family is doing as well.
Sierra Leone and its West African neighbors are unfortunately one of the most disease-ridden places on the planet. This is first and foremost a tragic problem for the local populations, many of whom die needlessly from malaria and many other diseases. For the traveler, it is unlikely to be life threatening but you do need to take your preparation seriously. Check the WHO website for the latest, and visit a doctor who specializes in travel medicine well in advance of your trip.
This is not a detailed health guide, but here are a few areas you need to think about:
Yellow Fever vaccine will be required for entry. There are others you should look into getting or updating, including Hepatitis, Polio, Tetanus, Meningitis and Cholera, depending on what you will be doing and for how long. Check the CDC website and ask a travel doctor.
There is no vaccine against malaria, but travelers should take prophylactic (preventative) medication during their trip. There are several options, each with their own pros and cons, and lots of information is available elsewhere to help you make your choice. You should also take the standard precautions of sleeping under a net and wearing insect repellent, especially at night, which is when malaria transmitting mosquitoes are most active. I religiously took anti-malaria pills during my entire trip and still got malaria in West Africa, so you really do need to avoid bites in order to minimize your risk.
I recommend anyone planning to travel to really remote areas also pick up a malaria test kit and course of treatment medication at a pharmacy in Freetown. Where I’m from (the US) most doctors won’t give you this in advance of your trip, but they’re ridiculously easy and cheap to buy yourself once in Africa. I bought my kit in Uganda after watching a fellow traveler get absolutely taken down by malaria for about a week, mainly as cheap insurance.
This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my trip, because I noticed malaria symptoms literally on the top of Mt. Bintumani, way out there in the middle of nowhere in a tiny village where no one spoke English. I’m sure that my early treatment – at least a day before I would have been able to visit a health center – contributed to my fast recovery and relatively mild case. It sure as heck contributed to my mental sanity that first day.
Malaria is typically easy to treat at any health center in Africa, but in a very small fraction of cases it can be fatal within 24 hours if untreated, so having the treatment with you is an easy and smart move if you’ll be spending time outside the major towns.
Don’t drink it! Bottled water is generally a safe bet, and it’s not that expensive. You can find big 1.5 liter bottles in most towns. Just make sure it’s sealed when you buy it, and not refilled.
A cheaper and more ubiquitous option is the small water bags that you bite the corner off with your teeth. They are somehow usually ice cold, even on the hottest of hot days, and are a lovely treat when you’re sweltering in a shared taxi for hours. You can buy them almost anywhere, usually from women and children with baskets on their heads, or pretty much anywhere that serves food. I have heard that they’re not always as reliably purified as bottled water, but I saw a lot of local volunteers and expats drinking them, and I drank my own fair share as well.
If you’re traveling for a long time or to remote villages, you’ll need water purification chemicals (I like chlorine dioxide, such as Aquamira) or an internationally-rated purifier (not just the kind you would use for backpacking in the US, as this doesn’t catch all the critters that live in African water). In remote villages or while hiking, for example on Mount Bintumani, this will be your only way to get clean drinking water unless you plan carefully to bring all you’ll need (and planning anything carefully is not easy in West Africa).
I only got sick to my stomach once during 5 months in East and West Africa, but it does happen. The standard advice is to avoid uncooked vegetables and fruit that you can’t peel or wash (with soap and clean water). You won’t find a lot of these there anyway; I went months without eating a single salad. If eating at places where the locals do, it’s common to find food being served out of a single big pot which may sit there all day long. If the pot is hot and boiling, this is probably fine, but watch out for the lukewarm plates of beans or meat stew. Chances are these have been sitting out for a while.
It’s all relative of course, but I didn’t find Sierra Leone too high on the hassle factor, probably because there aren’t enough tourists there yet. Most people were friendly and interested, but not pushy or aggressive. There are, however, a few things you should be prepared for.
How to Deal With Begging
Well, you are vacationing in one of the world’s poorest countries. Many people don’t even have enough money for as much food as they’d like. As a foreign tourist, you will be assumed – and with good reason – to be ridiculously rich. Pair this with the cultural norm that those who have more are expected to share it with those who have less, and it’s inevitable that you’ll be asked for money at least a few times while visiting Sierra Leone. I know from experience that this can get old really fast, it’s necessary to take a deep breath, stay polite, and try to see things from their perspective.
Learn some polite ways to refuse these offers. It can be anything from pretending not to understand (just smile and wave) to a polite “I’m sorry” or “Not today.” Of course you can give if you feel the situation merits it, but note two things: 1) it will make things even harder for all the visitors who come after you because it sets expectations, and 2) it’s not the most efficient way to use your money to help people. Sometimes it even does harm. If you want to help, find a well established charity or NGO that works in the region and donate your money to it instead.
Of course, if someone has actually provided you with a useful service, it’s totally fine to give them a small amount of money as a way of saying thank you.
“I want you for friend.”
All throughout Africa I experienced people wanting my “friendship,” and puzzled a lot over what this meant. It happened even more than usual in Sierra Leone. When a stranger walks up to you on the street and says “I want you for friend. Give me your phone number.” it’s easy to be confused or even scared. Understand that for locals, who probably idolize your home country and truly believe it to be paradise, your “friendship” is considered fascinating, socially valuable and strategically smart.
I experimented with many ways to respond, from explaining “That’s not how friendship works where I’m from,” to laughing it off with “I already have too many friends,” to “Ok we’re friends now, bye” with a big smile while continuing on my way. In most cases people were not very persistent; maybe it was just a conversation starter for them.
This is one example of a perplexing contradiction I encountered so often in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in the African countries I visited. Many people were extremely kind to me, giving generously of their time, assistance, and hospitality without asking for anything back. On the other hand, I often felt frustrated when perfect strangers demanded my money, time and influence (“Help me get a visa to America”) without offering anything in return. Most people were somewhere in the middle, both offering and requesting help.
In my American culture we tend to keep both our needs and our offers closer to the vest. But I came to understand that in Sierra Leone this kind of open exchange, where being asked for something doesn’t cheapen being offered something, is more common. There is an emphasis on sharing what you have with those who don’t have it, even if it’s just sharing cookies with the person next to you in the taxi. So if you find yourself perplexed over whether people want to help you and truly get to know you, or just get stuff from you, the answer is: both. When I finally acknowledged that, my interactions with locals got a bit less confusing.
Considering what a horrible reputation West Africa has for corruption and bribery, I experienced relatively little of it. Stay for long enough though and it will happen.
You may be asked to pay a small amount to get through a police checkpoint on the highway. Your driver almost certainly will be. I found it best to approach police checkpoints with a big smile and a willingness to chat – about how great Sierra Leone is, what a great trip I’m having, what it’s like back in America, whether or not I’m married (see Female Travelers section below…), anything they wanted to chat about. Usually this was all they wanted from me and would let me pass, though unfortunately my taxi driver was often made to pay some small amount for a minor offense, real or fabricated. I was told they build this into the fare when they negotiate, so don’t feel like you have to pay them back.
I did have a couple negative experiences. On the way to Mt. Bintumani our motorbike was stopped and money was demanded for passing through the village. At the border with Liberia a border official made up bogus vaccination requirements and threatened to detain me for 10 days if I didn’t pay a bribe.
How to deal with this comes down to personal preference, patience and skill. I’ve read that the winning move is to call their bluff – fine, detain me, I’ll wait – and eventually they will get bored and let you leave. When the chips were down and I was flustered, I negotiated instead. In both cases I was able to claim that I didn’t have very much cash on me (they probably knew I was lying) and negotiate the bribe down to an amount I was willing to lose (a few dollars). Your mileage may vary.
In all cases it helps to stay polite but firm. I found that apologizing, even if fake (“I’m very sorry, I didn’t know that was a requirement”), worked better than arguing or accusing, which tended to escalate things. Rational explanations never got me very far either. Appeals to emotions and power structures were more effective.
Female Travelers in Sierra Leone
This is at the bottom not because I think it’s unimportant – I am a female traveler after all – but because I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as people make it out to be. However, there are a few specific issues that men will not have to deal with.
What to Wear
Sierra Leone felt less conservative than neighboring Guinea, probably because of the larger Christian population. I felt comfortable wearing a sleeveless shirt and loose-fitting pants, whereas in Guinea I wore a t-shirt with sleeves to cover my shoulders.
In Freetown many women wear western clothes that are sometimes rather form-fitting, but when these women visit rural villages they wrap a skirt around their jeans, and I would suggest following their lead. You don’t need to wear a skirt, but make sure your pants cover at least your knees and are not tight-fitting. Even in Freetown, you won’t see women in anything shorter than a knee-length skirt. Generally speaking throughout sub-saharan Africa the thighs are considered more scandalous than the chest.
You probably won’t get in too much trouble if you ignore these guidelines, but why stick out any more than you already do (and unless you’re of African descent, you are going to stick out). Plus, many locals already assume you’re morally loose because they’ve watched western movies (western women have quite a scandalous reputation in many areas of the world because of this!). A normal pair of shorts to you may be eyebrow-raising to them already, and paired with their assumptions about western women you could be sending some very wrong messages.
Interactions with Local Men
Unfortunately women in many African countries – as around the world – are seen as inferior and not treated with much respect. As a foreign woman you will have elevated status, almost like an honorary man. Men would talk politics with me – something local women don’t talk about much – and I could hang out in restaurants and bars where the clientele was all male and no one seemed surprised.
As a solo female traveler in West Africa, local men would talk to me without any qualms – both a benefit and an annoyance. On the couple occasions where I traveled with a male companion for a day or two, it was disappointing to realize my status was diminished. Local men would usually address my male companion primarily (in one case asking him if I was available for marriage!), and I felt like I was missing out on opportunities for interaction.
Local norms mean that you will find yourself interacting with a lot more men than women. It seems the men are allowed to be curious and assertive and talk to strangers, but the local women are supposed to be meek and quiet. So, when you do find a woman who wants to chat – the lady who sells you a mango, or a woman sitting next to you in a taxi, or the cook at your guesthouse – I suggest making the most of the opportunity for conversation. I only realized this toward the end of my trip, when I realized the great majority of my interesting conversations had been with men.
It’s a sad fact of life for a female traveler, especially a solo one: men all around the world seem to think we are hot and bothered and ready to go. All. The. Time. This is as true in Sierra Leone as it is anywhere. There were days when I was propositioned twice before breakfast.
One factor is the oh-so-realistic (not…) portrayal of women in western television and movies which are very popular there. Another factor is that by traveling, especially alone, women are advertising ourselves as cultural rule breakers. In Sierra Leone, as in many African cultures, most women would never want or “be allowed” to travel by themselves. So the only possible explanation is that a western woman traveling without a husband is, shall we say, up for grabs. And there is more hanging in the balance than just a fun night; there is also the potential of a free ticket back to America, the land of opportunity and money. Put all these factors together and it’s not too hard to see why men feel they just have to ask.
On the bright side, what we would consider sexual harassment in America is often framed in more polite terms in Sierra Leone and Africa in general. Not once in five months did I hear a vulgar statement or have anyone touch me in a rude way. I did receive a ton of marriage proposals, a request to “know me,” and a couple invitations to be a guest in my room. In Sierra Leone, the ubiquitous “I want you for friend” also seemed to be innuendo when it came from men, though the same language was used platonically by the occasional woman and little kid as well.
While this constant attention can get old really fast, the good news is that it’s not hard to turn down. Not once in Sierra Leone did anyone get aggressive. Typically they just moved on to some other topic of conversation. I am actually married, which usually (though not always, since he wasn’t there with me) ended the conversation, but some people advise saying you’re married even if you’re not. Personally I don’t love that dynamic – I can’t belong to you because I already belong to someone else, not just because I don’t want to. But, when you get tired of having the conversation on a daily basis, it’s the fastest way to end it.
I have to admit, as a solo female traveler it can be a challenge to stay open to interacting with locals in this environment. Most of the people who struck up conversations with me were men, and every time I would be waiting for the inevitable request for money, sex, or both. There were days where it made me not want to talk to anyone. But when I struggled through that impulse and tried to stay lighthearted and to see things from their side, it was worth it to muddle through.
Safety for Female Travelers
When I asked concerned friends and family why they were worried about my solo trip in Africa, most confessed that were worried about me being attacked. The unspoken subtext was sexual violence. While this is indeed something that happens to women all over the world, the scenario where an attacker jumps out of nowhere and assaults a woman is not nearly as common as we’re conditioned to believe. So as a woman, if you are concerned about your safety while traveling in Sierra Leone or anywhere else, your first job is to take care of more likely risks such as transportation accidents and health concerns.
After that, consider how to keep your belongings safe, as theft is much more common than assault. In many African countries theft is usually not violent, so take basic precautions and even this will not be trip ending. While a woman may be seen as a slightly easier target for robbery than a man, loads of men get robbed while traveling too (if that’s any comfort…).
For more nuanced tips, see this post about safety precautions to learn how I kept myself and my belongings (mostly) safe for five months of solo travel in Africa. My single biggest piece of advice for solo female travelers in this part of the world: stay inside after dinner time and don’t go wandering alone in areas where you don’t see any other people. Follow that and you’ve just ruled out the vast majority of scenarios where the worst might actually happen.
Once you understand that being female isn’t really that big of a risk factor, you can relax, enjoy your trip, and find creative ways to cut through the marriage proposals and get down to more interesting conversation topics!
Books About Sierra Leone
I used the Bradt Guide for Sierra Leone and found it helpful for knowing what to expect, though it’s still not the kind of place where you can really plan everything from a guidebook. Things change fast, and many of the budget hotels aren’t listed, so it’s a good idea to stay flexible even if using a guidebook.
To learn about the history and culture, I highly recommend reading some memoirs, such as A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. Books like this are difficult to stomach given the region’s challenging history, but I feel making an effort to understand these events is part of showing respect as a visitor. It’ll also help you delve deeper into conversations with locals, as will keeping up to date on their current political events.
- Keep an open attitude toward people you meet. The Sierra Leonean culture is probably different from yours, in ways that may be confusing or unclear for quite a long time.
- Try to maintain a sense of humor if (when) things get frustrating. You don’t want to be that angry ugly tourist yelling at the taxi driver. It’s much better to be a chill worldly traveler exchanging amused knowing glances with the locals as you all muddle through it together.
- Pack as light as possible. It increases your safety, comfort, and flexibility. Here are my favorite items of adventure travel gear for a trip like this.
- Be flexible, let go of your expectations, and embrace the wacky spontaneity of travel in Sierra Leone.
- Check out this list of what to see and do in Sierra Leone as you plan your itinerary.
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