West Africa road trip part 3: Guinea-Bissau

Well, hello there! Did you have a good night’s sleep? Here, the saggy mattresses weren’t exactly the height of comfort, but it’ll get better from here. It’s 09.33 and we’re about to dock in Guinea-Bissau, after a 5-minute river crossing on this barge.

This post is about Guinea-Bissau. We travel from the Foula Mori border crossing in the east, to the capital, Bissau. Then we’ll drive north towards Ziguinchor in Senegal.

Welcome to Guinea-Bissau


That somewhat cryptic message in the story refers to an earlier attempt to enter the country. Years ago, whilst hanging about in The Gambia for a bit, I met a group of Swedish and Danish overlanders, headed to Guinea-Bissau. They asked me to come along, and of course I said yes. I was intrigued by this little-known country, not least because of this review from Lonely Planet Africa, the 1989 edition.

From the days when Lonely Planet was an interesting read

The fellow Scandinavians needed no visa for Guinea-Bissau, and it didn’t occur to me that the rules might be different for Norwegians. I mean, we’re more or less the same, just nuances separate us. One such nuance I had conveniently forgotten, was that both Denmark and Sweden were EU member states, whilst about a year earlier, my country had said a definitive no thanks EU, we’ll do our own thing.

And that was the clincher. Guinea-Bissau said no entry for you, missy. So I waved goodbye to the gang and hitched back to The Gambia. It was a windy, but otherwise uneventful ride, about 4 hours or so, through Senegal’s Casamance region, most of it in the back of a lorry. In fact, so uneventful was it, all I remember is taking a break by a river near Dioloulou and the lorry driver very kindly sharing his food with me. And the reason I remember, is because Dioloulou is such a fun name. Say it out loud: Dioloulou!

Back in the present…

…we (hopefully including me) will take that same route through Casamance to The Gambia. Though, I do see the irony of possibly being denied entry from Guinea-Bissau this time.

Meanwhile, we have a slightly annoying first encounter with the country. At the border – the building to the right here – we are more or less coerced into paying a bribe to not have our bags searched verrry thoroughly. Our defences are down after the oh-so-long drive yesterday, so we give in. During the entire road trip, this is the only time. Other attempts either end with us saying flat out no – or inventing reasons why we cannot pay, e.g. ‘not understanding’ French.

It’s about 6-7 hours from the border to Bissau. Roads are much better this side, so compared to yesterday it’s a breeze. Along the way, we only stop once, to get a SIM-card.

SIM-stop in Bafatá

As we approach Bissau, it becomes ever more apparent that someone has invested in infrastructure here. Not surprisingly, China is involved.


We have booked lodgings at Bissau Royal Hotel, and I don’t mind admitting I’m loving it: the long shower, the handing dirty clothes and shoes to laundry, the pleasantly cool room, the overall tidiness… See how happy I look?

Running water, clean bed, clean me… 

Bissau Royal has great views of terracotta-tiled rooftops matching the hue of Main Street below.

8 things to see and do in Bissau

Time for a little walkabout. Bissau is small, compact, and very walkable. It is also quiet. Feels like we have moved a world away from the noise and commotion of Conakry. All is calm. No begging, no hustling, no one is trying to sell us anything. The vibe is laid-back. Nagypal from the Lonely Planet excerpt further up here was right. Bissau is friendly.

1. The Presidential Palace and Heroes Square

2 minutes up the road from our hotel is Praça dos Heróis Nacionais, a huge roundabout and Bissau’s central square. In Portuguese times, it was called Praça do Império. Fitting then, that the square, and the tall column in the middle of it, is a memorial to the heroes of independence.

Monumento aos Heróis da Independência, Bissau

Monumento aos Heróis da Independência

Can’t get too close to the Presidential Palace

Independence didn’t come easy to Guinea-Bissau. 11 years of violent civil war in the 60s/70s, left the country politically and economically fragile. It still is.

Just now, 12 heads of state are in town for a CEDEAO conference (ECOWAS in English – the Economic Community of West African States.)

Many of them are staying in our hotel, which explains this:

We’ll pretend this red-carpet welcome is for your birthdays, guys!

2. Main Street

Main Street, Bissau

Main Street

Bissau’s main thoroughfare, Avenida Amílcar Cabral, runs from Heroes Square down to the harbour. The street is named after anti-colonialist/Marxist revolutionary and independence hero #1, the one who was assassinated in Conakry, remember?

Our hotel is on Main Street.

So is street art and AIDS prevention posters…

… colonial-era buildings…

Colonial architecture, Bissau

… and fabulous Brutalist architecture such as the Treasury building of the Ministry of Finance, former headquarters of the International Bank of Guinea-Bissau.

3. Farolim da Catedral

Also on Main Street is the Portuguese-built medieval-style Cathedral of Our Lady of Candelaria.

Farolim da Catedral, Bissau

The church towers double as a lighthouse.

4. Praca Che Guevara

Cuba was the only country that sent military forces to aid Guinea-Bissau’s fight for independence, and it all began with Che’s travels in Africa in 1964. Here in Bissau, he is remembered with a round metal plaque on a stone pedestal in the middle of a quiet roundabout.

Praca Che Guevara, Bissau

Hasta la victoria siempre!

I’m reminded of the memorial to Princess Diana in a roundabout in Anguilla – perhaps because they both died much too young.

5. Fortaleza de Sao Jose da Amura

On the edge of the old town is Bissau’s 250-year-old fortress, with old artillery guns along the barricades. It is currently HQ of Guinea-Bissau’s army. Soldiers move about, and the fortress is therefore off-limits to visitors, except for occasional guided tours (none on weekends, unfortunately for us), and photos are not allowed. Amílcar Cabral’s mausoleum is in the grounds.

Fortaleza de Sao Jose da Amura, Bissau

A soldier-less snap of the ramparts

6. Bissau Velho (Old Bissau)

Bissau Velho

The old town is for all intents and purposes an open-air museum, with mostly abandoned, crumbling buildings. Here and there is Che Guevara graffiti.

7. Porto de Bissau

Once this broad estuary was a transport hub for gold – and slaves. Today, it’s all about fishing and cashew nuts, Guinea-Bissau’s main export.

Porto de Bissau

Porto Pidjiguiti is an industrial area along the waterfront with brightly painted pirogues. In 1959, this was scene of the Pidjiguiti Massacre, when Portuguese colonial police killed 50 dockworkers on strike, and with that, setting off the independence movement.

From various reviews, I got the impression this area is a hive of action and enterprise, loading and unloading of cargo, hustle and bustle – in short, a chill place to watch life happening. It’s an interesting place to wander around, but it’s fairly quiet. No hustle. No bustle.

Porto de Bissau

Bit of Che Guevara graffiti here, as well. Doctor Ernesto must have been quite the hero in Guinea-Bissau.

Snap me, snap me!

8. Eating and drinking in Bissau

We are staying smack in the middle of the diplomatic corner of town, meaning there are restaurants, cafes and clubs galore. Or should be, at least. O Bistro gets good reviews for food and friendly service. Although, one reviewer says: ‘probably best in town, but by no means great! Enjoyed the pizza, worst banana split ever.’ So, of course we have to try. Pizza, that is. It’s nothing remarkable, but then – dare I say it? – is that perhaps emblematic of the dining scene in Bissau…?

Up by Parliament, a bit further away (but still easy walking distance) is Restaurante Dom Bifana. Bifana is a classic Portuguese sandwich they serve in the small café at very reasonable prices. Next to the cafe is the restaurant, where the emphasis is on seafood and steaks. We end up having dinner here both nights we are in town, including a birthday dinner a day in advance, cause who knows where I’ll be tomorrow night…

Finally, ambling about the old town, we discover this little bar run by a friendly Russian from Murmansk.

 Can’t remember the name of the bar, I’m afraid – but you’ll find it in this green building.

Velho Bissau

Nighttime fun

I checked reviews for a couple of night clubs in Bissau. There is Insonias – watering hole for diplomats, aid workers and the like. And then there is Discoteca Tabanka, ‘the most IN in the country’, according to a local reviewer. Another one, a local businessman, says: ‘it was the best club in Guinea-Bissau in terms of atmosphere and respect for celebrities, but what’s good doesn’t last forever.’ Must admit I’m curious about this businessman. Is he a very busy and important celebrity? Is he not treated with the utmost awe he deserves?

We’ll never know. Nor will we know the diplomat drinkery, as we didn’t find either of them. To be honest, we didn’t really look that hard. But if dancing and night-time fun is your thing, watch this space: there will be clubs going forward, both in Banjul and Dakar. Coming up in a soon(ish) post.

You will find all the places above, as well as the ones below, in the map here.

Bissau map

Things to do in (and around) Bissau that we didn’t do

Since our time in Bissau was shortened due to the Guinea Border Incident, we felt the need to not be in a car if at all possible, so we prioritised things to see and do on foot. Despite being a day short, though, I feel I have a halfway decent idea of what Bissau has to offer the traveller. However, here is what we would have done with that extra day:

  • About 2.5 km from the city centre is Centro Artistico Juvenil. It was set up after independence, to bring together young artists and artisans of different ethnicities, creating traditional carvings, painted bags, jewellery, cow horns, etc. You can visit their workshops, have a chat about the objects they create, and learn about their history.
  • A bit further still, ca. 6.5 km from the city centre, is the country’s main mosque, Mesquita de Bissau.

Want to get out of town and into nature?

  • At Arquipélago dos Bijagós, hippos, monkeys and crocodiles roam. It’s a 4.5-hour boat ride from Porto de Bissau out to the islands. You can visit on a day trip, but staying the night is also possible, and probably fun.
  • The largest mangrove environment in West Africa, Cacheu River Mangroves National Park is ca. 2.5 hours from Bissau, northwards on the way to the Senegalese border, though a way off the main road.  Book the boat in advance.

Moving on from Bissau

Remember how Plan B of my visa conundrum went out the window in Conakry? Well, since we arrived a day late in Bissau, and it is the weekend, the Senegalese embassy is closed. There goes Plan C as well. Plan D it is then. I will have to try sweet-talking my way into the country. And if that does not work, I will have to return to Bissau and fly to Dakar (Plan E.) Although… just checked flights, and the two flights between Bissau and Dakar this week are both full!

The trip to the border with Senegal is straightforward. Don’t mind telling you, though, butterflies had a small but lively party in my stomach. Nothing wrong with Bissau mind, but I don’t particularly want to go back just now.

Will I make it across the border? Or do I have to return to Bissau? This and more on the next episode of…

Road Trip West Africa

Here are the earlier chapters of our West African gallivanting:

– Part 1: Sierra Leone

– Part 2: Guinea

All photos by Andrew Morland, Tom Brothwell and yours truly, unless otherwise noted. Maps by Morland.