17 things to know before travelling to West Africa
Travelling to West Africa might not be on everyone’s bucket list. It seems like a truly forgotten part of the world. But for those who seek adventure and are eager to see raw Africa, West Africa will not disappoint. If you are planning to visit then this is the blog you have been waiting for. We’ve spent almost five months in this region and there are a few things to know before you go.
1. Be ready to be uncomfortable – West Africa is tough
Ok, we admit it. This is the hardest region to travel in the world. You will most likely meet only a few travellers, you will end up waiting for hours to just depart on public transport, your flight will get cancelled and the standard of accommodation will make you want to leave.
You won’t find the culinary heaven that Europe offers, the backpacker’s vibe of Asia or the diversity of South America. As they say – West Africa will either make you or break you.
2. Travel during the dry season
The dry season lasts from November to March and this is the best time to consider travelling to West Africa. Of course, the climate changes from the dry desert of Mauritania across the tropical region from Guinea Bissau to Cameroon.
The main reason to go in dry reason is for transport. If you were already nervous to find out some routes from A to B can take up to 20 hours in the dry season, you do not wish to attempt it in the wet season. It will take at least twice the time. If your transport even makes it there at all. The flights can often be delayed or cancelled during the wet season and your chances to bump into other travellers will definitely decrease.
Depending on your route or itinerary we recommend to start in October/November in the north ( Mauritania) and make your way across.
3. Research your Visa before you go and get a new passport
There are 19 countries in West Africa according to the Lonely Planet guidebook (UN lists only 16). The majority of passport holders (EU, Australia, Canada and USA) will need a visa for at least 16 of them. (If you are wondering – Senegal, The Gambia and Sao Tome are most likely to be visa-free – but check before you go as things change quickly).
Some visas can be obtained on arrival. Some are issued at the border and others can be only issued at the airport when flying in. However, many visas need to be applied for beforehand at the embassy or consulate and some visas can be only issued in the country of your residency.
As a rule, research your visas before you go and make a plan where to obtain each visa if doing so en-route. If you are planning to visit Nigeria and Ghana – get these 2 visas beforehand. It will save you a lot of headaches.
Make sure you have enough pages in your passport.
Most visas will use two pages – for a sticker or large stamp and entry/exit stamps, so consider getting a brand new passport if you are planning to be in Africa for a while.
4. The cost of water in West Africa is high – bring a filter bottle
West Africa is not a cheap destination and as it will be either hot or hot and humid, you will need plenty of water. As the cost of bottled water is often $1 per litre we recommend bringing a filtered water bottle. It will literally save you hundreds of dollars and time trying to find water as you go, not to mention doing your bit to help reduce plastic and be a more responsible traveller.
5. Bring cash, as ATM doesn’t always work
There is no surprise that cash is king in West Africa. You might use your ATM card to withdraw local currency in most places. If you are from Australia we recommend to get this card to avoid any ATM fees – it saved us loads of money.
In countries like Sierra Leone or Nigeria where the maximum withdrawal is $40 or $55, you might find it easier to just change money. We often found that ATMs frequently just run out of money.
The best results were usually from Ecobank or UB Bank. If you happen to go to Sao Tome & Principe or Equatorial Guinea you will need cash. Euro is definitely the best hard currency to bring when travelling to West Africa.
6. Get a Yellow Fever Vaccination and check other vaccinations required
A Yellow Fever certificate is required for most countries in West Africa – so make sure you get it or otherwise you won’t be able to get in at the airport or a border. Always carry your yellow fever card with you as it’s often required even when applying for a visa.
As for vaccinations, check with your doctor what is required. We suggest doing a bit of research beforehand and checking what vaccinations are compulsory and why each shot is required.
Most travel clinic these days run a lucrative business by giving travellers ALL the shots even when they’re not really necessary. Travelling to West Africa will certainly require some vaccinations, but not all of them.
7. Understand Malaria
You will definitely travel in a region affected by Malaria and the easiest way to protect yourself is:
Avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes. So the obvious advice is to wear protective clothing at dawn and dusk and take and use mosquito repellent with DEET as this is sometimes hard to source when you’re there.
Take Malaria tablets – there are a few options so do your research. We’ve taken a dose of doxycycline during our 6-month long trip. It’s easy to get in West Africa and generally one of the more affordable ones with less side effects than some of the other malaria medication.
8. Check Travel Advice before you go and while on the trip
Sadly West Africa has suffered through a lot and the security here seems to be always changing. So make sure you check current safety advice from your government website on where not to go.
As of 2019 there are regions with red ‘no go zones’, such as Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and parts of Nigeria. It’s very important to be informed. From kidnapping to outbreaks of disease, this region requires travellers to be alert and informed at all times.
9. Get ready for West Africa International Time = WAIT
Things take time in Africa. But trust me, West Africa is on the next level. I call it the West Africa International Time or WAIT; as that is the most common answer you get and the most common activity you’ll do.
A few examples include: waiting for forty minutes for a sachet of Nescafe and hot water. Waiting for dinner for two hours in an empty restaurant. Three hours at the border of Nigeria and four hours at the bus station in Senegal. Yes, West Africa does things on its own time. You cannot change this, you just need to adapt to it.
10. Learn some French
Learning some French is essential for all the francophone countries as very English is spoken in these places. French will definitely help you to get from A to B or to ordering dinner without surprises. The enunciation of French in West Africa is also quite different so even after months here, ordering water or saying numbers were often a cause of confusion.
Most countries in West Africa have French as the official language. Portuguese is spoken in Cabo Verde, Sao Tome & Principe and Guinea Bissau. English is the official language in Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Cameroon.
11. Travelling to West Africa solo? Get ready to be lonely
It is a lonely world for backpackers and travellers in West Africa. If you meet another traveller you will most likely greet each other and swap stories, however, there are not many. Senegal and Ghana seem to have more visitors, but most of them arrive as part of an organised tour or they might be visiting a friend/family.
The Gambia has plenty of British tourists flying in for a week-long holiday to enjoy the beach. As for the rest of this region – it’s a lonely road. Someone told us that Sierra Leone as a whole country receives only 200 visitors a month. So if you are travelling alone, make sure you bring plenty of books, you will need them.
12. West Africa is expensive and most things offer poor value for money
We’ve added the numbers and yes, West Africa is not a cheap place to travel. The visas alone average at around $100 per country. The cheapest visas being Mali and Cape Verde at $25 per person, the most expensive at $178 for Cameroon and $161 for Nigeria.
You can try and live on just street food however most of this food is very carbohydrate heavy; mostly baguettes, eggs or rice and tomato-based sauce. If you want to eat a simple lunch or dinner here, it can often cost around $8-10. In saying this, tasty food can be found when travelling to West Africa. It’s worth trying these dishes while you’re here.
Overall, if you compare it to the affordable countries of South East Asia or South America, West Africa eats through your money, fast.
Flights across West Africa are notoriously expensive. It’s cheaper to fly to Europe than to the neighbouring country, as the cost of 1-2 hour flight can easily be $200-$400. Our first choice is the Skyscanner website to book the most affordable flights within Africa.
13. Pack right – finding things you need in West Africa is difficult
Things are definitely hard to find in West Africa so try to pack what you need for your trip. Things like a headlamp, sleeping sheet and clothes for women are very hard to find. Men have it a little easier as there are plenty of caps, jeans and t-shirts to buy at local markets or shops.
As for women, unless you can pull off being dressed as an African woman in a colourful African dress, make sure you bring what you need. Bringing along sanitary items or contact lenses solution for the first few months is a good idea too.
14. Dress right
Most countries in West Africa are quite conservative when it comes to clothing. The key is to bring light comfortable clothes that look neat. Shorts are not common in general and women in shorts are a rare oddity.
If you’re travelling in a mostly Muslim country, always wear long pants and consider clothes that are both light and airy.
One of the most useful pieces of clothing would be neat travel/trekking pants with pockets for everyday use. Kathmandu has many good options to buy durable, comfortable travel gear. Bring a dress-up option as well – you might need this when visiting embassies for your visa. A neat shirt can make a difference in your visa time processing.
15. Corruption and bribing is a way of life
Sooner or later you will be asked for a bribe in West Africa. Something will be wrong with your visa or your yellow fever certificate when crossing a border. Or you may be told that you require a visa, which in fact, you don’t. Or you will be asked for a processing fee. Some places are notoriously bad. Our advice is to stay polite but firm.
We’ve spent the past five months in West Africa and we’ve never paid a bribe. It takes a lot of time and bucketloads of patience, but most of the time, they will eventually let you go if you stand your ground and don’t lose your cool.
16. Get a local Sim card as WIFI will almost never work
The WIFI in West Africa is non-existent or slow. So get a local SIM card in each country to stay connected. They’re generally very cheap and a sim card with 1GB of data will usually cost less than $5. Orange or MTN are recommended. You can do this within minutes at the airport when you fly in or if you’re travelling overland, locals sell them on the side of the street. You will need a passport or a colour copy of your ID to get set up.
17. Travelling to West Africa on an overland tour
If you made it this far in the article and if you somehow feel discouraged to visit West Africa, don’t be. Yes, it’s a tough part of the world to travel; but if you love a challenge and crave adventure – it’s worth it.
You could also consider over-landing in West Africa instead. The itinerary is set; you’ll have a crew that will navigate all the ups and downs of border crossing and the logistics. You will meet other travellers doing the same and if you are travelling solo, this will make your West Africa experience much more enjoyable.
Travellers tend to visit local markets to buy groceries to cook meals together, which is a really fun way to interact with locals as well as support them.
Check out Tourradar, a website that allows you to compare all overland tours in Africa. You can use the filters to narrow down your search to what countries you’d like to see, duration of the trip etc. We booked an overland tour from Freetown in Sierra Leone to Accra in Ghana. There’s even a loop around Benin and Togo too.
We had the best time on our 4 weeks long overland trip and would recommend it to travellers wanting to see this part of the world. You can also add a little independent travel before or after the trip.
Our top tip: Don’t miss out on exploring the gorgeous island nation of Sao Tome & Principe. What a gem!
A coffee lover, history junkie, former tour guide, and endless optimist. The mastermind of logistics and chief navigator for Very Hungry Nomads, two women on an adventure to visit EVERY country in the world. Marty is a social butterfly who describes her life as “just livin’ the dream".