For a long time, I’ve known that I wanted to explore lesser-visited places. There is something exhilarating about stepping outside your comfort zone and embracing something new. Visiting Sierra Leone was the first step in that dream. Sierra Leone first entered my consideration set when I saw an advert for the Street Child Sierra Leone marathon. At the time, I didn’t even know where Sierra Leone was on the map, but I liked the sound of what Street Child did so much that I signed up there and then.
What I didn’t know when I signed up for the marathon was just how much I would fall in love with Sierra Leone and its people. Lush green forests, bright blue skies, white-sand beaches, and warm water all pale compared with the warmth and kindness I experienced from the people. People with nothing to give but time and kindness, which they shared with abundant generosity. The poverty I saw while visiting Sierra Leone was heartbreaking and cannot be ignored. Still, the beauty of this country and its people deserves to be recognised, which is why I am keen to ensure it gets a firm place on intrepid travellers’ bucket lists.
This guide will hopefully convince you to visit Sierra Leone and help you plan and prepare for a life-changing experience. If you get to the end of the post and find I haven’t answered one of your questions, please leave a comment, and I will get back to you. But first, grab a drink, get a comfy chair, and enjoy the exhilarating ride!
5 Reasons you should visit Sierra Leone
At this point, you might not even know whether it is worth your time to continue reading or not. You might just plan on scrolling to see the photos to help make your mind up. Well, let me make it easy for you. These are, in my opinion, the 5 top reasons why I think you should visit Sierra Leone.
1. The opportunity to truly be an intrepid traveller!
Sierra Leone is not on the tourist trail and that, in my mind, is what makes it so exciting. You will have the opportunity to feel like a true adventurer, exploring and seeing places for the first time. Think of that Instagram street cred!
2. The People
The people. I honestly cannot emphasise enough just how lovely the people of Sierra Leone are. The people I met there are most likely some of the friendliest I have met on any of my travels, and if you are a regular on my blog, you will know that the standard to beat is high!
3. The beaches
Sierra Leone has some of the most unspoilt beaches I have come across. Powder white sand that stretches for miles, a warm turquoise aquamarine sea, and a palm-fringed shoreline that quickly turns into lush green forest make it an ideal off-the-beaten-path beach destination.
4. Sierra Leone is teaming with wildlife.
Tiwai Island boasts the highest concentration of primates anywhere in the world, with over 11 species living in just a 12 square kilometre radius. If you are lucky, you might also spot the elusive pygmy hippos. Nature is very much alive in Sierra Leone!
5. The opportunity for your travel obsession to truly make a difference.
Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world that still relies heavily on aid. However, as a country, it has so much to offer and could really benefit from the income that tourism would provide. Your money in Sierra Leone really does make a huge difference!
Where is Sierra Leone?
Sierra Leone is a small tropical country nestled between Guinea and Liberia on the West Coast of Africa. It is similar in size to Ireland, Serbia, and Azerbaijan, so not very big at all! However, what it lacks for in size, it makes up for in diversity: coast, high peaks, swamplands, tropical rainforests, bush, and farmland. No time to be bored here!
Is Sierra Leone safe?
When I told people I was running a marathon in Sierra Leone, they asked one of two questions. Why Sierra Leone? Followed very promptly by “Is Sierra Leone safe?”. As often happens with many countries that have experienced conflict, we hear about the war but never about the peace-making efforts that occur when it is all over. A lot of people still believe Sierra Leone is at war. But the truth is, the civil war finished in 2002, which at the time of writing was 20 years ago!
The civil war in Sierra Leone was brutal. 70,000 casualties, 2.6 million displaced, and roughly 10,000 intentionally amputated, with a further 17,000 left disabled. The stats are shocking. However, one of the most inspiring things I learnt while in Sierra Leone is how they have overcome this brutality as a nation.
My guide shared with me his personal story of how he had seen his parents being killed and his sister being raped. Yet as he put it. “When the war ended, I had two choices. I could hold a grudge and never let it go, or I could forgive and choose peace.” As a nation, Sierra Leone chose to draw a line in the sand so that they could move on and are now a very peaceful country.
They are also incredibly welcoming. But, put in the crudest of ways, visitors mean money, and Sierra Leoneans need money, so I found there was actually an elevated duty of care towards visitors to ensure we felt welcome and were safe.
Does this mean Sierra Leone is entirely safe?
No. But then, is anywhere? Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries, so opportunistic crime is common. This mainly relates to pickpocketing and scams, both of which can be avoided using common sense. For tips on how to stay safe when travelling, click here.
I was nervous before going, but by the end felt confident walking on my own in daylight. I did attract a lot of attention, but it was predominantly from people wanting to say hello, asking me to marry them, or wanting to sell me something. Marriage proposals appear to be quite common as that is seen as an “easy” way out of poverty. Or, as someone said to me, “do you want to be my luck?”.
So long as you use common sense and are sensitive to the fact you are visiting one of the poorest countries in the world, your visit should be incident-free.
What are the must-do things when visiting Sierra Leone?
There is a distinct lack of good information online on what to do in Sierra Leone. There are no Top 10 lists littering the Google rankings, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I would end up doing. I put my trust in Dori from Salone Hidden Gems, who put together a wonderful itinerary for me: Freetown, Tacugama, and Tiwai Island. However, there are so many other great things to see in Sierra Leone that you would not be wasting your time spending upwards of two weeks exploring this wonderful country.
Below is a mix of things I have done and those I want to do when I return next year. But the great thing about visiting Sierra Leone is that you will be able to continue finding new adventures that nobody has written about for a long time yet. True intrepid travel!
One of the things I was most looking forward to doing in Sierra Leone was visiting Tacugama, and I have to say it did not disappoint! Tacugama is a chimpanzee sanctuary that rescues injured and orphaned chimpanzees. They rehabilitate them and then turn them out in their multiacre forests, where they get to live as natural a life as possible. Of course, they would like to be able to rewild them, but unfortunately, many locals still hunt and kill chimps for meat. They are working with communities to stop this practice, but until that day comes, they will continue to keep them in their safe enclosures.
Tacugama has several enclosures. Firstly, you have the quarantine section where chimpanzees first go when they arrive to ensure they don’t have any diseases they could pass on. After that, babies go into their own playground, which you can only see as a visitor from high up in the tree canape, to avoid disturbing them. Those mature enough go into a second enclosure with a zoo-like playground for the chimps. This is where they learn the instincts they need once they move into the larger enclosures. They have ropes and pullies, swings, and branches. They also have rocks so they can practice their splitting techniques.
Did you know chimpanzees can develop PTSD?
I suppose you can think of the babies’ enclosure as kindergarten and this second enclosure as primary school. It is also closer to the central hub so staff can keep an eye on them as they develop and bring them in at night, so they feel safe, as many of these chimpanzees are actually suffering from PTSD-like symptoms.
Once they are deemed ready, they move into their next enclosure, which you could liken to secondary school. A lot more independence, but still expected to come home at night! Apart from a tiny opening by the viewing deck, the rest of the enclosure is forest, where they can put all their learnings into practice in a real-world-like setting. However, they still come in at night and rely on the staff to be fed.
Nearly as good as wild
Once they have graduated from this enclosure, they go into the multiacre enclosures, which are a good 10-minute walk from the hub where the chimpanzees live as they would in the wild. Essentially university! Although there are viewing platforms for visitors, the chances of seeing them here are slim, as the forest is their oyster, and they have no reason to come up to the fence. They still get a daily feed, so that staff can check them over and ensure everything is OK. But aside from that, they have acres upon acres of land to roam at their will.
If hunting bush meat wasn’t an issue, they would be able to graduate from “university” and head back into the wild. But for now, that is just an aspiration.
“Meeting someone with a dream when they are unlikely to be able to realise that dream is heart-breaking”
I was incredibly impressed with the quality of care the chimpanzees received, but also inspired by my guide’s passion for conservation. Alfred was an ambitious young man who had lost his father. He was now providing for his mum and sister with his job at Tacugama. His dream was to go to university to study conservation so he could further support projects like Tacugama and make a real difference in Sierra Leone. But unfortunately, since the university in Sierra Leone doesn’t have conservation on their curriculum, it would involve going to somewhere like Kenya to study, which is an unlikely reality unless he manages to secure a scholarship.
If you visit Sierra Leone then definitely put Tacugama on your must-do list. It will not disappoint!
Tacugama is within easy reach of Freetown. I arranged my visit through Salone Hidden Gems.
This is one of the places I was gutted I didn’t get to visit. Bunce Island is 20 miles upriver from Freetown in the estuary that makes up the Freetown Harbour. It is a small island housing a castle and a very dark past. Tens of thousands of Africans were shipped from Bunce Island to Georgia and North Carolina as part of the horrific slave trade of the 17th to 19th centuries.
At this point, it is probably worth delving into a little bit of Sierra Leone’s history to properly understand the slave trade and its impact on Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone’s Slave History
Sierra Leone first came into contact with Europeans in the 15th century, when the Portuguese discovered the Freetown estuary, one of the largest and deepest harbours in the world. This would become an ideal location for trade in future years.
When we think of slavery, we often only think of the transatlantic slave trade that provided the workforce for recently colonised America. However, it is important to note that the slave trade had existed long before. For example, under the Mali Empire, there had been a lucrative trans-Saharan trade of enslaved people since the 6th century. However, the rainforest of Sierra Leone had helped protect the country from the worst of this industry.
However, the European colonisation of the Americas soon increased the demand for slave labour, which led to European slavers launching raids on coastal towns in West Africa to capture natives. The attacks didn’t last long though, as tribal chiefs saw an economic incentive in selling members of their tribe to the slavers. In some cases, they even raided rival tribes so they could also sell those captives. Although the initial slavers were all white Europeans, by the 18th century, a significant number of native Africans were exploiting a very lucrative human export business too.
“12.5 millions enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas”
By the 17th century, Portuguese colonialism had started to fade. Instead, English and Dutch colonial powers began to replace their influence in the region, picking up the trade of timber, ivory, and enslaved people. It is believed that between the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries over 12.5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas, including many from Sierra Leone. And Bunce Island was one of the major launching pads. It is certainly something I want to learn more about, so I will definitely be visiting Bunce Island on my next trip to Sierra Leone!
If you’d like to visit Bunce Island, I recommend getting in touch with Salone Hidden Gems, who will be able to arrange it all for you.
Freetown Ke-ke Tour
There is no better way to explore Freetown than on a ke-ke, a.k.a a tuk-tuk (a motorised 3-wheeled vehicle used as a taxi). The tour incorporated all the highlights of Freetown, including a peek into Freetown’s history as a freed slave colony.
During the American Revolution, the crown of England promised freedom to any enslaved African-Americans that sided with the loyalists. Having served the British Army, these Black Loyalists returned to London to enjoy a life of freedom. The truth, however, was very different. They lived in challenging conditions and soon became known as the “Black Poor”. In 1787 a plan was hatched to resettle some of the “Black Poor” in Granville Town, Sierra Leone.
This didn’t quite go to plan, with half of the settlers dying within a year of arrival, the rest finding themselves in a battle with surrounding tribes. Some were even recaptured and sold back into the slave trade! Finally, Granville Town was relocated, leaving the area to be consumed by the jungle once more.
Freetown Cotton Tree
In the years that followed, the British took control of the territory and attempted another settlement, this time with formerly enslaved people from Nova Scotia. 15 ships sailed with over 1,200 freed slaves and moored in St George’s Bay. The weary passengers disembarked and cleared a path through the jungle until they reached a large cotton tree. The same cotton tree that now symbolises the heart of Freetown.
In 1800 more formerly enslaved people were relocated to Freetown, this time the Maroons from Jamaica. And in 1807, when the British abolished the slave trade (although they still engaged in it throughout the empire until the 1930s), the Royal Navy based out of Freetown would intercept ships illegally carrying enslaved people, capturing them, and resettling them in Freetown.
Throughout this resettlement period, it is thought that over 85,000 slaves were forcibly repatriated to Sierra Leone.
Other highlights of the Ke-Ke Tour
As well as learning about the fascinating history of Sierra Leone, which I don’t have enough space to cover in this blog, we also visited an arts and crafts market where we got to put to the test our negotiation skills. We also learned about the religious tolerance that exists in Sierra Leone, where Muslims and Christians cohabit in harmony and even visit each other’s places of worship.
Though I enjoyed the Ke-Ke tour, it is worth mentioning that it was also pretty overwhelming. It was my first glimpse at the true level of poverty in Sierra Leone, and it broke my heart. It is worth noting that this is not a poverty tour; it is a tour of the highlights. However, to get to them, you can not escape the extreme poverty that exists here. The harshest reminder of this was when we visited the Ebola Graves, which are located next to the city’s landfill. Adults and kids scaled the mountain of putrid rubbish in search of anything of value. Absolutely heartbreaking.
I booked this tour through my hotel, Stafford Lodge.
Located just 25 miles from Freetown, Banana Island are a group of islands that make for a perfect multi-day getaway. With a great mixture of history and natural resources, Banana Island offers the ideal mix of cultural immersion and pure fun. The pristine palm-fringed beaches make it the perfect place to relax, while you can also opt for a more active beach holiday by booking a scuba diving tour to nearby colonial shipwrecks and reefs. Or, if you want something in between, simply enjoy a spot of nearby snorkelling to admire the abundant aquatic life.
Dalton’s Banana Guest House also offers jet skis, windsurfing, and tubing, making it the most tourist-oriented resort in Sierra Leone.
There are two fishing communities in the village, and normally it is easy enough to arrange for a fisherman to take you out so you can catch your dinner (or theirs!).
As well as relaxing by the beach, it is also worth exploring the island on foot and joining a cultural tour to learn about Banana Island’s colonial past and its involvement with the slave trade.
You can join day trips from Freetown, but personally, I think it is worth spending a night or two here as a minimum to really unwind, have fun, and relax away from the hustle and bustle of Freetown.
For a genuinely off-the-beaten-path eco-experience, I highly recommend Tiwai Island. Surrounded by rivers as opposed to the sea, it is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of primates. On this 12 square kilometre island, you will find 11 species of primates, 3 of which I managed to see during my visit.
It is somewhat remote. After driving 4 hours east from Freetown we turned off the tarmac road and continued for an extra half hour along a bumpy red dirt track that cut its way through the rainforest. We passed a couple of remote villages with frantically waving children and eventually arrived at a dead end. We were greeted by enthusiastic locals who vehemently welcomed me, all making a point to shake my hand, ask how the journey was, and thank me for visiting. I shared my last bag of lollies with the elder, who distributed them among the younger children who took peaks at me while hiding behind their parent’s legs.
Several locals stepped in to help us carry our stuff down to the water, where we finally boarded a tiny boat to cross the river over to Tiwai Island. Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary is a great eco-tourism initiative that allows visitors to experience some of the abundant wildlife of Sierra Leone. In the middle of the jungle, there is a small clearing with 3 netted permanent tents and one main open-aired solar-powered structure where we ate our meals.
It was properly off-grid with nothing to do but listen to nature. And believe me, they are a noisy bunch! So as well as spending a lot of time sleeping and reading (much needed recovery post-marathon!), Salone Hidden Gems had also arranged a couple of great tours for me.
In search of Pygmy Hippos
On the first evening, we went on a canoe trip down the river in search of pygmy hippos. The chances of seeing them in daylight are pretty slim as they spend the day submerged under water to remain cool. You are more likely to spot them at night when they roam the island in search of food. However, as Romesh Ranganathan pointed out in his BBC documentary, the chances of seeing them in the dark are also slim. It is, after all, dark!
Despite not seeing any pygmy hippos, the boat ride was still an adventure. Instead of rowing the canoe, we were punting instead. One of the locals stood at the back, propelling us forward by pushing the punt against the riverbed. This all worked great until he chose the wrong line down the rapids leaving the front of the canoe submerged while water rushed in! I am actually quite a nervous swimmer, so that definitely got my adrenaline going! That is, until I saw him jump out of the boat and realised it was only thigh deep!
Despite not seeing any pygmy hippos, it was still a great way to spend two hours exploring the river, its banks, and the plethora of colourful birdlife. I also used this time to quiz my guide Turey about life in Sierra Leone. I was intrigued to know what the dating scene was like, what the attitude was towards marriage and children, and what it was like being a 37-year-old bachelor. Talking about everyday stuff just makes you realise that we are all the same despite our perceived differences.
After a few more hairy, shallow rapid experiences and a beautiful sunset, we waved goodbye to our punter and settled for a delicious home-cooked meal.
In search of monkeys
As well as pygmy hippos and lots of birdlife, Tiwai is most famous for having the highest concentration of primates anywhere in the world. As I’ve mentioned already, in just 12 square kilometres you will find 11 different species. Each morning I set off on an hour-long walk with my guide Bobo, a small, slender man with a beaming smile and a deep-rooted passion for conservation. When not guiding, he is a local farmer, growing cassava, peanuts, and rice.
During our walks we managed to spot 3 different primate species: the Red Colobus monkey, the Black and White Colobus monkey, and the Diana monkey. We also heard chimps but weren’t able to actually see them.
He also pointed out all the plants that are used for medicinal purposes. From bark that cured toothache to milk that would get rid of infections! No pills here, just nature and its healing powers.
A cultural gathering
The last activity that Salone Hidden Gems had arranged for me was a cultural display by the village. I’m not going to lie, this one felt kind of awkward. Maybe had there been a group of us, but having the town perform just for me was a little cringeworthy. To think that I am “wealthy” enough to warrant that kind of treatment put me on a pedestal that I didn’t really enjoy being on.
It was one of those moments where I grappled with what was right and what was wrong. On the one hand, the display wasn’t free. I believe it cost the tour company $70 to put on, money that is invaluable to the community that came out to dance and sing for me. However, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but think about what would go through my head if a lone visitor turned up in my village in a big black SUV with tinted windows and paid for the community in Moreton-in-Marsh to perform. No wonder I got such a warm welcome!
Despite the thoughts running through my mind, I couldn’t help but enjoy the dancing and singing. The village was part of the Mende tribe, where masquerades serve as significant rituals to bring together the Secret Societies that dominate Mende’s social life with the general community. The Gbini masker represents the powers of the medicines by personifying and dramatizing its effects, thus gaining respect from the onlookers. The Sowei masker represents the Mende ideals of feminine beauty and behaviours: dignity, modesty, inner strength, spirituality, humility, intelligence, and thoughtfulness.
A delightful evening that made me realise that at the end of the day, we all perform for money one way or another!
Should I visit Tiwai Island?
If you have time and like being truly off-grid and surrounded by nature, then yes, it is definitely worth it. Please be aware that the facilities are limited and that it is a long drive from Freetown. I don’t say it to put you off, but more so to make sure you are aware and don’t waste valuable time going back and forth if you only have a few days in Sierra Leone.
River Number 2 Beach
Do you remember the Bounty Advert “Taste of Paradise”? Well, it was filmed here, on River Number 2 Beach. Sitting at the mouth of the river, it has natural year-round sand bars. The water is a beautiful turquoise, just like we’ve been programmed to expect from paradise. It is completely rock-free, with a slow, steady drop-off and very mild surf, and is a perfect beach for swimmers.
I didn’t actually get to visit when I was there, but I’ve heard from many that it should definitely feature on any beach lovers’ must-do list for Sierra Leone. In addition, I have heard the freshly caught grilled prawns are giant and delicious here. That alone is reason enough for me to want to visit!
Run the Street Child Marathon in Makeni
It’s why I came to Sierra Leone and one of the reasons I am going back next year. I have written about it at length in my Sierra Leone Marathon post, so if you are interested, I would recommend you read that blog. If you are about to skip forward because you think a marathon sounds like a terrible idea, then I would have to agree with you in most cases, but not when it comes to the Street Child Marathon.
The Street Child Marathon is so much more than a marathon. It is a 5-day life-changing trip where you get to see the amazing work that Street Child does. I was utterly blown away by Street Child’s approach to getting kids off the streets and into education. I assumed (wrongly) that Street Child simply built schools and gave money to families so their kids could get an education. Yes, they do build schools, but no, they don’t merely hand money over. Instead, they put a lot of work and effort into creating a sustainable future for families by providing them with the skills they need to run their own businesses. By doing this, they are securing long-term income for the family, therefore providing them with the means to make enough money so they can afford to send their kids to school. Not just now, but forever!
You also don’t have to run a marathon. You could choose to just walk or run 5km, 10 km, or even a half marathon if you felt the full marathon wasn’t for you. If you like, you could even come and not do any of those! If you think the Street Child Marathon is not for you because you are not a runner, then think again! I hate running!
Want to join me?
I will be heading out again next year, and I hope a few additional philanthropic souls will want to join me too. If you are interested, check out the itinerary or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, I would love to discuss it further with you.
What should I eat in Sierra Leone?
If you are a regular here you will know I am a massive foodie! In fact, most countries I visit involve a food tour. Unfortunately, these aren’t yet a thing in Sierra Leone (although hopefully, they might be soon!), but that doesn’t mean I didn’t eat some incredibly delicious dishes while here.
My absolute favourite was Granat Soup (otherwise known as peanut soup). It is a popular dish across much of West Africa and is made using ground peanuts, tomato paste, and spices. In my opinion, the consistency is more like that of curry than soup. In fact, the taste of it reminded me a lot of the Panang curries I so enjoyed in Thailand. It is generally made with chicken and served over rice. Just writing about it is making my mouth water!
Cassava Leaf Stew
This is another popular dish in West Africa, especially if you are visiting Sierra Leone or Liberia. Assanatu made me the most incredible Cassava Leaf Stew while staying in Tiwai. I watched her painstakingly grind the leaves using a mortar and pestle. Like most dishes in Sierra Leone, it is simple. The ingredients consist of ground cassava leaf, and scotch bonnet chilies cooked in palm oil and served over rice with smoked fish or chicken. Very simple but so delicious! Beware though, they love their spice in Sierra Leone!
This is where Americans and British could get confused. I mean plantain fries as opposed to plantain crisps! You can get plantain crisps which are also very nice, but what I really enjoyed was a nice side of plantain chips/fries. I’m not actually sure if they are fried or grilled. I think they will most likely be grilled. Regardless, to me, they will continue being delicious chips!
I only discovered these on my last day (probably a good thing!). They are little biscuits made from fresh coconut, flour, and sugar. Super yummy!
Truth be told, I wasn’t anywhere near as adventurous with my food choices as I usually would be as I didn’t want an upset tummy before the marathon, but what I did try gives me hope for when I return!
4 things I wish I’d known before visiting Sierra Leone
1. You need a sense of adventure.
From the moment I stepped off the aeroplane I felt like a true adventurer. It was my first solo adventure in a country that was very different from my own, and the rush of adrenalin kicked in as soon as I saw the mosh pit that was unfolding by the baggage reclaim belt! People pushed and shoved to get to the front, razor blade elbows poking out to ensure their spot was not taken. I’ve never liked a mosh pit so I decided to look on from the back, quite happy to let my bag go round and round until finally there was a space.
I soon realised that everyone who had fought to be at the front was willing to pass luggage back, so as soon as I spotted my bag, I pointed it out. A lovely gentleman passed it over to me with a beaming smile before turning around and shouting at the teenager who had tried to take his spot during his moment of kindness.
Stranded in Bo with no fuel!
Something similar happened on our drive back from Tiwai Island. We pulled off at Bo to get fuel only to find there were fuel shortages everywhere and that no gas station was dispensing petrol. The problem though, was that we didn’t have enough fuel to get us to Freetown! So we drove to every fuel station in town until we finally found one that did have gas but wasn’t dispensing it because they were waiting for the price rise to come into effect.
There was nothing to do but wait. We sat alongside 5 other cars and about 100 motorcyclists for a good hour and a half. At last, the green light was given, and all chaos broke out. There was no orderly queue, just more pushing and shoving and shouting. Hands were waving up in the air with wads of cash in them as people struggled to be heard over the racket.
We finally managed to get our fuel and drive off a couple of hours after arriving.
2. You will learn to be grateful
Sierra Leone is a developing country, but unlike many other developing countries, such as Cambodia, it hasn’t benefitted from much tourism, so you will notice a significant difference in comfort from what you are used to. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. On the contrary, spending two weeks in Sierra Leone helped deepen my sense of gratitude not only for what I have back home, but also for the comforts I was able to enjoy in Sierra Leone.
Suddenly, just having an onion sandwich for lunch didn’t seem like such a terrible thing. In fact, I could appreciate the fact that I had food and that at least the onion was caramelised. Likewise, my bucket shower and cold water became my special treat every day after a long sweaty day in the sun. As the trip progressed, I became increasingly more appreciative of all the small things that I would previously have overlooked.
3. Everything will work out in the end.
When I was in Sierra Leone I heard many people say, “don’t worry, we are in Africa time”. Things just happen at a different pace. You would think growing up in Spain I would have been used to the laid-back approach. However, when it came to getting my COVID test so I could go home, I won’t lie, it turned out to be rather stressful. In order to leave Sierra Leone I needed a negative PCR test, which was meant to be done 48 hours before departure. However, Salone Hidden Gems had arranged an expedited test allowing me to only do it 24 hours before departure. This meant I wouldn’t need to return from Tiwai Island early. However, I never made it back in time because of the fuel crisis and delays!
What does “on my way” really mean?!
The tester said he would come and see me that evening, so I patiently waited for his arrival. I waited, and then waited a bit more. The receptionist, sensing my growing stress, called the tester again. He reassured us he was on his way. Another hour passed, then two, then three. He never showed up. When reception called him again, he said he’d be there in the morning.
I knew there wasn’t much I could do, and everyone kept telling me it would be OK, but I wasn’t convinced. I was leaving for the airport at 1 pm the next day. Were they really going to turn it around in just a few hours?
I should not have worried. The tester was there at 9 am the following day (well, 20 minutes late, Africa time!), barely swabbed my nose, and calmly told me my test would be back by 1. By 1 pm Africa time (i.e., 1:20!), my certificate was hand-delivered to my door. Everyone was right! You just have to let go of the processes you can’t control and let it all be.
4. The poverty is heartbreaking
I knew I was coming to one of the poorest countries in the world, yet nothing prepared me for the level of poverty I experienced. My journey was a rollercoaster of emotions. At times I found the hardship I was witnessing overwhelming, yet nestled in this adversity was prosperity. I met countless inspiring individuals genuinely trying to change their lives and those of the people around them.
During my week with Street Child, we saw how their business grants enabled families to make enough of a living to allow their children to go to school. I spent time with two wonderful guides, both of whom were eager to show off the country while at the same time building a foundation to improve access to education and healthcare for rural communities. I met a wonderful young man called Alfred at Tacugama, who was incredibly passionate about chimpanzees and their natural habitat in Sierra Leone. He is doing everything he can to secure himself a scholarship so he can go to university to study conservation.
What is the accommodation like in Sierra Leone?
There is a real mix of accommodation in Sierra Leone, from the very expensive to the very basic. However, the cost of it doesn’t always translate to the facilities. Because Sierra Leone isn’t yet a booming tourist destination, there is still a lack of infrastructure, leading to increased costs for things that, as Westerners, we would most likely consider very basic. What I mean by this is that you get less for your money than you would back home. In places like Cambodia, where tourism is booming, you can get a lot more for your money than at home. This is not the case in Sierra Leone.
During my visit to Sierra Leone, I stayed in 5 different hotels:
Lungi Getaway Hotel
The Lungi Gateway Hotel was the most expensive of the hotels we stayed at, costing a whopping $180 a night! Located right by the airport, it was a nice enough hotel. My room was more like a mini-suite. It had a large king-size bed, a lounge area, and a spacious bathroom. I also had a balcony overlooking the courtyard. Personally, I feel it was far too expensive for what it was. Still, I did meet a fun guy while there who liked the music I was listening to. He had a little boogie in my room while fixing my aircon before recommending additional tunes for me to listen to.
The Stafford Lodge
In my opinion, the Stafford Lodge was perfect. It was like a home away from home. The team working there was fabulous and super attentive. The owners, Dori and Desmond, were just amazing. They went out of their way to ensure I had a perfect stay. They arranged tours, took me out for dinner, and even drove up to Makeni to cheer me on during the marathon! Every single one of them gave me a big hug when it was time to go home. I always think that is a sign of a great stay!
The lodge is great. I stayed in two different rooms, and both were spacious and clean, with big comfortable beds, strong aircon, and good Wi-Fi. The shower was powerful and hot, and they had a generator as a backup for when there was inevitably a power cut (which happens daily in Sierra Leone).
I will definitely be returning to Stafford Lodge and would recommend it to everyone and anyone. The cost of the room is also much more affordable at just $70 a night.
Tokeh Beach Sands Resort
After the marathon, we all got to relax on Tokeh Beach for a day or two. There were two accommodation options: The Place at Tokeh Beach, which cost $150 a night, and Tokeh Beach Sands Resort which cost $100 a night. I stayed in the cheaper of the two.
Tokeh Beach Sands Resort has various accommodation styles, from huts to villas to standard rooms. I was in one of the villas right on the edge of the beach. From a location standpoint, I couldn’t have picked anywhere better. The room was nice too, although a little too big in my mind. You could have fit another 5 king-sized beds in there and still had room to spare! I feel like it was potentially missing some furniture. But I won’t complain, too big is better than too small!
The bathroom was a little disappointing. The shower didn’t have enough pressure to wash my hair, so I had to sit awkwardly under the tap. Actually, a bucket shower would have been better. It might look less luxurious but would have been more practical.
There was no Wi-Fi in the room, only in the communal hut, which was a good 5-10 minute walk away, and the electricity was switched off during the day and only available at night.
This is an excellent example of a hotel where you simply need to adjust your expectations. I rather liked it because although basic, it was beautiful. And there is so much to be said for getting out of bed and stepping straight onto powder white sand.
During my time in Makeni, I stayed at MJ’s Motel. This is the same motel that David Beckham stayed at during his trip around Africa. I have to say that my estimation of David Beckham went up after this. MJ’s was definitely more like I expected from my time in Sierra Leone. I think the best way to describe it was “feeling old”. I will confess to having turned my nose up when I first entered my room.
The yellow-stained, mosquito-splattered walls were admittedly a little off-putting. Despite having a shower installed, no water came out of it. Instead, I had the pleasure of using a bucket and scoop for the first time, which was surprisingly efficient and rewarding. Not to add great for the environment! To be honest, the only bad thing about MJs was the fact that my bedding stank of someone else’s BO!
But the welcome was friendly. I had some lovely chats with the hotel manager and the guy working at the bar. They shared their stories, and I shared mine. And ultimately, that is what travel is about. Staying here certainly helped put a lot of things into perspective!
I don’t know how much a room costs here for the night, and I can’t find it online either, but I’d hope not much more than $50!
Tiwai Eco-Lodge was by far the most basic of the places I stayed. My room consisted of a circular mesh tent (yes, that means everyone could see in!) and a tin roof. No electricity, no signal, and no Wi-Fi. A short walk away was a toilet block with a western-style toilet and cold bucket shower. And that was it. I don’t know how much it cost, but I can tell you it was the perfect retreat post-marathon!
5 travel essentials for Sierra Leone
I have written a much more extensive kit list for Sierra Leone as, to be honest, 5 items just isn’t enough. However, these are the 5 essentials I couldn’t have done without!
- Mosquito repellent with at least 50% DEET. You are at risk of Malaria throughout Sierra Leone, so preventing mosquito bites is essential. I used Jungle Formula, which worked a treat. I’m usually a very tasty treat for them, but they left me alone for the most part!
- Imodium (anti-diarrheal). I’m afraid to say it did become a staple of my diet throughout my time in Sierra Leone. I avoided getting anything too bad (apart from on the flight home!).
- Dyoralyte. Not necessarily linked to Imodium, Dyoralyte (other rehydration salts also available) was key to keeping me hydrated. It is very humid in Sierra Leone, especially during the shoulder season, so it is normal to sweat a lot! Keeping yourself hydrated is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy! That, and washing your hands a lot!
- Battery packs. Firstly, you will likely want to take lots of photos and videos, and we all know how rubbish iPhones are at keeping a charge. Secondly, electricity isn’t always guaranteed since power cuts are common. I bought an Anker Power Bank specifically for the trip, which holds enough power to charge an iPhone 4 times.
- Dollars. I did not see a single cash machine throughout my time in Sierra Leone. Of course, they do exist, but they aren’t available everywhere and have been known to run out of cash too. I took $300 with me and exchanged $200, which was the perfect amount for two weeks.
Quick Fire Questions about Visiting Sierra Leone
Below are the most common questions I have come across. I hope that having them all in one place helps your planning.
When is the best time to visit Sierra Leone?
Sierra Leone has two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. The dry season runs from October to May, with the hottest months being January and February when you can expect temperatures in the mid-30s C. From what the locals told me, the rainy season is pretty miserable with long periods of torrential non-stop rain, which stops pretty much all activity. We were there in June, at the beginning of the rainy season. We had a torrential downpour every day, quite often accompanied by an incredible display of thunder and lightning. As this generally happened in the evening, it didn’t impact play. It is worth noting that rural dirt roads become incredibly muddy and slippery during the rainy season.
How long should I visit Sierra Leone for?
I personally think it deserves at least two weeks to make the most of it, especially if you want to explore further afield than Freetown or want to explore some of the islands. I am in the process of putting together a 2-week itinerary for next year which includes: Tacugama, Bunce Island, Keke Tour of Freetown, Cooking Class, the Street Child Marathon, some relaxing time on Tokeh beach, and a final couple of days snorkelling and diving on Banana Island. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, drop me an email at email@example.com.
Am I best booking a tour or guide for my visit to Sierra Leone?
I think so, yes. The tourist industry is still in its infancy, and the infrastructure isn’t really there yet. And where it is, it can be confusing. It doesn’t mean you need to go on a packaged tour, but I think having a helping hand on the ground is worthwhile.
There are several different companies in Sierra Leone. I contacted most of them when I first started doing my research before visiting Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, I found all of them to be a bit too expensive and unresponsive. That is, except for Salone Hidden Gems. They are the same company as Stafford Lodge, the hotel I stayed at, and they proved to be fab. They linked me up with a couple of great guides and helped me create the itinerary I wanted.
There is no affiliate link to this recommendation, and I paid full price for my stay and tour, so you can be assured that this is a genuine recommendation. When I return next year, I will definitely stay with Stafford Lodge and use Salone Hidden Gems again!
The other reason I think it is good to use local services in Sierra Leone, probably more so than in other countries, is because it is one of the best ways to help the economy without creating a dependency on handouts.
What are the travel requirements to visit Sierra Leone?
The most important thing to do before travelling to any country is to visit the official government website and read their requirements. Blogs can very quickly become outdated! (The irony of what I have just written is not lost on me!). My go-to resource is the UK Government Travel Advisory website, as that is always kept up to date. You can also set a reminder to receive an email whenever there is an update.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here is what was needed at the time of my travel to Sierra Leone (May – June 2022):
- All travellers had to register with the Government of Sierra Leone travel portal
- Proof of either COVID-19 vaccinations or recovery from COVID-19. They had just removed the need to take a PCR test upon arrival, however this was still required by the Sierra Leone Government before departure.
- For passengers not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a PCR test is still required upon arrival.
- Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months.
- Most countries require a VISA to enter Sierra Leone.
- A certificate of your yellow fever certificate, even though nobody ever asked to see this.
Do I need a VISA to enter Sierra Leone?
Some countries are exempt, but most countries require a VISA to enter Sierra Leone. I would advise you to check the government website to find out whether you need a VISA or not.
As a U.K. resident, I was able to get a VISA on arrival. It cost $80 and had to be paid in cash. Stafford Lodge also offers a VISA service, meaning they arrange it all for you, so you have one less thing to worry about.
How do I exchange money in Sierra Leone?
Sierra Leone is very much a cash-based society, so having money on you is important. Unfortunately, only some hotels accept credit cards, and if it’s anything like I experienced, my bank was not having any of it, despite me having told them I was going to Sierra Leone! So you will definitely need cash! However, there are a few ways to get money in Sierra Leone.
1. Get money at the aiport
You could get money as soon as you arrive at the airport. The exchange at the airport was actually the best I saw on my whole trip. However, unless someone is there to pick you up, you will need to carry a large sum of cash around with you. $200, for example, is 2.6 million leones! And that is bulky! There are also a lot of people waiting at the airport, and I would worry that if they saw me exchange cash, it would make me a target.
2. Use a cash machine.
You could simply get money out at a cash machine. There are cash machines in Freetown and potentially the other big cities too. However, these are often out of cash, and the chances of fraud are also high.
3. Use an official currency exchange office.
There are apparently official exchange offices as well as, of course, banks where you can exchange your money. In addition, there will undoubtedly be some black market exchange “offices” too.
4. Ask your hotel to arrange it.
Hotels and guides can also arrange for someone to meet you at the hotel to exchange money. This is what I did. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared when the money exchange man arrived. I accepted the exchange he offered, which was terrible! However, I can’t blame anyone for doing business. I should have known what to expect and pushed back. I am sure there would have been an amicable negotiation had I done that! So don’t do what I did! Instead, google what you should expect to get for your money before they arrive!
How do I get from Lungi Airport to Freetown?
One of the great things about landing in Sierra Leone is that the adventure starts from the moment you touch down! Lungi airport is tiny, with only 4 gates, yet it is one of the most chaotic ones I have visited. After passing customs, you will arrive in the baggage hall, which, as I explained above, resembles more of a mosh pit!
When you leave the baggage reclaim area you will be assaulted by 100 people, all vying for your attention. “Madam, want SIM card?”, “Hello, want taxi”, “Come here, we exchange money for you, very good price”. I won’t lie, it was pretty overwhelming. People everywhere, and no clear signage as to where I was meant to go. Luckily an official stepped in and pointed me in the right direction.
Once I had proven I had had my COVID vaccination I was allowed to leave only to find even more people waiting outside. Luckily someone was holding my name on a card.
Taking the Boat to Freetown
There are two ways to get to Freetown. By boat or by road. By road takes a good 3 hours whereas the transfer on the boat in theory only takes 30 minutes. Of course, Sierra Leone 30 minutes is more like 2 hours.
The guy waiting for me was from Aberdeen Water Taxis, the newest of the businesses offering a water taxi service. As well as being cheaper than the other two, they were also very keen to make a great impression, so good customer service is imperative to them. I was taken to the office and offered a chair and a cold bottle of water. I sat outside, watching the world go by. Locals would come up and shake my hand, welcoming me to their country. Serry, one of the employees, sat with me the whole time. He taught me my first few words of Krio and shared his own story with me.
Eventually, the other guests made it out of the terminal, and we all crammed into a 4×4 (luggage balanced on top of us) to drive down to the beach where a small boat (20 seater maybe?) was waiting to take us across the water to Freetown.
On my return journey, I was lucky enough to meet the owner of Aberdeen Water Taxis. I have to say, I was impressed with his vision and passion for delivering a truly customer-centric experience. I haven’t used either of the other two companies to compare, but I don’t feel the need to as I was perfectly looked after by the team at Aberdeen Water Taxi. Even if the boat door did fall off halfway across the crossing. But I’ll leave that story for my next blog!
Is Sierra Leone worth visiting?
Hopefully, you aren’t even asking yourself this question anymore. Yes, it is! It is such a beautiful country that is desperate to have more tourism. It is unlikely to be an easy journey, and the unexpected will likely happen. But I guarantee that you will come back with some life-changing memories that will make the adventure thoroughly worthwhile.
I love talking about Sierra Leone, so please, if you are interested in visiting, just drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Instagram. Whatever the question, if I can help, I will.
Join me in Sierra Leone
I had so many comments and questions about my time in Sierra Leone that I have decided to arrange my own tour next year! This is not a commercial tour, but instead an opportunity for other like minded travellers to join me as I continue exploring this wonderful country!
The dates are the 22nd April to 5th May. If you are interested then check out the itinerary and please don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions you might have!
Other interesting reads
I’ll soon be publishing several other Sierra Leone-related articles, including:
– Street Child Sierra Leone Marathon: is it the craziest marathon in the world?
– The perfect Sierra Leone itinerary
– Top 10 Things to do in Sierra Leone
– How to stay safe in Sierra Leone
– Navigating charitable holidays – how to avoid saviourism
– Essential Sierra Leone packing list
– Important things to know before coming to Sierra Leone
Not all of these have been written yet, so if you are keen to read them when they come out, make sure to subscribe to the newsletter!
Great post! I loved how you’ve written about all aspects of visiting this fascinating country, especially about the lovely people and their culture. I’ve not visited Sierra Leone yet, but you’ve made it sound fascinating.
Its a wonderful country with wonderful people! I really do hope you get to visit some day. 🙂
Great post (again)! My flatmate at uni was from Sierra Leone (she escaped in 2001 and told me about the war and how awful it was for her family.) But she also told me how fabulous her home was…so I have always been curious about it. I really enjoyed your post about the street child marathon and I’m looking forward to your future posts about this friendly, wildlife-filled country!
p.s. I feel like your advice to be more like a relaxed doggo works for all travel. 🙂
Josy, you should join my in Sierra Leone next year. I reckon you’d love it! And yes, being relaxed is the best way to be with travel!
I love that you point out meeting people. It’s one of the best reasons to travel. Developing relationship with others from around the globe is fun and can enrich your life. Love this post!
100% agree, my favourite thing about travel is the people we meet!
I too had to look Sierra Leone up on the map. I consider it a bonus when the people are warm and friendly so that checks a box for me! and I too find it appealing that it isn’t on the tourist trail. I’d love to see the chimpanzee sanctuary and the pygmee hippos! Thanks for sharing this information.
I’d like to see the pygmy hippos too… they remain in hiding on this trip!
Wow, Sierra Leone was an adventure! There is so much good info in this post! If I ever decided to go I will ask for more advice!
I hope you to visit one day, it is a wonderful country with a lot to offer!
This is such an exotic destination idea and I love how comprehensive your guide is! It definitely arms me with a more confidence to take this on for consideration more seriously!
If you ever want to visit Sierra Leone let me know, I love talking about it!
I didn’t know where Sierra Leone was either and had to look it up on a map. This sounds like an idyllic spot to escape for amazing outdoor scenery. Beaches with no people would be awesome. Your search for pygmy hippos and monkeys sounded fascinating. You learned so much about this area and made such great memories.
Memories for a lifetime, one of the best trips I have ever been on!
This is really indepth guide! I knew where Sierra Leone is but it never crossed my mind to put it on my bucket list. It sound super interesting but I just don’t know if I would have the courage to go there.
It is beautiful, the people are lovely, and it has so much to offer. I never once felt unsafe. However, the infrastructure is still limited so you definitely need a sense of adventure!
The beaches look beautiful here! What a courageous choice for your guide to choose to move on past the hardships and brutalities he saw during the war.
I was left in awe of his attitude, and that of many others! Plenty of lessons for me to learn from them!
I loved reading your post. It has really prompted my interest in visiting. The culture and people are amazing and this clearly was a memorable experience. I’ll add Sierra Leone to my bucket list for sure!
It deserves a space on peoples bucket lists, but probably worth a visit sooner rather than later, whilst it is still a true hidden gem!
The Stafford Lodge sounds like the ideal place to stay. It’s very rare these days that you have that level of customer service. I definitely would love to stay there one day!
You really can’t beat Dori and Desmond on customer service, they were the prefect hosts!
Travel experiences like this help put everything into perspective. Its why I go places. My husband used to work with Pygmy hippos and it would be so cool to see them in the wild ( a bit scary too though!)
Oh wow! What an amazing job your husband had!
An interesting post packed with useful information & great pics! I’ve found travel in Africa to be very rewarding but before reading I hadn’t considered visiting Sierra Leone. Thanks so much for the inspiration!
It is somewhere that had been on my consideration set either, but it has certainly made me want to explore more of Africa!
Love this epic guide to Sierra Leone and thank you for sharing your experience in this hidden gem. Greatly appreciate the transparency. Your guides all sound amazing and so inspiring.
Thank you, it was such a great journey, and you are right, the guides were great!
Sounds like a great place to visit and to be life changing. I love all the beaches and animals you might encounter, safely of course.
The beaches were amazing! And such a sustainable approach to wildlife tourism.
I have to admit that I don’t know very much about Sierra Leone, so I found your post so interesting to read. It seems like there are a lot of great places to visit here!
It is such a great country! I didn’t know much before going either
Thanks for sharing this great article! I love exploring less visited places as well and have never heard about Sieera Leone before but after reading your guide, it’s definitely on my list!!
Definitely not a place we often think of! But definitely worth exploring if you like the less visited places
What an adventure you had! This is such a complete guide and it always helps to know the norms. Especially with regard to timeliness!
Or lack of timeliness LOL!
What a great article! We’re currently dreaming of going to Sierra Leone again – we’ve been there before and we love, love love it! Here’s to a year with loads of travel plans and new experiences!
So happy that you loved Sierra Leone, it is such a wonderful country! Do you have plans to go back soon?