Home to remarkable indigenous cultures and its very own paradise islands, and talked up amongst travelers as a friendly place to escape Africa's typically aggressive tourist sales culture, Guinea Bissau has plenty to offer the off-the-beaten-track wanderer, from monkeys and Portuguese colonial grandeur to a love of cashew nuts that's bordering on obsession.
Capital Bissau, however, is not such an alluring draw. Still suffering from intermittent communications breakdowns, crumbling infrastructure and a less than reliable electrical system, the capital is yet to recover from the bloody and debilitating civil war of the late 90s, though the new (democratic) administration has raised hope and seems to be slowly putting things to right.
The rest of the mainland is an animal lover’s Mecca, with dense jungles and mangrove swamps, empty beaches and sacred forests, salt-water hippos and swinging chimpanzees. Varela’s beaches are abandoned, almost entirely wave free and home to water so warm you could be at home in the bath. They can be combined with a trip to the south’s rainforests, where you’ll find hefty elephants strolling through the undergrowth.
Most visitors have the offshore islands pegged as Bissau’s biggest draw, however, and a few even overstay their visas (not recommended!) to soak up the sunny vibes, transparent waters and striking turtles. The sand bank ridden shores are certainly not a place for luxury seekers, though, who’ll find this rural paradise is still home to some of the least integrated tribes in Africa, protected from external influences by the sizeable local tides.
If it’s those hippos you’re after, head for Ilha de Orango, where you’ll find palm laden beaches, vast inland planes and the rustic tombs of the regions royalty. It’s a bit of a mission to get to, involving several boat trips, but lands you in the heart of the estuaries of one of West Africa’s most impressive wildlife regions.
Guinea Bissau is still a little on the dangerous side for visitors, with political stability far from guaranteed (always check for the latest updates), but with such an impressive array of natural sites, many travelers just quickstep out of the capital and take their chances. Their reward is a genuinely special rural African experience.