Guinea-Bissau was once part of the kingdom of Gabu, part of the Mali Empire; parts of this kingdom persisted until the eighteenth century. Early reports of Europeans reaching this area come from the mid 15th century. The rivers and coast of this area were among the first places colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the interior was not explored until the 19th century.
The Portuguese tried desperately to hang on to their colony much longer than other European countries. An armed independence rebellion began in 1956, but it was not until 1974 that the Portuguese finally accepted independence for Guinea-Bissau.
Guinea-Bissau's post-independence history has been chequered. A civil war in 1998, followed by the imposition of a military junta in 1999 has been replaced with a multi-party democracy. The economy remains fragile, however hopes are high.
Guinea-Bissau is warm all year around and there is little temperature fluctuation; it averages 26.3°C (79.3°F). The average rainfall for Bissau is 2,024 mm although this is almost entirely accounted for during the rainy season which falls between June and September/October. From December through April, the country experiences drought.
Guinea-Bissau is divided into 8 administrative regions (regiões) and 1 autonomous sector (sector autónomo), and are subdivided into 37 sectors.
No Guinea-Bissau embassies have websites to obtain entry info. To complicate matters more, there are no Guinea-Bissau embassies in the US or UK. Visa-seekers are advised to visit the UK Embassies in either Dakar, Senegal; Lisbon, Portugal; or Paris, France (tel: +33 1 48 74 36 39) for visa information.
Visas are required for citizens of most non ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) countries. If you are coming from a country where Guinea-Bissau does not have diplomatic representation, you have 2 options at your disposal. The first is to obtain a visa at the Guinean embassy in Lisbon. The embassy processes tourist visas same-day, within 2-3 hr. Call ahead to confirm this though before making travel plans for Portugal and Bissau. The second option is to obtain a letter of invitation and arrange for a visa on arrival in Bissau. Whatever individual or organization that is hosting you will need to make these arrangements and there is not a clear well-defined policy regarding this. This second option is also more expensive than getting the visa in Lisbon.
Additional direct flights from Europe and the US are possible with Royal Air Maroc.
There are no trains in Guinea-Bissau
There is a sea route between Dakar and Bissau. Additionally there are boats to and between the Bijagos islands.
In Bissau minibuses called toca-toca provide transport within the city. There are also regular taxis. For inter-city travel there are sept-places, (seven-seat Peugeot) and candongas, big commercial vehicles carrying ten to twenty passengers. Prefer sept-place or at least try to get the front seats. It is also possible to rent taxis to other towns and cities.
The main bus-station "paragem" of Bissau is situated behind the BCEAO (Banco Central dos Estados de África Ocidental) on the Airport Road. Are you heading for Biombo or Prabis, you need to go to another bus-station in Estrada de Bor. There are no time-schedules; cars leave when they are full. As most locals travel in the early morning (c. 07.00), cars fill up quicker in the morning. It might be hard to get transport in late afternoon and evening.
To go to the islands, there's a choice between cheap, but rather unsafe, canoas (pirogues) leaving from Porto Pidjiguiti or Porto de Bandim, and expensive modern boats owned by french fishing lodges on the Bijagos islands. In 2007 a ferry started sailing between Bissau and Bubaque, leaving Friday and returning Sunday. Schedules depend on tides, so check in advance.
As Guinea Bissau is very flat and there is virtually no traffic on the roads outside Bissau, it's a good country for cycling. Bikes can be bought in the country, which will probably ( as in most parts of the world) be Chinese made bikes. As always, good value for money.
Portuguese is the official language and the language used for writing. However, less than one in seven of the population speak it fluently and creole is the language spoken among the locals. There are several local languages such as Fula, Balanta, Mandinka, Pepel, Bijago etc. But you will always find people who speak English and French from other African countries (the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Mauretania, Nigeria). You can buy a Creole/English dictionary at the WEC Mission which is in Caracol, and in the Mavegro supermarket which is located right next to the Simão Mendes Hospital (on the road that passes on the right hand side, 300 m forward on the right)
The West African CFA franc (XOF) is used by Guinea-Bissau and is also used by its neighbours, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. Strictly speaking, it's a separate currency from the Central African CFA franc (XAF) with the bank notes being different, but the two currencies are used interchangeably one-for-one throughout.
Both these CFA franc currencies are guaranteed by the state and pegged to the euro at a rate of €1 = 655.957 CFA francs.
In December 2007 the first ATM's arrived to the country of Guinea-Bissau - in the BAO (Banco da Africa Occidental) branches of Bissau and Gabú. An ATM is also being set up in the Hotel Malaika in Bissau. These ATM's only function if you have a local account with that bank. So, leave your credit card/bank card at home because it will do you no good. Probably still safest to bring euros or francs CFA enough to cover the time you plan to stay. Western Union is present in Bissau (eight locations), Bafatá, Gabú, Buba, Canchungo and Mansoa. (They will rip you off by taking 10%.)
The largest market in the country is Bandim Market, which is on the main road going into town. You can buy many things there and the atmosphere is nice. Otherwise there are small vendors on most roads of the capital. In the villages (Tabankas) you will also find small vendors selling the necessities. In the main towns in the countryside there are larger markets called "Lumo", which give farmers and merchants the possibility to sell/trade their goods. Don't forget that Guinea-Bissau is a poor country and as such the possibilities for shopping are smaller than in the Gambia or Senegal.
When shopping in Guinea Bissau you have to keep in mind that locals quite rightly tend to consider foreigners as rich (especially white people). The first price you are asked to pay will always be much higher than the actual price of an item. Haggling is absolutely common and no item should be bought without haggling for a better price.
Useful creole shopping phrases: Ke ku bu misti? (what do you want?) N'mistil (I want it) N'ka mistil (I don't want it) Es i kanto (How much is this) Rapatil (Request to lower the prize)
Most Guineans eat rice with fish, because the country is rich in fish, and rice (homegrown or imported from Thailand) is relatively cheap. The more costly meals contain beef, goat, chicken or pork. Meals are also made with palm oil and peanut sauces and diverse vegetables. Guineans also eat wild/game meat (deer, monkey, beaver etc.) but these animals are considered to be in danger of extinction and so it is not recommended to support this.
Guineans are known for their warm heartedness and so you will always be asked to come have a bit with a group of people (it is common to eat from a large bowl)..."bin kume, no kume"
Fruit available depends on the season, but mangos, papayas, oranges, grape fruits, bananas, cashews and peanuts are abundant. Also try the sour "fole" fruits and the baobab fruit juice (sumo de cabaceira). Imported fruit can be bought in "fera de prasa" in the centre of Bissau (apples, pears, pineapples, watermelons etc) but is more expensive than in Europe.
Vegetables sold in the markets include lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, parsley, okra, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, chili, sweet potatoes.
Street snacks are typically sandwiches with hardboiled egg, omelete, fish or beef - or donuts, cake or hardboiled eggs. Frozen juice in small plastic bags is popular among locals.
Guinea-Bissau doesn't have a legal drinking/purchasing age.
The people of Guinea-Bissau love to drink a sweet green tea known as "warga", the non-muslims also enjoy drinking cashew wine or palm wine. There are also possibilities to buy Portuguese beer, wine and soft drinks but these are more expensive. It is recommended that foreigners only drink bottled, filtered or boiled water.
Hotels in Bissau are generally overpriced - but some hotels were undergoing renovation in 2007, giving hope for more competition and lower prices.
In most of the towns outside the capital, there are possibilities to find hotels or other rentable rooms.
There are also mainly French-run hotels on the Bijagos islands which are recommendable.
There are numerous NGO's, missionaries and international organizations (UN, EU, WHO, UNICEF, The Global Fund) working in Guinea Bissau.
Guinea-Bissau is a violent country, and is considered by the UN to be a major port for drug shipments into Europe. The military is know for corruption, prompting the head of the UN to refer to the head of the Air Force as a drug kingpin.
The country also has the lowest per capita productivity and income in the world, which has the violence and crime to go along with it.
White Europeans are especially vulnerable, but tend to be left alone if it is believed they are part of foreign aid efforts, or far left activists. Guinea-Bissau has had several Marxist Governments, providing a safe haven for Marxist radicals worldwide.
There is no UK or US embassy in Guinea-Bissau. The UK and US embassies in Dakar, Senegal are accredited to Guinea-Bissau. The US has a liaison office at: Edifício SITEC, Rua José Carlos Schwarz 245, Bairro d’Ajuda, ☎ +245 325-6382.
Do not trust hotel safes, and stay away from any nightclubs not attached to major hotels.
If you are arrested, be prepared to pay a bribe. However, it is not recommended to bribe officials directly. Simply ask if they can pay the fine for you, because you do not understand the customs procedures. Then leave the country as soon as possible.
Before travelling, make sure you have the yellow fever, hepatitis A, tetanus and typhoid vaccinations up to date. Malaria prophylaxis is highly recommended - consult a medical doctor for advice on which type to choose.
HIV is prevalent, as are most major sexually transmitted diseases. The CDC in the US listed Guinea-Bissau as a groundswell point for new HIV infections.
Depending on the length and purpose of your stay, also consider vaccinations for typhoid fever, hepatitis B, rabies, meningitis and tuberculosis.
If bitten by a dog, cat, monkey or bat - seek a doctor as fast as possible, no matter if you've been vaccinated or not. Everybody needs post-exposure rabies prophylaxis - but if vaccinated beforehand, you'll need less vaccines. Rabies can be prevented with vaccines and immunoglubulin, but once the symptoms present, there is no cure and about 100% die.
Always use a condom when having sexual relations with new partners.
Make sure you drink only bottled/filtered water.
Muslims are mostly tolerant of others in this country, if your presence is considered to be temporary. There are a few radicalised mosques in the country, so it is advised that you do not venture into these areas. The Christian minority is tolerated, but under constant surveillance by Guinea-Bissau activists and Government officials.
Some people (especially children) will ask you to take their photo, while others will get upset if you take photos - always ask in advance, if taking close-ups. Avoid taking photos of military installations without asking, though sometimes you'll be allowed to.
There are numerous internet cafés in the center of Bissau, but ask around, more of them are hard to spot from outside. Other options are Lenox or go wireless in Restaurant Phoenicia or hotel Bissau Palace.
There are three mobile companies in Guinea Bissau all with prepaid mobile cards, that can be bought all over. It's easy to call abroad or other mobiles of the same company, but can be hard to call from one company to another (e.g. MTN->Guinétel).