The city of Maradi is the capital of a region by the same name in the Republic of Niger that occupies a small part of the southern border with Nigeria, directly north of the cities of Kano and Katsina. The city ("Maradi-ville," as people in Niger sometimes say) is large - the second- or third- largest in the country, depending on whose numbers you use. It is also one of Niger's most economically prosperous cities. The region of Maradi enjoys very fertile land, and the region is known for its peanuts, groundnuts, and livestock as well as the Nigerien staples of millet and sorghum. The city also benefits from factories producing cooking oil, plastic bags, and mattresses, and a strategic location along both the country's major east-west highway and along a primary road south to Nigeria. As a result, Maradi has an unusually robust economy for one of the world's poorest countries, and visitors can pick up on kind of a 'boom town' feel as they navigate the city's sprawling market district, stepping around trucks from a half-dozen West African countries and leaping to avoid the swarms of speeding motorcycles. If Maradi isn't Niger's New York, it certainly is Niger's Houston.
Unfortunately, Maradi's commercial and industrial identity makes it somewhat less of a draw for most tourists, and while there are many local attractions in both the city and the region that a traveler would find edifying, there are probably few who would view those attractions as being 'worth the trip' (8-10 hours by bus on rough roads from Niamey). Additionally, while international development agencies are prominent in Maradi as they are throughout Niger, the number of foreign aid workers based in the city is much smaller than in Niamey or Zinder, and the presence is far less detectable. As a result, foreigners may find the city far less easy to visit than places like Niamey, Agadez, or Zinder. This is not because the residents are unfriendly - they are, on the whole, cheerfully welcoming people are are delighted to chat with 'nassaru' (fair-skinned people, a word you will here often on your visit). The problem is more that the city has less of a tourist infrastructure than those named - you will find no 'guides' selling their services in Maradi, and you are far more likely to encounter service providers (especially in restaurants and taxicabs) that don't speak French. However, intrepid travelers (or even those who simply are stuck in town for a night) will find Maradi a lively and entirely pleasant place to visit.
Maradi is located on the National Route 1, the main highway between Niamey and the entire southeast of the country (including the cities of Birnin Konni, Zinder, and Diffa, and passing through every administrative region of the country except Agadez). It is also the transportation hub for the region. This makes Maradi as easy and straightforward to travel to as any city in Niger.
Maradi has a working airport, but the country's national airline has long since gone under. Most of the traffic to the airport is government or military (during recent joint Nigerien-US military exercises, the airport became quite lively indeed). If you have the contacts, the UN and some other development organizations operate aircraft that call from time to time in Maradi; you can sometimes buy a seat on one of those planes, though this varies from organization to organization and even from manager to manager, not to mention the flight's planned payload, so do not count on it. If you can swing it, you will have the much-envied experience of making the trip in the fastest, most comfortable way possible.
There is no access to Maradi by train. The closest railhead might be at Kano, Nigeria (about 180 km south)
Maradi is located at the intersection of National Route 1, Niger's principle southern highway, and National Route 9, which runs south from the city through the town of Madaroundfa and into Nigeria, headed for Kano. On National Route 1, a trip by well-maintained car might be about 8 hours from Niamey (depending on a number of factors including the time of year, the weather, and the current status of a massive highway maintenance project that was slowly chugging along in the regions of Tahoua and Dosso)and 2.5 hours from Zinder. N.R. 1 skirts the city to the north; the turn off is clearly marked in both directions (but is very poorly regulated; slow way down and watch for trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and donkey carts coming from all directions). This turn off will put you on the main street leading to the center of town. National Route 9 is more straightforward; you will arrive in the city from the south and find yourself right on the main street.
Car rental is possible, to this author's knowledge, in Niamey only. It is expensive. Cars can be hired with their drivers in most major cities, including Niamey and Maradi; the rent for the car is somewhat cheaper, though you're still on the hook for the gas as well a the driver's per diem and upkeep. As a general rule, the quality of car you can get will diminish the farther away from the capital you get. It is actually highly recommended to hire a driver along with the car anyway - traffic patterns are distinct in Niger (as they are in any foreign country), and the network of police and tax checkpoints can be very difficult to understand. Furthermore, you really don't want to be behind the wheel when you have an accident. Nigerien police officers are typically understanding but highly bureaucratic, so you can count on them to make sure every 't' is crossed and every 'i' is dotted on the reports, no matter how long it takes. Furthermore, the person you had the problem with will recognize you as a foreigner with money, and you can expect that they will show you no mercy in the legal process, no matter how obviously it was their fault.
All of Niger's major bus lines serve Maradi with one or two departures and one or two arrivals per day. The price for a ticket is about $20 to Niamey. These buses are reasonably fast, reliable, and punctual (at least in their departures from point of origin). They are less uncomfortable, and your ticket will buy you one seat, all your own, so it's the way to travel on a budget. That said, few of these buses have any amenities to speak of; with the rigid seats, the heat, the lack of suspension, and other indignities, the trip can still be brutal, and you can descend from the bus dehydrated, exhausted, and physically in pain on a bad day. Food can be purchased (and some deeply troubling bathrooms can be accessed) at a half-dozen major stations spaced somewhat regularly along the road; depending on factors like the weather and season, the trip to Niamey can take 8-11 hours. The same network of buses can get you directly to Dosso, Konni, and Zinder, among many smaller towns, and with a one-night stopover you can get to Tahoua, Agadez, Gaya, and Diffa. Many companies also offer international service to destinations including Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso. Seats are ticketed and they are first come / first serve; don't bet that you can turn up at the station just before the bus leaves and get your ticket. Your ticket also covers baggage; the company might ask you to pay for excess baggage, but normally that's beyond the scope of what a traveler will carry (the author never experienced a 'pay-a-fee-so-we-don't-'accidentally'-lose-your-baggage-scam' on his numerous bus trips in Niger, unlike other countries in the region). Do not expect any stowed luggage to be treated gently.
Bus lines with service to Maradi include SNTV (the national transport company) as well as Aïr Transport (that's 'ay-yeer', a name for the northern desert, not 'air' like the sky), Azawad, EHGM, RTV (aka "Rimbo Transport"), and Sonitrav. Bus companies come and go with some frequency, so check when you get there. In this author's experience, there isn't a whole lot to separate the various companies; their prices and schedules are basically the same. Rimbo (RTV) has gotten in trouble with the government for having a bad safety record, though every company has accidents from time to time (the good news, perversely, for a traveler is that the bus is likely the biggest thing on the road; in most Nigerien bus accidents you're better off on the bus than off it). SNTV has a couple of more modern buses with air conditioning, better suspension, and video players (though as those players are often used to play 20-year old kung fu movies and some truly appalling music videos, whether this is a blessing or a curse is open to debate). You are therefore totally sane in choosing your bus based on the convenience of the station. In Maradi, the buses are strung along the main street; EHGM is farther north, SNTV and Azawad are central, near the market, and RTV, Sonitrav, and Aïr are more southerly.
By bush taxi
Bush taxis are the central means of transportation for most of Niger, and Maradi is the bush taxi hub for the region. If you are traveling within the Maradi region or from Nigeria, this is often your only option; bush taxis arrive and depart several locations within the city for the rest of the region, with costs ranging from 200-1500 francs for within the region.
If you are traveling from other regions of Niger, it is an absolute fact that the buses are cheaper as well as having the fringe benefits of being faster, more comfortable, more reliable, and safer. If you are planning on turning your experiences traveling in Niger into a book and you want the most harrowing stories possible, than definitely try to make this trip by bush taxi. From Niamey, it can take up to 24 hours and is rumored to cost you as much as $30-$60 (no, this author has never cared to try it), with lengthy stopovers in several locations along the way, and an old guidebook may have said it best when they described the process as requiring a level of patience on par with Mohandas Gandhi. If you have halfway decent friends, they will certainly save you a seat at the bar for whenever you do get there.
If you are coming from Kano or Katsina, you will probably need to take a bush taxi; no Nigerien bus companies, at least, service Kano or any other city in Nigeria at the time of this writing. Expect it to take eight or ten hours, counting the border crossing (citizens of ECOWAS countries don't need papers to cross the border, but westerners will; don't count on your ride being willing to wait for you to go through the formalities, so make good and sure you have an understanding with the driver, or bring your bags with you). Costs and hazards are unknown; among other things, the border has been closed spontaneously and with no warning on at least a couple of occasions, and it is always closed after nightfall.
A seasonal river springs up in late May or early June to the south of the city and flows along until perhaps October, and in some remote places you can find dugout canoes being used as ferries. The author is aware of no regular service along the river in this way, nor of any attempts to market canoe rides to tourists. At any rate, this is not a realistic method to travel to the city.
Maradi is an easy city to get around in. The city center is very walkable, assuming you wish to brave the heat and the winding morass of unnamed streets. Few streets are named, and even when they are nobody knows them (and certainly not the house numbers on them). When you're taking a taxi or asking for directions, the convention is that you name a landmark near the place you're going to. Each driver's inventory of landmarks is a little different, and he may call the place you're headed something different (or in a different language) than what you or your guidebook think it's called. Most of them know the names of the cultural sites, the major government offices, the hotels, the markets and major stores, the bus stations, the popular bars and restaurants, and so on. If you are making advance arrangements to meet somebody, you might think to ask your party what they tell the taxi to get there. If you know where you're going and are communicating well, you can also give turn-by-turn directions (as you can once you've gotten to your closest landmark); be aware that this is a great loophole for a surprise fare increase (possibly an honest one) as the driver didn't know where he was headed in advance.
Taxis cruise the streets with some frequency during the day; they can become scarce after sunset, even during prime nightlife hours. There is no taxi company, and it's totally acceptable to ask a taxi driver for his cell phone number so that you can call for a pickup, or to pre-arrange a pickup time, if you're in a remote location or out late. The driver might ask for a small fee to do this, but many don't, especially if there's a group of you.
Like everywhere in Niger, taxis in Maradi are shared; legally, the driver may carry as many as four passengers who may have as many as different destinations. It's possible that you'll pick up as many as five or six, especially if some of them are children, but if it is really starting to cause a problem for you and you don't mind being thought of as the 'entitled foreigner,' you can speak up. To hail a taxi, stand on the side of the road and hold out your arm; most Nigeriens will hold it out level with the ground, let their hand hang off their wrist, and make a beckoning motion. An American style cab hail normally works as well. The driver will slow down; tell him where you are going and don't get in until he says it's OK. He may have other passengers, and your destination may not be in the direction you're going; this happens and it's nothing personal. Taxi rides in Niger are computed in terms of 'courses' - i.e. one course, two courses, etc. Each course costs 200 francs (about 40-50 cents). In Maradi, you will have to go from one end of the city to the other, or leave it entirely, to clear 'one course'. As in most cities, if the driver is going to charge you more, the etiquette is that he tells you when he's picking you up. If he springs it on you when the ride is over, you are within your rights to protest. His fare should also, legally, be a function of 200; that said, you'll often here a 300-franc fee quoted as a compromise with you; it's completely OK to agree to it.
In this author's experience, taxi drivers are more friendly, more honest, and less likely to try to take advantage of you in Maradi than in Niamey. Unlike in Niamey, you may reasonably assume that most drivers are giving you a fair price unless you know better.
If you need a little more excitement in your life (or are that desperate to save 10 cents), you can take a motorcycle-taxi (called a kabu-kabu). This can be fun, but it can just as easily be hair-rising. Many kabu-kabus in Maradi are 50cc Chinese motor scooters with only one seat on which you desperately cling in intimate contact with the driver as you whip through traffic. Professional kabu drivers have actual motorcycles with actual passenger space, but unlike in places like Zinder, the licenses in Maradi are not carefully supervised, and so you get lots of amateurs; worse, professionals aren't uniformed like they are in Zinder and so you can't always tell the difference. On the up-side, you are the only passenger, and so you go straight to your destination every time. Better yet, you can find a cluster of bored kabu-kabu drivers on every street corner, and you are almost sure to find one even at odd hours of the night when the taxis are all gone. A kabu-kabu ride starts at 150 francs; if you go any distance, that cost will increase more quickly and incrementally than a taxi, so the two are pretty much the same over intermediate distances and if you're going a long way the taxi is cheaper. The driver probably doesn't have a helmet, and certainly won't have one for you.
Maradi is a blue-collar city in one of Earth's least developed countries, so you probably won't find much work that will be worth your while unless you're some sort of Discovery Channel-type wanting to demonstrate to the world. Like most of the world's countries, you can find a huge market for people who want to learn English; you can find decent interest in Chinese and Arabic as well. The amount that any but the absolute wealthiest would be able to pay for the service, however, is very small. If you really, really need an income, your best bet may be to contact the NGOs in Maradi, especially if you have any international development experience or can demonstrate a technical skill. The rumors that getting NGO jobs is difficult are true, but they are primarily true if you get hired as a foreign national. Many NGOs would be very happy to have a Westerner walk in their doors on-site and ask for work at a competitive local salary, having already gotten there at his or her own expense. Even this tactic, however, is more likely to work out for you in Niamey or Zinder, so the best recommendation is probably not to travel to Maradi looking for work if you are a Westerner.
Maradi is at the heart of a highly conservative, Muslim region of West Africa - so much so that their fellow Hausas across the border in Nigeria have instituted Sharia law in their communities. While the Hausa areas of Niger (as well as their countrymen) have resisted the urge to follow along, it wouldn't be a stretch to claim that you will meet almost nobody who will admit to you that they ever consume alcoholic beverages, and most of them are telling the truth. As a result, beer and wine are difficult to come by. However, the number of foreign nationals (as well as the more moderate bureaucrats and technical workers from the western part of the country) coupled with the Hausa entrepreneurial spirit (as strong as anywhere you'll find) means you can rest assured that when you're ready to relax with that beer, your desire can be fulfilled.
There is one liquor store in the city as of this writing that is run by a couple of agreeable gentlemen who claim to never touch their own product. It is in an unmarked, gray building with a colonnaded front walk opposite the northwest corner of the Grand Marché; facing the building, it's the door farthest to the left. Their hours are variable and unpredictable. A can or bottle of beer might be 600-700 francs ($1.25); a bottle of name-brand spirits costs about what it might in the states ($12-30). On most days, you will be able to find a couple of types of import beer, some cheap wine, and a few bottles of low-cost, hangover-inducing French spirits (Bony's, who has a line that includes gin, whiskey, and pastis among other things). You can often, but not always, often find a bottle or two of the labels you know; many of the shop's clients are foreigners, so they seem to try to keep inventory. Beefeater gin, Jack Daniel's, and Typhoon rum are common options. Braniger, the national bottler, also does sell beer, but they are the distributor for the country's restaurants: You need an account and must be willing to buy by the flat - one hopes you aren't that desperate.
In the early afternoon, your safest bets for a beer are the restaurant at the Guest House and a slightly more expensive (but highly agreeable) one poolside at the Club Privé. In the evening (read: after sunset prayers), the bars start to open at places like the Jardin (which also sells cheap spirits and liquor) and the Airport, followed by Maradi's clubs around 10 or 11.
Do not get completely smashed in public in Maradi unless you have your own way home (and, obviously, a driver). Many locals view drunkenness as negatively as they do drink, and this author has heard plenty of anecdotes where taxi drivers refused to carry somebody who seemed intoxicated. Nigeriens are often more indulgent of foreigners, but don't push your luck too far.
This may not be the normal sense of 'drink' in a guidebook, but as Niger is one of the world's hottest countries, it probably deserves a mention: Drink lots of fluids if you're out wandering. The street is lined with guys with refrigerators to help you meet this goal: you can get water that has historically been safe to drink in sealed and labeled plastic bags for a matter of cents (you take your health into your hands if you accept water or juice in an unmarked, tied-off bag instead; you'll save a few cents but it isn't worth it). You can also find a normal array of coke products, and a few stores stock pepsi products and some local sodas that are brought up from Nigeria. Strangely, if your drink came from Nigeria it will be cheaper, and the Nigerian sodas are much cheaper; try a 'Teem', it's like Sprite and quite tasty.
There are only a few hotels in Maradi, and none of what might be truly considered 'budget' hotels. Nigeriens are not avid travelers, as a general rule, and when they do travel, most make arrangements for accommodation with the family member, friend, agency, or co-worker that they are traveling to visit (tourism for the sake of tourism is a concept foreign to most Nigeriens; you are likely to be regarded with a touch of confusion or even interested surprise if you explain that this is what you're doing). For this reason, many of the aid and missionary organizations that work in Maradi have their own accommodations for their people when they are in town; if you happen to have a connection to such an organization, you might do well to inquire, although many of these agencies have fairly strict standards of use.
If you need a hotel, consider the following:
Internet infrastructure has recently developed in Maradi to the point where cyber cafes have become a reasonable business option, though the connection is often slow (typically, they have multiple computers using single connections, so even places advertising a high-speed connection have this problem) and very few have generators, so they are at the mercy of Maradi's frequent power failures. Most of the cyber-cafes are around the market: A boy scout-style youth, GARKUWA, runs one a block west of the main gate of the market; there is another one on the market's west edge, and one on the south. The most prominent one is located in the Ecobank building on the market's southeast corner.
Public phones are available throughout the city; typically, they are located in shops with white-and-blue "Cabine Telephonique" signs (don't take "cabine" too literally; you're just as likely to find market stalls telephoniques or even coffee tables telephoniques) where an attendant charges you by the minute on a largely reliable land-line telephone. You also can occasionally find people who charge you to make calls on their cellular phones, though this is more common in villages.
If you need emergency services, they can be called to come to you, but you're far better off going to them if at all possible (summoning help is a slow process; fire trucks and ambulances may need gas before they can be sent out, and nobody knows the phone number for these agencies anyway as there is no 911 or 999 service). Taxi and moto-taxi drivers typically know the police station (which is just west down the street from the main gate of the market), the hospital (a landmark unto itself, probably .5 km southwest from the market) and the fire station (probably 2km south of the market). If you have serious injuries, most taxi drivers and private drivers are pretty charitable about getting you to help and securing payment after the fact, if at all.
Maradi is a highly safe city inhabited by friendly, helpful people and you can reasonably expect to get through your stay without experiencing anything worse than a scam or a petty theft. In particular, you will find Maradi to be a pleasant break from the tourist-targeting con artists that haunt the hotels and markets in places like Niamey and Agadez. Still, be smart: It is a city, and all kinds of people live there. Being an obvious foreigner (assuming you are) makes you less of a target than you are in several other Nigerien cities, but don't worsen your odds by wandering around alone, drunk, and conspicuously wealthy. Hide the 10,000 franc notes (or better, change them for denominations actually used on the street, if you can), keep your money in two or three places on your person, and be respectful of local culture.
Foreigners get flirted with all the time, and on-the-spot marriage proposals are fairly common and probably harmless. You should be polite and friendly (and you may reasonably assume that the proposal is largely humorous or facetious in its intent) , but don't do things to encourage it like dressing immodestly (men or women), or giving out your cell phone number or hotel room to people you just met on the street (and they will ask). The author has never heard of a woman being assaulted in Maradi, but that's a personal experience over two years of living there; don't take it as any kind of fact or assurance (and regardless, don't risk becoming the first).
A simmering Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country comes and goes; you can travel all through the south of the country and never know it was happening beyond maybe passing a convoy on the road. The rebellion has been connected to a bomb attack in Maradi, Tahoua, and Niamey in 2008, but that incident was a shocking and isolated incident. Similarly, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active in Niger in recent years. So far, incidents in Niger have almost exclusively occurred in the north and west of the country - there was a failed kidnapping attempt on US embassy workers in Tahoua, and a few tourists, aid workers, and diplomatic staff have been snatched, almost entirely in the Tillaberi region; at least one French hostage was recently killed. Maradi has never, to this author's knowledge, had such an incident. The situation, however, is dynamic, and you should seriously consider contacting your embassy or diplomatic service before arriving to get an update.
The biggest threats to your safety in Maradi are not human in nature. Stings from Maradi scorpions and spiders are not normally lethal, but they are painful, and even in the city center you might find a snake from time to time (Nigeriens hate them and will kill them upon finding one). Many of the streets get turned over to wild and semi-wild dogs late at night. The most dangerous animal in the city, however, is without doubt the mosquito. Your guidebook says that Maradi is an arid or semi-arid climate, but the city (more than most in Niger) is lousy with mosquitoes, and the Falciparium strain of malaria they carry is the most virulant and lethal in the world (not to mention less deadly but equally unpleasant illnesses such as dengue fever). During the rainy season (June-August) in particular, the numbers explode and turn the area into a buzzing, itchy purgatory on earth. Repellent helps, and at the Guest House, at least, your bed should have a mosquito net, but know that malaria is largely responsible for Niger's truly obscene child mortality rate and that several foreign aid workers each year stagger (or are carried) into local hospitals each year, where they die without ever regaining consciousness. If you're going to visit, follow what your guidebook is already telling you and get on a good malaria pill before you arrive.
It is a good idea to carry medical evacuation (medivac) coverage as part of your travel insurance.
Maradi can really be a full-blown sensory onslaught, and to a casual traveler there isn't much in the way of escape from it. Worse, it's a grueling ten hours to Niamey and several hours including a border crossing to Kano (to a foreign tourist, neither of which are the most relaxing of places themselves), so when you consider the sinking feeling that you're in over your head, you also come to realize how hard it's going to be to get out of Dodge. The best, and truest advice for a traveler to Maradi is that if you are easily overwhelmed or prone to paralyzing culture shock, this is probably not the place to visit.
That said, there is a decently-sized crowd of foreign nationals that calls Maradi home, including missionaries and aid workers from the United States, France, China, Lebanon, New Zealand, Japan, and elsewhere. As a whole, they are exceptionally compassionate, friendly, and welcoming, and some of them have lived full-time in Maradi for 15 or 20 years. If you are in desperate need of help (or just a place to hide from it all for a while), you can often bump in to some of these folks in the nicer grocery stores around the market, at the Guest House, or down by the pool. Many of these folks are extremely kind and gracious and are willing to help travelers in need, even if all you need is to hear your native language spoken for a little while.
You can stop over in Maradi for a short visit (or just a good night's rest) en route to or from Zinder or Diffa, or use Maradi as a jumping-off point to cross the border into Nigeria on your way to Katsina or Kano. There is supposed to be a Nigerien consulate in Kano; there is no consulate for Nigeria in Maradi, so you'll need to have any necessary documents before you arrive. It may or may not be possible to transit north towards Agadez from Maradi; if it is possible, the method will be neither straightforward nor pleasant (i.e. a series of bush taxis on desert tracks), so you're better off trying it in Zinder or, better yet, from Konni, where you can take the bus.