Seeing Bissau & Bouncing Around The Bissagos Archipelago — Guinea-Bissau Part 1

Think there’s nothing to see in a poor West African country that you’ve hardly, if ever, heard of?

Think again. It’s time to go sightseeing, island hopping, hippo watching and more in Guinea-Bissau. And keeping reading until the end as we will travel to a previously renowned matriarchy to meet a soon-to-be-king. 👑

From Mauritania to Guinea-Bissau

After my Mauritanian adventure with Alana, we began our journey to Guinea-Bissau, a tropical country on the West African coast that was formerly colonized by Portugal. Before we could get there, though, we had another layover in Dakar, Senegal because there were no direct flights available.

Unlike our previous stopover in Dakar on the way to Mauritania, which took us two hours south of our destination, this time Dakar was along the way to our next destination, Guinea-Bissau. We left the airport in Dakar to spend the night there, and while we were in town, we met up with our former guide from our trip to Senegal in August.

We hadn’t missed the traffic in Dakar.

Our former guide picked us up from the airport, and we had great fun exchanging stories with him as he brought us to the Radisson Hotel about half an hour away from the airport. There we had some nice dinner and beer before falling asleep, tired from our weeks of adventuring.

Enjoying a mojito at the Radisson after a week’s detox in Mauritania 🥂

The next morning, our guide took us back to the airport where we said goodbye again and got on our flight to Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau.

We landed and went through the visa procedures, which weren’t that simple. We had authorization for a visa on arrival from our guide, a woman named Gilda who is more or less a white Portuguese woman. She waited for us while we dealt with the authorities, and we learned firsthand that it is not so easy to get into Guinea-Bissau. Officially they call it a “visa on arrival,” but you’re required to have a lot prepared to actually obtain it. 🙄

Welcome to Guinea-Bissau!

After leaving the airport we went to the hotel, which we were pleasantly surprised to see was pretty nice and new, and right across from the parliament building. We had some lunch there, and in the afternoon we were ready to see the city.

The parliament building across the street from our hotel

Visiting the Capital City

We drove a bit around Bissau before parking and walking through the city center to a lake where we saw some birds. We walked around the streets a bit, which are populated by pigs who eat the rubbish out there.

It looks like paradise for the local swine.

We saw many old, decaying colonial buildings and walked carefully along the very poorly maintained colonial cobblestone streets.

This old colonial building has certainly seen better days.

We visited an old church and a fortress that is now used as a military base.

I think this church could probably use a facelift.

There was some charm to the city, but the overwhelming sense that we got is that it is decaying and dirty.

We also visited a harbor that we would return to the next morning to take a boat to the Bissagos Archipelago.

The National Guard at the harbor

We walked around and took pictures of some different boats, including Guinea-Bissau’s Turkish floating power plant. Guinea-Bissau produces no energy of its own. Rather, the country gets all of its electricity from a Turkish powership anchored just 500 meters from the city. The boat is anchored by a line to the shore. It was interesting to see this boat that is literally powering the nation.

Karadeniz Powership Metin Bey has been in operation in Bissau since February 2019. Its operator, Karpowership, has been supplying 100% of Guinea-Bissau’s total electricity needs with 35 MW from LPG.

We went to a souvenir market where Alana bought something and I used the toilet. At some point, we took the car back to the hotel. We had been invited to have dinner in town, but I had some consulting calls to take that evening, so we just ate at the hotel instead.

We had a Brazilian dinner at the hotel… to help Alana feel more at home 😅

The next morning, our adventure to the Bissagos Archipelago would begin.

An overview of the Bissagos Archipelago

The Former Capital

The Bissagos Archipelago is the largest of its kind in Atlantic West Africa. There are a lot of islands quite close to the coast, ranging from very small to quite large. We were going to explore a couple of those islands during our time there.

In the morning, we took the car to the harbor where a boat was awaiting our arrival. Luckily, it was not just a little fishing boat. Instead, we got to relax in a nice motorboat.

Enjoying the ride!

We brought some SIM cards with us because only certain SIM cards worked on the island, so we bought our own and they actually worked quite well. We took the boat for about two hours to arrive at our lodge, but first, we made a stop at Bolama Island. Bolama Island is the closest of the Bissagos Islands to the mainland, and it was the old colonial capital of Portuguese Bissau from 1879 to 1941.

On Bolama Island, we actually had to take a kind of “covid test,” which consisted of standing in line with our masks on for 20 minutes until the ferry arrived. 😷 Then, someone measured our temperature before we could go board the ferry. As soon as we got off of the ferry, we removed our masks, of course, and then wandered through the remains of old Bolama.

I think they have more of a reason to be concerned about their local crab population than covid infections 😂

It was interesting to see all of those old colonial buildings completely decayed and with lots of plants taking over the old city. There are still people living there in old buildings, or new ones that have been built. So we just visited certain points of interest, such as an old palace, colonial buildings, the military academy, a swimming pool, and so on. It was interesting to see and learn about the history of the island and get to know the local people.

The decaying old colonial capital

For lunch, we went to a place that only had fish, which I’m allergic to (You may remember the time I almost died in Cape Verde).

So I had to eat rice for lunch, which was the only safe option available to me if I didn’t want to get poisoned again. It was clear that the lifestyle is simple here in Guinea-Bissau.

Some local kids enjoying the simple life

The French Lodge

From Bolama, we took our boat to the lodge we would stay at, which was a very nice French resort. There are a lot of French people in Guinea-Bissau due to the fact that Senegal is to the north and Guinea is in the south. So it’s completely surrounded by French-speaking countries.

Although Guinea-Bissau was a former Portuguese colony, a lot of people speak French there as well, and some French hoteliers apparently opened resorts on the beautiful Bissagos Islands.

Our amazing resort for the next few nights

The resort we were staying at almost looked as though we were in the Maldives. The big difference was that in the Bissagos Islands, the tide can go really far out. When it’s low tide, it doesn’t really look so inviting. But during high tide, the beach actually looks quite nice.

When we arrived, it was a low tide, so we first had to go around 500 meters to reach the shore through the sand. Two days later, it would actually be much worse.

It’s not exactly the Maldives, but it was very beautiful.

That afternoon, we didn’t have much time before the sunset. We just stayed at the hotel and explored the surroundings, walking along the beach and waiting for the tide to come back. We had a nice dinner there and a drink. We also enjoyed the swimming pool, where I gave Alana a lesson because, although she can swim in the pool, she does not feel confident about swimming in the ocean.

We were treated to a beautiful sunset on the beach.

Alana got very scared by the insects there. Of course, in rural Africa, you’re going to have some insects, but Alana didn’t like that at all, so there was a lot of screaming because there were always some insects coming into our hotel room. I thought our room was quite well made and insulated, considering the remoteness of the property, but it could not fully keep all of the insects out. Alana may have had some issues with the bugs, but I manned up by killing the big insects for her and throwing them away. 🤣

Besides the incidents with the insects, we had a really good time at the resort.

Alana enjoying the beach at high tide

The food and drinks were nice, the people were friendly, the internet wasn’t bad, and we had a cottage right at the beach. Most mornings when I woke up, I just jumped right into the water when it was almost at full tide. We greatly enjoyed our four nights staying at this lodge.

A beautiful setting to dine… with some funny furry friends!

Hippos of Orango

The next day, we went on a tour to Orango, which is a big, remote island a bit further offshore. It took us quite a while to get there on the boat, but again we were grateful to have a motor.

Orango Island is famous for its saltwater hippos that swim in the ocean, which was one of our main reasons for choosing to go to the Bissagos Islands. When we went to see them, we found them not in the ocean but in a lagoon that was a bit inland.

Spotting the hippos bathing in the lagoon

It took us about 90 minutes on a boat to cross the island, pass some very nice beaches and arrive at a beach where the hippos are said to come at night. Unfortunately, you cannot see the hippos in the ocean because they only go there at night, and we could only see them during the day lazing in the inland lagoon.

Close up on the hippos. Are they watching us watch them?

First, we had to walk there for about 30 minutes through a savannah landscape with very high grass. The landscape really made us feel as though we were on the African continent, even though we were just on an island in the Atlantic. Next, we had to take our shoes off and lift our trousers up to wade through the mud of the lagoon, which was in about 20-30 centimeters of water. We prayed that the crocodiles would let us pass in peace. 🐊

Making our way through the grasslands

We waded and waded until we finally reached a big lagoon with all the hippos in it and some watchtowers around. We went up a watchtower and enjoyed watching the hippos below for quite some time. There were also some nice birds to see and crocodiles as well, but mostly we enjoyed just watching the hippos.

We loved seeing the hippos in their natural habitat

They were going around a bit, and sometimes opening and closing their mouths. At one point, one came a little bit out of the water, but they mostly stayed in the water. It was a nice atmosphere to sit and watch the hippos, the birds, and the crocodiles.

Big beautiful animals

At some point, we waded back through the shallow water and walked back through the grassland to the boat. We then headed back in the direction of our hotel, but before going there, we had a few more stops to make. We stopped at a beach where we swam and some people had lunch. We wanted to have lunch at the hotel, although I was expecting that we would return around two, and we did not come back until around 5 pm.

Spending some time at the serene beach

So, Alana and I just enjoyed the ocean. Alana couldn’t swim, but she could stand there. She just stood in the very calm ocean, which is protected from any big currents by the shelter of the land around it. The water was quite nice and we enjoyed it a lot until the other group of people who were there with us finished their lunch.

The calm water made it easy to relax after our adventure.

A Bit of Culture

We continued from there to visit the main settlement of Orango Island. Orango is famous for being a matriarchy, and this is where the famous Queen Kanjimpa once ruled the land. The beloved queen-priestess Kanjimpa, who ruled from 1910 to 1930, is still revered today as an important figure in women’s liberation, and she is thought of as a guardian of peace for all. During her years as queen, she abolished slavery, advanced women’s rights, and resisted the Portuguese colonial rule until she arranged a peace agreement with them.

We visited her mausoleum in the main town of Orango. It was quite hot that day at around 40°, and it was a long walk to get there without any shade to offer refuge. We walked and walked to the town, which was directly in the middle of the island. We found out as we walked that the island isn’t that small. It was about a three-kilometer walk to get there, during which we were quite tired and hot. In the end, we finally made it there and walked to the village.

A lot of kids visited us when we arrived because the town obviously wanted to do something for us. They enjoyed honoring us with a little dance. We spoke with the kids, then visited the grave of the queen.

Chatting with some local kids

We wanted to visit the king, but we heard that he was killed by the coronavirus just a couple of months before our visit, so we met the son of the king instead. He will be the future king, but he isn’t yet because according to their animist faith (similar to what I learned about in Senegal), he won’t be ready for a few more years. He won’t be permitted to leave his village his whole life, as he has been designated to protect the sacred places of his ancestors.

We took a tuk-tuk on the way back from the village, which drove us all the way back to the beach where we had started. We went back to the hotel where we enjoyed the beach and pool a little bit, had a nice dinner, and I did some work.

Keep up with us next time as Alana and I battle the low-tide mud and see more of the local culture in Guinea-Bissau!