Travelling in Sierra Leone (or as the locals call it, Salone) was an amazing experience.
But what I found when I began my research, is that there is very little written about this wonderful country.
It’s not an ‘easy’ country to travel in because there isn’t a lot of tourism infrastructure in place and it’s very much off the beaten track. In my opinion, that’s also one of the biggest reasons for going there.
So to help you have a smooth and awesome trip, I’ve pulled together a list of tips for travelling Sierra Leone. Things that I learned the hard way… so you don’t have to. Yay!
Getting Your Sierra Leone Visa
Most visitors to Sierra Leone need a visa to enter unless they are from one of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African State) countries.
If you do and are flying in, you’ll need to apply for the visa in advance as otherwise, they may not let you on the plane.
Word on the grapevine is that now most people can get visas on arrival at land borders, but getting your visa in advance from the embassy in a neighbouring country might be the best option just in case.
I applied via the British Embassy in London and the process was very quick and (relatively) easy if you have a few things in place:
- Download the form from the Sierra Leone High Commission website (UK only – other countries have their own).
- Pay for your Sierra Leone visa at your bank and get a proof of payment (the bank details for the Sierra Leonian embassy are on their website).
- Send off your completed form along with an invitation letter from your host, your passport, Yellow Fever certificate, passport photo and proof of payment. You must send this recorded delivery and make sure you include a self-addressed return recorded delivery envelope.
My passport and visa were back with me in 48 hours. I almost fell over when the postman handed me the envelope back.
However one of my girls waited a couple of weeks as they lost her proof of payment slip, twice.
The visa is valid for 90 days from the day it is processed, so you don’t want to apply too early but you also don’t want to apply too late in case of delays.
VSL have a great visa service, however for British people it costs a lot more to do it this way, so you may prefer to apply via the embassy in London, either in person or by post. For Americans, it is much easier to apply via VSL, rather than applying via the embassy in Washington DC and the cost difference was minimal.
You can check the visa regulations here.
You’ll Need a Yellow Fever Certificate
Every visitor to Sierra Leone needs to have a proof of Yellow Fever vaccination and you may have to send it off when you apply for your visa, so if you don’t have it already, make sure you get it in good time.
The ‘Official’ Language is English
I was always put off from travelling in West Africa because I can only speak a little bit of French (think Joey from Friends), but one thing that may surprise you is that Sierra Leone’s official language is English, not French like many of the surrounding countries.
Saying that, I found that once you’re out of the cities and in the villages, English isn’t that well spoken (despite the children being taught in English in schools – this is a whole other issue), so you may struggle if you don’t have a local guide with you, especially in more remote places. But generally speaking, anywhere that hosts tourists will usually have at least a few English speakers.
The most widely spoken language is Krio (around 90% of the population speak it), an English-based creole language. As an English speaker, Krio is relatively easy to understand but much harder to speak.
The other main languages are Mende and Temne, named after the two dominant tribes, plus there are a number regional languages too.
The Currency of Sierra Leone is the ‘Leone’
The currency of Sierra Leone is the Sierra Leonian leone (SLL) and the current exchange rate is around 11,400 leones to the British Pound and 8,800 to the US Dollar.
It’s a closed currency meaning that you can only get it once you are there.
The biggest banknote is worth 10,000 leones.
Cash is King, Especially Outside of Freetown
In the provinces, there are very few places that will accept cards, so make sure you have enough cash with you before leaving Freetown, unless you are passing through another city.
A mix of dollars and leones is best. Which leads me to my next point…
There Aren’t Many ATM’s
ATM’s are very few and far between in Sierra Leone and even when you find them, you can’t always get cash out of them.
And even when you do, you’re there for about ten years because you can only usually get around 400,000 Leones ($50) out at any one time (more than that literally won’t fit out of the slot) so you have to just keep putting your card back in again and again.
There are a few ATM’s in Freetown and at Lungi International Airport and we also found some in Bo. I believe there are some in other cities but we didn’t visit them.
You can also get a cash advance on your card from Rokel Commercial Bank using your passport.
Take Dollars (and maybe also Pounds or Euros if that’s your own currency)
Because of the above-mentioned ‘challenges’, I found that it is much easier to take cash with you to exchange (Dollars, GBP and Euro are best – in that order), rather than trying to take money out of the ATM.
Dollars can also be used to pay for hotels and some activities, but you’ll need local money for markets, restaurants, tips and some activities.
Like pretty much everywhere else in Africa, higher denominations are better ($50, $100 bills) and they should be dated on or after 2013 if possible for $100’s and 2006 (later if possible) for $50’s.
The most common way to change money is via the moneychangers (known as ‘dollar boys’) on the street (they’re everywhere), however, just be aware that this is illegal.
The banks give relatively good rates too and you can also change money in some hotels, shops and even pharmacies if there is nowhere else.
You’re Going to Need a Bigger Bag
Obviously, the more money you change to leones, the bigger the bag/purse you’re going to need to carry it all in.
Think of it this way, if you have $50 worth of leones (around 440,000) you’re going to have at least 44 notes in your wallet.
One of our group dinners cost $215. Not much really for a group of 7. But that is 1.8 million leones (at least 180 notes and some as we had smaller denominations in there too) which took a while to count, especially after a few glasses of wine!
Luckily, some things can be paid in dollars (and occasionally GBP or Euros), but you’ll need local money for markets, restaurants, tips and some activities.
If You Haven’t Eaten Rice, You Haven’t Eaten
The staple food is rice and Sierra Leonians will often tell you that if they haven’t had rice, they haven’t eaten. They love the stuff. Rice is to A Sierra Leonian, what ugali is to a Kenyan, so you’ll eat a lot of it.
But there are lots of other great food too, groundnut stew, potato leaf stew, okra, loads of fresh fish (some of the best I’ve ever had), plus loads of delicious fruit and coconuts.
Star is the main local beer and you may also get to try some palm wine too.
There is also a large Lebanese expat community in Sierra Leone, so you’ll be surprised at how much great Lebanese food there is on offer too!
You’ll Probably Never See a Pygmy Hippo
One of the major ‘highlights’ of Sierra Leone is seeing a pygmy hippo. Or so we’re told.
Sorry to be a party pooper, but you’re probably never going to see one. They are very rare and very elusive and even the researchers who camp out for weeks on end don’t see them very often.
I mean there’s a chance, but… don’t count on it.
For the record, I do a fantastic pygmy hippo impression and I will show you if you come to Sierra Leone with me. That’s a promise.
White foreigners are called ‘Oporto, which is the equivalent of “Mzungu” in East and parts of Southern Africa.
The word is named after the Portuguese explorer, Pedro de Sintra, one of the first European visitors to the area and the person who named the country “Sierra Lyoa”, meaning Lion Mountains.
So if you hear this being called out a lot when you walk/drive by (usually by very excited children), now you know why.
Avoid the Rainy Season
Sierra Leone has two distinct seasons. The rainy season. And the dry season.
The ‘best’ time to Visit is Sierra Leone is in the dry season, between November and April, when the roads are at their best, making it easier to get around.
Most visitors to the country travel between December and February. However, this is when the Harmattan wind blows, giving the sky a hazy look and making the air very hot and dry.
March and April are dry, but very hot and humid. Having travelled in March, I can vouch for that.
May sees the start of the rains, but they’re not too bad yet and this is when the annual Street Child Marathon takes places.
June to October brings the bulk of the rains, with July and August being the wettest months. This time of year is best avoided as roads can become completely impassable, mudslides are common and the mosquitoes are at their worst.
However, September and October can be pleasant months to travel when the rain has died down mostly but the sky is clear and dust free.
The Tourist Trail Isn’t Quite ‘There’ Yet
Travel in Sierra Leone is unique because the tourist trail isn’t quite there yet.
It’s there, but it’s not well-trodden and polished the way it is in other parts of Africa.
I loved that when we turned up in the villages, we weren’t just churned through the tourism wheel. We were a real novelty. Everyone was so welcoming and genuinely happy to see us.
Sometimes it was as though they didn’t really know what to do with us and we were left awkwardly hanging around whilst a plan was put in place, even though we were expected.
It was real. It was perfect.
It’s Not the Best Place for a Solo Traveller
I’ll say it again, travelling in Sierra Leone was an amazing experience.
But it’s not the easiest place for a solo traveller.
Don’t get me wrong, Sierra Leone felt very safe to me and as a female traveller, I had no particular worries at all. I received far less ‘hassle’ here than I do in Tanzania or Malawi.
And if you’re a pretty intrepid traveller, then you might love travelling solo in Sierra Leone.
However, we barely saw any other tourists. Everyone we met was either a visiting Sierra Leonian, a resident Sierra Leonian, an NGO worker or a business traveller. So if you’re going to Sierra Leone with the intention of making some buddies to travel around with, to experience things with and to share costs with, then you may be disappointed.
Not saying that you won’t meet any locals, of course, you will and that’s great. But they all have jobs to do and aren’t there to entertain you the whole time, so you may find yourself a little lonely, especially during the evenings.
Also, as a group, we were able to do really cool things like visiting the remote Turtle Islands. As a solo traveller, that just wouldn’t have been possible as it’s very expensive due to the complex logistics involved.
I love to travel solo and don’t mind my own company, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half as much in Sierra Leone had I not travelled in a group. That’s the honest truth.
Make Sure You Don’t Get Into ‘Beef with the Chief’
When we visited the remote Turtle Islands, home to the Sherbro people, we stayed on an island called Bakie and visited another island called Sei.
When we arrived on Bakie, the deputy chief came to meet us. We said our hellos and asked permission to stay on the island. It was all very nice and we were welcomed as guests.
The following day, we went exploring and sailed over to Sei, accompanied by a couple of the guys from Bakie, and our deputy boat captain.
We knew we had to speak to the harbour master and get permission from the chief, so when we arrived the harbour master came over, we paid him for his services, he assigned us a guide and I assumed we were being taken to the chief.
We were happily strolling along when we met the chief. Let’s call him chief 1. I said hello, shook his hand and said it was nice to meet him, but he seemed annoyed.
He was angry we hadn’t spoken to him first. I thought we’d arranged this all through the harbour master.
He told me off. He told our guides off. I apologised. For a second I thought we were going to get thrown off the island. But he let us walk on.
As we walked, I turned to the group and said ‘Bloody hell, we’ve only been here 5 minutes and we’re already in ‘Beef with the Chief’ – the name stuck and we still giggle about it to this day.
We met another chief, he seemed very nice. Let’s call him chief 2. We continued and met another chief, he was also very nice. Let’s call him chief 3.
As we walked, one of our guides from Bakie whispered to me ‘The chief wants to have a word with you’. Uh oh, what have we done now? And which chief now has beef?
As it turned out, chief number 2 was now pissed. He started shouting at our guides. We heard the words ‘big mistake’ numerous times as they argued in Krio.
Eventually, he softened and we were free to go.
On our way back to the boat, we bumped into chief 1 again. He went to speak and I braced myself for another telling off but instead, he said “Thank you for visiting our island. You are welcome again. Please tell all of your friends to come here!” He was all smiles and hospitality.
The chiefdoms are very complex – there’s the paramount chief, town chief, section chief and a lot of internal politics. Especially when money is involved. I’m still not 100% sure why everyone was so annoyed and who we were supposed to see first and how we were meant to do it. No-one seemed able to explain this to us.
Maybe the harbour master hadn’t negotiated a big enough deal with us? Maybe the chiefs felt undermined? Either way, the moral of this story is… make sure you always ask to see the top chief first (whichever one that may be at that time) and seek his permission before you do anything.
Have you been to Sierra Leone? Do you have any tips to add to the list?