Guinea-Bissau - Where's the bus to Gambia?

Only a few days before departure, the flight to Guinea-Bissau was canceled. Even though the new flight was horrible 48 hours later, at least there was an alternative and so it didn't mess up my entire trip and efforts. However, it still messed up the plan I had for Guinea-Bissau and so I didn't have enough time to see all I wanted.

The typical Google search results about many African countries mostly are about horror, terror, war and coups. Guinea-Bissau perfectly fit in it too, as just a week before departure, together with the occasion of my flight cancellation, there was news coming out about coup preparations to topple the actual president of Guinea-Bissau. Thankfully it didn't happen.

As this is another country in Africa with very little information available on the Internet, it's quite difficult to make a plan with itineraries and what to see within the country. Heck, it's not even clear if a Visa on Arrival at the airport can be issued. 

I got no clear information by contacting the embassies in Belgium and Portugal and therefore I opted for the safer way and organized the visa in advance via the embassy in Belgium for 60 Euro.

No Visa on Arrival in Guinea-Bissau

Arrival in Bissau was smoother than expected. The Covid PCR test was rigorously asked for and carefully checked. But after that, no more Covid hurdles. The passport control was settled in 1 minute and the stamp inside. On my question to the officer, whether there would be a visa on arrival, she only said

Currently, we do not issue any tourist visas on arrival.

This also explained why TAP Portugal wanted to see the visa before departure or check-in.

My shuttle took me directly to the hotel "Hotel Dunia" and the driver explained to me the most important traffic junctions and bus stations. For example for the station for the trip to the Gambia in a few days, which is on the main road between the city and the airport.

It was already early afternoon and I spent the rest of the day looking around Bissau, getting money & SIM card and planning for the next few days.

Guinea-Bissau is the typical African country with poor infrastructure and friendly chaos on the streets, where it seems too many people doing their business in the same place and time.

Day 2 - Walking in Capital Bissau

The city is simple in design and there is not much distinctive architecture or other structures. What is very unique, however, are the old houses, which are probably half remnants of the colonial era. Or maybe many of them just maintained well because of lack of funds.

The center of Bissau city is the roundabout with the Imperio Hotel and the President's House.

The whole area is called Praça.

It's all easy to walk, except that it was very hot. Not many people were around as it was Saturday afternoon and therefore the people don't work in the center but go to their home in the outskirts.

The old town is the area near the harbor "Porto Bissau" and has old colonial buildings.

Not many monuments or memorial stuff is visible in Bissau.

One of the few places however is "The Fist" or and is near the harbor. The locals around it told me it is called "Praça dos Martires".

Further down the road along the coast was the fish market. Also empty, because no one is fishing anymore in the afternoon.

Day 3 - An alternative to a visit to the Bijagos Islands

Because my flight to Guinea-Bissau was re-scheduled I had too little time for a visit to the Bijagos.

These are the islands off the shore from Bissau and the only way to get there is by many hours boat ride. The logistics in Guinea Bissau are not very transparent and this also applies to the boat traffic.

A visit to the Bijagos has to be planned very well and it requires at least two days the whole trip. 

My idea I could go in the morning to one of the islands and in the evening back, is impossible, unless I would rent a speedboat for a few hundred euros. It was a pity, I would have liked to see the saltwater hippos.

A visit to jungle town "Quinhamel"

Instead, I went with a local minibus on the way to the town Quinhamel, which is about 40 km from Bissau.

According to Google maps everything seems to be so easy to reach, in reality though, driving around in Guinea Bissau, as in many other African countries, is just incredibly difficult because of the road conditions.

The place "Quinhamel" was recommended to me with the consensus there would be a nice river after a short trip from Quinhamel through the jungle.

The 40 km took about an hour. On the way there were many police checkpoints and they were, to my surprise, checking if the passengers are wearing Covid masks.

All over the bus stations back in Bissau, no one was wearing masks and even not in the bus, but when we approached the several checkpoints the driver was shouting in Portuguese:

Everybody please, time to put masks on...

Obviously, at least one didn't have a mask and so the van driver got a fine. And also obviously, right after the checkpoints the passengers removed their masks again. 

In Quinhamel the minivan driver showed me that I had arrived at my destination and so was released from the stuffy minivan. Many people were there on the street as it was Sunday and today was a market.

With a motorcycle cab, I went then to the river bank.

There it was particularly beautiful and had even had a restaurant. Before arriving at the place I imagined even an air-conditioned restaurant where they serve cappuccino. Of course, it was not like that.

At the Quinhamel River

The restaurant was an old hotel, the rooms which once made up the hotel, completely dilapidated.

I'm not sure if this is the aftermath of Covid, but I don't think so. The buildings look more like they have not been maintained since the Civil War in 1999. Thankfully the restaurant was open though and they had fresh fish from the river. 

We can prepare you fish, it will take about 10 minutes only!

Yes... 10 minutes... The fire from the barbeque was not even ready. So this will take at least 100 minutes + African relaxed-working-style time.

This will take hours until they finish and therefore decided to go back to Quinhamel.

In Bissau along the busiest main road

The drive home was pretty easy and similar to the drive here, tightly squeezed into a minivan along the only sandy road far and wide. 

It just took a correspondingly long time, but at least it didn't rain and thus the journey was quickly in comparison.

I went off at the main square and walked from "Missira" to "Mindara" along the biggest main road in Bissau. This area is full of street vendors but interestingly didn't have any restaurants, only stuff like dried fish, cashew nuts, and other unidentifiable things that seemed to be food.

Day 4 - Driving from Bissau to Banjul

Originally I planned to stay a bit longer in Guinea-Bissau. 

However, because of Covid, I was not quite sure how difficult the border crossings would be - if they are even open or what the exact testing requirements would be.

There is practically no official information and if there is, then these are not necessarily to be taken as a reference because of the corruption at borders and with police. So I had to expect the worst.

In this case, it would be an expired Covid test - or at least for a corrupt officer a reason for entry denial when not receiving enough bribe. This would mean that I would probably have to go back to Bissau, take a Covid test and wait 1-2 days to try again crossing the border.

For this reason, it was probably better to leave for Senegal earlier (to Senegal first, because the Gambia can only be entered by crossing Senegal).

Where is the bus to Gambia?

The hotel shuttle took me to the central minivan hub for long-distance trips, which is called "Bambu".

Although once there, we found out they changed the place of departure.

Thankfully the shuttle driver helped and investigated where the new place is. Alone I would have had massively longer to find this place. Fortunately, the chauffeur explained my intention to the chaotic minivan syndicate in Portuguese. Accordingly quickly I got advised which van and other relevant details for the trip. I was happy that I was able to purchase the front seat, although for a high premium price of 8000 CFA (costs of 2 seats) plus 1000 CFA for the luggage, but, it was worth it.

I knew the ride will be unpleasant and very long over bumpy roads. Being squeezed in the seat for several hours was a little too much discomfort for me.

They announced the trip will last 5 hours. With rain accordingly longer. But today the weather was nice all the time.

The roads are catastrophic. Massive potholes are normal both on the sand and on the few stretches of asphalt. Flat tires are also normal.

Most of the route is on sandy roads and leads through countless small villages, each with several kilometers of beautiful West African landscape with swamps, rivers and jungle sections.

Sao Domingo - the last city in Guinea-Bissau before the border 

The "largest place" before crossing the border to Senegal is Sao Domingo, but in reality, this is also only a small town. After passing Sao Domingo it takes about 5 minutes and the minivan stops at the Guinea Bissau border post. Stamping out is uncomplicated and was quick - but there were only a few people there.

After that, the passengers get back in the minivan and we were driven across the border to the Senegalese border post, which is called "Mpak".

Crossing to Senegal

Here I had to walk through the post where I got the stamp. Only very few nationalities need a visa before departure for Senegal. However, it was not clear to me what the border official needs THAT long to put the stamp. He seemed like he didn't like something and mumbled something.

Where is the Senegal Visa? 

I pointed to the stamp, but that didn't sit well with him. It seemed like he really wanted to see a visa and to raise a demand for a bribe. 

After several back and forths, my minivan driver came and intervened and talked down to the border official that he and his passengers had to move on now.

The border official grumbled even more, but pulled out the stamp and returned my passport. Nobody here wanted to know about the PCR Covid test. I guess the border official wanted to try to earn some pocket peanut money - but my minivan driver seemed to mess up the plan. Lucky me this time.

Arriving in Senegal for a stopover

The minivan continued and stopped at the final destination in the town "Zigichuor", the central bus terminal. This was the end of the 4-5 hour journey and I was now in Senegal.

My plan was to stay in Senegal today and continue tomorrow to Gambia. The whole trip from Bissau to Gambia could be done in one day by daylight, but it's a long ride and depends a lot on street conditions.

Continue to Gambia "You're smuggling....?!"

So tomorrow it goes on to the Gambia

Little did I know yet, but this border crossing will be among the ugliest among all my travels and almost ended in a conviction of drug smuggling. More about that in the story about "Gambia".

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