16 Things To Know Before Visiting Sierra Leone

Visiting Sierra Leone can be a challenge – at least unless you go fully prepared knowing what to expect.

One of the lesser visited countries in Africa, Sierra Leone somehow suffers of a bad reputation due to its difficult past. The West Africa country was devastated by a civil war from 1991 to 2002, and was affected by an Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2016. Should you decide to visit Sierra Leone, however, you will find a country with a rich history and that is peaceful; with pristine nature (there are gorgeous beaches and lots of wildlife!); safer than you’d expect; and where the locals are very friendly and welcoming.

However, a trip to Sierra Leone requires some preparation: this is a country that is best suited for adventure travelers that don’t mind giving up the basic comforts of modern life.

The following is an essential list of information you need before visiting Sierra Leone.

visiting Sierra Leone Freetown

What You Must Know Before Visiting Sierra Leone

It’s safer than you think

Although 20 years have passed since the end of the civil war, Sierra Leone is still perceived as a dangerous country. This, however, doesn’t reflect the reality. While scams and nuisances such as pickpocketing or bag snatching can definitely occur – especially in the capital Freetown – you will have to simply follow the basic precautions you’d follow in many other places (ie in Paris, London or Playa del Carmen).

Simply avoid wearing flashy jewelry; don’t flash out your belongings – ie your iPhone or your big camera, and especially don’t hang your phone out of the car to take photos as that is a direct call for opportunists. Don’t walk alone at night, especially in areas where illumination is scarce or lacking.

It’s best to go in the dry season

Like any other country that is closer to the Equator, Sierra Leone knows two season:

  • The rainy season – from May to October, with average temperatures between 27°C and 32°C (between 80°F and 90°F). Rainy season brings lots of rain, every day and especially in July and August; rain (especially in October) often comes in thunderous spouts. Roads are often in bad conditions if not entirely blocked because of heavy rain.
  • The dry season – from November to April, with temperatures that can get as high as 38°C (over 100°F), sunny days that are dry and often dusty, especially from December to February when the Sahara winds blow. March and April are the hottest months – and probably the best to travel if you want to hit the beach. The risk of malaria is lower in the dry season.
Bonthe

Getting to Sierra Leone can be hectic

Sierra Leone borders with Guinea and Liberia, and you can get there via land. However, the best way of traveling to Sierra Leone is by plane. The main airport is Lungi International Airport, located in a suburb of Freetown. Most direct flights to Sierra Leone from Europe have been interrupted in the last two years, but you can still find direct flights from Paris with Air France; from Brussels with Air Brussels; and from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. There are also flights from Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc.

If you are flying from other cities in North America or Europe, chances are you will have a layover in one of the above mentioned airports – expect a long journey!

And also moving around

Moving around Freetown is easy – you have the option of taxis, okadas (mototaxis), public buses and poda poda (private buses). Try to get out of town, however, and the hassle begins. Road conditions are bad – in fact, the capital is a major construction site for new roads, and meanwhile you have to make do with poorly maintained, often flooded and muddy dirt roads.

If you want to travel outside of Freetown, you have the option of hopping on a poda poda – but I should warn you that comfort is not an option, since they get packed with luggage and passengers.

If your budget allows, you may want to rent a car – you will need a 4WD and it will cost you a minimum of $100 per day. If you also want a driver (a good idea, as he will know how to dodge the poorly kept local roads), the price will be even higher.

Some places can only be reached by boat – that’s the case of Bonthe, where Sherbro International Airport ceased to operate in 2002; and of the very remote Turtle Islands. As there are very few public boats, traveling by boat can actually become quite expensive.

Turtle Islands Sierra Leone

There are some specific entry requirements

Make sure to check your travel requirements before your trip to Sierra Leone. Anyone visiting Sierra Leone – except citizens from the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) – will need a visa to be allowed to enter the country. Visa on arrival is available for citizens many nationalities and costs $80 USD, but you may still want to get your visa in advance.

To get your visa, get in touch with Visit Sierra Leone (VSL) and apply for them to process your visa. After uploading a copy of your passport and paying the $110 fee for non-ECOWAS citizens, they will take care of forwarding your application to the Immigration Office and send you all documents via email when ready. Tourist visas are issued for a period of 30 days maximum.

In order to travel to Sierra Leone, you will also need a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before your flight. Upon arrival, directly at Lungi International Airport in Freetown, you will be tested again – a PCR and a rapid test – for which you have to apply and pay (around $75 USD) via this link. You will be required to provide a local phone number (the form will ask if you need a local SIM card and you can pick one as soon as you land, and charge as much credit as you want) to receive the PCR test results; but if the rapid test is negative you will be free to enter the country.

Last but not least, make sure to have proof of Yellow Fever Vaccination.

Sierra Leone beach

And precautions to take when visiting Sierra Leone

There are some other precautions you need to take when traveling to Sierra Leone. Malaria is endemic in Sierra Leone, and like the rest of West Africa this is considered a high risk zone, where malaria is present in both urban and rural areas, at all altitudes and throughout the year (though the risk is definitely higher during the rain season). Make sure to contact your local clinic to discuss malaria prophylaxis – in general, it is recommended that you start taking anti-malaria tablets a few days before your trip, throughout your trip, and a few days afterwards.

To minimize the risk of malaria-carrying mosquito bites, wear light cotton clothes in neutral colors (long pants and long sleeves shirts) and apply DEET where necessary.

Travel Insurance is a must

Make sure to buy travel and medical insurance for your trip to Sierra Leone. I recommend Safety Wing at is covers lost or damaged baggage and personal belongings, injury, all sorts of illnesses and it includes medical evacuation if necessary.

You can check out Safety Wing travel insurance here.

English is widely spoken

The official language of Sierra Leone is English, and everyone speaks it – some better than others. This means you won’t have trouble getting by. However, most people in the country speak Krio – a combination of English, Portuguese and French. If you listen carefully, you will likely understand it! Other languages spoken in Sierra Leone include Mende, Temne and Limba.

Bonthe Sierra Leone

There is a large Lebanese community

Don’t be surprised if, while looking at the menu, you spot dishes such as hummus, baba ganouj, falafel and shawarma and the like when visiting Sierra Leone. A large Lebanese community moved to West Africa at the end of the 19th century, and made itself at home there, so you are guaranteed excellent quality Middle Eastern food (trust me, I know my Middle Eastern fare!).

Money in Sierra Leone

You’re expected to pay in cash

The official currency in Sierra Leone is the Sierra Leone Leone (SSL or Leone for short). At the time of writing, the exchange rate is about $1 USD to SSL 10,000. Inflation rate is actually incredibly high.

While credit cards are accepted in restaurants and hotels in Freetown, you are expected to pay everything in cash outside of the capital. There is only one working ATM at Standard Chartered bank in Freetown, so you are better off bringing enough cash for the duration of your trip and exchanging money as soon as you land – there is a currency exchange at the airport.

Wi-Fi and internet work better than you’d think

Having traveled to places such as Ethiopia, Botswana and Namibia in recent years, I was prepared for the worse and warned my family and friends I’d probably be off the grid while in Sierra Leone. I was actually very wrong! Except in truly remote places such as Tiwai and the Turtle Islands, I always had phone reception and internet connection (sometimes very basic, sometimes actually fast!). And Wi-Fi in hotels in Freetown works much better than it does even at the average hotel in Europe – no joke.

Getting a SIM card in Sierra Leone is incredibly easy. You can pick one as soon as you land, at the airport – there is an Africell stand as soon as you get to the arrivals terminal. In fact, the SIM card is needed to make sure you get your test results.

Sierra Leone beach

But you won’t always have running water or electricity

Running water and electricity are commodities we are accustomed to in our home countries, but don’t necessarily come without saying in Sierra Leone, outside of the capital. While you can expect them everywhere in the capital, where your hotel will likely also have air conditioning, these basic commodities aren’t necessarily available in rural areas, where many villages still make use of pump wells or even wells that are dug in sand. Be ready for a bucket shower!

Turtle Islands

Packing smartly is key to a good trip

Be prepared for your trip to Sierra Leone by packing smartly. You won’t really have many (if any at all!) occasions to dress up smartly, so opt for clothes that are comfortable, easy to wash and quick dry.

Clothes you should bring include:

  • A pair of light trail shoes with a good grip sole;
  • Flip flops or sandals – they are useful to shower and to get on and off the boat;
  • Two or three pair of cotton or technical pants;
  • One long-sleeve shirt or t-shirt per day;
  • A rain jacket or poncho;
  • A swimsuit;
  • A hat and sunglasses.

Make sure to also pack

If you are planning on getting out of Freetown for a few days, you will also need:

Sierra Leone Banana Islands

Tap water is not safe to drink

Never drink tap water in Sierra Leone. You are better off using bottled or purified water also when brushing your teeth. Make sure to carry water purification tablets or a water filter like Lifestraw to use whenever bottled water is not available. Avoid drinks containing ice unless you are certain that ice is prepared using purified water, and likewise, don’t eat salad unless you know it’s been washed in purified water.

In order to strengthen your immune system, you may want to take probiotics tablets. Finally, carry come imodium to use in case of emergencies.

Freetown beach

It’s a good wildlife destination

Wildlife in Sierra Leone is abundant and there are several places you can travel to for wildlife spotting. The best is probably Tiwai Wildlife Sanctuary, located on the Moa River. The thick rainforest is home to various species of monkeys; nocturnal primates such as the galago; various species of birds and the very elusive and nocturnal Pygmy Hippo.

Boat rides, night walks and early morning walks will give you higher opportunities to spot at least some of the wildlife in Sierra Leone. However, the jungle is particularly thick – so make sure to give yourself plenty of time for higher opportunities; hire a well trained guide that knows what to look for and where and can find signs of the presence of animals; and bring a good pair of binoculars.

River N. 2 Beach

There are beautiful beaches

Don’t miss the opportunity of hanging at one (or many) beaches when visiting Sierra Leone. The best equipped ones are in the surroundings of Freetown.

Sussex, Hamilton, Lakka and Levuma Beach are great place to go for a walk and to eat a good seafood or fish meal for your lunch. But if you are looking for a paradisiac spot, hit Tokeh and from there walk all the way to the community managed River Number 2 beach. They are located on opposite sides of a lagoon and have incredibly fine, white and and clear waters, and both are equipped with sun loungers, restaurants and bars.

For more information make sure to read my post The Best Beaches In Sierra Leone.

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Sierra Leone as part of the #explorefreedom campaign. The views expressed in this post remain my own.

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Discover everything you need to know before visiting Sierra Leone - via @clautavani

2 thoughts on “16 Things To Know Before Visiting Sierra Leone”

  1. Fascinating! I do not really think I could go there but I’d love to publish an article about it. You do a good job Claudia in laying it all out.

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