Due to its troubled past, Sierra Leone remains one of the least visited countries in West Africa. In recent years, the country has moved well beyond the turmoil of its pastand is rapidly emerging as a fantastic destination for adventure travelers looking for some off-the-beaten path excitement and adventure!
Should you decide to visit Sierra Leone, you will be rewarded with beautiful sandy beaches fringed by palm trees, rainforest teeming with wildlife (this is where the pygmy hippos live!) and a rich historic and cultural heritage – all in the company of the friendly, welcoming locals.
However, a trip to Sierra Leone requires careful planning and here’s how to do it.
How To Plan A Trip To Sierra Leone
Best time to visit Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone is a tropical country with – essentially – just two seasons: the rainy season, with hot and wet days and lots of rain; and the dry season, with hot, dry and dusty days. Temperatures are steady year round, between 27°C and 32°C, although it is much cooler in the mountainous.
The rainy season starts in May and ends in October – but the first half of May and the end of October are still good to travel: you can expect rain and short thunderstorms on a daily basis, but not as heavy as the rain you would experience in July and August.
The dry season runs from November to April and that is probably the best time to visit the beautiful beaches and rainforest the country has to offer. Travelling during the dry season also let’s you avoid any road blockages and mudslides due to heavy rain. That’s also when the risk of malaria is lower.However, keep in mind that December to February is when the seasonal harmattan winds blow from the Sahara layering the countryside with fine Saharan sand; March and April are the hottest months, with temperatures skyrocketing to 38°C.
How to get to Sierra Leone
Although you can enter Sierra Leone via land through the borders with Guinea and Liberia, the easiest way to get there is to fly to Lungi International Airport in Freetown. Some of the popular direct flights are available, from Paris (Air France), Brussels (Air Brussels), Istanbul (Turkish Airlines), Casablanca (Royal Air Maroc) and a few locations in Kenya (Kenya Airways).Lungi Airport is located on the northern side of Tagrin Bay, and the fastest way to get from the airport to the city is via a private charter boat. The journey takes between 20 and 30 minutes and costs $40 USD per person. Tickets can be bought via Visit Sierra Leone, which can also arrange a welcome pick up at the airport for an additional $5 USD per person, and a car to pick you up at the dock and take you to your hotel.
Visitors to Sierra Leone need to have a valid passport and – unless coming from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a visa is also needed. Visa on arrival is available for travellers coming from a few countries, but otherwise it is better to arrange a visa before your trip.
The easiest way to get a visa is via a local agency such as Visit Sierra Leone (VSL). They have an easy to fill web form via which you can apply for a visa: you just need to upload a copy of your passport and make a payment ($110 USD for travellers outside the ECOWAS), and they will forward your application to the Immigration Office and send all documents (the visa and the payment receipt) once ready.
At the time of writing, you will also need proof of COVID-19 vaccination and you will be required a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours prior to travel. You will also have to apply and pay (around $75 USD) for your COVID-19 tests on arrival once you land in Freetown, and directly at the airport, you will have to take another PCR and a rapid test. If the rapid test is negative, you will be allowed to enter the country immediately and the results of your PCR test will be sent to you via text on a local number (you will be handed a local SIM card at the arrivals terminal, whose cost is included in the fee you pay for your tests).Finally, you will also need proof of Yellow Fever Vaccination.
How to move around
You can easily move around Freetown by taxi, mototaxi (locally known as “okadas”), public and even private buses (“poda poda”). The latter ones will also take you outside the city, but keep in mind they get packed to the brim and they can be rather uncomfortable.If you want to travel outside the capital, you are better off renting a car. This will cost you a minimum of $100 per day. You will need a four wheel drive vehicle to master the roads of Sierra Leone which can be – especially during the rainy season – in really bad condition. With this in mind, you may actually want to hire the services of a local driver who will certainly know how to driveon the local roads and deal with the manic traffic.
Sierra Leone uses the Sierra Leone Leone (SLL). At the time of writing, the exchange rate is $1 for around SSL 10,000.Credit cards are accepted in larger restaurants and hotels across Freetown, but not in rural areas where any transaction must be paid in cash. You can withdraw cash at only one bank in the capital (only Standard Chartered bank has a working ATM), so you are better off exchanging money at the airport right after you land.
Other useful precautions
Malaria is present in Sierra Leone in both urban and rural area and at all altitudes, throughout the year. It’s advised that you start taking malaria medications a few days prior to your trip, throughout the trip and a few days after the trip – contact your local clinic for more information and advice on which medication to take, and for how long.
In order to minimize the risk of malaria, you are better off wearing light cotton clothes (long pants and long sleeve shirts or t-shirts) in neutral color, and apply DEET on bits of skin that remain exposed.Tap water is not safe to drink in Sierra Leone. Only drink bottled water and carry some purification tablets in case you don’t have access to bottled water. It may be a good idea to take probiotics for the duration of your trip to help strengthen your immune system, and carry some imodium tablets for emergencies.
What to pack
Packing smartly is essential for a trip to Sierra Leone.Here are a few things you may want to include in your packing list: