The Republic of Sierra Leone runs alongside the great Atlantic Ocean, sharing its borders with Guinea and Liberia. Rising from the ocean, Sierra Leone transitions from soft and tranquil beach landscapes to the dramatic and bold mountains in the north of the country. The country has rainforests, swamps, and an earthy energy that reminds you of what it means to be alive. Ripe with wildlife and throbbing with a determination to overcome all obstacles, Sierra Leone rises above its challenges to continue to be one of the more beautiful gems of Western Africa.
Sierra Leone has a rich and vibrant history, one connected to the former slaves of the Caribbean. Called “Sweet Alone” by the locals, there is a very clear affection for the culture and history of the country. From the care taken to prepare delicious foods to the generous nature of the people, Sierra Leone is a country that appreciates the beauty it has. The locals will welcome you with warmth and enthusiasm.
Sadly, in recent years, Sierra Leone has suffered a terrible and devastating blow to not only its economy, but to its population. Due to the outbreak of Ebola that began in December of 2014, the country has scrambled to save its people and its identity. Travel advisories are currently in place for Sierra Leone and US citizens are advised against any non-essential travel to the country. Be sure to research any and all travel warnings in place for Sierra Leone before planning a trip to the country.
WHEN TO TRAVEL – WEATHER
Sierra Leone is often humid and warm throughout the year, with patches of heavy rainfall and dry winds. The ideal time to visit the country will be determined by the goals of the visit. For example, though August often sees extreme rainfall it also is the time when animals are thriving and out and about. Nature lovers often flock to Sierra Leone during this time – in spite of the rain – in order to catch glimpses of the spectacular wildlife.
However, if your goal is to enjoy the warm coastal beaches and spend a great deal of time outdoors, you should consider visiting during the drier season between December and January. Keep in mind however that a sweater or light jacket will still be needed during this dry season due to winds that can appear out of nowhere.
The dry season in Sierra Leone falls between November and January. In addition to the drier temperatures you may also see a rise in the occurrence of the harmattan winds, a strong wind blowing in from the Sahara desert. These winds, though often mild, can become powerful and bring with them a high volume of dust and grime. Be especially cautious if you suffer from any breathing ailments or sensitive to dry air.
The rainy season falls between June and November and the coast can see strong storms with high levels of rainfall. There is a time of the year, in August, when there is a seven day period of time called the “seven day rainfall” when rain does not stop for a full seven days.
When packing for a visit to Sierra Leone be sure to bring items that will keep you comfortable for that time of year. Rain jackets and waterproof footwear are recommended for the rainy season and light cotton items are best for the drier season. There are no clothing restrictions for men or for women and it’s not uncommon to see people in sandals and tank tops throughout the country.
SIERRA LEONE CUISINE AND DRINKS
The staple food of Sierra Leone is rice, often enjoyed with at least two meals each day. Meals are eaten in a communal fashion, with everyone gathering around a large pot of food and pulling from the part of the dish closest to them. Men and women eat separately and you eat with the right hand. In addition, it is customary to not speak while eating a meal as it is seen as disrespectful to the meal.
Along with rice you will find flavorful sauces and stews to help add substance to the meal. You’ll find a lot of sauces made from potato leaves or cassava, tomatoes, yams or onions. For protein there are often beans or groundnuts added to a meal, or fish, chicken or goat. You can pick up some kukhri (rice and sauce) from street vendors and enjoy the snack while exploring the country by foot.
If choosing a snack during the day, the people of Sierra Leone will often reach for fresh fruit. Due to its tropical climate, there are often oranges, bananas, papayas, and pineapples readily available to offer a sweet treat during the day.
One of the more beloved beverages of the people of Sierra Leone is poyo, or palm wine. This wine is often created locally and is made from the fermented sap of palm trees. Coffee and tea is enjoyed for breakfast and soda is often drunken only by those who can afford to buy it.
Take note, that when selecting local restaurants in which to dine it’s wise to visit restaurants that have been personally recommended by someone who frequents the restaurant. Due to poor hygiene habits, some restaurants may not be up to par for a non-local digestive system.
POPULAR SITES OF SIERRA LEONE
- Freetown: The capital city of Freetown got its name from being the home of slaves who had been freed from the Caribbean and reflects not only the vibrant colors of the Caribbean lifestyle, but the importance of living a life of freedom. With dazzling hillsides of greenery and nature and seaside life offering seafood and music, this city contains endless character and history and will beg you to spend more time exploring it.
- Outamba – Kilimi National Park: This breathtaking and lively national park is located approximately 180 miles north of Freetown and offers some of the more spectacular wildlife viewing in the area. The savannah-like landscape draws everything from elephants to leopards and pygmy hippos to its land. Though the park is in the process of being rebuilt after being damaged in the war, you can still visit the park with the assistance of a guide.
- Turtle Islands: Made up of eight islands, Turtle Islands can be found in the southwest peninsula of Sierra Leone. Though remote and undeveloped, you can access the islands by arranging for a boat to take you there from Freetown. There you will find small, sleepy fishing communities. With skies as blue as the crystal clear water below, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled much further than the three hour boat ride it took to visit from Freetown.
- National Railway Museum: Located in the heart of the capital city of Freetown, the National Railway Museum takes you back in time when the rail system was a vital part of the survival of Sierra Leone. Though the museum is smaller in size, the enthusiasm and passion of the guides make up for it by weaving stories of the history of Freetown and Sierra Leone.
A visa is required in order to enter Sierra Leone. In order to obtain a visa you must submit a completed visa application form, one recent passport size photo, a valid passport, and a copy of the applicant’s round trip ticket. In addition, if applying for a visa for a minor then both parents need to sign the form and get it notarized, a copy of the child’s birth certificate needs to be attached, and copies of each parent’s government issued identification cards must also be attached for the form.
Banks and Currency
The official currency of Sierra Leone is the Sierra Leonean Leone. The currency comes in both banknotes and coins. The banknotes come in 1000, 2000, 500, and 10000 leones and the coins can be found in 10, 50, 100, and 500 leones.
Due to the underdeveloped nature of the country, it’s best to do most of your planning ahead of time to ensure things go as smoothly as possible. For example, credit cards are not widely accepted throughout the country and should not be used your primary method of payment. There are ATMs available with major banks in the larger cities, however, they should not be expected to always work with foreign cards.
Plan to make the majority of your payments in cash. Bring larger denominations to be exchanged.
You will often encounter an added service charge of 10% - 15% while out at hotels and restaurants. However, if it has not been added you are welcome to do so yourself.