The following solo travel guide for West Africa is brought to you by Alissa of Exploring Wild.
I spent two and a half months in West Africa, traveling solo and on a tight budget through one of the least developed regions in the world. Via dozens of dilapidated bush taxis, I worked my way from Senegal to Côte d’Ivoire through the coastal countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
Along the way I collected plenty of the expected stories: bad roads, corrupt officials, malaria, and awkward digestive issues all made appearances. But there were also some unexpected discoveries, some slow realizations, plenty of lingering confusion, and ultimately a new sense of perspective on my own culture.
It was the most intense trip I’ve ever experienced, and I predict it will hold onto that title for quite a while!
My Decision to Travel Solo in West Africa
Why West Africa? Go big or stay home, I figured. If I was going to quit my job to travel, I wanted to go somewhere guaranteed to teach me a lot, somewhere a little crazy and uncomfortable in ways I might not be up for later in life.
I had visited East Africa a year before and knew I wanted to experience more of sub-Saharan Africa, and West Africa seemed like the perfect way to take things up a notch. It’s a really interesting region because there are so many cultures and ethnic groups overlapping in a relatively small area. I was also attracted by the natural beauty and the novelty of being so far from the beaten path of tourism.
There was also – I have to admit – a tinge of excitement in going somewhere most people thought was too difficult and dangerous. I wanted to prove them wrong. I knew enough about Africa to understand that most Americans, if we know anything at all about West Africa, only know the negative stories. I hoped to bring back a more positive one.
Why alone? The short answer: because my husband was busy. I still hope he and I will do some long term travel together when the time is right, but in the meantime I’ve discovered my love of solo travel. I have the best husband ever; he understands how much this means to me, and we’re working together to find creative ways of making it possible.
All About Solo Travel in West Africa
A Typical Travel Day in West Africa
Many of my days revolved around the ritual of bush taxi transportation: show up in the morning, wait a few hours for a car to fill, cram into a 7-seater with 10 locals and spend hours bumping along dusty roads.
This may sound like wasted time, but in fact transportation was often where I had the best conversations. Waiting for the car, waiting in the car, waiting for the car’s flat tire to be fixed… Sometimes we chatted, sometimes we just sat in companionable silence. It made me realize what a lost art waiting is in America, where we have to fill every second of our time.
On days when I didn’t need to get somewhere I walked around dusty little towns, exploring markets and stopping for meals and conversations. Sometimes I went hiking, either a short jaunt up a nearby hill or occasionally a multi-day trek in a gorgeous remote area. A couple days passed lazily on palm-lined beaches, beautiful and nearly empty.
It was a simple rhythm centered around the places I was moving through, not specific sites to see, yet it was never boring. Nothing is boring in West Africa!
Challenges of Solo Female Travel in West Africa
Traveling in West Africa has some pretty substantial challenges for any type of traveler: the endless hours in cramped transportation, energy-sapping humid heat, wildly unpredictable timing, weeks of bathing with a bucket of cold water and difficulty finding reliable electricity.
On top of all that there are some perplexing cultural differences, plus the constant mental fatigue of sticking out like, well, like a white person in West Africa. (Fun fact: pretty much anyone who isn’t black is considered white by locals there – we ALL stick out!).
The biggest challenge of traveling solo there is just dealing with all this alone. You go weeks without seeing anyone who understands how unfamiliar and ridiculous and uncomfortable it all feels. You’re surrounded by people for whom it’s just normal life! This can feel isolating and draining, and also confusing and guilt-inducing. I never forgot for a minute that I was there by choice, with a comfortable home waiting for me whenever I was ready.
Then there’s the solo female factor. In this part of the world, they seem to think western women are all nymphomaniacs – thank you western TV and movies. It helped a bit that I was married but even still, the glaring geographical distance between myself and my husband was cause for optimism. About once a day on average I was proposed to, offered sex or asked for sex, usually by very earnest men just asking what they thought was a reasonable question.
When I declined, usually they would move on to other topics of conversation and we’d enjoy some enlightening cultural exchange. I rarely felt threatened or harassed in the familiar sense, though the constant “polite” propositioning did get old.
Benefits of Solo Female Travel in West Africa
The biggest benefit was the way solo travel opened the door for interaction with locals. In their culture, women are seen as much lower status and less capable than men, and the idea of a woman traveling alone is truly bizarre for them. People were so surprised that they just couldn’t help themselves; they had to talk to me! I’m an introverted person and pretty bad at striking up conversations with strangers, so this really helped me get more out of my trip.
I noticed a big difference when, a couple of times, I hung out with with a male foreigner for a few hours. If they talked to us at all, they mostly addressed him, and I felt frustrated and left out. Solo female travelers get “honorary man” status, which makes it much easier to have meaningful interactions.
On the plus side, I got fewer propositions when I had a male companion, but overall it wasn’t worth the cost. Life got way more interesting and random – higher highs and lower lows – the minute I returned to traveling solo.
Another benefit for me was the confidence I gained during and after the trip. I’m not saying everyone’s travel should be judged by how much they endured – we all travel for different reasons – but it was what I needed at the time. I felt filled with pride after navigating West Africa on my own, and this sense of being able to handle myself has expanded what I now see as possible in other areas of my life.
Prevalence of Tourists in West Africa
I hardly met any travelers at all in West Africa. The beachy parts of Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire had a few tourists, but in the interior of Sierra Leone and Liberia the occasional foreigners were usually expatriate development workers or Peace Corps volunteers. They would greet me by asking “So which NGO do you work for?” and the answer “I’m just traveling” always elicited a perplexed “Why here?”
While they weren’t solo female travelers in the typical sense, many of those volunteers and expats were women, and they really impressed me. They do have a support network of sorts, but they often live alone in local communities and navigate all the same issues I did, but for years and while trying to get useful work done. I have no doubt they could handle themselves traveling solo nearly anywhere in the world after that.
One cool thing about visiting a place with so few foreigners: when I did meet one every week or two it was like an instant friend! I bonded immediately with people from countries that normally wouldn’t have felt particularly familiar – the Netherlands and China for example – yet in West Africa we felt like nextdoor neighbors. Often they too were craving some cultural familiarity and our conversations flowed on for hours.
Safety for Solo Women Travelers in West Africa
In regards to safety, it’s complicated! Safety is never guaranteed, and I don’t like to make broad statements based on my limited experience. I will say I felt safer than I expected, and far safer than my worried friends and family expected.
Violent crime rates are relatively low in West Africa. Petty theft is a concern, especially in the cities, but most people in West Africa are just normal folks going about their daily lives just like anywhere. They would consider it wrong and dishonorable to hurt a visitor or steal from them, despite the fact that all foreign visitors seem incredibly rich to them (and relatively speaking we are, even those of us traveling on a small budget).
Most people were so kind that eventually I did get too complacent. I arrived late at night (it’s a long story) in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and the taxi driver was having a hard time finding my hotel. A young man offered to walk me to it. So many kind people had done the same that I trusted him in the one situation I should have been most suspicious of: a big city late at night. Sure enough, he pushed me down and wrestled my small bag of electronics and valuables out of my hands.
After that I felt less safe, and I had to work hard to open up to people again through the rest of my trip. In the end I think it was a good lesson in balance. Now when I travel I hope to meet the best in everyone, but I’m always aware that my first priority is to protect myself in case I happen to meet the wrong person on the wrong day. Besides that one incident, no one else tried to harm or steal from me in West Africa (unless you count that one bribe attempt from a border official, but that’s a different story).
Sometimes we get so focused on crime, especially when thinking about solo female travel, that we overlook bigger but less sensational risks. In West Africa those bigger risks are transportation accidents and disease.
I fortunately experienced no transportation accidents, and was kind of lucky in the health department: my malaria case was mild (yes I took preventative medication – it’s not 100% effective). Fortunately I was prepared with a test kit and treatment, since I was traveling alone in remote areas with questionable access to health care. This is a good example of how important it is to consider risks rationally and prepare for the ones that are actually most likely, not just the most sensational.
Precautions I Took to Feel Safer
As a white lady in West Africa I stood out from almost literally a mile away. Even though most people were well-meaning, that feeling of constant attention was enough to keep me a bit on edge. These are the precautions I took:
- Kept money and passport hidden in my hidden pocket underwear
- Stayed aware of my environment; no walking around with headphones or drinking too much
- Avoided walking alone in empty places close to cities, for example beaches or industrial areas
- Didn’t wear jewelry, and kept my smartphone hidden in crowded areas
- Packed light so I could move easily and keep control of my luggage
- Portrayed confidence when interacting with men
- Tried to assess risk based on current surroundings (city versus village, day versus night) instead of relying on general beliefs about being safe or unsafe
- Interacted with as many locals as possible, creating my own little network of people who were watching out for me wherever I went
- Got off the roads by dark whenever possible (due to risk of transportation accidents)
Best Experiences Traveling Alone in West Africa
The amount and depth of interaction with the people of West Africa really made my trip special. Our conversations covered it all.
In Freetown I shared the front seat of a taxi with a young city-dwelling woman in stylish western clothes. She confided that she was engaged to an angry man she didn’t love, but felt marrying him was the right thing to do because she was a single mom and needed stability for her daughter.
In Liberia an immigrant from Guinea told me how his family had survived the civil war by fleeing back home. He had returned to open his food stall and send money home because the economy was better in Liberia. I heard him speak three languages while I sipped coffee in his shop.
In Guinea I learned to play the djembe drum from a brilliant young musician with the most shameless selfie-taking habit I’ve ever seen. On the way from Guinea to Sierra Leone I met a civil engineer trying to rebuild healthcare centers still ravaged from Ebola, and later helped him write his funding proposals.
Through these people and many others I glimpsed the fabric of a very different culture, one where family, relationships, generosity and sharing are paramount and often essential for survival. Sometimes this lesson still pops up in the form of late-night WhatsApp messages filled with formal and affectionate language, inquiring after my family’s wellbeing and casting a contrasting light on my own self-reliant culture. West Africa worked its way into my life like no other travel destination has.
My Most Memorable Experience from West Africa
I had a lot of memorable experiences, but what stands out most is the pleasant surprise of traversing Liberia to the far southeastern corner on some of West Africa’s worst roads.
The whole country felt like a small town; I was never alone. In a bush taxi from Zwedru to Fishtown I met a local who knew the Peace Corps volunteer in Fishtown and eagerly introduced me to “my brother.” That volunteer gave me contact details for another volunteer in Harper, my next destination, and the local hooked me up with a ride from some Liberian UN workers (and then gave me a pineapple for the road). In Harper I ran into another Liberian I’d shared a taxi with a few days prior, who invited me to drop by a UNDP meeting for lunch.
I eventually checked out of my guesthouse in Harper and stayed with the local Peace Corps volunteer, whose house I tracked down during a cellular service outage by asking the neighborhood kids (he was a math teacher at the local school). His family was visiting, along with several other PC volunteers from all over southeastern Liberia, yet they welcomed me to pitch my mosquito tent in the living room. These are just some of the many random connections woven into my journey. By the time I left Liberia I felt I was leaving behind a country full of friends.
The kicker is, I came so close to missing out on all this! Liberia had worried me the most from a safety perspective, maybe unfairly, and I was planning to bail east to Côte d’Ivoire instead of taking the long way through. But the morning of decision time, for some reason I headed south instead. I’m so glad I gave Liberia a chance, and so glad Liberia shattered my negative preconceived ideas.
Packing for Solo Travel in West Africa
I was away from home for five months total (2.5 months in East Africa and 2.5 months in West Africa) and wanted to travel as light as possible, so packing was a challenge! I stuffed my Osprey Porter 46 backpack (which I loved!) to within an inch of its life. I had a solo tent and inflatable sleeping pad in there, plus large supplies of contact lenses and sunscreen, and all the practical essentials: water purification, bug repellent, fairly extensive first aid kit, etc.
My clothing was all about comfort and minimalism: a few lightweight merino wool shirts, two pairs of full-length pants with zip pockets, a long skirt for more formal or conservative situations, a pair of running shoes and a pair of sports sandals.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of packing light for this kind of trip. I walked miles looking for guesthouses, spent hours crammed into bush taxis with my pack on my lap, and carried it on motorbike taxis over rough dirt roads. I even did a few multi-day hikes with all my gear, for example when I hiked from Senegal to Guinea on remote trails. Being able to move freely and not fumble with luggage gives you options as well as a confident vibe that’s important for safety and peace of mind.
What I Was Happy to Have Packed
Little essentials like a headlamp and water treatment were key and got used nearly every day.
My pocket underwear thankfully kept my cash stash and passport well hidden when I was robbed.
A sarong was variously useful as a dust mask, makeshift curtain, padding for uncomfortable bush taxi seats, towel, and even a modesty cover for roadside pee breaks on long overland journeys (it’s how the local ladies do it).
My small notebook and pen were helpful for recording directions, contact details from new friends, and words from impromptu language lessons. A nice smartphone is a rarity in West Africa and I would have felt awkward using mine to take notes in all these cases.
What I Wish I Had Packed
I sometimes wished for one nicer shirt on special occasions. People in West Africa dress really beautifully, especially the women with their lovely vibrant skirts and head coverings. I felt pretty ratty in my plain and practical travel clothes by comparison.
As much as I love merino wool for travel (it doesn’t get smelly, even when you’ve been hand-rinsing it in a bucket for 5 months!), even the lightest weight wool shirts were uncomfortable in West Africa’s humid heat. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have sprung for some breezy synthetic shirts with antimicrobial treatment. I’m currently testing a shirt like this from Athleta and I love it. Next time…
Top Tips for Women Traveling Solo in West Africa
The decision to travel in West Africa, alone or otherwise, isn’t one to take lightly. But for experienced(ish) travelers who have done their research and feel excited about taking it on, the potential rewards are huge. If that’s you, here are my tips:
- Pack your sense of humor. When the bush taxi breaks down for the fifth time, or the driver gets arrested, or a border official proposes marriage… Laughter is almost always a culturally acceptable response and will help you stay in a good mood when things get weird.
- Get ready for lots of attention and prying questions about your personal life: Are you married? Do you have kids? Why not? How old are you? People aren’t being rude, they’re just expressing interest in a way that feels natural in their culture, and they’re genuinely curious.
- For dealing with interested men: try to always project confidence. Claiming to be married helps. If you don’t feel threatened, consider deflecting good-naturedly with humor or conversation about other topics. I know, it’s unfair that we women have to deal with this stuff, but getting angry every time a man expresses interest in this vastly different culture is a good way to spend your whole trip angry.
- Culturally appropriate dress: Upper legs are more scandalous than shoulders and even cleavage in West Africa. You don’t need a skirt but I would suggest loose-fitting full length pants if you want to avoid getting even more attention than you already will. I usually wore short-sleeve shirts, but sometimes wore a conservative sleeveless tank top in areas where I saw local women with bare shoulders.
- Bring your own supply of sunscreen, bug repellent, contact lens solution, and sanitary products. (I highly recommend a menstrual cup for this type of trip.) It’s easy to find toothpaste, soap, shampoo and lotion there, though the brands will all be different. You can usually find toilet paper in shops, but bring or buy your own and don’t expect the bathrooms to have it.
- If you’re traveling on a budget, be prepared to find your lodging on the fly when you arrive. Most “budget” establishments (West Africa actually is not a cheap travel destination so this could mean anything from $10 – $40 per night) have no online presence, but helpful locals will always be happy to point you toward the nearby options.
- Manners: Always use your right hand for eating, handing things or receiving things. The left hand is supposed to be reserved for sanitary purposes, and even if you prefer to use your own stash of toilet paper the locals still associate the left hand with rudeness. It’s polite to ask about the wellbeing of someone’s family and wish them well when greeting or parting. Handshakes are common and enthusiastic; the Liberian handshake is especially distinctive.
- Make sure you speak at least survival-level French: if you plan to travel in Francophone countries (Senegal, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire for example). Otherwise an already confusing place will be ten times more confusing. Being somewhat fluent would make for a more satisfying trip. I taught myself basic French for this trip and still really struggled with communication.
- Know your backup plans: what will you do if you get sick or lose your stash of cash? ATMs aren’t common in West Africa, so you may need to rely on something like Western Union. Research your options before you go, because emergencies can be harder to recover from in this part of the world.
- Learn about the countries you’ll be visiting: current news, history, civil wars, recent elections, etc. This stuff will come up in conversation with locals, and having the background knowledge will make for more interesting exchange. It’s also a way of showing respect for countries that have recently endured a lot. News from this part of the world can be hard to find, but check international news sites like Al Jazeera, and Africa-specific sites like africanews.com and thetimesofafrica.com. You can also read difficult but compelling memoirs from survivors of the civil wars if you prefer to learn that way.
- Be open, pay attention, and enjoy the ride!
About the Author: Alissa paused a tech career to pursue her love of travel, wide open spaces, and getting in just a bit over her head. She wants to help you get in over your head too – in a good way! – with unique guides and inspiration for aspiring adventurers. Say hi and share your adventure aspirations on Twitter or Facebook.