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September 21, 2014, 1:33 pm

Besides the Guineans themselves —diverse peoples united by a truly remarkable degree of neighborly goodwill - Guinea-Bissau's biggest draw Is the Arquipelago Dos Bijagos, with its turquoise waters, powdery sand beaches and some of the world's best sport fishing.

Capital city: Bissau, Population: 1.4 million, Area: 36,120sq km, Official language: Portuguese


Guinea-Bissau's tropical coast consists of estuaries, mangrove swamps and, in the south, rainforest. Inland, the landscape stays flat, and the highest ground, near the Guinean border, reaches only 300 meters. Going north and east from the coast, the land increasingly resembles the semi-arid plains of the Sahel. Off the coast, the Arquipelago dos Bijagos is made up of dozens of low-lying islands with tall palm forests and mangrove swamps.

History in a Nutshell

Parts of Guinea-Bissau were absorbed by the Empire of Mali, which flourished between the 13th and 15th centuries AD. In 1450 Portuguese navigators arrived, and were soon taking gold, ivory, pepper and, above all, slaves from the interior. Portugal's presence was limited to coastal trading, however, until the 20th century, when it decided to turn the country into one large, repressive peanut farm. Independence came in 1974, after a long and bloody civil-war led by leftist intellectual Amilcar Cabral. The post-independence period has been marked by political corruption, coups and civil strife, including the 1998-2000 civil war and ongoing problems with Casamance separatists along the Senegalese border. Multi-party elections in 2005 were peaceful, and Guineans generally express cautious optimism about their future.


Guinea-Bissau's 1.4 million citizens represent three major religions (Muslim, Christian and animist), 23 ethnic groups and more than 30 languages. The largest tribes include the Balante (30 percent) in the coastal and southern regions and the Fulani (20 percent) in the north.


Most Guineans survive on subsistence farming and fishing. The 1998 civil war destroyed Guinea-Bissau's limited industrial infrastructure, and cashews are the country's only significant export, though there may be undiscovered oil reserves. Eighty percent of the national budget comes from foreign aid.


Arquipelago dos Bijagos


Saltwater hippos

Spot fishing


Seafood is the glory of Guinean cuisine, especially the meaty bica (sea bream). Rice is the ubiquitous starch, supplemented with potatoes, yams, beans and mandioca (cassava). Common vegetables include okra, carrots and squash, with flavorings like onions and lime. Palm oil is another important staple. In rural areas, the meat in your meal may be macaw (monkey) - it pays to double check if chimp is not to your taste.

Wild Things

The Bijagos are home to a stunning variety of birds as well as the extremely rare saltwater hippos. Guinea-Bissau's wetlands and inland rivers harbor trots, hippos, monkeys, flamingos and parrots, and the southern rainforests form Africa's westernmost chimpanzee habitat.

Random Facts

The Bijagos islands make up the only deltaic archipelago on the Atlantic coast

The country planned to merge with Cape Verde, but talks halted after Guinea-Bissau’s 1980 coup.


While Guinea-Bissau's mainland peoples share much with the rest of West Africa, the matriarchal culture of the Bijagos islands is unique. A king and queen (who are not husband and wife) serve as co-regents - the king managing the men's affairs and the queen managing the women's affairs. Women often serve as the chiefs of individual villages, and are also the sole homeowners - only fair since they're entirely responsible for home-building, from brick-making through to the end of construction.

Top Festival

The pre-Lenten Carnival in the capital, Bissau, is by far the country's biggest party. The city's various

neighborhoods create elaborate masks and floats, and groups representing tribes and villages around the country descend on the capital. Palm wine is consumed in large quantities; music and dance rule the streets.

Essential Experience

Discovering the stunning beaches and disarmingly friendly people of Joao Vieira Island

Stalking saltwater hippos after visiting the tombs of Bijagos kings and queens on Orange Island Witnessing the quickly crumbling colonial grandeur of Bolama, the antique Portuguese capital disappearing into the sacred forests around Catio and Jemberem - the westernmost habitats of the African chimpanzee

Mercedes taxis

Drinking through the blackouts in Bissau’s lively cafés

Best Time to Visit: November to February

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