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  • Writer's pictureRobert La Bua

The Alluring Islands Of Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau's splendid Bissagos Archipelago is home to beautiful beaches, pristine forests, and friendly people balancing tradition and modernity in an everchanging world. Just don't startle the hippos.

All images courtesy of Robert La Bua

One of the least visited countries in the world, the Republic of Guinea-Bissau remains an unknown mystery to most of the world's travelers. The few people who can even find it on a map vastly outnumber the even fewer people who have been to a country where the annual number of international visitors is counted in hundreds rather than millions. Those adventurous enough to have a Guinea-Bissau stamp in their passports have more than ink as a lasting souvenir of their time in one of the most environmentally and culturally pristine destinations in the world.

The biggest tourist attraction in Guinea-Bissau, if the words 'biggest' and 'tourist' can even be used here, is the small archipelago of islands lying off the coast of West Africa, just south of Senegal. The word 'attraction' is, though, certainly appropriate for a place where an almost transcendent sense of discovery envelops the visitor much as the salty breeze coming off the warm ocean. Most of the islands of the Bissagos Archipelago remain in a primeval state, devoid of human presence; those that do have a human presence offer fascinating insight into a life very different from that of the traveler witnessing traditional ceremonies, relaxing on beautiful beaches, or observing a hippopotamus colony that wallows in fresh water by day and takes midnight dips in the ocean by night.

The islands of the Bissagos, known as Bijagós in Portuguese, which is Guinea-Bissau's official language, are divided into separate administrative regions, all of which have something to offer the visitor. travelers of European descent are extremely rare sightings for the Bissago people, who speak their own language as a mother tongue rather than Portuguese, and maintain traditional laws and social policies which give women powerful positions in society.

The Caravela group is the northernmost set of islands in the archipelago, named for the island of Caravela that is one of the main points of interest in the Bissagos. Along with neighboring Carache, Caravela shelters vast mangrove forests that are but one reason why the Bissagos Archipelago was named as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996. Caravela's Escaramoussa Beach is one of the better-known attractions of the islands—the calm ocean, wide sandy beach, and forest backdrop together forming a seemingly simple tropical scene that belies the intricate balance of a fragile ecosystem.

Directly east of the Caravela group is Bolama, a set of islands similarly named after the largest one in the the group. The biggest town here, also named Bolama, retains an impressive if somewhat ramshackle architectural legacy of the Portuguese colonial period. European incursion into the Bissagos reaches further back than the Portuguese, however. After many decades of attempted colonisation during the 1800s, the British made Bolama the capital of British Guinea before the islands changed hands to become a Portuguese colony known as Portuguese Guinea, a status it retained until independence in 1973; the Republic of Guinea-Bissau will therefore be celebrating its 50th anniversary of that independence in 2023. Today, the town of Bolama exists in a rather dilapidated condition. Most of its once grand buildings are in a state of disrepair; nevertheless, they remain interesting as vestiges of European culture far removed from its origin.

The physical condition of Bolama's infrastructure is a great contrast to the vivacity of the local inhabitants, who exchange modern-day clothing for tradition attire when performing ceremonial dances to the beat of drums that reverberate with cultural resonance both literal and figurative. Despite the legacy of European colonisation in Guinea-Bissau, the Bissago people managed to maintain their cultural traditions and keep their unique culture intact, much to their credit.

One of the most impressive sights in the Bissagos archipelago is the hippopotamus colony inhabiting the waters on and around the island of Orango, part of Orango National Park which includes this island as well as neighboring ones plus the marine habitats surrounding them. Among the few saltwater-dwelling hippopotamus colonies in the world, the massive creatures actually spend most of the day in Orango's freshwater streams, venturing to the ocean in the relative coolness of the night. It is possible to get surprisingly close to these fascinating animals, but be mindful never to stand between a hippopotamus and a body of water unless a travel insurance policy covers repatriation of human remains—if there are any. Orango is also recognized for the status of women in traditional society. It is the woman who proposes marriage to the man of her choice, for example, and constructs the house where the couple will live once the marriage takes place.

As in the case in most underdeveloped island nations around the world, it is a supremely easier and more comfortable proposition for the curious visitor to travel by ship than attempt to face the myriad challenges of local transport and accommodation. The apparent paradox of comparatively affluent travelers visiting one of the poorest countries in the world does not necessarily indicate exploitation of local inhabitants for the leisure purposes of wealthy foreigners. Of the visitors who do make it to the Bissagos Islands, many of them donate funds to organisations working on the islands to improve the standard of living for the residents, providing a vital source of revenue of great value to the indigenous communities. If the excitement and enjoyment of travel contribute to the wellbeing of travelers, they can also contribute to the wellbeing of the people visited by those travelers.

Robert La Bua is a travel writer who has had more than 1000 articles published all over the world over the past 18 years. Having a particular affinity for promoting tourism in the countries of Africa, he seeks to increase revenue for airlines, hotels, and destinations across the continent by presenting them to readers across the globe.

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