In Lonely Plan-it, we take you step by step through how we put together some of the most complicated travel adventures. We asked Juan Martinez to explain how he planned an overland trip across West Africa.
West Africa can often test your patience in unexpected ways. And it also rewards you with an unmatched adventure. For those willing to step outside their comfort zone, getting on the road here offers a truly gratifying travel experience.
In this region, developing skyscrapers and bustling markets coexist with traditional villages and untouched landscapes. From the labyrinthine markets in Serekunda and Grand Bassam to the nature sanctuaries in The Gambia and the isolated beaches along Sierra Leone’s coastline, West Africa will leave you astonished time and time again.
I embarked on a four-week overland trip with five friends, traveling from Senegal to Côte d’Ivoire. Here are some tricks and tips you might find useful for planning a similarly ambitious overland trip.
Get trusted guidance to the world’s most breathtaking experiences delivered to your inbox weekly with our email newsletter. This is an aerial view of the only road connecting Guinea Bissau and Guinea, the main highway at their shared border © Juan Martinez / Lonely Planet
Step 1: Determine your route
Where do you want to go and how long will you be there?
With 19 different countries to explore, the first step in planning your West African adventure is to decide which ones you want to visit and the duration of your trip. It’s important to consider potential routes and how much time you want to spend in each country. Keep in mind that travel time can vary depending on the location, and borders can be time-consuming. A distance of just 100km can take half a day to drive.
Once you have a rough idea of your route, select your anchor destinations based on flight connections and accessibility to onward places. West Africa can be unpredictable, and sometimes the best plan is to have no plans – yet it’s still essential to figure out a rough route based on your timing and budget. For my trip, I chose Dakar as a starting point and Abidjan as the endpoint, a route that allowed me to travel along the West African coast, passing through seven different countries and covering a total distance of almost 3500km in just a few weeks.
Step 2: Set and plan your budget
How much money are you planning to spend on transportation, accommodation and activities?
It’s important to be prepared for the expenses that come with a long trip across West Africa. With minimal infrastructure and limited access to essentials, be ready to spend more money than you would in other regions. Visa costs, expensive flights (internal and external) and unexpected outlays can quickly add up, which means it’s important to have extra cash on hand to travel comfortably.
As cash is still king in West Africa, plan ahead for how you will access money during your trip. While some accommodations and businesses may accept credit cards, don’t count on this. Each member of our group carried multiple currencies in case of emergency, including US dollars, euros and West African francs. Additionally, we tried to keep cash on hand for as long as possible and use credit cards whenever we could.
Step 3: Select your method of transport
How comfortably do you want to travel around?
Once you’ve determined your budget, the destinations you want to hit up and the duration of your stay, it’s time to decide on the best method of transportation for your West African journey. Available options include buses, private taxis, overland tours, private drivers or even your own vehicle, which means traveling overland in West Africa can be as comfortable or challenging as you want.
While public transport is an affordable option for backpackers, it significantly limits your connectivity and can end up resulting in longer travel times. Bringing your own vehicle, on the other hand, offers greater flexibility and freedom but requires extensive planning, permits and insurance.
For me, finding a balance between time, comfort and the experience was key. My group and I hired two private cars and a driver (Marlon Read from Thiosane Travel), a man with extensive experience in crossing borders, dealing with local officials and navigating the best routes. With this option, we could travel independently and comfortably, while avoiding the stress of long driving hours and paperwork.
If you prefer to leave the whole planning to someone else, private companies such as Madventure and Lupine Travel offer guided tours at a higher cost. Whichever option you choose, be prepared for those unexpected expenses and try to arrange or know the total price beforehand.
We always advise packing light © Juan Martinez / Lonely Planet
Step 4: Maximize your journey and plan stops along the way
What do you expect to see on your trip?
Wildlife, culture, landscapes or beaches? West Africa abounds in nature experiences, and no matter which countries you end up traveling in, you will find a plethora of activities to do along the way. Lonely Planet West Africa was my primary source of information for activities in each country, and after reading up about the places I could visit, I had to determine how difficult it was to get there and how it suited the context of the whole trip.
Fortunately, unlike Europe or the US, most national parks and tourist attractions in West Africa will be relatively empty, so there is no need to worry about booking in advance. Additionally, Facebook travel forums such as Backpacking Africa and West Africa Travelers offer up-to-date information on regional destinations. In most cases, you can also find the WhatsApp number of a local guide who will be happy to show you around.
Some of the highlights of my trip were swimming at the top of Kambadaga Falls in Guinea, taking a slow boat ride at the River Gambia National Park and wandering around the picturesque town of Bafatá in Guinea-Bissau. Spontaneous experiences made my personal journey even more memorable, such as joining an initiation party in Sierra Leone and partying until the wee hours in Monrovia, Liberia. These were activities we couldn’t plan for, yet added incalculably to the richness of our travel experience.
Finally, traveling in West Africa can be exhausting, so it’s important to pace yourself and take breaks when needed. I learned the hard way that our longer stops were often the most memorable ones. Spending a few days relaxing on the pristine beaches around Freetown in Sierra Leone or exploring the charming villages of Guinea-Bissau can be a welcome break from the long driving hours, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the whole experience.
Step 5: Prepare your paperwork
What kind of visas and paperwork do you need to prepare in advance?
Compared to other parts of the world, obtaining visas for West Africa can be complicated. Due to a lack diplomatic coverage, citizens of many nations may need to send their passport to a different city or even country to apply for a visa.
While it is possible to get all your visas while on the road, I recommend that you obtain as many visas as possible before your trip. Applying for visas while traveling can result in spending one or more days waiting for your paperwork to be completed, which can be frustrating.
Visas for countries such as Guinea-Bissau or The Gambia (should you need them) may best be obtained in Dakar, but if you have the opportunity to get visas for countries like Liberia or Côte d’Ivoire in your home country, I would advise doing so to avoid the long wait times and the unfortunate possibility having to pay bribes to speed up the process.
While my group and I had applied for all the visas we could in Europe, we still had to lose a full day waiting at the consulate of Guinea in Dakar because the e-visa for some in our group hadn’t come through.
On top of that, I had to spend an entire day in Freetown rushing from one place to another to obtain my Côte d’Ivoire visa. Unfortunately, my application to travel overland was rejected by the consulate in Berlin, forcing me to go through the hassle of obtaining the visa on the ground. Be prepared for such snags.
We had three major car problems during our four-week trip, any of which could have easily ended the journey © Juan Martinez / Lonely Planet
Step 6: Enjoy your adventure and expect the unexpected
How to plan to have no plans?
In West Africa, unexpected and incredible experiences can happen at any time. From ceremonies featuring colorful masks and outfits to parties where we stopped for a moment and became the guests of honor, the biggest reward of traveling overland across West Africa was not knowing how any one day would end.
True, some days were spent dealing with car problems or driving for 15 hours straight. However, other days left me feeling grateful and fortunate to be in that place at that time.
While we always had a general idea of where we wanted to spend the night and which hotel options were available, it took us about a week of trial and error to realize that we couldn’t approach traveling in West Africa as we would in Europe. We learned to let go, embrace the uncertainty and enjoy every moment of the journey.
If I could do it all again…
West Africa is changing, and the overland trip I did this time won’t be possible in a few years. Rapid development, globalization and improved infrastructure are propelling progress in this part of the world – but these trends are also making the unique cultural experiences it offers all the more precious.
I learned to enjoy the little moments: being the only person wandering through a market, or being invited to dance with a local community. Additionally, simply being on the road for so long was a rich part of this experience. Sharing at least 15 full days in a vehicle with four people can be very exhausting; during the trip, we experienced moments of laughter, bonding, frustration and (yes) discord. Yet ultimately the journey brought us closer together and reminded us of the beauty of travel.