Situated on the West African coast between Guinea and Liberia, Sierra Leone is a well-hidden tropical destination. With over 300 miles (483km) of coastline with stretches of palm-fringed sandy beaches, wildlife sanctuaries, lush mountains, and a wonderful blend of history and culture, this small coastal country offers a multitude of attractions and activities for visitors. However, with the brutality of a long civil war still fresh in the memories of many, it may take some time before the tourist hordes discover the hidden treasures of this beautiful little country.
Visitors to Sierra Leone can look forward to a warm and friendly welcome. The main attraction is on its stunning beaches where a variety of water sports, including diving, fishing, and surfing, are on offer. The capital and commercial centre, Freetown, is rich in history, originally founded as an important centre for slave trade in the mid-1500s and later becoming a safe-haven for freed slaves. For outdoor adventurers, Sierra Leone's wildlife is diverse and protected within conservation areas such as Outamba Kilimi National Park, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary near Freetown, and the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary on the Moa River. The Tingi Hills are popular for hiking, with breath-taking mountain scenery and a variety of bird and animal life, while Mount Bintumani and Lake Sonfron offer various mountain activities.
While the scars of the civil war have yet to fully heal, Sierra Leone is a nation with enormous potential and a bright future in tourism. A kaleidoscope of colour, the country's cultural and natural resources within its borders will reward intrepid travellers seeking a largely unexplored tropical paradise within the African continent.
Similar to the rest of the country, Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown has a tropical monsoon climate with a rainy season from May to November, and a dry season from December to April. Naturally, during the monsoon season rainfall levels are higher and range between 7-31 inches (177-787mm) per month. Throughout the year, there is very little variation in Freetown's temperatures, which range from 74°F (23°C) to 97°F (36°C). However, during the monsoon season, humidity levels rise considerably. The best time to visit Freetown is from November to February, when the climate becomes more comfortable due to the gentle Harmattan trade wind, which blows down from the Sahara.
Sierra Leone experiences a hot and humid tropical climate with a distinct wet and dry season. The summer rainy season is between May and November with most rain falling in July and August. Temperatures average 78.8°F (26°C) throughout the year with night time temperatures hovering around 75°F (24°C). The Harmattan desert wind blows between November and February, relieving the high humidity in Freetown and making this period the coolest time of year in the city.
The official currency is the Leone (SLL), which is divided into 100 cents. Foreign currency can be exchanged at banks, foreign exchange bureaux or hotels. Banks are open on weekdays only. The use of credit cards is very limited, although a few top hotels and restaurants in Freetown might accept them for payment. Not all ATMs accept foreign cards, but some major banks, such as Ecobank and Access Bank, accept foreign cards.
English is the official language, although each ethnic group has its own tribal language, used more widely in the interior of the country. Krio is a form of Pidgin English that is widely spoken in Freetown.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz, but supplies are erratic and power failures common. Round three-pin plugs or rectangular three-blade plugs are used.
US nationals require a visa and a valid passport.
UK nationals require a visa and a valid passport.
Canadians require a visa and a valid passport.
Australians require a visa and a valid passport.
South Africans require a visa and a valid passport.
Irish nationals require a visa and a valid passport.
US nationals require a visa and a valid passport.
New Zealand nationals require a visa and a valid passport.
A Landing Permit (visa) can be obtained on arrival by some countries if there is no diplomatic representation at point of origin and if a letter of invitation is provided. This can be organised by a sponsor or host with the Principal Immigration Officer in Freetown. The Freetown office of the visitor's airline must also receive a list stating flight number, date of arrival, name, nationality and passport number of each passenger 48 hours in advance. Visas must otherwise be obtained prior to arrival in country of origin. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Sierra Leone is one of three countries that has been at the heart of the Ebola outbreak in previous years, causing serious alarm in West Africa. The WHO officially declared Sierra Leone Ebola transmission free on 17 March 2016, and the FCO no longer advise against all but essential travel to Sierra Leone. However, travellers are advised to familiarise themselves with the disease and current health and travel advice for the country before travelling to Sierra Leone. Some travel restrictions may be in place due to the Ebola outbreak.
Health policies require that all travellers arriving from a yellow fever area have a vaccination certificate, but yellow fever is a risk throughout the country and immunisation is recommended for all visitors. Other recommended vaccinations include Hepatitis A, typhoid, rabies, and polio. Malaria and dengue fever are high risks and precautions against mosquito bites are advised, as well as prophylaxis for malaria, which occurs throughout the year.
Outbreaks of Lassa fever is endemic in the east. HIV/AIDS is prevalent. Diarrhoea and dysentery are common complaints and water should be treated before drinking. Cholera is also a concern. Travellers should bring adequate supplies of personal medication to the country, as supplies are often not available in pharmacies. Medical care is limited in Freetown and almost non-existent elsewhere. An emergency hospital is located near Freetown, but the bad road makes it difficult to get there; there is no ambulance service in the country. Comprehensive travel insurance is advised, which includes emergency evacuation.
A service charge of about 10 percent is included in restaurant and hotel bills, but otherwise tipping is optional.
Since the end of the 10-year civil war, the security situation has improved to a large degree, although it is still fragile. Political demonstrations and large gatherings should be avoided as these have the potential to turn violent. Travellers are advised to avoid the areas bordering Liberia and Guinea. There are incidences of violent crime in Freetown, including armed theft and assault. Petty crime is more common with pick-pocketing and other opportunistic crimes prevalent throughout the country and visitors should take care not to flash valuables or cash.
A number of violent incidents have taken place around the bars and nightclubs at Lumley Beach and visitors are advised to be cautious in the area after dark. Travel outside of the Western Area that includes Freetown can be difficult as roads are poor and transport unreliable. All road or sea transfers from the airport to Freetown should be done in daylight hours due to safety concerns.
Homosexuality is illegal. There is a strong Muslim culture and visitors should be sensitive to religious customs, particularly during the month of Ramadan when eating, drinking, and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet as it is forbidden by the Muslim culture. Visitors should be aware it is illegal to buy or export diamonds, gold, or ivory without the necessary licenses.
Business etiquette in Sierra Leone varies according to individual sectors, however it is always advisable to make appointments in advance and arrive on time for all meetings. Have everything set up before meetings, as it is percieved as impolite to ask your hosts for anything. For more formal dealings, lightweight suits are to be worn. Shaking hands for men and women is the most common form of introduction and business cards are exchanged. Business hours are generally 8am to 12pm and 2pm to 5pm Monday to Friday.
The international dialling code for Sierra Leone is +232. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the UK). The city code for Freetown is (0)22; other areas do not require a code. Africell and SierraTel provide national and international telephone services. Wifi can be found in some top hotels, and free international calls can be made using the internet. International roaming is available and the use of mobile phones is high due to the unreliability of landlines.
Travellers may bring 200 cigarettes or 225g tobacco, and 1 litre of wine or spirits into the country without paying customs duty. Narcotics are strictly forbidden.
National Tourist Board, Freetown: +232 2521 6362 http://sierraleonenationaltouristboard.com/
Sierra Leone Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Canada): +1 202 939 9261.
Sierra Leone High Commission, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7404 0140.
Sierra Leone High Commission, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (also responsible for South Africa): +251 1 710 033.
Consulate General of Sierra Leone, Sydney, Australia: +61 2 8964 8851
Sierra Leone High Commission, Beijing, China (also responsible for New Zealand): +86 10 6532 1222.
United States Embassy, Freetown: +232 22 515 000.
British High Commission, Freetown: +232 76 541 386.
Canadian Embassy, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire (also responsible for Sierra Leone): +225 2 030 0700.
South African Embassy, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire (also responsible for Sierra Leone): +225 2 244 5963.
Australian High Commission, Accra, Ghana (also responsible for Sierra Leone): +233 (302) 216 400.
Irish Embassy, Abuja, Nigeria (also responsible for Sierra Leone: +234 9 462 0611.
Public transport in Freetown is somewhat informal. Shared taxis run along fixed routes and can be hailed on the street; fares are cheap and it is possible to negotiate a price with the driver. Travellers can also ask their hotel to call a private taxi for them. These vehicles are generally more comfortable than the shared taxis, but also more expensive.
Poda-podas are shared minibus taxis which can easily be found on every main road in Freetown. The start point and final destination of the vehicle is displayed in the front window. The travelling conditions in poda-podas are not very comfortable as drivers often overload their vehicles and drive quite erratically.
Travellers also have the option of hiring a car in Freetown which can be arranged through car rental companies. Rental cars in Sierra Leone generally come with a local driver, which will remove the stress of dealing with the chaotic driving conditions. People travelling outside Freetown are advised to hire a 4x4 vehicle, which will be better equipped to handle rural roads.