A tiny country fringed with long strips of golden beach, where red dirt roads crisscross vibrant fields and leafy green banana plantations, and strings of colourful villages march through palm forests – Liberia is still that rare thing: an unknown destination. Let’s just say it doesn’t tend to feature on a lot of bucketlists.
This post follows the route we travelled in Liberia, and is a guide to the places we visited and the things we saw and did along the way. You’ll find ideas and advice for getting around in this most unusual of unusual destinations, and some general practical information as well.
Is Liberia Safe?
Liberia’s devastating civil war is a thing of the past, and so is Ebola. Liberia is generally considered to be increasingly stable since the conflict ended in 2003. But, consulting your own government’s travel advice for any country is a good idea. You should be alert, and know of any potentially ‘no-go’ areas.
Like many countries in this part of the world, your biggest problem by far is the roads (and the vehicles you’ll be in on them).
We didn’t encounter any annoying, persistent or threatening touts or run into any attempted scams. That’s not to say those things don’t exist, but that they are not as widespread as in heavily-touristed countries.
Riptides are significant: be careful in the water.
Just be sensible: watch out on deserted beaches, even during the day. Monrovia is not a place you want to explore after dark. There’s a good chance you’ll be carrying larger amounts of cash – split it up. When we arrive some place new, we ask the owner or manager at our guesthouse for advice about the area or if there is anything we should be aware of.
Getting a Liberian Visa
Yup – you need one, and getting it on arrival is not possible, you have to bring it with you. I’ve read that e-Visas are coming in 2019, but I don’t know if they have introduced those yet. Otherwise, you can:
- apply and get the visa at home if you have a Liberian Consulate there (or you can send your passport and application to the nearest Liberian Consulate who handles things for your country). Or,
- pick it up at a Liberian Embassy/Consulate in a neighboring country. For example, I was coming from Senegal so I could have applied at the Liberian Embassy in Dakar. When you’re planning to pick up visas on the way, make sure you check how long it will take. It’s often just a few days. But it can also be longer than that…and you’ll be sitting in an African city, waiting.
For Liberia we applied in advance from home at the closest Embassy (Berlin) and our single entry 3 month tourist visas cost 75 euros each. The cost varies according to your nationality and where you apply. In general you will need to provide (at least):
- your passport with 6 months validity beyond your intended stay, and a copy of the photo page
- a passport photo
- the form, downloaded/picked up at the Embassy and filled out
- proof of your yellow fever vaccination
- either a letter of invitation or a bank statement showing your funds
- proof of travel medical insurance
What to Expect (Or What Not to Expect)
Liberia is ‘relatively easy’ to get around, thanks to shorter distances, and the widespread use of English which makes life simpler for travellers. We also found the people to be really friendly and welcoming.
Overall, tourism is just really not a thing in Liberia – after ten days in the country we met only three other independent travelers. Do not expect a backpacker scene: there isn’t one, and you should not count on meeting other travellers or making friends to travel/share costs with. You won’t find a raft of beach bars and city cafes to hang out at; or typical ‘sights’ to see, already made famous by Instagram (but when you take photos you’ll never have to ‘wait your turn’ for the perfect shot). Adventure activities aren’t on offer – the adventure is just in being here, on your own, and that alone is worth it.
Keeping in Touch
In Monrovia your hotel or guesthouse will/should have wifi and you’ll be able to get online. Some of the nicer restaurants and cafes will have it too, but it’s often slow or unreliable. In other towns your guesthouse may or may not have it. You can of course get around this by buying a local SIM card before you leave Monrovia.
Also, since wifi is unreliable and travel information about Liberia is limited anyway, do your research in advance, or at least find out anything you need to know before leaving Monrovia. Have a plan in your mind about how you’ll get from one place to the next. Bring a guidebook (if you can find one) or screenshot any important info (from this guide, for example:)).
If you haven’t already got WhatsApp, install it. Everyone uses it and it’s handy for planning with guides and drivers and so on.
Security, Checkpoints and Police
When you’re on the road you’ll often pass through checkpoints where at the very least, you’ll have to show your passport to the police. In other cases, like when you go from one county into the next (there are 15, and it’s a small country) expect to get out of the vehicle and spend some time showing all your documents and registering with the police there. Always carry your passport or at least a copy of both the photo page and the visa page. Don’t give the police an opportunity to hassle you.
Roads and vehicles are badly maintained and overcrowded, to say the least. There isn’t any organised transportation like backpacker buses or tours. You can forget about seatbelts or even having your own seat, in bush taxis or any public transport. Drivers are often reckless. Because of all this, you should stay off the roads after dark.
Transport comes in different forms:
- Bush taxis. Regular 5-seat cars with at least 6 passengers packed in plus the driver. These are for longer distances, like between towns. There are also minivans running these routes. Bush taxis and minivans don’t follow a schedule. They simply leave once full. Show up early to get a seat without having to wait too long, and also budget extra time for waiting (and for breakdowns).
- Pen-pens. Motorcycle taxis – we tend to use these a lot, and they are often unavoidable for covering longer distances in remote areas where bush taxis aren’t running much. We have started to travel with proper motorcycle helmets we bring from home as we’ve rarely, probably never, seen a reliable one available to borrow or hire.
- Kek-keks. Better known by their names in other countries, like tuk tuk or auto-rickshaw, you’ll be sure to recognise these. They are easy to flag in the city. At night, if you need to go out, book a taxi through your accommodation.
In addition to people, bush taxis are usually bursting with luggage, and that luggage very often seems to include fish.
The hostel-concept pretty much does not exist. In the capital you have several big and very expensive hotels. If a western luxury hotel (at inflated prices) is what you’re after, then you can certainly get it. Otherwise, you will find small hotels with no particular standards that seem to be aimed at local business travel, basic guesthouses, and a couple of small beach lodge/holiday resort-type setups. You don’t need to book in advance. We found options on Booking.com (or similar), on Maps.me, or just by looking.
Electricity comes and goes on a regular basis so you’ll lose power/lights/aircon and so on unless your place has a generator. Most accommodation is not good value for money.
Money and Costs
Currency: USD and Liberian Dollar.
You’ll pay in USD for mostly anything that costs more than a few USD. Smaller items (rice, a bottle of water) you can pay for with Liberian dollars. Your change can come back in a mix of the two. For all trips on public transport in any form we were charged in Liberian dollars. It’s easy to change money at informal shops or at the market whenever you need to.
You can get both currencies out of ATMs in Monrovia. When we were there the ATMs were constantly out of cash and/or out of service. We had to drive around the city trying multiple ATMs before we found one that actually could and would dispense cash. The ATMs that worked had really long queues of people.
Either way, you should bring at least a couple of hundred USD with you to Liberia so that the first thing you do is not stress about money. Credit cards are not really used outside of maybe, the major hotels.
Don’t leave Monrovia without bringing all the cash you’ll need, although in an emergency you can probably find a Western Union or use your credit card inside a bank to wire yourself money.
Liberia is definitely not the cheapest destination – that’s the case throughout West Africa, and we found Liberia to be one of the most expensive countries around. You’ll be hard pressed to stick to a typical 50 USD/day backpacker budget in Liberia, considering most rooms are around 50 USD per night and a half decent meal from 10-15 USD at least (indecent meals, less).
Weather and Seasons
The rainy season runs from May to October, with the heaviest – torrential – rains in May. Winter, December to February, is the dry season with very little rain. It’s humid and hot – around 30°C. In the winter months you often have to contend with Harmattan, a wind blowing sand and dust down from the Sahara, sometimes turning the sky white or gray. Still, winter is the best time to travel since it’s dry. In the rainy season roads can be washed out or impassable.
A city of just under 2 million people, in places Monrovia looks like nothing so much as a sprawling village of tin-roofed shacks, brightly painted buildings and broken jagged sidewalks.
You may also want to apply for onward visas in Monrovia. We applied for our Ivory Coast visas here.
Arriving at Roberts International Airport
This is a tiny and very ‘casual’ airport. On arrival you’ll need to fill out a landing card and then queue for immigration. When you collect your bag on the one and only belt in the next room, have your tag handy as they’ll probably ask to see it on the way out. Don’t accept any ‘help’ with carrying your bag or passing customs.
The airport is around 56 kilometers from Monrovia and will take at least an hour to get there once you hit city traffic. There are shuttles advertised at the airport, called Infinity, and apparently they cost around 32 USD shared or 57 USD private. You can also try to negotiate a cab for around that price. But since the cab driver will almost definitely get lost, I think the best way to Monrovia is to pre-arrange a ride from your guesthouse. Mine sent a friendly, welcoming and reliable driver, who took me to the guesthouse door for 40 USD, which I paid on arrival.
Monrovia – Things to See and Do
- Check out the Ducor Hotel high up at the end of Broad St. – once favoured by VIPs and the likes of Idi Amin, it was closed and abandoned in 1989 at the start of Liberia’s long civil war. It’s fenced off and there are guards, but they will let you in to look around, for a few dollars. Climb right up to the roof for views all over Monrovia.
- Go to a Sunday Service. There are tons of churches in Monrovia. Services are loud and exuberant. The congregants are friendly and welcoming and I for one like the music.
- Hang out in Sinkor, Monrovia’s ‘swanky’ expat area. There are some nice beaches here, cafes, and restaurants.
- Get a dose of the chaos and noise of city life in a wander along Broad St.
- The National Museum on Broad St. is said to be good. It was shut when we were there.
Rice and veg, rice and sauce, rice and greens. Our guesthouse served up some pretty terrible versions of this national dish for around 5-10 USD. If that’s what you’re going to eat then it’s better to just go out for it.
There are Lebanese supermarkets in Sinkor and a well-known Lebanese restaurant there, Sajj House. We ate regularly at Diana’s Restaurant, downtown just off Broad St. (easily walkable in the evening, Sinkor is much farther). Diana’s is Lebanese too and better than Sajj. There’s a Kaldi Koffee in Sinkor in the bottom of the Royal Grand Hotel on Tubman Boulevard, with good coffee, pastries, and lunches. In the same hotel building are a few restaurants and an awesome doughnut place. There are two pretty good supermarkets, UN Drive Supermarket and Abi Jaoudi, a block apart across the road.
We stayed at Miss Emily’s Place in the downtown area. A guesthouse, it was/is (?) the only accommodation of its kind in town, since the Convent shut. It’s comfortable and the owners and staff are super friendly. At around 60 USD a room, it’s a bargain in Monrovia. There’s a generator which is good because there are regular blackouts in Monrovia. There is a restaurant on-site but it better to just skip it – there’s a place right on the corner serving rice and sauce if you want a quick bite. The guesthouse is an easy walk to Broad St. where you have ATMs and there’s a Monoprix supermarket on Benson St.
Duala market road in New Kru Town on the northeastern edge of Monrovia is a major transport hub. You can reach it by kek-kek and then find onward transport to other destinations from there.
There are ATMs in Monrovia, but in our experience, they can be unreliable. Don’t wait until your cash supply is dwindling to withdraw more.
Robertsport is a tiny, pretty, faded village backing a long, golden, and ruggedly beautiful beach.
How to Get From Monrovia to Robertsport
Take a kek-kek to Duala market, near New Kru Town northeast of the city center, for around 300 LBD. It’s less than 10 km and will probably take about a half-hour from downtown.
There, you’ll need to get out and walk – the street is totally congested, trying to ride through it is pointless. Transport parks along the road with vans and bush taxis for any given destination grouped together and they leave once full (really full). There must be a method to the madness, but we just asked market vendors and security officers and followed directions till we found the bush taxis going to Robertsport, and then waited for the next one to fill.
The bush taxi cost 700 LBD each and took about 2.5 hrs to drop us at the main junction in Robertsport. That is not including about an hour to fix a blown tire. Keep in mind it’s only around 120 kms, and the road has been improved in recent years – but it’s still pretty bad. This trip was an interesting experience in itself thanks to a gun-toting driver, you can read my story about it here: The Road to Robertsport
Robertsport – Things to See and Do
- Walk around town. You can hire a local ‘guide’ of sorts to show you around from the Kwephuna Retreat on Fisherman’s beach. They run a sort of community-based tourism setup.
- Drop by the World Bank-sponsored fish processing facility, a project to encourage sustainable fishing practices.
- Check out the fishing boats pulled up on the beaches – they’re photogenic and usually have interesting, clever or funny names.
- Go to the beach. But be careful – Fisherman’s Beach is more in town and it doubles as a public toilet. Walk away from Fisherman’s beach down past Nana’s lodge to Cassava Beach which doesn’t double as anything and is empty and peaceful.
- Shipwreck. There is a rusted-out shipwreck lying on the beach, about two hours’ walk from town. It’s been there for a couple of years and nobody knows where it came from. Set off early to beat the heat. Don’t go alone – hire a guide from Kwephuna Retreat to show you the way/accompany you on the empty beach.
- Surf. We aren’t surfers but this part of the coast is well-known for it and the community-based initiative at Kwephuna Retreat is a surfers’ setup.
- The Tubman Centre of African Culture is on the edge of town, up a steep hill. Or rather, it was: but it was abandoned and destroyed during Liberia’s civil war. You can go inside the ruins which are back from the road in the long grass. It’s quite atmospheric.
We had a minor problem with the police in Robertsport. For no reason, when we were walking around town, they pulled us into their office and hassled us about our papers. We weren’t carrying our passports but said we would return with them. We never did. The officers had no reason to look at our passports and we think they were just after a bribe.
I’m not sure there are options in town. The two guesthouses/lodges on the beach serve food.
At the time we visited there were two options. We stayed at Kwephuna Retreat which cost 90 USD for a double with a very dodgy shared bathroom and included full board. The food is plentiful and ok, lots of fish. The retreat is a big rambling wooden beach house with a wide upper terrace looking out at the water. There are regular power blackouts.
We also checked out Nana’s Lodge but it had a gloomy and depressing feel; the guy running the bar there was incredibly unfriendly.
Bush taxis to other destinations (including the Sierra Leone border) congregate at the main junction in town. From there you can walk or hop on a pen-pen to anywhere you need to go locally.
Bring cash from Monrovia. There are no ATMs.
Buchanan is Liberia’s second port. We didn’t see much of it but it looked like any other town hereabouts. We went there specifically to visit Elizabeth Village, a guesthouse/lodge on the riverbank, whose owner we’d met in Monrovia.
How to Get From Robertsport/Monrovia to Buchanan
From Robertsport, you’ll need to return to Monrovia the same way – catch a bush taxi at the junction in Robertsport and ride straight to Duala marketplace in Monrovia. To travel from Monrovia by public transport, bush taxis going to Buchanan might leave from another marketplace a few kilometers away from Duala – Red Light Motor Park.
The road is paved and mostly smooth going. You’ll drive right past the Firestone Rubber Plantation. We opted to ask the driver we knew from Miss Emily’s Place in Monrovia to drive us straight to Elizabeth Village, which took a little over 2 hours and cost us 50 USD.
Buchanan – Things to See and Do
- Enjoy a break from the dust, noise, and heat at Elizabeth Village. It’s directly on the river, with a swimming pool and a big wooden deck built out over the river. Sunrise and sunset on the deck are really beautiful. It was deserted when we were there, so there wasn’t much in the way of ambiance, but we found it peaceful and our bungalow was cute and comfortable. There are a big bar and restaurant on the deck. We paid 75 USD for the bungalow including a really great, actually fantastic, breakfast. Other meals are mostly limited to catch of the day and plantains, but very good, and around 10+ USD.
Again – bring cash. I asked and was told that there ‘might’ be an ATM in Buchanan. I’d take that as a ‘No’.
Ganta is a long, dusty, noisy strip of a town, about eighty kilometers from the Ivory Coast border crossing we planned to use. Proximity to the border and breaking up the cross-border trip is the main reason for going to Ganta.
How to Get From Buchanan to Ganta
Get to the junction in Buchanan where bush taxis to Ganta go from. We organised pen-pens to pick us up at Elizabeth Village and paid them 150 LBD each to take us to the junction.
At the junction you can get a seat in a bush taxi to Harbel city for around 450 LBD. That takes about 1.5 hours. The bush taxi will drop you at another market/transport hub near Harbel where you can wait for another bush taxi to Ganta. That takes about 3.5 hours (plus waiting time) and will cost around 1400 LBD per seat. On the way in to Ganta you’ll see a couple of hotels and you should ask the driver to drop you on the side of the road so you can get a room at one of those.
Coming from Monrovia you can get a bush taxi to Ganta, or to the next town towards the border, called Saniquellie.
Ganta – Things to See and Do
- Hang out in Ganta for a day on the way out – you can check out the market and people are friendly.
- There is a waterfall nearby that’s reachable in a daytrip. I think it’s called Wongan waterfall. We were focused on getting to Ivory Coast and didn’t go but if I was in the area again, I would.
There is a restaurant on the premises at Jackie’s Guesthouse, as well as a couple of other options next to it. You can also eat in town, there are several places marked on Maps. me. Honestly, it doesn’t make a difference.
Getting out of the bush taxi on the way into town there are a few hotels. It’s a 20-minute walk the rest of the way into the town and removed from (some of) the noise. Jackie’s Guesthouse, with doubles for 50 USD is clean and comfortable and there’s a restaurant on site.
Pen-pens are everywhere. Transport congregates at a big parking lot on the side of the road towards the city. You can’t miss it. Here you’ll see bush taxis and a veritable fleet of pen-pens.
Bring cash from Monrovia. No ATMs.
Crossing the Liberia/Ivory Coast Border
There are two crossings between Liberia and Ivory Coast (CDI): one near Ganta which brings you into Ivory Coast near Danane, and one near Harper which brings you into Ivory Coast near Tabou. We used the crossing near Ganta/Danane. If you’re planning something similar, check out our guide to crossing this border, and our guide to travelling in Ivory Coast.
Liberia is the sort of place where it’s better to come prepared. In addition to season-appropriate clothing, here are a few things you should bring:
- bug spray, malaria tablets and a mosquito net. Malaria is not something you want to get and healthcare is not good (example, the main public hospital in Monrovia, JFK, is known locally as ‘Just For Killing’).
- USD. Bring at least a couple of hundred dollars with you to get you started. You can withdraw more in Monrovia but do not show up in the country empty-handed and rely on the ATMs to get money.
- Sunscreen. Outside Monrovia, it’s practically impossible to find.
- a flashlight for regular power outages and blackouts
- a couple of different-sized padlocks – to put on your bag before traveling with it, or to lock your bag when you’re leaving it behind in the room, and for locking your door if the lock provided is basically no good.
- power banks, again, for use against unreliable power supply
- Maps. me. Download the map for Liberia to your phone in advance.
- Get the yellow fever vaccination if you don’t already have it, and bring the certificate and your vaccination records with you.
- copies of your passport. These are always useful to carry on you for checkpoints, in case of losing your original, and if you are going to be applying for onward visas along the way.
- Motorcycle helmet. Either that or stay off the pen-pens.
To get a real sense of the adventures (and misadventures) to be had in Liberia, check out my stories from the road.