Islands of Intrigue

The islands of Guinea-Bissau's Bissagos archipelago are home to beautiful beaches, pristine jungles and friendly people who balance tradition and modernity in an ever-changing world.

ABEL BROUART

5 min read

One of the least visited corners of the world, the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, remains unknown to even keen travellers. Those who can locate it on a map vastly outnumber the even fewer who have visited its shores, and it’s a country where the annual number of international arrivals is counted in hundreds rather than thousands.

However, those adventurous enough to have a Guinea-Bissau stamp in their passports will have more than ink as a lasting souvenir of their time as it’s a truly unforgettable destination. The biggest tourist attraction in Guinea-Bissau – we're not sure the words 'biggest' and 'tourist' can even be used here – is the small archipelago of islands lying off its coast, just south of Senegal. Nothing can quite prepare you for the almost transcendent sense of discovery that washes over upon arrival here, much like the salty breeze does when transferring from ship to shore in a zippy expedition boat.

Most of the islands of the Bissagos archipelago remain in a primeval natural state, devoid of human presence. But those that are inhabited offer a fascinating insight into a way of life very different from that of the traveller. Ancient customs and traditions have been preserved, and you’ll see the islanders going about their day-to-day lives and perhaps performing their traditional dances if you linger. What’s more, if you visit in November or early December you might see the famed saltwater hippos, who wallow in fresh water by day and take to the brackish inlets by night.

Escaramoussa Beach on Caravela island* is one of the better-known attractions in the Bissagos Islands.

The isle of Bolama was once the capital of British Guinea before the islands changed hands to become a Portuguese colony.

The isle of Bolama was once the capital of British Guinea before the islands changed hands to become a Portuguese colony.

Island life

The Bissagos Islands, known as Bijagós in Portuguese (Guinea-Bissau's official language) are divided into separate administrative regions, all of which have something special to offer. Travellers of European descent are extremely rare sightings for the Bissago people, who maintain traditional laws and social policies that give women powerful positions in society.

The Caravela group is the northernmost set of islands in the archipelago, named after the large atoll that’s one of the main points of interest in the Bissagos. Along with neighbouring Carache, Caravela shelters vast areas of mangrove that are just one of the reasons why the Bissagos was named as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996.

Caravela's Escaramoussa Beach is one of the better-known attractions of the islands – the wide sandy beach, calm waters and forest backdrop together forming a serene tropical scene.

Time-honoured way of life
A colonial-era building in Bolama on the Bissagos Islands.

A colonial-era building in Bolama on the Bissagos Islands.

Directly east of the Caravela group is Bolama*, a set of islands named after the largest one in 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. 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, which is how things remained until independence in 1973. The Republic of Guinea-Bissau will therefore be celebrating its 50th anniversary of 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 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 Western clothing for traditional attire when performing ceremonial dances to the beat of drums that reverberate with cultural resonance.

Vivacity of the local inhabitants
Born to be wild

One of the most impressive sights in the Bissagos archipelago is the hippopotamus colony living on and around the island of Orango. Among the few saltwater-dwelling hippopotamuses in the world, these massive creatures actually spend most of the day in freshwater streams, venturing to the shallows of the sea only in the coolness of the night.

Orango is also recognised for the status of the women in their traditional society, which is considered matriarchal. It is the woman who proposes marriage to the man of her choice and constructs the house in which the couple will live their married lives.

A Bissagos hippopotamus inhabits the waters around the island of Orango.

As is the case in most rugged and remote island nations around the world, it’s a much easier and more comfortable proposition for the curious visitor to travel by ship than face the myriad challenges of local transport and accommodation. Of those who do make it to the Bissagos Islands, many of them donate funds to organisations working to improve the lives of people there, as well as providing a source of revenue of great value to the local communities.

Curious about one of the least visited corners of the world? Live the island life with us.

*PLEASE NOTE: Precise day-to-day destinations on our expedition cruises are dependent on a range of factors, including the weather and local sea conditions. The final itinerary for the Bissagos Islands is still being refined, and stops at Caravela and Bolama may be substituted for other exciting locations.