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Introducing Guinea-Bissau

Like most sub-Saharan nations, Guinea-Bissau is an arbitrary European construct, yet it possesses two qualities that make this small country stand out from its neighbours. First and foremost are the people themselves. You’ll almost never hear the disingenuous ‘bonjour, mon ami’ that signals the beginning of an unwelcome sales pitch. If you’re arriving from, say, Dakar, you’ll be relieved to find helpful gestures are almost always just that – expressions of kindness rather than a means to extract cash. Bissau's relaxed feel, pastel-coloured buildings and nice cafés are worth a couple days of your time.

The country’s really big draw? The remarkable Arquipélago dos Bijagós. These delta islands are lined with powdery, white-sand beaches, washed by azure waters, and populated by a people whose matriarchal culture, long protected by hidden sandbanks and treacherous tides, is unlike any found in West Africa.

The mainland, by contrast, provides a fine recapitulation of West Africa’s attractions, including mangrove-lined rivers, a gorgeous beach at Varela and rainforests in the south – home to elephants and chimpanzees.

Always poor, the country’s economy and infrastructure were severely damaged by civil war in the late 1990s. Transport and communications remain trying, and hotels and food – especially in the capital – are no bargain. However, national reconciliation seems to have arrived with peaceful elections in 2005, and there’s cautious optimism about the future.