Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, has mountains to climb, cities to explore, broad sandy beaches to play on and national parks to search for some of the continent's most enigmatic wildlife. You can also surf,  swim and trek or just kick back in a hammock on the edge of the rainforest. Yet nobody you know has ever been here.

Welcome to one of Africa’s last frontiers. Founded as a homeland for freed American slaves, this surprising backwater is slowly being rehabilitated after years of internal strife, but so far only a handful of travellers have got the memo. With the doors opening to the outside world after years of troubles, now could be the perfect time to visit, if you don’t mind stepping off the map for some roll-up-your-sleeves adventure.  

A view out to the sea between two leaning palm trees; visible is a beautiful beach of golden sand and rolling waves crashing on shore.
Liberia's stunning stretches of beach offer the country its greatest tourism potential © Bethany Fank / Getty Images

Where on earth is Liberia?

When the American Colonization Society picked out a homeland for freed American slaves in 1822, they chose a piece of West Africa that hadn't been seen by the outside world since European powers established (and abandoned) trading outposts in the 17th century. The story of life here before the foundation of Liberia is largely unwritten, but the new arrivals set about creating a home that was a little bit American, a little bit West African, and not really like anywhere else in the world.

Hemmed in today by Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia is blessed with a long Atlantic coast and a densely forested interior that remains one of the least explored parts of West Africa. The government has just signed a deal with Norway to cease all logging of Liberia’s pristine rainforests in exchange for development aid, but infrastructure for exploring is limited and getting in amongst the greenery takes some organising. Start the journey at Visit Liberia, a handy one-stop-shop for information on all-things Liberian.

A view over the capital city of Monrovia and out to the ocean beyond; the main streets are lined with trees and the rooftops a mix of terracotta, rusted corrugated metal and silver tin
Monrovia, the seaside capital city of Liberia, is from where most journeys begin © jbdodane / Getty Images

How do I get there? 

With some advance planning! The nation’s only international airport – Roberts, 35km southeast of the capital, Monrovia – is served by a tiny handful of airlines, so getting here involves a change in Brussels, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi or Casablanca. Getting a visa, on the other hand, is fairly straight-forward; Liberian missions abroad are keen to encourage visitors, but you’ll need a yellow fever vaccination certificate and six months validity in your passport.

Reaching Monrovia is only the start of the adventure; to explore the coast and the forest-cloaked interior you’ll need to hire a car, driver and guide, or travel for days on rough dirt roads by minibus or bush taxi. With all the logistical planning needed to get around once you arrive, many visitors take the path of least resistance and come on a tour organised by an agency specialising in off-the-beaten-track trips to Africa.

Five curious Liberia facts

- Liberia became Africa’s first independent republic in 1847
- 12% of the world’s ships are registered in Liberia
- The president, George Weah, used to play football for Man City and Chelsea
- Air pollution levels are lower than in America and the UK 
- Along with Ethiopia, Liberia was one of only two African nation to never be colonised by European powers

A group of fishers work to load their nets onto their traditional long canoe on the beach
The beaches offer a colourful insight into the everyday lives of Liberians who make their living from the ocean © Fabian Plock / Getty Images

What is there to see?

Before Liberia’s civil war, tourism here was all about the languorous beaches, sprinkled with golden sand and washed by the wild waves of the Atlantic Ocean. They are still there, spilling into the sea in glorious, palm-backed sweeps all along the seaboard north and south of Monrovia. The tourism potential of the Atlantic coast is massive, but so far Liberia has just a handful of resorts, dotted around the capital and the low-key surf centre of Robertsport further north. Close to Monrovia, Libassa Ecolodge spills from the forest onto the sand, with a pool that doubles as a lazy river snaking through the grounds.

Liberia also has a rich architectural heritage, blending African themes with antebellum elements from the American south, but thanks to the nation’s political troubles, much of it is sliding into ruin. The government has grand ambitions to restore the crumbling villas and decaying civic buildings, but for now, exploring is a fascinating, sometimes eerie experience for fans of deserted places.

The backwater town of Harper, tucked against the border of Côte d'Ivoire, was filled with once-grand mansions by William VS Tubman, Liberia’s longest serving president, copying the style of the great plantation houses of the American south. Harper’s fading Star Masonic Lodge is fronted by a tall colonnade in the style of the Millford Plantation in Pinewood, South Carolina, while the William Tubman Mansion resembles an Art Deco cinema hall.

The overgrown remains of the Hotel Ducor stand atop a hill that looks over the ocean the Monrovia; the concrete tile deck features an algae filled swimming pool
The eerie remains of the Hotel Ducor and its pool, where Idi Amin once swam with his gun in his hand © Edwin Remsberg / Getty Images

Even the capital, Monrovia, has its share of stately ruins. The Hotel Ducor – sitting eerily derelict on Broad Street, with its stairways crumbling and its pool filled with rainwater and algae – was once the premier hotel on the Atlantic coast, attracting the high fliers of West African society. Idi Amin notoriously swam in the pool with his gun in his hand, and South African chanteuse Miriam Makeba entertained national leaders in the bar. Just down the road on Benson Street, Monrovia’s still occupied Masonic Temple resembles an post-apocalyptic White House, with paint peeling from its neoclassical façade.

A surfer, with board under his right arm, walks alone along a beach at Robertsport; the beach is backed by verdant forest, while rolling waves crash on the beach
The water off the beach at Robertsport is renowned for its surfing breaks © John Seaton Callahan / Getty Images

What is there to do?

Take advantage of those wonderful beaches. Winds blowing in from the Atlantic create epic surfing conditions from May to October, with the biggest swells in April, May and August. Many seasoned pros regard Liberia’s left point breaks as the best in Africa, and the beach town of Robertsport, 80km northwest of Monrovia, has emerged as a chilled-out surf hub, with a handful of surf-oriented resorts and a string of fine breaks along the shore (locals rate Cassava and Cotton Tree as the top performers). For accommodation, try Nana’s Lodge, with colourful cabins facing the swell, or recent arrival Hippo Resort Liberia, with thatched huts, a beach-bar vibe and good pizzas, prepared in a proper wood-fired oven.

A pygmy hippo's head, with open jaws and large teeth, sticks into the frame of this image from the right side; in the background are fallen trees in a swampy environment
A pygmy hippo, just one of the many wild species living within the Guinean forest of Sapo National Park © Manoj Shah / Getty Images

Liberia’s other big attraction lies inland. Accessible on rutted dirt roads from the country town of Zwedru or from Greenville on the coast south of Monrovia, Sapo National Park preserves the largest remaining part of the upper Guinean forest, which once stretched in an unbroken block from Guinea to Togo. On a tour arranged in Monrovia – the most practical way to visit – you can camp at the park headquarters and set off on foot through the dense greenery in search of chimpanzees, forest elephants, leopards and the charming pygmy hippo, a scaled-down version of its more familiar cousin that could fit into the back of a family estate car. Birders should keep an eye out for hornbills, eagles and brilliant blue turacos.

Is it safe?

Though the scars of two civil wars (from 1989 to 1997, and from 1999 to 2003) are still obvious, Liberia is safer to visit than it has been in years. Stability has returned to Monrovia and the coast and infrastructure is slowly being restored, though roads are still largely unsurfaced, making overland travel difficult during the rainy season from May to November. Ebola emerged in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in 2014, but the region was given a clean bill of health by the World Health Organisation in 2015.

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