Somaliland is an interesting place – a country but not a country. They have been independent from Somalia, and a peaceful state, for over 25 years. They have their own government, military, currency, and passports, but the passports are only recognized to get into their Ethiopia and Djibouti neighbors. To go to other countries, people from Somaliland need to obtain a Somalia passport which is nearly impossible. I cannot imagine being stuck. These are the highlights of Somaliland Travel.
Hargeisa (or Hargeysa)
Hargeisa is many meters above sea level. It gets hot in the day but the evenings are quite pleasant. There really isn’t a lot to see in the capital city of Somaliland, but we managed to see the major sites:
The MIG Plane Monument
In 1988, as Somaliland was fighting Somalia for independence they shot down a Somali MIG jet. It now stands as a monument in the center of town. Make sure you check out the gruesome 3D murals below the plane. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the MIG is the Somali tea vendor at the base and all the old men that spend the day here chatting with each other and having their shoes shined. I spent an hour here one day as the only woman, watching the city go by, sipping on tea full of sugar and camel’s milk for 15 cents a glass.
Hargeisa By Night
It gets dark by 6pm in Hargeisa and the city comes to life. As the temperature is cooler, the locals go about their shopping and the men sit in cafes and have sandwiches or noodles with meat or tuna. I had this a couple nights – a big plate of meat and noodles is 14,000 shillings ($1.40). Afterwards, we went to another spot to have Somali Tea -tea with lots of sugar and camel milk. A glass of scalding hot tea costs 15 cents.
Central Market (Souk)
There is a huge central market in the center of Hargeisa. It’s fun to walk around and look at all of the shops – from dry goods to vegetables and meat. You will understand after visiting why you should eat meat that is well done at the restaurants around town – there is no refrigeration and flies abound.
The Money Market
There are money changers all over town, but a large concentration around the Oriental Hotel. Each 1,000 Shilling bill is worth 10 cents so when I traded $10 I got a stack nearly an inch thick! If you trade more you may get bricks of bills! Dollars and shillings seem to be used interchangeably so it’s best to pay for things that are a dollar or more with dollars and for small things like tea or bottled water with Somaliland Shillings.
Besides the MIG, the big hand clenched on a map of Somaliland is a notable monument. I had seen pictures before, but the size was really underwhelming. This is a little far out of the center so it’s only worth visiting if you’re going this way.
Every day there is a huge livestock market not far from downtown Hargeisa. It’s a great spot for a morning visit. They say each day as many as 500 camels and also sheep and goats are brought to this market. A goat can go for $40 and the camels may cost as much as $1,000. This is an incredible amount of money for this small country. People were super friendly as we walked around the market for a short visit.
Eat Camel Meat
There are some local restaurants where you can have camel meat. For $5 each we got a huge chunk of camel meat along with rice and sauce. It was a challenge to eat this meal without utensils but the locals all eat with their hands.
East of Hargeisa
Going East – You Need Your Own Guard
My two travel companions and I arranged for a three-day tour to the eastern part of Somaliland. We booked this at the Oriental Hotel and paid $398 for 3 days – including driver, car, and guard. There is a requirement that all westerners must have an armed guide. The guard for our 3 day trip was Ali – a friendly, happy guy with a WWII German gun! It seems everyone in Somaliland knows Ali so we had a breeze through all the checkpoints.
Las Geel Archeological Site
Las Geel, or Laas Geel, is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in Somaliland. It’s a rocky outcrop with small caves and amazing rock art that is somewhere between 5,000-10,000 years old. It was only “discovered” in 2003 by French archeologists, but it’s clear that the local nomads have known about this site forever. It’s only 6km away from the main highway and you can see the rocks from the highway. You must have your armed guard and pay $25 per person for a permit to visit the site. Despite being the most popular attraction – I would guess most days there are no visitors. I doubt if many Somalis have even seen it.
Berbera is a dusty, dirty port town with some interesting Ottoman and English Architecture and lots of crumbled buildings from the war. Not only is it hot, it’s very humid. We spent a couple nights here and did a short walk around town. When in town, you must visit the fish restaurant on the sea. For $7, we shared a whole grilled fish, rice, vegetables, and homemade green chili sauce – just don’t let the resident cats on the table until you’re finished!
A pleasant day trip from Berbera is head up the mountains to the charming town of Sheikh. The weather is very pleasant in this small town. It’s fun to have a walk around town and talk to the people. My favorite thing about Sheikh is the surrounding vegetation – interesting trees, cacti, and wildflowers.
I my last post, I told how we legally trafficked the drug called khat from the border of Ethiopia. In Sheikh, we got a chance to talk to some of the sellers. Each has a colorful stand that displays on of the numbered brands – 725 or 571. I joked that 725 is equivalent to 420 but 7:25 must mean the morning because they chew it all day! It’s a stimulant so it’s less used at night. A small bunch of khat costs 6000 shillings (60 cents).
Beach on the Gulf of Aden
The Gulf of Aden is the body of water between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. We got to check out a beach 3 km outside of Berbera. I didn’t have a burkini or full body swimsuit so I only had a chance to stick my feet in, but that water was HOT! Like bath water. I was using the bathroom facilities at the Mansoor hotel when I ran into some Somali girls with UK and US accents. Two of them were from Seattle – what a small world.
Perhaps one of my favorite surprises was how great the wildlife was in Somaliland. I saw all the major animals native to Somaliland including the 2 foot tall Beira antelope, other antelope, baboons, tortoises, lizards, and warthog.
I entered Somaliland on the same day Somalia had its most deadly terrorist attack in years with over 300 deaths. However, Somaliland is trying to be independent of Somalia and they work hard at maintain their peace. All tourist and expats must hire armed guards when traveling east of Hargeisa, our guide was the jovial Ali. We breezed through all of the checkpoints each time he put on his beret. I’ve never seen so many checkpoints in any country, they seemed to be every 20 km or so. There were even a couple makeshift police checkpoints on the way back from the coast.
Women’s Travel and Modesty
Somaliland, while it felt quite safe, would be a very challenging place for solo women travelers. I constantly felt like I needed to cover up. My daily outfit was long black pants, covered by long black skirt, and oversized long-sleeved T-shirt and most time I also wore a headscarf and an additional scarf draped around my neck. A couple times I had a local tell me to cover up more – a young boy at a mosque kept on telling me that I needed to cover up a little bit of hair sticking out of my headscarf. The other time, I rolled up my pants cuff to below the knee to put my feet in the sea and my guard immediately told me to roll them down when I got out. The horrors of showing a wisp of hair or my shins!
Most people were very friendly and happy I covered up. One man told me I was beautiful because I was dressed like a Somali woman. Despite covering up, I did have one unfortunate event. Many of the older people wanted to smile, say hello, and shake hands so I thought nothing of it when a middle-aged man wanted to shake my hand. But this one creep decided it was appropriate to grope me. Mind you, it was barely more than a brush similar to what you might get in a packed subway, but it was very obvious what he was doing. #metoo ☹
In five full days in Somaliland, I only encountered 6 westerners, two of which I was traveling with and all of them men. I read several blogs about Somaliland Travel and they were also all written by male bloggers. It is not impossible to travel here as a woman but it is indeed challenging.
Where I stayed:
Hargeisa: The Oriental Hotel. This historical hotel with an Oriental theme (red lanterns in the lobby) was opened in 1953. It’s in the center of Hargeisa in the middle of the money exchange market. $15 per night for private room, own bath (a weird toilet shower combo, a recent add by converting balconies to bathrooms) with cold water only, breakfast, and spotty wi-fi.
Berbera: Damal Hotel. This brand-new hotel has become the choice for businessmen related to the government, ministries, and shipping industry in Berbera. And they all seem to have dinner in the hotel restaurant – the night we at there, I was the only female dining with almost 50 men! Very western style hotel with A/C, hot shower, comfy beds and pillows, fluffy towels, sea or city/mountain view, decent wi-fi and included good breakfast. We paid $45 for a twin room. This will probably be my nicest hotel on my whole even week African trip.