This article was originally published by Wings.
By Larissa Clark
Liberia may not be your average tourist destination but visitors will be rewarded by witnessing a nation undergoing extraordinary transition. As the country kicks off the ‘decade of peace’ beginning 2014, Larissa Clark, Director of travel company Another World Adventures, gives us Seven Reasons To Love Liberia…
Welcome to Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, a land of rich rainforest, endless deserted beaches, and phenomenal people. Lost to the world for two decades during a notorious civil war, which ended just over a decade ago in 2003, the country is now growing every day with hope, strength and peace under the leadership of Africa’s first female President.
Liberia, meaning “liberty”, lies on the west coast of Africa and has a unique history, founded as a colony of free slaves repatriated to Africa from the United States in the early nineteenth century. With a population of just under 4 million people, almost a third live in Monrovia, its rambunctious capital city.
Today, Liberia is at peace but the years of struggle left the country on its knees, the economy shot, infrastructure in pieces and people living in desperate poverty. The message that this was a destination to avoid was loud and clear. But times are rapidly changing, and don’t be misled by the past.
Ten years on, Liberia is still full of the natural wonders that made it a top destination 30 years ago, and Monrovia has a friendly reputation thanks to its warm-hearted residents. Liberia’s Embassies around the world are dusting off their ‘tourist visa stamps’ as intrepid visitors — 10,000 in 2013 — start returning to explore this fascinating and beautiful country.
“We were a very peaceful and advanced country up until the ’90s,” says Ambrose N. Wiagbe,
Director of Tourism at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, “Any negative ideas people have will change when they come. Liberia is at peace once again. The Liberian people are very friendly, flexible, and hospitable”. He notes that the number of visitors entering with a tourist visa has gone up 70 per cent in the past couple of years. “Many of them have read about the history of Liberia and are intrigued by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Some have read about our wildlife and rainforest that are distinctive to Liberia. These tourists want to see it for themselves and experience the truth.”
This sentiment is echoed by Seanan Denizot, founder of local travel company Barefoot Liberia, which has looked after visitors as varied as plucky individuals, church groups, and the National Geographic Explorer cruise liner over the past five years. “Our tourists are adventurers that enjoy being the first to explore an emerging destination. They are not war or violence thrill seekers. They are well-travelled and well-educated. They understand that peace has returned to this region in West Africa and change is coming fast.
They want to experience this unique moment in Liberia’s own extraordinary journey”.
Despite its many active tribal languages, the official language of the country is English but understanding the Liberian version is not always easy for new ears. To make the most of a trip you could consider brushing up on your Liberian English before arriving. Liberians are great storytellers, known for their infectious sense of humour and for being big teasers. To avoid missing out on any jokes get your hands on the great book “Cracking the Code: The Confused Traveler’s Guide to Liberian English” by John Mark Sheppard. You’ll be enjoying meaningful conversations in no time. Or, as you could say, “I ah tryin’, sma’ sma’, wid dis talkin’ ting he’ an’ I be talkin’ puh-lenty clea’ googoo english quick quick!”
Now is the time to discover Liberia. With an open mind, a little patience and big smile, you’ll experience one of the world’s most fascinating destinations.
The Monrovia Visitors Map
“Not all those who wander are lost”. Anymore.
Thanks to the launch of the Monrovia Visitors Map, of which I am co-author, finding your way around the capital city is now a whole lot easier.
The eight full-colour maps are a pocket-essential that will help you navigate the throngs of street sellers, lively bar and restaurant scene and find your way around town.
With over 80 hotels, bars, restaurants, suppliers and shops as well as Government agencies, hospitals, embassies, places of worship and other essential information, there’s something for everyone.
The 2014 edition is the biggest yet featuring all of Bushrod Island, Mamba Point and Central Monrovia, Sinkor, Old Road, Congo Town, Paynesville, and the RIA Highway.
Produced in partnership with the telecom network Cellcom, over 10,000 printed copies of the map are given away for free in Monrovia. To get your copy just ask at your hotel reception, get involved in the very active facebook group or download it free from monroviavisitorsmap.com.
If you’re feeling active you can try pairing the map with the new ‘Architecture Tour’ of Monrovia from the popular blog Moved2Monrovia. The in-town walking tour uses the Central Monrovia map as a basis to highlight thirty interesting and historic buildings, which can be enjoyed on foot. Beginning at Monrovia’s City Hall it ends at the famous Ducor Hotel, high atop Snapper Hill.
THE LIBERIA MARATHON
3,000 people , 10K, a million happy memories
It’s unlikely that visitors packing their bags for a trip to Liberia would think to bring their jogging gear. But those who don’t could be missing out. When it comes to sporting achievements Liberia is a nation known for football rather than long distance running. It is, after all, very humid and very hot. But in August of 2013 the usual groans of creaking trucks, hustling motorbikes and traffic-jammed cars were silenced by the pounding beat of thousands of feet on Monrovia’s tarmac. Liberia’s 2nd Marathon and 10k race was underway.
Over 3,000 Liberians and foreign visitors registered for the event bringing the city to a standstill. Hundreds of supporters came out to cheer on the runners and celebrate a decade of peace, unity and endurance.
Cabinet Ministers ran alongside elite international runners who flew in from as far as Kenya and Ethiopia. Charity workers, visitors, ex-combatants, market sellers, wheel chair users and amputees all took part under the motto “Liberia Rising, Together”.
The 2014 marathon is now in planning so keep an eye on liberiamarathon.com for updates on how to register and for details of the many running clubs that have since set up that you can join for a jog when you visit.
Traditional tunes and hip co beats, year round
Music has always been one of the main highlights of Liberian culture, both as entertainment and to educate society on cultural, religious, political, historical and social justice issues.
At the heart of the scene today is the ultra cool music movement known as Hip Co which first emerged in the 1980s as a blend of hip-hop and Liberian English.
Peppered with references to current events, Hip Co is music from the streets. Think West African beats combined with political messages of hardship and change and you’ve got a sound that resonates with the country’s young people of whom those aged under thirty make up 70 per cent of Liberia’s population.
The annual Hip Co Festival recently attracted over 20,000 Liberians for two days of concerts in different parts of Monrovia. Look out for tracks from artists like Takun J and Nasseman who are national celebrities within the growing music industry.
Heritage lapa print and contemporary clothes
If discovering new talent in the arts is something that you love then the re-emerging fashion scene in Liberia is something to get excited about.
Each year in December Monrovia’s stylish elite buzz with anticipation for ‘Fashion Week’ – an event designed to bring out and celebrate the many hidden talents in the fashion industry.
If you’re not around to see the catwalk in all its glory make sure you do pay a visit to one of the fashion store favorites like Mango Rags, Jala House or Afropolitan in Central Monrovia which sells cutting-edge, contemporary designs using the bold and colourful Liberian lapa print fabrics. A guided historic city and shopping tour is advised to include a trip to the tailors, fabric sellers in Waterside market and local artisans selling traditional country-cloth in town.
“Fashion in Liberia is so exciting right now,” explains Archel Bernard, Director of boutique label Mango-Rags, “No one is waiting to be told what to wear by Americans, Europeans or other Africans. We have our own style. Liberian women get their kicks wearing fun, comfortable, sexy clothes and love turning heads no matter where they go”.
Make new friends for life with sunshine souls
You’ll never know a place until you know the people and a new initiative by the Accountability Lab and Business Start-Up Centre is helping visitors meet some of the city’s most creative movers and shakers.
Participants on the tours, which are led by Barefoot Liberia, can visit a variety of social entrepreneurs in Monrovia through tailored one or two-day itineraries.
The tours include a boat ride with Olisco Kayea and his team of mechanics who build water taxis out of scrap metal and disused vehicle engines; a visit to James Mulbah’s Green Center — Liberia’s first recycling and composting business; discussions with Thomas Tweh and his community justice team who are resolving disputes in Monrovia’s largest low-income neighborhood; and a trip to Alfred’s Daily Talk — a citizen journalism project that uses chalk billboards to share popular news stories around the city.
The latest edition to this alternative approach to tourism is the Accountability Film School where visitors can spend time meeting the students and understanding how young Liberians are using film as a tool for social change.
Monrovia On A Plate
Some of the capital’s best restaurants and bars
1 Pandora is a young Liberian entrepreneur who runs the popular cooking class – and soon to open -restaurant Pandora’s Basket, serving a variety of organic vegetarian and non-vegetarian food sourced from local farms. Join Pandora and her team for a special evening of dining the Liberian way, every Thursday 6pm–11pm.
2 With great rooftop views Diablo & Sakana Restaurants at the top of the Royal Grand Hotel make it the perfect place for a lazy Sunday brunch. The quality of food and service is excellent in what is touted as ‘Monrovia’s first fine dining experience’. Sun 11am–3pm, $20 per diner.
3 Evelyn’s Bar and Grill is a Monrovia institution situated in the heart of Broad Street. Dishes from this locally owned and operated eatery include both Liberian and Western cuisine with daily specials and a buffet every Wednesday. Open Monday–Saturday 11am–8pm.
HISTORY & HEALING
Recovering relics from the past
“Imagine life without photos: No smiling faces. No family snapshots. No record of your past. Welcome to Liberia.” These are the opening words of a fascinating project called “Liberia ’77” – an ongoing effort by two brothers to recover some of the visual and photographic history of the country and its citizens that was lost or destroyed during the conflict.
Over 2,000 images of pre-war Liberia have been collected online from people all over the world and a charming collection has been printed for display at the National Museum on Broad Street, Central Monrovia.
Make sure you visit to experience a rare glimpse into the past and to support the museum, which reportedly lost 5,000 artifacts during the war. The small but interesting permanent collection includes tribal masks and other ceremonial items that were returned or saved after the end of the conflict. It also includes some unusual pieces such as the nation’s first flag and a 250-year-old dining table that Queen Victoria gifted to Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. A $5 donation covers your access to all three floors of the museum space and the friendly staff are informative and helpful.
COAST WITH THE MOST
Sun, sea, surf and an eco-lodge paradise
The legendary left-hand point breaks in Robertsport have attracted the occasional wandering surfer since the 70s. These days, thanks to the efforts of a small and committed community word is now out about the quality surf in this tropical sleepy beach town three hours drive from Monrovia. Before you come, discover the captivating story of several young Liberians as they found solace on their surfboards from their war-torn home in the beautiful documentary film, “Sliding Liberia”. surfboards from their war-torn home in the beautiful documentary film, “Sliding Liberia”.
What were once small informal surf contests are now annual sponsored events, the most recent of which attracted over 1,300 spectators. If you time your visit right, you can expect a party around a bonfire once the sun sets fuelled by the local brew, Club Beer, and plenty of freshly caught seafood.
The recently opened Kwepunha Surf Retreat offers a place for wave-junkies to rest their head and the much-loved Nana Lodge has just undergone a full refurbishment upgrading the canvas safari style tents to wooden beach bungalows with shared facilities.
In the opposite direction from the city is Libassa Ecolodge. Nestled between a lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean about 45 minutes from Monrovia is a beautiful lodge of 6 hand-built double cottages made entirely from local materials.
This magical family friendly retreat also welcomes day visitors to relax, swim or kayak in the lagoon and is described as “a place for dreaming people, who wish to meet with nature, where time is not a precious commodity, and simple people still find a way to look inside as much as outside of themselves.”
Three of the best short trips from Monrovia
1 Sapo National Park in Sinoe County is Liberia’s largest protected area of rainforest and only national park. Located in the Upper Guinean forest ecosystem it is a biodiversity hotspot containing the second-largest area of primary tropical rainforest in West Africa. Getting there is not easy, you’ll need a 4WD and 14 hours each way to spare, taking on tough off-road conditions. A local expert guide, transport, food and camping equipment can be organised with Barefoot Liberia.
2 Buchanan is the third largest city in Liberia and lies 70 miles (110 km) southeast of Monrovia, near the mouth of the St. John River in Grand Bassa County. Each year in December the Dumboy Festival celebrates ‘Grand Bassa County, its people and way of life’. Expect a weekend of cultural performances, canoe rides, music battles, food competitions, beach parties and more… One Bassa, One People, One Voice!
3 Kpatawee Waterfall in Bong County is one of Liberia’s many gems. Head through the rainforest and past tiny villages, and you’ll soon find yourself lost in the marvels of Kpatawee Waterfall. Covered by the lush canopy, this tumbling waterfall and large natural swimming pool offer a great way to relax and enjoy Liberia’s natural wonders. Visit as part of an eight day Liberia Discovery experience booked via anotherworldadventures.com.
While Monrovia is primarily a business destination there is a lot to explore in the lush, rainforested nation. Draped across West Africa’s southern flank, the entire country gets a lot of rain. The best time to visit is from November to April.
TRAVEL & ACCOMMODATION
Roberts International Airport (Robertsfield) is 60km southeast of Monrovia. Arrange a pick-up with your hotel. Bush taxis for the Sierra Leone border leave from Duala Motor Park, 9km northeast of town. Transport for most other destinations depart from Red Light Motor Park, 15km northeast of the centre. Shared taxis operate on a zone system, with prices ranging from US$0.10 to US$0.50. Private hire taxis around the centre cost from US$2.
There are 16 ethnic groups that make up Liberia’s indigenous population. The Kpelle is the largest ethnic group. Americo-Liberians who are descendants of freed slaves that arrived in Liberia after 1820 make up less than 5% of the population.
There are sizable numbers of Lebanese, Indian, and other West African nationals who comprise part of the country’s business community.
Documentary film Sliding Liberia follows four young surfers as they travel through war-torn Liberia in search of the perfect wave. As they travel through the country in a beat-up taxicab they are faced with the everyday realities of life in a post-conflict world. The search for waves becomes a quest for understanding as the group record the stories of Liberians they meet along the way. Besides discovering one of the best surf breaks in the world, the group discover something infinitely more important: how to travel responsibly in the 21st century and the importance of forming relationships that benefit the country as well as themselves.
Monrovia for beginners
1 Friday nights in Monrovia wouldn’t be the same without ’salsa Night’ at Sajj Bar & Restaurant in Sinkor. By about 10pm the DJ starts spinning popular dance music to revellers fuelled on Monrovia’s locally brewed Club Beer. Arrange your transport home in advance via your hotel.
2 Sunday is Beach Day during dry season (Nov – April) at Myrtle Beach. The relaxed Farm Restaurant is famed locally as the “home of country chicken” dishes and delicious seafood. A game of beach volleyball should keep you entertained while you wait for your lunch.
3 “Ask your friends” is the strap line of popular watering hole Lila Brown in Mamba Point. Open daily it’s a charming beach café by day and lively bar by night with free WIFI and tasty salads. The grounds are also home to the ‘Ministry of Fruit’ a Liberian run fresh juice company.
A professionally guided trip is the best way to explore Liberia’s unique history, culture, rainforest and wildlife safely and simply, no matter how long you have to visit and how far you’d like to go. As the expert Barefoot Liberia guides would say, “Come o! De place too fine!”
anotherworldadventures.com / barefootliberia.com
Since 1973 The Bradt Travel Guides have helped travelers with advice and information about the world’s lesser-known destinations. Production is underway for a Liberian edition due in 2014. It will be the first time a guidebook has been dedicated just to Liberia.
Alongside the new Monrovia Visitors Map are two useful online service directories. They include practical information from airport schedules to packing advice and Liberia 101 has an excellent recommended reading list of over 20 books. Official travel updates are also available on the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism’s website.
monroviavisitorsmap.com / liberia101.com / directmeliberia.com / MICATliberia.com