Everybody knows about Somalia, but not many know about Somaliland, a territory within Somali boundaries that declared self-independence in 1991 but, since nobody in the international community recognized it as such, it became one of those self-administered ghost countries.
Legally, it belongs to Somalia but, from a tourism point of view, traveling to Somalia is like visiting a new country, a very intriguing and weird one.
Camel markets, medieval mosques and ancient rock art painted by some of the oldest pastoralist societies, Somaliland is a truly off the beaten path – and very safe – destination which you can’t miss in your trip to the Horn of Africa.
I spent 10 days backpacking in Somaliland and this guide contains tips and everything you need to know to travel there, from visa tips to top experiences, approximate budget and more.
COVID-19 travel restrictions for Somaliland
Travelers visiting Somaliland are required to have either a vaccine certificate or negative PCR test (72 hours).
Travel Insurance for Somaliland with COVID-19 coverage
IATI Insurance is one of the few providers that offers full Coronavirus coverage, not only when it comes to treatment, but also cancellations costs in case you tested positive before departure.
And not only this, but it’s one of the few insurance providers that gives coverage for traveling to Somaliland.
Readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount.
How to get a visa for Somaliland
The first thing you need to know is that, despite being legally bound to Somalia, Somaliland acts like an independent country, so different immigration rules apply, similar to what happens with Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan (read my travel guide to Iraqi Kurdistan).
This means that a valid tourist visa for Somaliland doesn’t allow you to travel to Somalia, and a valid visa for Somalia doesn’t allow you to travel to Somaliland.
Therefore, in order to get your visa, you can’t apply at a Somalia Embassy, but you need to find a specific Somaliland Mission.
However, since Somaliland isn’t an official country, this makes things particularly challenging, as they don’t have more than a few missions around the world.
How to get a visa for Somaliland via the mission
If you are entering Somaliland overland from either Ethiopia or Djibouti, you must arrange your visa in advance.
Getting a Somaliland visa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Most travelers travel to Somaliland as part of a multi-country trip around the Horn of Africa, so getting a visa at the Embassy in Addis Ababa seems to be the most common choice.
According to travelers, these are the requirements:
- It costs $100, and they only accept USD
- 2 passport photos, 1 passport copy
- You get it on the same day
Here you can find more information about the process.
Getting a Somaliland visa in Djibouti City, Djibouti
This is where I got mine. Very easy and cheaper than in Addis.
Since Djibouti is rather a small city, getting to the Mission was fairly quick and these were the requirements:
- It cost $60, paid in local currency
- 2 passport photos, 1 passport copy, 1 Djibouti visa copy
- You pick it up 24 hours later
Getting a Somaliland visa in another country
If you aren’t traveling in the Horn of Africa, you may as well get the visa in your home country or any other where you find a Somaliland Mission.
Here you can see an updated list of Somaliland representative offices but I am not sure if you can get a visa in all of them, you will have to figure it out by yourself.
As far as I know, however, anyone can apply at the Missions in London and Washington D.C and, apparently, getting one in London costs £30.
Somaliland Visa on Arrival
If you are flying in, you can also get a VOA if previously arranged with your hotel in Hargeisa.
Hotels that can arrange your VOA:
However, only citizens of the EU, USA, Canada, China, and a few other Asian countries can apply for a VOA, but I recommend you contact the hotel to learn all the requirements, as well as their fees.
Typically, a VOA costs $60, plus potential hotel fees.
How to get to Somaliland
Tips on how to travel to Somaliland by air
Hargeisa has an International Airport with flights from Addis Ababa, Djibouti, and even Dubai and Jeddah.
I recommend you check on Ethiopian Airlines, Daallo Airlines, Fly Dubai and Air Djibouti.
You can also check directly on Skyscanner.
Tips on how to travel to Somaliland by land
- How to travel to Somaliland from Djibouti – I used this option and it was easy. In Djibouti City, there is a departure point for 4×4’s heading to Somaliland and I am specifying 4×4 because, once you cross the border there are no roads until Borama – almost 300km after – but just desert and sand. It was quite an adventure.
- How to travel to Somaliland from Ethiopia – Very easy. I used it to get out of Somaliland. The closest, most famous city is Harar, but you may not find direct transportation to the border; but you should first go to Jijiga, the capital of Ethiopian Somalia.
- How to travel to Somaliland from Oman – That’s right. You can enter Somaliland via Berbera from Salalah (Oman) by boat, and it’s completely legal and doable. I actually met a tourist couple who did it, on a cargo ship, but they had to wait in Salalah for almost 3 weeks for the ship to depart. Read my Oman travel guide.
- How to travel to Somaliland from Somalia – This border is closed to foreigners.
Best time to visit Somaliland
I don’t know how well you handle the heat, but I can’t and, as you may imagine, Somaliland can get pretty hot in summer, especially the coastal part, with temperatures averaging 45ºC.
Hargeisa sits at an elevation of 1300m, so the weather might be slightly cooler there, but still, summer isn’t a great time to go.
Therefore, the best time to visit Somaliland is from November until March.
I visited it at the end of January and the weather was great, especially in Hargeisa, where the temperature never reached above 25ºC, and we even had some rain one day.
Travel insurance for Somaliland
Since any government will consider it a conflict zone most travel insurance companies won’t cover you for this trip.
The only one which does, however is IATI Insurance and I recommend it because:
- Budget travel insurance that covers Somalia + COVID-19
- Valid for any type of trip and nationality.
- All types of plans: from families to backpackers
- Covers senior citizens too
- Readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount.
5 Top experiences in Somaliland
Getting high on khat
Khat is a drug, literally, a plant with amphetaminic effects typically consumed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, and extremely popular across all Somalia.
If you are traveling in Somaliland, you must spend at least one afternoon eating khat with locals.
If you get to taste good quality stuff, it can be quite an experience.
Read my post: Fear & loathing in Somaliland
What was the highlight of your trip to Somaliland? Some people asked me.
Difficult to say, my trip was great overall, but what surprised me the most was going for breakfast to a random café in Berbera and suddenly being surrounded by gazelles.
I won’t enter into the ethical issue of having wild animals in your garden, but several cafés have gazelles roaming around freely in their garden and, if you get some leaves from a tree, they won’t hesitate to approach you.
Visiting livestock markets
Somaliland is a very traditional country where livestock markets abound, and I strongly recommend you visit the one in Hargeisa, which takes place every single day.
Backpacking in Somaliland is one of those trips where, honestly, there isn’t much to do, but the highlight is meeting new people.
Expect loads of smiles, people asking you for photos and endless chewing-khat invitations, like this funny Somali dancing:
Checking epic rock art sites
The only proper touristic thing as such to do is checking out a few caves containing some 5,000-old rock art paintings which apparently, are some of the most impressive and well-preserved of this particular kind in Africa, and ONE of the highlights of my visit to Somaliland.
Differences between Somaliland and Somalia
I believe the story between Somaliland and Somalia is a complicated situation that goes beyond my understanding, but let me just give you my 5 cents.
During colonialism, today’s Somalia was split into 2 different regions: the western part was under British rule, while the eastern part was under Italian rule.
Check this map from Wikipedia:
Like happened with most colonies, at the end of the colonial times, the British and the UN drew the borders as they pleased, this way unifying the 2 Somalias into a single one.
Here you can check more unrecognized countries I visited
Therefore, Somaliland has always had a feeling of being an independent nation, and, for many reasons, mainly conflicts and political problems, in 1991, Somaliland decided to self-declare independence from Somalia.
However, as I highlighted in the introduction, nobody recognized it as such, and, when I say nobody, I mean nobody, not even its former colonizer (the UK), the Olympic committee, FIFA or the World Bank.
Somaliland is on its own, abandoned and, even though they have full right to become independent, they never will, as this decision has been delegated to the African Union and they don’t want to recognize them because this could lead a massive African revolution, as hundreds of minorities across the continent might claim the same thing.
Yet, do you know what is the main difference versus Somalia?
While Somalia is an authoritarian regime immersed in a Civil War and, basically, a failed state, Somaliland is a peaceful, safe democracy and this is why, despite all the internal problems, especially economical, Somalilanders will never regret gaining their independence.
People in Somaliland
Somaliland is mostly composed of Somalis, a massive ethnic group spread across Djibouti, Eastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and of course, Somalia.
Somalia is the most homogenous African country, ethnically speaking.
It is a very patriarchal society – very conservative Muslim – where I believe women have very few rights, and I don’t recall seeing a single woman not wearing a hijab, in the areas I visited at least.
Other than that, Somalis are nice, warm and welcoming people but, of course, this is an extremely poor country and sometimes you do meet people who, at first, seem as if they just want to have a conversation, but then they ask for money.
This is something I have noticed a lot in Africa. While in Asian Muslim countries, such as Iran or Pakistan, people are always willing to offer their help for free, some people I when backpacking in Somaliland (not all, of course) then asked for a tip.
You also need to be careful with your camera, and always ask first, because many Somalis don’t like cameras, and they can get very angry, even if you take a shot from far away, and I am talking from my own experience.
In any case, most interactions and experiences with the local people are truly great.
Eating khat is kind of a lifestyle in Somaliland. All men eat it and basically, life in the country stops after lunchtime until the evening. Regardless of all the social issues khat has brought to the Somali society, it’s an interesting event to see and experience. Khat gets you high (if you get good-quality leaves, which cost from $10) but you need to chew it (and swallow) for a couple of hours at least, washing it down with soda or any sweet drink because khat is extremely bitter.
All Somalis speak Somali a Cushitic language, the family of many languages spoken in northeastern Africa.
It’s difficult to describe what it sounds like, but what I can tell you is that they use some Arabic words, as Arabs have been trading in this region for centuries and in fact, Arabic is widely taught in schools.
For their script, they use the Latin Alphabet.
Do they speak English?
Since this used to be a British colony, you meet many Somalilanders speaking impeccable English and most people will know some basic words.
In fact, they use many English words in their language, like numbers for example.
The language shouldn’t be a barrier when traveling in Somaliland.
Cuisine: what are you going to eat when visiting Somaliland?
Fact: nobody ever visits Somaliland for the food.
Actually, this is one of the worst countries I have been to when it comes to food.
All right, it’s not that bad, but it’s just boring, basic, and there’s nothing memorable to bring back home, except for some fresh fish I had in Berbera. That was good.
Their star dish, which they eat throughout the day is a lentil stew called ”penis”, and literally pronounced like ”penis”, no kidding.
When you walk in a café, you just say you want a ”penis” and they will bring you these lentils.
Other than that, pasta with tomato sauce is also the staple but, as you may imagine, it is not good pasta.
They always eat with their hand, even a dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Alcohol is illegal in Somaliland
It is only available on the black market but some locals do make their own at home and you are likely to see some drunk people at night. I arrived in the city of Boroma at 3am and, while looking for a hotel, there was this creepy local who approached me holding a plastic bottle with some weird matt white liquid in it. He was massively wasted, drooling, and trying to hug me or something, but it was very easy to push him away. After a few days, a young, well-educated local told me that home-made alcohol is a big deal in Somaliland, but most of it is just so strong and basically, very dangerous, so seeing people fucked up like that guy from Boroma is very normal.
Is it safe to travel to Somaliland?
In short: Somaliland is safe but Somalia is not.
All the negative things you see in the media about Somalia referring to pirates, bombs, or Al Shabab, happen in Somalia mainland.
There have been some terrorist attacks in Somaliland, yes, but the last one was back in 2008, a long time ago and, since then, nothing has happened so far, plus the country enjoys one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Can it happen again or, could there be potential kidnappings?
Look, I am no expert, and the FCO advice claims that the whole country is a massive NO-GO, but you already know that their judgment is very biased and all I can tell you is that so far, all travelers have had a great time traveling in Somaliland.
Just apply common sense and travel safe!
Check this video from this very isolated, hence very safe place in Somaliland:
Solo female travel in Somaliland
I have only talked to one lady about her trip to Somaliland and all she told me was that she had a great time there, with no further details, but she was a woman with a large traveling experience in traditional Muslim countries, and I believe the experience in Somaliland as a solo woman shouldn’t differ much from the one in Sudan or Pakistan.
If you are a woman who traveled to Somaliland (solo or accompanied) let me know if you’d like to write a guest post for Against the Compass or just send your experience to [email protected]
Do you need a police escort for traveling independently in Somaliland?
Before traveling to Somaliland, I heard that in some areas, basically anywhere outside Hargeisa, a police escort was mandatory, and they would assign you one upon your arrival in that destination.
This wasn’t my case (and I visited many places and went through a lot of checkpoints).
In the beginning, I thought that might have been an old rule which didn’t apply anymore but I heard there was a solo female traveler who visited Somaliland just a few weeks before me and the police did assign her an escort.
This means that it might just depend on the policeman’s mood and perception and, since Somalis are an extremely patriarchal society, you might have a higher chance of getting a police escort if you are a solo female traveler.
In any case, your experience regarding this topic is very welcome in the comments section 🙂
Need to know about money: currency, exchange, credit cards
Somaliland has its own currency, which is the Somaliland Shilling and, approximately:
1USD = 8500Sh
Their currency has suffered a massive devaluation and today, their biggest is note worth 5000Sh, which is barely 60 cents.
On the other hand, USD are widely accepted, to the extent that in most places, you can even pay for a bottle of water in USD and get the change in Somaliland Shillings.
Theoretically, if dollars are accepted everywhere, you would not need to exchange, but getting some local currency is more comfortable as, in traditional places, you will always get the price in shillings, so you don’t need to do unnecessary calculations.
You can easily change money in many places but I recommend you go to the money market in Hargeisa, which is an attraction in itself, as you get to see locals loaded with hundreds of cash bricks but, in fact, most bricks are composed of 1000 notes, which means that they aren’t carrying much money in their hands.
International credit cards are not accepted, but there are a few ATMs in Hargeisa from where you can withdraw some USD at a 3% commission.
I could cash out a few hundred with my Mastercard.
These banks are Premiere Bank and Dahabshil Bank and you can find their ATMs in downtown Hargeisa.
Check the money market of Hargeisa:
How much does it cost to travel to Hargeisa?
Somaliland is the cheapest country I visited in the Horn of Africa, not only because prices are low, but also because there is nothing to spend money on.
Price of the most typical things:
- Meal in a local place (penis): 10,000Sh
- Meal in a local place (with meat): 20,000Sh
- Meal in mid-range place: 30,000-40,000Sh
- Main course in a top restaurant: $8-$12
- Fresh juice: 10,000Sh
- Water 1L: 2,000-3,000Sh
- Local bus to pretty much any town: 20,000-40,000Sh
- Budget accommodation: $10-$15
- Mid-range accommodation: From $25
Average daily budget for backpacking in Somaliland
Other than that, the only expensive things I had to pay for were the entrance to Las Geel ($35 with guide included) and the 4×4 trip from Zeyla to Borama ($50).
How to move around: transportation
Moving around the country is very easy and cheap.
Most towns are connected by bus, including Boroma, Berbera, or Burao and you just need to go to the bus station and ask for departure times. In Hargeisa, the bus station is in the city center.
Moving around is slow though, as the roads are not in very good condition.
If you want to go south of Boroma, to Zeyla and the Djibouti border, you need a 4×4 but you can share it with other locals if you go to the station.
Where to stay in Somaliland: accommodation
Somaliland is surprisingly well-sorted for hotels.
There is actually some domestic tourism, especially among foreign Somalis who are visiting the country. I met a few of them in 2 different hotels.
Hotels I stayed at:
- Zeyla: Kaboode Guest House – There is only 1 guest house and paid $20 for one night. Extremely overpriced (it’s a rudimentary shack), but it can be negotiated if staying more nights.
- Borama: Oslo Hotel – Basic but clean, and I paid $15.
- Hargeisa: Maamu Hotel – Super value-for-money, around $20-$25 per night, but they have many different rooms.
- Berbera: Barwaqo hotel – Basic but clean and paid $10 for a private room with its own bathroom. The hotel restaurant serves amazing fish.
Internet & SIM Card
All hotels I stayed at had Wi-Fi, not very fast, but it worked reasonably well.
Outside of my hotels, except for a fancy restaurant in Hargeisa, I never saw Wi-Fi.
I got my SIM Card in a street stall right at the Djibouti-Somaliland border.
I got Telesom and I think I paid like $3 for a SIM Card with 1GB internet and calls. It’s so cheap.
Books about Somaliland
Somaliland travel guide by Bradt – The only proper travel guidebook to Somaliland is the one from Bradt, published in December 2018, so it is quite up-to-date and gives a great overview of the country. I love Bradt.
Becoming Somaliland by Mark Bradbury – Great analysis for understanding the story of Somaliland, from declaring independence to becoming a democracy in one of the most turbulent regions on Earth.