A former British colony that unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland is an unrecognized country in the Horn of Africa which, according to the rest of the world, still legally belongs to Somalia, considered today one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
Somaliland, however, is a self-administered territory that controls its own borders and has managed to stay away from all the issues that cause Somalia to be a failed state, hence allowing some great independent – and very safe – backpacking, and offering one of the ultimate adventures in East Africa.
There is so much to say about Somaliland and, for that, I urge you to read:
In the above article, you will learn both political and travel information but in this guide, I will take you through all the places I visited, summarized in a 1-week itinerary for Somaliland.
In this itinerary for Somaliland you will find:
For all the information regarding visas, security, budget, costs, etc. check my ultimate travel tips for Somaliland
Where to start your Somaliland itinerary?
There are two main ways of getting into Somaliland:
- Overland from Djibouti, hence you would start your trip in Zeyla
- Overland from Ethiopia or flying in, hence you would start your trip in Hargeisa
Personally, I think the best way is entering from Djibouti and the reason is that Zeyla, a tiny settlement located right across the border, is the best place to visit in Somaliland, the one I enjoyed the most.
If you are in Hargeisa, getting to Zeyla is a long 2-day journey (round-trip), plus getting there is expensive, as you need to hire a 4×4. Therefore, in that case, I don’t know if Zeyla would be worth your time and money.
In my travel guide to Somaliland, you can learn more about the different ways to get into the country.
How many days are needed for Somaliland?
Traveling is remarkably subjective, so this is a question I always struggle with.
I personally spent 10 days backpacking in Somaliland and, in my humble opinion, it was a bit too much, especially because there isn’t much to do.
I mean, there are some really awesome things to do in Somaliland, but there isn’t enough stuff to keep you busy for 10 full days.
Well, sorry to say that, I am sure there is, but time is always limited and the Horn of Africa has too much to offer, so I would have preferred to invest those extra days in spending more time in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Therefore, based on what I told you in the previous section, if you visited Zeyla, I would recommend 7 days and, if you skipped it, I would recommend 4-5 days.
Travel insurance for Somaliland
Somaliland belongs to Somalia so, as you may imagine, most governments consider it a conflict zone and therefore, most travel insurance companies won’t cover you for this trip, unfortunately.
However, I did some research and there are two insurance companies that do provide cover:
Budget travel insurance that covers Somalia and valid for any type of trip and nationality.
They have many different plans and readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount.
Great travel insurance for backpackers also valid for Somalia, but only Europeans can purchase it.
If you want to know more about insurance read how to find the right backpacking travel insurance for your trip
Useful books to help you plan your Somaliland itinerary
Somaliland travel guide by Bradt – The only guidebook to Somaliland is the one from Bradt and it gives you a great overview of the country.
Becoming Somaliland by Mark Bradbury – The story of Somaliland: from declaring independence to becoming a democracy in one of the most turbulent regions on Earth. A great, easy-to-read analysis.
Things to do in Somaliland in a 1-week itinerary
Since I entered Somaliland from Djibouti, I will start the following itinerary from here.
Places to visit in Somaliland on day 1, 2 – Zeyla, home to one of the oldest mosques in Africa
Ibn Batuta said it already.
One of the most desolated towns in the world.
Zeyla is indeed a very remote settlement, one of the remotest I have ever visited.
It consists of a bunch of houses, if you can call them houses, located in a vast, flat deserted peninsula that bulges into the Gulf of Aden.
There is nothing around, only desert and the empty ocean.
Yet, it was precisely this remoteness what made me love visiting Zeyla and I recommend you watch the below video to understand why:
Today, Zeyla is nothing more than a tiny Somali settlement but over the centuries, its port – one of the oldest in East Africa and whose importance was mentioned in Greek documents 2,000 years ago – has played a key role in the Red Sea trading routes.
There is a 7th century mosque as well, one of the most ancient in all Africa.
Here you can read more about Zeyla’s history.
Furthermore, the people were lovely and, given that this is actual off the beaten track Somalia, expect plenty of kind greetings and pleasant conversations.
Things to do in Zeyla
The most awesome thing you can do is checking out the desolated mosque located in the middle of the empty peninsula and from there, you can also walk to the beach.
Do expect many kids to follow you.
Then, you can visit the 7th century mosque named Masjid al-Qiblatayn and, other than that, just enjoy the local people and relax.
How to get to Zeyla
There aren’t any roads connecting to Zeyla, so getting there isn’t easy.
From Djibouti – First, you will have to cross the border. For that, you need to go to Avenue 26 (Djibouti City) and find the shared 4×4 that go across the border.
Most of them go straight to Hargeisa but you need to take the one with Loyadda as final destination, the border town. I paid 1,000DFJ, around $5.
Once you cross the border, you have to find a car that goes to Zeyla, but the problem is that most cars go straight to Hargeisa, and finding one to Zeyla may take a while.
From the border to Zeyla is a 25km journey but you drive over the sand, so it takes a few hours. In the end, I did find a car and, for one back seat, I paid $10. If you don’t find a shared 4×4, a few locals offered to take me there for $100.
From Hargeisa – First, you need to take a bus to the town of Borama, located 120km away. That’s easy. From Borama. however, things get trickier because the tarmac road disappears and for most of the 240km to Zeyla, you drive across a sandy, bumpy desert. It’s quite an adventure, but a long 8-hour drive.
In Borama, there is a station where shared 4x4s to Djibouti depart. You may want to get in one of those and just say you will get off in Zeyla. The price of a back seat should be around $50, but your reports are welcome in the comments section 🙂
Where to stay in Zeyla
There is only one guest house, named Kaboode Guest House, which is extremely overpriced for what you get. It’s nothing more than a rudimentary shack but it costs $20 a night, even though the owner agreed to $15 if I stayed 2 nights.
Still, the owner is pretty cool and I had a great time with him eating khat. Surprisingly, there was Wi-Fi.
You can learn more about him by reading my article: Fear & loathing in Somaliland
What to do in Somaliland on day 3 – Borama and way to Hargeisa
Borama is the largest city between Zeyla and Hargeisa
It is an unattractive town, like most cities in Somalia, but the locals will make your visit a charming one and, in any case, Borama is an unavoidable stop for getting to Hargeisa.
For some reason, 4x4s from Zeyla to Borama only depart in the evening, around 7pm, so we crossed the bumpy desert in the dark, drove for 8 hours until they dropped me in the middle of the city at 3am, a moment at which I was approached by some particularly dodgy locals.
I mean, the kind of people that hang out in the empty streets at 3am – but they actually helped me find a relatively good hotel and all they wanted was a small tip.
How to arrange your transportation from Zeyla to Borama
The owner of Kaboode Guest House can arrange everything for you. I paid $50 for the back seat. The front seat was $70.
Where to stay in Borama
I stayed in Oslo Hotel. Decent, basic accommodation with a very nice garden. Since I was the only foreigner staying in the hotel, I had the chance to meet the owner, a New Zealander Somali. Pretty cool guy.
How to get from Borama to Hargeisa
On the next day, you can easily find a cheap, local bus to Hargeisa. Price was 27,000Sh, around 3$.
Day 4, 5 – Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland
How can I put this?
Hargeisa is the most low-key capital I have ever been to.
The city center is composed of unappealing architecture, unpaved streets, there is trash everywhere, and you even find goats and donkeys in downtown.
Unlike in other African capitals, there aren’t imposing Governmental buildings luxury hotels or restaurants.
Once, a British Somali recommended me a famous Chinese restaurant, one of the fanciest in town where apparently, local celebrities – such as singers and TV stars – like to go for dinner. The service and everything was great but it was nothing special and I just paid $15 for a meal.
Not complaining here, just telling you the reality of Hargeisa and Somaliland.
Yet, it is an alluringly charismatic capital. I loved Hargeisa.
First of all, the people are great, but you already knew that, and strolling down its dusty avenues, bustling markets and khat stalls is already an attraction on its own.
Moreover, you need to know that Hargeisa is a city that was resurrected from the ashes after it was completely destroyed (90% of it) by Siad Barre’s regime during the Somaliland-Somalia war, in 1988. It was only liberated in 1991, when they began the city’s reconstruction.
It is important to mention that Hargeisa is the capital of an unrecognized country, which means that they get very little foreign help – the reason why that capital is so low-key – so what they have achieved is already remarkable.
Things to do in Hargeisa
- Camel market – One of the top places to visit in Somaliland is a live-stock market that takes place every day, the busiest days being on weekends, obviously. The people are affable, there are endless photo opportunities and it has the largest concentration of camels I have ever seen in a market of this kind.
- Money market – The local currency, Somaliland Shillings, has very little value and in the city center, there are money exchange stalls featuring tens of money bricks, each one worth just a few dollars. Checking out those stalls is one of the most preferred things to do in Somaliland.
- The War Memorial – In downtown, they are showing off a MiG fighter jet that was proudly taken from the Somali Army during the Civil War.
- China-som – The restaurant I mentioned before. If you want to have a decent meal and get to know the most well-educated people in Somaliland, go to this restaurant.
- Honey café – I went to several local cafés, but I liked this one, as they serve plenty of local honey-based drinks.
Where to stay in Hargeisa
Oriental Hotel – Most travelers stay here because it has decent, budget rooms and it’s in the city center. A private room costs $15-$20.
Maamus Hotel – This is where I stayed. It’s definitely fancier than Oriental Hotel and not much more expensive, as it is 2 or 3km out of town. However, it is located at the end of the main street, with regular local buses passing by, and a ticket only costs 2,000Sh, around 25 cents.
Day 6 – Las Geel, 5,000-year old rock art
Most things to do in Somaliland, the ones I told you about so far, are aimed at the most intrepid and demanding travelers, those seeking surreal and off the beaten track adventures but, truth to be told, they aren’t tourist attractions as such.
Las Geel, however, one of the best-preserved rock art sites in Africa, definitely is, a tourist attraction even my mum would like to visit.
It consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual paintings representing humans and cattle.
It is quite a jaw-dropping site and, for a deeper dive in its history, read this post.
How to get to Las Geel
From Hargeisa bus station, you can take a bus to Dhubato (55km) (4000Sh).
Dhubato is on the way to Berbera so, after my visit to Las Geel, I took a bus to Berbera. Otherwise, you can easily find a bus back to Hargeisa.
From Dhubato, Las Geel is a pleasant 6km walk.
Do you need to arrange an organized tour to visit Las Geel?
Contrary to what some travelers believe, you don’t need to go as part of a tour, at least not anymore.
You can go there on your own and pay the entrance fee, which costs $25.
What is mandatory, however, is a local guide, who will be assigned to you at the entrance itself. You will have to pay an additional $10 for the guide, so $35 in total.
The guide will walk the remaining 6km with you, from Dhubato to the actual site. You can go by taxi as well.
Mine didn’t speak a word of English but he tried very hard to explain the different paintings with hand gestures and stuff like that.
In my opinion, the $35 were absolutely worth it.
Day 7 – Berbera, Ottoman-era city
Located on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, right across from the Yemeni coast, Berbera is a city that has also played a key role in the maritime trade of the region, mainly due to its great strategic position, situated in the trade route between India and the Red Sea.
By the way, in Berbera I met two a couple from New Zealand who came to Berbera on a cargo ship from Salalah in Oman. They said they had to wait in Salalah for weeks, but they finally made it.
For me, it was interesting to see that Berbera had a vibe and look similar to other cities along the coast, such as Massawa in Eritrea, or Port Sudan in Sudan, and the reason is that the three of them were part of the Ottoman Empire, so the architecture and old quarter’s composition was similar, plus they all enjoy the same overwhelmingly hot and humid weather, so the kind of slow life (and food) was pretty much the same.
Strolling down the Old Quarter was fun but, once again, since Somaliland isn’t recognized by the UN, hence they don’t receive any foreign help, the ancient Ottoman houses are somehow falling apart, some parts being in a truly deplorable state.
Berbera has a tremendous touristic potential and I firmly believe that, if Berbera’s Old city was ever restored, it would definitely be considered for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list but, correct me if I am wrong:
If a country isn’t recognized by any other, can their national treasures make it to the UNESCO list?
Still, intrepid travelers will find the old city great.
Everybody was inviting me to join them to eat khat and there were plenty of nice restaurants serving great fresh fish for just a few dollars. I recommend Al Hayaat restaurant.
How to get to Berbera
From Hargeisa bus station, buses to Berbera run throughout the day.
As I said before, I took the bus to Dhubato to visit Las Geel and after my visit, I just waited on the side of the road for another bus to pass by. In fact, I didn’t have to do anything because my personal guide for Las Geel stopped the buses for me.
Where to stay in Berbera
I stayed at Barwaqo Hotel. They had decent, clean private rooms with own bathroom for only $10. The rooms were a bit boring and dark but the hotel’s garden & restaurant made it up for it.
They were serving amazing local food, including fresh fish. In fact, one of the best meals I had in Somaliland was a tuna steak from that precise restaurant.
Also, important to mention that the restaurant garden’s had gazelles roaming around freely, and you could feed them.
More information to plan your Horn of Africa and Somaliland itinerary
For all the practical information, read my generic travel guide to Somaliland
Travel guides to other countries in the Horn of Africa: