Backpacking Niger – The Ultimate Visiting Niger Guide

Niger in West Africa is one the poorest nations on earth as well as one of the least visited. There is not a great deal of information our there about visiting the country which is a total shame as it actually has rather a lot to offer a traveller. Niger is beguiling orange desert filled with friendly locals, a myriad of cultures, delicious food and some pretty tall giraffes!

In this guide I will share all of my knowledge insight and info about visiting Niger.

 

How To Get a Visa For Niger

Citizens of most nations will need a VISA to enter Niger. The only exceptions are passport holders from other countries within the West African Federation.

Visa’s cost 85 Euro and last for up to 3 months. You will need to obtain your Visa from a Nigen Embassy or Consulate. Citizens of the UK and Eire should note that that the nearest Nigen embassy is in Paris and you will need to obtain your Visa here. You do not need to visit in person as it is possible to complete the process by post.

I did submit my Visa application in person and then it was posted back to me (in France 4) days later. 

To apply for the Visa you will need to complete the Niger Visa application form which you can find here, attach 2 passport photographs, your Yellow Vaccination certificate and a copy of your return, flight details. If you intend on entering or/and leaving Niger by land then explain this in a covering letter along with details of your itinerary and route. It will help your course if you can at least show a return flight to your home country from your final destination.

Alternatively, you may wish to consider getting the West African Visa which allows you access to Niger, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and Mali. 

 

Language in Niger

Language in Niger
Or you can try to invent your own language?

Note that French is the official language in Niger and is widely spoken across the country and across North and West Africa. That said, do not expect everybody you meet to be exactly fluent in French as it will largely depend on their educational level. The main native languages are Housa and Zarma which is the single most spoken language in and around Niamey.

Locals will be very impressed and appreciative if you can learn a few words or phrases in Housa or Zarma. 

English is not widely spoken in Niger at all and you will struggle to get by if your only language is English.

 

Health and Sanitation in Niger

Niger is one of the least developed countries on earth and as such, health, hygiene and sanitation standards are below those in the west.

Clean, western style toilets can be in short supply outside of high end places. Be sure to carry tissues, wipes and hand wash with you at all times. It is likely that you will have some form of nausea or diarreah at some point during your stay so do bring some medicine with you from home.

Avoid drinking tap water. Bottled water is significantly cheaper if purchased in packs of 6.

Malaria is also a very serious concern in Niger and even in the city of Niamey. During my visit, a neighbourhood child died from the disease in a very short space of time. Bring lots of strong, mosquito repellent and a mosquito net. I also recommend visiting your Doctor 6 – 8 weeks before your trip for advice about anti-malarial pills as well as advice about any other vaccinations or boosters you may need.

Most Nigen food is prepared and served on the street. However, it is generally perfectly safe for consumption even for sensitive Western stomachs such as mine.

 

Traffic in Niger

Traffic in Niger
Traffic in Niger gets worse each year.

After a sporadic and slow start, the combustion engine has now arrived in Niger as more and more citizens forsake walking & public and transport in favour of their own set of wheels. However the countries infrastructure is simply not ready for the explosion of cars on the road.

Expect traffic jams at peak travel times and busy roads all day long. There are no traffic lights and street lights rarely ever work. I saw accidents or their immediate aftermaths on a daily basis. Take immense care when crossing roads and drive very cautiously. Note that the vast majority of the cities roads are little more than sand or mud tracks – these are very bumpy at the best of times and can become impassable after a bad rain storm.

Basically even relatively short journeys can end up taking a long time to complete in and around Niamey.

Once you get out the city, the roads are certainly quieter and driving in the countryside can actually be a real pleasure. However, the road network is far from extensive and if you are heading north to Agadez the road ends after 100 km or so. The majority of the journey will then be on mud tracks which is not pleasant in a standard car.

 

Food in Niger

 

Without any doubt the highlight of my trip to Niger was experiencing all the delicious food which is mix of Nigen classics, other West African fair and some twists of Western Influences (such as pasta in African curry sauce!). Food hygiene standards are usually pretty good and I have had any issues.

A few favourites include;  Chickpeas, Merrengue Leaves, Yams, Curries ,Fish Sandwich, Cous Cous, Dried Meat ,Peanut Sauce ,African Pasta ,Fried Yams & Chilli, Flour Balls, Rice and Beans.

 

Public Transport in Niger

Nigen inner city busses are crowded and battered mini busses. The system is confusing for non-locals, journeys take a long time and vehicles can get dangerously hot.

I would recommend using taxis to get around as much as possible and feel free to demand that the AC is turned on.  Yes, like anywhere in the world Taxi Drivers will rip you off but with some firm haggling you will still get where you want to go for 1 euro. Taxi’s are abundant so simply wait by a main road and wave them to stop.

 

Is Niger Safe?

Niamey itself is relatively safe in terms of threats from terrorist and militants but the biggest dangers are traffic and crime.

Foreigners and obvious tourists are a target and you will definitely feel eyes on you at some point. There is no need for any hysteria but be very vigilant at all times and trust your instincts. Don’t carry too much cash and don’t flash expensive jewellery or technology. Avoid unfamiliar and unlit areas at night. Remember that if something goes wrong in Niger, it can go badly wrong so do not expose yourself to unnecessary risk.

 

Women Travellers in Niger

Some traditions Nigen clothes will help you blend in.

Niger is not particularly unsafe for women travellers and anybody who has experience of the Middle East or India will be fine.

However, Niger is becoming an increasingly conservative Islamic country (thanks to Saudi Arabia funding Wahabist schools…) and so modest dress decorum should be observed. To avoid unwanted attention, legs should be covered to at least below the knees, shoulders covered, no cleavage should be on show and ideally, some form of head cover should be used. You can relax this a bit if you are going out at night to a bar or to an upmarket restaurant.

Traditional clothing can be bought or even made very cheaply and some of the fabrics and styles on offer are lovely. It may therefore be an idea to pick up some local clobber. White, Asian or mixed race visitors will never “blend in”, but by dressing local you can at least make yourself less interesting.

 

Beggars and Hustlers in Niger

As with much of developing Africa, begging, peddling and hustling is endemic in Niger.

As a foreigner, you will be approached by beggars of all ages regularly. You may wish to carry small coins to give to them or alternatively, firmly tell them “J’n ai pad argent” which means “I don’t have coins”.

Something to watch out for is hustlers performing you an unsolicited “service” and then demanding payment. Common examples are somebody “helping” you to park your car by gesturing “come…stop” and then asking for money whether you paid attention to them or not. Another example is people opening doors for you and then sticking their hand out for payment.

If this happens feel free to ignore them. Sometimes they can get quite aggressive but they usually give up after a few minutes.

 

Things To Do In Niamey

Niamey is Niger’s capital city situated in the South West of the nation. If you are flying into Niger then you will almost certainly be spending some time in Niamey. If you enter Niger by land then you will still probably end up passing through as by default, the capital is the cities main transport hub.

There isn’t an enormous amount to do in Niamey itself and to get a real taste of Niger you should at least allow for some day trips out into the surprisingly green and beautiful countryside around the city. If for some reason you are restricted to the city area, then you can still pass a few days here taking in the highlights and picking up a few souvenirs.

I will cover both The Best Things to Do in Niamey and Best Day Trips from Niamey in this post.

 

 

National Museum of Niger/Cultural Centre

 

The cultural centre is the nearest thing Niamey has to a bonafide tourist centre and gets very busy on weekends with local families. It consists of a few buildings housing different exhibitions spread over a couple of acres. In the various museums you can see examples of traditional, tribal clothing, ancient agricultural tools, Nigen bank notes from the past few centuries, and a couple of impressive dinosaur skeletons which were found out in the deserts.

Note that some of the exhibitions halls and exhibits themselves are in need of some TLC but they are still nevertheless worth a look.

There is also an artisans quarter where you can barter for handmade souvenirs such as jewellery, bags and rugs. Some of the stuff here is stunning and of a very high quality but barter hard as Nigen tradesmen set their prices very ambitiously hoping that Western tourists are all both very stupid and very rich.  For example, if somebody asks you for 25,000 CEFA, go back with 2500 and take it from there.

The grounds also contain a rather sorry looking zoo with lions, chimps a big crocodile and more. I don’t like zoo’s at all and found this one to be particularly depressing so you may wish to skip it. If you are being accompanied by a guide, simply tell him you don’t want to see the zoo. “J’n veux pad voir a la zoo” in French.

Entrance to the cultural centre costs 3000 CEFA for foreigners. You will also be accompanied by a (medicore) guide who will expect a tip of 500 – 1000. If you don’t want the guide then I recommend offering 500 for him to take it easy and leave you to your own devices. You are not technically allowed to take your car into the complex but a well placed bribe of 500 may help grease the wheels and a parking space will appear as if by magic.

 

Traditional Neighbourhoods

The Kids are alright!

Niamey is fast metamorphosing into a typical African capital city with ugly breeze block structures popping up everywhere. However, there are still plenty of traditional neighbourhoods around the peripheries where you can find mud houses, sand roads, see children playing and women carrying heavy loads on their heads.

My two favourites are () where must try to see the “bus house” (a single decker bus covered in mud and now used as the entrance to a mud house).

Another one is (1) which is technically a mini self contained village on the edge of Niamey.

There isn’t much to “do” in these areas except walk around but even this is well worth it. Locals will be be confused to see foreigners walking around but are very well meaning and these areas are a lot safer in the daytime than the city itself (I don’t recommend visiting at night though).

The traditional neighbourhoods and their inhabitants make for some amazing travel photographs but be sure to seek permission before photographing people and be ready to tactfully hand out cigarettes, sweets or coins in exchange for any cooperation.

 

Sunset Viewpoint

 

After a long day in the bustling heat of Niamey relax with a cold beer and take in the sunset over the river Niger. The sunsets can be stunning with a fierce orange blaze burning over the river. The Grand Hotel has a lounge seemingly purpose built for the occasion.

The Nigen national beer is called Castel and the West African staple Flag is also available. For those of you who like to stick what they know, Heineken and bottled Guinness are also on offer.

 

Panorama

The Raddison Blu building opened to host the great and good of African politics at the pan African conference.

It is now an expensive, 5 star hotel where you can probably not afford to stay. Whilst it is architecturally bland, it is the biggest building in Niamey and as such offers a decent vantage point  the city.

 

Riverside

Most of Niamey is a dry, arid, orange sandbox so it may come as a revelation that there is a lush little oasis of greenery hiding down by the river. To access it, head for the Riverside villages.

You will see terraces of crops growing in the traditional method (inside pots and bags) as well as fishermen bringing in the daily catch. To reach it, you will also pass through the traditional village of which is sadly beginning to fall into disrepair – a few collapsed mud houses have been left as their inhabits moved int the city and presumably built themselves a house out of concrete.

You will probably also be offered a riverboat cruise. I have never taken one so cannot comment on either safety, quality or price. If you have taken one, then let me know.

 

Souvenir Street

Barter For traditional Tuareg jewellery.

The “centre” of Niamey is somewhere between the (bank) and the Amandine bakery downtown. There is also a row of shops here selling souvenirs such as Tuareg chic, wall throws and wooden masks. You can find many of the wares here in the artisans market or even the Grand Marche but the masks for example, are only found here.

There are even a few antiques to be found here so it is worth paying a visit. Note that competition is fierce amongst shop keepers and they will practically drag you into their store. Be polite but also be firm. Do remember to haggle hard and don’t be afraid to “offend” anybody by offering them 10% of what they asked for.

There are also a lot of street beggars and hustlers in this area. The high concentration of private security guards should also serve to remind you to watch your surrounding and keep your valuables where you can see them.

 

Grand Marche

The Grand Marche is where ordinary Niamie’s come to shop for day to day wares. Here you can find cell phones and TV’s, produce, domestic wares and a row of tailors. The market is busy and you will be hassled by beggars and pedlars. Take care in the Grand Marche and watch your valuables. You may also get lost in the Grand Marche. If you ask for directions take them with a pinch of salt.

If you are searching for typical African fabrics there are some in the Grand Marche but even more in the nearby fabric market which is across the road from the main entrance.

I bought a beautiful, hand woven wall throw in the Grand March and also got some funky, made to measure tailor-made shirts here.

 

Artesans Bazaar

The artisans bazaar in  is where skilled creators traditional Nigen wares. Here you will find jewellery, tribal clothing, rugs and wall throws, boxes, ornaments and more. Buying directly from the source may be more ethical than buying from a merchant in the city centre but it is seldom any cheaper – even here you can expect to be quoted very high so be ready to barter hard. 

Note that the neighbouring market is very busy and can be a bit dicey. Try to avoid passing through it if you can but if you have to, stay aware of your surroundings and keep your valuables close.

 

African Conference Building

Even whilst under construction the African Conference Building is well worth a look. It represents a rare example of tasteful and bold modern African architecture which celebrates Nigers culture and history. The building is very cleverly designed to resemble the coloured salt pools found up in the desert around Agadez.

At the time of writing the structure is very visible but access is not possible owing to ongoing construction work. It is set to open in 2020.

 

The Best Day Trips from Niamey

Niamey itself will keep your busy for a few days but to really experience Niger you need to get out of the city and into the wilderness and villages. Let’s look at some easy and awesome day trips from Niger.

 

Spot The Giraffes at Gadabeji Reserve

Giraffes!
Giraffes!

Southern Niger is proud host to over 6000 nomadic giraffes who migrate between Benin and Niger each year.

You can see them in a day trip from Niamey by travelling to Gadabeji Park which is approximately  50 KM South of the city.

Access to the park costs about CEFA for foreigners. You will need your own vehicle and will also need to pay 1000 CEFA plus a tip for a guide who will jump in your vehicle and find the giraffes for you. Note that you will be driving on the Savannah so make sure your vehicle is up to it. We did it in a standard, automatic car but check tyres, oil, battery and petrol before you set off as breaking down in the national park would be a real pain.

We managed to see around 30 giraffes and even got quite close to them.

You can have lunch in one of the little shacks across the road from the park and also stock up on water. The drive from Niamey to the park is quite pleasant passing through some lush greenery, dramatic landscapes and some charming, old villages. You may wish to make a few stops along the way.

You will need to pass through a toll road and an army checkpoint. Bring some small money, your passport, driving licence and car papers.

The giraffes actually left Niger at one point as the reserve was gradually being destroyed but came back after a dedicated campaign to restore their habitat.

 

Drive the Road to Bosso

Day to life in Niger en route to Bosso.

After the park, the road continues to Bosso which is the nearest city to Niamey. The total drive time from Bosso to Niamey is about 90 minutes. Bosso itself is thoroughly unremarkable although there is an average artisans market and an acceptable museum.

The road to Bosso though is very pleasant again taking in some great landscapes and cutting through charming old villages. If you have time and energy after the park, then it may be worth continuing to Bosso purely to take in some more of the country.

 

The Big Dunes

The Big Dunes - Saajie
The Big Dunes

The “big dunes” are essentially a bunch of sand dunes situated in “La Saajie” (wilderness) about 20 km of Niamey centre. The best way to get out here is to commandeer a vehicle. If that is not possible, then there are some busses headed along the roads although I am not sure where about in Niamey they start out from. Hitchhiking back into Niamey would not be a problem.

The drive up to the dunes is stunning taking in fields of crops, dried river beds and road side villages.

The dunes burst into lush greenery during the rainy season. You can drive onto the tunes but be mindful about getting stuck in the sand which turns to mud after a rain fall. The dunes are hauntingly quiet and eerie although you will have the occasional donkey caravan or goat shepherd for company.

The dunes are a great place to do some camping but be sure to being plenty of water, sun screen and insect repellent.

You will need to pass through a toll road and an army checkpoint. Bring some small money, your passport, driving licence and car papers.

 

Babou Village

 

Babou village is another traditional village and the setting for a famous Wednesday market. The market is a truly authentic African market where you can see cattle been traded and slaughtered and witch doctors selling good luck charms and performing magical rites.

In Babou you will also have the option to take a river boat ride in a traditional style boat. This is great for bird watching.

However, the atmosphere in and around Babou is quite tense and this only heightens on market day. We had some very strange experiences in Babou Market so had to cut our trip short. Sadly, I do not advise visiting unless you have a local male (who you know and trust) acting as your guide and chaperone.

The areas around Babou are also beautiful consisting of crop fields, craggy cliffs and offering expansive views over the river bed. You can do some nice off-roading and find a few spots to stop for photographs or a packed lunch.

However, as with Babou Village itself, even out in the wilderness we were unfortunately approached by some strange locals taking an unsettling interest in us and so we had to cut our picnic short.

To reach Babou you will need to pass through a toll road and an army checkpoint. Bring some small money, your passport, driving licence and car papers.

 

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