Somaliland is a beautiful piece of land, and de facto state separated from Somalia itself in 1991. It is still not destroyed by mass tourism. You can visit the old town of Berbera, fascinating Las Geel and stroll around the vibrant city of Berbera. This short guide below does not intend to substitute the gigantic work of existing books but present our experience from a short-term stay in the country in January-February 2020. We landed to Hargeisa by plane and left it through the same gate. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to go around too much, but we did at least “must-to-sea” Laas Geel and Berbera. Bradt guide (See below) can guide you through even most remote parts of this political entity.
The government makes everything possible to make the movement of rare tourists safe. Usually, main roads from Hargeisa to Berbera, Borama-Zeila, Burao are very safe, the problems might occur in border regions with Somalia and de facto state Puntland. Overall safety is much higher than in Ethiopia, the street criminality is almost neglected even in the evenings/nights. You might encounter the troubles when bargaining for prices, but tourist overpricing is much less frequent than in other African countries. Sometimes you can encounter refusal when taking a photo of some particular people (esp. women) and try to avoid pictures of state buildings and security institutions (presidential palace, prison etc.).
Visa and airport procedures:
Both were very smooth, you need a passport photo, visa applications are available at the airport, and you just pay 60 USD for a stamp. The visas are given to exact number of days you request (it is good to ask for slightly more days than you plan).
Philip Brigs, Somaliland, Bradt Travel Guides, edition 2, 2018 is the most comprehensive, detailed and very reliable book on the country (though some things have naturally changed in the meantime). The guidebooks inside the country are hardly available.
From Hargeisa in Hargeisa to the downtown we bargained 15 USD, 10 USD on the way back. Taxi within Hargeisa should cost not more than 3-4 USD (5 USD if you go to the outskirts of the city, such as Majalleh view in the southern vicinity of the town).
The most convenient way from Hargeisa to Berbera is one of the numerous minibuses shuttling between the two cities. The usual price is 3 USD and you mostly avoid road control (although have the permission for Berbera/Laas Geel ready). Taxi from taking the street could cost you about 60 USD/one way, but you might have delays on several check-points requiring for militia guard for tourist. Insist that you got the permission for individual travelling to Berbera from the Ministry of tourism, eventually have the phones of ministry staff ready to use.
We took a small Vitz taxi, which accommodated us two, our luggage, driver and militia guard for the drive Hargeisa-Laas Geel-Berbera for 100 USD (with militia guard got off according to our agreement after Laas Geel visit).
Initially, we tried to rent a car from Royal Car Rental (https://royalcaronline.com/), but despite their promise to provide us with a vehicle without additional papers, in the end, they required sponsorship/support letter from your hotel. It might be a problem to obtain as hotels prefer to arrange trips for their guest through their agencies (usually more expensive). But you can try it. They offer sedan cars for about 25 USD per day. Be aware that no insurance is possible to be arranged, so any damage is on your own risk.
Technically, you are not able to leave Hargeisa without permission (even got through checkpoints in few kilometres away from the city). However, you can get one at the Ministry of Tourism (the small street on the backside of Presidential Palace, 20 mins walking from the city centre to the west). The permissions for Laas Geel and Berbera (two papers) are issued on the spot for 25 USD in total and you can use them for going to Berbera by public transport and Laas Geel with security guard.
For Laas Geel, the ministry can arrange the security guard for 30 USD (if you continue from Laas Geel to Berbera, you can agree to drop him off in Dhubante village to go back to Hargeisa). They can also offer you a guide for 40 USD, but we did not use the service as we found Bradt guide and other internet sources enough (which was confirmed once getting there). Theoretically, you can arrange your permission to Laas Geel and Berbera at the Ministry and arrange your guard going to the village Dhubante on Hargeisa-Berbera road using public transport. Although several successful stories are circulating on different travel forums, this process might be tricky as you needn’t find appropriate car and guard to the place in the village itself. And Laas Geel is undoubtedly worth visiting the place.
We lived in Oriental hotel as many tourists do. Despite some shortcomings, we found it as a “calm island”, charm for its colonial genius loci. The hotel is fashionable among locals for meetings, afternoon coffee/tea etc., but in majority cases, the courtyard does not get overcrowded. You can also find a decent restaurant with meals for 6 USD (or shilling equivalent), tea/coffee for 1 USD. The upside of the hotel is the atmosphere, central location (every taxi driver knows it) and reasonable pricing (check the room and do not hesitate to ask for a better one). The staff is helpful and attentive. Staying for longer time (one week) we bargain the price to 30 USD/twin (regular price is 34 USD), breakfast included (tea/coffee, various kinds of eggs/bread&jam etc.). The downside is the proximity to mosque with loudspeakers. Wi-fi is not always stable, but SIM card with several GB credits from Telesom/Somtel is more than adequate substitution.
However, there are plenty of new hotels around the city centre as well as in the outskirts of the city that you can find selection according to your needs and preferences. There are also several AirBNB options, but most of them not in the city centre. Booking.com does not cover Somaliland.
In Berbera, there are several simple hotels around Damal hotel (around 7-10 USD/twins), but usually, they are far from good standards. Damal hotel (rune by Dahabshil) offers double/twins for 52 USD with breakfast. There is no solid hotel in between but the mushrooming building can bring this service in the near future.
We used local restaurants for eating out and had no problems. Just be sure that the meal is freshly prepared. In Berbera, do not avoid excellent fishes. You can also have fresh bread and bananas are sold by ladies everywhere.
It is highly recommended to buy bottled water (they are sold everywhere in the cities and along the roads) with one 0,5 l bottle usually cost about 2000-2500 shillings, 1,5 l bottle accordingly. In many restaurants, you can get fresh juice also without any problems.
Excellent Somali tea is offered for about 1000-1500 shillings on the street (0,5-1 USD from more popular places such as Harrar or Oriental hotel in Hargeisa).
Money and payments:
The dollar is widely accepted, but It is wise to have Somaliland shilling with you. Taxi drivers in Hargeisa often do not have change for dollar bills, but they will certainly give you back shillings. Money changers are everywhere in the centre around suuq (bazaar), although it is good to ask at several stalls for the rate. Berbera has rare options for exchange, but you can also pay with dollars and get back shillings everywhere.
As of February 2020, the official rate was 8500 (sometimes even more) per dollar. Check the rate before making a deal. We also preferred exchange offices (some of them and in Hargeisa downtown area) than street moneychanger, which usually offered us a worse price. Be aware that 1000 shillings bills are most widely used (500- and 5000-shilling bills are less frequent, but also available). Other currencies complicated to use, so avoid anything else but USD.
ATMs are rarely available, though their services may extend. There are several ATMs around the bank headquarters in Hargeisa downtown, but we did not try it. Some supermarket (“Sacaadudin”) even accept credit cards, but not always. The lack of credit cards is compensated with Zaad/e-Dahab payments, adjoined to Telesom/Somtel operators. You have to register for these services and pay with the mobile phone credit virtually in every tiny kiosk, bazaars, to taxi drivers, bus companies, hotels etc. Indeed, think about that if you plan to stay in the country for more extended time instead of bringing packs of shilling with you. Even big deals are concluded using Zaad/e-Dahab (including camel trade on livestock bazaars).
The best way to get around is to purchase Somtel/Telesom SIM cards. Most people use Telesom (063) as their first number, while Somtel (065) is usually the second option (many people use both companies with two phones/dual SIM phones). As of February 2020, they were not compatible with each other. Thus, in practice you cannot call/text from Somtel to Telesom or vice versa, although the government prepares the law that should force interoperability in 2020. Somtel has excellent data offer (17 GB for 5 USD), Telesom has although perfect data deals. You can get SIM card at the airport (usually free of charge) or in their downtown office (both on the main Independence street) for about 1 USD. You can also buy mobile phones from about 15 USD.
Somaliland still does not offer many souvenirs and crafts. You can find some jewellery but be careful as most of the items are imported. In some jewellery shops, you can discover tortoiseshells, although be aware that it is illegal to export them from many countries.
The best souvenirs are flags, t-shirts or caps with Somaliland flag/signs. Around the national holidays in mid-May, the flags are almost in any stationary. In other time, the best place to buy these items in Hargeisa we found is Maydh Jet company, close to the prison and opposite to mosque. You can also purchase small wristbands styled as Somaliland flag from stalls around MIG monument for usual 2 USD (slightly less if you buy more or bargain and pay in shillings. Many men wear them. Postcards are not available.
Hargeisa still lacks cultural event places; cinemas do not exist, National theatre is long-term in unfinished condition (although the location is well-known) and there is just one concert club in Hargeisa. If you are in the capital on Thursday, certainly try Hiddo-dhawr, probably the most decadent place in Somaliland. For 20 USD entrance fee (might go down to 15 USD with a local group) you will get a decent meal (nothing special, but enough for dinner) and a significant portion of Somali pop-music with many songs from Somali music Golden age in 1970s-1980s that still positively resonates even among the young generation. The atmosphere is remarkable with music, dance performances, which usually turns to public dances. The music runs almost without interruption from 9 to 12 evening.
Check also the program of Hargeisa Cultural Centre (https://www.hargeysaculturalcenter.org/) where there might be concerts, lectures, book presentations or other events. In these events, you will find plenty of active young people which you might be able to talk. You can also stop in the library to read several books on Somaliland’s history (some of them in English), journals on Somali Studies etc. The centre belongs to the most live public and cultural space in Hargeisa.