I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Meetup event attended by fellow travel enthusiasts in Bangkok. I was asked to speak about a country that folks might find interesting. So I decided to speak about my previous country of residence, Niger. As nervous as I was to speak in public, I rather enjoyed the experience! Folks also seemed to enjoy the presentation and there were a few that were even interested in traveling to Niger.
Before moving to Niger I tried to do some research on what I should expect living there. There wasn’t much out there on the Internet that got me excited to be going. In fact, most of it was pretty scary stuff about kidnappings and terrorist activities. I recently looked online and there still just isn’t much information out there for folks interested in traveling to Niamey, Niger.
Since I lived there for 2 years from 2014-2016 I have some knowledge that I can contribute. It’s different than my usual food or travel articles–because I lived there. But it’s a story worth telling and this blog is my podium to an Internet audience. I do hope you find this useful.
Get a cup of coffee and strap in…
You will find this to be a much longer article than what I usually write. There is also a lot more pictures. That’s because there’s a lot of information gaps out there and I want to cover the topic thoroughly. There is a lot to see and do in Niamey that deserves some coverage. Even so, I couldn’t possibly cover EVERYTHING so it’s just the broad strokes. I am happy to cover any particular information gaps you find as well as provide more recommendations if you contact me.
Who goes there?
Niger doesn’t exactly have a booming tourist industry. But there are many folks who visit or live there that work in NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations). There are also travel enthusiasts who want to “cross off” Niger from their lists. For those who are traveling to Niamey, Niger for whatever reason this article can be your one stop recommendation source for things to do and see, places to stay, and places to eat.
Note that I have not included prices on food or attractions. Those things may have changed by now and are sure to change in the future.
But first a quick overview and introduction for those that may not have even heard of the country of Niger.
Where is it?
Most folks might not know where Niger is. In the course of my 24 years of military service I’ve received some orders to places that had me scratching my head, but when I received my orders to go to Niamey, Niger I really had to grab a map. To this day I still have family and friends that think I lived in Nigeria. Niger is not Nigeria (no matter how many times your iPhone tries to autocorrect it).
If you’re not familiar with where Niger is you will find it located in that sweet garden spot of Northwest Africa. To the north it is bordered by Mali, Algeria, and Libya. Nigeria borders most of the country’s south. You’ll find Burkina Faso and Benin bordering the west, and Chad bordering the east. I joke when I say it’s in a sweet garden spot since it’s got some pretty unstable neighbors with some really nasty transnational terrorist organizations calling the area home. This landlocked country is also 80% covered by the Sahara Desert.
Niger lacks many resources…
Niger consistently makes the list of top 10 poorest countries in the world. In 2017 it was ranked as #6 with a Gross Domestic Product Per Capita of $1069 per person. To put that in perspective, Thailand has a GDP per Capita of $5901 and the USA has $52,194 per person. In a nutshell, Niger doesn’t seem to have much going for resources. But living there I found that there’s much more to Niger’s story. Though they may be lacking in resources, they are rich in other things.
For starters, nature enthusiasts will find that Niger has some pretty exciting opportunities to view wildlife in their natural habitat.
Amazing wildlife adventures…
Niger is home to the last remaining wild West African Giraffes. They are located within a protected area called Kouré which is located 60 kilometers outside of Niamey city. In order to see them you must stop first at the park and pay the entrance fee and pick up a guide (you must have a guide accompany you).
Though it’s considered a protected area for the giraffes to live in, there are also small villages of subsistence farmers which pepper the landscape. The giraffes live alongside the villagers who go about their day herding cattle, mending huts, and tending crops. The baked landscape in Kouré is so desolate and yet beautiful. I found myself wondering how people could live there when there was seemingly nothing there to live off of. Yet the villagers are quick to great you with waves and giant smiles as you pass by.
The “giraffe zone,” where the animals spend most of their time, is about 40 square miles, although their full range is about 650 square miles. But unlike other nature reserves you shouldn’t expect these animals to come to your car wanting treats. You have to find them, and you never know how long that might take. I’ve gone twice. I was lucky the first time and found a small group of them within an hour. The second time I went it took nearly 2 and a half hours and I was growing concerned the trip was going to be a bust!
Luckily, the guides that must accompany you are knowledgable of the giraffes usual feeding spots and they have a cell phone network between the other guides to keep each other aware of where the giraffes are located.
For thrill seekers, Niger is also home to Africa’s most dangerous large animal, the hippopotamus. Despite their vegetarian diets, hippos have enormous jaws which can sport up to 50 centimeter canines capable of ruining your day. A person shouldn’t get a false sense of safety from being in a boat as the hippo’s large jaws and teeth are capable of splitting small boats in two, unless they decide to capsize the boat instead. The Niger River is very muddy, so these incidences do happen.
Now it’s not my intention to scare off anyone from seeing these beautiful albeit dangerous creatures in their native habitat. On the contrary, it’s a thrill to see them and seeing them promotes tourism which supports the local population as well as promotes the protection of the hippos. I only want to caution that folks shouldn’t grab a boat and just go looking for them on their own–that’s not a safe or smart approach.
Pack a picnic basket!
The best way to see the hippos from Niamey is to drive approximately 30 kilometers outside of the city you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view of the winding Niger river. Proceed along the rocky road to the river bank and you’ll find partitioned picnic areas. On weekends these areas are usually filled with folks picnicking and looking to get away from Niamey to see a bit of nature.
The only inhabited island on the Niger River…
Here on the river bank you can see and visit the only inhabited island on the Niger river. Called Kanazi, this island is inhabited by less than 500 people (many children) clustered together in a village of small mud and reed huts. It’s a great place to visit especially if you can bring gifts. School supplies, basic foods staples, clothing, and mosquito nets are always appreciated. The children are especially enthusiastic, just watch out for the Casanovas who might try to walk off with your girlfriend!
Getting a boat operator to show you the hippos is simply a matter of negotiating a reasonable price which isn’t difficult to do. They’re also happy to combine the hippo expedition with a visit to Kanazi Island. Pushing off from the safety of the banks in a narrow, rickety, motorized boat can be a little intimidating especially when the goal is to encounter Africa’s most dangerous animal.
Fortunately the boat operators are intimately aware of the river’s topography and the habits and temperaments of its local hippo population. They won’t bring you if it’s not safe, and they won’t bring you so close that the situation can become unsafe. So make sure your camera has a zoom setting!
A bit of nature, Niamey’s nearby sand dunes…
If wildlife viewing isn’t your thing. You can still get in touch with nature escaping the city and going out to the sand dunes. The sand dunes are best enjoyed just a couple of hours before sunset so you can interact with the local kids who love to sled down the sandy slopes and also to witness an amazing sunset.
Make sure you have a 4 wheel drive vehicle or else you will get stuck, and bring plenty of drinks and food as there are no facilities nearby. Many expats from the city like to camp here overnight. This hasn’t been a problem for this area, but I would caution visitors that the security situation in Niger can be fluid so it’s important to ask folks in the know if this is good idea.
Check out Niamey’s Museum!
Another interesting thing to see is the Musée Boubou Hama also known as the Niger National Museum. Tour guide prices are reasonable and recommended to ensure you see all of the attractions and understand what you’re looking at, especially if you’re not a native French speaker.
The museum features a lot of cultural exhibits including arts and handicraft that are made on site, dinosaur fossil displays, giant horned cows from Diffa, and most unusual, the remains of what was once thought to be the loneliest tree in the world (sorry for the lack of picture).
An acacia tree, the “Tree of Ténéré” was once considered the most isolated tree on Earth as the nearest tree was over 400 kilometers away. It was a landmark in the completely barren landscape for caravan routes through the Ténéré region of the Sahara Desert. It’s life of loneliness was ended in 1973 by an intoxicated Libyan truck driver. But the tree was so famous and beloved that it was brought to the Niger National Museum to be immortalized in display. A metal sculpture was erected in its place in the desert to continue to guide travelers.
What about food?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss my favorite topic, the food. Let’s be honest, if a country is on the top 10 poorest countries list then you can expect there’s not a feast on your average person’s table. Outside of the larger cities in the rural villages people are scraping by day to day and a dry rainy season or a heavy rain season can be devastating.
In the city of Niamey food is not as scarce as much of it is imported through daily international flights from Morocco, Turkey, and France. There’s also produce brought overland from Burkina Faso, Benin, and seafood from Togo.
Because the Niger River divides the city there are plenty of riverbank gardens that spring up, as well as an abundance of Capitaine, or Nile Perch. Dried fish is a common staple, as well as fried dough called farine massa which is similar to beignets but with a spicy sauce, and it’s not unusual to see folks selling dried beans in small bags meant to supplement dishes with protein and minerals. As Niger was once a French colony they’ve pretty much mastered bread making and baguette bread loaves can be found everywhere and are very inexpensive.
Shop like a scavenger hunt!
That being said, shopping for food is a very different experience than every country I’ve lived in. There’ s no major supermarket there like Tesco. Instead there are a handful of reputable small markets which are usually reliable for stocking certain sundries. One market may have a decent meat selection, one may specialize in Western goods, another in fruits and vegetables, while another has the best bread and cheese selection in town.
Many weekends I found myself pin balling all around the city from various markets to stores until I’d finally crossed off everything from my shopping list. I found it most enjoyable during the rainy season as I could also use my shopping trips to go mudding with my little Toyota Rav 4!
Niger’s #1 dish!
One thing that must be tried, and one dish I hadn’t expected to be so delicious is brochettes. It’s basically meat on a stick (chicken or beef usually) that’s open grilled with onions and a spicy dry rub. This is then dipped in mustard and devoured in mass quantities with Niger’s national brew Bière Niger or Flag beer (both are bottled locally in Niamey and it’s worth a visit to their brewery for a tour!). Niger has some of the best beef I’ve ever had. For a real treat get a baguette loaf and fill it up with grilled brochette meat, onion, and mustard!
I’m hungry. What are some places to eat?
During my presentation I got a lot of questions from folks about the food safety in Niger. Honestly, there’s no 100% guarantee that any place you eat in Niger is not going to give you issues. That being said, there are some places in Niamey that I would recommend as they offer delicious food, at cheap or reasonable prices (compared to Western pricing), and are the “safer” places that expats will often frequent.
My favorite place to chill…Cap Banga!
The picture of the brochettes previously was taken at Cap Banga. I have many happy memories relaxing on the wooden deck of Cap Banga, a tiny oasis restaurant in the middle of the Niger River, eating skewer after skewer of beef brochettes, crispy fries, and cold beers.
This was a fantastic place to shed the stresses of work, enjoy the company of friends, cheer on the folks brave enough to tube and jet ski, and finally watch the sunset go down as fishermen paddled their dugouts on their way home with their nets and the day’s catch.
Where is Cap Banga located?
Cap Banga is not far from the the US and French Embassy. In the Google Map below if you follow the paved road to it’s termination it will lead into an unpaved road. Follow the Cap Banga signage to turn left to a parking lot. From there a small boat will ferry you to the island where Cap Banga is located.
An Oasis in the City: Côté Jardin
Côté Jardin has been operating in Niamey since January, 2014. It is the third restaurant of its name, with the first located in N’Djamena, Chad and the second in Lomé, Togo.
It has both a beautiful outside seating area, private outside straw hut seating, and when the weather becomes unbearably hot there is inside seating with air condition. In addition, they have a full service outside bar with seating available there. This is a great place to meet up with friends for food and drinks.
For pictures of their food check out their online menu. Not on their menu, but certainly worth getting is their duck breast with baobab sauce. They are also one of the few restaurants that have camel on the menu (in a cream sauce it tastes kind of like a stroganoff).
Where is it?
The road leading to the restaurant is not paved and can be very muddy during the rainy season. You’ll need to park outside the restaurant, but there is a guard there to watch the vehicles and assist with parking.
Feeling fancy? QG’s!
If you’re looking for a place to have a fancy dinner, QG is the place to go. This is the place to go for white linen table cloths, shining silverware, and a focus on presentation and experience. There are outside garden areas, fine dining inside with air condition, and they even have a luxurious and well appointed cocktail lounge.
I personally would recommend their grilled capitaine filet with cream sauce, and their springrolls (nems) as an appetizer. It’s also one of the few places in Niamey that you can actually get sushi!
Where is QG?
Follow this map and you’ll find yourself there…
Where to stay in Niamey…
There’s actually plenty of lodging options in Niamey, but if you want safety and comfort you are going to have to pay for it. Safety translates to strict entry protocols and guards. Comfort means running water, electricity, and a restaurant on the premises or nearby (if you are lucky there may be working Internet as well). I can give 3 recommendations from my experience in Niger. Click the hotel links for pictures, pricing, and booking.
Niamey’s newest and modern hotel…
If you are really concerned about security then the recently built Soluxe Hotel should alleviate your concerns. When you arrive you will feel like you are entering an embassy–they take security seriously. They also have a 24 hour front desk, swimming pool, fitness center, and on-site Chinese restaurant (with international food as well). As it’s the newest hotel it’s very clean, modern, and has Internet (albeit a bit slow).
Niamey’s best view hotel…
If you want a hotel that has a great view, the Grand Hotel du Niger has an outside dining area that overlooks the bridge going from one side of the Niger River to the other. It’s a great place to load up on beers, brochettes, and watch the sunset.
They also have a gauntlet of security measures that vehicles must pass through to get to the hotel as well as metal detectors at the hotel entrance.
In order to book you will need to contact them by phone, fax, or e-mail (details on their site). You may also have some luck reaching them by messenger on their Facebook page.
Niamey’s hotel for safety, comfort, and budget…
Located within walking distance of the Grand Hotel du Niger, the Hotel Terminus doesn’t quite have the stringent security as the other two recommendations but they do have a guard controlling vehicle access. They have a fitness gym and pool on site (occasionally the pool is used for events). They also have a restaurant on site, and are walking distance from the Dragon d’Or Chinese restaurant.
I lived in Niger for 2 years, but everything I’ve written about in this article can easily be experienced with a well planned visit. In fact, it’s pretty much the itinerary and pictures from the experience I had with my visiting girlfriend. Many of the photos in this article are happy snaps from our time together there, and a few gracious donations from friends there. She put together a little 2 1/2 minute video which captures the time we shared in Niamey pretty well.
The music in the video is a song called “Imidiwan” by Omara “Bombino” Moctar, an internationally acclaimed Tuareg guitarist and singer-songwriter from Agadez, Niger.
It’s the people!
Though Niger may be a country poor in resources, their greatest treasure is their people. During my brief time that I lived in Niger I made life long friends and I’m thankful the Internet enables me to continue to be a part of their lives. Your average Nigerien is kind, helpful, and they genuinely want to showcase their country in a positive light.
It’s a country that strives to move forward while struggling to maintain what they have. But a visit to Niger will help you to appreciate your life, refocus on the most important things in your life, and you’ll find the experience will enrich your life.
I hope from this article you learned a little bit about a country you may have never have thought or heard of. If you’re truly interested in visiting Niger or just still curious about this country I’m happy to answer any questions you might have or get an answer to you.
Feel free to contact me. I still maintain a network of close and trustworthy friends that are able to assist travelers with drivers, translators, and guides. I’d be happy to put you in touch with them to plan out any travel goals you might have.