I wanted to go to Africa for a week and found a relatively cheap flight to Sierra Leone. I discovered that the flight had a layover in Monrovia, Liberia, one of the most difficult and expensive countries to visit in Africa, due to limited flights outside the region. The capitals of Monrovia and Freetown are close enough to overland and the price for the open jaw was the same as the roundtrip. So, I decided to go for it, flying into Liberia and out from Sierra Leone a week later.
February 11-12, 2023: Welcome to Liberia
After a day layover in Casablanca, Morocco, it was time to fly. Royal Air Maroc flies to numerous West and Central African countries and they all seem to depart between 22:00-01:00. To answer the obvious question, yes, I was one of the only white people in the entire airport. The Liberia/Sierra Leone flight did have a couple other white people.
I was a bit nervous about this flight because Roberts International Airport, Liberia´s sole airport was having problems. First, it did not have reliable power and the previous two attempts to fly there were diverted due to a lack of lighting on the runway. The other issue is a lack of adequate security, which led to an official warning issued from the US State Department just 3 days before the trip.
Nevertheless, I took the flight and 4 hours later, at 2:20 in the morning, arrived event-free at the airport. We were forced to take the world´s shortest bus ride from the tarmac to the terminal, but afterwards the immigration process was straightforward because I had already obtained my visa in the Liberian Consulate in New York. The passport stamp made it official: I have now visited 83 countries!
Outside the airport, I was met by a driver pre-arranged through my hotel, which I found on Booking.com. As soon as we got into the very tinted car, he asked me about my long-term travel plans. When I told him I was going to Sierra Leone, he offered to take me for $300. When I noted that his price was exorbitant, he mentioned that he had car insurance, I was still not convinced and said I would figure out my options first. He kept pressing me throughout the trip.
The ride from the airport into the city is supposed to take 60-90 minutes depending on the traffic. Since it was after 3:00 am, there was no traffic and the driver sped like crazy, despite much of the road being unpaved. On one stretch, he went 140 km/hour!!! The ride therefore took just 35 heart racing minutes. I paid the driver the pre-negotiated $50 USD (an insane price but I truly had no other options), checked in and went to bed.
February 12, 2023: An Unbelievable Reunion
The next morning (I guess technically the same morning), I forced myself to wake up around 9:30 to start exploring.
Before the trip, I asked around for things to do and learned about a resort called Libassa about an hour south (actually it´s close to the airport. The resort attracts rich locals and expats on weekends. As this was a Sunday, it would be a good day for people watching and relaxing.
When I told the hotel that I wanted to visit the resort, they called a private car and said it would cost about $100 USD. When I said that was ridiculous and that I wanted to take public transport, they explained the share taxi system. Essentially, taxis constantly drive down the main streets. If there is an empty seat, you can get in and pay $150 Liberian dollars ($1 USD) to go anywhere along the route. Given that most people in Liberia cannot afford cars, the share taxis are extremely easy to find. In fact, I got into mine in less than 30 seconds. Think of it like public buses except instead there are many cars doing the same thing.
The initial ride took 30 minutes before I reached a major transit junction called Elwa at which point, I switched to another share taxi to reach Boys Town (with the accent it sounded like Boston). From Boys Town, there are no share taxis going to Libassa, so I hired a motorcycle taxi for $500 Liberian (3 USD). In total, the ride cost about $5 USD and due to the short transit times, probably took around the same time as the private car.
After paying the $10 USD entry fee, I was greeted by a series of idyllic swimming pools. The pools were spread across multiple levels. The bottom level had a water slide and West Africa´s only lazy river.
The resort is also right on the beach so you can swim in the ocean too, although the current was strong.
At lunch, I saw what appeared to be a familiar face and then realized it was Birgitta, my friend who I met traveling in the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. I last saw her at a flea market in her home of Stockholm and she had 7 countries left to visit. But now, she has been to every country in the world.
Birgitta told me she was back in Liberia because she loved this resort and wanted to help build a second one with the owner. I have no clue how serious these plans are, but she said she has spent the last week staying here having daily chats with the owner.
In addition to the pools, Libassa has a wildlife sanctuary. It has a separate $10 admission price. The animal sanctuary takes trafficked animals and rehabilitates them. Their goal is to rerelease the animals back into the wild. This is an easier task for solitary animals like the deer and pangolins but is a trickier task for social animals like monkeys. They have over 100 monkeys!
Back at the pools, it was now quite crowded. The majority were Africans in their best swimwear. A lot of men were going on dates where they teach women how to swim. However, there were also many Lebanese (who over the past 30 years have become the dominant economic force in West and Central Africa), Chinese, Indians, and White people.
I stayed until 17:30 which I figured would give me enough time to be home before sundown.
As Libassa was at the end of a remote dirt road, there were not many taxis nearby. I eventually found one, but he asked for a ridiculous rate. A random neighbor overheard the conversation and insulted the taxi driver so badly that the driver ran into the woods in shame.
The neighbor then called his friend who took me back to Boys Town on his motorcycle for the real price. From there, I got a tuk-tuk to Elwa and then a share taxi home.
For dinner, I went to a nearby restaurant that had a mix of local and Western food. It was fine.
February 13, 2023: Monrovia
With my last full day in Liberia, I decided to explore the center of Monrovia, capital of Liberia. The walk to the center took about an hour. While I could have easily taken a taxi, I thoroughly enjoyed see life happen.
The city center itself is small and on a grid.
My first stop was Providence Island just to the north of the center. Providence Island is a key site in Liberia´s unique history. While the island appeared to be open for visitors, I was told that there was some mysterious procedure that I needed to follow. Luckily, everything is flexible in Africa and I eventually talked my way into getting an island tour for $5.
Liberia is unlike any other African country. It was founded by freed slaves from the United States. The American Colonialization Society, a group supported by a unique coalition of abolitionists hoping for better life for Blacks and racist slaveholders trying to remove potentially disruptive free Blacks from society, sponsored the 1820 journey of 88 free Blacks and 3 White representatives of the American Colonization Society. After rejection in Sierra Leone, the group landed on Providence Island in 1822 where they negotiated a deal with the local chiefs to settle.
This colony was named Liberia for liberty and the main city was named Monrovia for the current US President, James Monroe. Over the next few decades more than 15,000 freed slaves would come to Liberia. Liberia became a country in 1847 with a government based on the United States Constitution. Along with Ethiopia, it was the only African country to have never been colonized by a Western power. It is for this reason, that many things in Liberia “feel” American. Their currency is the dollar with bills that look like US greenbacks, they use miles instead of kilometers, the flag looks just like the American flag, they have hand-me-down school buses and police uniforms, and many of the names are American such as Maryland County and the second largest city Buchanan.
The remnants of that first settlement are still visible on the island including the foundation of houses and a water pump. The iconic cotton tree under which the settlement deal was struck fell in a storm in 2019, but in its place a new one is growing.
Next, I visited the National Museum. Here is where the story of Liberia gets interesting. See, in most American history books, the story stops with the founding of Liberia, but few know what came next.
The former slaves, known as Americo-Liberians had more education and skills than the local indigenous people. They considered themselves racially superior to the indigenous people and set up a system where they controlled everything- ironically just like the racist system they had fled from in the United States. Only Americo-Liberians could vote. The two main political parties were the Republican Party and the True Whig Party, although the True Whigs ruled nonstop from 1878-1981.
By the 80´s, the indigenous people, who made up over 97% of the country´s population had had enough. Samuel Doe oversaw a coup, which began 30 years of horrible unrest and two brutal Civil Wars. The conflict included tribal warfare and multiple attempts at seizing power. The worst part of the Civil War occurred between 1989-1993 and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands. The conflict finally ended in 2003 with the exile of Charles Taylor.
The first free election post-war occurred in 2005 and was won by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was Harvard educated and defeated George Weah, the country´s most famous footballer and the only African to win the Ballon d´Or. The USA, still heavily involved in Liberian politics, told Weah that he needed to become more educated to be a better role model for the people. He went to DeVry University, a for profit university, at their Florida campus.
Once Sirleaf became term limited, Weah ran again in 2017 and won! Weah´s DeVry diploma is on display prominently in the museum, which sadly does not allow photography and was enforced by a guard following me around.
Shortly after the return of democracy, Liberia was hit by another disaster: the 2014 Ebola epidemic. At the time of the outbreak, the country had just 50 doctors. There were nearly 5,000 reported deaths and the country was functionally shut off from the rest of the world for about 2 years.
Liberia has been on the path to recovery and stability, but that path is slow. The country remains one of the poorest in the world.
With this context, I walked around the city of Liberia. A few historic buildings built by the early Americo-Liberians remain including the Methodist Church. The Freemasons headquarters, which looks like the White House, is especially impressive.
Despite the organized layout of the streets, the town is not peaceful. Every street is riddled with a cacophony of speakers playing cell phone data ads on repeat. “Orange, Recharge Your Phone, Recharge Your Phone”. Furthermore, the streets are filled with garbage.
Nowhere is more crowded and disgusting than the Waterside Market. While most certainly a sight to see, I would be so unhappy having to conduct actual business there. Not only were there swarms of people in the filthy streets, but there were also tuk tuks attempting to drive down the narrow pedestrian alleys.
My final stop in the center was the Hotel Ducor. Built in 1960 as an Intercontinental, it was a luxury hotel hosting many celebrities such as Michael Jackson and African leaders. However, the hotel was abandoned during the Civil War and has essentially fallen apart. The skeleton of the building is there, but the rooms are all gutted. In 2008, the government of Libya bought the hotel, but never got to repair it due to the 2011 Civil War and the severing of diplomatic between Liberia and Libya. Libya still owns the hotel.
The hotel has guards, but if you´re nice and generous, they will take you on a tour. The tour started at the swimming pool where Ugandan dictator Idi Amin famously swam with his gun.
Next, we climbed to the very top where we were treated to an incredible view of Monrovia and surroundings.
Finally, we visited the old lobby.
Having now seen everything in Monrovia, I walked back to the hotel past many NGOs including the Salvation Army and the United Nations.
For lunch, I ate Lebanese food and then rested up for the rest of the day, having walked almost 30 kilometers. For dinner, I went back to the same place as last night, had a pepper stew and mentally prepared for the overland adventure to Sierra Leone.
Liberia is a tough place. The visa is hard to get for most, the airport is unreliable and far from the city and hotels are expensive. The poverty is heartbreaking. But, if you can manage these difficulties, there are some very nice things to see in the Monrovia area.
The city itself is compact by West African standards, making it possible to explore on foot. Having locals that speak English is very helpful for many reasons.
I really enjoyed learning about Liberia´s unique history. As an American, I realized we only heard a small part of the story. To see the American influence was also very interesting.
All that said, the highlight of my time in Monrovia was Libassa, which is just stunning.
Seeing and staying in Monrovia gave me freedom and a view into the city life, but for most travelers coming to Liberia, I would recommend staying at Libassa and using them to get day tours around the region. Beyond Libassa, there is apparently a lot else to see such as the Firestone rubber plantation, some very old Americo-Liberian towns, indigenous villages, surfing, and pristine jungle. While a short stay in Monrovia can be done independently, I don´t think it is possible to easily see everything the country has to offer without trustworthy help and the Libassa ownership seems to have the right connections.