For a country that consistently elicits frowns from heads of state and news reporters, Guinea-Bissau will pull a smile from even the most world-weary traveller. The jokes here, like the music, are loud but tender. The bowls of grilled oysters are served with a lime sauce spicy enough to give a kick, but not so strong as to mask the bitterness. The buildings are battered and the faded colonial houses bowed by sagging balconies, but you'll see beauty alongside the decay. Here, bare silver trees spring up like antler horns between swathes of elephant grass, and cashew sellers tease each other with an unmistakably Latin spirit. Board a boat for the Bijagós, where you can watch hippos lumber through lagoons full of fish and spot turtles nesting. Despite painful wars, coups and cocaine hauls, Guinea-Bissau buzzes with joy, even when daily life is tough and the future bleak. There must be magic in that cashew juice.
In the early evening, the fading sunlight lends the crumbling colonial facades of Bissau Velho (Old Bissau) a touch of old-age glamour. Dozens of generators set the town trembling, and ignite the lights of stylish bars and restaurants that form something of a modern, indoor city in startling contrast with the worn exterior.
Ilha de Orango is the heart of Orango Islands National Park. The island is home to rare saltwater hippos, and is also the burial site of the Bijagós kings and queens. Pretty Orango Parque Hotel is run in association with the local community, and guides can take you hippo spotting (around CFA150,000). You can reach Orango by speedboat transfer from Ilha de Kere or by scheduled pirogue from Bubaque. For the latter, you'll need to have time and tides on your side..
Geographically closer to Bissau than any other island in the Bijagós, eerily beautiful Bolama feels worlds away, both aesthetically and socially. The Portuguese capital of Guinea-Bissau until 1943, Bolama's shores are awash with crumbling relics that were abandoned after independence. Tree-lined boulevards are mapped out by lamp posts that no longer shine, and the colonial barracks have been recast as a hospital, now – like much of the island – in a dark and desolate state. The former town hall, flanked by Greek style pillars, was built in 1870; these days huge splinters hang like stalactites from its ceilings. The turrets of the once grandiose Hotel Turismo sit in an overgrown nest of lianas, 3m-tall weeds and snakes. It's worth walking out to Ofires Beach, an hour's stroll from the town, to see the spooky sweeping staircase of a beach hotel that no longer exists.
Quinhamel, 35km west of Bissau, makes an interesting day or weekend trip. You can overnight at Mar Azul, where rooms overlook the pool, gardens and ocean. The restaurant serves grilled oysters served with a hot citrus sauce. About 2km away, nestled between the mangroves, is a local beach popular with families and young people at the weekends. The inspiring community project Artissal introduces visitors to the region's unique weaving traditions.
The Bissagos Islands, also spelled Bijagós, are a group of about 88 islands and islets located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the African nation of Guinea-Bissau. The archipelago was formed from the ancient delta of the Rio Geba and the Rio Grande and spans an area of 2,624 km². Only some 20 islands are populated year-round, namely Bubaque which is where the Bissagos administrative capital is situated and is the most populated island, Bolama, Carache, Caravela, Enu, Formosa, Galinhas, João Vieira, Maio, Meneque, Orango, Orangozinho, Ponta, Roxa, Rubane, Soga, Unhacomo, Uno, and Uracane. There is a high diversity of ecosystems: mangroves with intertidal zones, palm forests, dry and semi-dry forests, secondary and degraded forests, coastal savanna, sand banks and aquatic zones. The archipelago was declared in 1996 a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve—Boloma Bijagós Biosphere Reserve, known for animals including marine turtles, hippopotamus and the southern islands are today a nature reserve.