Hargeisa – The bustling capital of Somaliland

Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is a colorful, noisy, sometimes (very) dusty place. It is also full of friendly locals – many of whom speak English – and who will be delighted that a foreigner has come to visit.

I stayed there for a month, and found Hargeisa (sometimes spelled Hargeysa) a fascinating place, and as one of very few foreigners that visit the Somali city, there’s no doubt that I stood out! But from drinking camel milk to chewing khat, here’s my run-down on the city, as well as tips on what to see and do. So book your flights to Hargeisa and read on!

One of the many colorful shop facades I found as I wandered around Hargeisa

Hargeisa in a nutshell: a guide

Hargeisa is a complex place, which has suffered real tragedy in the past, and while some business is booming, this is still a poor city and region. As such, travelers should be sensitive to that.

But this city, and Somaliland in general, wants tourists, and has made a big effort to make them feel welcome. The hospitality is great, and locals good-natured.

What to see and do

Visit the livestock/camel market

You’ll see camels wandering everywhere in Hargeisa, but make your way to the camel market on Friday morning to see where the action really takes place.

Here, you will find dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of them, being bought and sold, and it’s a true Somali experience. Ask permission for photos here – people aren’t always happy to be in your snaps.

The camel market in Hargeisa is a fantastic, albeit loud, experience!

Chew Khat with the locals

Khat, a mild stimulant, is Somaliland’s answer to alcohol. Somalilanders you befriend will be keen to sit down and chew with you – especially if you’re a man – and it’s a great opportunity to talk and learn about Somaliland and it’s history.

The process can take a few hours, and it’s customary to bring a bottle of soda, some snacks and water which can be shared around. Do be aware that chewing khat can sometimes take hours, and the first-time you chew, your gums could get a little sore and may bleed.

Sometimes Khat chewing sessions will happen in houses that are designated meeting places, so you may sit down to chew with many interesting and varied characters. I spent time chewing with politicians as well as refugees during my time in Hargeisa, and gained a lot of knowledge from doing so.

Personally, as someone who is partial to a few beers, the “high” from Khat felt like something akin to a beer or two, so pretty much nothing. Therefore no need to be afraid of the “stimulant” tag. It’s worth knowing however, that it is regarded as rude to take photos of anyone chewing Khat – so don’t whip out the camera and ruin your newly-found friend’s high!

A friend of mine paying for khat using his phone in Hargeisa, as the khat seller sorts bundles in the background

Exchange some money

This may sound a bit weird, but let me explain. While big items are bought in USD here, the Somaliland Shilling is used for smaller purchases. However with it’s devaluation in recent years, a few dollars exchanged will now get you a pile of shillings back.

These days, money-exchangers will sit in the city market behind walls of cash, and it truly is a bizarre and unique sight. On several occasions I saw people wheeling cash down the street in a wheelbarrow! I wrote about the bizarre money situation in Somaliland for the BBC here.

A money seller I met while in Hargeisa – you can see the ‘wall’ of cash he sits behind. His collection of notes was quite modest compared to others….

Try camel milk

There are small “bars” dedicated to selling camel milk – raw and fermented – in Hargeisa, and you should definitely give it a try. The taste is. . . different . . . just remember that it’s very healthy!

Visit Laas Geel

The Laas Geel cave paintings are thousands of years old and is some of the most vivid and colourful rock art in Africa. The paintings can be seen in a day-trip from Hargeisa, and your hotel will be happy to set up a driver to take you there.

However, you may have to hire armed guards for the day, as the Somaliland government likes to make sure foreigners are protected when leaving Hargeisa. That isn’t dramatic as it sounds though. The armed guards will cost you around 20$ a day and probably chew Khat all day with their rusting AK-47s slung on their shoulder.

The road to Laas Geel hasn’t had a security incident for a long time, and in reality the government is just trying to provide more employment opportunities.

Still, ask your hotel about this, because without the guards you could be turned back at a police checkpoint.

Some of the ancient rock art – complete with colors! – that you can see at Laas Geel

Tips for staying in Hargeisa

Is Somaliland and Hargeisa safe?

While Somaliland is technically still part of Somalia – though Somalilanders hope that changes soon – Hargeisa definitely feels pretty safe.

However it’s always good to exercise caution – armed groups still operate in the region. Let people know where you are, and stay at a licensed, reliable, and secure hotel.

As I always do in countries with heightened security situations, if you’re staying for a while, don’t get into the same routine – i.e. walking down a certain street at a certain time every day. A little paranoid, possibly, but it’s rules like these that have kept me relatively safe in some of the world’s more dangerous countries.

Don’t flaunt wealth

It seems obvious, but Hargeisa is a poor place and foreigners stick out – don’t draw more attention to yourself by flashing the latest iPhone as you walk down the street, or having an expensive camera constantly strung around your neck.

Ask your hotel for a reliable taxi

Hotel workers will be delighted to have a non-Somali visit their city, and will be more than happy to give you the number of a reliable taxi driver that they trust – a quick way to stay safe and build rapport with hotel staff.

Photo’s aren’t always OK

Especially photos of the numerous Khat stands in and around the city. If you want to take a photo of them (or of anyone), ask the stand owner if it’s ok, that will also allow customers to get out of the way if they want. Customers on a khat-high can act aggressive if their photo is taken.

Two khat stands at the side of the road – they are everywhere in Hargeisa

Getting a simcard

Somtel, a Hargeisa-based telecommunication company, have offices throughout the city. Most staff speak decent English, and a simcard with minutes and data is very cheap. A simcard is good for keeping safe, and connected throughout your trip, especially if you head outside the city.

Be aware of the political landscape

Somalilanders have suffered greatly at the hands of Somalia over the years, and don’t appreciate someone referring to Hargeisa and the region as anything but Somaliland. I wrote about how genocide in Hargeisa decades ago is still a raw wound in the city, in this Al Jazeera English piece.

Expect to get ripped off at the airport

If your hotel isn’t picking you up at the airport, then expect to get charged a fortune (20-30 USD) by Somali standards for a taxi from the airport. I was lucky as I made friends with a Somali businessman outside the airport and we shared a taxi (around 15 USD) – that’s always an option if you want to keep costs down.

How to dress

Hargeisa is a majority-Muslim city and people are expected to dress conservatively. Women are expected to wear a headscarf.

Fly with Ethiopian Airlines

I heard some horror stories around other airline companies that fly in and out of Hargeisa – including drunk pilots and rusting planes. So if you want to book your flights to Hargeisa please do so with Ethiopian Airlines. They comply by aviation standards and while other airlines may be ten dollars cheaper, it’s really not worth the risk.

Exchanging money? Bring a rucksack

I’m not kidding about the wads of cash – if you want to exchange some dollars, then take a rucksack, because the Somaliland Shillings might not fit in your pocket.

Keep Shillings on you

Somaliland and Hargeisa is still poor, and there are many panhandlers. While you should be wary about giving money directly to anyone that harasses you on the street (this is a sure-fire way to suddenly find yourself surrounded), you should, if you can, give some shillings to panhandlers that sit at the side of the road.

Personally I believe if you are visiting Hargeisa and Somaliland, the least you can do is make a donation to a homelessness charity in the city, and/or give away some shillings. When I was in Hargeisa I did report for USA TODAY on how drought was increasing child homelessness in the city – you can read it here, for a bit of background reading if useful.

Expect color when you visit Hargeisa – especially in the market!

Getting a visa

Obtaining a visa can be easy, depending on your nationality. Some can get a visa on arrival at Hargeisa Airport, such as Americans or Canadians. Others must get a visa beforehand from a Somaliland diplomatic mission.

As a UK citizen I picked up the visa from the Somaliland embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – just e-mail or phone in advance and get the right address. The embassy has moved several times in the last decade, and addresses online are mostly incorrect.

It took less than 30 minutes to get a month long visa, in a pretty painless
question and answer session, where you will be asked your intentions, where you will stay and if you have any connections or friends in Somaliland.

Answer honestly, there’s no trick questions – Somaliland really does want you to visit. The embassy spelt my name wrong on the visa (!), but it made no difference at the airport, so don’t get too stressed out if that happens.