You may be surprised if you hear about someone using their vacation days on a trip to Sudan, and though the African country has been plagued by military conflict and violence, there’s a lot of beauty to uncover in Sudan as it transitions to democracy.
Even I tried to avoid it – never mind I was forced to spend my vacations there every other year or so – since most of my family lives there.
This time around, I went with an open mind and ready to accept any and every experience Sudan was willing to throw my way. I was excited to see the differences in the country post-revolution.
In December 2018 a mass protest erupted over the soaring cost of bread and the dire economic conditions, marking the beginning of a pro-democracy movement that overtook the country. Over the course of nearly a year, more than 200 protesters were killed in Sudan.
The revolution resulted in the April 2019 ouster of 30-year President Omar al-Bashir. With a new administration in place, the country has experienced less conservative social regulations. Flyers for concerts and parties detailing turnups into the wee hours of the morning were advertised on social media, and news of haflas (parties) spread through word of mouth – in stark contrast to my 2017 visit where parties and weddings weren’t allowed past 11 p.m. unless you had a special permit.
There was a renewed spirit and an air of freedom this time around that shaped my experience in Sudan when compared to a 2015 visit.
The U.S. Department of State travel advisory for Sudan is currently at a level 3, urging people to “reconsider travel” due to “crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” The highest level for the department’s advisory system is a level 4: do not travel.
While I’ll be the first to tell you I’ve always felt safe in the country, travel at your own risk. The State Department notes that terrorist groups in Sudan may target Westerners and that “crime, such as kidnapping, armed robbery, home invasion and carjacking can occur,” though it is more frequent outside of Khartoum.
But if you’re willing to stay alert and make a plan, there are glorious sights and activities to enjoy across the country.
Pyramids of Meroë
You don’t have to go all the way to Egypt to see pyramids – although I guess if you’re going all the way to Sudan from the U.S., then the two-hour flight north wouldn’t hurt.
However, you’ll get more pyramid bang for your buck, because Sudan is home to twice as many pyramids as Egypt.
The pyramids are also referred to as Nubian pyramids. The area was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Kush, and the pyramids serve as burial grounds for Kushite kings and queens.
Meroë is a little over a three-hour drive north of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. Once you’re there, expect to spend about three or four hours, or you can even turn it into a weekend trip and stay at one of the nearby resorts.
There are tour guides on hand and camels are available to take you around the grounds, though there has been controversy surrounding camel and horse rides at pyramid sites, given reports of animal abuse.
It’s important to note that tourist infrastructure at the site is still under development, and the tour guides can explain things better in Arabic than English. If you want an immersive learning experience, go with a tour company or bring an English-speaking guide with you.
The Nile River
You know the one. The longest river in the world(depending on who you ask and how it’s measured).
There are multiple ways travelers can enjoy the Nile’s beauty. You can pack a picnic and sit by the river banks, and there are also tea sellers who set up shop nearby so you can sip on tea while looking out at the river.
A friend invited me on a speedboat (see “Sudanese hospitality” below), and we packed some food and drinks and took a 20-minute cruise down the river, eventually stopping at an unnamed island near Tuti Island with a nearly empty beach (except for a pack of stray dogs we ended up feeding).
Once there, we were able to barbecue chicken wings, munch on snacks and enjoy hot coffee and dessert while freely playing our music.
I don’t know what they put in the food, but it is amazing.
Sudanese cuisine is Middle Eastern meets Mediterranean meets African stews and spices.
It doesn’t matter what you’re eating: pizza? Good. Ful medames? Good. Shawarma sandwich from a street vendor? Good.
Because Sudan is comprised of many different tribes, each household may have a different staple dish or meal they commonly eat. But ful medames (fava beans), falafel (fried chickpea patty) and waika (dried okra stew) and gurasa (wheat flat bread used as a base for most stews) are mainstays.
Food is a big part of Sudanese culture; rarely do you sit down for a meal by yourself. Dining is a communal experience, and if you have the opportunity to be invited to someone’s home, expect a full spread to be waiting for you (Again, see “Sudanese hospitality” below).
Do be careful to scope out where and what you are eating as food regulations in Sudan aren’t equivalent to the United States. Typhoid, Hepatitis A and cholera are prevalent in the country, and you can get sick from eating contaminated food or drinking unsafe water. The CDC recommends getting several vaccines before visiting, which vary depending on what areas of the country you’ll be in.
Don’t drink the water unless it’s from a sealed bottle or you can be sure it’s been filtered. If you’re ordering a smoothie or juice at a restaurant, make sure to ask what type of water they use. Trust me, I’ve been down that road, and it’s not pretty.
If you don’t know anyone in Sudan, when you leave you will have at least a handful of new friends. Both English and Arabic are official languages in the country, though Arabic is more widely spoken.
If you’re lost, ask for directions. They might not always be correct, but most Sudanese people will go out of their way to help you find what you’re looking for.
I once asked my aunt where I could find bakhoor (Sudanese incense), and she came back the next day with jars of homemade incense. Fighting over who is paying the bill when you go out to eat is expected.
Sudanese people are friendly, so go with it and make some new lifelong friends who will invite you on their boat for a good time on the Nile.
Contributing: The Associated Press