There are so many things I love about getting off the beaten travellers track. Cheaper trips, unpredictable adventures, delightful spontaneity and not having to muscle my way through hordes of other backpackers are just a handful of the things that make travelling to the more unusual destinations so worthwhile.
However, whilst the spontaneity and ‘venturing into the unknown’ are some of the main appeals of travelling to these places, you also don’t want to go in completely blind, as doing so in certain places could easily land you in quite a pickle!
So, if you are planning a trip to Sudan in the future – here are eleven things that you simply must know before you go.
1. Arabic is widely spoken, English is not
This is a bit of a given, but it is important to understand how limited the English fluency is in Sudan. I have travelled to over 60 countries, and this was only the second time I felt extremely limited by not knowing the local tongue. Do yourself a favour and try to learn a little Arabic before your visit, and when in doubt, remember that if you need the toilet – ask for the ‘alhamam!’
2. The black market exchange rate will double your money
The official exchange rate is about 40 Sudanese Pounds (SDP) to every $1 USD – however, if you exchange money with black market street hawkers (which you absolutely should do) it is not unheard of to get rates of 80-85 SDP per dollar!
This will make you money literally go twice as far, making Sudan a very appealing destination for those on a tight budget.
With the exception of the costs associated with obtaining a LOI and valid visa, you can quite easily backpack Sudan on $20 per day.
3. Patience is key
Not much in Sudan happens quickly. When I arrived in Sudan, I quickly learned that if the internet says a bus ride will take 6 hours, it will actually take 10. If the internet says a standard cab fare is x amount, it will take 10 minutes of haggling to get the driver to agree to said amount. If you are in a rush to check into your hotel, you may have to wait for the owner/manager to wake up from his nap!
Things just take time in Sudan. It can feel a bit like an endless humbug and it can be trying for ones patience, but once you embrace the slow pace, travel in Sudan will get much more enjoyable.
4. ATMs don’t accept foreign cards
This may be a foreign concept for some, but thanks to my previous travels in Iran, I was already well used to this! Basically, most foreign cards just won’t work in Sudanese ATMs, so you will need to carry all the cash you will need for your entire trip – preferably in US dollars. This may be a daunting concept, but luckily, Sudan is an extremely cheap place to backpack through, so you won’t actually need to carry a huge amount of cashola. Just make sure to protect yourself by keeping separate chunks of it stashed in different spots – in your luggage, carry on and on your person – that will protect you in the unlikely event of a robbery.
5. You’ll need to be prepared to haggle
Tuk tuks, taxis, hotel rooms and even entrance fees! Sudan is an incredibly budget friendly destination, but to get the maximum bang for your buck, some negotiations will be required. The biggest thing to remember? If anyone asks you to pay in US dollars, simply lie and say that you aren’t carrying any – it will always be cheaper paying in Sudanese pounds.
6. Baggage claim can take forever
I don’t know if this is the norm, but I feel like I should warn people just in case! We flew into Khartoum from Addis Ababa and it was a seriously full flight. When we arrived, it took a good hour to clear customs and be stamped into the country. We figured that by the time we finally got through, our bags would be there waiting for us.
We were wrong.
I have honestly never, in my life, ever, seen so much baggage come out on the belt! It seemed like the locals had all been doing more than a spot of shopping in Addis, and as a result, the sheer number of bags and boxes to be unloaded was unreal. It took another 90 minutes before our bags finally came out, and during that time we pretty much convinced ourselves that we would never see them again – not exactly a stress free experience!
7. SIM cards are cheap and reliable
When you land in Khartoum, make sure to stop by the MTN shop to purchase a sim card – we got a few gigabytes of data, as well as calls and texts, which enabled us to use maps, call drivers and utilise Google Translate on the go. Also, free Wi-Fi is definitely not a standard amenity in Sudan and outside of Khartoum, most hotels will not offer it – so your sim will be your best way to ensure that you keep an open line of communication with the outside world.
8. Keep a few extra USD handy
It is almost always better to pay in Sudanese pounds rather than USD. However, there is one notable exception!
The pyramids of Meroë are one of the main attractions for tourists in Sudan, and for good reason! This ancient city dates back to around 542 BC (which is an insanely long time ago) and was the site of ruling Sudanese royalty, before becoming the seat of government in the 3rd century BC and then eventually collapsing in around 300 AD.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is utterly unique, displaying a style of pyramid that you won’t see anywhere else in the world. The entrance fee for Meroë can only be paid in USD, so you definitely need to have a little extra stash of cash.
9. The tea/coffee ladies are the unsung heroes of the nation
Wherever you go in Sudan, you won’t have to look far before finding one of these angelic woman on the side of the road. These little stalls seem to be exclusively run by women and are the perfect spot to sit down and caffeinate. There are usually quite a few seats next to each stall, so imbibing in what will likely be a delicious coffee (sometimes tea) is also a fantastic way to chat to locals and partake in the casual coffee culture of Sudan.
It does pay to note, unless your Arabic is decent, don’t even try to tell them how you usually take your coffee! You kinda just have to accept what they make you – and for the tiny cost that they charge (usually around 20c) – what you get is almost always delicious!
10. You’ll need a visa
Unless you are one of the five visa exempt nationalities (Kuwait, UAE, Yemen, Qatar and Egypt – except for 18-49 year old males) or from one of the countries who can obtain a visa on arrival (Kenya, Malaysia and Turkey) you will need to organise a visa in advance through your closest Sudanese Embassy.
We got ours through the embassy in Canberra Australia. It cost us $154 AUD and the turnaround time was insanely fast! We had our passports and visas back to us within three business days.
11. Sudan is cheap, safe, friendly and exciting!
Sudan is a completely underappreciated backpacking destination. There is so much to see (our weeklong trip on just scratched the surface), it is super cheap, people are kind and you’ll get to enjoy some of the most gorgeous Nubian art and architecture – and have it all to yourself while you do.