Budget Slow Travel Guide
Sudan is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by the more adventurous. Sudanese hospitality easily rivals what you will experience in Iran and Pakistan. The lack of infrastructure makes traveling more challenging, but you will be rewarded by empty historical sites, vibrant tribal culture and fascinating encounters.
Visa Policy For Sudan
Unless you are from Egypt, Qatar, Kuweit, the UAE, Syria or Yemen you will need to get a visa in one of the Sudanese diplomatic representations. Requirements vary a lot between embassies and consulates, but with the new government’s desire to promote tourism, procedures are getting easier.
Several embassies still require a letter of invitation. Very few hotels and agencies are currently allowed to sponsor a tourist visa. The Hotel Acropole in Khartoum remains the most reliable option, albeit at a cost of 100$. Citizens from Kenya, Malaysia and Turkey can, under certain circumstances, receive a visa on arrival. A few agencies can also arrange a visa on arrival at Khartoum airport for other nationalities, but this is usually limited to tour groups.
Currently, most travelers opt for the embassies in Cairo, Egypt and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Egypt. The visa in Cairo costs a lofty 150$ US cash, but is valid for 60 days upon delivery. The consulate in Aswan now sends the applications to Cairo, which takes a week. If you show up at the Cairo embassy at 8am between Saturday and Thursday, you will get your visa by 4pm. You only need a photocopy of your passport, Egyptian entry stamp and a passport picture. And a little patience while obtaining the application form, making a copy, submitting the application and paying the fee.
No letter of introduction needed, not even for Americans or Canadians. Evidence of travel to Israel is NOT a problem. We had stamps from the Wadi Al Araba crossing with Jordan and a Taba entry stamp. Nobody seemed to care at the embassy, border, or checkpoints.
Ethiopia. This is only second-hand information. Getting a tourist visa (instead of a transit visa) seems to be now a relatively straight-forward affair. The visa is valid for 30 days, usually issued the same day and seems to cost around 70$.
Police Registration &
Police Registration. You have to register with the police within 3 days. Bring a copy of your passport, Sudanese visa page and a passport photo. You will also have to pay a small fee the equivalent of a few dollars in local currency. This can only be done at Khartoum airport, the border towns, and most conveniently at the border post itself. Get it done as early as possible.
Leaving the country overland, you have to again check-in with the police. This can be done against a small fee at the border post. If you are taking the ferry from Wadi Halfa to Aswan you need to do so at the Halfa police station before going to the port.
Travel Permits to leave Khartoum and photo permits are now a thing of the past.
Entering The Country
By Air. A handful of airlines fly to Khartoum, mostly from nearby African and Middle Eastern cities. The airport is in the city.
By Sea. A regular ferry sails from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Port Sudan, opening up interesting overland itineraries. There is anecdotal evidence that foreigners can also enter Saudi Arabia that way with the new tourist e visa, although this is not official. Another weekly ferry links Aswan in Egypt with Wadi Halfa in the North. Confirm schedules locally, it is not clear how long this classic journey will survive with the recent opening of a new direct Aswan-Khartoum road.
By Land. From the North, buses depart daily (expect Fridays) from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. The border crossing takes several long hours, as the passenger buses are filled with washing machines and other industrial goods for import. From Ethiopia, minibuses ply the route between Gondar, the border and Qadarif in Sudan.
Public Transportation In Sudan
General Considerations. Public transportation in Sudan is remarkably efficient. And cheap. Fuel subsidies are gradually being lifted in 2020, which will affect prices. Nevertheless, crossing the entire country will set you back less than 20-30$ in local currency.
Vehicles only leave when full, which usually happens quickly. Most long-distance buses don’t operate on Fridays, but you will still find some minibuses. It can however take more time to find sufficient passengers. Overall, if it fits your schedule, it’s best to avoid moving much on Fridays.
By Microbus. Between smaller cities and villages regular microbuses run from sunrise to sunset. This also applies to the popular sights in the North between Wadi Halfa and Khartoum. Ask locals for the nearest informal stop and wait until a vehicle with spare seats stops.
In Khartoum, minibuses run between several informal bus stations. Even locals get confused. Try to figure out the relevant station, ask around and listen for drivers stating their destination.
By Train. Sudan had, once upon a time, the best railway network in Africa. After decades of neglect, there is sadly very little left in working order. Since the revolution, most remaining services have been halted. This will hopefully change in the coming years, but at the moment trains are an extremely unreliable option at best.
By Bus. Comfortable air-conditioned Chinese buses link all the major cities to Khartoum. Buses leave early in the morning, when full. This usually translates to a couple of hours of waiting for the final passengers to show up. To secure the best seats buy your tickets a day or two in advance, either by recruiting a friendly Sudanese to call ahead, or by going in person to the relevant office by the bus station. You could also simply show up early and most probably find a place.
In Khartoum, buses going South and East depart from the big Mina El Berri station. This is also the only place in Sudan where you will find touts. To enter the station, you need to buy a token and pass the turnstyle. Find your company’s booth and get directed through the chaos to your bus. There are several hotels near the station for those early starts.
For transportation going North, buses depart from the small Abu Adam station. No hotels nearby, but open-air beds you can rent for a few pounds.
Transportation In Sudan:
Taxis & Hitchhiking
Khartoum. Many formal and informal taxis offer their services. The app Tirhal is the Sudanese equivalent of Uber, but it can take a while to find someone ready to face the horrendous traffic. Drivers always call to confirm the pick-up location, make sure you have a local nearby who can assist you. Alternatively, you can order a Tirhal by calling 2407.
Other Cities. Small cars and Indian-made black and yellow tuk-tuks offer taxi services in most cities. Refreshingly, they usually quote you the local price. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to confirm the fare before getting in.
Private Hire. If you have more ambitious sightseeing plans, hiring a driver for the day remains very affordable, especially if split between a small group.
Hitchhiking. If you end up far from public transportation, the kind Sudanese people will often offer you a ride to the nearest microbus stop. If you stick your arm out you will not have to wait for long.
Budget Accommodation In Sudan
General Considerations. There is very little tourist infrastructure. Hotels generally cater mainly to Sudanese travelers and are very basic. Occasionally, you will find ridiculously overpriced establishments aimed at tour groups charging hundreds of US dollars a night.
Hotels. Bigger towns as well as the odd village have a few lokandas. The app iOverlander is very helpful in the North. Most hotels are very basic, with little more than beds, a toilet and cold showers. Prices vary between 2 and 8$ in local currency, and there is rarely a need to haggle. Many places offer simple beds outside for a few Sudanese pounds.
Airbnb/Couchsurfing. Sanctions are gradually being lifted, and the first offerings are popping up across the country. It’s usually an above-average experience for Airbnb, thanks once more to the incredible Sudanese sense of hospitality. Similarly, the small yet active Couchsurfing community in Khartoum is an excellent opportunity to learn more about Sudanese culture.
Camping. You can camp almost anywhere outside of villages and agricultural land if you carry your own tent. It is however extremely likely that you will be insistently invited to spend the night in someone’s home if you are seen pitching your tent!
Typical Food. Many travelers complain about the monotony of the food in Sudan, centered around foul (slow-cooked fava beans, topped with peanut oil) and falafel (chickpea-based), with the occasional chicken and mutton BBQ. It’s worth remembering that eating is not entertainment for the majority of Sudanese.
There are, in fact, many local variations of foul. Sometimes served with egg, sometimes with white cheese, sometimes with chopped rocket leaves and fresh onions. Lentils and potatoes also make regular appearances on the menu.
Drink. The countless stalls operated by women across the country serve shay (black tea, often flavored with cinnamon, mint or cloves) or jabana (coffee with zinjibil, ginger). You can also order hibiscus, ginger or milk tea. This is a great opportunity to interact with locals.
Bazaars. Towns and cities usually have at least one central bazaar where you can buy local produce. The selection is not as good as in Egypt, but if you carry a knife and a tupperware you can prepare your own salads. Along with fruits this is the key to a balanced traveler’s diet in Sudan. Depending on the city, the souq remain open on Fridays, or are shut in the morning and reopen in the afternoon.
Vegetarian. Meat is relatively expensive in Sudan, and the basic diet is vegan. Eggs and cheese have to be ordered extra. Sometimes minced meat is added to potato-based dishes. If in doubt, ask “bedun laHma”, without meat.
Off The Beaten Path In Sudan
Sudan is already very much off the beaten path. Yet there is a constant trickle of backpackers mostly between Khartoum and Wadi Halfa. The nascent “circuit” goes through the pyramids of Meroë, Karima, Abri with Sai island and Soleb temple, and ends in Halfa. Good news, anywhere else is even more off the beaten path! Here are a few suggestions:
- Stroll through random fields and villages in Nubia that are not on the list above. If you like a particular area, exploring it more in depth is particularly rewarding.
- If you carry your own tent, camp in the desert.
- Explore the colorful souq and tribes of Kassala, against the stunning background of Jebel Taka.
Sustainable Travel In Sudan
Low-impact travel is for once pleasantly easy, especially in smaller towns and village.
- Public transportation always leaves when full. Read absolutely packed. Your carbon footprint will be low.
- There are very little industrial snacks and products. You just have to say no to plastic bags. In many places like bakeries you are even expected to bring your own.
- Outside of Khartoum, the concept of takeaway is alien. If you want to bag an extra portion foul, just show your tupperware. No need to explain anything.
- Plastic bottles are rare outside of big cities. You will have to carry a water treatment method anyway. If you crave for a soda, you can easily find reusable glass bottles.
- Fruit and vegetables are almost always local.
Useful phrases in Arabic:
- لا شكرا (“laa, shukkran”): no, thank you (to turn down something)
- دون كيس (“bedun kis”): without bag
- For takeaway, just show your tupperware, it’s not uncommon for Sudanese to use their own containers.
Toilets. Public toilets are in short supply. Routinely, like at bus lunch stops, there aren’t any. People just take a water jug, lift a little their jellabiya/skirt and do their business in a nearby field. Soap is a rarity. Carry your own, and bring some hand disinfectant.
Water is available everywhere in big clay jars and plastic barrels. However, it should always be considered as unsafe and untreated, as it regularly comes directly from the Nile or other rivers. Bottled water is not always available. Carry a filter that can handle viruses, or at least chlorine tablets.
Food. Kitchen hygiene is generally acceptable for the seasoned traveler, but chances are your stomach will sooner or later be challenged. There are regular shortages in pharmacies. Bring your own supply of charcoal tablets as a first line of defense, and at least a couple of ciprofloxacin or erythromycin courses if things take a turn for the worse.
Mosquito-borne Diseases. South of Khartoum is considered malaria and yellow fever endemic regions. There is only a very small risk outside the rainy season, when most travelers visit the country. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to carry a mosquito net to guarantee a peaceful night. Note that Egypt requires the yellow fever vaccine certificate when traveling from Sudan.
South And Western Sudan. The border with South Sudan is a no-go area. There is real hope for lasting peace in Darfur, but for now this too remains off limits. The North and the East are very safe. The long lines for bread and gasoline are however a reminder that civil unrest is a very distinct possibility. Stay informed and heed local advice.
Small Towns & Villages are generally very safe. Stalls often remain unguarded at night, just covered by a tarp. There is not much happening after dark in most villages, but you can still walk around at night.
Khartoum is an entirely different beast. Streets are mostly deserted at night, and muggings do happen. Women, especially when traveling alone, are regularly victim of groping. Compared to other big African cities Khartoum remains relatively safe, but cannot be compared with the pleasantly relaxed atmosphere of small towns and villages.
Dress. Sudanese society is very conservative. Knees and shoulders should always be covered, for both men and women. Although the hijab is not mandatory for female tourists, a loose headscarf along with a long skirt or baggy trousers and sleeves that cover at least the elbows will greatly facilitate respectful and friendly interactions with the Sudanese.
Shaking Hands. Like in much of the Arab world, hand shakes tend to be soft. A firm hand shake can be considered rude. Sudanese women do usually shake hands of male foreigners, but it is polite to wait until the hand shake is offered, and to do so in a very delicate manner.
Eating. Always use your right hand!
Women are generally given priority when queuing. Public transportation is more or less segregated when possible. If you are a couple (officially married of course) you can sit together, with the woman sitting away from the other men.
Invitations & Giving Back. You will constantly be invited for tea, food or even to spend the night. If you accept, bringing a small gift will go a long way. Regularly, Sudanese will insist on paying your tea/coffee/food/bus fare. Hospitality plays an important role in their culture, and accepting gives them a lot of dignity.
A lot of your benefactors are from a very humble economic background. Some unscrupulous backpackers take advantage of this. If you can afford the visa, you can afford to pay for transportation and accommodation! The many beggars are a good opportunity to redistribute the countless gifts you receive.
Alcohol is forbidden, and the law is strictly enforced. Don’t be foolish!
Few Sudanese speak English. There are many languages and dialects spoken in Sudan, but Arabic remains the lingua franca. In the North you can get by with Egyptian Arabic, but this becomes gradually more difficult as you head further South.
Learning basic greetings and numbers is almost essential. Spending a few hours learning the script, including numerals, will greatly facilitate navigation and communication in Sudan and the Arab world.
Wifi is exceedingly rare. Don’t count on it.
Mobile Internet. 4G coverage is good in Khartoum, and gradually expanding to the other major cities of the country. Zain has the best internet coverage at the moment. The 3G network is often saturated and painfully slow during the day. Messaging works, but everything else cannot be taken for granted.
You can buy a SIM card at any of the official shops. Take your passport and a good dose of patience. Data packs are very affordable.
Money & Budget
Cash & Inflation. Sudan is, much like Iran, cut off the international payment system. ATMs are not an option. Cash is king. Sudan’s currency regularly depreciates against the US dollar, and inflation is rampant. This is the main reason why you will not find more precise cost estimates in this guide. It’s simply futile to quote anything in Sudanese pounds.
Black Market Currency Exchange. There is a significant difference between the official and the black market rates, often double or triple. It’s difficult to know the exact current rate without local help, although you will find hints on the internet. Bring a good supply of new-looking US dollars. 50 and 100$ bills command better rates. Only change a small amount at the airport or the border. Ask around the main bazaar in any bigger town. The best rates are found in the souq arabi in Khartoum. The money changers walk around with big wads of currency and will find you!
Archeological sites quote entry prices in US dollars, but usually accept Sudanese pounds at the official exchange rate, which is much cheaper.
Bargaining. Sudanese are very honest, and you are generally quoted the local price. Khartoum and the rare touristic sights are sometimes an exception, but you will not be overcharged much.
Budget. It’s difficult to give figures with the constant inflation and depreciation of the Sudanese Pound. Between 5 and 10$ should be plenty. Plus the visa of course. In fact, you will probably struggle to spend more.