Having bought a visa in Addis Ababa, we were able to cross the border at Taj Wajaale with no problems (although the Somaliland immigration office who checks and stamps your visa is not at the border itself, but a few kilometers away. Buses on the way to Hargeisa will stop here on their way so people can get their documents checked. We weren’t charged any additional fees of any kind either leaving Ethiopia or entering Somaliland, which was a welcome suprise. We heard from an Australian we met in Hargeisa who flew in that he was charged $60 at the airport as an entry/exit fee, in addition to whatever he paid for his visa. When we flew back to Addis from Hargeisa, we still were not charged anything.
Our experience in Somaliland was mostly great. As a man, it’s easy to move around, find food, sit and eat or drink coffee with locals (almost all men). There are a lot of the Somali diaspora who have returned to Hargeisa from Europe, Australia and the USA who speak English and are interested in talking with travelers. Also, hardly any of these conversations ended with a request for money or offer to be a guide at a “good price”, or anything else, unlike our experience with the majority of people we met in Ethiopia.
As a woman, it is a different experience. Although we were assured that it is no problem for foreign women to sit with men at restaurants and cafes, we didn’t see a single other woman sitting with men at any of the restaurants, and most have a separate eating area for women and children, usually separated by a curtain or sometimes a separate room with a separate entrance, often in the back of the building. Between this and the expected dress code for women in a strictly muslim nation like this, some women may find the experience oppressive and uncomfortable.
We only spent a few days in Somaliland. After taking the bus from the border ($2, about 2.5hrs with checkpoints) we stayed three nights in Hargeisa at the Oriental hotel ($15/night for two people in a single room, although this took some haggling. Given our timing, we organized a tour to Las Geel and Berbera for a day trip. This trip cost us $244 for two people including guide/driver, armed guard, Las Geel permits and a letter of passage from some ministry to get you through checkpoints (you might not need this last piece, it seems like we just happened to be talking about the trip when someone who works at the ministry was nearby and insisted on it…).
Las Geel was amazing and worth it for us. Not only is the rock art beautiful, abundant, and fascinating, but the wildlife in the area is pretty great, too. We saw monkeys, warthogs, deer tortoise and myriad birds, as well as the ubiquitous camels and other stock animals. It could be cool to camp here, and looks possible. We later met some people who were driving themselves who did just this, although they may have gotten into a little bureaucratic trouble for having the wrong permits, so maybe try to sort this out in Hargeisa before you go.
Berbera was 46 degrees C, a bit too much for our weak northern bodies, but bearable for an afternoon. We were happy that we didn’t try to spend the night here. If you do, it might be worth springing for the $30 room with A/C instead of the $10 room with a fan, depending on your budget. The water is warm and felt great after sweating all day, although the gender differences may again affect your experience. All of the women we saw were swimming with just as much clothing as they wear walking around town (long sleeves, dress, and hair covered). Most of the men were wearing boxers and nothing else. Also, there is very little shade beyond some thorny bushes on the high side of the beach, so prepare for some sun!
The city itself is interesting to explore for a bit. As an active port, it has a bit of an industrial feel with a small downtown area with some little shops and restaurants. Almost half of the buildings seem to be collapsing, mostly from the civil war, although several shining new and/or newly renovated mosques stand out amid the rubble. Most people we saw were hiding out from the sun, which is basically what we did after an hour or so of exploring.
Leaving via the airport was easy after another day of hanging out in Hargeisa. Be prepared to have your bag completely emptied and searched at the second security checkpoint at the airport (between the waiting area and the gate). They’ll also check all of your electronics to make sure they turn on, and we got the most thorough body pat-down I’ve ever received.