Niger—not to be confused with its neighbor to the South, Nigeria—is a mainly undeveloped country in the far-reaching wilderness of West Africa. From the sparsely populated desert in the North to the savannahs in the south, Nigeriens boast a diversity of cultures, languages, and ancient ways of life. In recent years, political, socioeconomic, and environmental difficulties have threatened a modest tourism industry. Modern facilities and infrastructure are limited, but open-minded travelers who've braved a few days in this republic are pleasantly surprised at the warmth that locals bestow upon visitors. Westerners are strongly advised to do their research and think twice before planning a trip to Niger; neither tourists nor officials are immune to the dangers here. Whether you decide to try your luck as a tourist or wait until the situation resolves itself, don't hesitate to learn more about the simplicity and natural beauty of Niger.
The capital city of Niamey is the perfect place to begin your Nigerien adventures. Drop your luggage at one of the modern hotels and take a taxi to the Grand Market. Merchants carry all kinds of goodies, from shoes to vegetables to live chickens. Pick up some genuine African textiles or an energizing snack of kola nuts before heading to the turquoise-domed Grand Mosque. Non-Muslims and women are welcomed inside, just be sure to tip the warden for a guided tour and access to the minaret for some impressive views. End the night at one of several restaurants for a delicious meal and drinks, or find a bar with a DJ and celebrate your time in Niamey with the locals.
One of the largest natural reserves in all of Africa is in Northern Niger, surrounded by the unforgiving Sahara desert. The Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a wildlife sanctuary with some of the most beautiful views on the continent. You may spot some of Africa's most endangered species, like the Dorcas gazelle and Barbary sheep, among the granite mountains and rolling dunes. Bird watchers can marvel at migratory flocks coming from the Mediterranean to breed in pockets of woodland. The nomadic Tuareg clan has thrived in this extreme landscape for thousands of years, but in your case, it's best to visit this vast reserve with a tour guide from Agadez or Arlit.
The Trans-Saharan Trade Route reached Zinder in the 18th century, and with it came affluence, culture, and religion. This community grew to become the cultural heart of Niger that continues to develop in the modern trade era. The earth-toned, clay construction of the Sultan's Palace is a prominent example of typical Hausa architecture, as are the winding alleyways of the sprawling city center. The central mosque beckons worshippers with its vivid colors and bright minaret. Round out your visit with a stroll through the bazaar; it's an energetic reminder of the town's history as one of the busiest camel caravan stops on the trade route.
The West African Giraffe once roamed large swathes of the continent, but a few short decades ago, this majestic animal was on the verge of extinction. Only 45 minutes from Niamey, the Kouré Giraffe Reserve is the last haven for these gentle creatures. Safe from predators and poachers, the population has grown considerably. The villagers here have cultivated a trusting relationship with these animals, which makes locals the best escorts to help you navigate the reserve. Hop in a car or lace up your walking shoes to prepare for a journey through scrub and farmland. Don't forget to tip your tour guide; this community works hard to keep West Africa's giraffes thriving with little compensation.
The ancient city of Agadez is another important rest-stop on the Trans-Saharan Trade Route. This isolated community was once a center for Islamic education, and no visit to Agadez would be complete without a trip to the Grand Mosque. A narrow ascension to the top grants spectacular views of the surrounding community and desert. Getting here is tricky due to security concerns over recent Tuareg uprisings in the region. Agadez is not as ancient as the nomadic tribes who built it, but this community has survived centuries of conflict and natural disaster. With time, the roads to Agadez may reopen and allow access to this center of Tuareg culture.
Over 10,000 years ago, the Sahara desert was much greener and full of life than it is today. One way scientists have verified this fact is by studying ancient rock art located throughout the deserts in the North. The Dabous region in the Ténéré desert is home to more than 800 rock carvings of various animals that haven't seen this part of the arid wilderness for centuries. Of particular importance are the Dabous Giraffes, two life-sized giraffes meticulously carved in stone. Their size, realism, and technique make these artworks invaluable to the study of humankind. A group of Tuareg people has settled in the area to act as permanent guides and to ensure the preservation of this precious site.
At the end of the rainy season in September, the nomadic tribes in Central Africa gather for a unique festival in Abalak. The men of the Wodaabe Fula clan braid their hair, don vibrant costumes, and elaborately paint their faces in preparation for the Gerewol. For seven days, contestants in this tribal beauty pageant perform several dance routines to win the affections of the female judges. At the climax of the final dance, each woman of the jury selects a winner who could then become her lover for one night or her new husband. Attending the Gerewol is a thrilling experience; check with local travel agencies for more information on how to book a tour.
The cuisine in Niger is a blend of African flavors, Arabian spices, and French influences. Typical dishes are meat or vegetable stews with rice, skewered meats, and dumpling-like balls of ground millet. Other popular dishes, however, may seem a bit more adventurous to some Westerners. Balls of fermented millet crushed with milk, sugar, and spices are a favorite sweet snack. Tattabara is a specialty of flame-grilled pigeon, available in restaurants or from a street vendor. If you're feeling extra adventurous, head to the local market for some spiced crickets or fried grasshoppers; meat can be scarce during drought years, but these insects are always a reliable source of protein.
Niger has many secrets, and the ancient abandoned city of Djado is one of the most intriguing of them all. This fortified city in the Northwestern part of Niger was once a flourishing center of trade and agriculture. Now the ksar is nothing but a crumbling maze of corridors and alleyways slowly being swallowed up by the desert. No one knows who built the city, and thousands of cave paintings and engravings throughout the valley hold no answers. Hopefully, archaeologists will make their way to this isolated relic and uncover its mysteries. Until then, the abandoned city of Djado will continue to be a beautiful oasis surrounded by a vast wasteland.