Besides the paradisiacal archipelago of Bijagós, Guinea-Bissau has two large islands, very close to the mainland – Jeta and Pecixe, and several small islands planted in the middle of large rivers that cross the country, such as along the Cacheu river.
Here we find the picturesque island of Elalab, in the north of Guinea Bissau, which can be reached from Cacheu, the former capital of the slave trade, or from Susana, a small village halfway between São Domingos and the beautiful beach of Varela.
Elalab is not on the maps and little is known about this island that lives isolated in time and space. The population, about two hundred inhabitants, are dedicated to rice cultivation, the basis of their diet, fishing and harvesting the delicious and very famous oysters of this region.
Getting here involves some logistics and daring. We can take a modern aluminium boat if it’s available, but the most likely thing is to take a traditional pirogue from Susana port and travel between the mangrove canals until we reach the island. Two large baobabs welcome you right on the shore and as soon as you set foot on dry land you come across a beautifully ordered village made of traditional materials and traditional thatched roofs where life runs serenely.
Here in Elalab, an eco-tourism project operates, with community management, which allows us to emerge into the traditional life of the village and join the people in their daily rhythm of searching for food and income for basic needs. Ecotourism and tourists who come here are treated with the same respect as the land they farm or the fish they catch. The people are deeply proud of this island, proud of their roots and proud to show the world that seeks them the vast cultural and natural wealth that it holds.
The eco-tourism houses are of recent construction, but of architecture and materials traditionally used by the Félupe ethnic group, with adobe and straw, culminating in a veranda from where you can enjoy a superb view of the beach and the mangroves of what is the largest mangrove forest in Western Africa, located in the Cacheu River Mangroves Natural Park and an ecotourism sanctuary.
We can see the men of the village leaving very early in the pirogues to collect oysters, returning tired and with a boat full of these huge molluscs. The women have already positioned themselves in the shade of the trees, ready to open the oysters, boil them and dry them in the sun on rolled up cloths to later sell them as a precious delicacy to their Senegalese neighbours.
But beyond this we are invited to take part in all the village activities in a way that will amaze any visitor who wants to know the deep authenticity of a typical West African people.
Tourists are given the opportunity to participate in the traditional harvesting of fish or shrimp, the cultivation and peeling of rice, take guided tours to learn about the birds of the region, visit the surrounding villages, participate in the preparation of traditional dishes, watch the traditions of the Felupes, take kayak trips and to end the day in beauty, to take a refreshing bath in the warm waters surrounding the island, with the noisy and animated children of the village.
A weekend in Elalab is a tasty dip in authentic and profound Guinea-Bissau, where we can get to know the roots, traditions, habits of a country and above all of a community with unique characteristics – the Felupe people.
More information: Tourist Guide – Discovering Guinea Bissau, Joana Benzinho and Marta Rosa, 2018