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Burao Togdheer

The second-largest city in Somaliland and capital of Togdheer Province, Burao–transliterated as ‘Burco’ in Somali – lies 100km east of Hargeisa as the crow flies, but more than twice that distance along the only surfaced road, through Berbera and Sheikh.

The population, estimated at close to 300,000 in 2015, comprises the Habar Yoonis and Habar Jeclo subclans of the Isaq clan, whose propensity for outbursts of inter-subclan violence has often flared up in the post-independence era.

The town straddles the seasonal Togdheer (literally ‘Long River’), a watercourse that is dry for most of the year and is spanned by Burao Bridge in the north and Deero Bridge in the east.

Today  Burao, like most other towns in  Somaliland, offers little in the way of prescribed sightseeing,  the one exception being its famous livestock market. That said, it is a pleasant enough spot, with a decent selection of hotels and other amenities, and for many visitors, it might be worth visiting simply because it is the furthest east you can easily travel in Somaliland without private transport.

Burao is also the springboard for 4×4 trips further afield to Erigavo and Daallo Forest, a drive that’s sufficiently long and daunting to make an overnight stop here as good as obligatory.

HISTORY  Little is known about the early history of Burao but it has clearly long been the site of an important well, and it was an administrative centre and the location for several anti-colonial riots during the  British era.  In 1988, the town was more or less abandoned as a result of the civil war, when most residents fled across the border to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Burao’s main claim to fame in modern Somali history is as the site of the Grand Conference of the Northern  Peoples that led to  Somaliland’s unilateral secession from the rest of Somalia in May 1991.

Shortly after the 1991 conference, the refugees flooded back to Burao but, after three years of bombardment and abandonment,  most of the buildings they had left behind were ruined or roofless, and the streets were overgrown with invasive vegetation. Reconstruction started almost immediately and, despite conflict-related disruptions in 1992 and 1994–95 (the latter nearly derailing Somaliland’s emerging democracy), the town has experienced a dramatic economic recovery over the past two decades. Public services are also largely rehabilitated: Burao now has a reliable electricity and groundwater supply, and its youth are serviced by a remarkable tally of more than 30 primary schools, seven secondary schools and a university.

GETTING THERE AND AWAY  Burao lies 270km from Hargeisa along the surfaced road that runs via  Berbera and  Sheikh,  respectively  130km  and  60km  away. Depending on roadblocks, expect the drive from Hargeisa to take around 4 hours in a private vehicle and about half that time again on public transport. The best public transport options for Burao are the East & West buses or Salaama minibuses, both of which leave Hargeisa from the central bus station area on Road Two, and from Berbera just east of the main circle at the south end of the old town. The fare from Hargeisa is US$8 and from Berbera US$3. All inbound and outbound taxis to or from Burao congregate on the main circle in front of the Al Jarisa Café. This is also where 4x4s leave for Erigavo every other day (usually in the early morning), a trip that costs US$40 per person.

Foreign visitors to Burao are technically required to travel with at least one SPU guard, whether in a private vehicle or on public transport – a ruling that is almost certain to be enforced at roadblocks unless you arrange a waiver letter from the tourist office in Hargeisa. We have yet to hear of anybody being granted such a letter to travel beyond Burao to Erigavo, nor of any traveller who has used public transport along this route.

GETTING AROUND Burao is a small town and it’s easy to get around on foot, but you may want to hire a tuctuc to visit the livestock market, 15 minutes south of the town centre, or to get to the out-of-town City Plaza or Egal Hotel. Fares shouldn’t be more than US$3. Shared minibus taxis also run along a couple of the main roads and cost next to nothing.


There is no shortage of accommodation in Burao but with the notable exception of the suburban City Plaza, it is all rather bland and functional.


A City Plaza Hotel (38 rooms): Telefone: 718000; Mobile: 063 4674175; Email: cityplaza13@hotmail.com. Though it’s looking a bit more rundown nowadays, the City Plaza remains the nicest hotel in the vicinity of Burao, set in small but green grounds 3.5km east of the town center along the main road to Erigavo. The rooms have comfortable beds & a piping hot en-suite shower, & some come with AC &/or satellite TV. It’s also far enough from the nearest mosque that you can contemplate a proper lie-in. There is a very pleasant outdoor seating area, as well as an indoor restaurant & free Wi-Fi throughout. The varied menu caters to Western palates; most main dishes are in the US$5–6 range (including soup) & the fruit juices are excellent. The only real downer for those using public transport is the distance from town, but Tuc Tucs are available to take you out there cheaply. After a few days in the wilds around Erigavo, this place seems truly luxurious. US$26/42 sgl/dbl, b/fast costs an additional US$4pp.


Hotel Barwaaqo (56 rooms): Telefone: 715700; Email: barwaaqocentralhotel@hotmail.com. This multi-story hotel stands in the market area about 5mins’ walk southeast of the main circle & taxi park. Clean, tiled sgl rooms come with a three-quarter bed, TV, telephone & en-suite cold shower, while the spacious doubles have 1 ¾ & 2 sgl beds. The 1st-floor restaurant doesn’t look very appealing. Decent value. US$10/15 sgl/dbl.

Hotel Liban (20 rooms): Telephone: 711110; Mobile: 063 4437605; Email libanhotel1@gmail.com. This central medium-rise has spacious & pleasantly furnished rooms with a queen-size bed, fan, TV, hot water & writing desk. Good value. US$14/20/25 sgl/dbl/ suite.


Ruwais Hotel (18 rooms): Mobile: 063 4306396. Entered via a lower staircase (tall travelers should watch their heads), this above- par cheapie has sgl rooms with TV (but no fan) using common showers & en-suite dbls with fan, TV & neat bathrooms with cold water only. US$7/12 sgl/dbl.

Abco Palace Hotel (48 rooms): Telephone: 712557; Mobile: 063 4441612; Email: abcopalacehotel@gmail.com; Facebook: @abcoh0tel.712577. Though less than palatial, this is one of the better central cheapies, offering accommodation in reasonably spacious en-suite dbls with fan & cold shower. US$10 dbl.

Oogle Hotel (12 rooms): Mobile: 063 4911430. Situated close to the market, this adequate cheapie has sgl rooms using common showers & en-suite doubles, all with fan & cold water only. US$6/12 sgl/dbl.

Togdheer Hotel (23 rooms): Mobile: 063 4109289. One of a few rock-bottom cheapies scattered around the town centre, this is very close to the taxi park. The cell-like sgls come with a net. US$5 sgl.


WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK The City Plaza Hotel has the best restaurant in town, certainly if you are looking for a break from the usual Somali fare, but it is only convenient for those who are staying there or who have their own transport. Also some distance out of town, there are decent garden restaurants at the Kaafi and Kaah filling stations along the Berbera Road. The best bet in the town centre is the busy terrace cafeteria at the Ruwais Hotel, which supplements the usual Somali dishes with burgers and pizza. Of the more emphatically local eateries, the Shamxale Restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating, a great setting in the riparian greenery along the north side of the Togdheer watercourse, and a selection of pasta and rice dishes with roast goat an occasional specialty. The busy Al Jasiira Cafeteria behind the taxi park is popular for fruit juices and snacks.


WHAT  TO  SEE  AND  DO  If  you  arrive  in  Burao  expecting  superlatives,  you’ve come to the wrong place. In most respects, this pleasant town comes across as a scaled down, dustier and even more prosaic version of the capital, centred upon a bustling central market area where town dwellers and rural visitors get on with the day-to-day business of Somali life. The most important landmark in the town centre is the Juma Mosque, a large but unadorned modern building of limited architectural interest.

It pays great testament to subsequent reconstruction efforts that so few reminders of the civil war remain, but the impressive ruins of what must once have been a very large German school lie alongside the river north of the Ruwais Hotel. This school opened in 1969 and flourished for 20 years before the civil war forced its closure in 1989; several roofless double-storey classrooms and an old church are still standing.

Burao’s  livestock  market,  situated  about  1.5km  south  of  the  town  centre,  is claimed to be the largest in the country, attracting nomadic traders from as far afield as northern Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia. It is well worth a look, especially between 09.00 and 11.00, when trade activity peaks. If our visit is representative, however, the market isn’t nearly as busy as its Hargeisa counterpart, and it specialises in goats and sheep rather than camels.

For those interested in birdwatching, Callan Cohen and Mike Mills found that the area around Burao offers some good opportunities. The mixture of acacia scrub and  plains  around  town  supports  species  such  as  little  brown  bustard,  magpie starling,  white-crowned  starling,  tawny  eagle,  northern  carmine  bee-eater  and Somali long-billed crombec. Lying almost exactly 20km due southwest of town, the Arorih plains are an excellent place to look for the striking secretary-bird (a long- legged and predominantly terrestrial raptor) and the endemic Somali lark.


Foreign exchange several banks and private moneychangers are dotted around the town centre, but there are still no ATMs at the time of writing.

Safety  Foreigners travelling to  Burao require  SPU  protection,  whether they use private or public transport, and they are almost certain to be turned back at one of the roadblocks en route without it. A few years back, we heard several reports of travellers being granted a written waiver from the Tourist Office in Hargeisa to visit Burao on public transport without an SPU officer. These were no longer easy to obtain when the second edition of this guide was researched, but these things change from time to time. Once in Burao, the rule seems to be that you can only walk around in daylight in the company of an SPU officer, and travellers must stay in their hotel from 18.00 until sunrise. The police waiver referred to above would clearly allow you to walk around without an SPU guard by day, but you may well be grounded at night, in which case it makes sense to stay in a hotel with its own restaurant.

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