Have you ever considered traveling in West Africa? Do you have Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo on your backpacking bucket list? If you do or you’re just curious about this underrated region, I have a special guest post for you today from my younger sister, Tamsin!
Tamsin and her boyfriend Guido are true off the beaten path explorers. They are currently on a round the world trip and spent the first few months traveling and exploring Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso and Ghana in Africa. I’ve never read anything about theses countries on a travel blog before, so I asked Tamsin to write me an honest blog post about traveling West Africa. It sounds so interesting and adventurous! I hope you enjoy the post. Please feel free to leave some comments for Tamsin at the end.
Traveling West Africa
Since 2010 when I worked in and traveled around many of the countries in Southern Africa, I have been thinking about exploring another region of the huge continent. My boyfriend Guido and I are currently on a round the world trip after quitting our jobs in the Netherlands at the start of the year. Our plans for the trip changed a lot but, despite the sensible advice we read to avoid this time of year (the first few months of the year are extremely hot), we finally decided to begin the adventure in West Africa with 6 weeks traveling through Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin.
Although commonly referred to as ‘Africa for beginners’, Ghana isn’t always an easy ride. In general things are chaotic and inefficient, everything takes a long time, public transport doesn’t have a schedule, corruption appears to be rife- police at the many road blocks will ask for money (or even your wallet)- but don’t let that put you off. It’s also a beautiful country with many friendly people.
One of the most scenic areas is the Volta region in the east of the country. We were there in the dry season so missed out on seeing the waterfalls but there are plenty of interesting hiking trails, for example to the top of the highest local peak Mount Gemi.
The beaches in Ghana aren’t the cleanest you will ever see, but it’s worth traveling west along the coast as far as Busua where beach clean ups have made the popular surf spot much more attractive. Another must stop place along the coast is Cape Coast, not for the beach but to learn about the dark history of the slave trade and see the terrible conditions where people were kept before passing through the point of no return.
Traveling around Ghana is very time consuming so allow for longer than you think. Most locals use public minibuses, known as tro-tros, but they won’t leave until full (full here means practically bursting with people, animals and luggage). Drivers usually make up for all this waiting around by driving as quickly and recklessly as possible.
As a vegetarian I wasn’t expecting to be overwhelmed by delicious food options but there were some unexpected treats. Fried plantain, for example, is softer and sweeter than in other countries where I’ve tried it and groundnut soup tastes a lot like peanut butter. Local staples fufu and banku (both white, starchy pastes) were not really to my taste, but interesting to try once.
We crossed over from Ghana into the south west of Burkina Faso, one of the least busy boarder posts I’ve ever seen. I thought that Ghana had few tourists but Burkina even less so. We managed to find a few people who were on holiday or traveling around for longer trips but you definitely don’t need to be worried about reserving accommodation in advance. Sometimes we were the only guests in the place where we were staying.
The capital city is, like many big cities in Africa, not particularly interesting but deserves a special mention because of its name- Ouagoadouga. A much nicer area to explore is west of the country surrounding the town of Banfora. We spent a great day here whizzing around on motorbikes with a local guide, splashing in waterfalls, climbing rock formations and drinking ‘bière local‘ in a maquis (traditional pub).
Despite it being one of the poorest countries in the world I didn’t feel at all unsafe in Burkina. Granted, we didn’t venture into the north near the boarder with Mali where terrorist attacks are more common, but even in large cities such as Bobo-Diolasso we walked around in the dark at night time without a problem.
Perhaps surprisingly, transport in Burkina Faso is pretty well organized. Large buses run between the cities – sometimes even with aircon if you’re lucky. The dust throughout the country is extreme and open windows during a bus journey mean you will arrive looking like you haven’t showered for a week. Tickets are best bought the day before travel and buses will leave at a pre-arranged time whether they are full or not!
Like many countries in west Africa, very few people in Burkina Faso (and Togo and Benin) speak English, which was a bit of a drawback for us as non-French speakers. You can definitely get by with just a few words of French, enough to reserve a room for the night, order food and ask directions, but I felt like I missed out on the everyday interactions that usually make traveling so enjoyable. The chat with the person sitting next to you on the bus for example or overhearing the heated political debate in the pub. There were also definitely times when we got ripped off or paid too much simply because we didn’t have the vocabulary to haggle or explain what we wanted. Not a reason not to go to, but next time I would put more effort into brushing up my high school French first.
A narrow country with few tourists, you can drive from the eastern boarder of Togo to the western boarder in around an hour. Real public transport is scarce, instead people take shared taxis in and between the towns. Don’t be fooled into thinking standard cars are made for just 4 passengers, in Togo taxi drivers will cram in 6 or 7. Very cosy, especially when it’s already 40 degrees outside.
The northern town of Kara is a good place to stop when traveling down into Togo from Burkina Faso. Here you can arrange to visit the Unesco protected village of Koutammakou with its fortress like houses.
Capital city Lomé has a beach but apparently it’s not a safe place to hang out. Slightly east of the city the beaches are safer and cleaner, despite being right next to the port, but you’ll pay more for the privilege of staying or eating here.
Crossing the boarder into Benin from Togo requires some forward planning as visas are only available in advance from the consulate in Lomé and she only works on Thursday and Friday. We found this out the hard way after arriving in Lomé on Friday and having to wait almost a week before we could apply for our visas. Luckily that gave us time to arrange all the paperwork we needed and it was definitely worth the effort.
Our first stop in Benin was Grand Popo, a small town on the coast where you can easily spend several days relaxing on the beautiful, clean beach. We stayed at Lion Bar where the chilled out owner kept the reggae beats playing and the affordable cocktails flowing.
Ouidah is also worth visiting, again to learn about the awful slave trade history but also because it is the voodoo capital of Benin. A visit to the temple of pythons gives an intriguing insight into some of the local beliefs.
Although not officially the capital, Cotonou is a much more vibrant city than Porto Novo. The suburb of Haie Vive is expat central but has a nice feel to it, a great vegetarian restaurant and a buzzing nightlife.
The main form of transport in Benin is zemi-johns (motorbike taxis) that are easy to find and will speedily get you about, perhaps even faster than you would like.
Should you go to West Africa?
We had a great time in West Africa and I felt like I could have stayed there even longer and explored more countries. After talking to other people I would probably have added on time in the Ivory Coast for the apparently stunning beaches. I don’t think I would recommend the region to someone who had never been to Africa before or was only on a short holiday, as it doesn’t have as much to offer in terms of wildlife, it’s not as easy to meet other backpackers and getting around is very time consuming, but if you really want to get off the beaten track give it a go!
Thanks, Tamsin! So, what do you think? Would you like to travel to West Africa and which country would you go to first? Personally I want to try that local beer and splash in the waterfalls in Burkina Faso. Let us know what you think in the comments below.
Pin It For Later
Thank you for reading. If you liked this, you can sign up to receive updates by entering your email below. Or follow my Instagram here. ♥