West Africa has cachet and soul. Home to stunning landscapes and inhabited by an astonishing diversity of peoples, this is the perfect destination to explore the expanse of rich culture and deep tradition found on this beautiful continent.
From the Sahara to tropical rainforests, from volcanic outcrops to stony depressions in the desert's heart, West Africa is an extraordinary sweep of iconic African terrain. There are many West African views that will define your journey: an oasis-like clearing in the heart of a rainforest; stirring sand dunes sculpted to perfection by the wind; a gloriously deserted arc of sand along a gloriously deserted coastline; and improbably shaped rocky outcrops in the heart of the Sahel. And through it all runs one of Africa's longest rivers, the Niger.
The diversity of people who inhabit West Africa is one of the region's most beguiling characteristics. The sheer number of communities who call the region home will take your breath away. Drawing in a little nearer, you'll discover that traditions have survived colonial atrocities in West Africa like nowhere else on the continent, revealing themselves in fabulous festivals, irresistible music and the mysterious world of masks and secret societies. These are peoples whose histories are epic and whose daily struggles are similarly so. West Africa is in-your-face, full-volume Lagos or the quiet solitude of an indigo-clad nomad – not to mention everything in between.
A Musical Soundtrack
West Africa's musical tradition is one of extraordinary depth and richness. Youssou N'Dour, Tinariwen and other musicians may have been 'discovered' in recent decades, but the region's music is so much more than mere performance. The griots of ancient African empires – Mali's master kora player Toumani Diabaté is a 71st-generation griot – bestowed upon West Africa's musicians the gift of storytelling as much as the power to entertain. They do both exceptionally well and their ability to make you dance or learn something new about the region may just rank among your most memorable travel experiences.
You wouldn't come to West Africa looking for an East African–style safari, but there's more to West Africa's wildlife than initially meets the eye if you know where to look, including elephants, primates, big cats, pygmy hippos and some of the world's best birdwatching. And unlike East or Southern Africa, you're likely to have whatever you find all to yourself.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout West Africa.
Cape Coast’s imposing, whitewashed castle commands the heart of town, overlooking the sea. Once one of the world's most important slave-holding sites, it provides horrifying insight into the workings of the trade. Staff conduct hour-long tours, during which you’ll visit the dark, damp dungeons, where slaves waited for two to 12 weeks, while contemplating rumours that only hinted at their fate. A visit to the dungeons contrasts sharply with the governor’s bedroom, blessed with floor-to-ceiling windows and panoramic ocean views. There’s also an excellent museum on the first floor, detailing the history of Ghana, the slave trade and Akan culture. First converted into a castle by the Dutch in 1637 and expanded by the Swedes in 1652, the castle changed hands five times over the 13 tumultuous years that followed until, in 1664, it was captured by the British. During the two centuries of British occupation, it was the headquarters for the colonial administration until Accra was declared the new capital in 1877.
The Sacred Grove is a large area of rainforest on the outskirts of Oshogbo. Within the forest is the beautiful Shrine of Oshuno, the River Goddess. In addition to natural beauty, there are many stunning sculptures by Suzanne Wenger (known locally as Aduni Olosa, the 'Adored One'), an Austrian painter and sculptor who came here in the 1950s. Alligators, snakes, monkeys and antelopes inhabit the grove, where there's a week-long festival here in August. For an extra fee, tour the grove and other sights with one of Susanne's adopted children (and traditional priests) Sangodare (0803 226 2188) or Doyin Faniyi (0803 226 2188).
Once the subject of a world-famous Bacardi advertisement (you'll remember it when you see it), this picture-perfect tropical beach is located on the grounds of Roça Belo Monte, a 15-minute walk from the front gate. It is first seen from above, at a clifftop mirador (overlook; where the ad was shot), before descending to sea level, where you'll find its golden sands, in the shape of a banana, beneath swaying palms. Hidden beneath the trees are a small bar and lounge chairs. There is snorkeling at either end, excellent swimming in between, and kayaks available from resort staff. The perfect beach day is here!
The Great Canine is the poster image of São Tomé, and an awesome sight. An enormous tooth of rock 663m high, it is a hardened column of magma, the remains of an ancient volcano whose softer outer shell has long since eroded away. The actual rock is known as phonolite, and there are many other towers composed of the same material; these vary in shape and size, and include Cão Pequeno (390m). Numerous phonolite towers also give Príncipe its Lost World vibe. You'll find Cão Grande around the 51km mark if you're heading south on the EN-2 – it rises dead ahead, as if lying at the end of the road.
The spectacular Bay of Spires is not just Príncipe's top attraction, but STP's as well. It's best seen from the water, where the postcard view of the island's world-class skyline slowly unfolds, including phonolite towers named (for obvious reasons) the Father, the Son and the Grandson, along with Table Mountain. You expect to hear the primordial roar of T-Rex at any moment. If you've flown all this way, you do not want to miss this.
The must-see attraction is the sultan's palace, home to the 19th sultan of the Bamoun dynasty. It has a fascinating, well-organised museum providing great historical insight into the region. At the time of writing, the treasures were being transferred to a startling new building symbolically shaped as a serpent and a spider; the palace itself will remain open to visitors. Constructed in the early 20th century and modelled on German colonial architecture, the palace was built by the remarkable Sultan Njoya, who invented a corn-grinding machine, a script for the Bamun language, and a religion which fused Christianity and Islam. He had 681 wives, which made him well qualified to write his own version of the Kama Sutra (look out for it in the museum shop). Museum artefacts include a ancient feathered cloak worn only for the initiation of each sultan, beaded buffalo masks sported by members of secret societies, documents written using Sultan Njoya's script and a drinking horn made from the skull of one of his enemies. The palace sits opposite the market and main mosque, the minaret of which can be climbed as part of the palace tour. Palace entrance includes a visit to a nearby ceremonial drum housed in a bamboo hut: it’s a huge creation topped with animal hides and carved with a double-headed serpent.
Abuko is rare among African wildlife reserves: it's tiny, it's easy to reach and you don't need a car to go in. With amazing diversity of vegetation and animals, this well-managed reserve is one of the region's best bird-watching haunts (more than 250 bird species have been recorded in its environs). There are 5km of paths through the 106-hectare reserve, and a field station with views over a watering hole that's often a good place for wildlife watching. Among the 52 mammal species calling Abuko home are bushbucks, duikers, porcupines, bush babies and ground squirrels as well as three monkey types: green or vervet monkeys, endangered western red colobus monkeys and patas monkeys. The reserve is particularly famous for its Nile crocodiles and other slithering types such as pythons, puff adders, green mambas, spitting cobras and forest cobras. The compact area of Abuko teems with birds including sunbirds, green hylias, African goshawks, oriole warblers, yellowbills and leafloves. Abuko is about the only place in Gambia where you can observe green and violet turacos, white-spotted flufftails, ahanta francolins and western bluebills.
From afar, the Kejetia Market looks like an alien mothership landed in the centre of Kumasi. Closer up, the rusting tin roofs of this huge market (often cited as the largest in West Africa; there are 11,000 stalls and at least four times as many people working here) look like a circular shanty town. Inside, the throbbing Kejetia is quite disorienting but utterly captivating. There are foodstuffs, second-hand shoes, clothes, plastic knick-knacks, glass beads, kente strips, Ashanti sandals, batik, bracelets and more. Wandering around the market by yourself is absolutely fine: few tourists come here and shopkeepers will be pleasantly surprised to see you. Alternatively, go with a guide, who not only knows his or her way around but can also explain the more obscure trades and goods, and help you bargain and meet stallholders. Allow about C25 for a two-hour tour; contact the Ghana Tourist Authority or your hotel for recommendations.
Claudio Corallo is both an extraordinary person and a local institution. For over 40 years this native Italian has pursued an overriding passion for coffee and cocoa in Africa, first in Zaire and later in STP, where he has two plantations and a factory in the capital. The results are on display in this fascinating little tour, which takes you not only through the chocolate production process, but through all the thought and experimentation that went into developing the bean. The result is a pure form of chocolate, and an acquired taste for those hooked on sugar. Visitors will also be able to taste another product of his laboratory, some amazing coffee that lingers in your mouth for hours. The factory is located in a light yellow plantation house with a small sign visible through the fence. Note that you must stop by and purchase tickets here the morning of the tour. The cost is later convertible into product.