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.
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.
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.
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 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.
A postcard tropical beach, with turquoise water, swaying palms and no people. You will need to bring your own food, but it is perfect for a picnic. Located around the headland from Praia Macaco, it is accessed by car via a signless complex of rough dirt roads best navigated with local assistance. The guard at the entrance to Roça Belo Monte is a good source of information, and may be able to find you a local guide.
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.
Just north of Bamenda is the large Tikar community of Bafut, traditionally the most powerful of the Grassfields kingdoms. The fon 's (local chief's) palace here is home to the representative of a 700-year-old dynasty and is a fascinating insight into Cameroon's traditional culture.