World's most marvellous markets
3rd December 2019
West Africa is synonymous with vibrant, chaotic cities, golden palm-lined beaches and diverse cultural traditions. Comprised of over 17 countries, this region is hardly small and is incredibly varied in its peoples. This makes it the perfect destination if you want a little taste of everything, from remote village life to impressive safari trips and everything in between. Not only does the region boast varied natural beauty, but the locals are among some of the friendliest people in the world and will be sure to make your trip an unforgettable one. Arriving in a new destination can be a daunting experience, however being greeted by a smiley face and an hospitable nature can quickly put you at ease.
Our local experts are based in the West African nation of Ghana, however they also offer trips into the neighbouring countries of Togo and Benin. These three countries are relatively small, allowing for easy travel between them, and are nestled along the Gulf of Guinea which enjoys particularly picturesque beaches.
Whilst tourism is steadily growing in West Africa it still only makes up about 6% of jobs in Ghana and many of the surrounding countries are also relatively untouched by large swathes of foreign visitors. Because of this it can be difficult to get your hands on authentic local information about the area which is why we’ve teamed up with our local experts to offer you the best advice for travelling in the region. From where to visit to what to eat, we’ve got everything covered.
West Africa is a perfect destination for wildlife lovers and within Ghana, Togo and Benin alone there are 13 national parks, each teaming with an abundance of species. The four most bountiful parks are Mole National Park in Ghana, Parc National de Fazao-Malfakassa in Togo and Pendjari National Park or W National Park in Benin.
Throughout these parks you can see elephants, hippos, buffalos, zebras and countless species of antelope. In W National Park - arguably the most impressive of all three and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - you can also spot leopards, lions, cheetahs and over 350 species of bird. If you’re feeling particularly inquisitive it is even possible to take a walking safari in Mole National Park, allowing you to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures.
Ghana, Togo and Benin are all coastal nations meaning there is no shortage of beaches for you to explore, each with their own distinct vibe. If you’re looking for the quiet paradise beaches of your imagination, then head to Grand Popo Beach in Benin or Coco Beach in Togo. Lined with quaint beach huts and swaying palm trees but lacking the hordes of tourists you find in more popular destinations, these beaches are primed for a relaxing getaway. If you’re after a more lively atmosphere, then Kokrobite Beach in Ghana is particularly jovial - complete with rhythmic drumming, evening bonfires and colourful bars serving beer.
If beaches aren’t your thing then there are plenty of other ways to cool off in the heat of the equatorial sun. Refreshing waterfalls are dotted throughout the three countries, and make for wonderful oases if you aren’t venturing to the coast. In Togo, the Cascade de Womé falls can be reached by a 4km hike from Kpalimé, which is relatively easy and suitable for children. Whilst there is a steep ascent to the base of the falls, it is made worthwhile by the stunning scenery that greets you upon arrival. The Wli Waterfalls - the highest in Ghana - are also a great day excursion. Located in the Agumatsa Wildlife Sanctuary, you must hike through the jungle to reach the falls and it is common to spot brightly coloured birds, monkeys and delicate butterflies on your way.
Whilst West Africa is not well-known for its hiking opportunities, it is certainly possible to incorporate some excursions as part of your trip. In Togo, the country’s highest mountain - Mount Agou - stands at nearly 1,000 metres tall and offers several trails of varying difficulty. If you’re an experienced rambler, then we suggest taking the longest hike of four hours to the top for some of the country’s best scenery.
Food is a pivotal part of West African culture and most eating is done at home or street-side at bustling market stalls. Combining a subtle blend of flavours and mouthwatering spices, food here is never bland and is usually based around three main ingredients: chilli peppers, tomatoes and onions. West African nations tend to eat more vegetables than their eastern, central or southern counterparts and many dishes include an abundance of beans, root vegetables such as yams or cassava, and plantain.
Staples in the region include fufu (a large doughy ball made from cassava and plantain), jollof rice (a spicy, tomato-based rice), fried plantain, grilled meats and fish - especially tilapia which is particularly common in Ghana. Various soups and stews are also popular, including groundnut soup. Akara, a crunchy fritter made from peeled black-eyed peas, is a popular delicacy in Benin and in Togo there are considerable French influences on the nation’s dishes, which have led to a love of baguettes and pâté.
In most West African countries the locals usually eat using their hands and will often encourage you to do the same. If you decide to observe this practice then be sure to use your right hand to eat, as your left hand is considered unclean. This same rule applies to gift-giving and shaking hands - you should always use your right.
The history of West Africa, both triumphant and deeply saddening, is an integral part of the region’s identity. The Gulf of Guinea - once referred to as the Gold Coast or sometimes the Slave Coast - was colonised by Europeans from the 1500s onwards and was a major supplier of slaves right up until the late 1800s. There are many sombre reminders of this horrific occurrence throughout Ghana, Togo and Benin, specifically the coastal forts from which slaves were shipped off in awful conditions. Notable forts include the Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle in Ghana, and the Ouidah Museum of History (which sits atop an old Portuguese slave fort) in Benin. These forts are now mostly all museums and serve as a moving reminder of the region’s resilience in the face of extreme hardship.
West Africa provides the perfect opportunity to experience both rural and inner-city culture, with a large percentage of the population still living remotely. On the banks of Lake Volta sits the Ghanaian village of Atsiekpoe, where it is possible to get involved in a community-tourism project which gives you the opportunity to assist local villagers with daily tasks such as cooking and farming. Similarly, in the village of Davedi in Togo, another community-tourism project allows you to experience daily life with the Ewe people. You can observe palm nut processing, take a tour of the pineapple plantations or attend traditional ceremonies and performances. This can be a great way to add a truly authentic element to your trip and get to spend time with the real locals of West Africa.
If you’re less enchanted by the idea of living without home comforts, then there is plenty to explore in the neighbouring cities. From the hustle and bustle of outdoor markets, a riot of smells and colours, to the faded colonial architecture of Lomé and Cape Coast, there’s plenty to see and do. You can even get involved in various upcycling and crafting activities and learn a new skill to take home with you as a memento. Cedi Beads in Krobo Odumase offer bead painting classes in which you get to hand paint the recycled glass beads worn by members of the Krobo community for important celebrations and ceremonies.
Speaking of celebrations, there are numerous festivals and ceremonies which take place regularly throughout the three destinations and visitors are usually welcome. Most celebrations in the region include copious amounts of dancing, singing and drumming, and the infectious joy is palpable. In Ghana the Akwasidae festival takes place every six weeks, so is easily accessible to non-locals, and involves a parade through the palace courtyard in Kumasi. In Togo and Benin, the latter of which is usually credited as the birthplace of the Voodoo religion, it is possible to get involved with various Vodun festivals. Voodoo Day (which is a public holiday in Benin) is a great example and takes place on 10th January every year, however we would not recommend attending if you’re particularly squeamish!
If your trip does not coincide with Voodoo Day, then why not attend the Akodessawa Fetish Market - the world’s largest voodoo market in Togo. In this strangely fascinating market you can find everything from various animal heads to bones, all of which are used in the practice of Vodun.
Make it happen
If the eclectic culture, paradise beaches and incredible wildlife of the West African coast have piqued your interest, then don’t hesitate to contact our local experts in the region. They can help you plan your bespoke trip of a lifetime to Ghana, Togo and Benin, which can be altered to your tastes and time-frame. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.