Where do you go??? West Africa? How come? Once again, the surprise is undeniable when I report on my travel plans. 4 weeks of backpacking in West Africa, 4 weeks travel off the typical tourist trails. What kind of countries are they? Is it safe there? If one does not necessarily speak of the usual tourist destinations such as South Africa, Morocco or Tanzania, it is difficult for many to classify how the security situation in the respective region is.
It goes to the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Instead of a luxurious safari, you are faced with neighboring countries with a rather shady and dangerous reputation, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia.
Despite all prejudices: West Africa inspires with breathtaking scenery, profound history and culture as well as incredibly warm people and make the region a great travel destination – an enrichment not only for your photo album, but also for your personality!
Why backpacking in West Africa?
On my personal (travel) bucket list, I have set myself the goal of taking at least one trip that clearly leaves me out of the comfort zone. In addition, I have long had the desire to participate in an aid mission, to help somewhere and to make a contribution.
Through internet research I became aware of the “Bildungswerk Westafrika“. The non-profit association specializes primarily in the construction of schools in Benin, a small country on the Gulf of Ghana. The neighboring country of Nigeria is then much better known.
Offer and travel period fit. As always, I want to see more of the surrounding countries. Before the two weeks at the Bildungswerk I plan to go backpacking in West Africa for almost 2 weeks – a total of almost 4 in the region.
You can read more about my aid mission in Benin in the article Adventure and aid mission in Benin / West Africa
What is the itinerary?
As the first potential airport for traveling to backpacking in West Africa, I notice the metropolis of Lagos in Nigeria. Right on the border with Benin, it is actually perfect for getting to know another country. However, due to the security situation, especially for first-time visitors, connoisseurs strongly advise against arriving via Lagos.
Accra in Ghana is also possible – but there is more 😉
This is how the airport for backpacking in West Africa is Abidjan on the Ivory Coast.
This gives a week for the approximately 900 kilometers between Abidjan and Cotonou, the final destination in Benin.
The countries are considered to be politically relatively stable, only the proximity of Benin to the north of Nigeria – the Boko Haram area – worries me a little.
Along the Ivory Coast – Abidjan & Grand Bassam
Abidjan – springboard for backpacking in West Africa
The plane lands in Abidjan late in the evening and I set foot on West African soil.
Abidjan is not the capital, but THE metropolis and economic center of the country. A long day is enough for sightseeing. The city’s public transport system is particularly exciting, as it mainly takes the form of small and medium-sized buses (“woro woros“). These drive certain, fixed distances and depending on the destination you have to work steadily with a combination. In order to fulfill the cliché, of course, all buses are occupied except for the last seat and standing room – often beyond. An adventure in itself.
The Abidjan surprises with a modern city center, beautiful areas, good food and friendly people.
Extreme rush hour traffic, crowded streets, understanding the “woro-woro” system and French as the main language make it a challenging start. An exciting start in West Africa to immerse yourself in the culture and vibrant nightlife that Abidjan is famous for!
Particularly worth seeing are the experimental architecture of the cathedral, the former apartment building “La Pyramide” or trendy neighborhoods such as Cocody.
Stroll between colonial buildings in Grand Bassam
Grand Bassam is only about 40 minutes away from Abidjan by “Gbaka” (minibus). The former French colonial capital of the Ivory Coast is reminiscent of long gone glory. The tropical beaches on the Gulf of Guinea offer a welcome change from the hustle and bustle in Abidjan. Just let yourself drift through the streets and enjoy the colonial flair!
Locals in particular are on the beach. It was only in 2016 that the city was the target of a terrorist attack that also killed many tourists. Tourism on the Ivory Coast is only gradually recovering from it.
Sightseeing on Ghana’s former gold and slave coast
Slave Fort and fishing in Cape Coast
Ghana is generally considered to be a good starting point for travelers to West Africa for two reasons: First: It is economically better off than the other countries in the region with all the positive effects that this brings. Second – and more importantly, English is an official language in Ghana. In all other countries it is French, which can make traveling considerably more difficult if you are ignorant.
An absolute highlight in Ghana is Cape Coast with its vibrant harbor directly under the fort, an organized chaos of fishermen, boats, market women, craftsmen and helpers. The men sing while pulling boats and full nets out of the water and lighting the fires to smoke the fish fresh. Have more!
Cape Coast’s well-preserved slave fort is one of the largest along the West African coast and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here the slaves were imprisoned in the cellar dungeons until they were shipped to America.
I strongly recommend that you take a tour, as you will be shown all the important corners and the interesting background stories will be told. The dark basement dungeons in particular encourage thought.
Backpacking in West Africa: The vibrant metropolis Accra
The largest metropolis in the region is also an important economic center. As a traveler, the city is a bit demanding, but no less worth seeing. There is not THE city center where you can comfortably walk through all the sights.
There is also no central bus station from which everything runs. You have to know exactly where the bus should go, i.e. the end station, so that you can get off on the way – or to change to another bus if necessary.
Worth seeing in Accra are the Independence Square with the magnificent arch – of course with the “Black Star“, the symbol of Ghana, which you can also see on the flag of the country.
Go on a discovery tour in the historic Jamestown district. You should be a little careful, but generally you are safe there. Also the only white man far and wide. The Fort James slave fort is closed, unlike its big brother in Cape Coast, and the striking lighthouse cannot always be visited. I can recommend a short tour with a local guide. Since he is known to the locals, photos are also no problem. The bustle of the fishermen on the coast is particularly impressive.
Do you want pure Africa? Then go to the extensive Marcola market. This market extends over many streets where you can buy everything imaginable. Hustle and bustle, bustle, people screaming everywhere, foreign languages, disorientation – and in the middle the white traveler Philipp.
After a busy day in the hustle and bustle of a West African metropolis, you can relax on the large Labadi Beach, just a short drive with the Tro Tro from the city center.
Colonial history and natural paradises in Togo
Backpacking in West Africa: fetish market & beaches in Lomé
The capital of Togo is right on the border with Ghana and is easy to reach with the usual minibuses.
The colonial splendor of the city has faded long ago, you can clearly see that you are no longer in economically strong Ghana. Now it’s time to speak French again. An interesting sight is the fetish or voodoo market, the largest of its kind in the world. Here you get an insight into the world of voodoo and the meaning of the many animal bones or bodies and objects on offer.
The main means of transport in Lomé and in many parts of Togo in general is the moto taxi, minibuses like in Ghana are rare. When it rains over the smooth cobblestones of the streets of Lomé as a passenger on a motorcycle that is too fast – stories that you would rather not tell your mother. There is also a huge market (Grand Marché) here, where you can learn a lot about the culture and customs of the locals like in a shop window.
Lomé also has great beaches, which – like everywhere on the West African coast – cannot be used for swimming. The currents are unpredictable and often fatal. Hotel Pure Plage right on the beach is absolutely recommendable for an overnight stay, it feels like a vacation on vacation.
The nightlife on the streets of the capital is great. Some sections are even specially blocked.
Kpalimé – natural paradise off the coast
I recommend you to stay at least two full days in the natural and hiking paradise of Togo. There are countless spectacular waterfalls to discover in the region, you can climb Mt. Agou, the highest mountain of Togo. You have great views over Togo to Ghana from the Chateau Viale, an old castle near the city. Traces of German colonial history can also be found.
A trip to Kpalimé also means a trip away from the big cities and roads on the coast, a trip to the more and more rural Togo. The approximately 3-hour drive through villages, small towns and viiiiel forest is an experience in itself. Keep eyes open!
Colonial history in Lac Togo & Togoville
In the footsteps of German colonial history, you drive in a pirogue – the traditional wooden boat – across Lac Togo, which is only separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land. There are many traces of colonial history in Togoville, especially in and around the church. One also discovers countless figures and altars from the voodoo.
Benin: The cradle of the voodoo with a dreamlike coast
We continue to Benin, the final destination of my trip and the location of my aid mission.
After crossing the border, I take a taxi. In West Africa: adventurous! As usual, this is fully occupied in the region, in Europe one would say “overcrowded”: in front of the driver, 2 passengers share the front passenger seat, at least 4 people are accommodated in the back seat – and not necessarily only slim people. Many parts of the car don’t work. Whether window lifters, door openers, indicator lights – it doesn’t matter, the car drives. There are many checkpoints where street vendors immediately pounce on the waiting cars.
Another adventure in itself is traveling away from the main roads: here you need tablets for seasickness, the street consists of 50% potholes, 30% huge puddles and on the rest you could drive normally if the other road users weren’t .
Benin is adventurous and exotic in many places, just like I like when I’m traveling. There are also many sights to discover here.
Backpacking in West Africa: Grand Popo beach paradise
The journey goes along the picture-perfect coast: endless sandy beaches, fishing boats, palm trees everywhere. Huts made from palm leaves form small villages near the beach. Although it is Sunday, people work in the fields everywhere.
Grand Popo is a former Portuguese trading post, primarily for the shipping of slaves overseas. Today the city lives mainly from fishing and tourism. You will find many hotels in Grand Popo. Long walks on the long beach are recommended, enjoy the scenery with the many palm trees and watch the fishermen at work.
Ganvié Water City – Venice of Africa
A real highlight of the region is undoubtedly Ganvié, the “Venice of Africa”. The city on the water was built by refugees, and around 40,000 people still live here today. Around 8 kilometers from the jetty at the water market from Abomey-Calawi via Lac Nokoué to Ganvié.
As in Venice, boats are the only means of transportation for people. There are “school bus boats“, transport boats, garbage disposal boats. Of course, you can see little of the splendor and wealth of the Italian lagoon city around the Doge’s Palace. Everything is very simple and functional.
There are some shops, restaurants and even a hotel. Around 70% of the population live from fishing and, in addition to artisans or shopkeepers, many earn their money by importing fuel from Nigeria, which is transported by boat across Lac Nokoué. Absolutely worth seeing!
Ouidah – the cradle and center of voodoo
Ouidah is best known as a center of voodoo. The religion is officially recognized in Benin and, in contrast to the negative image conveyed in many films, is not exclusively an evil spell. In connection with the voodoo is the Python Temple, a unique place where countless small and large snakes writhe. They are “self-sufficient” and can raid the city at night …
Ironically, the Christian cathedral is directly opposite the Python temple.
There are many other sights for art and history lovers in Ouidah such as the Foundation Zisou (extensive gallery of West African artists), the old Portuguese fort with integrated historical museum and the Sacred Forest (la Forêt sacrée de Kpassè), a forest oasis in the city center, in which several deities of voodoo are worshiped. Therefore, ceremonies are held here regularly.
Highlight of Ouidah: La Route des Esclaves
In Ouidah, you shouldn’t miss a trip along the old slave route (la Route des Esclaves), which reminds of the sad chapter of slave trade on the coasts of West Africa in 6 stages. It begins on the “Place Cha Cha“, the marketplace for the slave trade, which started here in the 16th century.
We continue to the tree of oblivion (l’Arbre de l’Oubli), where the slaves should forget their origin, tradition, etc. during the ritual of circumnavigation. From here it goes to the “last village” Zoungbodji, where earlier enough slaves were collected for the crossing. It was often tested here who was fit enough for the crossing: 2 weeks without food and drink. For many, the trip was already ended here and you ended up in the nearby mass grave.
The 5th station is the Tree of Return (l’Arbre du Retour), by circling three times to ensure that at least the soul returns home after death overseas.
The last stop is the Gate of no return (la Porte du Non Retour), from where the slaves were brought to the large ships in small boats, in order to start the crossing chained in the dark belly of the ship. Today’s great gate was built in 1995 as a memorial.
Route des Pêches – endless slope with a beach and palm trees
Directly from the Porte de Non Retour in Ouidah, the old Route des Pêches leads along the coast to Cotonou.
As a means of transport I recommend a “semi-john”, a motorcycle taxi. Here you can flexibly admire the landscape from the passenger and take photos. The route leads over a dust track along dreamy palm forests, past fishing villages and endless beaches.
In many places you can watch the fishermen at work as they bring the pirogues, the traditional boats, into and out of the water. Caution: The fishermen often want money when you take pictures of them.
The closer you get to Cotonou, the more you will pass bars or restaurants, which are very popular with day tourists from the big cities, especially on weekends.
BIG5 Questions & Answers about Backpacking in West Africa
- Why should you travel to West Africa? – West Africa. Immediately you think more of poverty and war. There are no glamorous safaris here like in South or East Africa. The region is still a great travel destination with an extremely exciting slavery and colonial history, a rich culture and picturesque landscapes – and it is definitely far off the beaten track.
- What particularly impressed you? – Everything is so simple – but sufficient! The people here have so little – but are happy!
- Is it safe to travel in West Africa? – Yes, West Africa is generally considered safe. Of course, this does not apply to all routes and neighborhoods, but with the necessary caution and respect for the locals you are well on the way. Of course it feels strange to often be the only white man on the road. You stand out and shouldn’t carry jewelry or valuables with you unnecessarily and display them too aggressively.
- Is it expensive on site? – No, in fact everything is very cheap, from food and drinks to entrance fees and transfers between destinations by taxi or bus. The journey and the visas for the individual countries are more expensive, the visa for Ghana alone cost around 100 euros.
- What would you do differently next time? – I would plan more time and also make further trips off the coast to the north of Togo and Benin. There are great sights such as the city of Kara or the Somba country.
You see what there is to experience and discover in backpacking in West Africa. Immerse yourself in this exciting world and make your next trip an unforgettable adventure!
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