Free from the packaged tourism found in other nations that share similar natural beauty and culture, Ghana is ripe for independent travellers looking for stimulating and diverse experiences. Philip Briggs, author of Bradt’s latest guidebook to the country, is here to help you get your planning started.
Ghana is a delightfully unpackaged travel destination – it has no upmarket safari industry worth talking about, there are few upmarket boutique beach resorts of the sort now studded along Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline, and facilities are generally best suited to those willing to explore a country on its own terms. Yet, while Ghana may rank low on the slickness front, and is best approached with a degree of flexibility, this compact country is not in any respect a difficult travel destination. Roads are good, visitors can get pretty much anywhere they want on public transport, English is spoken widely and well, and people tend to be welcoming and accommodating.
For a country of its relatively modest size, Ghana also packs in a huge amount of variety. The south is dominated by 500km of Atlantic coastline, which boasts some fantastic tropical beaches, none finer perhaps than those running westward from Busua towards Axim, an area serviced by several laidback, affordable and stunningly remote beach resorts.
The historian Albert van Dantzig described the Gold Coast (the historical name for Ghana’s coast) as “the ancient shopping street of West Africa”. For centuries its primary item of export was gold, but that changed after the slave trade took hold in the late 17th century. Between 1482 and 1783 half a dozen different European powers constructed a total of 80 fortified buildings along the Gold Coast, and while many have since vanished, at least 20 of these forts and castles survive. Now museums, their tall fortified bastions and grim slave dungeons pay collective testament to a centuries-long saga of European exploitation and greed.
Altogether different is the far northern interior, a predominantly Islamic region whose Sahelian climate and traditional dress code have much in common with Mali or Burkina Faso. There is some wonderfully curvaceous Sahelian-style adobe architecture in the north, too, ranging from the ancient mud-and-stick mosques at Larabanga, Bole and Nakore, to the iconic Wa-Na’s Palace in Wa and the painted flat-topped homesteads of Sirigu and Paga.
In between the crashing waves of the Atlantic coast and arid Burkinese border area lies a wealth of other scintillating attractions: the waterfalls of the Volta highlands, the tropical jungles of the central interior, the cheekily tame monkeys of Boabeng-Fiema, the semi-habituated elephants that trundle across the savannah of Mole National Park, the 19th-century fetish shrines of Ashanti, the bizarrely sculpted posuban shrines of the Fante, the sprawling country markets, the traditional craft villages, and a profusion of colourful birds that decorate the verdant countryside. And not to be forgotten are the innumerable festivals that punctuate the local calendar. Yes, Ghana is poorly developed for package tourism, but it is a remarkably diverse and stimulating country, one tailor-made for a more impulsive, independent-minded style of travel.
Mole National Park
The closest thing in Ghana to the great savannah reserves of southern and eastern Africa, Mole doesn’t quite scale the top rung of the game viewing ladder, but it does provide a worthwhile – and relatively affordable and accessible – opportunity to track wildlife on foot. Elephant are usually seen with ease, while lion and leopard are seldom observed. It’s also an excellent spot for birds, and the celebrated mosque near the park entrance is a superb example of Sahel mud-and-stick-style architecture.
Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary
Ghana’s oldest official eco-tourism project, Boabeng-Fiema is named after a pair of villages where monkeys are held sacred – a taboo taken sufficiently seriously that a funeral is held whenever one dies. The most common primates are Lowe’s mona monkey and the pied colobus, with the former being so habituated it can often be approached to within a metre. Four other primate species are seen occasionally, and the forest supports a prolific birdlife. The low-key resthouse here is a real gem for travellers on a shoestring budget.
The ancient capital of the Asante (Ashanti) Kingdom, Ghana’s second-largest city is known for the dawn-to-dusk traffic jams that crawl around its superb, sprawling central market. Friendly and studded with decent hotels, Kumasi is a great base for day and overnight trips – to the circular Lake Bosomtwe nestled within a spectacular meteorite crater, to the active animist shrines at Besease and Bodwease, to the lush forest of the Bobiri Butterfly Reserve, to the cave breeding site of the rare white-necked picathartes (possibly West Africa’s most bizarre and eagerly sought bird) at Bonkro, or to the traditional Kente-weaving communities at Bonwire and Adanwomase.
Kakum National Park
An hour’s drive north of Elmina, Kakum is best known as the site of West Africa’s only ‘canopy walkway’. A giddying 350m-long suspension bridge standing 40m above the rainforest floor, it offers a monkey’s-eye perspective on the forest interior. Kakum is also a fine (albeit underdeveloped) birding destination, while its mammal checklist includes six duiker and five monkey species, as well as a relict population of forest elephant.
The west coast
Some of the finest beaches lie along the coast between Takoradi and Côte d’Ivoire’s border. For a sociable beachfront experience, Busua is West Africa’s answer to Malawi’s Nkhata Bay – it’s also an emergent mecca for surfers. If you are after isolated white sand and whispering palm fronds, your budget will dictate whether you’re better off at one of the legendary laidback budget resorts between Busua and Cape Three Points, or their more upmarket counterparts near the historic town of Axim. Further west still, a consistently popular goal for adventurous travellers is the stilted village of Nzulezo, which can be reached by dugout canoe from the beautiful beach at Beyin.
Elmina and Cape Coast
The picturesque port of Elmina (‘The Mine’) became an international gold-trading centre in 1482, when the Portuguese started construction on what is now the oldest surviving European building in sub-Saharan Africa. Like its English counterpart at nearby Cape Coast, Elmina Castle took its imposing modern shape in the 17th century, following the Dutch capture of Elmina and rise of the slave trade at the expense of gold exports. Today, both Cape Coast and Elmina Castles function as museums, paying chilling testament to the many thousands of captives shipped from their dank dungeons to a life of bondage in the Americas.
Accra is among the more antiquated of African capitals, and it’s worth dedicating half a day to exploring its old quarter – landmarks include the Jamestown Fort and Lighthouse, the moving Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, and the fantastically chaotic Makola Market. Totally different in character, ‘Oxford Street’ in the vibrant suburb of Osu is lined by boutique shops, craft stalls and the country’s biggest concentration of eateries and bars. Legendary beachfront hangouts include the 5-star Labadi Beach Hotel and the party-oriented Big Millie’s Backyard at Kokrobite.
Offering welcome mid-altitude respite from the sweaty coast is the hilly country of central Volta Region. Flanked by the cheerfully named regional capital Ho in the south, and the even jollier sounding town of Hohoe in the north, it could easily keep keen ramblers busy for a week. Highlights of the compact region include Wli Falls (West Africa’s tallest), the forested ascent of Afadjato or Adaklu Mountains, the pretty hilltop town of Amedzofe, and the low-key monkey sanctuary at Tafi Atome.
Ghana became the site of the world’s most extensive artificial lake following the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Volta River at Akosombo Gorge in the 1960s. Fifty years on, Lake Volta remains surprisingly undeveloped for tourism. For the genuinely adventurous, a notoriously uncomfortable and unreliable weekly ferry service runs north from Akosombo Dam to Yeji. If you prefer to admire the view in moderate comfort, the Dodi Princess is currently being repaired but should soon resume weekend day cruises from Akosombo Dam to Dodi Island.
Paga is best known for its sacred crocodile pools. The scaly inhabitants are lured to shore by dangling a live chicken over the water, where they are held by their saurian tail before being allowed scamper back into the murk. An eco-tourist project also includes visits to a centuries-old chief’s palace constructed in the traditional curvaceous Sahelian manner, as well as to the abandoned slave camp.
Ghana’ tourist industry caters to independent travellers, and with its lack of oversubscribed or wallet-draining ‘must-sees’, it makes the country unusually well suited to an improvised, whimsical approach to itinerary planning.
Pit stop tour (6-8 days)
Accra >> Kumasi >> Elmina and Cape Coast
Overnight in the capital, ideally at one of several hotels fronting La Beach, which lies about 3km from the city centre. With an afternoon to spare, book a short tour into the city centre to visit the market, museum, cultural centre and Jamestown Lighthouse.
A long half-day’s drive or short flight brings you to Kumasi, from where you can make day trips to the popular Lake Bosomtwe or take in traditional Ashanti shrines and the nearby kente-weaving village.
Another long half-day by bus or car brings you to Cape Coast and Elmina, which lie just 15km apart. With a full day in the area, it may just be possible to squeeze in both castles as well as a half-day trip to Kakum. For overnight stays Elmina is the more picturesque town, with several midrange and upmarket beach hotels in the vicinity, but Cape Coast has the better range of budget hotels and facilities.
Return to Accra – you can get through in half a day if need be, otherwise take the opportunity to chill out on the beach for a night or two at Kokrobite (budget-mid-range) or Gomoah Fetteh (midrange-upmarket).
Fortnight tour (12-15 days)
Accra and Kumasi >> Mole National Park >> Takoradi >> West Coast >> Elmina and Gold Coast
As per Days 1-3 on the ‘Pit stop tour’.
Spend two nights at Mole National Park. With private transport, this could be preceded by a stop at Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary. Those without must bus or fly from Kumasi to Tamale (the largest city in northern Ghana) and overnight there before picking up the early morning bus to Mole.
It’s two days of hard overland travel from Mole to the large coastal port of Takoradi, where some of Ghana’s best beaches beckon. The trip could be broken by an overnight stop in Kumasi, where you should have a few hours spare to check out anything you missed on the way up. Alternatively, you could fly from Tamale to Takoradi via Accra in one day.
Depending on your taste and budget, chill out at the sociable surfer-friendly resort village of Busua on the west coast or the more secluded atmosphere of the villages dotted around Cape Three Points or Axim. More adventurously, head across to Beyin and punt yourself to the stilted village of Nzulezo, and then spend a couple of nights exploring the Ankassa Forest Reserve near the Côte d’Ivoire border, a superb spot for forest birds and monkeys.
As per Days 4-5 of the ‘Pit stop tour’ but at a more relaxed pace. Return to Accra on your last day.
Return to Accra
Full country tour (21-28 days)
Accra and Volta Highlands >> Kumasi and Mole National Park >> Paga >> Elmina and Cape Coast Kokrobite>> Winneba and Gomoah Fetteh
After Accra, acclimatise to the equatorial conditions at a relatively breezy altitude in Volta highlands, with overnight stops at the likes of Aburi, Wli Falls, Tafo Atome, Amedzofe (the highest town in Ghana) or the well-equipped regional capital Ho.
As per Days 2-3 of the ‘Pit stop tour’.
As per Days 4-6 of the ‘Fortnight tour’, allowing for a night to cross between the eastern highlands and Kumasi and with an additional night at Mole or Boabeng-Fiema.
Head northward from Mole through the city of Tamale to Bolgatanga, the upbeat regional capital of the Upper East and best base for a day trip to Paga. Time permitting, there are several other eco-tourist projects worth visiting in the vicinity of Bolgatanga, most notably the Tengzug Traditional Shrine in the Tongo Hills or the lovely Sahelian architecture at Sirigu.
As per Days 7-14 from the ‘Fortnight tour’, extending or expanding exploration of the west coast to fit in with your timing
As per Days 6-8 in ‘Pit stop tour’, with potential stops at Winneba and Fetteh.
Language More than 40 African languages are represented, including Twi, Fante and Ewe, but English is the official language, and widely spoken to a high standard.
Time zone GMT
International dialling code + 233
Visas Required by UK and most others, and must be obtained in advance. Three-month single-entry visas cost £50. The Ghana High Commission (www.ghanahighcommissionuk.com) is represented at 104 Highgate Hill, London N6 5HE, 13 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PN and 17 Bellevue Road, Ayr, Glasgow, KA7 2SA.
Health Most of the country is high risk for malaria, especially during the rains. A certificate of yellow fever vaccination is required. Consult your doctor for further advice.
Money The official currency is the Ghanaian cedi. Recent exchange rates were: UK£1=GHC3.2, US$1=GHC2.1 and €1=GHC2.75. Credit cards are of limited use for direct purchases, but can be used to draw local currency at ATMs in all larger towns, though it is important to note that only Visa is widely accepted. Hard currency cash (pounds, euros or US dollars) can be changed into local currency at forex bureaux in most towns.
Getting there A limited selection of carriers service Accra from Europe. For a reasonably direct routing, try British Airways (www.ba.com), KLM (www.klm.com), Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) or Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com). If you’re willing to pay less to take a scenic route, options include Emirates (www.emirates.com), Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com), Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), EgyptAir (www.egyptair.com) or Ethiopian Airlines (www.flyethiopian.com).
Getting around Inexpensive domestic flights connect Accra to Kumasi, Tamale and Takoradi. Good air-conditioned coach services run along most major routes, while a variety of light vehicles (often referred to as tro-tros) connect other villages and towns. Taxis are cheap and widely available.
Places to stay Genuine tourist-class accommodation is available only in Accra, Kumasi, Takoradi and some of the beach resorts. Elsewhere, accommodation tends to be on the basic side, but it is almost always good value.
Eating out In cities and larger towns, a good selection of cuisines is represented, with Chinese making a particularly strong showing. Elsewhere, local ‘chop bars’ serve a selection of interesting and often quite spicy staples.
Safety Ghana is generally regarded as a very safe country, though mugging is on the increase in the capital. Consult the FCO travel advice service (www.fco.gov.uk) for latest advice.
Find out more The only dedicated travel guide is Bradt’s Ghana by Philip Briggs (6th ed, 2013). The Ghana Tourist Authority website is www.touringghana.com. Other useful websites include www.ghanaweb.com and www.tougha.com
Right time, right place
Ghana, like much of West Africa, is renowned for its numerous colourful festivals, and something or other is usually being celebrated somewhere in the country at any given time of year. Some of the most interesting events include the Aboakyir Deer-hunting Festival (Winneba, early May), the Homowo ‘Mocking Hunger’ Festival (Accra, Tema and surrounds, August and September), the Oguaa Fetu Afayhe ‘New Clothes’ Festival (Cape Coast and surrounds, first week September), the Bakatue ‘New Fishing Season’ Festival (Elmina, first Tuesday of July), and Yam Festival (eastern highlands and Lake Volta region, throughout September). The Ashanti calendar operates on nine 42-day cycles, each of which culminates every sixth Sunday in the fabulous Akwasidae Ceremony attended by the Ashanti king at Kumasi’s Manhiya Palace (upcoming dates are posted online at www.manhyiaonline.org).
From Travel Africa 64 Autumn 2013. To buy this issue click here.