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Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for:
It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and sites head for travelindependent.info. Thanks to Piers Newberry for his excellent insights and information. Some of which you will find republishing below.
What follows are only basis snap shot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out), to see why click here.
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Travelling for the sake of travelling and seeing as
much of this kaleidoscope of a world we all live in is about the
only reason most of us ever need to travel. Variation is always the
inspiration. It's amazing at just how different (and of course similar)
life is across the globe. It's a great feeling to know this first hand
and at least get a foot on each of the world's major regions. With this
in mind, West Africa with all its mystic, alluring place names and sense
of adventure is somewhere ignored... or perhaps just forgotten, tucked
away in a corner, way off any round-the-world ticket and just waiting to
be explored. For most English speaking travellers it's way down the
list. Let's be fair it's hot, on the whole comparably expensive
(certainly to fly to) and with few noteworthy attractions. What you'll
read about West Africa - the crime, disease, conflicts, poverty and lack
of infrastructure - might also worry you to a certain extent. Having
noted all this, many are still very much attracted to the region and
what they imagine will be a lot of virgin ground, few travellers and
many of those friendly African smiles encountered so many other places
on this dark continent.
This intro is here because it is felt in the case of West Africa some general impressions needed to be summarised, rather than just 'country-by-country': certainly considering how little there is to write from a mainstream traveller's point of view about each country and how reasonably similar most of them are.
As mentioned, many will have feelings of slight trepidation before setting off to West Africa, but most will probably on the whole be looking forwards to going after hearing or reading many second-hand glowing reports. A large proportion of these reports don't perhaps paint a full picture, focusing on individual instances or reflection rather than travel in general/reality and this is a useful point to communicate some of the reality without any - for want of a better phrase - 'hardcore smug retrospect backpacker coolness'.
Okay where to start? Firstly, and taking nothing away from the fact everyone should visit this incredible (for many of the wrong reasons) region - French West Africa from a budget independent travel perspective is on the whole not fun, not easy, not cheap and certainly no picnic. Whatever the complications of getting around, basic facilities, lack of tourist infrastructure, etc., anywhere else in the world they are magnified ten-fold in French West Africa to a point that experiences under the hot African sun can go beyond enjoyable, particularly if your knowledge of French is not good enough to get the best from the region which is often the people. Add this to some pretty unforgiving weather and you have a real challenge of a trip on your hands and no 'holiday'. A good sense of humour and attitude helps immensely, but at times you'll need at extraordinary sense of humour as routine situations like getting around, sleeping or crossing a border can go way beyond funny.
A great if somewhat circumstantial example, is that when travelling worldwide and socialising with other travellers, stories always get shared or re-told. Tales of funny, dangerous or unbelievable experiences. These are almost always second hand, normally third hand and occasionally you'll recognise them as directly out of the Lonely Planet! When in West Africa you'll have the same conversations with the other travellers you'll meet, yet almost all of the stories are told about first hand recent experiences. Stories such as a one day bush taxi journey taking three, being kept for a day incorrectly at an airport in the hope of a bribe, being dumped on the road side at one AM, waiting two hours for a sandy omelette in a restaurant, waiting endlessly for a bush taxi to fill up... the list goes on. It's very much West Africa - for every good experience there are a thousand complications and when sitting in the midday heat, on a hard bench, covered with flies surrounded by children in an awful state and waiting for those three bush taxi seats to fill up having been there at seven that morning - it makes you think hmmm, this is past an experience and really not that much fun. But of course it is an experience and whereas these experiences are more frequent and less pleasant than travel in other parts of the world you just need to see it in retrospect and understand they make up as much of a part of travel as seeing any famous monument. It's West Africa - just be prepared, have a healthy budget and don't under-estimate the fact you are in the world's poorest region where things are done differently and life is very, very different to the rest of the world - only parts of the Asian Subcontinent even come close, but at least they are fairly well set up for tourists and cheap - French West Africa comparatively speaking is not.
A few notes to keep in mind... French West Africa is constantly referred
to, Ghana on the other hand which is English speaking in
compared to the former French territories is a real joy - but
more about this later. Cameroon (part English speaking), which
is still pending a write-up also comes recommended in many
Please remember, what is presented here is only an opinion and a reflection of other travellers interviewed. The core principle of this website, guide, call it what you will, is not to shy away from or pour 'tourist brochure' gloss over any subject. Nevertheless, the only opinion that really matters is yours and the only way you can accurately gauge it is to go for yourself (you certainly won't regret it and will likely rank the time as some of the most 'interesting' you'll have spent abroad.)
However with the above in mind, the reality of travel is that to do/go everything/everywhere we want, more than often requires more time and money than at any normal person's disposal. This site is about making informed choices - knowing before you go and getting the best from your time and money.
Read on, ask around and make your own mind up.
The real West Africa, the music, age old traditions, dances, mystique are hard to track down and for this reason planning your trip around a festival or at the very least a major market makes a big difference to your impressions. Please note that because of the limited time able to be spent in each country (there are very few if any places to 'hang-out', and not so many places that are worthy of the extreme effort it takes to get there) these summaries are admittedly quite brief. Okay enough said... still want to go? - good for you, now read on for the good bits.
1). Speak French well - Very
few people in the Francophone countries speak English. Now, even
with reasonable French, it can be quite hard to get a bottle of
water! Why because the enunciation is often not clear, and you
may have to haggle. You will manage with poor French but there
is a big difference between managing and enjoying your trip.
2). Probably the hardest area in the world to travel. - Bus services are getting better, but if getting a little off the beaten track you can be sitting in a small beat up van for a few hours before departure and driven very slowly around roads of variable quality. You are packed in like no where else. There are big comfortable buses now on most routes, and it worth working out how to avoid small buses as much as possible. Guidebooks are useless compared to good French in finding them!
3). Few other travellers to meet. - There are very few people travelling in West Africa. Not a great place to go if you want to meet other people.
4). Guides/touts everywhere. - Don't let them put you off, as by and large they are a minor irritation, and sometimes you enjoy the challenge of getting rid of them. Basically someone comes up to you in the street, pretends to be chatty, asks you lots of questions about your age, name, nationality, and generally befriends you. After which they will finally mention that they have a shop "just around the corner".
5). Working cashpoints - There are plenty of working ATMs, but don't rely on everyone in every town to work. Take Euros and an ATM card on the visa network. The CEFA currency is used almost everywhere and it really cuts down hassle.
6). Rip off - The problem in some countries/areas is that everyone wants to rip you off. Behind this is the culture of 'the rich SHOULD give to the poor'. It's their tradition. So if they ask for 2 dollars for water, they don't see it as a rip off, just rebalancing the money distribution. If you are on a tight budget you will have to work pretty hard to get the right price on things.
Two examples of West Africa money 'distribution' - sitting down under a deserted hut roof (not even any walls) in the middle of no where. Woman appears and says it will cost you to use this shade. Or in the middle of nowhere, at a very small waterfall, you will find some guy who has waited all day just for your US 20 cents? Someone will follow you into a shop and speak in the local dialect to the shop keeper - 'Hey shopkeeper I brought this tourist here, charge him double and give half to me'.
7.) Cost of Water -Water is between 40 and 60 Euros per person per month, or for two people for three months that is about 300 Euros! It works out much cheaper and much more convenient to buy a filter, and take some purification tabs as well just in case. It is also much better for the environment.
Many thanks to Piers Newberry for allowing this (slightly edited) republishing of advice from his trip through West Africa.
8.) Best place to Go? - Best - Benin - easily the best - plenty to see. People delightful, cheap and clean! A world traveller begged me not to tell anyone, but hey Benin deserves more than zero tourism. Go there. A close rival: Cameroon. Not so exciting - Burkina Faso. Hard work: Mali
9). Visa Entente - You can get them within a Visa Entente country usually at the Togolese embassy or the Burkina embassy and definitely at the TOGO EMBASSY IN GHANA. They deal them out in four hours. Cool. This visa covers Burkina, Togo, Benin, Niger, and the Ivory coast, so long as you just go from one to the other and do not leave the entente area. It saves some money and lots of time and hassle.
10). Oh that's what you said. - Even if you speak perfect French you will have trouble with the numbers. They do not use your French teacher's clear tones. Phonetically 100 = ss-on; 500 = ss-on ss-on; 600 = see ss-on; 700 = sai ss-on
11). Always find out the price - Annoyingly many places to eat often do not have a price list. Always check the prices of anything you order or they will, about 50% of the time, try and charge a huge amount of money.
12). Rise and Shine - The air is much cooler in the morning and it is a good idea to do what the locals do and get up at sunrise. Most of the buses leave extremely early as well so it becomes a natural habit to embrace. They may often use the worst minibus for the last bus (often mid-morning) of the day as people don't have a choice to wait for a better one later.
13). Almost no where to buy books - There are a few book exchanges in Mali, but elsewhere you will be hard pushed to find English books outside Ghana/Nigeria.
14). Take breakfast with you - Sometimes it is inconvenient to have breakfast as some buses leave extremely early, and it can also be irritating to find yourself in a restaurant for an hour at that time of day. For what you get, bread and coffee it is also a bit of a waste of money. Recommend is a small heating element, tea/coffee, powdered milk and a mug. This doesn't weigh very much and will pay for itself very quickly.
15). Consider Overlanding - If feasible and you feel confident enough to bring your own car or buy one locally you will get to see a lot more and experience less hassle.
Money and costs: All of the French speaking countries covered in this section - so not Ghana or The Gambia - use the West African CFA (pronounced say-far and not to be confused with the Central African currency of the same name) as their currency. This currency was fixed to the French Franc and now to the Euro making it 'hard'. Thus meaning that when the Euro is strong, so is the CFA. Strong as in you won't get much CFA for your dollar, pound or whatever, compared to say a sometimes undervalued currency like the South Africa Rand. It also means cost wise that coming from South Africa, Asia, Latin America or even some parts of Eastern Europe you are in for a shock. It's not Japan standards, but it's no bargain as parts of Asia can be. Sure market food, locally provided services, a bus ride or basic bed can be very cheap, but probably more than anywhere else in the world, prices will match quality and dirt cheap prices mean very low/basic standards. When things wear you down a little - considering the difficulties of travelling in the region you will probably crave some comfort from time to time - or you can't avoid them, commodities/services/items of an international/western standards such as gasoline, air conditioning, western food or comfortable accommodation are going to be relatively expensive and in many cases on par or not far off with western prices. The case here is poor country doesn't necessary equal cheap travel. Note this is the case in CFA countries, others such as Ghana are still excellent value.
Getting around: There are many forms of overland transport in West Africa, but none more common and unique to this part of the world than the bush taxi or taxi brousse - a form of shared transport in a car. Bush taxis are always private, but rarely does the driver own the vehicle, and they are effectively a small bus. Almost without exception a bush taxi will leave when full (or when all seats are sold) not by a timetable. Depending on the popularity of the route this can take half an hour or even several days. If you are early you can choose where you sit, late comers have no choice - sitting in the front is the best and worst is the back (the side with no shade is also pretty bad). If a bush/private taxi looks like it is going to get uncomfortably full or will take ages to fill up with all the required passengers, you can buy extra seats at the same price of one or even charter the whole thing. In some cases you are going to be asked for more money for a big bag. On some occasions when the taxi is taking ages to fill up some passengers will club together to buy remaining seats and get going. If this happens or you personally buy an extra seat, don't expect a discount - time is not money in West Africa. Best get a bush taxi early in the morning or on a market day. There are a few different types of bush taxi in West Africa, most a moving form of torture.
Bush taxis are normally Peugeot 504s (that have been made in Nigeria or driven from France), or at least the main type anyone with any sense/money would take, over mini-buses or pick-ups. The quality of these vehicles ranges from whimsically forlorn to past belief. In fact the state of bush taxis in West Africa will probably be your most entertaining experience each day.
A Peugeot 504 or cent-quatre as they are known have three rows of seats and are designed to take seven plus the driver, but in many countries this is flagrantly flaunted. Mali springs to mind where the driver plus nine is the norm and even worse in Guinea they go for ten plus! Normally the wealthier the country the fewer people they squeeze in. The quality of the car will affect the comfort, but on the whole even with seven in the car (three in each row and one in the front) long trips are very uncomfortable and the front seat even if shared is the best place. If you worry about safety perhaps just don't go to West Africa, doors won't open, tyres are bald, and there is normally a hole in the floor somewhere. Drivers vary, some dangerous, some okay.
Sometimes mini-buses are used as big bush taxis, these are cheaper and sometimes more comfortable, but take longer and are rarer. Much more common are pick-ups (bâchés). With wooden seats, these are so past 2nd class that after a few hours you would rather be walking (you sometimes figure you would get there faster - bâchés are slow and take a lot of time at road blocks). They take about 16 passengers and a lot of luggage. Without beating around the bush: travelling on all the above is pretty unpleasant, but none more so that a bâchés and sometimes they are the only option. Best advice, just remember a bad day travelling is better than a good day at work! (or so they say). Remember you're in Africa, get in to the local humour and as your arse slams onto the hard wooden bench, as your pick-up hits a huge pot hole, a chicken bites your leg and a bag of millet land on you just think.......
Reading: Set in Nigeria at the turn of the century, anyone heading to West Africa should read (among others), the excellent 'Things Fall Apart' by the late, great Chinua Achebe.
Intro: Two narrow strips of land between Nigeria and Ghana. Togo and Benin get perhaps more than their fair share of visitors due to the fact it's an easy and quick trip across from the ever popular Ghana. Many are attracted to Benin since it is known as the home to Voodoo and both nations have a golden coast line. The main road along the coast is good and you could (even with West African transport) get from Accra to Lagos in one day passing through both. Border crossings are also pretty easy. However, head to the north of both countries and transport is back to normal West African standards and it can take days to cover small distances. By all accounts some interesting national parks (Parc National de la Pendjari for example) await those who do take the time or are on the way to Burkina Faso. Nevertheless most understandably stay close to the coast and see wildlife else where in the regions. With Benin, Voodoo and the World heritage listed palace in Abomey are a major draw card, but don't expect too much. The real interest lies deep down for those who discover it at length or are lucky enough to stumble across a festival. As for Togo the highlight is the scenery in the north, the hills, plateaus and mud-brick houses that dot the landscape near Kara, but you are going to have to have plenty of time and energy to get to see it.
Highlights: Fewer tourists than Ghana. A real chance to get off the beaten track. The yearly Voodoo festive is quite something. Some of the best national parks in the region and some beautiful hilly country-side. Most note they like the culture of Benin, but the people of Togo. Hiking in the hills, the amazing lack of modernisation in the Kabyé region, voodoo ceremonies or encounters with wildlife, but highlights are thin on the ground or hard to track down. Getting around is not too bad and getting around in Cotonou is a lot of fun on the back of motto taxis.
Lowlights: Not much to see or do (certainly compared to the likes of Ghana). Outside of Nigeria, Benin has some of the worst examples of urban Africa. Not much is to be expected of Abomey (but is quite interesting). The same goes with Route des Esclaves and voodoo in Ouidah. Ganvié the village in the centre of Lake Nokoué is not only touristy, but also expensive and unfriendly (better examples exist in Ghana). Beaches are plentiful, but the sea is dangerous, sand unclean and budget facilities poor (head to Ghana). Places like Aného in Togo do have a certain charm, but need no more than an afternoon to explore.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Like Ghana the best time to go is probably over the summer. Most of the rain comes in June and May. It's pretty hot all year round, but March/April are the worst.
Costs: Can be ultra-cheap or quite expensive. Accommodation seems to be better value in Togo. There is good food to tempt you at twice the price of Ghanaian eating out. From €25-30 per day.
Getting around: In both countries bush taxis are the de-facto methods of getting around. These however in the south are quite fast (good roads), fill up quickly, okay vehicles and not unreasonably priced. However, the very south of these two countries is very different than the north where the population is scarcer, bush taxis take much longer to fill up and roads wind through hills. Either way, by West African standards getting around is fairly easy. In Cotonou, motto-taxis can be used for short trips as in Asian cities. Great fun.
Guide book: Lonely Planet or Rough Guide - West Africa
Media: Only French language publications.
Locals: Many report the Togolese to be friendly, however neither of the two countries inhabitants are over-friendly (especially the Beninese), however as elsewhere in Africa it is not uncommon to meet ultra-friendly individuals. Still a long way to go to get to Ghanaian standards.
Other travellers: Fine (not too many of them, many French/Belgium or Peace Corps.)
Tourist factor: 5/10 (2/10 in the north)
Communications: Internet in Lomé and Cotonou and others. Not bad standard, forget it away from the biggest cities.
Accommodation: An okay range to be found in most southern towns, much more basic and harder to find in the north.
Average cost: Under CFA10,000 for a basic room CFA10-20,000 for a nice one.
Benin visa strategy: Time on a Benin visa is a little tighter than a Togo one, but is easy to get at the border. However try as you might you will only get a transit visa with 48 hours on it when crossing from Togo or Nigeria (although you could probably get away with leaving at any time on your day of expiration - thus giving you up to 59 hours). If crossing from Niger or Burkina Faso then, first of all good luck, these are tough routes, but you will get a 7 day visa. The cost of an on the border visa is about CFA10-15,000. If you do have a Benin embassy in your home country (note there are few Benin embassies in Africa) you could get a longer visa there in advance at a cost of about US$15-30. We have heard reports that it is possible and also reports it is not possible to get a visa at the airport. If flying from outside of Africa you will probably not be let on the plane without a visa anyway.
All this said, to avoid the hassle and cost of getting a visa extension you can fit in most of Benin's highlights as listed above (apart from a national park) on a transit visa. Benin is not instantly the most appealing of places (certainly not Cotonou where most hit first) and for many the 50 odd hours you can get on a visa coming from Togo is plenty of time to see a few sights (in the south distances are not so great) and leave. Just taking a little look and spending most of your time in Ghana is probably good advice, we are sure there are those who rave about Benin out there.
Togo visa strategy: Unless you are African you will need a visa. Luckily these are available at all major border-crossings: Ghana: Aflao/Lomé, Benin: Hilla-Condji, Burkina Faso: Sinkasse and the international airport. You should get a week visa, (if not ask for it) which is extendable and costs about CFA10-15,000. For tourist purposes it is unlikely you will need more than a week and many choose to leave to Benin and re-enter within the seven days without needing another visa. This is very handy in a region where visa costs really mount up and when few backpackers will continue onto Nigeria, most head back to Ghana and just check-out Benin.
Both Benin and Togo are on the Visa Entente (this visa also covers BF, Niger, and the Ivory coast).
Food: Some excellent restaurants in Lomé and not bad ones in Cotonou. However, to eat at this standard is not cheap. For quick cheap food there a few options, but nothing too exciting so it seems that it is either market food, something out of a supermarket/bakery or a more expensive meal. Outside of Lomé and Cotonou the choice is more limited and basic, but never as bad as in other parts of West Africa.
Vegetarians: Generally Fine
Hassle and annoyance factor: 6.5/10 - Some hassle, not too bad.
Women alone: Generally fine, keep a guard up as always.
Rating: 6/10 - some interesting possibilities, but compare the people, cost and scope of things to do with Ghana and there is a hard case to be made for any more than a quick look around.
Intro: A name like Burkina Faso (West Africa's darling) and a capital named Ouagadougou (Waga-doo-goo) is enough to attract almost any spirited traveller if they get the chance to visit. However, exotic names (here is another one: Bobo-Dioulasso) might just be all that Burkina Faso has got going for it. Like the rest of the region it is notably very poor, and certainly has none of the big draw cards some of its neighbours have, such as Mali and Ghana. What it does have is a relaxed and organised feel to it, much more than say neighbouring Niger and Mali (and none of the instability), which to be fair most want out of pretty quick. Neither Ouagh or Bobo (the two largest cities and commonly used abbreviations) have much in the way of sights, but walking around is not unpleasant, internet plentiful and most Burkinabé friendly. Burkina Faso does seem to be one of those transit countries (like Zambia, Paraguay, the Baltic's, to name a few) where travellers end up on the way to someplace else or simply for the reason that they liked the sound of it; and it's Ouagh and Bobo that are the main transit towns. It's a day jaunt to either Mali or Ghana from either. Look on a map or flick through your guidebook and apart from Gorom-Gorom in the north and Banfora in the south there's not much else to attract you and with Ghana or Mali calling fleeting through seems like the best idea. It could be argued that considering what these two neighbours have to offer and the fact that getting to either the north or south is going to take a fair amount of effort, maybe don't bother. Also, if you have limited time, feel worn out by bush taxis or want to get elsewhere the advice is probably to keep moving. Those who have the time and energy - head out there and you will discover the gentle nature of the country and a landscape as varied as the people. A trip to Gorom-Gorom can be over-shadowed by the hassle it is to get there and the poverty you find, but get it right and you will feel as if you are in the National Geographic! Something unforgettable. For those who don't have time, just try to break up a journey and stay a night outside of Ouagh or Bobo. Don't expect too much, but remember where you are and that is reward enough in reflection.
Highlights: Gorom-Gorom's Thursday market is quite a way to go, but reasonably interesting and less hassle than the market in Djenne, Mali. A slightly more relaxed and more organised feel than many neighbouring countries.
Lowlights: Transportation to more remote areas, and the fact that there is just not too much to do/see
Visa strategy: A visa is available at the border and at the airport. The visa is not too expensive by comparative standards, but the cost is higher if you pick it up in a regional embassy in advance which is not really necessary - just make sure you have enough cash (currently around US$20 for 7 days) in CFA and two passport photos when you arrive at the border. Officials are normally quite friendly, corruption is more of a problem in other countries. Note if travelling elsewhere in the region BF is covered on the Visa Entente (this visa also covers Togo, Benin, Niger, and the Ivory Coast).
Typical tourist trail: Coming from Ghana, Dogon Country, Togo or Benin you will end up in Ouagh. Coming from Mopti or Bamako you will hit Bobo first. Many continue onwards to other countries from there. A few stop in-between Bobo and Ouagh to see the national park and similarly few head to the north and Gorom-Gorom's. The general feeling experienced was those coming from Mali were worn out and wanted a rest and to have a little comfort (there or in Ghana) and those coming from elsewhere were in a hurry to get to Dogon Country and Mali proper.
Costs: Burkina Faso seems cheaper than Mali and Senegal, but still uses the CFA so is a mile off Ghana in terms of value. Everything apart from imported goods is good value. €15-25 per day. If you come from Ghana expect to find Burkina much more expensive.
Money: Best bet is to use ATMs found throughout the country (in larger towns) and get money that way. Stock up on cash in Ouagh and Bobo before heading out into the country where you will struggle to change anything else apart from Euros cash.
Getting around: Buses are pretty reliable and comfortable (yes they have buses! one of the get joys with Burkina is a rest from bush taxis). There are of course still bush taxi and mini buses which you might have to use. There is or was a regular train service into Côte D'Ivoire, but god knows what has happened to this as it transits some pretty 'hot' territory.
Guide book: Basic info in the Lonely Planet / Rough Guide - West Africa
Locals: Generally very warm, friendly (many ethic groups as elsewhere in West Africa).
Other travellers: General Frenchies and peace corps. heading for Mali.
Tourist factor: 3/10
Accommodation: It is pretty easy to find basic accommodation for under CFA10,000 and in Bobo and Ouagh you can get a nice room complete with AC for around CFA15,000.
Communications: Okay internet in Ouagh and Bobo
Food: There is not much variety in the way of food in Burkina, but you can find good supermarkets and good food in Bobo and Ouagh.
Vegetarians: Normally always able to find an option
Hassle and annoyance factor: 3/10 (more in the Sahel, far north)
Women alone: Not really a problem, but it is worth being on your guard
Intro: Okay, we admit it: Cape Verde does not really
belong here. You will find a chapter for it in most West African
guide books and Senegal is the nearest landmass, but that is as far
as the connection goes. Far from hardcore, heat, hassle and bustle;
Cape Verde is a popular winter sun destination for Europeans. Most
visitors and certainly those on package trips will visit only Sal, a
hot/dry island with a great beach in the Northeast [of the island
chain] with good/cheap flight connections from Europe. Boa Vista,
below Sal which has equally nice beaches (if not nicer) is also
popular. However, like so many locations around the globe the best
is to be found far away from the crowds attracted to white sand.
The best of Cape Verde is to be found on the more rugged and harder to reach islands where the sea and crashing waves gives way to dramatic mountains and volcanoes in which green valleys, friendly locals and relaxed little towns can be found. Due to the size of these islands, topography and few roads the best way to explore is walking (although midday sun is harsh) and with a map available locally possibilities to get off the beaten track and simply explore are endless. The most dramatic and greenest island is Santo Antão (which also attracts the most hikers) is probably the best place to do this. Sao Nicolau is much drier, but sees far fewer tourists and Fogo in the south, set amongst one dramatic volcanic rise, is equally a great place to explore.
The problem is getting to all these islands since ferry connections are limited, flight costs add up and once on an island, transport, hotels and attractions can be limited. If in doubt start with Mindelo (via Sal or Praia) and head to Santo Antão for the bulk of your trip. Don't expect anything less than Eastern European prices and try and have a bit of Portuguese (or at least French) in your vocab to make the most of it.
Highlights: Hiking, mountain biking or chilling on Santo Antão. If you kite or wind surf the possibilities are excellent as are the facilities, but waves and strong wind can make it frustrating to learn/for beginners. Cape Verde is famous for its music, but finding it and authentic performances can be tough.
Lowlights: Cost, standards are much higher than mainland in Africa and you pay for it. Getting there and around (islands - ferries apart from a few are not practical to connect islands) and on islands, shared (cheap transport) is not always available and sometimes with a long wait (to fill up) when it is. Equally life on a small island can be a little boring.
The jury is out on: The wind. Cape Verde is a breezy place. Great for wind and kite surfing for which there are loads of schools and rental outfits, but after a while being constantly buffed gets on your nerves.
Visa strategy: A visa (paid entry stamp) is available at the airport on arrival - run to get ahead of the queue.
Typical tourist trail: 90% of tourists remain on either Sal or Boa Vista. Of the remaining 10% the majority make Santo Antão or Sao Vicente their main focus
Costs: Sal is by far the most expensive island, other islands cheaper, but food, accommodation and transport all add-up. 40-60 Euros per day.
Money: Plentiful ATMs, in more touristy destinations. Euros are widely accepted for payment at approximately the current exchange rate
Getting around: Angleurs (shared mini-buses or pick-ups (pick-ups)) run most routes, but are irregular. Getting to an out of the way beach or trail head will normally mean hiring the whole thing. Your can find car and bike rental on most islands, but often there are not enough things to see or roads to drive to justify the cost of car hire unless you are a big group.
Ferries and flights (inter-island): There are twice daily (morning/evening) dependable ferries between Santo Antão and Sao Vicente. The crossing takes only 1 hour. There is also a service between Praia - Fogo (3hrs 30mins) - Brava (40mins). For the rest and connecting with Sal/Boavista and the other sets of islands you are really depended on flights provided on the whole by the partially government-owned airline TACV - the Cabo Verde Airlines. There are some longer distance ferries, but schedules are weekly or bi-weekly and we struggled to find information on them.
Guide book: Any, not so vital. Good walking maps can be bought locally and there are good tourist information places in major towns, plus locals will be happy to help
Locals: Friendly and open - the more so the more you get away from the nice beaches and onto the lest visited islands
Other travellers: On Sal and Boa Vista, predominately English, German and Italian. On other islands, mainly French and German. Typically older travellers with 'backpackers' in the traditional sense uncommon
Language: Portuguese is main language, but French is widely spoken (and English on Sal). A Portuguese phrase-book helps
Tourist factor: Depend on island from 3/10 - 10/10
Accommodation: It is pretty easy to find accommodation. Don't expect hostels or cheap options everywhere. If you are lucky you can find a double for 20 Euro, but 30-40 Euro (inc. breakfast with in-room bathroom) is more normal. On Sal 50-80 Euro is more the norm.
Communications: Wi-Fi in many places, certainly the better places to stay. Every major town has a place to use the internet and make international calls
Food: Decent supermarkets in towns of any size. Food is priced at western standards
Vegetarians: No problem, but fish dominates
Hassle and annoyance factor: 2/10 (more in Sal and Boa Vista, but lightweight and friendly)
Women alone: Not a problem.
Intro: For most, Mali is West Africa, a nation three times larger than France, backed by the Sahara, transited by the River Niger, home to the most fascinating sight in the region (Dogon Country) and of course there is Timbuktu. With direct charter flights from France to Bamako and Mopti, Mali is the one place in French West Africa a traveller will want to visit. Dogon country and its uniqueness is widely known, its reputation and photogenic images go before it. Images of Djenne's huge mud mosque go before it too, projecting an image of exoticism and Africanness its self. Removed from the West - enough to tempt almost any traveller. You can take a trip on a slow boat down the Niger, mud villages on it's banks, hippos... Timbuktu at the end (lets be fair this is Mali's main draw because on first response EVERYONE will want to have gone to Timbuktu and back). That's the travel brochure version (if there is one), what one expects in the expectation of looking ahead or the nostalgia of looking back to a trip, but the reality is quite different for many reasons.
Where to start other than to say Mali really is not real
fun to travel within and - Dogon country and a vibrant music scene aside
- the only 'wow' will probably be your thoughts on how the
population endures what can seem like such an inhospitable place. This
is of course a personal take, no doubt a few hard-core French speaking
travellers may disagree, but certainly this is the most consistent
opinion of travellers. Why is this then?
Well at the heart of it there are four main issues, all largely endemic to French West Africa, but exaggerated many times in Mali. 1) The country is extremely poor and the traveller infrastructure is very basic, this means a basic lack of good cheap places to eat/sleep or ways to get around. The feeling of adventure you get from travelling with locals or sleeping in very basic hot rooms soon wears off after a few weeks. 2) Malians do vary dramatically through the country, but certainly in tourist areas there is a lot of hassle (Mopti and Timbuktu in particular). This hassle really can get too much at times. 3) The fact that it is quite clearly a desperately poor country (aside from Niger and the Sudan more so than possibly most travellers ever experiences first hand), coupled with the strength of the CFA as a currency means although what you might expect would be cheap travel it can be quite expensive. Transport (private), decent accommodation, imported food (so most decent food) and trekking Dogon country will leave you feeling quite poor. 4) All this on top of seeing 95% of the population living in extreme poverty.
Anything else? To summarise: travellers more than often have expectations way too high of Mali. It's very hard work, relatively crowded, hard to get around, not cheap and more often than not - on first impression - unfriendly. Nevertheless travellers' experiences will vary and it is never encouraged that anyone gives anywhere a miss.
Comment: I think you provide a wealth of practical info and great advice on your site, but I think some of your reporting on West Africa is a bit irresponsible. In particular, I was very upset by how you categorically slammed Mali, implying that it is good for a quick visit to a few sites and that's all. I appreciate that you at least included one reader comment to the contrary, but I think the entire section needs to be reworked with a more balanced approach. Malians have become some of my best friends and I have been consistently humbled and astonished by their generosity. Also, I am blown away that nothing is said about the music, which is phenomenal in all regions of the country. Lastly, your accommodation section needs to be updated as there are many affordable and comfortable options in Bamako, Mopti, Sevare and Segou.
Highlights: Dogon Country , a boat trip up the Niger (if at the right time of year and with a bit of spare cash to pay for some luxury) and the market at Djenne plus the town itself. Being able to at least say you were there even if you didn't get to Timbuktu. A remarkable way of life - the sights, sound and smells. Festivals: sur le Niger at Segou and Essakane and the Festival au Desert in Timbuktu.
Lowlights: Bamako, transport, poverty, a bad Dogon guide, crowds at peak time in Dogon country, the heat (especially when trekking), hassle and touts. Political instability and security in far North.
Visa strategy: Visas are required by everyone. To get one you need to go to an embassy and apart from Belgium, America and France you are unlikely to have an embassy in your home country. You could travel or post your passport to your nearest embassy and get the visa that way, but the best bet is to get it on the road in a neighbouring country such as Senegal. If you fly direct to Mali you will not be allowed on the plane without a visa, flying from a neighbouring country you might get away with it and get a visa at the airport, but not recommended to take the chance. Two things to remember getting your visa on the ground in West Africa: it can take a few days and costs do vary per country. Last check: Dakar CFA7,500 - Ouagh CFA20,000 (the Lonely Planet is a good reference to check visa prices). You will need a Yellow Fever certificate.
Typical tourist trail: Either from Burkina Faso to Dogon Country and Mopti or from Senegal to Bamako to Mopti/Djenne and Dogon Country. Most will wish to get to Timbuktu, but few will actually make it due to cost and impracticability. Even fewer make it to Gao and elsewhere, those who do explore off the beaten track find the going very hard.
Tourist factor: Considering the compact circuit taken by most 7/10, outside this 2/10. In December at some of the more picturesque Dogon villages expect 9/10.
Costs: €35-45. For a third world, developing country Mali is not cheap and if your want to take a reputable Dogon guide, travel by private car for the odd trip or fly/boat to Timbuktu then a shoestring budget will get you nowhere (you would want to double the first figure given). You can live cheaper in Mali, but with standards being so poor and the climate so hot, basic accommodation and transport can be and often are unbearable even for the most hard-core traveller.
Getting around: Tough. Buses ply main routes, but are very basic and take a long time. Always go for the best companies i.e. 'Bittar' - ask locals. But these will make you wonder what the worst companies are like! Bush taxis are plentiful and another way of getting around for shorter trips such as Mopti to Djenne. However, these are more expensive than elsewhere in West Africa, in a worse state and can take forever to fill up unless on a market day. It is possible to book a place on a bush taxi for a return journey or next day trip and worthwhile - still expect to wait though.
The third option is a private car which is
offered at every turn. These are pricey even when shared, but
the most comfortable way to get around. Refuse payment unless
the driver drives with at least some idea of safety, as road
accidents are common. Most travellers will need a private car to
get at least back from Dogon country, thus adding to the price
of such a trip. The same goes with Timbuktu using a bush/private
The last option is to use the Niger River to get most famously from Mopti to Timbuktu/Gao. This is a subject in itself as different boats will sail at different times of the year pending on the height of the river. It is the larger boats that travel from around September to Christmas that are the most bearable and worthwhile. The much smaller boats are very basic and can take over a week to make the Mopti - Timbuktu journey. Braving storms, sleeping on the river bank, sound fun - trust us the reality is not!
Accommodation: Availability of comfortable budget accommodation has improved dramatically, but off the beaten track expect basic levels or poor vale. Most of it falls at the lower end of mid-range. In centres such as Mopti and Bamako there are plenty of hotels, but expect to pay over €30 for an okay (by basic standards) air-con room. Cheaper sleeps are often very hot stuffy dorms in convents, but newer traveller focuseds establishments (The Sleeping Camel in Bamako) are springing up. Prices are higher still in Timbuktu.
Average cost: €15 - €40. If you want a semi-western standard with air-corn expect €35 - €45. Do bargain and don't expect too much. Standards in West Africa really are very different to the rest of the world.
To Timbuktu or not to Timbuktu?
The pros and cons plus how to get there: Almost everyone is going to want to go to Timbuktu. It's almost impossible to put someone off before they realise fully what Mali is like to travel in. Timbuktu is the most expensive place in Mali and eating/sleeping are priced quite high. There is not much to see or do, the town itself takes about an afternoon to get round and see. Trips out to the dessert are not particularly special (not compared to Egypt, Mauritania or elsewhere) and are over-priced. In Timbuktu everything is business - no one is going to help you for free. And just like the rest of Mali, it is very poor which does not make walking around pleasant. Nevertheless it's TIMBUKTU!
How to get there depends on a few factors. How much cash/time you have and what time or year it is. If is September to about Christmas when the water is high enough (this changes each year and the window may be longer or shorter) then the best way is to take a big boat from Mopti. It takes about three days and in one of the higher classes is quite pleasant with some interesting things to see on the way. If you are visiting outside of this window and the river is low and you still want to go by river there a small boat service, but they really are small, slow and very uncomfortable.
The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide have enough written on these two options to save writing too much here. If the river is low taking a Land Rover from Mopti is the better option. This is quite expensive, very bumpy and takes a lot of time and effort to arrange seeing as every seat has to get sold. This should get you there in one long day (if you don't have any problems).
Travellers normally come back with a Land Rover after taking a big boat there. The best option is of course to fly, but prices and flight timings don't make this all that practical. Many services to Timbuktu have gone out of business in recent years, but there is at least one small aircraft that travels weekly from Bamako to Mopti to Timbuktu and back. It flies over the weekend and if you catch the first return back you have little time (less than two days), the next return gives you about five days (way too long). Because it is a small plane it can fill up especially before it gets to Mopti, it can also be cancelled due to limited numbers, weather conditions or other factors like sand on the runway. Expect about US$250+. It's easy to arrange a flight in Bamako or Mopti.
If you want to arrange a boat or Land Rover don't worry: they will find you in Mopti or even Bamako, before you find them. One tip: - as with all third world buses, but more so here) don't believe a word you are told on travel times by those hawking the transport. Find someone who has done it and ask them. Another tip: for those in the know - forget Timbuktu and head for Agadez in Niger. Still a pain to get to, but much more interesting.
Like most other big African cities, Bamako has issues with crime (mainly at night), but the country is on the whole safe and the biggest risk comes from bad Dogon guides who can leave you after the first day or spend the whole time drunk. Another 'broad-daylight' risk is paying over the odds for anything and everything as most Malians see white skin as a chance to rip you off blind. The number of people who in Bamako will offer Dogon guides with rates ten or more times over the going rate makes you feel as if you are seen as being born yesterday. Few independent travellers ever get this way, but north of Timbuktu, the western border area with Mauritania and the eastern border with Niger are considered very unsafe.
Trekking in Dogon County is a serious
highlight of West Africa and fascinating glance into a culture
most of us can only imagine. Remember three things. Firstly, it
will only be a glance, secondly you will do limited 'trekking'
due to the heat and thirdly Dogon Country has become a bit of a
theme or ethnic safari park particularly during the Christmas
Getting a guide: Arranging a trip to Dogon country is a minefield all independent travellers are going to have to tread through. Almost as soon as you cross into Mali you will be quizzed about a Dogon trek. Arranging Dogon guides or guiding is a great source of income for Malians and everyone wants a slice of the pie not just those who are Dogon. Entry towns to Dogon country are some of the most difficult places in Africa in terms of everyone wanting something from you. Getting a good guide is key to a good Dogon Trek. He needs to be a Dogon of course (quite a few aren't - all swear they are) so he can speak the language and maybe let you meet his family and friends and he needs to a friendly, motivated guy. How can you gauge all this - how can you pick out a good guide? Especially when you get off the bus in somewhere like Koro or Bandigara with twenty or so would be guides swarming around you? Most will have bits of paper with written testament to their guiding skills from previous travellers. Some will be more chilled out than others and almost anyone who talks to you will want to be your guide or recommend one. The whole thing is very tough to judge and the only sure fire way is to talk to someone who has already done a trek and get a recommendation from them. Pick a guide who is friendly, chilled out and does not try to joke you with ultra-high prices when first asked. There are many bad guides out there that can really ruin your trip. Don't pay everything up front and go with your intuition. There is a list of approved guides and a black list register, but this is only of limited help and not very accessible. Having said all this you don't need a guide 100%, you can trek without one, but run the risk of limited knowledge and committing cultural errors such as entering sacred places (many Dogons may tell you, you are in a sacred place when even you are not to influence you picking them as a guide). Very few trek without a guide. A guide will cost between 10-20,000CFA per day, but the cost of a private car if coming from Mopti will push this up and a large group will push this figure down. This is a package rate for everything including food and will include the fees to visit villages and sleep at night. Simple guiding rates and porter rates are between CFA5-10,000. A flat rate guide cost system introduced has widely been ignored and good guides will charge as much as they can get away with and because everyone wants a good guide they normally get what they ask.
What to expect: Treks normally range from three days to five plus. Many come a long way just for a Dogon trek and seem to want to get as much from it as they can - often taking treks for a week or longer which is by many standards much longer than needed. A three night four day trek is enough and you can cover a great deal if fit and with a motivated guide. A trek will start with a private car, donkey cart or bush taxi to an entry village such as Djiguibombo (Jigi-bom-bom - what a great name!). As you probably know Dogon country is set along an escarpment, a high cliff which you will weave up a down during your trek so expect some clambering over rocks, nothing too great. From an entry village you walk an hour or so for lunch. Hang around while lunch is being cooked and in the midday heat you shot the breeze with other travellers and your guide talks with other guides. Food is good and this should not be a concern even if you are vegetarian. Your guide might show you around a village and explain any points of interest to you. Then as the day cools off you walk on to another village to stay the night or you might even sleep in the village where you just ate. Eating and sleeping take place in tourist encampments in larger villages. There is a place for you to sleep on the roof of huts or inside - the roof is much nicer (you are given a thin mattress and sometimes a blanket is available). There is water available from a well and a normally very smelly toilet. This water you can purify with iodine or you can buy bottled water, soft drinks and even beer in the village at prices a little higher than in town. If you have a mosquito net bring it.
If you are trekking in cool season it can get a little cold at night, but at all other times of year it is okay and a simple silk sleeping sac is fine. Guides try to aim for the larger better village camps which can get crowded in the high season so get moving early in the day to get a good spot or move on one village further to a smaller camp. You then get up early in the morning, have breakfast and move on before it gets too hot. All in all you do very limited walking during the day and have a very long break during the day. For those who are fit you could happily walk twice the distance each day - just make sure you have a motivated guide - many are not - drink lots of water, carry a very small/light bag and have some shade with you (sun hat or umbrella are great). Don't expect to be made overly welcome in villages, take photos of people without paying something or be welcomed walking around without a guide.
Routes: Dogon country is essentially split in two halves. The split is at a road point trekkers use to leave in about the middle of the escarpment near Dourou and Yawa. Three day treks pick one half, week treks or more do the whole length. In four day you could cover the same if you are keen on walking and visiting in the cool season. For example a simple three day trek will have you dropped at Djiguibombo. You walk for about an hour down the escarpment to Kani-Kombolé (where a bush taxi heading to Koro can drop you). Then to the pretty Endé village. Have lunch and walk one more hour to Yaba-Talu to sleep. Less than two and a half hours walking. Next day walk to Begnimato back up the escarpment which is about two hours walk and that's it for the day. Next day walk an hour to Dourou, have lunch and leave. Hardly a lot of walking and certainly a lot of sitting around with the flies which can be a real pain (take some fly papers or something). That's just an example there are a few other basic routes. See a guidebook for more details or ask around.
One reader adds: 'make sure before
you set off you know where you are going. Discuss the actual
route very well with your guide. The trek can be a little
tough with the climbing, and you may want to discuss how far
you want to walk and if you have any experience in hill
climbing/walking. Through some misunderstanding you could find
yourselves walking tougher routes, the guide is used to
walking in the hills, climbing over rocks, but you may not be.
Check out beforehand, because there are no telephones etc., so
you cannot change your pick-up point. Ask the guide to draw
you a small map, so you get an idea of where you're going.'
What to take: Getting to a festival or at least market really makes a trip as does having a very light pack. Good sandals are fine to walk in. No camping equipment is needed. A mosquito net is recommended as malaria is present. Take a basic supply of medicine and water purification iodine plus something like Tang (add to water orange flavour powder) to cover the taste. Trekking is possible all year round, every period of the year has good and bad points. In the rainy, summer season take something to swim in as there are opportunities for a refreshing swim. In the cool winter period have a light fleece. Bringing kola nuts for the 'chef du village' is recommended by most guides. It is unclear what is expected in giving out these nuts so you can just give them to your guide, and he can 'distribute' them.
A final note: You will be amazed by the number of people (particularly French package tourists) who think it is a good idea to give children sweets, bought at the local market, sometimes in exchange for a photo. Please do not do this and, if unsure why, please read the gifts for children text in the on the road section.
Money: You will find few ATMs. Travellers cheques will change in Bamako and Mopti, but with poor rates and a lot of hassle. Take Euros or CFA in cash.
Locals: There was a comment here and a very generalised one at that, saying something to the effect that Malians are among the most unfriendly people on the continent. This is an impression that some do come away with, but many have got in touch with opinions to the contrary. However, consider Ghanaians as a comparison. One comment reads as such 'You also make it clear on the first page (although you do set yourself up as an authority) that yours is a subjective viewpoint on travel. There is however one point I would like to make about your West Africa section, in particular, Mali. I spent 2 months in Mali and thought it was terrific. The people I thought were great, and very friendly. I do not speak fantastic French, so communication was sometimes hard, leaving open opportunities for misunderstandings. Many people tried to rip me off. Do you think it's fair to place such a damning conclusion on a whole nation of people? I believe that to maintain the integrity of your site (which I think it has plenty of), you should removing such subjective and personal reviews of a country. I think that everyone is entitled to their own view, however, as you set yourself up as the one in 'the know', you should consider a more broad-minded stance.' - Rebecca L. Stewart, Australia.
Other travellers: Normal crowd of French and Belgians and several Peace Corps volunteers taking holidays.
Communications: Internet okay in both Bamako and Mopti, just a little slow.
Guide book: Lonely Planet or Bradt
Food: Poor and expensive food. Don't expect much. Malian food is nearly always couscous and something. Imported products predictable very expensive. At least there is good fish in most parts of the country, but finding a good meal is not that easy. Food on Dogon trek is a welcome surprise as it can be very good if your guide is good.
Vegetarians: A little tough. Omelettes are your best bet. Meat on offer is not exactly appetising anyway. It's not a problem on a Dogon Trek.
Hassle and annoyance factor: A lot of hassle in Bamako and Mopti (Dogon trips), in Timbuktu (camel trips) and in Djenne (tours). 7.5/10. Just maintain you have already been to Timbuktu and done a Dogon trek already from the moment you arrive.
Women alone: Not normally a big problem, but do team up with someone else on a Dogon trip.
Rating: Considering a Dogon Country trek is such an interesting experience 6.5/10, elsewhere 4/10. Djenne is the best of the lot, but Timbuktu, Mopti and Bamako can be nothing but a let-down. A pinch of salt is needed.
Intro: Arguably the most 'French', Senegal
is also the most visited country in West Africa. This is due
to its reasonable stability, beaches, several points of
interest and most importantly French tourists. Don't be
surprised if whilst driving along the coastline passing
wooden fishing shacks set into the palms along long dusty
beaches, poverty evident all around, you might come across a
Club Med resort or a mini bus of well-heeled tourists. Still
that's one side of this vast nation. It can be argued that
the other half can be found far, far away from cosmopolitan
(by West African standards) Dakar and in small fishing
villages (Joal-Fadiout), crumbling towns (St-Louis) and the Kashmir of Africa,
Pick up any guidebook and there will be more than enough to tempt you in such a huge country, but realistically, by international standards there is little of long term interest and facilities are basic (especially in Casamance), added to the fact that getting off the beaten track - which apart from St-Louis and Dakar is anywhere - takes the normal extreme amounts of time and discomfort as any West Africa traveller can come to expect. That's what someone who only has a week or two to spare, has not adjusted to West African travel and has limited French might feel. Speaking French and fully 'tuned into' the region, then Senegal aside from Ghana is often report to be a favourite country in the region. Quite simply the country is huge, with tons to explore and roads that to be fair are not that bad. Spending a few days or even a week on Île de Goree is a well-earned rest from a chaotic nation.
Senegal probably is 'French West Africa' and very different from the neighbouring Mali and Mauritania. It is cultured, unique, French, frenzied, tropical and hot. Those are the good points. On the flip side it can be dangerous and difficult to find a worthwhile attraction. The overriding message though is Senegal does have something to offer and a few gems for those who are luckily enough to stumble across them. If you don't mind bush taxi's, speak French (great people) and dig West African music you are much more likely to find them than the rest. And the rest? Well they might wonder after a day trip to Île de Goree and a few trips out of Dakar what all the fuss is about.
Visa strategy: Visas are not needed by EU, North America, Japanese, South African and Israeli travellers. Australians and Kiwis do however need a visa.
Dangers: Like most other big African cities, Dakar has a reputation for muggings at night (and in the day). Be careful with your belonging anywhere in Senegal, particularly in Dakar and on the train to Bamako.
Costs: approximately €25-40 a day
Money: ATMs in major cities
Getting around: Bush taxis are the main source of transport. They fill up pretty quickly for most major routes and are quite fast. However, as with all bush taxi's they are very cramped. If heading on a long journey it is well worth getting the front seat (to yourself) or paying for two seats.
It seems there is a special place in
the heart of most travellers when it comes to trains. It
probably stems from the fact that a train is not a bus, you
can sleep, relax, go to the toilet, look at the scenery etc.
So it comes to no surprise that in a region where getting
about is tough and distances vast the train that runs from
Dakar to Bamako and vice-versa is appealing and very popular.
It is also historic in that much of the track was laid in
1904-12. The problem is it keeps going out of service
(2003-2005 and again in 2009). Right now from what we understand
it is not running (apart from Kayes-Bamako) It
may start again, it may not. We will try and keep you updated.
Before... The train departed Bamako for Dakar on Wednesday. It travels the other way on Saturday and takes (published) 35 hours. Couchettes are available if you have a first-class ticket. At least that is the theory - of late it has been departing every 8-9 days to no real schedule. The reality is this journey is pretty unpleasant. You can spend well over 50 hours completing the journey, the toilets become unusable (god help you if you have food poisoning) and the train does have a theft and heat problem making sleep or the benefit of being able to wander about hard to enjoy. Two things are for sure: only a true masochist would take this train for fun or a second time and it will be a memorable experience with some great scenery (maybe that's the whole appeal of it). There is an options to cover some of the trip by road in Senegal, but the train is best avoided all together. It's often out of service and always late. Tickets are difficult to get, but nowhere near impossible.
First class is okay and seats are large and comfortable. Second class is more crowded and much more unpleasant. The couchettes or sleepers are okay for a nights sleep, but again basic. Malaria can be a problem on the train and not something you should overlook as using a net is very difficult. A torch is handy and so is a supply of food/water, but you can get this on the way in some form.
As mentioned you can bush taxi as far as Tambacounda in Senegal on okay roads and hope you don't have to wait too long for the train and pick it up there. This is still quite a lot of hassle and the train will be in quite a state by this point of the journey, but is nevertheless preferable to continuing by bush taxi into Mali which is even harder work. Lets look at it realistically, the cost of the train is quite expensive if you take 1st class as most do and considering the risk to your belongings plus the scope for adventure almost anywhere in West Africa the train is best avoided - even when it is running, but you still need to get to Senegal/Bamako.
Flying is by far the best option if you can afford it, with Senegal Airlines, Air Burkina, Air Kenya and ASKY Airlines handling the route. Prices range from about USD200-300 which is expensive, but there is simply little competition on the route with many national airlines in the region now dead. However you will save yourself a good deal of time to relax on say Île de Goree.
Guide book: Lonely Planet
Typical tourist trail: Dakar to St-Louis. Many will head to the Gambia or Mali from Dakar. Few now get to Ziguinchor and Casamance.
Locals: Wide range - those in cities can be quite intimidating compared to more honest and down-to-earth folk found away from the beaten path. Most Senegalese do seem to want something from you.
Other travellers: Various. Many French
Tourist factor: Ranges between 3/10 to 7/10
Accommodation: Like any West African country accommodation ranges from quite pleasant and pricey in big cities to very basic and cheap in the country. Good accommodation can be hard to find off the beaten track.
Average cost: €25-35 for a nice AC room. Less than €10 for a basic room.
Communications: Internet okay and good value in both Dakar and St-Louis
Reading: International French language newspapers and magazines in major cities
Food: Eating in Senegal is raved about, particularly in Dakar. Many would say eating is better in Ghana (if you like seafood) and all would argue that if you want to eat like a king in Dakar you almost need the budget of one. Good variety of food in Senegal, although to sample the best of it on the cheap you are going to have to be brave enough to get in with the locals and market stalls.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Expect some hassle, particularly in tourist spots. Be careful in Dakar, it can be a dangerous places if tacked incorrectly.
Women alone: Some care needed
Intro: Where as Senegal is the most visited country in West Africa, The Gambia can seem more like it, particularly when it comes to English and German tourists, many of whom are on packaged holidays in the compact area that passes as a resort. In many, ways The Gambia could be considered as a perfect destination for a taste of West Africa. Where it lacks the wide range of culture and variety of Senegal with it's world heritage sites, it more than makes up for it with beach resorts, spoken English (very useful for many), a compact circuit and friendly, easy-going people.
All this might conjure up the image so often
portrayed in glossy brochures as a perfect alternative beach
destination to rank with Goa, Dahab or Zanzibar - beaches,
wildlife, friendly faces, exotic surroundings. Whereas The
Gambia does have all of these, you are warned not to confuse it
with the aforementioned destinations, as any one who has been to
neighbouring countries would realise: that even in this English
speaking democratic corner you are still very much in West
Africa. Beaches are not particularly safe to swim off and the
sand is crowded with hustlers - many of whom are infact
extremely nice - but still won't give you much peace. Wildlife
is really bird life and viewed from the muddy river.
The development of package tourism in and around beachy areas outside of Banjul means that in this area there is a good range of accommodation, okay transport, food, supermarkets, excellent bookshops, Wi-Fi and a good chance to chill out.
The downside is a certain amount of hassle is drawn to this
areas as well as a big non-backpacker crowd, if that bothers
you. Explore further in The Gambia and transport,
accommodation and other facilities go down hill so quickly you
can be forgiven for running back to the more developed areas.
Village life, wildlife and other cultural activities are
arguably more interesting and easier elsewhere in the region
if you are travelling on. A visit or a night in the capital
Banjul is a daunting experience, even though it's quite safe,
it's just that run down and with nothing to see. The same goes
with even a five hundred meter side step from the slightly
developed coastal tourism/expiate areas; life is pretty tough
and standards of living are enough to faze many travellers.
In fact most of The Gambia you are likely to see has a somewhat forlorn look and feel to it, where a once package tourist boom failed to sustain itself. The only flashes of elegance or prosperity are embassies and expatriate business... still there are some genuinely nice people to meet and learn from - particularly if your French is not that good - and it's a chance to get to know or help people outside of Ghana where most non-French speaking backpackers normally make a bee-line to.
'The' Gambia, is one of only a few in the world where the name includes a definite article. It is Africa's smallest mainland country.
Highs & lows:
Highlights: No notable highlights that really stand out – other than a chance to relax and stock up on books, magazine and some food treats. The Gambia is a popular place for voluntary work and those who partake in this (normally organized) would hold this experience highly as it will get them out into villages and meeting real Gambians.
Lowlights: Banjul (the capital and only real major town), transport off the beaten track, having too high expectations, hassle in touristy areas. A visit to the 'Crocodile pool' can see you trip over a huge croc if you are not paying 100% attention – some might rate this as a highlight - others with a nervous disposition - not.
Visa strategy: Visa rules seem a bit sketchy. Citizens of the United Kingdom and other full members of the European Union, the Commonwealth (so Oz and NZ) and other nations with a reciprocal visa abolition agreement with The Gambia do not require a visa. 90 days is standard. However, other nationalities (Americans check) should get a visa in their home country (if possible) or in the region (Dakar, Lagos, Freetown and Guinea Bissau). However, technically you can get a visa on arrival, since the those with 'last minute bookings' will be allowed entry but will be required to submit their passport to the Department of Immigration in Banjul within 48 hours to be issued a proper visa.
Typical tourist trail: The Gambia is not really big enough to have a 'trail'. Along the coast just south of Banjul is where the majority of best beach and accommodation lies. Transport links are good and this is where most travellers stay. Adventurous soles heading to the south of Senegal (Casamance) will head through the southern part of the country where there are some interesting remoter beaches.
Dangers: The Gambia is quite a safe destination by West Africa standards, but you do need to be slightly on your guard at night and aware of all the numerous health risks.
Costs: Cheaper than CFA counties, but still a far cry from being as cheap as Ghana. Your daily costs can be very low, but good (western standard) accommodation and food can put you on a daily budget of around US$30-50. Whereas, rough it and you can get by on a third of that figure.
Money: ATMs in Banjul and resort beach areas. Most hard currencies change no problem as do travellers cheques
What to buy: The Gambia is the best place to stock up on books in the region. If you need any guide books for onwards travel you can find them in the one excellent bookshop.
Getting around: Bush taxis and shared mini-buses are the main form of transport. In the populated area around Banjul and the beaches, transport is not too much trouble. Out in the sticks it is much tougher. The Gambia is cut in half by the river Gambie, with few bridges. Banjul is on the south of the widest point and connected to the other side (Barra) by a ferry which has been the point of a number of accidents and is another one wating to happen. Still there are not too many options to avoid it (fly or long drive around (if you have your own transport).
Getting to and from Dakar: To get from Dakar to Banjul overland takes a whole day with an early start. The main delay is crossing the Gambie River (to Barra) and the border crossing. Roads in Senegal are pretty good, but getting from Banjul to the border or visa-verse is hard work. To get to Dakar by air is not good value. A ferry service has been started (and stopped many times) between Banjul and Dakar and back daily. If it is running it is great to save an energy draining overland journey. It takes 4 to 6 hours.
Continuing on by air: As mentioned getting to Dakar by air is poor value like most flights in the region. Senegal Airlines and Gambia Bird operate the 45 min hop for USD100-200. No flights go direct to Bamako or Mopti in Mali [or indirectly at reasonable prices]. Gambia Bird does open up a few destinations, but on the whole this is not a good regional airline hub. It is worth noting that The Gambia has regular charter flights from Europe, particularly the UK, and on return trips at certain times of the year (low seasons) prices are great value.
Guide book: Both the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet have Gambia sections in their Senegal or West Africa guides. There is also an all Gambia Bradt guide, which is good if a little out of date and unnecessary.
Locals: Some hassle and guys looking to pick up tourists on the coast. Generally quite friendly if given the time
Other travellers: Very few backpackers. Most young travellers are there for voluntary work while many other tourists you will see are on package breaks
Tourist factor: 6/10. Despite being a package destination and having direct charter flight links with Europe, numbers are still low and backpackers are in the serious minority. Like elsewhere in the region, it's very easy to get off the beaten track
Accommodation: Accommodation is pretty limited in Banjul and outside of the coastal area south of the River Gambia. However, in this area there is a good choice
Hot water: Only in better accommodation
Average cost: Difficult to say. Ranging from US$10 to US$40. At the higher end in resort areas with even a swimming pool. At the lower end quite basic.
Communications: Internet easy and good value. Post is excellent value and fast/reliable to the UK at least
Books: 'Timbooktu', a book store easily found in Fajara has a great selection of fiction, fact and guidebooks. All English language.
Food: Hard to find good food in Banjul and elsewhere. Along the Atlantic coastal resorts there are plenty of great places to eat.
Vegetarians: No problem in Atlantic coastal resorts
Hassle and annoyance factor: 6.5/10
Women alone: Do expect a lot of attention on and around the beaches
Intro: Wonder of wonders, just when you were fed up of West Africa and all that it offers or rather doesn't and wondering why you made the effort to visit, you find Ghana. How different Ghana is from its neighbours or the rest of the region. It's not just that English is spoken. They speak it in Nigeria, fancy a trip there? It goes so much deeper than that almost in ways that can't be explained, but probably most significant is the money factor. The CFA is not used in Ghana and the currency used in its place, the Cedi makes the country outstanding value for money. Only western imported goods approach anything near expensive and the most important commodities for budget travel: great food, beer, transport and accommodation are dirt-cheap.
The country is also somewhat more developed than elsewhere in the rest of the region. It's not anyway near Western standards but reasonable. Buses run on a schedule, eating out is easy, banks have ATMs, Internet is easy. In fact the balance is about right for many since even though certain western factors are present to make life comfortable you are not going to run into a McDonald's or even close. As mentioned transport is fairly easy, frequent, comfortable and cheap - no more bush taxis if you don't want! But what really makes Ghana are two factors. The first being the size and variety of the country. From relatively speaking cosmopolitan Accra to way off the beaten track villages in the North, it seems everywhere you make the effort to visit there is a worthwhile reward.
You won't find a Taj Mahal or other such wonders you might find in a country like India, but compared to the rest of West Africa or even Africa it's a joy.
The second factor that really makes Ghana are the people. If you have read a fair chunk of this site or have been backpacking before you will know that the people factor of travelling is a huge factor in the appeal of going abroad. Not everyone is a joy, but on a whole Ghanaians are perhaps the most friendly, hospitable and welcoming people in the world - even more noticeably so since English is commonly spoken. In fact the whole culture is very soft and you very rarely feel intimidated even in the great poverty that you encounter as a matter of fact each and every day. Strong (even fanatical) Christian beliefs are clearly evident thought-out the country and this love thy neighbour philosophy probably plays a large part in this, but who is to say?
In a nutshell Ghana is everything you may expect West Africa to be (Sahara and Dogon villages aside), with a huge variety, plenty to explore and few tourists. It's easy to spend a month or two if you wished - certainly the highlight of the region and although it has some limitations as a destination it comes highly recommended.
It is not covered in detail on this site, but if you liked Ghana - we'd also recommend Cameroon. With less tourists, better beaches and a French plus English speaking section, it is a great next stop on any West African trip.
Highs & lows:
Highlights: There are few places that really jump out as major highlights apart from the value of travelling and people. Getting off the beaten track is perhaps the biggest highlight. It's quite easy and there is plenty to see such as beaches and forgotten forts in the south-west, Lake Volta or the villages around Kumasi.
Lowlights: Distances are still quite large and transport is not always comfortable/practical. Mole National Park is easy to get to by West Africa standards, not general standards and the extent of wildlife you see will depend on the time of year and your luck. If you have been to East Africa you might be disappointed.
Visa strategy: Virtually everyone will need a visa and have to obtain it before arriving. Cost is about US$60-80 for single entry and US$80-100 for double entry (but embassies in developed countries will likely charge more). Visas can be easily obtained in Ouagadougou and elsewhere in the region (note reports that a Ghana visa in Côte d'Ivoire can be problematic). For a country that has the most tourist potential in the region, it is somewhat puzzling as to why the Ghanaian government makes getting a visa such a pain and feels the need to add so much red-tape. Please Ghana, take a look at your East African counter-parts of Ethiopia/Uganda/Kenya/Tanzania.
Typical tourist trail: A triangle around Accra, Kumasi and Cape Coast/Takoradi
Dangers: As anywhere else in tropical Africa there are many nasty things you can catch including malaria, but from a safety situation Ghana is relatively very safe. Nevertheless always take local advice and err on the side of caution when walking through remote areas, swimming (since aside from Bilharzia, there are strong tidal currents) and walking alone after dark in quiet, unlit places.
Costs: Easy to get by on US$20. Double this and you can travel very well by backpacker standards with AC in rooms and eating and drinking like a king or queen
Money: ATMs can be found in any major town and cash/travellers cheques change quite easily. Best to stick with ATMs which are really quite plentiful. The only point of note is that the Cedi comes in fairly low denomination notes and that the largest ATM withdrawal you can make is pretty low and is a fair wad of cash. For two people you might end up standing at the ATM making withdrawal after withdrawal before heading somewhere more remote.
What to buy: Some good cheap crafts if Ghana is your last stop
Getting around: Getting around Ghana is much easier than getting around the rest of West Africa. There is a pretty good state run bus service and private buses. On shorter hops, or for sometimes faster times, you can use bush taxis (quite rare) or bush mini buses (much more common). These are handy, leave regularly, don't often rip you off and are not that crowded.
Locals: It's not to say that everyone you will meet will have the sun shining out of every orifice, but Ghanaians are on the whole very friendly, gentle and understanding. A real highlight of any trip.
Other travellers: mainly from the USA (Peace Corps) or British. Some Dutch and other Europeans. Not many tourists (compared to say Asia), most travellers you meet on the road will be doing some kind of voluntary work.
Tourist factor: There are notably many backpackers by West African standards, which is something you seldom notice in West Africa outside Mopti and Dogon Country in Mali, but it's easy to get away from the beaten track and the number of tourists are still very low compared to anyway in Asia or the Americas.
Accommodation: Accommodation ranges greatly from a good standard in bigger towns to quite basic off the beaten track. Mid-range accommodation is quite cheap about US$20-35. Basic accommodation is even cheaper, but of a poor standard and difficult to bear in the heat. If you wish to spend more than US$10-15 the jump up is quite large. In larger cities hotels aimed at business folk can be a great deal with AC, hot water and sometimes a TV.
Hot water: With rooms at the cheaper end, don't expect hot water, but if you want it paying a little extra it will not be a problem for even the most shoestring travellers
Average cost: Around US$20
Communications: Internet and phone easy to find and use. Wi-Fi of okay standard creeping in. Internet cheap, calls abroad more expensive
Books: Easy to find a good range of books in Accra, much harder outside of the capital
TV: Ghanaian national TV is hardly stimulating, but you will find cable TV in good Accra hotels
Food: Food is fantastic, from basic African street food you can find for next to nothing, ranging to great seafood restaurants or local fishermen cooking you their catches in beach shacks. If you like fish and seafood you will be in heaven.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Only a little hassle in towns like Cape Coast, but pretty low key.
Women alone: As with all countries there are guys who will be looking to pick you up at beach areas, but as a woman alone you are pretty safe. Really more of an annoyance than a hassle, you may find that even with a male partner local men may take it on themselves to touch you - just don't take any shit and make sure you let them know this is not appropriate behaviour and you or any other tourist is not going to stand for it. When confronted most men are quite shy about having touched you. It's normally only brushing your arm rather than anything sinister, but it's not something they would do to a local girl (nor would they tolerate it).
Local poisons for the body: Great cheap beer. Guinness, as in much of Africa and the Caribbean is popular and goes down very nicely. Grass is touted in places by locals, but there is no real scene.
"The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it."