A bustling fishing port on Ghana's south coast, Elmina is a popular stop on most tourist itineraries. It gets its name from the Portuguese nickname for the region, Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro, or "The Coast of the Gold Mines." The town's star attraction is St. George's Castle, an erstwhile outpost of the Atlantic slave trade more commonly referred to simply as Elmina Castle. However, those that have the time will find that there's more to Elmina than its tragic past.
Elmina Castle is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance in telling the story of West Africa's role in the Atlantic slave trade. Built by the Portuguese in 1482, it is believed to be one of the oldest European buildings south of the Sahara. The trade settlement that grew up around the castle originally dealt in gold as its primary export, but by the 17th century, the castle was a key holding station for slaves captured in West Africa. From there, they were shipped off to captivity throughout the New World.
Today, visitors can tour the castle either on their own or with a guide. Guides explain the history of the slave trade, shedding light on where Elmina Castle's slaves came from, and where they ended up. In the castle dungeons, a palpable atmosphere of human suffering still prevails, and most visitors find the tour deeply emotional. You can also gaze through the "Door of No Return" - a portal in the outer walls of the castle through which slaves were lowered into boats and taken to the offshore slave ships.
The Fish Market
Afterwards, the Elmina fish market provides a much needed dose of sunshine and color. Right outside the castle, countless traditional fishing boats, or pirogues, moor along the shores of the Benya Lagoon. These picturesque vessels are painted with biblical quotes and witty sayings, and manned by muscled fishermen in bright soccer shirts. After hours spent at sea, they arrive home to the applause of young men and women standing on the bridge over the lagoon. The women transport crates of unloaded squid, crabs and fish to market, balancing them ingeniously on their heads.
Visitors are welcome to watch and take photographs as the catch is sold, smoked on huge racks, or salted and dried. Despite the overpowering smell of fish, the market is kept relatively clean. Huge slabs of ice are scraped to create shavings, which are then placed on top of the fish to keep them fresh. As you head deeper into the fray, it is possible to watch carpenters crafting new pirogues, their massive hulls exposed like giant whale bones. The carpenters live in shacks right behind their outdoor workshops.
The scene is so filled with life, good nature, hard work and color, that it serves as a fitting antidote to the castle and its shades of long-gone slave trade victims. If you're lucky with your timing, you can also watch the local drumming and dancing groups that practice every day after 5:00pm in a courtyard adjacent to the castle.
Elmina Town Center
Beyond the market, the fishing boats and the accompanying applause, a bridge leads you into the center of town. The streets of Elmina are lined with colonial architecture and adorned with wild-looking statues built by the town's 18th-century Asafo organizations. The Asafo were coastal military companies operated by the native Fante people. Each one had its own building in town, identified by unique flags and large statues depicting religious or mythical figures associated with the company.
Elmina Java Museum
Opened in 2003, the Elmina Java Museum is dedicated to the history of the region's Belanda Hitam, a group of native soldiers recruited by Dutch colonialists into the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. The name Belanda Hitam translates from the Indonesian for "Black Dutchmen", and the recruits were first deployed in southern Sumatra. Displays at the museum are well-maintained and include collections of authentic clothing and diaries belonging to recruits from Elmina.
Fort St. Jago
On top of the hill directly opposite Elmina Castle, you'll see a similarly styled building known as Fort St. Jago or Fort Coenraadsburg. The fort was built by the Dutch in 1652 to protect the castle from attack. In 1872, the fort and the entire Dutch Gold Coast were ceded to the British, who carried out several fortifications of the original structure. Today, the fort remains in relatively good condition. It is open to visitors between 9:00am and 4:30pm every day.
Where to Stay in and Around Elmina
Located approximately 13 kilometers/ 8 miles west of Elmina, KO-SA Beach Resort offers good swimming, great food and wonderful accommodation at a reasonable rate. The individual huts are colorfully decorated, with attached bathrooms and compost toilets designed to benefit the environment. A natural bay allows for safe swimming, which is rare in these parts. You can relax on the beach or in hammocks in the gardens, take drumming lessons or walk for hours on the beach.
Elmina Bay Resort is a 10-minute drive from Elmina center. It boasts a lovely stretch of beach and a swimming pool perfect for escaping the midday heat. The rooms are new, and the interiors are cool and spacious. There's a restaurant on-site, and you can opt for air-conditioning. Next door, Stumble Inn is an excellent choice for those on a budget. It offers double rondavels, bunk-bed dormitories and excellent camping facilities. For a minimal fee, you can use the swimming pool at Elmina Bay Resort.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on April 7th 2017.