One of the brightest jewels in West Africa's crown, Ghana is a country blessed with idyllic beaches, cosmopolitan cities, and remote nature reserves full of exotic wildlife. It is also a country steeped in rich history. In particular, the colonial trading forts that still exist along the Atlantic coast stand as a testament to the suffering caused by the transatlantic slave trade.
Knowing where to start your adventure in this exotic country can be difficult. But whether you're exploring a historic castle, surfing world-class waves, or heading out on a safari, the experiences you'll have in Ghana will surely trump a vacation to Disneyworld or Six Flags any day.
Ghana's Atlantic coast is lined with seventeenth-century forts and castles and the Cape Coast Castle is one of the largest. Built in 1653 for the Swedish Africa Company, this building was originally used as a trading post for the timber and gold industries. Later, the castle's footprint was expanded by the Dutch and the British and served as an essential holding station for slaves bound for the Americas. The Cape Coast Castle is now a museum full of information about Ghana's history, the slave trade, and local culture. Tours take you through the dungeons and the "door of no return," through which the castle's slaves once passed.
Ghana's most popular beaches are located around Kokrobite, home of the particularly beautiful Langma Beach. Kokrobite is a quick 20 mile (32 kilometers) ride away from the capital, Accra. Here, the beachfront hotel, Big Milly's Backyard, offers laidback accommodations. Big Milly's has a friendly bar and restaurant where backpackers, volunteers, and Ghanaian Rastafarians chill out. The hotel is also home to Mr. Brights Surf Shop, where surf staff offer gear rentals and lessons to travelers wanting to experience the famous International Surf Day waves. Alternatively, Kokrobite Garden is another popular place to stay, complete with a sparkling swimming pool.
A 20-minute drive west of Cape Coast Castle brings you to the picturesque fishing town of Elmina. Elmina is home to one of Ghana's most important historic landmarks, St. George's Castle. The stark beauty of the castle's white-washed walls contrasts its dark history. Built by the Portuguese in 1482, it was taken over by the Dutch 150 years later. The location served as the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company for more than two centuries. After that, the slave trade replaced gold exports. Today, tours through the dungeons give visitors an emotional insight into the horrors the slaves entailed.
Across the lagoon from St. George's Castle lies Fort St. Jago offering excellent views of the castle and the town of Elmina. The very first European building on this hill was a church dedicated to St. Jago. The hill was also used as a gun-position by the Dutch to bombard and overtake Elmina Castle (now St. George's) from the Portuguese. Years later, a permanent fort was built consisting of two landward bastions, two seaward bastions, and buildings that housed 69 soldiers, surrounded by a courtyard. Today, you can view nineteenth- and twentieth-century modifications to the fort that reveal its use as a prison, a hospital, and a resting house.
Ghana's vibrant capital of Accra—a sprawling city—contains over two million residents. It constitutes an eclectic blend of contemporary architecture, ramshackle townships, colonial castles, and lively markets, and is considered one of Africa's safest capital cities. Highlights include the Makola Market—a central hub selling everything from fresh produce to local arts and crafts—and the National Museum of Ghana. The museum hosts beautiful displays of Ghanaian culture and history, including the legacies of the Ashanti Kingdom and the slave trade. Accra also has several scenic beaches, including Labadi Beach, Coco Beach, and Bojo Beach.
Kakum National Park is a dense tropical rainforest in southern Ghana. The forest is home to more than 40 mammal species including forest elephants, forest buffalo, meerkats, and civets. The birdlife is fantastic, as well, with over 250 different species recorded. But, the highlight of any visit to Kakum is a stroll on the Canopy Walkway. Suspended 100 feet (30 meters) above the ground, this 1,150 feet (350 meters) walkway has you crossing several bridges and offers a unique perspective of the park's flora and fauna. Take a guided tour for a better understanding of the plants' many medicinal properties. And, pitch your tent at the basic campsite if you want to spend the night.
Located in northwest Ghana, Mole National Park is the country's largest wildlife park. Expect to see buffalo, rare roan antelope, elephants, warthogs, hyenas, and if you're very lucky, leopards. Lions have recently been re-introduced to the park as well. Birders can also keep an eye out for more than 250 avian species. Opt for a walking safari or a traditional game drive accompanied by an armed guide. The best time to spot wildlife is during the dry season (January through March) when animals congregate around the water sources. And there's a motel just near the park headquarters.
The former capital of Ghana's Ashanti Kingdom, Kumasi is located in southern central Ghana. It is the country's second-largest city with a population of over two million people. The Ashanti are famous artisans, specializing in gold jewelry and trinkets, Kente cloth, and carved wooden stools. Examples are displayed at the Kumasi Cultural Center and at craft villages on the outskirts of Kumasi. The bustling Kejetia Market is chaotic but well worth a visit. To see how the Ashanti kings used to live, check out the Manhyia Palace Museum. If you time it right, you can meet the current Ashanti king, as he makes an appearance every 42 days.
Another of Ghana's beautiful beaches, Busua offers visitors the chance to soak up the sunshine, swim in the Atlantic, and feast on fresh lobster. The area is also the country's unofficial surfing capital, with several shops offering surf safaris to the area's secret spots and lodging options ranging from basic to luxurious. A favorite of many tourists is the Busua Beach Resort, a large, modern hotel with dining facilities, a pool, and comfortable beach chalets. The more intimate Busua Inn is run by a French couple whose love of authentic French cuisine is evident at the ocean-view bar and restaurant. For reasonable rates that include breakfast, try the African Rainbow Resort, a small family-run hotel with just 12 rooms.
Ghana's oldest mosque, and one of its most treasured spiritual sites, lies just outside of Mole. The Larabanga Mosque is one of eight mosques in the country built from packed earth and horizontal timbers, complete with towers and buttresses. In 2002, this mosque was included in the World Monuments Watch after it fell into a state of disrepair, allowing for conservation efforts to repair rotting wood and replace broken cement with mud-based plaster. This pilgrimage site, used by Ghana's Muslim population, still operates as a center of worship today. To visit, contact Ibrahim who works at the local orphanage in Mole, for specifics. Non-Muslins are not welcome to enter the mosque.