West Africa's best destinations include top attractions in Mali, Niger, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, and Gabon. West Africa is famous for its cultural diversity and rich history. Unique mud architecture and landscapes dominate Niger and Mali's major sights. Slave forts on Goree Island and along Ghana's coast attract many visitors. West Africa's national parks like Loango and the Sine-Saloum offer unique wildlife viewing opportunities. A trek up Mount Cameroon takes you to its highest peak.
Djenne (Mali), founded in 800 AD, is one of sub-Saharan Africa's oldest cities. Situated on an island in the Niger River delta, Djenne was a natural hub for traders who shuttled their goods between the Sahara desert and the forests of Guinea. Through the years Djenne also became a center of Islamic learning and its market square is still dominated by the beautiful Grand Mosque. Djenne is located a few hundred miles downstream from Timbuktu.
The market in Djenne, held every Monday, is one of the most interesting and lively markets in Africa, and well worth planning your trip around.
The best time to go is at the end of the rainy season (August/September) when Djenne turns into an island.
Marketed as "Africa's last Eden", Loango National Park in Western Gabon is a relatively new eco-tourist destination. Loango is the only place in Africa where you can see whales, chimps, gorillas, and elephants in one park. In Loango you get to enjoy wildlife on the beach, Savannah, swamp and forest in a single day.
There is a main lodge in the park, and several satellite camps. Ideally, you should spend a minimum of 3 days exploring the various areas of the park, since it is so diverse.
Safari operators in Gabon include:
- Africa's Eden
- World Primate Safaris
Goree Island (Ile de Goree) is a small island just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal's sprawling capital city. It's a haven of tranquility compared with the noisy streets of Dakar. There are no cars on the island and it is small enough to find your way around on your own.
Goree Island was a major slave-trading center. The island's main attraction is the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), built by the Dutch in 1776 as a holding point for slaves. The house has been converted into a museum and is open every day except Monday. There are several other interesting museums to visit on the island, as well as a thriving little jetty lined with fish restaurants.
Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali
The Bandiagara escarpment in eastern Mali is home to the Dogon whose traditional homes are literally carved out of the cliffs. Some of the homes were built by the original inhabitants of this region, the Tellem, and are so high up, even rock climbers can't reach them. The escarpment runs for 125 miles and offers the visitor glimpses of unique villages, rich Dogon culture (including wonderful masked dances and art), and a stunning landscape.
Visitors to the region usually start off in bustling Mopti but you can also stay in Bandiagara at the unique Hotel Kambary. Walking with some decent shoes and a good guide is the best way to explore the region. The best time to go is from November to February.
Ganvie in Benin is a unique village built on a lake, close to the capital Cotonou. All of Ganvie's houses, shops, and restaurants are built on wooden stilts several feet above the water. Most of the people rely on fishing as their source of income. Ganvie is not the friendliest place to visit in Benin, but it makes for a fascinating day trip and it's a unique place.
To get to Ganvie, take a taxi to the edge of the lagoon in Abomey-Calavi and a pirogue will take you from there. Spend the day watching people shop, go to school, sell their wares -- all on boats.
There are a few basic hotels in Ganvie (also on stilts and made of bamboo) but most people just take a day trip from Cotonou.
Timbuktu in Mali was a center of trade and learning during medieval times. Some buildings remain from its heyday, and it's still an important stop for salt caravans which travel from Taoudenni in the winter. Timbuktu is difficult to get to although the journey is half the fun. Ironically for a desert town, the most common way to get to Timbuktu is by boat down the Niger river.
Best time to go is during the Festival in the Desert in Essakane and also try and catch the festival, Curee Salee in Ingall, Niger across the border.
Ghana's Atlantic Coast is lined with old forts (castles) built by various European powers during the 17th Century. Initially, the forts were used to store goods for export such as gold, ivory, and spices. Later the slave-trade turned many forts into prison dungeons. European powers fought among themselves for control over the forts and they changed hands numerous times over the next few centuries.
Two forts that shouldn't be missed are St George's Castle in Elmina and Cape Coast Castle and Museum. The castle was the headquarters for the British colonial administration for nearly 200 years.
Some of the forts have even been turned into guesthouses offering basic accommodation.
The Sine-Saloum Delta lies in the southwest of Senegal. It's a large area of mangrove forests, lagoons, islands, and rivers. A highlight for visitors to this region is taking a boat ride up the rivers to spot pelicans and flamingos and enjoy the lovely fishing villages along the way. There are baobab trees, sandy beaches, and lots of forest animals including monkeys to enjoy.
Palmarin has some wonderful hotels to stay at. Check out the luxurious Royal Lodge or the Lodge des Collines de Niassam where you can sleep in a baobab tree house. Deeper into the mangroves, you can also stay at an eco-lodge run by several local villages, Keur Bamboung.
Mount Cameroon, Cameroon
Mount Cameroon locally known as Mongo ma Ndemi ("Mountain of Greatness") is West Africa's highest peak, standing at 4,040 meters (13,255 ft). Mount Cameroon is an active volcano, the last eruption took place in 2000.
There are several trails on the mountain. The oldest and steepest trail is the Guinness Trail named after an annual marathon race that used to be sponsored by Guinness Beer.
Porters and guides are compulsory on this 2-3 day trek. Basic huts and camps can be found on the main trails. The main route passes through farmland, rainforest, montane forests, savannah and finally, reaches the rocky summit.
Agadez in Niger is often compared to Timbuktu. Both towns have rich histories as centers of trade and culture. Agadez is a fascinating town to explore and the gateway to the incredible Air Mountains and Tenere Desert.
Highlights include the Grande Mosque and Palais du Sultan. The Grande Marche is the liveliest place in town and offers the visitor a glimpse at the many cultures that coexist and trade here. You'll see Tuareg nomads selling camels and other livestock, Hausa merchants wearing long colorful robes and Fulani with large Chinese style hats. The old quarter of Agadez is filled with narrow streets lined with traditional mud houses and artisans making and selling their wares.