Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Ghana? 

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

Beautiful, modern and tourist-friendly, Ghana is Africa for beginners, a place where everyone speaks English, corruption is rare and the music isn’t loud enough until glasses are rattling off the shelves in the next village. Want to ease yourself into the African way of life? Ghana is the perfect place to start. 

Where is it? 

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Ghana shares its borders with Côte d’Ivoire to the west, Togo to the east and Burkina Faso in the north. You’ll find gorgeous beaches from Axim to Cape Coast, soaring desert temperatures in the north, and refreshing waterfalls in the mountainous east.

What can I see there?

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Elmina Beach

Heaps. Ghana is the most visited West African country (by non-Africans) by a long shot, it’s teeming with German volunteers and Americans finding themselves, as such there are plenty of well set-up tourist attractions. Unlike many West African countries, where tourism is a bit of a D.I.Y experience, there are excellent visitors centres at popular spots, and there are often guides available.

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Elmina

You can sip a cocktail under the palms at Elmina, and learn about Ghana’s slave trading history at Cape Coast Castle. Shop for gorgeous, multi-hued traditional West African fabrics at Accra’s sprawling Makola market, and go for a casual wander around Jamestown, a coastal fishing village with vibrant street art, ramshackle wooden bars and a pretty lighthouse.

Want to head off the tourist trail? Head to the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop in Teshie, the original home of Ghana’s weird and whimsical hand-carved coffins, or simply pull up a chair at a small local chop shop, you’ll find yourself deep in conversation with the locals in no time.

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Fish coffin, Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop

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Mount Gemi, Amedzofe

The Volta region is Ghana’s crowning glory. It’s clean, green and home to wandering roadside baboons and misty mountain ringed villages. Take the winding road to head to Ghana’s highest settlement of Amedzofe, a picturesque and prosperous village where you can take in the view from Mount Gemi or descend the precarious rocky slope to Ote Falls.

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Ote Falls, Amedzofe

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Wli town

 

In Wli you can take an easy unguided walk to bathe under West Africa’s highest water falls as tens of thousands of bats circle overhead (go at the right time and you’ll have the whole place to yourself) or take a guide and make the two and a half hour climb to the top.

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Lower Wil falls

To the north, you’ll find the bustling Ashanti city of Kumasi, and Mole National Park, one of the cheapest wildlife parks in West Africa which is home to elephants, leopards and rare birds.

Are the people nice?

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Dora and Prisca, Wli

Yes! Open, honest and friendly, it’s super easy to strike up a conversation with a Ghanaian, and you can learn a lot about local politics and religion.

Ghana is overwhelmingly Christian, with churches representing every possible denomination scattered across the country. Allegiance to Jesus is plastered on every car, bus and shopfront, and businesses have names like ‘By His Almighty Grace Kitchen Supplies’, and ‘Jesus is my C.E.O Plumbing’. Ghanaians love to celebrate life, and even death – funerals are often vibrant, raucous affairs, with mini street parades, deafeningly loud music and dancing. If you go for a weekend drive you’ll invariably see huge marquees set up for either funerals or weddings, where the music will be pumping until the early hours. There’s a bit of a technique to the Ghanaian hand shake, which is punctuated by clicking your fingers with the other persons. It’s not a proper handshake until there’s a loud snap, and you’ll have people in fits of laughter if you can’t get it right after a couple of go’s.

One down side to the tourism in Ghana is the persistent begging, which is often more accurately described as ‘demanding’.

Cries of “money, give me some!” and “lady, you buy me food now!” come thick and fast in some areas, and children as young as two are trained to wave and chant “MONEY” at passing tourists. Handing out cash to everyone who asks isn’t doing anyone any favours, so use discretion, be jovial but firm, and you should get through without any major problems.

Is the food good?

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YES. And the tastiest grub is found at little street-side stalls and chop shops, so you won’t even have to set foot in a proper restaurant for a good feed. You can pick up an overflowing tray of fried chicken, jollof rice and thick slabs of fried yam for 10 cedi ($2.80/1.65 euro), or get your fingers dirty with a bowl of kenkey and fried fish for even less. Meals like kenkey (ground corn dough) and banku (corn and cassava dough) are eaten with your fingers so there are often bowls of water at tables for washing your hands, don’t confuse this for drinking water, or you’ll be the laughing stock of the village for quite some time.

If one of your guilty pleasures is a big ol’ dirty bowl of Indomie noodles, a la high school lunchtimes, rejoice! Ghanaians are obsessed with Indomie, and you can pick up a pre-cooked bowl with sides in just about any town or village you’re likely to pass through.

Is it safe?

Absolutely. Begging is the only hassle you’re likely to endure in Ghana, and given it’s usually teenagers trying their luck, things are unlikely to get tense. The police and military are generally professional, and serious crimes like kidnapping are practically unheard of. 

Where should I stay?

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Campsite at the Stumble Inn, Elmina

Unlike other parts of West Africa, where budget options are few and far between, there are plenty of places to stay in Ghana that are both comfortable and easy on the wallet. In Elmina, the beachfront paradise of the Stumble Inn provides bungalows, camping spots and plenty of shady areas to rest with an ‘African mojito’. The breakfast menu is spot-on, so you can start your day with French toast and grilled pineapple or chocolate and banana pancakes for as little as 15 cedi ($4.20/2.50 euro). In Accra, you’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier spot than the Sleepy Hippo, a three storey hostel with a rooftop terrace, a fantastic restaurant and ever-smiling staff. There are also plenty of gorgeous campsites in Wli where you can pitch your tent or park your car for a pretty reasonable price.

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Kids at Wli falls campsite

VERDICT: Should you go? “Yes, my sistah/brothah!” *enthusiastic hand clap & snap*

PS: You can check out our visual diary from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana here.

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Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Togo?

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

Teeny-tiny Togo is often overlooked because of it’s size, but there’s plenty to do even along the wafer-thin sliver of coastline. The beaches are often postcard-perfect, the mountains serene and the Rasta-infused culture is one of love and laughter.

Where is it?

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Togo’s location between Benin and English-speaking Ghana means the locals tend to speak more English than in most Francophone countries. Burkina-Faso is the northern border country, but the rise of terrorism in Burkina, which has recently leaked into Benin, may mean you’ll want to stick to the south.

What can I do there?

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Coco Beach, Lomé

Relax. The Togolese are never in a rush, reggae is a way of life, and ganja, combined with a tasty and potent Awooyo beer, (6.2%!) is the relaxant of choice, so find a beach chair and kick back. Lomé may well be the most relaxed capital city in West Africa, and there are plenty of resorts with private beaches where you’re guaranteed a clean spot to swim and sunbathe. Sunday is the big party day, and huge family groups set up on the beach with their own food, drink and speakers. It’s the perfect way to hear a range of West African music without even leaving your seat, and if you brush up on your French or Ewe you may well be invited to join.

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Mountains of Kpalimé

Kpalimé is the pride of many Togolese, the mountain-ringed city has plenty of character, with art shops, a 1913 German church, a strong rasta culture and gorgeous waterfalls just a short moto-taxi away. A drive or hike through the winding mountain roads and tiny villages is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. 

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Togoville

Further to the east, Togoville is the historic centre of Togo, and you can drive or take a pirogue across Lac Togo to the atmospheric town. Once, there, take a guided wander around the village, bathing in the light of the stained glass windows at the 100-year-old Catholic Church, and learn about voodoo in the area.

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Lion’s head, Akodessewa Fetish Market, Lomé

N.B. Curiosity may lead you the Akodessewa Fetish Market in Lomé, but it’s worth considering the implications before you go. Voodoo is a huge part of the culture in Togo, and many of the animal parts on display are used by locals hoping to fix anything from a stomach ache to fertility problems. The thing is, many of the dead animals on display are critically endangered (think the bodies of pangolins, baby cheetahs, and the heads and feet of lions). Some news articles about the market, and indeed the stallholders themselves will have you believe the critters on display all died of natural causes, but common sense (and a bit of persistent questioning), soon reveals that this is not the case. It costs to visit the market with a guide and take pictures, and it’s believed some stallholders seek out items with more shock value, to attract foreigners and their cameras. Of course Western tourists are in absolutely no position to question the importance of animal sacrifices to this ancient and important religion, but to avoid a case of the traveler guilts, it’s worth considering whether, as a non-believer, you’re willing to contribute to the practice financially.

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Baby cheetahs, Akodessewa Fetish Market, Lomé

Are the people nice?

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Koffi and Angel

Super duper nice. The Togolese love cracking jokes and taking it easy, so even if you don’t  speak French, you’ll make friends quickly. People practise Christianity, Islam and voodoo, sometimes intermingled and many Togolese will be able to tell you about the voodoo vaccinations (small incisions rubbed with animal bone powder) they received as kids. Family is important in Togo, so if you make friends with one person you may well be invited to the family home to meet wives, brothers and sisters, a guaranteed fun and potentially raucous experience. Hand shakes are the same as in Ghana, with a hearty hand clap and finger snap.

Is the food good?

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Lunch at Chez Vivien

Not too bad. Togolese cuisine isn’t the most famous fare in West Africa, but there are plenty of perfectly tasty starch staples like fufu (cassava or yam dough) and ablo (cornmeal bread) available, as well as delicious poulet braise, chicken grilled right on the street-side. The Ivorian dishes attiéké and aloco (granulated cassava and fried plantain) are also popular and delicious with fish. Djekoume is a classic Togolese dish, a polenta like cornmeal cake mixed with tomato and red palm oil. Most of the beach resorts are catering to French expats and offer a fairly uninspiring menu that’s almost entirely European-influenced. To get a real deal Togolese meal, your best bet is to hope you’re invited home to dine with a local. At our friend Vivien’s place we feasted on small fried fish, huge roasted tuna, rice and fufu, delicious!

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Lunch with Kevin, Vivien and Koffi

Is it safe?

Yes. We felt totally safe walking around Lomé at all hours of the day and night, and you’re highly unlikely to come into trouble in villages and regional areas. Police and military are generally helpful and kind. As long as you stay away from the Burkina border, you’ll be 100% sweet as.

Where can I stay?

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Chez Antoine Coco Beach

Of all the places we stayed in West Africa, Chez Antoine Coco Beach was the hardest to leave (and that was after two weeks), think coconut palms, crashing waves and a super relaxed vibe all for the absurdly low price of 1500cfa pp/pn ($3.90/2.30 euro) for camping. The only potential downside is that you might arrive and find yourself still parked up there 17 years later. In the city of Lomé, Hotel Le Galion offers the best value rooms in the capital with a sophisticated restaurant downstairs.

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Our little pal Eurish, Coco Beach

VERDICT: Should you go? Absolutely. ONE LOVE JAH RESPECT.

PS. You can check out our visual diary from Togo and Benin here.

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Europe

What to do in Winter: Romania

Romania is a country of contrasts, candy coloured towns clash with castles fit for the nastiest of Disney villains. You’ll meet wait staff so rude they probably spat in your chips and locals who will invite you in off the street for a freshly slaughtered chicken to compensate. It gets mighty hot in Romania in the summer months, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it for a winter escape, in fact, parts of the country look their absolute best covered in a dusting of snow. Here’s what you should do and where you should go to beat the winter blues in Romania.

Castles and History – Bran and Peles

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Bran Castle

 

There’s something about Romanian castles, all those spikes and pointy edges are a far cry from the squat and blocky English equivalents, and you can’t help feeling a bit more mysterious just standing next to them. I’ve lumped Peles and Bran together because of the (likely) possibility that you’ll be a tiny bit disappointed by Bran, Romania’s biggest tourist attraction, and therefore, Romania’s biggest rip off. At 35 lei per person, entry to Bran Castle costs more than most Romanian restaurant meals and you might be a little shocked to discover that despite the Dracula themed shirts/badges/pins/hats/masks/bedspreads/condoms that pile up on every stall in every corner of the town, once you’re inside Bran you’ll find no information on Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula whatsoever. In saying that, if you come prepared to see a beautiful castle and nothing more, Bran is hard to beat, especially with the bare branch, fog shrouded aesthetic of winter.

Peles Castle

If you like your castles sans vampire condoms, look no further than Peles castle in Sinaia, with its perfectly pruned shrubs, stone statues and towering turrets, it could easily be the castle that inspired the towering fortress on Beauty and the Beast. The palace, which housed King Carol and Queen Elizabeth of Romania is closed for renovations for the whole month of November, but the outside is so beautiful you can safely allot half an hour of gawking time for the façade alone.

Snow and Adventure – Brasov

Poiana Brasov

Given the Carpathian Mountains is home to a huge bear and wolf population, camping in Brasov isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s not for those that need to be constantly warm either, but waking up to an untouched layer of snow right on your doorstep is pretty special. If you prefer things a little fancier, head to one of the very affordable hotels in Poiana Brasov, a ski resort town that is gorgeous to walk through even if you’re not a skier/snowboarder. For an alternative hiking experience head to the Seven Ladders Canyon, or Canionul Sapte Scari. It’s a 40 minute walk through gorgeous pine forest before tackling the ladders and steel walkways that make up the canyon crossing. The walkways have recently been renovated so are much safer than they used to be, but thrill seekers can take comfort in the fact that there are still no harnesses, so death or serious injury is just a slippery rung away on the higher climbs. It’s only 10 lei per person to get in (a measly €2) but thanks to the wonderfully lax approach to security in Romania there was no attendant there when we did it, so we got in for free.

Canionul Sapre Scari

Colour and Christmas – Sighişoara and Sibiu

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Sighisoara

Itching for an antidote to Romania’s pointy castles and silent forests? Head to Sighişoara and Sibiu for cobbled streets so sweet they’ll make your teeth hurt. Start in Sighişoara, the smaller of the two, and spend a couple of hours exploring the old town. Every house is painted a different colour and if you’re really wanting to know more about the whole Dracula thing, it was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, making it a much more legit Dracula nerd destination than Bran. Not far from Sighişoara is Sibiu which has got to be the most loveable city in Romania. It’s a mix of pastel-hued old school charm and hipster hotspots (check out City Burger, it’s amazing). Wander the alleyways before climbing the old council tower for a view of the city at sunset. From late November to December the Sibiu Christmas Market is in full swing. Complete with light projections, adorable toddlers in jumpsuits, and so much meat you’ll have the sweats for weeks, it’s one of the best Christmas markets in Eastern Europe.

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Sibiu

Ghost town charm and thermal baths – Baile Herculane

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Baile Herculane

Baile Herculane is, simply put, a photographers dream. Simultaneously ugly and beautiful, the former resort town was once the most cherished in all of Europe. Bad management in the post communist 90s led the once grand buildings to their demise. Many are boarded up, but you can still sneak through the Austrian Imperial Baths and admire the decaying hallways and chandeliers from the inside. Many parts of the baths are beautifully coloured and while you’ll have to dodge the beer bottles and faecal matter that cover some of the rooms, the grand hall has remained largely untouched. The surrounding hotels are more difficult to access, but wandering the empty pavements while plastic flaps from the windows is still an eerily magical experience. Baile Herculane still has the thermal springs it was once so famous for, and you can access these for free near Hotel Roman, one of the only remaining hotels in the old town area. Walk past the admittedly hideous communist exterior of the hotel to the side of the river, and you’ll find plenty of red-faced Romanians jammed into the two small baths on offer. If you get too hot, a dunk in the river will earn you the admiration of the locals and guarantees you a prime spot once you get back in the baths. Around dinner time the baths are practically empty and you can take a beverage or 7 to ensure you stay warm on your barefooted hobble back to the car.

Hot spring baths near Hotel Roman

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