West Africa - tips

In short West Africa is such a huge and varied subcontinent that general advice is hard to give. Nevertheless, it's a subcontinent with a lot of "nerve", and it's hard to imagine anywhere in the world with more colourful people than West Africa. Even South America doesn't quite equal West Africa with regards to religious colour, and it's no coincidence that most people who go there keep on coming back.

Also, due to the happy shortage of mass tourism (perhaps apart from Ghana, and Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa), West Africa remains the most virgin part of the continent, and if you avoid the Gambian coast, there is a good chance that you won't see a tourist at all. The centre of Mali used to be a bit touristic, however, the increasing Islamic influence has certainly put an end to that. Sadly, Islamists have put an end to any visit to the centre or Sahara.

Highlights For "the people", my African favourite is, by far, West Africa. Watching a tribal party in Togo or a voodoo ceremony in Benin beats everything else on the continent, however, don't miss the incredibly uncomfortable "iron train" of Mauritania, strange "Vatican" Cathedral in Yamassoukro, Ivory Coast, the slave forts of Ghana or (braving the Islamists) the dusty interior of Mali, including the legendary Timbuktu and the animist Pays Dogon.

For animals, the relatively humid south coast like Sierra Leone and Guinea are the places to go. Don't expect any wildlife in Sahara, however, in SL and Guinea there are pretty good chances of getting a look at chimpanzees. In Senegal and Mauritania, mammals seem virtually absent, but try and have a go for the huge flocks of flamingos in the coastal lagoons.

On the negative side, West Africa is likely to be the most corrupt region on the planet, and the poorest as well. It doesn't take much imagination to notice how damaging the everyday corruption of the stupid police, the politicians, and the government official, really hampes any signs of development. West Africa is really a place in which the economy is closely linked to the corruption. Western Europe is not to blame!

Due to the lack of "natural attractions" and the risk of corruption, the only travellers you'll meet in West Africa are the hard-core ones; hard-core overlanders rather than the first-time backpackers who usually end up in Nepal, India or South East Asia. West Africa is for the experienced traveller with lots of time and a stiff backbone to cope with the risk of your car being stopped while some moron expects you to pay a "fine". I usually wait them out and let them conduct their "search". Better than rewarding them for doing their illegal stuff.

Photo samples: West Africa (west + Sahara), West Africa (Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone), West Africa South (Ivory Coast to Benin)

Slide shows: West Africa 1 (mixed) + Morocco & Gambia (coming)

Religious tips: Islam (sorry, in Danish).

Articles (in Danish): None so far (apart from in newspapers).

Places to avoid As always, the big cities. The crime rate is alarming in places as Lagos (Nigeria) and Abidjian (Ivory Coast), while Dakar (Senegal) is reported to be improving. Paranoia is a terrible travelling companion, so stick to the smaller towns.

If you are paranoid towards corruption and, in particular, corrupt police, avoid the French-speaking countries of West Africa. In particular in Senegal (Casamanche) and Guinea, the police love to stop every vehicle and demand money for nothing. This also applies for tourists who are always selected for "investigations". Bloody idiots!

Gambia has got a bit of the same problem, while I never had any problems in Bissau (ex-Portuguese) or Sierra Leone (ex-UK). Strange.

Seasons In general, try to avoid the hottest periods which correlates with the European summer - the time of the year where you definitely shouldn't leave Europe anyway! In general, southern West Africa is best in the fall-winter from October to February, while regions further north (Senegal, Mauritania and so are ok all the way up to April. In the Sahel region, you'd like to avoid the dusty "Harmattan" desert wind, usually taking place around January-February.

Check the detailed seasons in the guidebooks.

Do's and don'ts Not too much, but don't forget that large parts of West Africa are Muslim, and Muslim rules apply, although their version of Islam is much more easygoing than the Arab version. That just makes travelling easier, and it's unlikely that any polite tourist will encounter any problems, even in Senegal or Gambia. The hardest part might be Nigeria, the only country in the region to practice the harshly Muslim Sharia Law despite a 40+ % Christian population. Daily reports from the atrocities of Boko Haram is likely to keep everyone away anyway. I'd wait a few years before going.

In the southern coastal region, people are predominantely Catholics and things are easier, however, you won't benefit your travel experience by dressing like a freak. Most local people spend a lot of money to dress properly, so try not to look too much like one of those they try to avoid. In particular officials tend to pay attention to appearance, so crossing border while looking like a San Francisco freak from 1968 is likely not to be a good idea. a nicer dress reduces the risk of being selected for "further check". Well, several places in West Africa (mostly Senegal and Guinea), this happens anyway. These are some of the most corrupt places on earth and the police love to stop the odd tourist - just in case. Perhaps you pay?

Visa Complicated, and due to the tightening of the European borders, getting visas the other way is becoming increasingly difficult. Apart from Gambia, EU citizens require visas all over - from Mauritania and Senegal all the way to Nigeria, and this may prove stupid if there is no embassy in your home country.

Still, a good solution may be to get a few visas from home - and get the rest while you're on the road. Like in Central Asia, the local embassies are cheaper and less fuzzy than the ones in Europe.

Value for money Ranging from excellent to poor. In general, West Africa is affordable, however, by no means cheap. Actually, despite the low standard of living, it's going to be a more expensine region than South or East Africa. This is fuelled by the fact that places where tourists are forced to live outside the local economy (i.e. national parks and, previously, Timbuktu) may be quite expensive.

As always, the main culprit is accomodation whereas food is much cheaper. Still, noone will burn a hole in their pockets by going to West Africa as a tourist, and to me Togo and Benin are among the best-value destinations in all of Africa. It should be possible to survive for just 25 USD a day if you are travelling two together - and cheaper if you stay local.

Others Get a car (preferably 4WD) and try to avoid the urban centres. The Africans may not be the "sharpest" minds in the world, however, their friendliness and hospitality is amazing. Try to get underneath the skin of the tribal societies and discover an amazingly beautiful world.

In contrast to the rumours, West Africa seems to be easier for women travelers than India, Pakistan and, of course, the Arab countries. Despite being Muslim, the West Africans are far from being as rigid as the Arabs, and women will experience less trouble than elsewhere. Dress a bit conservative, and you'll notice that the West Africans are as good gentlemen as anyone anywhere.


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