West Africa

West Africa is the western region of Africa. In the north the region is bounded by the Sahel, and in the south and west by the Atlantic Ocean. The most densely populated area of Africa, it is many ways both the continent’s most difficult place for travel and potentially its most rewarding.

The region may be divided into several broad physiographic regions. The northern portion of western Africa is composed of a broad band of semiarid terrain, called the western Sudan, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the area of Lake Chad on the east, a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km).

It is largely a plateau of modest elevation and borders the Sahara (desert) on the north and the Guinea Coast forests on the south. Rainfall in this region ranges from less than 10 inches (250 mm) in its arid northern reaches to about 50 inches (1,250 mm) in the south. The flora of the western Sudan consists of the scrub vegetation of the transitional zone known as the Sahel in the north and a mix of tall trees and high savanna grasslands in the south. Lying south of the western Sudan are the Guinea Coast equatorial forests, which flourish along the Atlantic coast and extend inland for about 100 to 150 miles (160 to 240 km).

Most of the Sahara and the transitional vegetational zones to its south (the Sahel and the western Sudan) are drained, where there is enough rainfall to support surface streams, either southward via the Niger River system or inland to the Lake Chad basin in the east. Along the better-watered Atlantic coastal areas, the chief features are (west to east) the Mauritanian-Senegal Basin, drained by the Sénégal River; the Fouta Djallon and Guinea Highlands; the Volta River and Niger River coastal plains; and the uplands of Nigeria’s Jos Plateau and the Cameroon Highlands.

Countries of West Africa

  • Benin A safe and relatively easy country for travellers to visit; birthplace of the Voodoo religion and former home of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
  • Burkina Faso Landlocked country that is very off the beaten path for visitors.
  • Cape Verde Tiny Atlantic island group off the coast of Senegal with wonderful beaches.
  • Côte d’Ivoire Formerly something of a jewel in the West African crown, this nation has taken huge steps backwards due to recent political driven conflict.
  • Gambia Tiny coastal nation popular with European beach package tourists and birdwatchers.
  • Ghana So-called “Africa for Beginners”—West Africa’s richest, most-English speaking country, with highly varied landscapes, a few off-the-beaten-path beach getaways, and the solemn, imposing slave castles of the coast west of Accra.
  • Guinea Some great hill scenery (the Switzerland of Africa), major rainforests and Atlantic beaches, ravaged by decades of political turmoil and lawlessness, now striving to develop.
  • Guinea Bissau A former Portuguese colony which has been through lots of struggle since independence, has little change since colonial times and is hardly visited by travellers.
  • Liberia Settled by former African American slaves in the 19th Century, this country has been through murderous conflicts, and it is too dangerous to visit outside Monrovia City, which is a completely underdeveloped city anyways.
  • Nigeria A vast, highly populated country with great wealth—unfortunately little of it shared with its people. It has huge tourism potential and a very diverse ethnic culture of over 360 ethnic groups. It is the second largest economy in Africa.
  • Senegal West Africa’s other “visitor-friendly” destination, with tasty food, nice beaches, and French colonial history.
  • Sierra Leone Some of the best beaches anywhere in the world, and huge potential for tourism, but held back by enormous transport infrastructure problems, extreme poverty, hardly any development and danger.
  • Togo A small, sleepy country that is home to no less than 40 different ethnic groups, and the surreal villages of Tamberma Valley.

Sometimes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad are also considered as West African states.

West Africa Cities

  • Abidjan — the largest city in Cote d’Ivoire, still a West African nightlife mecca, despite the country’s political instability.
  • Abuja — the purpose built government capital of Nigeria is attractive, and—by Nigerian standards—remarkably safe!
  • Accra — an incoherent jumble of a city, the capital of Ghana, and one of the most accessible cities in West Africa for travellers.
  • Cotonou — Benin’s big non-capital has the feel of a West African, urban version of the Wild West; you can buy anything at a city that is essentially an enormous, lawless (but reasonably safe) market town, and dirt cheap “Rolexes” of questionable origin and voodoo charms remain popular items for travellers.
  • Dakar — the capital of Senegal and the westernmost city in Africa.
  • Lagos — the largest city in Nigeria and the second largest in the whole of Africa is a huge but chaotic metropolis whose people and state are making huge efforts to push forward.
  • Lomé — Togo’s bustling capital, somewhat unfairly disliked by travelers, and possibly the moto-taxi capital of the world.
  • Ouagadougou — the capital of Burkina Faso.

Other destinations in West Africa

  • Bijagos Islands — an archipelago of some twenty tropical, beautiful islands in Guinea Bissau with French-owned fishing lodges.
  • Freetown Peninsula’s beaches — are these paradisiacal-looking beaches, each with an utterly unique appearance and culture, the most beautiful in the world?
  • Ganvie — absurdly named the “Venice of Africa,” this stilt village, at the center of a large lake, is more of a stilt city, and offers one of the strangest photo opportunities you’ll ever have.
  • Moyenne Guinee (Fouta Djallon) — hills and mountains in the interior of Guinea with a relatively cool climate, the home of the Pular people and sometimes called the “Switzerland of Africa.”
  • Niokolo-Koba — the largest National Park in Senegal.
  • Taï National Park — the largest remaining intact portion of the once great Upper Guinea Rainforest is home to the world’s last viable population of pygmy hippopotami, as well as numerous rare monkeys, chimps, rare forest elephants, and other rare animals.
  • Tamberma Valley — Togo’s somehow completely unknown answer to Mali’s Dogon Country; an expansive, beautiful, mountainous region filled with surreal villages of improbable mud/clay fortresses, and culture barely touched by modernity.
  • W National Park — a large, trans-border system of national parks, with parts in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, which offers the best opportunities for wildlife spotting in West Africa.
  • Yankari National Park — the largest National Park in Nigeria, and the most visited of all the parks in the region.

West Africa Beaches

West Africa is home to some incredible, mind-blowingly beautiful beaches, and they are not always where you would expect. Gambia, Cape Verde, and to a somewhat lesser extent Senegal are well known and well developed tropical beach destinations. But the most beautiful beaches (OK, don’t tell Cape Verdeans this) are at Africa’s westernmost point: Liberia and above all Sierra Leone, home to what are possibly the most beautiful beaches in the world. And, of course, Sierra Leonean and Liberian beaches are emphatically not overdeveloped—you will often have them to yourself, or share them with a few busy fishermen!

Beach duds, unfortunately, crop up in the Gulf of Guinea, where locals do not respect the their coast’s great natural beauty. (Granted, eking out a decent existence in these poor countries often seems a greater priority.) The beaches anywhere near towns and cities are heavily littered, and are used as a toilet, filling the water with squishy faeces. The beaches are also very dangerous in this region, both for being the home of the respective countries’ highest rates of violent crime, and very strong currents. Of course, there are notable exceptions, particularly in the sparsely populated regions of western Ghana.

West Africa Food/Eat

West African food doesn’t seem to be for everyone, but those who like it love it. The staple dishes are starch plus some version of soup. Rice is the most popular starch, but fufu—a thick paste, with the rough consistency of soft play-dough, usually made by boiling starchy root vegetables in water and pounding with a mortar and pestle—and other similar pastes are a more interesting alternative. Fufu and its cousins should be eaten with the right hand, and usually dipped in the sauce, stew, or soup provided. Simple “chop bars” (there are plenty of different names for this common phenomenon) nearly always provide this recipe, plus some chicken or fish.

Street food is delicious, multifarious, and dirt cheap. Unfortunately, problems with sanitation make this food a bit more dangerous than those found in chop bar-style spots and restaurants, for the straightforward reason that you aren’t sure when it was cooked! Items that you see cooked, items that require peeling (eg: eggs, coconuts, bananas, etc), or items wrapped immediately after cooking (like bread) are safe.

Restaurants in cities are very skewed towards European dishes, and tend to treat African food like a poor man’s diet. The Francophone countries often have a few excellent French restaurants hidden in the larger cities. What constitutes a “restaurant,” though, is malleable. The restaurant could potentially be just a log for sitting, and be defined a “restaurant” simply by dint of having more than three dishes available.

West Africa Drinks

Make sure your water bottles are sealed and not just refilled with tap water. It can be hard to see until you actually test the top, but people are generally honest about this sort of thing. Many travellers try to go for the locally produced mineral water, rather than those produced by foreign corporations, since local economies need all the help they can get.

“Pure water” is also widely available in guaranteed-sanitary sachets sold on the street, usually for less than 5¢, and is a great way to make sure you stay hydrated in the hot climate. Coconuts in most of these countries are also omnipresent, and street vendors will take off the top with a machete for a tasty drink.

Lagers, non-alcoholic malts, and some weird beverage masquerading as “Guinness” are among the more popular beverages you will run across. Voodoo priests and chiefs seem to prefer Schnapps. For harder stuff, look around for palm wine and gin sachets (which mix well with sprite, or more foolishly, palm wine).

West Africa Air transport Airports

The capitals airports include:

  • Cadjehoun Airport {COO} International; Cotonou, Benin.
  • Ouagadougou Airport {OUA}; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
  • Amílcar Cabral International Airport {SID}; Praia, Cape Verde.
  • Banjul International Airport {BJL} International; Banjul, Gambia.
  • Kotoka International Airport {ACC}; Accra; Ghana.
  • Conakry International Airport {CKY}; Conakry, Guinea.
  • Osvaldo Vieira International Airport {OXB}; Bissau, Guinea-Bissau.
  • Port Bouet Airport {ABJ}; Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
  • Roberts International Airport {ROB}; Monrovia, Liberia.
  • Bamako–Sénou International Airport {BKO}; Bamako, Mali .
  • Diori Hamani International Airport {NIM}; Niamey, Niger.
  • Murtala Muhammed International Airport {LOS}; Lagos, Nigeria.
  • Saint Helena Airport; Jamestown, Saint Helena
  • Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport {DKR}; Dakar, Senegal.
  • Lungi International Airport {FNA}; Freetown, Sierra Leone.
  • Lomé–Tokoin Airport {LFW}; Lomé, Togo.

West Africa has cachet and soul. Home to African landscapes of our imaginations and inhabited by an astonishing diversity of traditional peoples, this is Africa as it once was.

African Landscapes

From the Sahara to tropical rain forests, from volcanic outcrops to stony depressions in the desert’s heart, West Africa is an extraordinary sweep of iconic African terrain. Sand dunes of the Sahara yield to the Sahel where human settlements sit on the edge of eternity. A few latitude lines to the south, savannah and woodland take over, building to a crescendo of primeval forest crowding the coast and its pristine beaches. Through it all runs one of Africa’s longest rivers, the Niger.

Secret Wildlife

You wouldn’t come to West Africa in search of an East African–style safari. If you did, you’d be disappointed. And yet there’s more to West Africa’s wildlife than initially meets the eye (which may not be much). If you look in the right places, there are elephants and primate species in abundance, and big cats stalk the undergrowth. Throw in pygmy hippos and some of the world’s best birdwatching and it becomes clear that West Africa is greatly underrated as a wildlife-watching destination. And unlike in East or Southern Africa, you’re likely to have whatever you find all to yourself.

Why I Love West Africa

On my first journey into West Africa, I felt like I was visiting another planet, and I loved it. It was the cooling sand beneath my feet as I shared a campfire with Tuareg nomads in the Sahara, or a dawn glimpse of paradise at a bend in the river deep in the Cameroonian rainforest. It was dancing the night away in the bars of Bamako or Dakar, or the silence of the Sahelian night. And no matter how many times I return, I never lose that sense of having wandered into some kind of otherworldly African fairytale.

African Peoples

The mosaic of peoples who inhabit West Africa is one of the region’s most beguiling characteristics. The sheer number of peoples who call the region home will take your breath away. Drawing in a little nearer, you’ll discover that traditions survive in West Africa like nowhere else on the continent, revealing themselves in fabulous festivals, irresistible music and the mysterious world of masks and secret societies. These are peoples whose histories are epic and whose daily struggles are similarly so. West Africa is in-your-face, full-volume Lagos or the quiet solitude of an indigo-clad nomad – not to mention everything in between.

A Musical Soundtrack

West Africa’s musical tradition is one of extraordinary depth and richness. Youssou N’Dour, Tinariwen and other musicians may have been ‘discovered’ in recent decades, but the region’s music is so much more than mere performance. The griots of ancient African empires – Mali’s master kora player Toumani Diabaté is the 71st generation of griots – bestowed upon West Africa’s musicians the gift of storytelling as much as the power to entertain. They do both exceptionally well and their ability to make you dance or learn something new about the region may just rank among your most memorable travel experiences.

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