Marrakech to Cotonou - West Africa Odyssey

This is the big one – the ultimate trip through West Africa, taking in all of its intoxicating variety.

Starting in the ever-exotic city of Marrakech, the end point of the Saharan camel caravans of old, we journey through the lands of the Berbers and across the mighty High Atlas Mountains, to the magical landscapes of the Draa Valley, encountering huge dunes and semi-nomadic people living in the desert.

From Tarfaya we enter the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, a land of Saharawi nomads, rolling dunes and camel trains, exploring a land that has almost been forgotten, where traditions are strong and the scenery awe-inspiring. In Mauritania we visit the age-old city of Chinguetti and explore the striking Adrar region before moving on to Senegal. As the Sahara starts to disappear into the Sahel we search for wildlife, see the striking Lac Rose, and visit the former colonial capital of St Louis.

Travelling further south we make a brief stop in the Gambia before arriving in the Casamance region, where Islam and Christianity never quite managed to dominate; this is the Africa of old, where ancient beliefs and customs are still revered, a world away from the lands we have just crossed, and we take time to learn about the cultural traditions of its inhabitants.

In Guinea-Bissau we sail to the Bijagos Islands, where local customs are at their strongest and unusual wildlife dwells, then return to the mainland to travel through the lands of the Fulani, stopping in small villages and exploring the stunning highlands of the Fouta Djalon range. In Guinea we see mask dances of ancient secret societies, the incredible ‘living bridges’ of the rainforest, and chimpanzees.

Moving on to Sierra Leone we stay on lush tropical islands and discover delightful fishing villages, gorgeous beaches and the troubling history of the slave trade, as well as meeting diamond miners seeking their fortune. In Liberia we explore the heritage of this unusual country, ‘founded’ by freed Afro-American slaves in the 19th century and quite different to others in the region.

Ivory Coast offers us the opportunity to witness and see the amazing mask dances of the Dan and Guere people, as well as the rather bizarre ‘cathedral in the forest’ – the vast and opulent basilica at Yamoussoukro. As we hit the coast again we travel through old colonial settlements dotted with European forts and charming colonial buildings, on our way to Accra.

Our final two countries, Togo and Benin, are home to the followers of voodoo and we have excellent opportunities to learn about this much misunderstood religion, seeing traditional ceremonies and dances that are among the most fascinating spectacles in West Africa.

Covering twelve countries (plus an unrecognised one – Western Sahara) this is epic in every sense of the word. From arid deserts to thick rainforest, from the tribal dances of Togo to the nomadic culture of the Sahara, this tour allows an unparalleled insight into the diversity of one of our planet’s most exciting regions.

Marrakech to Cotonou itinerary tile image - portrait

Highlights

  • The kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou
  • Remote deserts of the Western Sahara
  • The holy city of Chinguetti
  • Explore atmospheric Saint Louis
  • Traditional communities of the Bijagos
  • See the mask dances of Ivory Coast
  • Explore the Fouta Djalon highlands
  • Look for wild chimpanzees
  • Witness a voodoo ceremony in Togo
  • The coastal castles of Ghana

Day 1 - Marrakech

Arrive in Marrakech and transfer to the hotel. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore Morocco’s most enigmatic city. Overnight tourist class hotel.

Marrakech
Charming, chaotic and charismatic, Marrakech has a truly unique atmosphere. Heaving with activity, Djemaa el Fna, the central square, has been a meeting point for centuries. Packed full of traders, Berber musicians, acrobats, snake charmers, wise men, acrobats and tooth pullers, the square’s hypnotic charm will soon rub off on you. There’s no better way to experience Djemaa el Fna than to sample the local specialities on offer at the night-time food stalls. With lights flickering and smoke rising, watching the hive of activity from a café is the ideal way to capture the mystical atmosphere. Marrakech has lots more to offer with souqs bursting with Moroccan crafts, the immense Koutoubia Mosque, and countless museums, palaces, gardens and cultural sites. After a hectic day, the haven of the Marjorelle Gardens, full of cacti and vivid blue buildings, or a sunset drink in the gardens of La Mamounia Hotel, is the perfect way to unwind.

Day 2 - Ait Ben Haddou

Cross the High Atlas via the stunning Tizi n Tichka pass, with superb views of the mountains along the way. Driving through the Berber heartlands we continue to the stunning collection of kasbahs at Ait Ben Haddou, then drive to nearby Ouarzazate for the night. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 3 - Draa Valley

Exploring this landscape of arid mountains, we meet isolated communities and some of the most traditional people in Morocco, some of whom still live in caves. Make our way towards the lush Draa Valley where we spend the night. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Days 4-5 - Erg Chegaga - Iriqui

Enter the Sahara and drive to the dunes of Erg Chegaga, much less known than the famous Erg Chebbi but equally impressive, then continue to the dry salt lake of Iriqui. Overnight tented camp and tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Days 6-7 - Guelmime – Ksar Tafnidilt

Continue to Guelmime, the last major town of Morocco proper and a former trading centre for the Saharan camel caravans. From here we head off on rough tracks along the beach, sandwiched between the dunes. Explore the remote region surrounding the Draa estuary, with tiny settlements and abandoned military posts. Overnights at Ksar Tafnidilt, a traditional style kasbah close to Tan Tan. (BLD)


Day 8 - Tarfaya

Travel south, our route taking us between the desert and the Atlantic Ocean, passing small caves inhabited by fishermen as well as the impressive Naila lagoon, an inland sea separated from the ocean by rows of dunes. In the afternoon we arrive at the small town of Tarfaya. Overnight Hotel Casamar or similar. (BLD)


Days 9-11 - Laayoune - Western Sahara

Drive to Laayoune, the main town of Western Sahara. From here we meet our local Saharawi guide and embark on an expedition into this largely unknown area. We venture into an untamed landscape of dunes and desert, stopping at wells to meet the Reguibat nomads and their herds of camels that eke a living from this unforgiving habitat. We camp for two nights, then on Day 11 reach Dakhla and stay overnight in a tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Western Sahara
Western Sahara is a political oddity, distinct from the rest of Morocco. Colonised by Spain and forming part of the Spanish Sahara territory, it was relinquished in 1975 and promptly claimed by both Morocco and Mauritania; in the end Morocco won out, organising a mass march of Moroccans into the territory and forcing Mauritania to bow out. However, this is just part of the story; Western Sahara’s indigenous population is made up of Saharawi and Reguibat tribes who seek independence. A referendum on this was promised (but never held) and the independence movement Polisario was established in the 1970s, fighting against Moroccan forces to claim the land for themselves. The fighting is long over now, with Morocco a dominant presence in Western Sahara.

This is a largely unexplored land. Undeveloped by the Spanish there are few towns and almost all of the land consists of wild desert, traversed by nomadic tribes with their camels and livestock, following traditional lives much as their ancestors did, although inevitably modernity has crept in. Travelling here is an opportunity to get about as far off the beaten track as is possible, and tourism is almost unknown, the few visitors being those making the long journey along the coast to West Africa. We aim to explore as much as possible while here, and spend our nights camping under the stars far from any kind of ‘civilisation’.

Day 12 - Dakhla

Spend the day exploring Dakhla and surrounds, with its superb beaches and opportunities to fish in the Atlantic. Overnight in Buena Vista Hotel or similar. (BLD)


Day 13 - Nouadhibou

We head south to the border with Mauritania, following a remote road between the desert and the ocean. After completing border formalities, continue to Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second city. Overnight Hotel Medina or similar. (BLD)


Days 14-16 - Desert crossing - Chinguetti

Head to Chinguetti, one of Islam’s holiest cities and a real gem of Mauritania. With its collection of historic buildings this is one of the Sahara’s most interesting towns, with a sense of history that is almost tangible. Accompanied by an expert guide we drive through a remote part of the desert, where we hope to encounter local nomads and see the traces of prehistoric man such as ancient pottery. We arrive in Chinguetti on Day 16. Two nights camping, one night local guesthouse. (BLD)

Chinguetti
Founded in the 13th century as the centre of several trans-Saharan trade routes, Chinguetti’s well preserved historic buildings give it the sense of yesteryear and walking through its sandy streets, rubbing shoulders with blue robed men and veiled women, it’s not hard to imagine that you’re in another time. The indigenous Saharan architecture of older parts of the city includes houses constructed of reddish dry-stone and mud-brick techniques, with flat roofs timbered from palms. Many of the older houses feature doors cut from massive ancient acacia trees, which have long disappeared from the surrounding area. Many homes include courtyards or patios that crowd along narrow streets leading to the central mosque. Some of the most impressive buildings in the town include the Friday Mosque, an ancient structure of dry-stone construction, featuring a square minaret capped with five ostrich egg finials; the former French Foreign Legion fortress; and a tall watertower. The old quarter of the Chinguetti has five important manuscript libraries of scientific and Koranic texts that date back centuries. with many dating from the later Middle Ages.

For centuries the city was a principal gathering place for pilgrims of the Maghreb to gather on the way to Mecca. It became known as a holy city in its own right, especially for pilgrims unable to make the long journey to Arabia. It also became a centre of Islamic religious and scientific scholarship in West Africa and in addition to religious training, the schools of Chinguetti taught students rhetoric, law, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. For many centuries all of Mauritania was popularly known in the Arab world as Bilad Shinqit, “the land of Chinguetti.”

Day 17 - Chinguetti

Spend today exploring Chinguetti, visiting its historic quarter and seeing one of the collections of ancient manuscripts for which it is famous.Overnight local guesthouse. (BLD)


Day 18 - Ouadane

Drive to Ouadane. Founded in the 12th century Ouadane is a fascinating collection of old houses and mosques and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We have plenty of time to explore the historic quarter. Return to Chinguetti in the evening. Overnight La Gueila guesthouse or similar. (BLD)

Ouadane
Founded by Berbers in the 12th century, Ouadane grew prosperous due to its location on the Trans-Saharan caravan routes, bearing host to traders bring dates, gold, salt and slaves to the markets further north. A Portuguese trading post was established in 1487 in an attempt to gain access to the trade, but does not appear to have lasted very long. With the discovery of the sea routes around West Africa the Trans Saharan routes fell into a slow decline, and with them the towns that depended upon them for their livelihood – around the 16th century Ouadane began to fade. Like Chinguetti, Ouadane was also a place of Islamic scholarship and the town is home to a number of ancient manuscripts. The buildings of the historic old town are clustered around a cliff and consist of old mosques and dwellings, their stone-built structures blending into their environment, and one of the highlights of a visit to Mauritania is strolling through its narrow and atmospheric streets.

Day 19 - Nouakchott

Today we arrive in the capital Nouakchott, the first major city we will have encountered for a few days. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)

Nouakchott
Nouakchott’s name means ‘windy city’ in Hassaniya, not a bad description for a place that experiences sandstorms for more than half of the year. The largest city in the country and reputedly the largest in the Sahara, Nouakchott perches between the desert and the Atlantic, but it wasn’t always such a significant place, and in the 1950s was little more than a fishing village, of little importance to colonial French West Africa. Chosen as the capital of Mauritania at independence, it grew quickly into an economic and political hub, and benefits from a deep sea port which handles Mauritania’s massive amount of imported goods. In common with most cities in the region, there’s little in the way of formal tourist sites but it is a great introduction to the country, with a feel of the Sahara crossed with Morocco crossed with Europe plus a little bit of West Africa proper. Noaukchott’s markets are fun to explore, with women clad in colourful robes bargaining furiously for goods, while nomads from the desert beyond give them an air of the exotic. The fish markets are the busiest in West Africa and well worth exploring, and a rewarding excursion if you have the time is to visit the beaches to see the fishermen bring in their catches.

Day 20 - Djoudj National Park – Saint Louis

We head south to Senegal, and then travel to Djoudj National Park with its incredible bird life. We take boats on the lagoon to discover vast flocks of pelicans, flamingos and more, then continue to the atmospheric town of St Louis, once the capital of French West Africa. Overnight Hotel de la Poste or similar. (BLD)

Saint Louis
One of West Africa’s nicest towns, Saint Louis was the first French settlement in the region and still retains much of its old colonial architecture, contributing to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Divided between an island and a peninsula, most of the old European buildings are concentrated on the island with an old governor’s palace, museum, and numerous grand old houses.

Day 21 - Saint Louis – Lampoul

Spend the morning visiting Saint Louis, exploring its streets by traditional caleche (horse and carriage). Afterwards we head Lampoul and our fixed camp amongst the dunes. (BLD)


Day 22 - Lac Rose – Dakar – Goree Island

Drive to Lac Rose, along the beach to visit the largest fishermen’s village in Senegal. Lac Rose is a shallow saltwater lake surrounded by dunes and known for its striking pink colour. From here head to the lively capital, Dakar, and visit nearby Goree Island, once a centre of the slave trade. Overnight Hotel Municipal or similar. (BLD)


Day 23 - Dakar - Kaolack

After seeing some of the sights of Goree, return to Dakar and explore this bustling modern city. From here, continue to Kaolack. Overnight Relais de Kaolack or similar. (BLD)

Dakar
Located on the Cap Vert peninsula and Africa’s westernmost city, Dakar is a thriving, colourful, lively city that provides the first real experience of urban West Africa on this trip. Brash and often uncompromising, it was once of the major cities of the French Empire and today is home to over a million people. With busy traffic and street vendors everywhere, Dakar is a world away from the rest of Senegal. Nearby is Goree Island, in contrast a peaceful sanctuary with well preserved colonial buildings giving it an almost Mediterranean feel. Goree is best known for its associations with the slave trade, although there is some controversy about how much of a role it actually played.

Day 24 - Sine Ngayene - Banjul

Drive to Sine Ngayene, an astonishing megalithic site of over a thousand carved stones arranged into fifty two circles , recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From here we cross the border into the Gambia and take a ferry across the river, and transfer to Banjul. We then visit the National Museum with its exhibits on local archaeology and history, as well as the city centre, before arriving at our hotel on the outskirts of Banjul. Overnight Atlantic Hotel or similar. (BLD)


Day 25 - Banjul – Casamance

Spend the morning in the company of an ornithological guide, looking for birds in the large park by the hotel – this is home to over 70% of the species that live in the country. We then cross into Casamance, the southern region of Senegal, head out into the surrounding villages to learn about the animistic customs that hold sway here, seeing a striking mask dance. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Day 26 - Bissau

Drive to the border with Guinea-Bissau and continue to Cachungo. Today we visit the villages of the local Manjaco people, known for their ancestor worship and unique wooden sculptures. Continue to Bissau for the night. Overnight Hotel Azalai or similar. (BLD)


Days 27-28 - Bijagos Islands

Sail to the Bijagos Islands, a magical and unique world of authentic tribal traditions and unusual wildlife. First visit the island of Bolama, once a colonial capital but now largely abandoned, its Portuguese buildings slowly being taken over by vegetation and goats. We then spend two days exploring the archipelago, looking for rare saltwater hippos and learning about the customs of the local people. Two nights tourist class hotels. (BLD)

The Bijagos Islands
The Bijagos are the jewel in tiny Guinea-Bissau’s crown, an archipelago of more than forty islands that have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Covered in dense forest and mangroves, the islands are home to some of West Africa’s least adulterated cultural traditions, the islands serving to isolate the inhabitants from too much colonial influence. The Bijagos also contain enigmatic wildlife – the rare ‘saltwater’ hippo being the most famous, rather elusive but sometimes found swimming along the shorelines and between the islands. Facilities here are few but our stay here offers us an opportunity to explore some of the region’s most pristine natural environments.

Day 29 - Bissau

Leaving the islands behind we return to the mainland. In Bissau we have time for a quick look around the city with its colonial Portuguese architecture. Overnight Hotel Azalai or similar. (BLD)


Day 30 - Malinke region

Morning drive to a small village in the Malinke region. The Malinke are descendants of the ancient empire of Mali and we visit a community of ‘griots’ – traditional musicians and story tellers who play an important part in conserving the traditions of West Africa. We learn about their history and customs, and witness a traditional griot performance. Overnight simple hotel. (BLD)


Days 31-32 - Fouta Djalon

A small track takes us to the border of Guinea, through an area inhabited by Malinke and Fulani tribes, and we stop in villages where the arrival of western visitors is a rare event. From here we drive into the Fouta Djalon, a stunning area of mountains, waterfalls, plateau and savannah, where we explore the charming Fulani villages with their typical architecture. Overnight simple hotel (Day 31) and tourist class hotel (Day 32). (BLD)

Fouta Djalon
The highlands of the Fouta Djalon are one of Guinea’s – and West Africa’s – most beautiful areas, a region of plateaux, valleys, cliffs and grasslands, it is the source of many of West Africa’s great rivers including the Gambia and Senegal rivers, as well as a major tributary of the Niger River. Most of its inhabitants are Fula, or Fulani, people, who take advantage of the extremely fertile climate for agriculture and raising livestock; in centuries gone by the Fulani launched jihads to expand the reach of their Islamic state from here, and the region was only ‘pacified’ by the French in the late 19th century. Today it’s a peaceful place with numerous traditional villages and great opportunities for hiking amidst lush scenery – particularly impressive after the wet season when the vegetation is still green and waterfalls seem to be around every corner.

Day 33 - Dalaba - Mamou

Explore the small town of Dalaba, with its interesting ‘casa a palabra’, a finely decorated building used for local chiefs. We also visit the villa of Guinea’s first president, Sekou Toure, then continue to the market town of Mamou. Overnight Hotel Balys or similar. (BLD)


Days 34-35 - En route to Freetown

Drive to the border with Sierra Leone, where we stop at the village of Kamakwie to see traditional mask dances. From here continue to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. Overnight White House Hotel (Day 34) and Swiss Hotel (Day 35) or similar. (BLD)


Days 36-37 - Freetown - Banana Islands

Explore Freetown visiting its lively markets and seeing examples of old colonial architecture, and heading out to its beaches. From here travel the archipelago of the Banana Islands, with its stunning beaches and fishing villages. Overnight Bafa Lodge or similar. (BLD)

Freetown
Sierra Leone’s capital is set between hills and ocean, a chaotic jumble of buildings and streets packed with the life and colour of West Africa. Freetown’s name derives from its original raison d’etre – in the late 18th century the abolitionist movement launched a programme to send freed African slaves back to the continent, settling on this part of West Africa as a likely spot. The last twenty years or so have not been kind to the city – it was utterly devastated during the vicious civil war which raged through the country, with many gutted and half destroyed buildings to be found, but like the rest of Sierra Leone it is now moving on and increased development bears witness to a growing confidence in the city. Like most African capitals Freetown is fairly devoid of formal tourist sights, but the real joy comes from experiencing the hustle and bustle of a city finding its feet again, wandering through busy markets – including the imaginatively titled ‘Big Market’, or discovering some of the fading remnants of Freetown’s heritage.

Day 38 - Bo

Head back to the mainland and from here drive into the lands of the Mende people. Here we see a rare performance of the female Bundo masks – normally mask societies are for men only. Continue to Bo for the night. Overnight Hotel Dohas or similar. (BLD)


Day 39 - Monrovia

We spend the morning learning about the process of diamond mining, as we join some villagers who show us their craft. From here we continue to the border with Liberia, and from here drive to Monrovia. Overnight Cape Hotel or similar. (BLD)

Monrovia
Monrovia has a close association with both the slave trade and the return of emancipated slaves to Africa; it is named after James Monroe, the US president who was instrumental in the latter campaign. It was ravaged by war in the 1990s and is today a rather ramshackle capital, albeit rather atmospheric in the right light.

Day 40 - Monrovia - Gbarnga

Spend the morning exploring Monrovia. We visit the National Museum and the impressive Masonic Temple of Liberia, that has played an important part in Liberian history over the years. From here drive to Gbarnga for the night. Overnight Passion Hotel or similar. (BLD)


Days 41-42 - Macenta - Nzerekore

Drive through northern Liberia and back into Guinea, to a lush region of thick forests and remote villages. We see mask dances while here, including one of the ‘bird men, dressed in feathers  and with their faces painted white with kaolin. This is a secret society, and its members are believed to have powers that make them invisible. We also see the impressive bridges made of living vines, believed to be built by spirits during the course of just one night. Overnight Hotel Macenta (Day 41) and Hotel Bethanie (Day 42) or similar. (BLD)


Day 43 - Bossou - Man

Head to the small village of Bossou and explore the forest, home to a group of chimpanzees. Constantly monitored by researchers, they are relatively easy to approach. From here we cross into Ivory Coast and drive to the town of Man. Overnight Hotel Les Cascades or similar. (BLD)

Chimpanzees
Humans’ closest living relatives, chimpanzees are spread among 22 Afrcian countries, from Senegal in the west to Tanzania in the east, and have become extinct in four countries where they once lived. they are among the largest-brained, and most intelligent of primates; they use a variety of sophisticated tools and construct elaborate sleeping nests each night from branches and foliage. They live in large social groups of several males, females, juveniles and infants, dominated by an alpha male usually between 20 and 25 years old.

Day 44 - Man

Today we visit a village belonging to the Dan people, known for their amazing mask dancers who perform on stilts. Explore the area to learn more about their local customs, before returning to Man for the night. Overnight Hotel Les Cascades or similar. (BLD)


Day 45 - Daloa

Venture into the forest to reach some of the more isolated settlements of the Guere people. Here we will see their mask dances and if lucky, a dance of the ‘jongleurs’, a rare performance involving initiated women with white painted faces, and considerable acrobatic prowess! Continue to Daloa for the night. Overnight Hotel La Grace or similar. (BLD)


Day 46 - Yamoussoukro

This morning we see a ceremony of the Zaouli dancing masks, a tradition of the Guro people. From here drive to Yamoussoukro, once just a village but now Cote d’Ivoire’s bizarre administrative capital. Yamoussoukro is dominated by the gigantic Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, reputedly the largest Christian place of worship on earth, and we spend time exploring this vast complex. Overnight Hotel Royal or similar. (BLD)

Yamoussoukro
The city of Yamoussoukro, rising out of the jungle, was little more than a village fifty years ago, but its status as the birthplace of Cote d’Ivoire’s first president has led to a dramatic transformation. Felix Houphouet-Boigny began his ambitious construction project in the 1960s, with the intention of creating a model city. Today Yamoussoukro is home to grandiose government buildings that seem rather out of place given the overall conditions of the country, and has become the administrative capital of the country. It is not however the hiub of economic activity – Abidjan, the previous capital, retains this honour. Compared to most African cities Yamoussoukro can seem rather sterile and devoid of the chaos that makes African travel fun, but it is nevertheless a fascinating place to explore and muse on the dreams of the former president. The most impressive building is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, reputedly the largest church in the world and bigger than St Peter’s in Rome. A controversial project, the basilica cost $300 million to build and prompted questions as to whether the money would have been better spent improving the lot of the general population rather than on what many see as a vanity project – there is an image of Houphouet-Boigny next to Jesus in one of the stained glass windows.

Day 47 - Abidjan

Drive to the capital of Ivory Coast. Spend the rest of the day exploring Abidjan, with a ferry trip through the lagoon, a visit to its lively market and the elegant residential district of Cocody. Overnight Hotel Afrikland or similar. (BLD)

Abidjan
Cote d’Ivoire’s largest city, Abidjan is a sizeable metropolis that some say is the third largest French speaking city in the world, after Paris and Kinshasa. A cultural hub of West Africa, it is a busy and vibrant city, with glitzy skyscrapers a testament to the fact that this is the economic capital of the country. It wasn’t always so – Abdijan was originally a small fishing village until it became the capital of the French colony in 1900. Since then it has grown enormously, and only Lagos is larger in the region. Like many African cities it is not especially endowed with traditional tourist sights, but is great for people watching and soaking up the atmosphere.

Day 48 - Grand Bassam - Aboisso

Drive to the city of Grand Bassam with its old colonial buildings and atmosphere of yesteryear, to explore and learn about the history of the country. Continue to Aboisso for the night. Overnight Hotel La Roche or similar. (BLD)

Grand Bassam
The historic town of Grand Bassam was a former French colonial capital, but not for long. Having attained this status in 1893 it was promptly evacuated three years later after an outbreak of Yellow Fever. The shipping industry on which the town depended gradually declined, and eventually the population diminished to such a level that virtually the only inhabitants were squatters, although now about five thousand people live here. Today the place has the aura of a ghost town, with grandiose abandoned buildings lining the streets, and in 2012 the town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in light of its special historic value.

Day 49 - Axim – Anomabu

Cross into Ghana and drive to Axim. Here we stop at the 16th century Portuguese fort, one of many early European fortifications dotted along this coast. After exploring the fort, drive east to Anomabu. Overnighgt Anomabu Beach Resort or similar. (BLD)


Day 50 - Elmina

We visit the fishing town of Elmina, best known for St George’s Castle, the oldest European building in Africa and once used as holding centre for slaves. In the town itself we explore the old quarter with its unique Posuban shrines, made by the traditional ‘asafo’ societies which were once responsible for local defence. Overnight Anomabu Beach Resort or similar. (BLD)

Elmina
The pretty town of Elmina is dominated by the whitewashed St George’s Castle, which dates back to the 15th century. The fort is a rather sombre place when you realise that this is where slaves were held awaiting transportation to the new world, and the cells which they were held in still remain. Elmina is also home to the smaller Fort St Jago, perched on a hill and overlooking the town, as well as a 19th century Dutch cemetery, and the fishing harbour is a delight to explore, with colourful boats and fishermen bringing in their daily catch.

Day 51 - Accra

Drive to Accra, visiting the the old quarter of Jamestown, as well as the quarter where craftsmen design flamboyant coffins for the deceased – a uniquely Ghanaian experience. Overnight Hotel Villa Boutique or similar. (BLD)

Accra
Ghana’s capital is one of Africa’s biggest cities, with the inevitable traffic, noise and mayhem. Despite being a fast growing, lively city, the people are friendly and welcoming and maintain many aspects of their tribal African roots. The National Museum houses one of West Africa’s best ethnographic, historical and art collections, which gives a good introduction to Ghana and surrounding areas. The old quarter of Jamestown is the heart of the old colonial town and is inhabited by the Ga people, who founded Accra in the 16th century. There are numerous bustling markets to explore where you can discover everything from food, clothing and household goods to traditional crafts.

Day 52 - Lome

Cross the border into Togo, and head to its capital Lome, the only African city to have been colonised by the French, British and Germans. Explore the city including its central markets and the fascinating – if rather gruesome – fetish market, where animal parts are sold for use in traditional medicines. Overnight Hotel Onomo or similar. (BLD)

Lome
Togo’s capital is a vibrant city situated on the coast, sitting right on the international border with Ghana and with a population of just under a million. Slightly dishevelled, it is quite an atmospheric little city and is now recovering from the civil disturbances suffered by the country in the 1990s. Its origins date back to the 18th century, when it was settled by the Ewe people, one of Togo’s largest ethnic groups. Like many African cities it doesn’t have too much in the way of formal sightseeing but there are a few things worth exploring – the Grand Marche with its exuberant businesswomen known as ‘Nana Benz’ who monopolise the sale of cloth in Togo. Not be missed is the fetish market, where animal parts are sold for use in traditional medicines. This is not a great place for animal lovers, with heads and body parts of everything from sharks and crocodiles to gorillas on sale, but offers a fascinating insight into a belief system very different from our own. Lome has a number of buildings which date from the German occupation, most noticeable of which is a rather bizarre looking 19th century Gothic style cathedral which looks rather out of place in a West African city.

Day 53 - Grand Popo

This morning travel to a remote and hidden village, where we witness a voodoo ceremony – unique to this part of the world, and sure to be one of the highlights of your trip. We then cross into Benin and head to the small town of Grand Popo, on the coast. Overnight Auberge de Grand Popo or similar. (BLD)

Voodoo
Voodoo, or Vodoun as it is known here, is one of the most important religions in this part of West Africa. Forget what you may have seen on TV about it being a form of black magic – here it has the same legitimacy as any other belief system and has been adopted as an official religion by Benin.

Voodoo is a complex and intricate way of seeing of the world, with literally hundreds of different gods responsible for various areas of daily life – some are benevolent, some less so, and in order to communicate with them and ask for favours local people will seek the assistance of followers, or adepts. There are numerous voodoo temples scattered around the coastal regions of both Benin and Togo, each headed by a priest who for a suitable donation will intercede on your behalf.

Voodoo is not limited to the temples though and travelling around the region it is not unlikely that you will see some ceremonies being carried out. Also worth looking out for are the Egunguns – earthly manifestations of the dead who roam the streets in outlandish costumes, striking fear into the heart of local people. Sacrifice and blood are important within voodoo rituals, and any ceremony worth its salt is likely to involve a chicken being killed, its blood spilled onto a shrine in order to seal the pact. You’re also likely to see fetishes dotted around villages – these are inanimate objects such as rocks or trees in which a spirit is believed to reside, often covered in candle wax, feathers and blood where sacrifices have been made. Gaining some understanding of voodoo allows you a glimpse into a magical world where nothing is quite as it seems, and is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of travelling here.

Day 54 - Ouidah

This morning we see a performance of the Zangbeto dancing masks, another of the region’s secret societies. From here we continue to the coastal town of Ouidah, a stronghold of voodoo and once an important slave port. We visit the python temple, where snakes are venerated as representations of gods, the old Portuguese fort and finally head to the beach and the sombre ‘Gate of No Return’, the point from which slaves left Africa for the New World. Overnight Hotel Casa del Papa or similar. (BLD)

Ouidah
Founded in the fifteenth century and made famous by Bruce Chatwin’s novel, ‘The Viceroy of Ouidah’, Ouidah was once a centre for the slave trade in this part of West Africa and many of its buildings bear witness to a strong European influence. As well as a rather imposing and out of place cathedral, Afro-Brazilian architecture and crumbling colonial buildings, the Portuguese fort holds an interesting history museum which gives an insight into the past life of the town. Of equal interest is the Python Temple, where a collection of snakes are venerated as earthly representations of voodoo gods. A thought provoking excursion is the 3km walk along the ‘Slave Route’, where those boarding the boats across the Atlantic were herded like cattle to the shore. At the end on the beach lies the modern ‘Gate of No Return’, built in memory of the thousands who never made it back.

Day 55 - Ganvie - Cotonou

Our final day sees us heading out onto Lake Nokwe to visit Ganvie, the largest stilt village in Africa situated in the middle of the water. From here, we drive to Cotonou where our West African adventure ends, and transfer to the airport for your onward flight. (BL)

Ganvie
On Lake Nokwe lies the stilt village of Ganvie, a settlement of 25,000 people isolated from the land and only accessible by boat. Legend has it that the Tofinou people fled here in the 18th century to escape the depredation of the more powerful Dahomeyans on the lookout for slaves, and that they were transported to their new home by crocodiles. Whatever the truth behind it, Ganvie is an interesting place to drift through in a boat, watching how people go about their daily lives on the water, stopping at local markets watching the fishermen casting their nets, and is far removed from the busy towns making this a real delight to explore. The market on the mainland is also worth a look, if only for the rather gruesome section dedicated to voodoo.

This tour is made up of two shorter tours (Marrakech to Bissau and Bissau to Cotonou), and can be done in even shorter sections, i.e Marrakech to Dakar, Nouakchott to Bissau, Monrovia to Cotonou and so on. If you would like to take part in a shorter version of this trip, please contact us for prices. 

Please note that our 26 February 2021 and 5 March 2022 departures will run in reverse, from Cotonou to Marrakech. In 2021 this tour will be two days longer – 57 days in duration. Please contact us for details.

Please note: This is a pioneering trip that will be run as a ‘recce tour’ and so you must be prepared for flexibility and changes to the itinerary if necessary. We most definitely do not recommend this trip if you like rigid plans, 4 star hotels, good roads and well defined ‘tourist sites’ – this is a very adventurous trip through a remote part of the continent, where infrastructure is not great, things change frequently and you can expect a certain amount of discomfort at times. However the rewards more than balance these out – the chance to travel through lands that rarely see western visitors, experience the truly authentic and go to places that few have gone before, in one of the most interesting corners of Africa.

Village in the Draa Valley - Morocco holidays
Marrakech to Bissau itinerary tile
Historic mosque in Chinguetti - Mauritania holidays
Ancient Gods of West Africa
Traditional masked dance near Korhogo - Ivory Coast tours
Fulani girls in rural village - Ivory Coast holidays and tours
Village elders in Ghanaian village - Ghana tours
Women dancing at traditional voodoo ceremony - Benin holidays
Voodoo followers on their way to festival - Benin holidays

What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers. Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.

  • Accommodation

    Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.

    While we prefer to use centrally located hotels where possible, this is not always practical and in some locations they may not be the best option in terms of standards or reliability.

    Please note that it is not always possible to secure twin rooms as many hotels in West Africa only have rooms with one large bed. If you would like a twin room you must check with us beforehand that this is possible.

  • Guides

    Accompanied by Alberto Nicheli. Alberto has a wealth of experience and understanding of this area. He has lead more than 60 Saharan expeditions, including ethnological research on the Tuareg and rock art. He has organised field researches and logistics for documentary films with Discovery Channel on the salt caravans of Niger and has coordinated photographic projects on West Africa with renowned photogrpahers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith from National Geographic, as well as collaborating on different television programmes. Alberto has completed solo Sahara crossings, as well as some exploratory missions. Resident in West Africa in the last 32 years, his expertise ranges from African history to tribal art.

  • Meals

    As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again. Please note that when meals are included, sometimes these will be in hotels, as often these are the most appropriate option, and will sometimes be set menus. Local restaurants are often lacking in variety, as well as the capacity to cater for groups. Drinks are not included and are at your own expense.

  • Entrance fees

    Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as Travcour (www.travcour.com) can assist.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options

  • Travel insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.

Visas

This trip travels through twelve different countries, many of which require visas in advance.

Most nationalities do not need visas for Morocco or Senegal.

The Mauritania visa can be obtained at the border for a cost of €60, and the Gambia visa can also be obtained at the border, for around €30.

Visas for Guinea-Bissau can be obtained en route via the consulate in Ziguinchor and cost 20,000 CFA. You will need to bring two passport photos with you and let us know beforehand if you intend to obtain your visa this way.

Visas for Togo can be obtained at the border for a cost of CFA10,000 – no passport photos are required.

All other visas must be acquired in advance.

Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Please note that Yellow Fever is a compulsory vaccination for entering these countries and you must bring your vaccination certificate with you, otherwise you may not be allowed to enter. 

Insurance

It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company

Money

The local currency here differs from country to country, but you won’t be able to obtain them outside of the region. In Morocco the currency is the dirham, and in Mauritania the ouguiya. In Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin it is the West African CFA, in Guinea the franc, in Sierra Leone the leone, in Liberia the Liberian dollar and in Ghana the cedi. It is best to bring Euros for exchange purposes, as these currencies are generally not obtainable outside of the region.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place.  

In addition, roads throughout the parts of Africa that we visit are often poorly maintained (if at all!) and distances between key sites of interest can be long. Travelling in Africa can be tiring, hot and dusty at times, and inevitably it can be frustrating. While there are some issues that we are able to solve, others are intrinsic to the countries that we travel through, and you should be aware that many of the countries that we operate in cannot be compared to others on the continent that have better infrastructure – for example the popular tourist destinations of east and southern Africa. Although travelling in these countries can at times be an ‘unpolished’ experience, this is all part of the adventure. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and putting up with a pothole (or ten) is undeniably worth it for the amazing sights and cultural experiences you will encounter along the way.

This is particularly relevant to this trip – it travels through some remote regions, some of which are largely isolated from the outside world and have very little experience of tourism whatsoever. 

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO advises against travel to the part of Ivory Coast which borders Liberia, which we pass through on this tour. We work very closely with our local team and are fully confident that we can operate tours safely here. Should you have any concerns over safety please do not hesitate to contact us and we can address your concerns.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Village in the Draa Valley - Morocco holidays
Marrakech to Bissau itinerary tile
Historic mosque in Chinguetti - Mauritania holidays
Ancient Gods of West Africa
Traditional masked dance near Korhogo - Ivory Coast tours
Fulani girls in rural village - Ivory Coast holidays and tours
Date(s)
Price (PP) Exc. Flights
Single Supplement
Trip Status
Date -
20 November 2021
Price (PP) -
£13,999
Single Supplement -
£1450
Trip Status -
Available
Date -
05 March 2022
Price (PP) -
£14,449
Single Supplement -
£1480
Trip Status -
Available
Date -
19 November 2022
Price (PP) -
£14,449
Single Supplement -
£1480
Trip Status -
Available