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I am marching through West Africa. From a launching base in Morocco, I have headed through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. Tonight I head to Ghana to see what visas I can collect.
West Africa is a region that travelers of the world often do not attempt and those that do have no shortage of stories to tell. I am enjoying my trip. It is not one with huge highlights, rather one of many small, happy moments and encounters.
My favorites so far are Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Here’s my 10 West Africa Travel Tips so far (pictures to be added when I get a better connection!):
- Do not underestimate the climate. Somehow it feels incredibly humid and also dry and dusty at the same time. The sun feels like a spotlight. Despite wide geographic variation, every stop has been withering. I spent an hour walking Abidjan this morning and felt I would collapse. A South African Premier League team is at my hotel for a big match today, Sunday, and they came up on Tuesday to try to acclimate. The French that dominate tourists in the region may have it right: find a comfortable spot and let time drift by.
- Visas are improving. US citizens get visa-free/visa on arrival in Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Cote d’Ivoire has online e-visa. There is a multi-country Visa Touristique Entante you can get when already in one of the member countries (I got mine in Burkina Faso), which covers Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and Togo. Visas for onward travel are country and embassy-specific. In Ghana I will try for Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone since that is one of the few countries to have embassies for all three.
- Do not use the Lonely Planet West Africa 8th Edition (2013). Essentially they cut out half of the 7th Edition (2009) including all information on several countries and much of the practical information on others. I am using a mix of the 7th Edition (2009) and country-specific Bradt Guides. I am warming to the Bradt Guides. For short trips their heft and extreme detail is a challenge so I photocopy or scan only the pages I need. They are slowly adding ebook editions. For such a challenging region, especially if you do not speak French, solid practical information is essential.
- Scale back your agenda and skip the cities. This goes along with the climate. The historical and natural attractions are not the draw, the friendly people and cultural experiences are, so take it easy with them and enjoy like in the slow lane. So far the only major city I recommend making a detour is Abidjan. Most airports, except Dakar, are outside downtown and there are much better places to base yourself.
- The airlines run surprisingly well, though cost a fortune. Major alliance airlines have numerous 5th freedom routes such as Kenya Airways’ multiple routes with stops between Dakar and Nairobi. South African has some as well, such as tonight’s Abidjan-Accra short hop. Ethiopian, too, though those looking for award tickets will encounter issues with many Ethiopian flights codeshares operated by ASKY and not bookable for awards. I have flown Royal Air Maroc, Mauritania Airlines, Air Burkina and ASKY, all with good experiences. The only significant delay was one hour for ASKY when they boarded us, then waited for inbound connecting passengers, in net a good thing since the next Guinea-Bissua/Senegal flight would not have been for a few days.
- Royal Air Maroc would be great, if only. Their schedules mean that virtually any point-to-point flight in the region requires a 15-hour or more layover in Casablanca, and most all are in the middle of the night. There is a good transit hotel in the terminal. They partner with Qatar Airways, which is a Citi ThankYou transfer partner, so potentially work for awards. Buy cash tickets from their Morocco site.
- Booking airline tickets is not easy! Skyscanner is the best search engine I have found to pick up local airlines and interesting routes and fares. Many turn out to not be bookable, at least at the lower prices initially quoted. Mostly I have had to book direct with the airlines. Some airports such as Abidjan and Lagos, due to credit card fraud, may not be bookable as departure points on some websites. Tonight’s South African Abidjan-Accra flight for instance, when attempting to book on South African’s website, always rejects credit cards with no explanation. There is a PayPal option that I did not try. Most OTAs won’t book Abidjan departures. Finally it worked to book a Citi ThankYou award.
- Pay for the best transport you can afford, avoid public transport whenever possible. Public transport is excruciatingly slow and uncomfortable. Decrepit vehicles packed to the gills and endless stops. None of the estimates in guidebooks are anywhere close to reality. In Mali I took what was supposed to be a 1-hour journey that took 3. The first went to stacking the loads on top. The next two were the immediate gas fill-up after pullout move, slowly driving, checkpoints, arguments with passengers, and my folding seat in the 5-across van collapsed under my heft twice. On the return it was even worse, it being a market day. Each stop the driver and aide needing to climb to the top, unload, then re-secure everything. I kid you not, one time, after one of the 10-minute unload stops, we drove less than 100 yards when the next tap from behind signaled the next unloading. Add to that the arguments at checkpoints and the rest and this is no vacation. You will accomplish so little that you will lose money in the end by the extra days it takes to do anything. After that, whatever it takes, I have been chartering whole vehicles. Essentially you pay 4-8 times the single passenger price. A few times I have included extra passengers at my cost, for instance in Senegal a university student who spoke some English and was able to communicate with the driver, we both had a good ride and he got home faster. There are plenty of other, better ways to have local experiences.
- Find comfortable accommodation with owners who understand tourists. I have been paying roughly $50-$100/night, a bit higher than my normal budget. Having comfortable, clean rooms with adequate facilities is key in this climate. Many are run by expats hailing from places ranging from France to Turkey. I mostly find them on booking.com. They provide free airport transfers as a matter of course. Grand Calao in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso is a great example. It is a suburban retreat in a city with no real downtown. Simple rooms, good food, swimming pool, working internet and an owner who knows how to arrange practical tasks such as the Visa Touristique Entante application. I have spent more time in my hotel rooms this trip than any other.
- You don’t have to speak French. It helps, certainly, though there are always ways to communicate!