Backpacking in Ghana: a Personal Experience
Africa vastly remains a terra incognita for travelers. True, it might not be as tourist-friendly as one wishes it to be, but the fantastic nature and culture you will find there is well worth the trouble. Today we are talking with Mirko, who has traveled to Ghana and had a great time there. Maybe the story of his trip will inspire you to explore this wonderful part of the Earth?
Hi, Mirko, really great having you here! Tell me, why did you decide to go to Ghana?
I’d always dreamed of going to Africa but was not sure where to start. So I talked with several other travelers, and they all agreed that Ghana is one of the most accessible and safe countries in Africa. There is a big international airport in Accra, and almost everybody in Ghana speaks English reasonably well, which makes things much simpler. It’s a country with a great cultural and natural diversity and also a long and tumultuous history. I was excited!
So how did you plan a trip there? Some tips on preparation?
I read 2 guidebooks to get to know more about the country and checked that I had the necessary vaccinations. For Ghana, it is obligatory to have a vaccine against yellow fever, so prepare to show proof of that on crossing the border. Other recommended vaccines include hepatitis A and B, typhoid fever, meningitis, cholera, and rabies. The latter is recommended if you might expect contact with wild animals (i.e. wild monkeys). In the rain season there is a danger of malaria, so take a prescription for Malarone from your doctor and don’t forget to take it.
You also have to think about things to take with you. The main trick is to pack light, as you’ll do a lot of walking, and your backpack will probably do a lot of lying around in sometimes dirty buses. It’s rather hot in Ghana (21-28ºC), so you only need light clothes. However, do take closed shoes in addition to sandals. They will help to protect your feet from bumps and dirt on the road, bugs, and wildlife. Air conditioning on buses is harsh, so it’s best to have a scarf and a jacket for these occasions.
Most of the hotels provide air-conditioning or mosquito nets, but if you’re staying in smaller family-run establishments in the country, the nets may not be in perfect shape. So take a tape to mend them or better yet carry your own mosquito net. Another useful thing is silk sleeping bag lining – it keeps you warm and cool at the same time and keeps the bugs away. It’s also a good idea to pack postcards with views of your hometown to give them out as gifts.
What was your route in Ghana, what did you see?
We started in Accra and allowed ourselves some time to acclimatize just strolling around the city and visiting the markets. After that we went west, visiting Cape Coast and Elmina. This was a colonial region, and so there are slave castles that showcase the colonial past. You can visit the fortress dungeons (now museums) in Cape Coast and Elmina where slaves were kept just before being shipped to the Americas. It’s a horrifying but very valuable experience.
From there we arranged a tour to Kakum national park, including a night-walk and stay in a treehouse, where one can see the gorgeous virgin rainforest. The forest is exactly the same as it was a million years ago, untouched by the humans. There is also a lot of wildlife in Kakum, but you have to be lucky to see it.
After that, we stayed for several days in Butre, enjoying the beaches. Usually, swimming is dangerous in Ghana because of strong currents, but Butre is in a bay, so it’s safe. You can book a tree house there or just stay in a normal cottage. We also took a boat tour to see mangroves there – these are trees that grow into the ocean.
And did you also venture away from the coast?
Of course! Having unwinded in Butre, we headed north to Kumasi – the capital of an area where Ashanti tribes live. There are interesting museums of Ashanti history and culture in Kumasi, and it’s easy to make small day trips from there, for example to villages with traditional Ashanti shrines (pre-colonial style house).
Our next destination was Tamale, which lies in the northern, mostly Muslim part of Ghana, where we also visited two traditional villages. From there we did a bus trip to Mole National Park, which is a great safari destination with lots of elephants and other savannah wildlife. You can take a tour in a car or on foot through the park, and I really recommend the latter, as you stay closer to the nature that way.
That was sadly the end of our travels, as we had to return to Accra to catch our flight back. If we had more time, we would definitely have visited the Volta Delta region to see its unique ecosystem and culture.
Sounds amazing! Can we talk about the practical issues now? Like, how’s the situation with accommodation in Ghana?
We didn’t book anything in advance, except for the first days in Accra. Accommodation in big cities can be found online, for example on Booking.com, but for smaller places, it’s better to rely on people’s recommendations. This way, you don’t end up only staying in highly touristic places that your guidebook mentions. We met a lot of people in the streets and on buses and they often had some recommendations for good places to stay. For example, that’s how we found the nice family-run beach house we lived in Butre. In Mole national park you should book accommodation in advance, as it fills up fast. I wouldn’t recommend camping in Ghana. Except on a few guided tours in parks, it’s not common, so locals are not used to it. Besides, there can be wildlife/bugs around, so it’s safer to stay inside four walls.
And what about transport? How did you get around?
Ghana has train lines, but they have been in disrepair for years now, so your only option for getting around is a bus. There are different levels of comfort on intercity buses. The three biggest carriers are VIP, STC, and Metro Mass. VIP is the most comfortable of the three and the most reliable, but STC also offers good value for your money. Metro Mass is cheaper and not as luxurious. There are also Mini-buses and vans that stop close to bus stations. These are a little more expensive, but faster than the big buses.
It may be better to get the tickets at the bus station in advance, as the buses may be fully booked at the departure time, but we haven’t really experienced this. Don’t expect buses to be on time – especially the cheaper ones, which are operating in leave-when-full mode. Try to stay flexible and relaxed, locals don’t approve if somebody is fretting about a bus being late. Making a fuss is not considered polite.
Inside the cities, the most widespread means of transportation is tro-tros – van buses with places for 12 people. Ghanaians, however, squeeze up to 15 people (with merchandise and livestock :) ) into each and the buses go when they are full. Tro-tros go along a fixed route and you can hail it anywhere. Shared taxi is another popular way of transportation, and they operate similarly to tro-tros but are faster and there are only up to 4 passengers in each. Standard taxis are also an option, of course, but knowing the way is not included in the price, so you might have to show them the route on your mobile :) Cheating can happen so make sure you negotiate the price before entering the taxi.
So what was your most amazing experience in Ghana?
What impressed me most was meeting all the people and talking to them. Their lives and worldviews are so different and you learn so much from them! They all speak English so communicating was not a problem. In one fishing village, they hadn’t seen many white people before, so kids all run to have a look at us and we played ‘fishermen and fish’ with them for some time. People are very friendly and open there, although sometimes a little shy.
There are extreme paradoxes in Ghana: some people have neither tap water nor electricity but have mobile phones and use Facebook. One way of charging their phones was at a local medical station every couple of days. All religions coexist in peace in Ghana – there can be a church, a mosque, and an animist shrine in the same town. The holidays of all religions are celebrated together – more reason to party!
Are there some places to see traditional living in Ghana?
In big cities, life has drastically changed and is very western now. Jeans and T-shirts take over. However, a modern African city is still very different from a western one. It is especially visible at the markets – almost all the merchandise is right on the street, and it’s very bustling. In buses, you often share the trip with goats and sheep. The cooking is still more or less unchanged, and you can taste some great traditional food even in the cities.
In smaller, remote places life is more intact, and people live the same way as they always have – sleeping in mud houses and doing fishing and agriculture. The different tribes/ethnicities in Ghana still have their own chiefs (i.e. Ashanti king in Kumasi), and they still do traditional celebrations, dressed up traditionally, with drums and dances. If you’re lucky to be in Ghana during some of these festivals, by all means, visit, it’s a great experience. The more touristic villages have dancing and drumming displays especially for the tourists, but it’s not the real thing.
You’ve mentioned great traditional food. Can you recommend something in particular?
Ghanaian cuisine is very spicy! The base foods are rice, meat, and fish, with the addition of sweet potatoes, plantains, and vegetables like cassava, yam, and beans. The dishes are usually cooked in a big pot and the traditional way of eating is with your hand, so don’t forget to pack a hand disinfectant with you. There are restaurants in Ghana, but locals eat in the street, and we were happy to do the same. We didn’t have any stomach problems, so if you follow a few hygienic rules (wash, peel, cook, …) it’s safe to do so.
One popular Ghanaian dish is RedRed. It is black eyed peas cooked in palm oil with plantain – very unusual and yummy. A very special experience (though not really pleasant for the European taste) was also FuFu – pounded cassava and plantain. Another awesome thing in Ghana are fruits and fresh juices! Mango and other fruits are peeled and squeezed for you in the streets, and the juices are incredibly fresh and tasty!