West Africa moves to a different rhythm to the rest of the continent, a spellbinding symphony of voodoo culture and music festivals, nomadic heritage and remnants of colonialism. It’s a region that’s pretty much unbeatable when it comes to off-the-beaten-path, culturally-rich adventure travel – here are some of its finest moments.
The Pays Dogon
After crossing the stark, flat Malian Sahel, the Bandiagara Escarpment appears like a mirage. An immense sandstone ridge, some 150km long and home to Dogon villages marked out by the shocks of green of vegetable gardens. Walking here is more than just taking in views; it’s cultural exploration too: the Dogon remain animist, with complex beliefs and rituals, most famously their extraordinary masked dance. Watching this spectacle, then sleeping out on the flat rooftop of a Dogon house under the night's starred blanket, is West Africa at its most entrancing.
The world’s largest mud building, West Africa's architectural icon and arguably the continent’s most impressive man-made structure, Djenné Mosque dominates the town – the mosque's palmwood beams and pinnacles, crowned with ostrich eggs, bristle above the surrounding huddle of rooftops. Visit on a Monday for Djenné at its best, when the boisterous, multi-ethnic market bursts into life. Like other West African markets (notably Gorom-Gorom Market in Burkina Faso), it's an extroverted affair, seemingly more party than commerce.
If you're after bland muzac or play-it-safe, corporate McFestivals, avoid West Africa. If your taste runs to being part of an incredible musical mosaic, look no further. Whether you’re attending truly unique events like The Festival on the Niger, where a galaxy of world music and local stars perform their propulsive, percussive sound and make it impossible not to dance, or just hanging out on the music-laced streets of Bobo Dioulasso, the region’s music is part of its DNA. In Senegal meanwhile, the renowned Saint-Louis Jazz Festival offers a wonderful, eclectic mix of the local and international, all wrapped up in a good-time ambience – a little like Saint-Louis itself.
Senegal and The Gambia
Senegal and The Gambia shake up an irresistible blend, with urban pleasure-seekers and nature-lovers both expertly indulged. In town, wander Saint-Louis –atmospheric colonial streets, music drifting out from bars and homes – and it’s easy to see this liveable, loveable place as the African Havana. Or head to Dakar's profoundly poignant Isle de Gorée, a bay island where history comes steeped in slavery’s blood and whose buildings make for fascinating exploration.
Away from cities, the natural diversity is perhaps the area's greatest surprise: cruise The Gambia's fecund riverbanks, a haven for monkeys and incredible bird-life; or explore the captivating delta that is the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary.
If your schooling in voodoo culture came courtesy of ropey 1970s James Bond films, prepare for something far more exotic and intriguing. West Africa is voodoo's home, and sights abound that reliably leave jaws on the floor – the wonderful fetish market of Lomé, Togo, for example, or the Serpent Temple in Ouidah, Benin, home to a writhing mass of royal pythons, all very much alive and active. But it's the mixture of how strikingly alive the religion remains (for proof, see the feverish devotion of a voodoo gathering), coupled with the historical narrative that ties voodoo to slavery, that is most powerful. Visit Ghana's Elmina Castle, for example, for one of the religion's turning points, where slaves once walked through 'the door of no return' to the New World, their beliefs and religion virtually all that they carried with them.
That’s just the start. Add in beautiful beaches and unique sights like the floating village of Ganvie and the ornate facades of Tiebele’s houses, and it’s apparent that West Africa amply rewards all travellers whose curiosity and sense of adventure lead them there.
Read up on huge West Africa Wanderlust trip.