Ghana is a delightfully unpackaged travel destination

– it has no upmarket safari industry worth talking about, there are few upmarket boutique beach resorts of the sort now studded along Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline, and facilities are generally best suited to those willing to explore a country on its own terms. Yet, while Ghana may rank low on the slickness front, and is best approached with a degree of flexibility, this compact country is not in any respect a difficult travel destination. Roads are good, visitors can get pretty much anywhere they want on public transport, English is spoken widely and well, and people tend to be welcoming and accommodating.

For a country of its relatively modest size, Ghana also packs in a huge amount of variety. The south is dominated by 500km of Atlantic coastline, which boasts some fantastic tropical beaches, none finer perhaps than those running westward from Busua towards Axim, an area serviced by several laidback, affordable and stunningly remote beach resorts.

The historian Albert van Dantzig described the Gold Coast (the historical name for Ghana’s coast) as “the ancient shopping street of West Africa”. For centuries its primary item of export was gold, but that changed after the slave trade took hold in the late 17th century. Between 1482 and 1783 half a dozen different European powers constructed a total of 80 fortified buildings along the Gold Coast, and while many have since vanished, at least 20 of these forts and castles survive. Now museums, their tall fortified bastions and grim slave dungeons pay collective testament to a centuries-long saga of European exploitation and greed.

Altogether different is the far northern interior, a predominantly Islamic region whose Sahelian climate and traditional dress code have much in common with Mali or Burkina Faso. There is some wonderfully curvaceous Sahelian-style adobe architecture in the north, too, ranging from the ancient mud-and-stick mosques at Larabanga, Bole and Nakore, to the iconic Wa-Na’s Palace in Wa and the painted flat-topped homesteads of Sirigu and Paga.

In between the crashing waves of the Atlantic coast and arid Burkinese border area lies a wealth of other scintillating attractions: the waterfalls of the Volta highlands, the tropical jungles of the central interior, the cheekily tame monkeys of Boabeng-Fiema, the semi-habituated elephants that trundle across the savannah of Mole National Park, the 19th-century fetish shrines of Ashanti, the bizarrely sculpted posuban shrines of the Fante, the sprawling country markets, the traditional craft villages, and a profusion of colourful birds that decorate the verdant countryside. And not to be forgotten are the innumerable festivals that punctuate the local calendar. Yes, Ghana is poorly developed for package tourism, but it is a remarkably diverse and stimulating country, one tailor-made for a more impulsive, independent-minded style of travel.

Mole National Park
The closest thing in Ghana to the great savannah reserves of southern and eastern Africa, Mole doesn’t quite scale the top rung of the game viewing ladder, but it does provide a worthwhile – and relatively affordable and accessible – opportunity to track wildlife on foot. Elephant are usually seen with ease, while lion and leopard are seldom observed. It’s also an excellent spot for birds, and the celebrated mosque near the park entrance is a superb example of Sahel mud-and-stick-style architecture.

Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary
Ghana’s oldest official eco-tourism project, Boabeng-Fiema is named after a pair of villages where monkeys are held sacred – a taboo taken sufficiently seriously that a funeral is held whenever one dies. The most common primates are Lowe’s mona monkey and the pied colobus, with the former being so habituated it can often be approached to within a metre. Four other primate species are seen occasionally, and the forest supports a prolific birdlife. The low-key resthouse here is a real gem for travellers on a shoestring budget.

Kumasi
The ancient capital of the Asante (Ashanti) Kingdom, Ghana’s second-largest city is known for the dawn-to-dusk traffic jams that crawl around its superb, sprawling central market. Friendly and studded with decent hotels, Kumasi is a great base for day and overnight trips – to the circular Lake Bosomtwe nestled within a spectacular meteorite crater, to the active animist shrines at Besease and Bodwease, to the lush forest of the Bobiri Butterfly Reserve, to the cave breeding site of the rare white-necked picathartes (possibly West Africa’s most bizarre and eagerly sought bird) at Bonkro, or to the traditional Kente-weaving communities at Bonwire and Adanwomase.

Kakum National Park
An hour’s drive north of Elmina, Kakum is best known as the site of West Africa’s only ‘canopy walkway’. A giddying 350m-long suspension bridge standing 40m above the rainforest floor, it offers a monkey’s-eye perspective on the forest interior. Kakum is also a fine (albeit underdeveloped) birding destination, while its mammal checklist includes six duiker and five monkey species, as well as a relict population of forest elephant.

The west coast
Some of the finest beaches lie along the coast between Takoradi and Côte d’Ivoire’s border. For a sociable beachfront experience, Busua is West Africa’s answer to Malawi’s Nkhata Bay –  it’s also an emergent mecca for surfers. If you are after isolated white sand and whispering palm fronds, your budget will dictate whether you’re better off at one of the legendary laidback budget resorts between Busua and Cape Three Points, or their more upmarket counterparts near the historic town of Axim. Further west still, a consistently popular goal for adventurous travellers is the stilted village of Nzulezo, which can be reached by dugout canoe from the beautiful beach at Beyin.

Elmina and Cape Coast
The picturesque port of Elmina (‘The Mine’) became an international gold-trading centre in 1482, when the Portuguese started construction on what is now the oldest surviving European building in sub-Saharan Africa. Like its English counterpart at nearby Cape Coast, Elmina Castle took its imposing modern shape in the 17th century, following the Dutch capture of Elmina and rise of the slave trade at the expense of gold exports. Today, both Cape Coast and Elmina Castles function as museums, paying chilling testament to the many thousands of captives shipped from their dank dungeons to a life of bondage in the Americas.

Accra
Accra is among the more antiquated of African capitals, and it’s worth dedicating half a day to exploring its old quarter – landmarks include the Jamestown Fort and Lighthouse, the moving Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, and the fantastically chaotic Makola Market. Totally different in character, ‘Oxford Street’ in the vibrant suburb of Osu is lined by boutique shops, craft stalls and the country’s biggest concentration of eateries and bars. Legendary beachfront hangouts include the 5-star Labadi Beach Hotel and the party-oriented Big Millie’s Backyard at Kokrobite.

Southeastern highlands
Offering welcome mid-altitude respite from the sweaty coast is the hilly country of central Volta Region. Flanked by the cheerfully named regional capital Ho in the south, and the even jollier sounding town of Hohoe in the north, it could easily keep keen ramblers busy for a week. Highlights of the compact region include Wli Falls (West Africa’s tallest), the forested ascent of Afadjato or Adaklu Mountains, the pretty hilltop town of Amedzofe, and the low-key monkey sanctuary at Tafi Atome.

Lake Volta
Ghana became the site of the world’s most extensive artificial lake following the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Volta River at Akosombo Gorge in the 1960s. Fifty years on, Lake Volta remains surprisingly undeveloped for tourism. For the genuinely adventurous, a notoriously uncomfortable and unreliable weekly ferry service runs north from Akosombo Dam to Yeji. If you prefer to admire the view in moderate comfort, the Dodi Princess is currently being repaired but should soon resume weekend day cruises from Akosombo Dam to Dodi Island.

Paga
Paga is best known for its sacred crocodile pools. The scaly inhabitants are lured to shore by dangling a live chicken over the water, where they are held by their saurian tail before being allowed scamper back into the murk. An eco-tourist project also includes visits to a centuries-old chief’s palace constructed in the traditional curvaceous Sahelian manner, as well as to the abandoned slave camp.

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