How to Visit West Africa Without Hurting Yourself

The stilt village in Benin.

Image: mbrand85/

I read a lot of blogs about visiting West Africa before I left for my own travels. Almost every story had a few recurring themes: Transportation was difficult, border crossings laborious, bus rides unpleasant, and the police stops annoying.

An ambitious trip like mine—I spent two weeks going from Nigeria all the way to the Ivory Coast by road— seemed impossible, but was actually quite easy.  It required some planning, and there were challenges: Bad roads, not being able to drive in some countries, and visa challenges slow you down.

But I pulled it off, and you can, too. Here’s how.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Get your visas in order

The Nigerian visa is a bureaucracy nightmare. You have to go to the embassy in person—Washington or Atlanta—and have your entire trip pre-booked, even if you’re not sure you’ll be approved for a visa. It costs hundr of dollars and requires jumping through hoops (pre-approved credit card payments, expediting fees, and employee attitude).

Nigeria can be dangerous, so you’ll need to stick to the safe areas of Lagos, or take travel risks. Unless you’re dead set on seeing it (as I was), I recommend giving it a pass. If you decide to go, as much as I don’t like wasting money on visa services, this might be the one time to fork over extra cash and let someone else deal with the bureaucracy.

An expedited Ghana visa can cost $200, but it’s straightforward and far more pleasant than the Nigerian visa process. If you’re in Houston or another city with an embassy, you can have your visa in less than an hour.  

Togo visas can be negotiated at the border and Benin and Ivory Coast visas can be procured online. In the case of Ivory Coast, you’ll have to take your online pre-approval to the immigration office once you arrive at the international airport and have your fingerprints and photos recorded.

Fly to Nigeria

A Nigerian banana salesman.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Nigeria can be challenging. Most of the country is too dangerous to travel, and if you’re traveling by road, expect to be stopped dozens of times by police looking for a bribe. This can be solved by hiring a driver who deals with them every day. My driver had a relationship with each one. Some he agreed to pay next time, others carried a balance from him overpaying the day before. Bribes are small, but there are a lot of stops. As I stated before, the Nigerian visa is the most difficult to get because of all the fraud that’s committed in that country.

Tickets to Lagos are usually the least expensive option in the U.S. to get to West Africa, which is why it’s the first step. 

Both Lagos and the capital Abuja can be visited as long as you exercise normal precautions. 

Our Lady of Peace Basilica, Yamassoukro, Ivory Coast.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Fly one-way to the Ivory Coast

Cote d’ Ivoire (the French name) is well worth a visit. Besides having the world’s largest basilica—Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro—the historical coastline city of Grand Bassam, a former French outpost, makes a wonderful stop.

In the Ivory Coast you can rent a car and drive yourself around the country as long as you possess a smattering of French. Many travelers opt for the Yamoussoukro to Abidjan route as a good introduction to the country. You won’t have to deal with the police bribes or crime stats of Nigeria, but incidents have occurred, and one must still exercise caution. To get in the country, you’ll have to apply for a visa online.

When you arrive at the airport, the biometric process is finished at an office just inside the building. Taxis are quite expensive, which is why renting a car is suggested as the best way of navigating the country. Abidjan has a few worthwhile sights to see and is a good base for the first day of your trip in Ivory Coast. Grand Bassam is only about an hour south of the capital and makes a great overnight stay as well.

Making shea butter in Northern Ghana.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Sightsee in Ghana

Ghana is the gem of West Africa and where you should spend most of your travel time. There’s great historical places along the coast, Mole National Park in the north, and the historical kingdom of Kumasi halfway between the two.

To get to Ghana from Ivory Coast, I paid my rental car company a little extra to let me drive to the Ghana border with their driver, who took the car back after dropping me off. On the Ghana side, my new driver picked me up and we began our trip. A guide/driver was about $100 per day. We paid a surcharge for fuel and a little extra to cross the Togo and Benin borders with him. Having a driver for your trip is really the only way to go. You have someone that can explain the history and the customs of the people. A good guide can take you into the market and let you try things you wouldn’t even notice, and he can take you to local restaurants for a fraction of what you’d normally spend.

We opted to drive along the coast and visit the stilt village near Takoradi, the slave castles at Elmina and Cape Coast, and Kakum National Park. On the way to Tamale, there’s a nice waterfall, an interesting monkey cemetery, and the fantastic market of Kumasi. You can stay in Mole National Park to take a morning safari and then fly to Accra from Tamale or head down the eastern road that runs to Ho Waterfall if you have the time. You can use the day that it takes your driver to catch up with you to explore Accra.

Fetish market in Lome, Togo.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Spend a night in Togo

Togo has a pretty straightforward crossing—get out of the car, fill out a few forms, wait for someone to stamp your passport. That’s about it.

Lome is vibrant and has the distinction of housing the world’s largest fetish market. That’s fetish as in voodoo objects: parts of animals used in rituals. You can sit down with a shaman and buy voodoo paraphernalia, or just walk around and take in the bat skeletons and dried lizards. Either way, you’ll get your IG-worthy photos.

Lome had the best hotel I stayed at in Africa, the Résidence Hôtelière Océane, as well as one of the best restaurants, La Route des Vins. It’s a good place to shake off the African funk if you need to decompress. Most travelers just follow the coast and do a night in Lome; others take a bus all the way through to Ghana. I definitely recommend a stop in this interesting little country.

Ganvie Stilt Village, Benin.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Visit Benin

Benin is where voodoo unofficially started. You can visit the python temple in Ouidah, a nearby sacred forest with wild statues, and attend a voodoo ceremony where the whole village turns out and puts on the show just for you.

As exciting as the voodoo sites are, I was more impressed with Ganvie, a colossal stilt house village built on the lake near Cotonou. Two days in Benin is about all you need to see its main sights. You should spend the night in Cotonou to gear up for the trip back to Lagos.

Lagos statue, Nigeria.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Back to Nigeria

Ghanaians have a mixture of competition and wariness about the country to their east. My guide was afraid of going to Nigeria and had never traveled there. In fact, you’re unlikely to find someone to take you from Ghana to Nigeria, but you can arrange for your transport at the border. You’ll find scores of taxis that do exactly that.

It was around $100 to have someone drive the four hours back to Lagos— flights for this tiny distance are astronomical, and bus rides are unpleasant. The taxi fee included all the bribes along the way. Within the first hour of crossing the border, I counted 27 stops by officials and at least 10 bribes. If you don’t pay the bribe, the police can look for something wrong with your car and delay you all day. There have been several instances in which drivers complained and were shot in remote areas. Bribes are usually under $1, but it is truly annoying to be stopped over and over again. It’s not a pretty drive, but once you’ve done it, you can add it to the list of things you never have to do again.

It took two weeks to make this trip with half of that in Ghana. It’s a pretty fast pace, but I don’t feel like I missed out on any major attractions. It’s a completely different experience than eastern or southern Africa, but it’s very interesting, and you’ll never have a dull moment.