Many countries in West Africa are well off the beaten path. Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso are no exception. It seems that the further we get from the normal tourist trail, the more difficult it is to find information about a place.
So, we’re planning our trip to West Africa with Lonely Planet!
When I searched the internet for travel advice and information I found almost nothing. There’s a handful of blog posts, but that’s it. Plus, I haven’t found a single thing on traveling to West Africa with kids. I’m sure someone’s done it at some point, but no one’s written about it.
Trip Advisor has a grand total of 17 activities for the entire country of Togo. It says there’s 21, but if you count em up, there’s only 17!! There are 26 things to do in Benin (although it says 31!), and 20 in Burkina Faso (it says 30!!). A handful of these attractions have no reviews or information associated with them.
I enjoyed reading the reviews, but there just wasn’t enough information to really plan the trip.
The Lonely Planet chapters for each country are small, but they’re packed with information.
I always flip straight to the “Survival Guide” section to start.
There’s a Canadian Embassy in Burkina Faso, but not in Benin or Togo. Hopefully we’ll never need an embassy, but I always like to know where the closest one is located. All three countries have a US embassy, so I’m sure if we really needed we could always go there. I’ve got the addresses written down in my little document holder.
The West African CFA Franc is the currency in all three countries, making money exchange relatively easy for us. One of the key things to look for in this section is the best currency to exchange. I’m in the habit of brining US$, however since these countries are former French colonies, the best currency for exchange is the Euro. The other important thing to note is that VISA ATMs are common, but MasterCard are not. I usually have a MC as our back-up bank card, so we’ll have to bring something else for this trip!
I LOVE Lonely Planet for their amazing Visa information. I could google all day long and not find the same information I get from a LP book in about 2 min! It’s the only place I found info on the Visa des Pays de l’Entente, one Visa that’s valid for all 3 countries (plus Niger and Cote d’Ivoire). It’s available in Lome and Ouagadougou, but not Benin. This means that Benin definitely won’t be our first stop! I also use the info about Visas for Onward Travel. It includes the price, processing time and what’s needed for Visas for the bordering countries.
Of the three countries we’re visiting, Togo is the only one offering a Visa on Arrival. This, combined with the fact that we should be able to get our Visa des Pays de l’Entente within 24hours, is how I decided to make Lome the first stop on our trip!
Since we like to get ourselves around a country, this section is incredibly important!! There’s not a large public transport network in West Africa. There are a few buses for longer journeys but most short transportation is via Bush Taxi. I’m happy to be prepared for this before going! It’s nice to have an idea of how frequent transportation is also. This way you’ll know how flexible you can be, and how much time you can expect it to take to travel between destinations.
After the Survival Guide I read “Understanding…(insert country here)”
The background on these countries is brief, just like the rest of the information, but it’s better than nothing. It’s enough to give an idea of the political situation and stability of the country, as well as the history, religion, arts, food and environment.
I like to know which religions dominate in different regions to ensure I dress appropriately. I also like to do a bit of research into any regional religions that I might not know much about, such as Voodoo in Togo and Benin, and animism in Burkina Faso. This helps me to be more open to experiencing new things because I’m at least a bit prepared ahead of time.
The Arts section gives me an idea of what kinds of souvenirs might be representative of the region. I do better if I’m looking for something specific rather than being sucked in or overwhelmed by thousands of different choices, many of which are the same in any tourist shop in the world! On my list are an Ewe Kente cloth in Togo, cire perdue figures in Benin, masks or leatherwork from Burkina.
Food & Drink
This might be the most important section in the whole book for me! I love food, and I love eating local. A cheat sheet with the names of some of the main dishes and what they are will help me remember what I want to eat. Plus, it’s easier to try something new if I know what I’m eating! I’ll write some of these down and tuck it in my wallet so I know what I’m looking for.
Randy likes to know the names of the local beer. I’m not a beer drinker, but he likes to at least try some of the local brew.
I don’t use much of the info from this section, but it often highlights any environmental concerns in the region. I think being aware of these concerns helps to guide better-informed decisions when we’re in the country.
Finally, I plan the trip.
Where to Stay
I use Lonely Planet as a guide to learn what types of accommodation can be found at different price points. For Africa I want to know how much more it’s going to cost for Air Conditioning, and which cities seem to have the cheapest A/C option! I think we’ll need it at least at every second stop. If I know where the cheaper options are I can coordinate our fan rooms vs A/C rooms accordingly.
I write down the name, address and phone number of a couple of the hotels or guest houses that look good, and if we arrive in a city and need a place in a pinch we have some info.
Where to Eat
We typically like to find street food and local food wherever we go. There are a few local restaurants that come highly rated so I’ll write those down and then ask about them at our guesthouse or hotel once we arrive. At least I have a starting point and then can ask a local if it’s worth it or not!
What to Do
This is where Lonely Planet is worth it’s weight in gold. In these small countries it seems that almost every “touristy” activity is in the book. Some are just in little boxes tucked up in the corner of the page, but they’re there! I’ve been able to narrow down where we want to go, and what we want to do in each location. This is what I have it narrowed down to:
Togo (South) – Lome Market, Village Tour
Benin – (South) Ouidah Slave Castle, Ganvie Stilt Village, (North) Pendjari National Park, Village Tour
Togo (North) – possibly back to Kara and Koutammakou (or the Northern villages in Benin)
Burkina Faso – Bukhara, Banfora
Have you been to Togo, Benin or Burkina Faso? What else should we be doing?
How do you plan your trips to an “off the beaten path” location?