Ghana

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West Africa's stable, safe, and enthusiastically friendly nation

If gold medals were given to the world's friendliest peoples, Ghanaians would definitely be semifinalists. Travelers to Ghana are met with jovial smiles and waves, even in the big cities. Everywhere you go, young people often sing out the word obruni! (foreigner) in a fun-loving manner; they are obviously happy you came.

Although located in the sometimes politically troubled region of West Africa, Oregon-sized Ghana is a far-removed democratic model of stability and tranquility. Nearly 100 diverse tribes are found within its border, but peace-loving Ghanaians have never experienced any major tribal wars. Moreover, Ghana's Christians and its Muslim minority live side by side in harmony, often within the same tribe.

Best of all, Ghana's prices are joyfully cheap: Simple hotel rooms can cost as little as $5 per person, soft drinks are only $.20, and museum fees are an astonishing $3 or less. At one point, two Ghanaian friends and I recently enjoyed dinner with drinks, and the bill totaled $7 for all of us!

Accra, Ghana's capital city of two million, has less crime than many U.S. cities its size. Pickpockets, taxi drivers who overcharge, and traffic are the worst culprits most tourists will ever have to deal with. Even though it's an achingly poor country, the locals proudly declare, "Ghana is a nation of laws." English-speaking Ghana is one of the most popular destinations for American tourists to Africa who do the "triangle tour" of Accra, the coastal slave fortresses, and the Ashanti city of Kumasi. But other wonders lie beyond, like Lake Volta (the world's largest artificial lake) and the timeless, arid northern regions. No matter where you go, the magic, struggles, and enduring spirit of modern Africa are sure to hold you in their spell.

Note: To call Ghana, dial 011-233 before the numbers listed below. The hotels listed without prices in cedis (Ghana's currency) request payment in U.S. dollars only.

Colorful, frenetic Accra

Travelers who have never experienced the lively mayhem of a developing country may be in for a shock when they come face to face with Accra's hustle and bustle. Women with towering loads atop their heads weave through traffic; hand-painted beer ads shout, "It Gives You Power"; sellers rush up to cars plying anything from pirated videos to toilet paper; and overloaded outdoor markets selling chickens and underwear spill out onto highways. It's a colorful, frantic jumble that somehow works.

If you can handle crowds, then by all means slip into one of Accra's markets. The largest one, Makola Market (between Kojo Thompson Road, Kinbu Road, and Independence Avenue) has everything including beads and fabrics. For tourists, you'll find the best choice of arts and crafts at the Arts Centre market (right on the coast along 28th February Road near the intersection of Barnes Road). Aggressive sellers offer anything from smoking pipes to hand-carved stools--bargaining is essential.

As for other sights, the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park (on High Street near the intersection of Barnes Road; 30,000 cedis/$3.40 entrance fee) is a grand monument to this leader, complete with crypt, museum, and garish fountains. The small museum is a fascinating glimpse into the country's founding father, who wrote numerous books and laid the groundwork of Pan-Africanism. East of the park is the Soviet-style Independence Square, a huge space with cement arches that can hold up to 30,000 people.

Also swing by the National Museum (Barnes Road near Museum Circle; 21/221-633) to take in Ghana's rich cultural heritage. For a scant 10,000 cedis ($1.15), you can peruse fascinating trinkets like intricate gold weights and gold dust boxes, clan staffs, fertility dolls, swords, currency, bracelets, and more.

To escape the flurry of Accra, hop into a taxi (for roughly 25,000 cedis/$3.25 depending on the time of day) and head for Labadi Beach. This spacious strand is safe for swimming and is lined by pleasant cafes where you can sip on 2,000-cedi ($.25) soft drinks, sitting in a chair in the sand. The entrance fee to the beach is only 10,000 cedis ($1.15).

Beverly Hills Hotels and Lemon Lodges

Here are my lodging picks in ascending order of cost, starting with the cheapest:

The residential Asylum Down area of Accra is a quiet refuge from the city's hopping streets, but still close to the action. Safe and tranquil, it's the recommended area to stay in Accra. For intrepid backpacker types, the pink-walled Lemon Lodge (2nd Mango Tree Avenue; 21/227-857) is not nearly as bad as its name may imply: seven basic double rooms with cement floors, double beds, private baths, and ceiling fans go for a laughable 54,000 cedis ($6) a night per person.

Right next door to the Lemon Lodge, the Korkdam Hotel (21/226-797, 21/223-221) is for more mainstream travelers. Twenty-one large and clean rooms come with private baths, air-conditioning, and TVs for 310,000 cedis ($35) per person per night. Fully cooked breakfasts are available in the hotel's dining room for only 17,000 cedis ($2.20).

Another good value in Asylum Down is the Beverly Hills Hotel (21/224-042) at the intersection of Samora Machel Road and Farrar Road. Although the street is busy, the hotel's 12 simple rooms are serene, cost $30 per person, and include air-conditioning, private bath, TV, and radio. Slightly larger rooms with all that and a fridge cost $40 per person. Breakfast is available upon request for 27,000 cedis ($3).

The nearby Gye Nyame Hotel (Ring Road; 21/223-221) offers 180,000-cedi ($20.25) per-person rooms with all those amenities in a carpeted two-story building, complete with a bronze African statue in front and a cozy wood-paneled dining room, where cooked breakfasts are a mere 20,000 cedis ($2.25).

Coastal castles and friendly fishermen

During the slave trade of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, millions of human beings were shipped in chains from West Africa and funneled through Ghana's coastal slave fortresses. Often up to half perished in dungeons like animals. Visiting these huge structures (most are UNESCO World Heritage sites) has the emotional impact of stepping into a WWII concentration camp--many visitors simply break down into tears.

One of the most impressive is the Cape Coast Castle, roughly 90 miles west of Accra. Begun as a lodge by the Dutch in 1627, this white castle towers over Cape Coast town, and houses a superb museum on Ghana history and culture (built with help of the Smithsonian). The entrance fee is a mere 30,000 cedis ($3.40).

The best place to stay near Cape Coast is the unique Han's Cottage Botel (Kakum National Park Road; 42/336-23), about a 15-minute drive away. Thirty rooms (doubles ranging from 133,000 to 310,000 cedis/$15-$35) are situated next to a man-made pond filled with live crocodiles, and you dine on inexpensive meals (30,000 cedis each/$3.40) served on open-air, thatched-roof decks built over the water, with live music on the weekends.

Another 20 minutes north of Han's is the breathtaking Kakum National Park, not to be missed. This lush outdoor attraction is a mixture of rain forest and semideciduous forest, with 250-foot trees from the silk cotton family jutting high up above the canopy to create a dreamlike landscape. The highlight of Kakum is the 1,000-foot-rope-and-cable walkway strung up hundreds of feet above the forest floor-not for the faint of heart. Knowledgeable guides teach visitors about the endangered wildlife and are included in the park entrance fee (90,000 cedis/$10.10).

A 15-minute drive west of Cape Coast is the oldest and largest European structure in sub-Saharan Africa: St. George's Castle in friendly Elmina (entrance 30,000 cedis/$3.40). First built in 1482, Christopher Columbus visited it before he sailed to America. Around the monumental castle, you can watch fishermen chant while dragging their colorful boats ashore.

In Elmina, stay in the Coconut Grove Bridge House (42/345-57) right across the street from the castle. Ten spiffy rooms reside in a two-story stone house, with single rooms starting at $40, going up to double rooms for $45 per person per night (rates include continental breakfast). Meals like fried chicken and rice cost 31,000 cedis ($3.50). Guests can utilize the pool and sports facilities at the nearby Coconut Grove Beach Resort for free.

Another 70 miles west of Elmina is the coastal resort village of Busua. The main hotel here, the Busua Beach Resort (31/212-10), is a collection of individual chalets (more like nice cabins) that start at $50 a night per person. But its budget rooms with shared bathroom for $10 per person ($20 for air-conditioned) are a real deal, since they are nearly as cozy and modern. What's more, the hotel's beach is one of the best in Ghana.

Kumasi: Heart of the Ashanti

One hundred or so miles north of Cape Coast is the capital of the Ashanti Region: the hilly, colonial city of Kumasi, a gold and timber center. It took the avaricious British four wars to finally conquer the brave Ashanti in 1900. But the Ashanti culture is still strong and dominates other tribes in Ghana (their language, Twi, is the country's lingua franca, along with English). In 1687, legend has it that a golden stool and sword descended from heaven, establishing the Ashanti kingdom. Even now, the golden stool is kept secure and brought out only for special ceremonies--the sword is still visible, thrust into the ground at the Okomfo Anokye Teaching Hospital.

Kumasi is full of colonial buildings decorated with terraces and columns, and the thriving, massive Kejetia Market is said to be one of the largest on the continent, covering over 24 acres in the center of the city with thousands of vendors--don't venture in unless you have plenty of time and patience. Your search could be rewarded with finds like Ashanti sandals, Muslim smocks, even smoked monkey meat.

The National Culture Centre off Bantana Road and the Manhyia Palace Museum off Antoa Road both house excellent exhibitions of Ashanti artifacts (15,000 cedi/$1.70 entrance fees), but for the real thing, visit the crafts villages that surround Kumasi in a loop. For 80,000 cedis ($10.45), a taxi will take you on the 45-minute drive to three rustic villages: Bonwire, where skilled men weave multicolored kente cloth on large wooden looms; Ahwiaa, famous for its mahogany wood carvers; and best of all, Ntonso, where the vivid adinkra cloth is stamped with special symbols sacred to the Ashanti people. Although slightly touristy, no place encapsulates Ghana's vigorous culture as well as these humble hamlets.

In Kumasi, stay at the Justice Hotel (Accra Road, 51/225-25), a two-story cement building that is cozier inside than it looks from the outside. With 38 rooms and a patio restaurant, the Justice is a quiet reprieve from Kumasi, and rates are only 133,500 ($15) per person for a double with private bath and fan, or 160,000 cedis ($18) for an air-conditioned double. Simple breakfasts are 4,000 cedis ($.50).

Jofel's on the Airport Roundabout (51/212-13) is probably Kumasi's best restaurant, large and roomy with African dishes ranging from 30,000-40,000 cedis ($3.40-$4.50), and fried golden lobster or shrimps for around 30,000 cedis ($3.40).

The far, dry north

Fewer tourists venture into the north of Ghana, which is less developed but just as fascinating. The terrain is arid, the roads caked with red dust, and round mud-hut villages dot the landscape as they did thousands of years ago.

Tamale in the northeast is an interesting contrast to Accra, and makes a good base for exploring the north. It's a sleepy city where men play cards under trees, and women pound fufu in large carved-out bowls with wooden pestles. Picorna Hotel (71/226-72) is Tamale's best, run by friendly folks with first-class service. Rooms start at 126,000 cedis/$14.20 while fancier ones with air-conditioning and TVs are 236,000 cedis ($26.50). Its entertainment space holds live events.

A two-and-a-half-hour drive directly east of Tamale is the Mole National Park, known for its wildlife. You can arrange for a taxi to drive you from Tamale to Mole and back for 350,000 cedis ($45.75) for up to four passengers. The entrance into Mole National Park is 45,000 cedis ($5) per person, and there's the rather solitary Mole Hotel (71/722-014) on the cliffs of the park with 30 chalets for 130,000 cedis ($14.60) per person a night, or you can camp for 20,000 cedis ($2.60). Park rangers armed with rifles (to scare off the odd lion) lead visitors on bush hikes costing an astounding 5,000 cedis ($.65) per hour. Surprisingly good meals (for being out in the boondocks) are provided at the hotel for about 25,000 cedis ($3.25), and you can take a dip in the swimming pool for 10,000 cedis ($1.30). You might spot elephants, baboons, jackals, warthogs, hyenas, and crocodiles at the park.

Just outside the park's entrance is the tiny town of Larabanga, famous for its thirteenth-century mud mosque (10,000 cedis/$1.12 is requested to see it). The stunning white structure is said to house the oldest known copy of the Koran in West Africa. Kids smile and tug at your clothes, while elderly women dry tobacco in the mud courtyards. Have a local show you the Sacred Stone nearby. This rock kept mysteriously reappearing in the middle of the road during its construction, so they finally built the highway in a curve around it. Peering at the hazy savanna descending below the stone, you can't help but be engulfed by the mystical atmosphere that forever permeates the land of Ghana.

Mind your Ghanaian manners

Dashes (tips) are a way of life in Ghana. Rather than calling it a bribe, a dash is a tip that may be requested by anyone from train conductors who seat you to youngsters who may run errands for you. Seen as gifts, dashes will ease your way through Ghana immensely, and are usually about 5,000 cedis ($.67). When taking photos, always ask the person beforehand, and you may be asked to give a dash as well.

Always shake hands and pick up food with your right hand, since the left is used to perform other personal functions.

When traveling with another person of the same sex, you are often required to rent separate hotel rooms. However, unmarried mixed-sex couples have no problem.

When meeting a chief or village elder, always lower yourself or bow with your knees to show respect.

Learning a few words of Twi (akwaaba means welcome) will make you a big hit among Ghanaians. Be sure to always smile and wave to strangers--everyone loves it and invariably waves back.

The nitty gritty

Pack lightly: Weather in both Ghana's tropical south and arid north is warm year-round.

Getting there: Ghana Airways (212/371-2800) offers weekly flights from New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore to Accra--the only airline offering nonstops from the U.S. to Ghana. Round trips cost around $1,200, or alternatively, call Silicon Tours (205/821-3886, silicontours.com) for its dirt-cheap air-and-land packages to Ghana that include daily tours and accommodations for around $1,900 for nine nights, including airfare from the United States. 2Afrika (877/200-5610, 2afrika.com) also offers personalized, inexpensive tours to Ghana and West Africa.

Transportation: Tro-tros (the main transportation within Ghana) are minivans that pack passengers in like sardines and go most everywhere for a buck or less. But due to their lack of schedules, frequent breakdowns, and agonizingly sluggish rides, hiring a taxi is recommended instead, especially for long distances. The cost is still minimal, you have a built-in guide, and you'll arrive in half the time than a tro-tro would require. Ask your hotel how much the fare to where you're going should be, and settle on a price with the driver before getting in. Rental cars are not recommended because of their cost ($45 per day) and Ghana's poor roads.

Other transportation options include the sleeper train from Kumasi to the coastal town of Takoradi (50,000 cedis/$7). For the truly adventurous, the cargo ship Yapei Queen (251/206-86) sails up Lake Volta once a week, stopping at remote villages. The boat has three unpretentious cabins for 60,000 cedis ($8)--reserve as far in advance as possible.

Required reading: Be sure to pick up a copy of the brilliant novel The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah for a glimpse into the country's modern psyche.

For general information and news on Ghana: Surf to ghanaweb.com and ghana.com.

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