Off the beaten path in Africa
June 19, 2014 4:40 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking to take a 2-week trip in Africa, to somewhere that can be a good introduction to the area. Current short-list is Kenya, Ghana, or South Africa. Where would you recommend to go?

I want to get a sense of what the country is like and experience new things while I’m there, and generally have a rich experience. I’d like to spend some time in cities, but mostly off the beaten path in villages and that sort of thing—and preferably somewhere relatively safe.

I’m curious to hear where you would recommend. If you’ve been: what were your favorite countries and favorite experiences? Thanks!
posted by markbao to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I want to get a sense of what the country is like and experience new things while I’m there, and generally have a rich experience. I’d like to spend some time in cities, but mostly off the beaten path in villages and that sort of thing—and preferably somewhere relatively safe.

Maybe you could go into a bit more detail here? What does a "Rich" experience mean to you?

Hmmm, I will say that in my experience, you will have a "rich" time in Africa, in the sense that doing stuff can often be quite expensive - especially if you want to do it safely. This is especially the case in Kenya, where the economy is really built around rich tourists. Al-Shabab issues aside, this means that it's effectively impossible (in my opinion) to live like a local - unless you mean a white local, in which case yes you can live as part of an expensive, cloistered elite. Everything about you will mark you as a foreigner, and someone with orders of magnitude more money than the average joe.

I have not been to South Africa extensively, but to Namibia, which is similar in some ways and different in others. Again, very hard to find village-y stays there - cheap accommodation is backpacker stuff in the major centers. I would imagine this is true for the vast majority of Africa - there is no accomodation in villages because people don't visit villages.

That all being said, there are many, many tourist-orientated "home stay" options available in all three of your countries. These can vary greatly, but there are some terrific ones that are really focussed around bringing money back into the community. They are not necessarily cheap, and authenticity can vary a lot but I know you can do homestays with bushmen in the kalahari or himba in the north in Namibia. You can go to several Maasai homestays in Kenya (coincidentally it's the safest part of the country atm). Other tribes in Kenya don't go in for it so much.

I know almost nothing about Ghana. Best of luck, I loved every second of my travels in Namibia, and many of them in Kenya.
posted by smoke at 7:39 PM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might want to rethink Kenya. There has been a bunch of terrorist activity there lately, threats and bombings, etc. The State Department issued a pretty strongly worded warning just this past day.

If you want to see east Africa, Uganda or Tanzania might be a better choice. I have only been to Uganda, although I've been there numerous times. I love the country, I am biased. I have heard great things about Ethiopia. I am certain you could have a wonderful time in South Africa, but that is a quite different place. Africa contains multitudes - if you were more specific about the rich experiences you're looking for it might be easier to advise you.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:25 PM on June 19, 2014

Go to South Africa. Places like Lesotho and Plett Bay and Sodwana Bay and Aliwal Shoal (I learned to scuba dive in ZA, so I'm biased to those last three places) have fewer tourists and are beautiful. I've also heard great things about Camps Bay and other parts of the Wild Coast, but I have only driven through quickly.

South Africa is beautiful and I've never regretted a minute or rand spent there.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:47 PM on June 19, 2014

I’m curious to hear where you would recommend. If you’ve been: what were your favorite countries and favorite experiences? Thanks!

posted by Mister Bijou at 1:22 AM on June 20, 2014

South Africa has the most tourist infrastructure, especially Cape Town. With a hired car it's also not too hard to leave the city and head out into the country for a bit either along the Garden Route to the Eastern Cape, into the interior or up the West Coast.
posted by PenDevil at 3:04 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you would enjoy Ghana. It's not a 'hard' country, if only because of the English colonial past; many people speak decent English there. It's also a relatively well-off country, meaning that there is plenty of good food and you're not coming over to gawk at other people's misery. Yet it's not overly touristic.

There are lovely markets and interesting cities; I can recommend Kumasi.
Mole park is good for seeing wildlife. It's nice to stay in the village Larabanga near the entrance if you want to see what village life is like. Stay with the Salia brothers. They offer simple and pleasant accomodation. No plumbing though, as far as I know, but you wanted a rich experience, right?

There is also a wonderful rain forest park called Kakum. And Ghana has great beaches.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:16 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree that you would have to do a risk assessment when it came to travel in Kenya. I myself would probably still go but I would stay away from cities and the coast... but I'm familiar with the country - it might not be worth the stress for you. One possibility would be to go to Uganda, which is very safe and easy to travel in, without a ton of built-up tourist infrastructure. You could bus around and go rafting on the Nile. It's pretty fucking gorgeous.

Alternatively, you could fly to South Africa and do a road trip up the Wild Coast, ending up at the Bulungula Eco-Lodge, which is one of the most stunning places I've ever been.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:15 AM on June 20, 2014

Most of my experience is in North and East Africa. I second or nth Uganda, and have heard many many great things about tourism in Rwanda--wish I'd gone there. I've also been to Tanzania (travelled there from Uganda) and really enjoyed Zanzibar, but I don't think you'll get two weeks out of just that island unless you just want to chill out. You can visit one or two countries in East Africa in that amount of time, if you plan carefully. I worked in Djibouti for about a year, and as such I spent a goodly amount of time in Ethiopia, which is a great place to have lots of different sorts of experiences, both in the capital and beyond. I found Uganda and Tanzania much easier to get around, and felt safer in those places than in Ethiopia, but I still loved it.

Really though, Africa is such a wildly diverse continent, and within countries and even regions and cities, no one can plan to have a certain monolithic experience. You really have to work out your comfort level with certain kinds of travel, lodging and food, and whether you're okay with making your own arrangements and getting around on your own, or relying on a tour company or travel agent. I always traveled independently by necessity on a flexible schedule and a tight budget--eating local food, navigating public transport and buying long distance train/bus tickets hours or even minutes in advance-- and therefore probably had way different experiences than someone who could have tours arranged, stay in nicer hotels and hire a driver (most of which I'd probably do if I go back). So, a lot of what you come away with can depend on your budget as well as location.
posted by sundaydriver at 7:16 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've spent decent amounts of time in Ghana and South Africa and a lengthier period of time in Kenya. I've also visited Uganda and Tanzania (and Djibouti and Nigeria- both are eye-openers, but for different reasons. I don't recommend either for a first trip to Africa).

I would also rule out Kenya right now. Although locals are less concerned about the terrorist acts and threats than visitors, it's really an unpredictable place right now for the safety reasons described above. Otherwise, Kenya would be my first choice. It's an incredible place. I don't know if you can dig into the culture in 2 weeks (it took me 2 months to get to the tip of the iceberg), but you will enjoy it.

Ghana is a wonderful place and a real example of a rising African nation. It is farther behind than Kenya, which may allow you to tap into the culture more easily. Further, the people in West Africa tend to be friendlier than East Africans, so that could help too.

If you do South Africa, I wouldn't do Cape Town, unless you want to experience what life is like for the decendents of European settlers who moved to South Africa. Don't get me wrong- Cape Town is one of the most gorgeous places I've ever been to and I would vacation there in a heartbeat. The wine and scenery are amazing and the cost of things once you arrive is very low. However, if you close your eyes, you could almost be in any Western-ish nation around the world. Not a great example of "real Africa." Other parts of South Africa provide a better example (maybe not Jo'burg, but some of the less urban areas).

Uganda and Tanzania are both very interesting places. Between the two, I probably favor Uganda, but it depends what your interests are. I've also heard great things about Rwanda, but never been.

Good luck!
posted by superfille at 8:15 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been to Ghana and South Africa, but not Kenya. If you really want to be out of the way and still feel relaxed, I would take Ghana over South Africa, personally.
- Safety situation is much better in Ghana (in general) than South Africa (in general).
- Ghana is small enough that you can feel you are "lost" in the country without being more than one very long trip to be back in the city
- Ghana is small enough you can see all over within a normal vacation time. South Africa is huge!

For specific places, I recommend seeing Cape Coast (one of Ghana's outposts for slave trade, lots of fishing there now), Kumasi (Kumasi Magazine is one of the biggest craftsmen markets you could find. These guys make bolts by hand!!), The Kakum Forest (gets tourists, but is quite out there), the Asakwomba Dam (nerd tourism), Akropong on the way to Asakwomba from Accra (first cocoa tree in Ghana! Plus it's a very nice small town, but bigger than a village), and even Aflao (it's a beach town). This is mostly on/near the coast, but all are very accessible, so I"ll stick with those recommendations.

If you are ready for something more adventurous than that, you can catch a state bus or a tro-tro (combi) further north. You can do safari stuff like in South Africa, but it's much cheaper in Ghana. Further north and you get to areas that are desert! There are many cultures mixed up in one small country, and they live more or less well alongside each other. Everywhere you go, people celebrate things outside, so you will find it easy to be invited into special events: weddings, funerals, parades... The beaches are beautiful, but I met very, very few Ghanaians who knew how to swim.

Should Ghana not be enough for you, hit the land border to Togo and see how different that is. Ghana was colonized by the English, Togo by the French, and you can see how it has affected their cultural and political situations to the present day. Very very interesting trip, that.

Anyway, I used to live in Ghana, and can highly recommend it for this kind of trip!
posted by whatzit at 11:37 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rent a car and drive down the garden route between Durbin and Cape Town in South Africa. Definitely make a stay in Sani Pass if you can and Knysna.
posted by floweredfish at 1:31 PM on June 20, 2014

Response by poster: Love these ideas. Thank you all so much!
posted by markbao at 1:49 PM on June 20, 2014

I've never been to Ghana, but I have spent a little bit of time in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda. I have friends living in South Africa and Kenya. Judging from my limited knowledge, Ghana would be the best choice for what you want to do.

Kenya has a lot of bucket list things, but judging from what my friends say, the security situation is a little worrisome. I liked Rwanda, but it was difficult because I don't speak French, and the culture seemed more staid than what I saw in other African countries. Uganda was a easier, helped by the fact that it's also a former English colony, but overall not all that exciting to me. I didn't spend enough time in Tanzania to really form an opinion, mostly hitting the beaches in Zanzibar.

The impression I get from friends in South Africa is that it wouldn't provide the transporting experience that you seem to be seeking. As someone remarked earlier, the safe parts are too much like any city in the Western world, and parts that are too different aren't very safe.

The people I've known who have visited Ghana spoke highly about their experience, and they were relatively inexperienced travelers.
posted by Borborygmus at 7:27 AM on June 21, 2014

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