SETTING THE SCENE
For many years I had wanted to visit Ghana. I have to say it started with the Black Stars incredible run at the 2010 Football World Cup. And as a HUGE history buff, I was fascinated by its modern history as the first country in Africa to gain its independence from European Colonialism led by their famed leader, Kwame Nkramah. The music (Afrobeats and Highlife) and food (that Fufu) was also a huge pull factor. Over a decade later, as I looked at the world map and which country I could visit that would be safe during COVID and would also give me the opportunity to see some neighboring countries, Ghana emerged as one of the top contenders.
LOCAL INSIGHTS: Through a close friend I was introduced to Carl, Hetty and Yolonda, all Ghanians who lived abroad but grew up in Ghana. They gave me some amazing insights of where to find the best music spots, restaurants/cafes, art scenes, what to see in terms of culture/history, and what to avoid. Basically the insiders guide on how to maximize a four-day visit to Accra. They also introduced me to Edward and David. Those guys lived in Accra and their company was super super invaluable to make my trip go from black & white to technicolor!
VISA: The first hurdle was the visa. Usually U.S. citizens can get a visa on arrival. That was of course before COVID. Now I had to do the following: (1) Fill out an online application with where I am staying and proof of my return ticket, (2) find a sponsor that would “invite” me to Ghana and include their information, (3) send a payment of $150 and my actual passport to the Embassy in Washington DC.
COVID PROTOCOLS: Final piece of the puzzle, COVID test. What a mission! I was in Lisbon, Portugal before the trip and after scouring the city finally found a testing spot it (parking lot of Lisbon Int’l Airport). 100 Euro in the hole but thankfully NEGATIVE. Now when you land in Accra they have to take an antigen test at the extortion price of $150!! No where else I’ve been charged that rate! After you get the results for that you are home free.
DATA PLAN: Now some other things I had to prepare: Set up a data plan so I had data when I got to Ghana. Again this was critical for google mapping, contacting taxis/ride-shares, meeting up with people etc.
ACCOMMODATIONS: I wanted something reasonable, central, safe, clean. David came through in a big way helping me find Urbano hotel. This modern hotel is located in Osu on Oxford Street smack in the middle of the city. It’s a great spot, clean, safe, super well located, solid customer service, and great rates. Note, nearer to the airport there is a modern quarter of the city that also has a good number of hotels.
FLIGHTS: My routing had a stopover through Casablanca from Lisbon arriving at 5AM. It was one of the cheaper options and flying Royal Air Maroc (RAM) is not a bad option. Note, United now has a direct flight from the East Coast. But there are quite a few options from Europe into Ghana as Accra is a hub for West African nations.
After getting into Accra, I decided to take a walk around the adjoining neighborhoods. I LOVE walking around to discover places (and it helps a lot with racking up my daily steps). This was the first time I was back in Africa in two years (last time was in August 2019 when I was in West Africa). So I needed some time to re-acclimate to the environment.
My first stop was a local restaurant where I was eager to try the Ghanian food I had heard so much about. In fact, one of the main pull factors to visit Ghana was the food. For example, Jollof rice is fire as it has a medley of flavors and works very well with meat and fish. So at my first restaurant, I was eager to try it. And I was not disappointed. That said, I was offered Shito sauce, a traditional dry fish paste with hot peppers. Wow does that take some getting used to! No one can say it didn’t give my Jollof a kick!
After lunch, I decided to take a long walk and a few things immediately struck me. Open sewer systems (watch where you are walking), tons of new developments (often undertaken by Chinese developers, a SUPER common sight throughout East and West Africa), and a tradition of creating banners and posters on almost every street corner with a sort of obituary for people that had recently passed. After asking around, it turns out this is a common practice to announce to the public who passed, who they were related to, and where you can attend their service.
I had to do a triple take when I saw this one, what a woman!
I want to give an honorable mention to Jamestown Coffee Company, where I went back a few times while in Accra. Great coffee, amazing customer service and a very nice atmosphere that felt safe and clean. Definitely recommend it as a place to post up, enjoy air conditioning and rejuvenate with some of the awesome cafe style delights
Eager to kick off the cultural part of my trip, I first went to the Kwame Nkrameh Memorial where the ‘Liberator of the Nation’ was buried alongside his Egyptian wife. Nkrumah was a heroic but controversial figure. While he effectively oversaw the independence of Ghana from British colonial rule, his policy, and tight grip over the people backfired, leading to a coup that resulted in his life-long exile. It was a fascinating park dedicated to him that also had his old touring presidential car and quite a few momentos during and after his rule of Ghana
Next I decided to walk to the historic Jamestown, which is where colonialists landed and began the occupation of Ghana. While the area is dotted full of various monuments, it was sadly in utter disrepair with dilapidated buildings, run down streets, and plenty of trash in the streets. Frankly I was one of very few tourists that had ventured alone to that side of town.
I ended the day meeting Edward (he’s from Tumo, just east of Accra). We went to Buka, one of the better restaurants for Ghanian food. Daring to try new foods I had another classic: Fufu and goat light soup, a quintessential dish of the Akan (a large ethnic group in Ghana). Fufu in Ghana is made by pounding a mixture of boiled cassava and plantains into a soft sticky paste (Edward showed me this video to give me a visual on how it is made), which goes with aromatic and spicy tomato soup or in this case goat! That was just the appetizer.
I then had Tilapia, a delicacy in Ghana, with Banku, a mix of fermented corn and cassava dough, and very hot pepper, diced tomatoes and onions. SPIIIICY!!
Edward had recommended I hire his friend Joe to show me some unique POIs outside of Accra. The goal was three fold: visit Tetteh Quarshie Cocoa Farm, check out the famous Aburi Gardens, and…well I’ll leave the last point of interest as a surprise!
Driving through the countryside was a relief from the hustle and bustle of Accra, although the traffic followed us for quite a while outside the city limits. The Aburi Gardens were honestly worth it, again probably because Accra can get overwhelming. Some incredible plants that are indigenous to Ghana, and well laid out. Look out for the random boneyard helicopter. Props who can tell me why it’s even there lol!
We then headed to the Cocoa farm. Named after Tetteh Quarshie who had traveled to Equatorial Guinea and brought back cocoa pods which he planted in Ghana in the 1870s and kicked off a new industry that has become one of Ghana’s main exports. What an incredible experience to see how cocoa is farmed and how chocolate is eventually made.
Did you know that the outside of the actual cocoa bean has a fine white film which tastes, no joke, like mango?!? Oh and did you know that parts of the bean actually, well help male virility?! And now you know…
The last part of the day was spent with one singular goal, finding the famous coffins of Ghana. Ok I know that sounds weird, but here’s the backstory. During COVID you may remember this classic meme of the dancing pallbearers …
Then as I dug deeper I found out they are in Ghana aaaand the coffins are not always rectangular, but come in a bunch of different /shapes designs that reflect the profession, passion or idiosyncrasies of the deceased. Let me illustrate the point, a teacher may be buried in a coffin in the shape of a book, a farmer in a chicken, a military officer in a gun etc. You have to see it to believe it! So I went on the hunt to find these famous coffin shops. And after hours of driving around in circles BINGO!! We found it
After a nice healthy breakfast at this cool, hip spot Kukun Cafe, I knew the day would be spent planning the next leg of my journey. That’s because I wanted to travel to Togo via the land border to explore the country and just experience the transit. For about 3-4 hours I was running around between the Togolese Embassy for a visa and a laissez passer (to cross by land hassle free) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Alas after going back and forth between officials and offices, it proved impossible to get the pass done in 24 hours especially in the time of COVID travel restrictions.
Already at a loss, I decided to make the best use of the rest of the day, and went to the Makola Market in the center of town. Wow, I mean EVERYTHING is sold here. Most goods, as I learned, were imported from China and sold in the market from kitchenware to clothes, artificial hair to school supplies
Taking a break from the madness, I started walking to the beach. I decided to test out my new drone (DJI Mavic 2) for the first time. It was so beautiful to be able to see and film the world around from that vantage point.
I then walked to the Black Star Square stopping at the famous Independence Arch.
That arch represented the independence from colonial rule, and the start of decolonization in Africa. Truly ground zero for the fight for rights from oppression, discrimination, racism.
As I later sat in that square taking it all in, saw a drone fly over me and I got tempted to fly my drone one more time for the day. So, I fired it up, and navigated it over to the arch to take a panoramic shot of it and the cityscape behind it at sunset. Immersed in what I was doing, I did not see a guy walking to me.
He asked if I had a permit. I said no. He demanded I bring the drone down as this was a high security area. Turns out I was near the Ministry of National Security and other government buildings. Let me preface this by saying again I had never flown the drone before outdoors. I had no clue about drone law. As I was to learn later, he was an off duty security official for the Presidential palace and he was determined to take me in for questioning.
I immediately apologized, told him I was a tourist, and he was free to delete the footage. He didn’t care and insisted he had to take me in. I asked him to show me his official ID and unless he did I would not go with him. Truth is, if someone is taking you into custody you should always ask for ID to make sure it’s a real official and you are not being kidnapped.
Long long story short. After looking through my drone, GoPro, iPhone, Apple Watch etc. the officials realized I was just a tourist and posed no national security risk. BUT I had to say I was fortunate. I had called David, who’s brother is a lawyer and he helped represent me with the officials. Also relations between Ghana and the U.S. are great so I was again fortunate to be carrying a U.S. passport. And of course I had no pictures, video or otherwise that was suspicious (See Travel Hacks for a serious takeaway).
Still shook up by the events from the day before, I decided to just take it easy on my last day and make sure to take out my friends who helped me the night before!
That afternoon I went with Edward to Afrikiko, a great super local Ghanian restaurant that served a buffet to get a sense of all the rest of the cuisine I had not tried, and had some awesome live local music.
I left and went on a walk around town, stopping by the parliament and then to check out the street art.
I then decided to do my usual run. In terms of context, I have been running through different countries and locales since I trained for the NYC Marathon in summer 2015 [IG @globalfitnesshz]. So that night I went on a nice and sweaty run through Labone.
My final stop that day was to take David and his family to Zen Garden and see some incredible local musicians singing Highlife and Afrobeat that pumped up restaurant goers! I’m glad I experienced the music live because it’s simply electrifying and truly captivating to see the local dance moves! Really put a big smile on my face
After spending three days in Togo I returned back to Ghana for a long layover of sorts. Of course I got hit with another $150 Antigen test even though I had a COVID test from Togo. But I made the best of it. I connected with some more friends of friends in Ghana that night and we all went to get one of the best Catfish in town. Absolutely delicious and I found myself using my hands to tear through the flesh of the fish and fight through the pain of the spice and heat, because honestly who knew catfish could be so good!
Since I had a few more hours before I had to head to the airport, I decided to finish my Africa trip chilling in a local Middle Eastern cafe Moka’s Resto Cafe, which had some of the best hookah I’ve had in a long time and great food. If you want a place to post up and enjoy good food in a nice setting this is your spot.
I closed down the place and then made my way to the airport. A few hours later I was on my flight back to Lisbon via Casablanca
Ghana was everything I expected and more. I packed the trip and felt like I did a good job seeing the capital on foot and getting a feel for the rich culture, music and food of the country. But above all, it was the people that made this trip. In the four days I was there, I had dinners each night with different groups of Ghanians, learning first hand about everything from local politics to sports and everything in between
I couldn’t be more grateful to the people I met, especially in helping me through that thorny situation. Honestly, you Gotta Love Ghana!
CREDIT CARD: When you travel, really try to tell your credit card company that you may be making charges in the countries you plan to go to. Also its key to have the fraud number of your credit card company in case charges are declined and you can quickly resolve it. For example while booking my flight to Togo, I had 4 transactions declined but I resolved it when I called the company in the U.S.
FOREX & ATMs: Go to an ATM in the airport (which tends to be more secure than in the city) and withdraw cash so you can have cash on hand to make payments to taxis for example when you are leaving the airport. If you don’t see an ATM or prefer to go to an exchange office, use the xe.com app to see the current rates and try to find an exchange office that is at or near that exchange rate. Also another thing I do is I have a secondary bank (in my case, Capital One) where I have a free checking account. In that account, I put just enough cash before leaving so that when I use it on foreign ATMs and if it gets hacked, then they can’t access my savings.
AIRPORT CABS: Side note on cabs when you land. (1) Ask the Information Desk (or tourist office) at the airport the typical cost of a cab to your location. Also ask if they have a reliable ride share app, and if so download it and set it up. If there is no one at the desk, then ask the taxi coordinator outside and if that person is not there then ask a few cabs to get an idea of prices. (2) Try to get on wifi and log into Google Maps so you can see the actual distance and track where you are going so they don’t take you in circles.
HIRING DAY DRIVER: If you don’t rent a car, and the public transportation has you confused or worried, then your next best (but expensive) option is hiring a driver for the day. This person can take you around for let’s say 6-8 hours to a number of different locations. It’s far safer, far more efficient and you get the benefit of a locals perspective on POIs (make sure to ask your hotel for someone so you don’t end up in a bad situation). I try to keep this cost to about $80-$100 a day.
RIGHTS WHEN QUESTIONED: After getting questioned for the drone, here are my main takeaways: (1) If your phone and electronics are confiscated make sure you ask that they review all the devices in front of you. You never know if someone decides to put images or content on your device’s memory card that are not yours. (2) Read up on your rights in the country you are visiting just in case you run into trouble with the authorities. (3) Make sure you have the contact details of your embassy and if possible locals that can help in a bind. (4) Tell your family/friends when you travel abroad so they can track you and follow-up if they have not heard from you (in fact share your live location with someone in case you go MIA and they can pinpoint where you are).
WIKIPEDIA/BLOGS: Now here is something else I have been doing for years to become more educated before embarking on a trip. I read the Wikipedia page of the country I am visiting, focusing on history, economics, culture, music, food that are all nicely laid out on the country’s wikipedia page. And in terms of sightseeing, I cross reference advice on places to see, with several blogs, local websites, youtube accounts, and when possible old school guide books! While I like to be spontaneous on my travels, I still tend to over-research and prepare so I avoid missing and regretting later. I then mark everything in a note on my phone as a checklist and make amends as the time on the ground plays itself out.