Burkina Faso travel guide
A world away from the dry savanna and scrubland that is most of Burkina Faso, the south-west is rocky, lush and green. It's not surprising that this is the most popular destination for visitors. A dozen kilometres to the north-west of the town Banfora is one of Burkina's loveliest spots, the upper falls of Cascades de Karfiguela - a favourite spot for locals to chill and swim. Just 3 km to the east are the Dômes den Fabedougou; climbable sand cliffs formed as scores of basilica-like domes by water erosion. Directly west of Banfora, circa 7 km, is Tengréla Lac, where it's possible to take a pirogue ride and, with luck, spot a hippo. Renting an old moped in Banfora itself is probably the town's most amusing pass time and the best way of getting to the surrounding sights.
Known simply as Bobo to its friends, Burkina's second city, Bobo-Dioulasso is a surprisingly lively place given is relatively small size. The town's unique mix of different peoples has made it a cultural hub – especially for music. Thus it's the country's tradition music centre, and the many bars around town do their best for the city to keep this alive. On any given night, it should be possible to find live music playing at, at least, one of the town's venues and on weekends it'll be difficult to get around to see everything. For the ultimate cultural fix seek out a concert with a balafon (wooden xylophone) orchestra. During day-time, the most interesting site in town is the old Vieille Mosquée from 1880 and the surrounding old neighbourhood.
Some Lobi traditions are disappearing fast. Women no longer wear the discs plugged through their lips which used to be so admired; traditional building techniques are giving way to Western-style brick building. However, one highly enjoyable tradition is not going anywhere: the Lobi people's socialising over drinking. Cabarets are often no more than a courtyard with a few benches where women are brewing chapalo and pito – bittersweet millet beer served fresh and lukewarm from the pot in small calabash bowls. Here hours are withered away in pleasant and welcoming conversation, and locals are happy to see foreigners to participate. Both men and women frequent these happy places, which is a refreshing change from Burkina's bars that seem to be men-only. Most cabarets also have some traditional instruments lying around and if spirits are high – they often are – these are brought out in the early evening. Should a break from the millet beer be needed, Gaoua (Ga-wa) town also host a small museum, a big Sunday market and a sacred grove where chickens are sacrificed.
Little more than a large truck stop, Fada is just about the only town of interest for travellers in eastern Burkina Faso. Not so much for all its sights – here are none. But because the town makes the ideal break for anyone moving between Ouagadougou and Benin or Niger. Or for anyone interested to see the little-visited national parks in south-eastern Burkina. The town is large enough to have a decent range of hotels, and it's the biggest transfer hub in eastern Burkina for anyone travelling off the beaten path. If stuck here, it might be worth seeking out the local paramount king for an audience – he's the third most powerful in the country after the ones in Ouagadougou and Ouahigouya.
Ouagadougou loves its festivals and has such an abundance that there might well be something on at any given time one visits. By far the most famous festival is the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma or FESPACO. It's the biggest cinema festival on the African continent and attracting tens of thousands of visitors. Lasting a week, it's held biannual on odd-numbered years in February. Another biannual festival, hold during ten days in October, odd years, the Salon International de l'Artisanat de Ouagadougou (SIAO) is even more popular – allegedly attracting over 100.000 visitors. Who wouldn't attend the world's largest craft market? To smaller biannual festivals held in even-numbered years, in February/March and late November respectively, are the Semaine Nationale de la Culture (National Week of Culture) and Festival du Théâtre. A murade of other festivals, many focused on music (everything from Jazz to Hip-Hop) or dance, pop up with regular interval throughout town. The French Cultural Institute sponsors many of these and is a good place to get information.
Burkina Faso doesn't have a whole lot of tourist attractions, so some of the country's sights are a bit wicked. The gold mines outside the village of Yako is probably one of the most mind blowing. Here miners dig shafts several hundred meters deep to get to the gold ore. It's a dirty, hot, and dangerous job, but the prosperity of become rich quickly allures people into the mines. Every aspect of the gold extraction is done here, from digging, crushing rocks to washing. Though the miners look tough and intimidating with their mud covered faces and big muscles, they are friendly and don't seem to mind foreigners to have a look, if you approach them gently. That said, it's still best to go with a local.
Probably the most spectacular natural attraction in Burkina Faso, the Peaks of Sindou is a three-kilometre-long chain of sculpted crags and cones made from sandstones eroded by the elements. The towers rise more than 50 metres from the ground creating a spectacular backdrop for the small villages. It's been described as a geological fantasyland, and it's indeed easy to waste a day away by searching out new exciting features and shapes in the rocks. The area is ideal for small hikes, straightforward rock climbing and sunrise breakfasts. There's a basic camp ground close by the peaks run by the reputable Association Djiguiya, which also offer a range of activities from cycling tours over multiple treks to homestays.
Burkina's sole UNESCO World Heritage site, might not be of obvious interest to the average visitor, but anyone with interest in history will appreciate that this is one of very few precolonial stone ruins in all of West Africa. The Loropéni Ruins still lies unexcavated and is, essentially, little more than a square of overgrown grown walls that still pose somewhat of a mystery to the modern world. The walls are 6-7 metres high, completely without doors and windows, and cover an area of approximately 50 x 40 metres. Built around 1000 AD, they are generally thought to have served as a fort protecting the area's gold mines, from which the trans-Saharan caravan routes grew rich.
Anyone shopping for curios could do a lot worse than visiting the state operated Centre National d'Artisinat d'Art. The centre displays a broad range of the finest handicraft Burkina has to offer. Bronze castings, carvings, clothes and instruments here are good quality, but what's worth an extra look is the batik. Burkina's batik is renowned all over West Africa as some of the best in the region. There are fixed prices in the front shop and this makes it a good place to shop for souvenirs for anyone who doesn't feel comfortable with heavy bargaining. For the rest who enjoys a good haggle, the centre is a good place to get a general idea of the price level. Good deals and bargaining are available in the courtyard behind the store, where it's also possible to see the artisans at work.
Vast empty plots of land, only broken by the odd designer mansion. Ouaga 2000 is where the upper class of Burkinabé society come to built their houses. So did the president and the wide boulevard from his enormous palace seems to have been constructed with primarily his motorcade in mind. While it does feel very unfinished – and probably always will – Ouagadougou's futuristic neighbourhood is an interesting visit. Besides the presidential palace and the odd buildings, the main sight of interest is the 55 m high Monument des Héros Nationaux which is clearly designed to be a museum, but serves mainly as a lookout over the strange neighbourhood.