Burkina Faso travel guide
Home to what could well be the largest concentration on scooters and motorbikes anywhere on the continent, any visitor to Ouagadougou (Wa-ga-dou-gou), or simply Ouaga, will have to learn to duck this buzzing menace or face the consequences. Burkina's capital and largest city is busy, but feels more like a large provincial town than a country capital. It's nonetheless Burkina's centre for everything. Shopping, nightlife and culture. The national museum, however, is an outright disappointment, and the main market is fairly ordinary. Instead, visitors should look to Burkina's nightlife given that Ouaga is one of the few predominately non-Muslim cities in the Sahel, as well as the city's skilled artisans. Ouaga's also considered Africa's cinematographic capital city, with a handful of good cinemas. Regardless of the notions above, most Western visitors will probably find Ouaga hot, dry and dusty, but once you've learned to cope, Ouaga is strangely pleasant, not least thanks to the fact that Burkinians are some of the kindest people on the planet.
What really makes Ouagadougou a superior experience to many other West African capitals is not merely that it's slightly cleaner. The answer lies in the leafy grounds of the city's many jardins – or gardens. These places are small oases, often hidden behind tall hedges near major intersections, serving meals and drinks throughout the day. Many also have live music playing in the evening. It's entirely possible – and highly recommended – to plan your sightseeing in Ouaga by moving between these watering holes visiting the major sight en-route. Just be careful not to order a large beer at each stop.
The only reason to visit the dusty little town of Po is to reach the mud castle in Tiebele. However, finding yourself here for a night or two isn't too bad. The sandy backstreets are interesting enough for a walk and there is always the small market. If nothing of the above fancy you, find a cafe and have a beer with the locals.
The old system of local kings is still in place in Burkina where it forms the backbone of civil society. The kings (or Nabas) are still responsible for the communication with the ancestor spirits and of solving family disputes. The Nabas also yield political power as politicians use the kings to seek advice and council on behalf of the wider community. The most powerful Naba is the one based in Ouagadougou. He is, in general, inaccessible, but for a weekly ceremony on Friday mornings around 6:30, where he rides his war horse, threatening the Naba of Ouahigouya with war before his advisers talk him out of it. The cause of dispute dates all the way back to 1540 when the royal amulets that symbolise the Naba's power were stolen during a succession dispute. Ceremonies in Ouahigouya are rarer but usually include a showing of all the village chiefs arriving to pay their respect at the palace. To make up for the lack of regularity of ceremonies, there is a relatively good chance to be granted an audience with the Naba, who is a treasure trove of local history.
Burkina Faso isn't Cuba or the Bahamas. But no-one seems to have told that to the good people in Banfora. Here they grow so much sugar cane that they are able to cover Burkina's entire domestic needs. Luckily, a few innovative souls have figured out what sugar canes also could be used for, and have thus begun to distill rum. The most prominent of these outfits are the bar at the Hotel là Canne a Sucre, where you can buy a tasting set for less than 4€ - sampling four of their different variants of rum. The Caribbean feeling pretty much ends here, because the rums are very much African creations: including ginger, mint, coffee and mandarin flavoured rum.
Inhabited by more than 450 people, the traditional royal court of Tiébélé isn't just a palace. It's a whole little village build as a labyrinthine compound of small mud houses, some with impossible small doors to fend off the slave raiders in the past. These little houses are decorated in various natural colours and patterns – all having a particular meaning. The compound is home to the most prominent chief in the Gourounsi region and his extended family. Rather than meeting the chief, it's more likely that you will be shown around by one of the community's guides. Watch out for fake guides at the village's entrance, who will try to lure you to a fake compound.
West Africa used to be home to some legendary train journeys. Sadly, almost all of these have now been cancelled or limited to little more than suburban commuter trains. The exception is the 1,150 km long line running from Burkina's capital, Ouagadougou, to Abidjan - the biggest city in Côte d'Ivoire. This last line is probably for train enthusiasts only. The scenery is rather bland, and the ride isn't particularly interesting. The whole journey is supposed to take twenty-eight hours, but expect it to take longer due to delays. Should you find yourself buying a ticket, your choice is between the hard, blue plastic seats of the second class carriers, or the more comfy aeroplane seats in the air-conditioned first class section. Despite this often being a 30+ hour trip, there are no sleepers on the train. In theory, there's a small restaurant, but the locals advised us to use it solely as a bar, and we'd advise you to bring your own food for the trip as well.