Cote d'Ivoire travel guide
West Africa's most impressive skyline is unrivalled. Positioned on a hill called La Plateau, downtown Abidjan is the centre of Côte d'Ivoire's economic powerhouse. Skyscrapers built in glass and steel, housing banks and other big business dominates, but the most famous building here is La Piramide, an abandoned highrise looking like something taken straight out of a sci-fi, not looking unlike an Imperial Destroyer from Star Wars. Abidjan, in general, and La Plateau, in particular, is where the rich and famous from all over West Africa come to enjoy executive dining, posh nightclubs and other joys of the hedonistic life. Travellers, with the right wallet size, can easily rub shoulders with the elite here, while the rest of us will have to appreciate that Abidjan has good food and good nightlife for any kind budget.
The biggest Catholic church in the world isn't the Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican, it's surprisingly the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro in Côte d'Ivoire. Completed in 1990 and standing 158 metres tall, it's 22 metres higher than St Peter's. This massive piece of work is wholly unexpected and the "Basilica of the Bush" is, not surprising, the most visited tourist attraction in the country. It's probably also one of the most prominent tourist sights in all of West Africa, even through the construction was highly controversial. The final cost has never been revealed, but guesses range from US$200 million to US$600 million with most suggestions being around US$300 million. This massive sum was spent while the country was in a recession and is said to have doubled the country’s foreign debt.
Only Sierra Leone can boast of having better beaches than Côte d'Ivoire on the West African coast. This makes the country an attractive destination for those few travellers who come to West Africa, in part, to seek out sea, sand and sun. The hardest part might well be choosing your favourite beach. There are plenty of small hidden coves along the coast for visitors with their own wheels. However, these beaches tend to be occupied by fishers or have strong currents that make swimming dangerous – always consult locals before diving in. Anyone looking for beaches with proper facilities should aim for the beach towns of Sassandra, San Pedro, Grand Bassam and Assinie. The most secluded of these is Sassandra, which has a very local fell to it. In the other end of the scale, plush resorts are easily found in the other three towns, with Grand Bassam being the easiest accessible from Abidjan.
In a small, nondescript workshop behind Man's central mosque, the Sidimé family has carved out their life's work for generations. Literally. The carpenter family might well be the only one in Côte d'Ivoire working in Kola wood. And as the tree is unique to Western Côte d'Ivoire, they might also be the only family in the world. What is so special about Kola wood is that it's naturally red and when it's worked and treated by the craftsmen the wood can produce no less than seven shared of red. Doumbia, the family's master carpenter, will be happy to show visitors the different ways to bring out the various red colours – the brightest colour, for example, comes from the roots. Doumbia and his family are particularly skilled in making animal statuettes.
11,500 km2 of plain, savanna and rainforest bisected by the Comoé River, with inselbergs on its northern rim reaching 600 metres in height. In other words, Comoé National Park has a lot to offer. A lot, except tourist infrastructure, that is. This means that most of the park is strictly do-it-yourself. However, there's hope should you lack your own 4x4, tent and provisions. A research station in the southern part of the park, near the village of Kakpin, can help organise pirogue trips on the river, and a lodge in Kafolo, on the park's northern fringes, arranges safari drives. As for animals, the park is home to hippos, elephants, lions and African wild dogs, but due to poaching in the 90s chances are that you'll have to settle for the bird life, antelopes and maybe the park's dwarf crocodiles if you're sailing the river. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its plant diversity, rather than its animals.
Most of Côte d'Ivoire is flat. The exception is the aptly named Région Dix-Huit Montagnes (Eighteen Mountains) bordering Guinea and Liberia in the western part of the country. The region isn't only the greenest and most pleasant temperature-wise, it's also the best place in Côte d'Ivoire to hike and trek. Just five kilometres to the north-west of Man is Les Cascades des Zadéplau waterfall. A further 7.5 km to the north-west is Mont Tonkoui (1,223 m), meaning "the Majestic Mountain", which can be scaled in a day by climbers and hikers accompanied by a guide. An easier target is Le Dent de Man (The Tooth of Man) just 5 km north-east of the town. Further afield, on the border of Guinea is Côte d'Ivoire's highest peak, Mont Nimba (1,752 m). This takes more planning and hikes to the top should be arranged in either the town of Danané or the border village of Gbapleu. It's well worth the trouble as the UNESCO-recognised mountain offers gorgeous views of the region as well as into both Guinea and Liberia.
Corrugated iron gates and streets of thick dust dominate Grand Bassam's Quartier Colonial – France's first colonial outpost in Côte d'Ivoire. Founded in 1842 and functioning as the primary French settlement until independence (though the capital was moved to Bingerville in 1899), Grand Bassam is the clearest evidence of Côte d'Ivoire's colonial history and therefor also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Life is quiet here, dominated by the town's sandy boulevards and romantic French buildings that are falling slowly apart. Some restoration work has begun, and buildings such as the old post office and the Palais du Gouverneur (now a museum) have been saved from ruin, while a few pillars are all that remains of the old courthouse across from the Palais. Other buildings, such as the former headquarter of the French West Africa Company (CFAO), seems undecided in whether or not they will be willing to stand the test of time. Situated on a small strip of land between the ocean and a lagoon, Grand Bassam is also a first class beach location should you need a break from all the crumbling evidence of colonialism.
One of the best places in Côte d’Ivoire to see the West-Sudanese style mud-and-stick mosques, that generally Mali and Burkina Faso are famous for, is in the small town of Kong. Heading this far north simply for the mosque might be to oversell it, but it's a good stop en-route to either Korhogo or Comoé National Park. West-Sudanese mosques are notable for being constructed solely of mud mixed with straw. Rather than holding the structure together, the wooden sticks are used for decorative and practical purposes, functioning as the scaffold when, after the rains, a new outer layer of mud has to be added to the building. The mosque in Kong is from the early 1900s but designed after an original mosque built on the spot in 1740.
The far north is home to the most famous cloth in Côte d'Ivoire. Named after the town it's made in, the motives of Korhogo cloth is highly symbolic with the animals, huts and trees all having their specific meanings. The artists' workshops are lumped together in painters' communes in a few locations around town where visitor are more than welcome to visit. The artisans are happy to explain the motives and their techniques. The long, slow strokes of the paintbrushes are downright therapeutic, and any stressed out traveller would be cured by spending an afternoon watching the artists at work. Everything, from the cloth to the paint, is made by hand and with natural resources. While in Korhogo, it might also be worth visiting the artisan villages scattered in the town's vicinity. Kapélé is known for its jewellers, Koni for metalworkers, and Waraniéné for weaving. Finally, 5 km west of town there's a fêticheurs' sacrificing stone where it's possible to trade a chicken's life for some good luck.
When Côte d'Ivoire's first president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, built his presidential palace, he toured the country in order to find the crocodiles that were to inhabit the lake in front of his new compound. He picked the most aggressive and vicious crocodiles he could find, supposedly to reflect his own strength. While Houphouët-Boigny passed away in 1993, the crocodiles are still there. Photos aren't allowed by the presidential guards – unless you buy a live chicken, which is then fed to the always hungry crocs. Or you could simply show up at the lake around 5 p.m. when the creatures are fed. Be careful, though, the crocodiles here have at least three lives on their conscious. A dedicated supporter of the late president through himself for the crocodiles on the day the president's dead. Later a veteran feeder got eaten during a photo-op with UN troops. Lastly, a tourist who scaled the low fence to take a selfie with these beasts, obviously, got eaten.