Are Backpackers Full of Shit? All Alone on a Beach in West Africa

Bassam, backpackers are full of shit, grand bassam, cote d'ivoire, ivory coast, africa, west africa-3

Are Backpackers Full of Shit? All Alone on a Beach in West Africa

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West Africa isn’t an easy place to travel.  Anyone who tells you differently is either lying or travels on a much higher budget than I do.  From the moment I left Guinea-Bissau, to the moment I arrived in Cote d’Ivoire there had been bumpy, sometimes impassable, roads, poor transport infrastructure, lots of rain, and a number of challenges with military personnel.  But the truth is that through all the hard stuff, perhaps the most difficult part of travelling West Africa, is the fact that I’m all alone out here.  And my arrival at Grand Bassam is an example that almost fringes on hilarity.

Bassam, backpackers are full of shit, grand bassam, cote d'ivoire, ivory coast, africa, west africa-5

It’s something I expected coming to West Africa, and to be honest I think it is what held me back from coming here earlier.  I knew that there would be few other tourists, and as a people person that was hard for me to grapple.  How would I handle months on end while seeing only a few fellow road warriors? Who would I exchange stories and information with?  Who would I share beers and dance floors with?  However, I never really expected the void to be as wide as it has been.  In fact, between The Gambia and Bamako, Mali a period of nearly 100 days, I didn’t see a single other traveller.  Grand Bassam was no different.

Bassam, backpackers are full of shit, grand bassam, cote d'ivoire, ivory coast, africa, west africa-5

My office on the beach

I decided to spend a week at the beach town of Grand Bassam rather than another one of West Africa’s hidden gems, Assinie, because I missed seeing other tourists; backpackers in particular.  Grand Bassam, the tourism centerpiece of coastal Cote d’Ivoire, surely would put me in the path of some of those tourists.  Instead, I once again found myself alone at a table for 4 in a restaurant of empty tables on the beach.

I asked the manager if there were other bookings, to which I received a bit of a laugh and a reply that I was the only one.  The combination of the wet season and the fact that Cote d’Ivoire’s civil war is still fresh in European minds means that tourism is down to desperate levels.  I wondered if it was only my hotel, so I spent each night dining at other resorts along Grand Bassam’s waterfront.  The void was seen across the board.  Sure, a couple places had guest staying: embassy people, wealthier Ivorians,  UN workers, etc.  But tourists? Well, according to one hotel owner I was the first true tourist they seen in months.  And the fact of the matter is, although I don’t announce it, as a journalist I’m not exactly a typical tourist myself.

I managed to stay in Grand Bassam for 7 days in a room on the water that cost $15 a night and starting thinking about my fellow backpackers.   Are we all talk?  Are backpackers full of shit?  Of course we are.

You see, wherever we go, backpackers sit around a fire, a table, a couple beers and brag on end about discovering “the spot” before it was popular.  We brag about going to places that are hard to get to, that challenge us. Hell, we even brag about the places that gave us the runs.  But at the end of the day, we are just as soft as anyone else, and the lack of backpackers in West Africa proves that.  West Africa is full of the opportunities that backpackers love telling stories about, yet their absence is deafening.

The truth is, at the end of the day, no matter what backpackers tell you, we want the same thing as every other tourist does.  We want garbage-free beaches, we want accessible wildlife, we want cheap beers and accommodation, and we want a bit of an adventure.  But above all else we want to be safe, no matter how much we brag about the danger zones we’ve crossed.

Bassam, backpackers are full of shit, grand bassam, cote d'ivoire, ivory coast, africa, west africa

So as I sit here on the bus leaving Grand Bassam I have something to tell backpackers: West Africa is waiting for you.  Sure, it’s had problems in the past, but the people here look after you better than anywhere I’ve ever been.  And if you’re worried the beaches aren’t clean enough, or the waves aren’t gnarly enough, or the beers aren’t cheap enough, I assure you they are.

So please, unseat yourself from that table in Thailand and come join me in West Africa.  Please, I’m begging you.  It’s lonely here without you.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: Brendan van Son is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He has visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than he has the desire to count. Check out his profile on . for a little bit more about him.

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51 Comments

  1. this sounds actually wonderful. my main problem would be: language? do people understand English? Do I need to brush up my old school French?

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    • lots of people speak English… Africans are language geniuses! And if not, there’s always the beautiful beaches of Sierra Leone! :D

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  2. I find the self-imposed distinctions between backpackers/travellers/nomads/wanderers and all that entails really amusing/interesting. I call myself a backpacker on my blog, mostly because I’m carrying a backpack with me. But the ‘discovery’ thing has never been that high on my agenda in all honesty – there’s something a little strange about wanting to be first imho, and I take no great pleasure in backpacking being ‘difficult’. But Grand Bassam does look very beautiful, indeed.

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    • David, Spot on. I personally hate the differentiation. To me there are two categories: travellers and vacationers. I hate that backpackers act like they are so much stronger and better than “tourists” when really they do the same damn thing. Besides, it’s not really important going to exotic never been seen before places. Travel is about growth, and as long as you’re growing you’re doing it right.

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      • Great article and well put. What get’s me is when people brag about they want to go to ‘non touristy’ places. I think you found a great one!
        I had a great time in West Africa on an overlanding trip.

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  3. I’m enjoying your travels through Africa. I’ll be arriving in Senegal next Friday. Would join you for a beer, but you’re much further than I will be. Wish I had time to see more of West Africa. Will be in South Africa as well.

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    • Next time Andrea, Keep in touch, you never know when we’ll cross paths :D

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  4. BVS ur killing me!
    The last thing i need right now is the temptation to throw all current plans out the window.
    How is the cost of places like those in the picture compared to say hostelling in SEA?? is it a bit pricey due to there being more hotel type accom than hostels?

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    • It’s different dude, you’re not going to be paying SEA prices. Rooms are usually about 15-25 a night. However the rooms are much better! If you wanted, there’s lots of couch surfing to save money. You can also camp at most hotels for 5-7 bucks. There are also really dodgy hotels that charge by the hour you can stay at for 3$ a night. Hell, I spent one night in a shipping container for 20 cents. In Africa, there’s something for every budget.

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    • Thanks Adam. Yeah, I’m hanging out with Phil these days… he’s a good dude! I’m up in Bamako right now so we’re causing a bit of trouble for sure haha

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  5. Awww — I love this post. As soon as I have enough clients to be a full-time nomadic translator, I will join you for sure Brendan! ;D

    - Maria Alexandra

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  6. Good for you! Backpackers do act tough. I could see through it though. :-) West Africa here I come!

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  7. Yeah, I agree with the sentiments here. Travelling through many parts of Indonesia there are no foreign tourists. None. And these are not places that are undiscovered as they are written up in guide books and have pretty good tourists facilities. It’s just that people tend not to go there. What’s especially surprising is how close many of these great attractions are to the main tourist towns. People only have to make a small effort to deviate from their path but it’s still too much.

    I think most of the time it’s ‘just too hard.’

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    • Adam – Like I said, backpackers do a lot of talking, but when it comes down to it I think they’re just as scared. Another thing, I think maybe backpackers are like me, and don’t like being alone. When they here that places are under-touristed they don’t go because they don’t want to be alone.

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  8. Interesting stuff man…while I’m not a backpacker by any means, I obviously read a lot of bloggers that are. I think this is the first from West Africa, and wonder if you’ve let the cat out of the bag. I hope that you have….

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    • Hey D.J. – Yeah, well I hope that the tourism industry picks up here. Most West Africans have no concept of backpackers right now because the only tourists they see are very wealthy people and embassy-types on weekends off. Backpackers would thrive in West Africa, they just have to get the ball rolling.

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  9. Great post Brendan. I know what you mean about finding someplace relatively “unexplored” but being a little lonely. I had the same thing on Colombia’s Pacific Coast.

    I’m also guilty of enjoying hanging out in cheap hostels, drinking cheap beer with likeminded backpacker/tourist/traveller/wanderers.

    It’s all travel and it’s all great!

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    • Will – When were you on Colombia’s Pacific Coast?? I love it down there and miss Colombia bad! I crossed the Darien Gap last year which was incredible. I don’t think it’s a guilty thing to enjoy sitting around tables chatting, I just wish backpackers would put their money where their mouths are. I hate hearing the “I went to Thailand and found myself” line, when all people did was drink and hang out on the beach ahah.

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      • I was in Bahia Solano and El Valle for a couple of weeks in March 2010. Was glorious. Hung out with this bloke Tyler who has now set up an amazing beach hostel there, the Humpback Turtle of Tortuga.

        I got an outboard boat up the coast to Jacque and then a flight from there to Panama. I would love to cross the Darien Gap sometime.

        I’m in Chiang Mai Thailand at the moment and it’s lovely, but I don’t think I’m going to find myself here. More likely lose myself in booze and hookers.

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  10. Maybe next time we’ll bring the summit over there to you! I’m looking for somewhere to move in March….

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    • Seriously Jackie – I can’t believe you guys didn’t plan the V-Bag summit for Liberia… shame on you.

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  11. Wow, looks like a beautiful place! I too like heading off the beaten path and away from where everyone else seems to be flocking.

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    • For me that’s the really important Jennifer, but I do also like the social aspect of travel too… so I just wish a few more people would get off the beaten path with me haha

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  12. Yes Thailand is completely overdone! Especially the stories I’ve heard from British ‘backpackers’ who went to Bangkok, bought some crap souvenirs, moved on to Ko Phi Phi and sat in a bar with other British people drinking ‘cheap’ Heineken at 4 times the price locals would pay for it.

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    • Mark, I’ve never actually been to Thailand so I can’t really judge it. However, I get the feeling that the type of “backpackers” that you just described, even if they are only 5-10% of them, would drive me insane. It’s the main reason I haven’t been.

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  13. Backpackers are full of shit if they’re the cliched bullshitter most backpackers have met who think they’re in The Beach when really it’s Thailand and they’re just taking drugs and trying to get laid- but most backpackers I’ve met will happily admit they’re aiming for a compromise of meeting locals, putting money into the local economy, seeing sites that aren’t crammed with tourist buses, but in a safe environment and where they can have a beer and nice local food with other like minded Travellers at the end of the day. The one-upmanship of suggesting you might as well be on a package tour if you’re not virtually alone is false and damaging to local economies vs big-business super-hotels.
    Having said that, this piece does make W Africa v tempting!

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    • Totally agree with you on all points Leeingham. My point wasn’t that all backpacker’s are full of shit thought, my point was that I wish more would actually step up and give West Africa a shot. I think this place has everything that backpackers are looking for, but they are 1) scared, 2) worried they will be alone, and 3) that it will be expensive. I love backpackers, asides from the ones that spend their evenings in the hostel bars with their passports open so people can see how many pages they have stamped, and I want some of them to come join me down here haha.

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  14. You missed the best beach in CI!!! But on the other hand, it’ll still stay quiet – so thanks!

    Seriously though, does W.Africa really need full moon raves on the beach? I think not!

    Enjoy!

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    • Kira – I know!!! But I really needed the internet since I was in the midst of publishing the next issue of Vagabundo Magazine. You’re right, I definitely don’t need to see a full moon party. However, it would be nice to get some of the backpackers that are seen in places like Colombia and Ecuador… minus the wannabe hippies haha. Wow, I’m just full of stereotypes these days.

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  15. This is really interesting! I don’t want to be the first one there, to be honest, but don’t mind being one of the first – I just need to hear about it, see it from journalists and bloggers like you, and then start looking into it. And yes, I do think that most backpackers are full of it and should admit they don’t travel off the beaten path, just where it’s cheapest :)

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  16. I’m keen to visit, had an Australian friend from Liberia, Read ‘my friend the mercenary’ to get an idea what happened there. The only video I’d seen on that area were by vice, and they make out things are more dangerous to boost views

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  17. Great post. Thank you. I’m just about to leave for trip around East Africa and started getting anxious about safety. You, together with other bloggers, put it into perspective. I’m not backpacking and I feel you have given other modes of travel credence. Thank you.

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  18. Yep! Craig and I “backpacked” Africa for 5 months 10 years ago. We knew it was much tougher travel than most places, but we knew it was soft compared to so many more.

    West Africa is pretty hard core. I’m thinking we need to go there, looks pretty good!

    We used to giggle at some “backpackers” who thought they were the king of the craft because they had been to Europe, Australia and South East Asia.

    Man what about the hard stuff?

    But, each to their own. Whatever floats your boat, just get along with it without the beating of the chest.

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  19. Awesome post. So jealous.West Africa will definitely be on my list! I travelled from Egypt into Sudan and down to Ethiopia 2 years back. In Sudan I didn’t see one traveller in two weeks. This was in stark contracts to my SE Asia trip/vacation? India and the West Bank/Palestine perhaps offered a better happy-medium. I will enviously be following your travels!

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  20. I actually felt a bit the same going through Egypt recently, probably not as dramatic, but the place was pretty empty and I did wish on several occasions there where more backpackers around.

    West Africa – how is it for solo female travellers?

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    • Heidi,
      I just saw your comment after I posted one of my own yesterday. I spent four months as a solo traveler and even through the most sketchy times (sleeping on the side of the road in a border town, staying in the worst part of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, hiking along the Falaise de Bandiagara in Mali for days with only a male guide, being dropped off on the side of the road at the edge of town in the pitch black in Mango-Sansanne, Togo, etc. etc.) I had no trouble. I even felt like people were taking extra care to look out for me sometimes. So, I highly recommend! It’s entirely doable.

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  21. Thank you letting us know about the relative safety of that area of Africa. The countries can be unpredictable.

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  22. I have heard so many good things about Africa, alongside all the usual ‘oh that’s too dangerous’ etc and I’m really interested in travelling there. So nice to have someone tell it like it is instead of spreading stupid rumours and blowing out the truth. Thanks!

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  23. Interesting to read that it’s STILL like that. I spent four months in West Africa in 2001 (and wrote a travelogue about it) and not only was I alone, but the local women either couldn’t talk to me (language barriers because they didn’t get to go to school, the men did) or wouldn’t talk to me. I made friends with prostitutes and men (who then hit on me and annoyed me). I also found that the country most represented by backpackers was Japan — I met four in four months, which was a ton! Apparently there was a direct flight into Dakar…

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    • Haha, west Africa is waiting for you Faysal

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  24. okay, you’ve convinced me, Brendan. I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging with the West African crew here in Madrid, Spain and have heard amazing tales and seen photos of beauty I never expected. Hold tight, I’ll be right over.

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    • Haha, Brandy… me? Hold tight? Never… I’m always on the move haha.

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  25. Been traveling in West Africa for the past 4 months. Remarkable of course. This post may have given me the courage to write, myself, a post calling out other backpackers. The blogging community is often so strong in their convictions, but soft in their escapades :)

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  26. I have been to Ghana for 2 Month. Ghana is known as the West Africa for beginners, still it was quite exhausting. Probably due to the fact that i stayed in the capitol for an internship most of the time.

    Anyway, if your looking for an anspoiled adventure, go for it; if you are travelling to releax and flee the stressfull live at home, go somewhere else..

    When i got back home from Ghana I had like 10 Pounds less (i was skinny before, so not a good think). Still i wouldnt want to miss any Moment over there.

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  27. Nice post man! I’ll be there for some months next year… I hope to found some of you!

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    • You’ll love it… even if you don’t meet anyone. Lovely place.

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  28. Hi Brendan…It’s so nice finally seeing something on west Africa. Once i GOOGLE Africa the only results I’d seen come up has been south africa which is terribly irritating! as though thats the whole of africa!

    I want to backpack for the 1st time as a solo female and am looking for advice on how to begin…go about it ect..

    do i have to book accommodation in advance or can i book as i go?

    any advice would be appreciated ><

    Jay

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