Amidst the vast mosaic of African countries, each with its own distinct charm and essence, Burkina Faso emerges as an uncharted haven. This West African nation, often overshadowed by its better-known neighbors, beckons to travelers with its promise of authenticity, diversity, and a rich tapestry of experiences. For those seeking a destination untouched by mass tourism and alive with cultural integrity, Burkina Faso is a compelling choice.
History & Culture of Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, is a country steeped in a rich tapestry of history and culture that dates back thousands of years. Over the centuries, various ethnic groups have migrated to and settled in this region, each bringing its own customs, languages, and traditions, which have been beautifully woven into the nation’s shared cultural heritage.
The Legacy of the Mossi Kingdoms
The Mossi kingdoms, established between the 11th and 13th centuries, hold a significant place in Burkina Faso’s history. Founded by Princess Yennenga, a legendary figure who remains a symbol of feminine strength and independence, these kingdoms flourished for several centuries. Their influence is still evident today, especially in the central regions of the country. The Mossi remain the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso, and their historical narratives, rituals, and festivals continue to play an integral role in the nation’s cultural identity.
Art is an inseparable part of Burkina Faso’s cultural fabric. Whether it’s the intricate bronze sculptures, reminiscent of the ancient lost-wax casting technique, or the vibrant woven textiles that narrate stories of generations, there’s an artistic legacy here that’s both profound and captivating. The country is renowned for its wooden masks, carved with intricate details, used in traditional ceremonies to connect with the spiritual world.
Music and Dance: The Heartbeat of Burkina Faso
Music and dance are not just forms of entertainment in Burkina Faso; they are means of communication, celebration, and remembrance. Instruments like the balafon (a kind of xylophone), the kora (a stringed instrument), and the aforementioned djembe drum resonate with the sounds of Burkina Faso’s soul. Traditional dances, often performed during festivals or significant community events, are a sight to behold. They tell tales of heroism, love, and connection to nature.
Festivals: Celebrating Life and Heritage
The Burkinabe calendar is dotted with numerous festivals that celebrate its diverse culture. One of the most iconic is the aforementioned Festival of Masks in Dedougou, where various ethnic groups showcase their unique masks and perform traditional dances. Then there’s the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), held biennially, which celebrates African cinema and draws filmmakers and enthusiasts from across the continent.
Burkina Faso, though lesser-known in the mainstream tourism circuit, is a treasure trove of natural wonders. Its diverse ecosystems, ranging from the arid Sahel in the north to the lush savannahs in the south, offer a myriad of breathtaking landscapes and unique wildlife experiences.
Sahel Region: The Gold of the Desert
The Sahel region, which spans the northern part of Burkina Faso, is characterized by its semi-arid climate, golden sand dunes, and sparse vegetation. It’s a land where the horizons seem endless and where the traditional nomadic way of life can still be witnessed. The area becomes especially magical after the rains, when temporary lakes and ponds form, attracting a myriad of bird species.
Arli National Park: Wildlife Galore
Nestled in the southeast corner of Burkina Faso, the Arli National Park is a must-visit for nature enthusiasts. Spanning over 760,000 hectares, the park is home to diverse fauna such as elephants, hippos, buffaloes, and various antelope species. The park’s varied landscape, which includes grasslands, woodlands, and water bodies, ensures a rich biodiversity that delights every nature lover.
The Cascades Region: Waterfalls and Greenery
True to its name, the Cascades Region of Burkina Faso is known for its picturesque waterfalls, the most famous being the Karfiguéla Falls. Surrounded by lush vegetation and often forming shimmering rainbow arcs, these waterfalls offer a serene and refreshing escape. The region is also ideal for hiking and picnicking, with numerous trails meandering through its verdant landscapes.
The Sindou Peaks: Nature’s Sculpture
Near the town of Banfora lies one of Burkina Faso’s most surreal landscapes: the Sindou Peaks. These jagged, needle-like formations, created by wind and water erosion over millions of years, form a labyrinth of rocky spires. Walking amidst these natural sculptures feels like stepping onto another planet, making it a favorite among photographers and adventurers.
Lakes and Rivers: Oasis of Life
Burkina Faso’s water bodies, such as Lake Tengrela and the Nakambé River, play a crucial role in the country’s ecosystem. They not only support diverse aquatic life but also serve as vital sources for agriculture and human sustenance. Boat rides on Lake Tengrela, with its calm waters reflecting the vast sky, offer tranquil moments, while the riverbanks bustle with daily life and cultural activities.
Cities & Urban Attractions
While Burkina Faso’s natural landscapes are undeniably enchanting, its cities and urban centers are equally captivating, presenting a blend of historical significance, architectural wonders, and bustling modern life. These urban hubs are the gateways to understanding the contemporary pulse of Burkina Faso and its deeply rooted traditions.
Ouagadougou: The Vibrant Capital
Often referred to simply as “Ouaga”, the capital city of Burkina Faso is a lively metropolis that juxtaposes the old with the new. Key attractions include the National Museum, which offers insights into the country’s rich cultural heritage, and the Ouagadougou Cathedral, a beautiful relic of colonial architecture. The city is also renowned for hosting FESPACO, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, drawing creatives from across the continent. The Moro-Naba Palace, where one can witness the traditional Moro-Naba ceremony every Friday, stands as a testament to the city’s respect for age-old customs amidst its modern facade.
Bobo-Dioulasso: The Cultural Epicenter
Often deemed Burkina Faso’s cultural heart, Bobo-Dioulasso is a feast for the senses. Its historical district, with mud-brick mosques such as the Grand Mosque of Bobo-Dioulasso, and lively markets like the Grand Marché, embodies the city’s spirit. Traditional music emanates from hidden courtyards, and artisans can be seen diligently working on their crafts, keeping age-old traditions alive. The city’s colonial architecture and tree-lined streets further add to its charm.
Koudougou: The Energetic Hub
Located in the central part of Burkina Faso, Koudougou is known for its dynamic energy. The city boasts educational institutions, making it a significant center for learning and youth culture. Its markets are a hive of activity, where local products and handicrafts are in abundance. The nearby Lake Bam offers a refreshing retreat from the urban hustle.
Banfora: A Blend of Nature and Urbanity
Situated in the Cascades Region, Banfora is not just an urban center but also a gateway to some of Burkina Faso’s most stunning natural attractions. After exploring the city’s colonial-era buildings and engaging in its local culinary delights, travelers can easily venture out to the Karfiguéla Waterfalls or the mysterious Sindou Peaks.
Fada N’gourma: The Gateway to the East
This eastern city, often simply called “Fada”, is a major crossroads and serves as a gateway to the enchanting parks and wildlife reserves of Burkina Faso. While the city itself offers a mosaic of traditional markets and eateries, it’s also a launchpad for eco-tourism adventures in the surrounding regions.
Local Cuisine: A Taste of Burkina Faso
When you travel, tasting the local cuisine is not just about satiating hunger; it’s an intimate way to connect with the country’s soul. And in Burkina Faso, a nation where the land and its people are deeply intertwined, the food is a delectable reflection of its rich heritage, diverse ecosystems, and communal spirit.
Staples and Stews
- Tô (or Sagabo): A staple in many West African countries, Tô is a dense, dough-like dish made from millet, sorghum, or maize. It’s often served with a variety of sauces, from okra to groundnut, and accompanied by vegetables or meat.
- Riz Gras: This “fatty rice” dish is cooked with plenty of tomatoes, spices, and meat or fish, producing a rich and flavorful outcome that’s beloved across the country.
- Brochettes: These skewered meat treats, often made from beef, chicken, or goat, are a popular street food item. Grilled over open flames, they’re juicy, smoky, and best enjoyed hot.
- Poulet Bicyclette: Translating to “bicycle chicken”, this dish uses free-range chicken, known for its lean and flavorful meat. It’s typically grilled or stewed with spices, serving as a testament to simplicity and taste.
- Gombo: A delicious okra stew, gombo can be served with rice or Tô. Its viscous texture, combined with spices and sometimes peanut butter, creates a unique taste and feel.
- Benga: A flavorful bean stew, often cooked with palm oil and various spices, making it a vegetarian favorite.
- Dolo: A local beer made from fermented millet or sorghum, Dolo is often brewed at home and has a slightly sour taste. It’s not just a drink but a symbol of community and celebration.
- Zoom-kom: This milky drink, made from fermented cereals, is both nutritious and refreshing. It’s often consumed as a breakfast beverage or as a cooling drink on hot days.
- Bissap: Made from hibiscus flowers, this vibrant red drink can be served sweetened or unsweetened. With its tart flavor, it’s not only refreshing but also rich in antioxidants.
- Fried Bananas: A simple yet irresistible treat, ripe bananas are coated in a light batter and fried until golden. They’re crispy on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside.
- Beignets: These doughnut-like pastries are often enjoyed with a drizzle of honey or dusted with powdered sugar. They’re a delightful accompaniment to tea or coffee.
Safety & Travel Tips
Traveling to Burkina Faso is a journey filled with cultural, historical, and natural wonders. But like any destination, it’s essential to be aware of safety and other vital travel considerations to ensure an enjoyable trip. Here are some tips to help you navigate your Burkina Faso adventure.
Stay Updated: Always monitor travel advisories from reliable sources before and during your trip. This will keep you informed about any prevailing safety concerns.
Avoid Night Travel: It’s generally advisable to avoid traveling outside urban centers after dark, primarily due to poorly lit roads and increased risk of accidents.
Secure Valuables: As with many tourist destinations, it’s wise to be mindful of your belongings. Use hotel safes for important documents and avoid displaying flashy jewelry.
Vaccinations: Before traveling, ensure you have all recommended vaccinations, including yellow fever, which is a requirement for entry.
Malaria: Burkina Faso is a malaria-endemic region. Travelers should take antimalarial medication and use mosquito repellents and nets to reduce the risk.
Water and Food: Only consume bottled or boiled water. Avoid ice in drinks and ensure that food is thoroughly cooked and served hot.
Dress Modestly: Especially when visiting religious or rural sites, it’s respectful to wear clothing that covers the shoulders and knees.
Ask Before Photographing: Always seek permission before taking pictures, particularly in rural areas or at sacred sites.
Currency and Transactions
West African CFA Franc (XOF): Burkina Faso’s official currency is the West African CFA Franc. While major hotels and restaurants in cities might accept credit cards, it’s beneficial to carry cash, especially when traveling outside urban centers.
West African CFA Franc current exchange rates
- 100 XOF = $0.17 or $1 = 602.21 West African CFA Franc
- 100 XOF = €0.15 or €1 = 655.96 West African CFA Franc
- 100 XOF = 0.13 British Pounds
- 100 XOF = 0.25 Australian Dollar
- 100 XOF = 0.22 Canadian Dollar
- 100 XOF = 1.73 Swedish Krona
- 100 XOF = 0.66 Polish Zloty
- 100 XOF = 3.70 Czech Koruna
- 100 XOF = 215.02 South Korean Won
- 100 XOF = 1.17 Chinese Yuan
- 100 XOF = 24.38 Japanese Yen
ATMs: They are available in larger towns and cities. However, they may not always be functional or stocked with cash, so it’s a good practice to withdraw money when in larger cities like Ouagadougou or Bobo-Dioulasso.
Bargaining: It’s common practice to bargain in markets. Approach it with a friendly demeanor, and remember it’s as much about the interaction as it is about the price.
Languages: French is the official language, but various indigenous languages are spoken. Learning a few basic French phrases or greetings in local dialects can greatly enhance your travel experience.
- U.S. Department of State – Burkina Faso Travel Advisory. Description: Provides the latest travel advisories and safety information tailored for U.S. citizens traveling to Burkina Faso. A must-visit for updated security concerns and travel recommendations.
- Lonely Planet – Burkina Faso. Description: A comprehensive travel guide offering insights into attractions, hotels, restaurants, and travel essentials. It’s a great starting point for general trip planning.
- CDC Travelers’ Health – Burkina Faso. Description: Provides health-related travel advice, including required vaccinations and health precautions for visitors to Burkina Faso.
- XE Currency Converter. Description: A quick and reliable currency converter tool. Helpful for understanding the current exchange rate between your home currency and the West African CFA Franc (XOF).
- VisaHQ – Burkina Faso Visa Services. Description: Provides detailed visa requirements and application services based on your nationality. Useful for travelers who need visa information.
- Wikivoyage – Burkina Faso. Description: A community-driven travel guide with details about destinations, itineraries, and local customs. Great for getting insights from other travelers and locals.
- Booking.com – Burkina Faso Accommodations. Description: Offers a wide range of accommodation options, from luxury hotels to guesthouses. Useful for comparing prices and amenities.
- TripAdvisor – Burkina Faso. Description: Features traveler reviews and ratings on hotels, attractions, and restaurants in Burkina Faso. Ideal for gauging real-world experiences and feedback.
Burkina Faso, often under the radar of mainstream tourism, is a treasure trove of vibrant cultures, historical narratives, natural wonders, and culinary delights. With its blend of urban charms and rustic beauty, the country offers travelers a unique African odyssey. By being informed, respecting local traditions, and embracing the Burkinabé spirit, one can discover the myriad facets of this West African gem. Whether you’re seeking adventure, knowledge, or relaxation, Burkina Faso promises an enriching and memorable journey.