Quick Facts about Cape Coast
Cape Coast Castle – This trading post turned slave fort played a key role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, processing tens of thousand of slaves for shipment to the New World. The entrance fee includes a very informative tour and an optional visit to the museum.
Elmina Castle lies 11km to the west of Cape Coast Castle. It too started out as a trading post, but ended up a slave fort in the hands of the Portuguese. While their history is similar, Elmina Castle has a colder, darker feel.
A city tour of Elmina after your castle visit will give you a good feel for some of the local culture and lifestyle.
Kakum National Park is a tropical rainforest about an hour’s drive outside of Cape Coast. The big attraction here is the Canopy Walkway, where you can trek across rope bridges suspended 40m above the forest floor.
Posuban, sometimes referred to as posuban shrines, are military stations where the asafo companies (the town’s militia), traditionally meet. Many of the posuban have representational sculptural elements that tell stories and relay parables. The region around Cape Coast in Ghana is the only place where posuban exist.
Cape Coast, is 147km, about a 2 ½ – 3 hour drive, west of Accra. You can get there by car, luxury bus (we recommend STC) or tro-tro.
Yes, Cape Coast is safe. Ghana is an extremely laid back, friendly and stable African country and violent crime is pretty low. The most significant issue you’ll have to deal with are pushy touts, especially near the castles. Common sense precautions to prevent theft and pick-pocketing apply – as they do anywhere.
Cape Coast is just a few hours outside of Accra, and when you visit Ghana, this town is a must-see. There are so many things to do in Cape Coast, all within the town, or a short day trip. We’re going to discuss the top three sights, as well as present you with one lesser-known quest that we think you’ll find intriguing.
People of Ghana – a Practical Primer
Ghana has more than 80 languages, 100 tribal affiliations, with bouts of Dutch and Portuguese trading and British colonial history. This varied background has amazingly resulted in a peaceful coalition of people that are proud to be Ghanaian.
But we’re not going to go into the details of the historic and sociological associations other than to let you know that Ghana is a very diverse country. Alongside their tribal languages, many people speak English and that makes things easier if you’re a mono-linguistic English speaker.
What we want to do is let you know how to handle some things you will most certainly encounter in your time in Ghana, and especially, Cape Coast.
First off, the Ghanaian people are super nice. They’re friendly, welcoming and quick to smile and laugh. Ghana is one of the safest destinations we’ve ever traveled to. These things were true when I solo-traveled here in 2003, and they still hold true in 2019, even with an influx of investment and modernization.
However, this friendly nature of theirs also means it’s easy to get drawn in by the touts who just want to show you their art, or some such thing. It’s not a horrible request, but if you listen to their sweet talking too much, you’ll end up stopping at twenty shops just on your way to lunch.
Chances are, by the time you reach Cape Coast, you’ll have already dealt with some of this in Accra. The touts in Accra are pretty easy-going, though, and easy to brush off if you’re not interested. This is best done with a joke and a smile. We don’t mind a little salesmanship.
Or maybe you want to stop and look. They’ve got some pretty awesome arts and crafts, from wood carving to metalwork and textiles – so pick a salesperson you like and see what they’ve got to offer.
Side note: The fabric patterns in Ghana are absolutely wonderful and it’s easy to have a tailor make you a shirt, dress, suit, shorts, or whatever you like very quickly, very well, and for a very reasonable price ($8-15 usually – you provide the fabric). Best souvenir ever.
In Cape Coast, however, the touts are significantly more aggressive, mostly the ones around Cape Coast Castle. They’re very hard to get rid of. The best choice is to not engage them in conversation at all. Ignore them.
The artist co-op inside Cape Coast Castle is fine. Shop owners will invite you in, but there is no pressure to buy.
Also know that there are plenty of places to buy wonderful arts and crafts around the country, so never let yourself feel pressured. If you’re not interested, or don’t like the way someone is making you feel, walk away.
All the same is true of the touts around Elmina Castle.
A few phrases to NEVER use with someone who’s trying hard to sell you something:
- Maybe – to touts in Ghana, this means, ‘I’ll buy it later’.
- Later or next time – even just to look, this means, ‘I’ll buy it later’.
- Don’t give out Your Name – next thing you know they’ll have your name emblazoned on some item they want to sell you and they’ll try to guilt you into buying it. Whatever they say, it can always be undone.
Don’t let this deter you from Cape Coast, just use our guidelines and be prepared.
Drivers in Cape Coast
The drivers in Cape Coast offer reasonably fair prices and it seems many are fixed, like the drive to Kakum National Park, by mutual agreement.
Pretty much every driver we had in our first few days offered their phone/WhatsApp number, and were ready to take us anywhere we wanted at any time of day. This is an honest offer.
We recommend collecting a few numbers of the drivers you like so you have them when you need them, especially for day trips and such.
We also have a driver, Junior, we can highly recommend. Let us know if you want his number and we will get it to you.
Having said that, if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Cape Coast Castle, it’s a very walkable town. And if you do over-extend yourself, there are taxis and yello-yellos (Ghanaian tuk-tuks) all over that can take you back to your hotel.
Now that you’re familiar with the environs, we’re actually going to share the special surprise super non-touristy attraction near Cape Coast first.
Who else would share the big surprise first? No waiting, no baiting to lure you to the end, or teasing you with a longwinded….what? oh yeah, let’s get to it.
Posuban Shrines and Asafo Companies Protecting the Village
What’s a posuban?
In times past, it was a fortification where the village military, the asafo company, would meet.
Whether to announce the births and deaths in the village, or in response to a crisis, like an attack from a neighboring village, or a fire, the asafo company would organize around the posuban. The roles of the asafo companies are like the police, fire, town council and newspaper rolled into one.
Today, the remaining asafo companies have mostly ceremonial functions but they still play an important role.
Technically, to say posuban shrine is not correct. The posuban is the station. The shrine, if there is one, is a tree that is often embedded within the posuban. The tree represents whatever deity the people of the town worship.
The region around Cape Coast is populated by the Fante, Ashanti and Ga people, among others and most of the posuban in this area belong to these groups. Posuban are unique structures exclusive to the central coast of Ghana. You will not find them anywhere else in Ghana, Africa, or the world.
My first time seeing the posuban was back in 2003 – I thought they looked like very cool miniature golf sculptures (they’re much cooler than that, though). These militia posts are unique and creative forms of African design, sometimes mixed with European influences, as evidenced by certain military uniforms and even the addition of Adam and Eve, in one case.
I read about them in my Lonely Planet (LP) Guide, but getting to them was another matter. Fortunately, a fellow backpacker that knew his way around better than I did decided to accompany me and he managed to get the bush taxis to the right places to see them.
Back then, they were along bumpy dirt paths in tiny villages. Imagine my surprise now, when our driver zipped down beautifully paved roads to bustling towns. Progress.
The absolute best posuban is at Mankessim. This posuban is 3-stories tall and has numerous stories and symbols represented within its sculptures. If you’re lucky, the storyteller from the asafo company will be around.
As soon as you approach, someone will go find the storyteller and he will come to tell you both the history of the Akan people and about all the life lessons contained within the Mankessim posuban, the Oboyaakwa Legend.
Leave yourself some time to visit this one – up to an hour. Don’t just take a few pictures and leave. You don’t want to miss getting this wonderful insight into Fante culture.
While no fee is directly charged, don’t leave without a generous tip for the storyteller. It mostly goes to the asafo company for maintenance, and the one in this town is still performing its regular duties.
Anomabu probably has the largest number of posubans in a single town and is definitely worth a visit. Your presence will attract some attention. They don’t seem to get a lot of outside visitors.
If you’re feeling intrepid, you can walk all around the town trying to track down all 4 or 5(?) posuban. This would definitely be easier if you approached backpacker style, not looking too posh.
The posubans here are a little more low-key, except for the big one of the ship that’s down a strange, rugged alley. Still very interesting, but no one comes out to tell you stories or give you history. You’re pretty much here for the experience and the pictures.
You’re welcome to take pictures of the posubans, sometimes for a small fee, and the local castle, Fort William, but be cautious about photographing people. Even a wide shot might get people asking for you to give them a few cedis for the privilege.
I made the mistake of giving in to this request and then everyone in the area wanted something from me. This may not happen every time. We had a car and driver, for Tim’s sake, so we probably looked quite wealthy. Be discreet and polite and you’ll be fine. Many people don’t ask for anything.
My recommendation here: Only give a few cedis to people who tend posubans, or if you ask to take someone’s picture and arrange an amount in advance.
New Ebu Posuban and Help from a Deity
Our driver, Junior, is from the town of New Ebu. It’s just off a main road and while it has a few paved streets, it would be easy to miss. Much of New Ebu is still dirt road, though new, and very organized construction is happening fast.
We arrived and I got out of the car to take pictures.
Suddenly, my camera wasn’t working.
I checked all the buttons and settings, but every time I pressed the shutter, it would start to take a movie and freeze up. I triple checked, it was not on movie mode. I turned it off and back on several times. Nothing.
Well, it so happens that since Junior knows most everyone in the town, he also knows the priestess that converses with the posuban shrine’s deity. All that was required was some libation, peach schnapps, and a small donation for her services, and she would ask the deity to fix my camera.
Rain clouds were starting to spit as Junior and I went off to acquire the necessary libation. A woman with a small store had plenty of peach schnapps and freshly roasted peanuts, among other household necessities. I made the purchase and we returned to the posuban.
After some discussion, the priestess approached the posuban and started chanting. Her tone was sincere, as if she was truly having a conversation with the deity. After a little more chanting, she opened the bottle and poured the schnapps on the base of the posuban, adding the sharp scent of peach to the already rain-laden air.
More chanting and pouring.
I checked my camera, fiddling with a few buttons – and it started working again. I kid you not.
Honestly, I figured out what was wrong. It had gotten put into 4k burst mode instead of single pic. I also had clarity of how and when it actually happened. Whether you want to say it was all me that finally figured it out, or divine inspiration, I will leave to your judgment.
Either way, it was a fascinating experience.
Schnapps, donation and all came to less than $10usd. Worth every penny.
If you hire Junior, ask him to bring you to New Ebu and show you around.
There are several posubans in Elmina and visiting them is easily combined with your visit to Elmina Castle.
There is a walking tour of Elmina that touches on at least one posuban, but if wanting to see posuban is your primary focus, talk to the guide before you set out.
The terrain in Elmina is a bit rough, the kind that slows Tim down, so we ended up hiring a local taxi along with the city guide to shuttle us around to the different posubans.
Overall, the posubans in Elmina are not as well kept, but if you’re there anyway, they’re worth your time. Only one seems to have men that gather around it and possibly maintain it. They were quite welcoming, but they neither added to the experience, nor asked for donation. Our city guide, however, provided plenty of information.
Posubans are not something most tourists know about, and even fewer choose to go see. If you want to go home with some great stories, interesting pictures and an uncommon experience, spend an afternoon searching out these posubans. You won’t regret it.
And if you’re interested in a very detailed history of the posuban we can’t do better than this article by UCLA Fowler Museum Alum, Doran Ross.
Kakum National Park – A Canopy Walkway Adventure
While it’s often called Ghana’s rainforest, this conservation area is classified as a tropical forest reserve. There are many activities, from birdwatching to forest hiking and wildlife viewing. It’s in the central region of Ghana, about 30km NW of Cape Coast.
Kakum Forest’s main attraction, though, is the forest canopy walkway.
The rope bridge walkway is suspended 130 feet (40m) above the forest floor and its sections add up to more than 1000 feet (300m) long. Don’t worry, the ropes are changed regularly and the bridges are well maintained.
Getting to the park from Cape Coast takes about an hour. It’s fine until the last section of road which is in serious need of repair. This is the time to hire one of those drivers whose number you collected. The normal trip is expected to take about 90 minutes, once you reach the park.
Of course, there’s nothing normal about Team Hazard.
When you first arrive, you pay admission at the Visitor’s Center and there’s a small café with drinks, in case you forgot to bring your own. You definitely want to have water with you for this adventure.
When we arrived, there was serious discussion as to whether Tim would be able to do the park canopy walk. It would be a big disappointment if he didn’t.
The terrain was rough, and there is a hike up stony stairs to get to the walkway. I went partway up and while I knew it would be challenging, we’re used to taking it slow. I asked the guide how long it takes a normal person to get to the canopy walkway. He said 15 minutes.
NEVER believe a local when they tell you how much time something takes.
If a normal person takes 15 minutes, then I would probably be able to do it in 30. That meant it couldn’t take Tim longer than 60-90 minutes, right?
All of those numbers should have been doubled.
I will also mention here that only a couple of weeks before, we’d gotten Tim’s leg x-rayed and found out it was fully healed and no longer broken. He was still in the process of re-strengthening it and getting used to putting full weight on it again when we came on this adventure to Kakum National Forest.
For the average person, I put the hike up to the canopy walkway at 30-60 minutes, depending on your fitness level. The stony stairs aren’t too bad, but we were there in one of the rainy seasons and the packed dirt between the stones was worn away, making the path less-than-smooth. I’m not sure it’s better in any other season, though. If you have a hiking stick, take it.
With Tim’s bad vision, those rough stones seriously slowed him down. It took 2 ½-3 sweaty hours to reach the canopy walkway – but he did it!
We got on the canopy walkway, climbed the stairs and made our way slowly across the narrow planks of the rope bridge. There was no way for anyone to help Tim at this point, he had to do it on his own. One foot after the other.
The lush forest views are wonderful, by the way. The Kakum canopy walk is entirely worth your time, money and effort. I bring this up because while most of my attention was on Tim, I did get to appreciate this tropical rainforest.
The bridge pitches and shimmies a little. Fortunately the ropes come up high enough on the sides that you feel very safe and secure. In fact, the first time I did it, in 2003, I was a little disappointed it wasn’t more Indiana Jones-like. If you have a fear of heights and want to conquer it, this would be a pretty good, and bold, way to do it.
Our guide took us on the short route of the canopy walk because it was getting late, and we still had to get back down. I was a little disappointed, but I understood.
Unfortunately, for Tim, because of his vision, going down is harder than going up, and light was diminishing under the forest canopy. The other downside, we hadn’t imagined it taking this long, and Tim was exhausted. We hadn’t eaten lunch – we had planned on doing that afterward. Note: We checked his blood sugar several times and it wasn’t an issue.
All this led to him tiring out beyond moving about 2/3 of the way down. If we had time, we could have given him the rest he needed and then kept going. But we were losing light. And for Tim, a misstep was much more likely, and more dangerous.
Then, after some rest and consultation, an amazing thing happened.
Our guide, driver and some other men from the staff at Kakum National Park actually carried Tim down the stairs. This troupe, in their flip-flops and carrying a very large man, moved so fast that I could barely keep up. (Maybe they were the ones that could reach the canopy walkway in 15 minutes.)
In addition, two young women accompanied us, carrying Tim’s canes and a bench for him when we paused.
We were down the hill in short order. Incredible.
I tipped everyone heartily as they helped an exhausted Tim into the car. By the time we got back to the hotel he had recovered somewhat, but the next day was a rest day for sure.
Despite Tim’s mis-adventures, Kakum’s Canopy Walkway is a wonderful experience and we recommend it to everyone. It’s definitely a fun and worthwhile day trip from Cape Coast.
If you’re a real nature lover, you can get accommodation inside the park, or go on more extensive hikes. Here’s their website for more info.
Kakum National Park Entrance Fees
(Prices below are for non-Ghanaian adults and are subject to change)
- Canopy Walkway – 60 cedis ($12)
- Forest Hiking – 45-50 cedis ($9-10)
- Bird Watching (more than 250 species) from canopy walkway –
- 1 hour – 90 cedis ($18)
- ` 2 hour – 160 cedis ($32)
- 3 hour – 200 cedis ($40)
For more options and prices, check out their official website.
Cape Coast Castle – History You Need to Hear, and Feel
Taking the tour of Cape Coast Castle is not easy, but it is essential.
About 40 slave castles dot Ghana’s coastline, but Cape Coast Castle is probably the most famous. A UNESCO World Heritage site, in addition to providing a guided tour telling the history of Cape Coast Castle, this fort contains a great national museum that details Ghana’s slave trade. It’s one of the best museums in Ghana.
We’re not going to pull any punches here. A lot of travel writers say how important this stop is, and how historic, but not much more because they don’t want to scare you off. The tour of Cape Coast Castle is going to affect you, and it should.
Thousands of slaves passed through this place, and many died here. The presentation is not sensationalist, but very straightforward. Actually being present in this space, your understanding and empathy will grow tenfold.
The impressive view Cape Coast Castle presents is in direct contrast with its horrible history. The architecture is interesting and dynamic against the rocky prominence that leads into the ocean, waves crashing, sea salt spraying. It could be beautiful – if it had retained its original purpose as a trading post.
But knowing that tens of thousands of people died, were raped and tortured and sent off to either die on ships or be cruelly enslaved for the rest of their lives, leaves visual appreciation and historical abhorrence forever locked in grim conflict.
Built by Sweden in the 1650’s, and later taken over by the Dutch, then the British, Cape Coast Castle originally traded in gold, wood and textiles. Depending on how old you are, you might have grown up with textbooks that referred to Ghana as the Gold Coast.
It was when Britain took the castle over that merchants started demanding African slaves. As demand grew, the infamous slave dungeons were added so more captives could be processed.
No matter how much you read or try to understand the scope of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and comprehend what it truly meant, there is nothing like standing in the dungeons where captives were held.
Dim lightbulbs, that give off far more light than the captives ever saw, hang strategically, giving you a sense of the space where a thousand men were held with barely enough to eat and drink, and no place for eliminations. One thousand slaves could be held in these conditions for up to 3 months before the next ship arrived to export them to the New World.
As you walk through the small, dark chambers you realize just how many people were crammed inside with no chance of reclining or relief.
After being sold, slaves were marked and counted like cattle. Weakened and bewildered after months of darkness and deprivation, they marched down the corridor that would steal them from their homes forever and take them through the big gate to the waiting ships, through the Door of No Return.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Cape Coast Castle also held up to 500 female slaves, kept in a separate dungeon. Their conditions were identical to the men’s except they would be paraded out into the courtyard for Governors and other VIP’s to choose as victims for rape. If they refused, they were chained to an iron ball and left in the brutal sun, or thrown into isolation in a tiny, sweltering cell.
It is truly hard to imagine. But even my words can’t describe the impact of the Cape Coast Castle tour. We protect ourselves with our modern eyes, in our modern times thinking that was long ago – but in reality, we know better. Humans can be cruel and we have not fully evolved beyond this.
It’s hard to believe that Tim’s ancestors went through these horrible things and survived the journey to the New World. Their incredible strength and determination is the only reason he is here today. It is also why, from Ghana to Benin, his brothers and sisters welcome him back.
In 1998, Ghana reclaimed the Door of No Return. Now there’s a sign, on the outside facing in, that reads, The Door of Return. Ghana is not letting the specter of colonialism and slavery dominate the narrative of their future. They are owning it and moving forward.
Cape Coast Castle Entrance Fee:
40 cedis ($8) for non-Ghanaian adults, it includes the tour
Elmina Castle – aka St. George’s Castle
About 11km west of Cape Coast lies Elmina Castle. Erected by the Portuguese in 1482, this fort was known then as El Mina (the mine). It was the first trading post built in sub-Saharan Africa on the Gulf of Guinea. It too, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This castle is definitely worth including in your plan for the Cape Coast area. If you start early, you could comfortably visit both castles in one day. Or, you could visit Elmina Castle and do the nearby Elmina walking tour we mentioned in the Posuban section above.
Elmina Castle started out as a West African trading post and a way for the Portuguese to protect their gold stockpiles for trade. It was after the Dutch took it over that it became a major point in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The dungeons in Elmina Castle feel different than the ones at Cape Coast. They’re not as subterranean, but they’re menacing in their own way.
While being marched toward the slave ships, captives in Elmina were escorted through a door so low that no man or woman could pass without stooping low. Then they had to pass through Elmina’s Door of No Return which is far more insidious than Cape Coast’s.
The Door of No Return in Elmina is incredibly small, about half the size of a healthy human being, and it loads directly onto the ships at high tide. The size of the door is so small because the slavers knew that no matter how strong and healthy a person was when they were free, after their time trapped in Elmina Castle, they would be so thin and weak they’d be able to fit through that impossibly small passage.
The realization is horrifying, and it was business as usual for them.
There’s another demonstration you get at Elmina Castle that doesn’t happen in Cape Coast. You get to see what the drunk tank for rowdy soldiers looks like – from the inside. It’s a small-ish cell, but the door is an iron grid that lets plenty of light through and you can imagine after a night drying out and getting a proper dressing down from their superiors, the soldiers would go back to their duties.
The next demonstration, however, shows what happened if a slave tried to escape, or rebel. Next to the soldier’s drunk tank is another cell – with a skull and crossbones over the door.
Rebellious slaves were tossed in there and given no food or water. Once you’re inside, you realize that there’s only the smallest grid in the door to let light in. Rebel slaves that were placed in this cell, died in this cell. There were no such thing as survivors.
If feels good when you emerge into the sunlight and makes you appreciate your freedom.
While its history is similar to that of Cape Coast’s Castle, the feel of Elmina Castle is not the same. It’s smaller and darker and there are definitely differences, both architectural and emotional.
Visiting both castles gives you a sense of the massive scope of the slave trade when you imagine there are 40 slave castles and forts along Ghana’s coastline.
Elmina Castle Entrance Fee:
40 cedis ($8) for non-Ghanaian adults, it includes the tour
Cape Coast, Ghana – from Posuban to Kakum’s Canopy Walkway to Slave Forts
Cape Coast offers many options for visitors to both enjoy, as well as learn. We know this post hasn’t always been easy to read and we thank you for sticking with us. This hard stuff is important, and understanding it helps you grow as a person. You can return from your vacation not only relaxed, but enriched.
Beyond what we’ve shared here, there’s a nice beach, good restaurants and fishing villages you can explore – and the center of town is a fun, minor riot of market stalls and lively locals. There’s plenty to do, whatever your tastes.
But if you’re coming to Cape Coast and want to hit the most interesting and significant sights, we think the posuban, Kakum National Park, Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle are your best choices.
If you’re fast and rugged, you could squeeze all of these tourist sites in Cape Coast into 2 days, but we recommend 3 or 4 days to give yourself time to breathe.
Whether you’re going to be in Ghana for a week, a month, or longer, make sure you make time for Cape Coast. You won’t regret it.
Know someone who would like to go to Ghana or learn more about it? Share this post with them, or to all of your friends. Who knows who you’ll inspire?