LOME, Togo — Throbbing African rhythms and rituals, paired with luxurious beachfront resorts at a fraction of the Caribbean's rates, form an almost irresistible combination.
Togo's varied landscape in West Africa moves from palm-lined beaches and coconut plantations into a rich green and gold savanna before the mountains rise dramatically to the north, their slopes draped with the vines and flora of tropical rain forests.
This diversity provides homes and livelihoods for the many groups of Togo people, each with their own customs, crafts and tribal markings.
Only minutes from Hotel Sarakawa's beachfront bungalows and swimming pool are mud-daubed villages and weekly markets.
An hour away are hippos cooling in the slow waters of the Mono River, where women do their laundry and men paddle about in dugout canoes.
Bright red birds dart in sugar cane expanses and village children wave at the rare car that passes on the red clay tracks that crisscross the bush.
Beat of the Drums
L'Encampment, a mountainside retreat north of Kpalime, offers rooms in an airy, rambling lodge and dinner on the veranda. Below, friendly villagers gather to the insistent beat of the tam-tam drums and dance under the enormous trees.
At Atakpame, another stopping point on the route north, visitors can join residents and dance under the stars to a five-piece band for the price of a bottle of local beer. The sound is the contagious African-Latin beat and the atmosphere is 100% hospitality.
Travelers whose legs are up to a short, energetic climb can hike from Badou to the spectacular Akrowa waterfall.
Guides carry your camera bags and will also tote hikers who don't want to wade across mountain brooks.
The Hotel Abuta in Badou offers spotless rooms whose balconies look over the trees to the ragged, jungle-covered mountains.
Each Friday, Volgan is the scene of the largest village market in Togo. Merchants from around Togo mix with local women and children selling succulent oranges, artistically arranged red peppers and garlic, herbs, beans and yards of tie-dyed and printed fabrics.
For serious shoppers the Kloto Craft Center, the courtyard of Hotel du Lac near Lome and the Passage des Artists in downtown Lome offer good buys in traditional woodcarving, ivory, colorful batiks, Mauritanian leather boxes, masks, bronzes from Benin, malachite, agate beads and even a rare strand of antique trade beads.
The new Restaurant 1-2-2 on Rue de Gare serves large juicy grilled shrimp inside or at a sidewalk cafe, where diners can watch the vendors set up.
One West African experience that no traveler should miss is voodoo. The Togo center for this is in the Be Market, a bare field enclosed by small buildings, each of which houses a voodoo chief. On tables are spread colorful displays of fetishes, from animal skulls to ancient quartz thunderstones.
From Lome, an excursion via Gazelle Tours' vintage open railway car passes several village markets as well as the weaving center at Assahuan.
The school there specializes in the dramatic Kente cloth of the Ashante people. Woven slowly, of fine silk thread, the narrow bands form brilliant designs that emerge when the strips are sewn together.
Made into expensive robes worn by Ashanti chiefs, Kente cloth garments are rarely seen outside Africa and are coveted by collectors and museums alike.
A Sacred Forest
Close to Lome is Glidji, home of the sacred forest where its young priest, wearing a traditional knit wool hat, meets visitors.
Although Togo offers enough to keep a traveler busy, a trip to Ganvie in neighboring Benin is well worth the delay of a border crossing.
From the moment the visitor arrives at the pier where boats leave for Ganvie, a different world begins. As the passenger ferry makes its way into the lake it is surrounded by boats.
Powered by bed-quilt sails, they are filled with robed Muslim men, girls in pagne skirts and boys throwing fish nets that spread in the air like fireworks.
Even this panorama of color and activity doesn't prepare one for the town of thatched houses rising above the water on stilts. About 15,000 Tofinu people live in this city, built by their 17th-Century ancestors on a marshy island.
Time and high water eroded the island, but the houses on their pilings remain secure. Later buildings used longer stilts until the entire city stands in the middle of the lake with only a few tiny areas of marsh grass remaining.
Rows of brushwood rise from the water in strange hedgerows, carefully built and maintained as breeding grounds to attract the fish that form the base of Ganvie's economy.
More than fishermen, they are fish farmers, harvesting and selling at the mainland pier.
A floating market of dugouts tied together is always busy as shoppers buy from their own boats as they pass or hop from one to another.
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