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Elmina, Ghana


Guide to Elmina And Elmina Castle (St George's Castle), Central Coast, Ghana
Elmina Castle, Elmina, Ghana

Elmina Castle, Elmina, Ghana

© Anouk Zijlma
Most visitors to Ghana stop in Elmina for a tour of Elmina (or St George's) Castle, because of its history as a major trans-Atlantic slave hub. Located along Ghana's central coast, Elmina is just a few miles (12 km) west of Cape Coast Castle. Elmina Castle was not built for the purpose of holding and trading slaves, it started life as a trading post for gold and other wares. It is thought that the name "Elmina" comes from the Portuguese name for this coast "Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro" (The Coast of Gold Mines). While the Castle is fascinating, I found the town of Elmina to be an incredible experience. The vibrant fishing community here provided more color and energy than almost anything other place I've been to in Africa. I loved it. Here's a guide to Elmina and hopefully you'll see why it's worth planning to spend more than just a half day here, and to go check it out beyond the castle walls.

Elmina Town Fishing Market
Right outside the Castle, along the Benya lagoon, a wild scene unfolds daily, filled with folks busying themselves with the fish industry -- Ghanaian style. Colorful pirogues (traditional fishing boats), adorned with biblical quotes and smart sayings, European flags, and brightly colored paint are manned by muscled fishermen wearing soccer shirts. They arrive back in port after some hard hours out at sea, to applause from young men and women standing on a bridge, that crosses over the lagoon. Their women, dressed in a riot of colorful batiks, wait for the daily catch of mahi-mahi, crabs and squid to come off the boats. Once the boats have docked, organized mayhem ensues as the catch is divvied up and then handed to the women. They load the fish into massive metal tubs, heave them onto their heads, and carry them to the nearby market to sell. The fishermen's clothes hang draped over lines strung across the boats, washed and ready for the next outing. Boat engines are hauled off the boats and put up onto the heads and backs of men, to get carried to a safer place for the night.

You can squeeze your way to the market, which lines the Benya lagoon, and stand in awe as fish are sold, smoked on huge racks, or salted and dried. Despite the smell of fish, and numerous plastic bags floating around, the market is kept quite clean. Huge slabs of ice are scraped and the ice shavings are placed on the fish to keep it fresh. As you head ever deeper into the fray, you can marvel at carpenters building new pirogues, their massive hulls exposed like giant whale bones. The carpenters live in shacks right behind their outdoor workshops. The unfinished boats appear as tall as two-story homes.

The scene is so filled with life, good nature, hard work and color, it's a lovely antidote to the sheer depression that fills you after a tour of the castle and its horrific slave-trading history. It reaffirms all that is good about life. And the accompanying sounds of hip-life played on radios throughout the market really helps as well! If you're lucky with your timing, you can also enjoy the local drumming and dancing groups that practice every day after 5pm in a courtyard adjacent to the castle.

Elmina Castle - St George's Castle
Elmina Castle is a designated World Heritage site and popular among visitors, especially those interested in learning more about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Elmina castle, also known as St George's castle is slightly older than the Cape Coast Castle further west, it was built by the Portuguese in 1482. This makes it one of the oldest European buildings on the continent still in one piece today. The Castle stands white and proud with the shores of the rather wild Atlantic Ocean on one side, and the more placid Benya Lagoon on the other.

Take a tour with a guide, it's really worth it unless you know your history well, or have just had a similar tour at Cape Coast castle. The guide will take you through the history of the slave-trade, explain where the slaves came from and who brought them to this point. You get to go into the dungeons where the slaves were kept, and it's mighty eery and filled with bad vibes, some people cannot stand it for long. You can almost feel the suffering in the air, it's unsettling. There are good photo opportunities of the fishing market from the castle, and of course at the "door of no return". Literally a small door that led through the outer walls of the Castle where slaves were lowered into boats (exactly like the pirogues you see today), and then onto the big slaving ships further out at sea. Luckily the views and open spaces are breathtaking in and around the Castle, so you can get some air and gather yourself.

The Castle itself is quite well maintained. The upper story is where the officers lived and worked out of. It's worth reading a little history before you get here to make the most of a visit. I read Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and it helped fill in any gaps left by the guide.

Elmina Castle Practical Tips

  • Wear a hat and sunscreen, it is blazingly hot and bright in the mid-afternoon. Gives you a little taste of what it must have been like for the slaves.
  • Cost per adult is 8 Cedis, a little extra if taking photos. Guides do rely on tips and are generally very good, I would recommend 10 Cedis if you enjoy your tour.
  • Shells with your name on it will appear magically once you've completed the sobering tour of the castle. You may not have realised, but the friendly young guys at the entrance asked you what your name is. Now you know why. Don't feel obligated to buy the shell, even though it's pretty, and remember that that some countries won't allow you to bring back conch shells anyway.

Elmina Town Center
Beyond the market, the fishing boats and the accompanying applause, you can follow the bridge into the center of town. The streets of Elmina are lined with buildings from colonial times. Interspersed with wild looking statues courtesy of Asafo organizations. Asafo were coastal military companies, operated by the Fante along the coast. Asafo had their own company buildings in town, with flags to identify which organizations they belonged to, as well as large statues depicting religious figures and other mysterious people (it's difficult to find exact information).

Here's a brief description of the Asafo organizations and their flags (which are collected these days) by Dan Mato, Professor Emeritus of Art History, The University of Calgary:

"Most Fante coastal towns had at least one company and larger towns up to ten or fourteen leading to rivalries and conflicts. These companies were politically engaged in the selection of chiefs and identified religiously to their particular military shrine (pousban) that served as a gathering place and centers of activity for these Asafo companies. Each local company is identified by a particular name and number and through a set of symbols displayed prominently on their flags. Commenting upon Asafo flags (frankaa) in the late 17th century Europeans noted the distinct imagery of the flags. These motifs served to identify the Asafo company by giving visual form to the creed by which it wished to be known. Verbal proverbs are given imaginative visual forms by different colored cutout figures appliquéd upon cotton square approximately a meter by a meter and a half in size onto cotton cloth that was generally produced in European weaving mills. The edges were often cut to produce a serrated edge that was decorative and lively. Asafo flags have a rough system that can be used to define the date of origin with the British ensign often featured on flags before Ghana achieved independence in 1957. Therefore Asafo flags with the Ghanaian ensign in one of the corners indicate that the flag was put together post-independence and thereby after 1957."

Dutch Cemetery, Elmina
I also stopped by an old Dutch cemetery, still maintained by a little old lady, who survives by selling biscuits and the occasional tourist tip. It's worth having a look at some of these graves, especially if you follow up with a visit to the excellent Elmina-Java Museum (see below).

Elmina-Java Musuem
During the Dutch colonial days in this part of Ghana (1637 - 1872), the Dutch recruited several thousand able and sometimes even willing soldiers from Ghana, to fight their battles in Java (now Indonesia). There's a wonderful museum just outside of Elmina town that is home to this fascinating little slice of history. The Museum opened in 2003 in a nice bungalow. Displays are well lit and maintained, lots of clothes, and diaries to browse through. Of course dedicating their lives to supporting the Dutch did little for the "Dutch black" people when it came down to it, as the Castle, Fort and power was handed to the British in 1872, and they had to deal with an entirely different "master".

St Jago Hill Fort
On top of a hill directly opposite the Elmina Castle, you'll see a similarly styled building, the St Jago Fort. Built by the Dutch to protect the Castle from raids by other colonial powers, the fort still stands today.

Where to Stay in and Around Elmina
Coconut Grove Bridge House -- I had lunch but did not stay at the Bridge House. But the location is excellent and next time I would certainly spend a night or two here, just to watch the fishing boats come in and go out. See if you can get a room with a view. Their sister property, the Coconut Grove Beach Resort is the best luxury option close by and even boasts a golf course. It's a little too much of a "business hotel" for my tastes.

KO-SA Beach Resort
- I loved this resort, run by two Dutch couples (so the coffee is great!). KO-SA is a real treat, good swimming, great food and wonderful accommodation at reasonable prices, located about 13 km's west of Elmina. The individual huts are colorfully decorated, very comfortable, with attached bathrooms and compost toilets, making this a truly eco-friendly place to stay. A natural bay allows for safe swimming, rare in these parts, but you still have to take care. You can relax on the beach or in hammocks in the gardens, take drumming lessons or walk for hours on the beach. The restaurant is wonderful and serves both local and international dishes. It's an easy day trip to Kakum National Park from here. Rates for a bungalow with attached bathroom start at 65 Cedis per night. Dorms are also available. Camping is free.

Elmina Bay Resort - A relative newcomer to the Elmina area, but getting rave reviews. The Elmina Bay resort is good value and just a ten minute drive from Elmina. The resort is situated on a lovely stretch of beach, with a nice swimming pool for those who don't want to brave the waves. The buildings look a little new and stark on the outside, but inside they're clean, cool and spacious. The staff are attentive, the food is very good, and you can take endless strolls along the beach here. Rates for an air-conditioned double room, with free wi-fi start at USD $110.

Stumble Inn, next door to Elmina Bay Resort, is excellent if you are on a budget or wish to spend some time volunteering. You can use the pool at Elmina bay for 10 Cedis. I loved staying here for the interesting people you get to meet doing a little more than just sightseeing, and the low-key vibe.

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