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.
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).
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.