The 1000-year-old ruins of Loropeni

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Red dust is blowing in through the open windows of our ramshackle car when we overtake the minibus. It is the only other vehicle we encounter on the piste from Gaoua to Loropeni in South-western Burkina Faso. It may be travelling all the way to Banfora – presumably one bus per day – and we are glad for once that we decided not to visit the UNESCO-designated ruins of Loropeni by public transport but have splashed out on a taxi for the day.

Almost no visitors

A few kilometres behind the village of Loropeni, we turn into a dirt track where a local tourist guide joins us to collect the fee and show us around the ruins. As in every museum and tourist site in the region, we are not allowed to walk around on our own but are accompanied by a guide. Although we have occasionally seen other visitors, there was never a shortage of guides for this purpose, and in Loropeni at least, we are the only tourists (quite likely the only tourists for the whole day).

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Huge walls from a local red stone rise in the forest, forming a number of large enclosures. So far, archeologists found only a few smaller structures of houses or watchtowers. The stones are joined and partly plastered with mud, and with their bases of considerable width, some walls are still up to about 8 m high – originally they may have been even higher since the ground was perhaps one or two metres lower when the walls were first built.

A trading station for gold

But who were the builders of the settlement of Loropeni? Teams of European and local scientists are still working on the excavations, and in 2009 the ruins were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in the hope of further archaeological progress. Apparently, the walls belong to a number of (mostly smaller) fortresses. The tribes used them to control the gold trade between here and the coasts of Ghana and Ivory Coast, and that were most operative in the 14th to 17th century. There may however have earlier fortifications which local people used to shelter from wild animals or enemies – and considering the size of the enclosures, they could take all their livestock inside for some time. In this, they remind us of similar refuge forts in Uzbekistan (the much older Qalas of Qaraqalpaqstan) and of Romania (the fortified churches of Transylvania), built around the same time.

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Our visit doesn’t last more than about 30 minutes: Although the site is spread out, there isn’t really much to see. We take the opportunity afterwards to visit a fetish master in a village near Kampti (from where there is a tarred road back to Gaoua).

The fetish master

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The fetish master is a widely respected man and much sought-after in the region. He has as many as three different consultation rooms for his clients: low-ceilinged, dusty compartments full of wood and feathers, wooden statues and pottery dolls. For a small fee, we are allowed to peak into his consultation rooms (most of them smelly, because of the animal sacrifices). The fetish master doesn’t show much interest in us. His main customers would come not only to have a fetish or a potion made, but also for his advice on business, health and marriage decisions. We conclude that a successful fetish master in all likelihood must also be a good observer of human nature with quite subtle psychological skills …

But who knows, maybe he has just the right magic.

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Are the ruins of Loropeni worth visiting?

We enjoyed our day out in the surroundings of Gaoua. Our main reason to travel to Gaoua were the ruins of Loropeni and they are indeed quite impressive. However, it might not be quite worth the time and expense visiting the ruins alone when you are travelling all the way through Burkina Faso. We combined it with a visit to the fetish master, a traditional pottery and a traditional house.

How to get to the ruins of Loropeni

Gaoua is a city in South-western Burkina Faso, about 6 hours travelling by public bus from the capital Ouagadougou. From there we rented a car with driver (35 000 CFA) and a guide (15000 CFA) for the day. Another, cheaper way to visit would be to rent a motorcycle in Gaoua (around 15000 CFA for the day), but this would be a quite dusty 40 km ride. You could visit Loropeni on your own, but for the other sights you would need a guide to arrange access.

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Loropeni is on the road between Gaoua and Banfora, so if you take this road by shared taxi or minibus (rare), it is also possible to get off at Loropeni and then hope for some sort of onward transport after the visit.

+++ We were in no way sponsored for our travel to Loropeni (or Gaoua or indeed Burkina Faso as such). We arranged the car and guide on our own, asking for recommendations at the Musée du Poni in Gaoua. +++

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