Although the Beninese musical ambassador Angélique Kidjo is the subject of something approaching hero worship in this small West African nation, to experience the country’s fabulous music scene is merely to scratch the surface of its eclectic culture. Marked by influences from the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere in Africa, along with native voodoo practices, Benin is unlike any other place in the world. Indeed, although visitors often come for the northern region’s abundant wildlife, including elephants, cheetahs, lions, and more than 500 species of birds, they often leave happily enthralled by the nation’s untouched beaches, fascinating indigenous traditions, and the thrills and chaos of the main city, Cotonou.
1. Shopping and Clubbing in Cotonou: Benin’s largest city, Cotonou, is characterized by the same kind of chaos and grit as other large West African metropolises, but it also has one of the finest cultural scenes in the region and a thriving nightlife. The Fondation Zinsou, a museum dedicated to contemporary African art, is superb, and it hosts a painting workshop on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays—an excellent diversion for young children. In addition to the city’s numerous cinemas are the French and Chinese cultural centers, which hold weekly film screenings. The sprawling Grand Marché du Dantokpa offers everything from pirated DVDs to voodoo fetish objects and is worth visiting for the spectacle as much as the shopping. The Jonquet strip contains several bars and nightclubs with Beninese music and low or nonexistent cover charges.
2. Ganviè: Possibly Benin’s most unusual attraction, the town of Ganvié is built entirely on stilts in the middle of a large lagoon. Its inhabitants are descended from the Tofinu people, who were captured and sold as slaves by the rival Abomey tribe. Because the Abomey were forbidden by a religious taboo to attack people on water, the Tonfinu constructed an entire town so that they would never have to go on land. The lagoon itself suffers from pollution, and locals hawking guided tours can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, but this city makes for an unforgettable respite from Cotonou’s mainland dominance.
3. Safaris in Pendjari National Park: Lions, elephants, and cheetahs are the popular animals here—and that’s to say nothing of the crocodiles, baboons, and hippos that also inhabit Pendjari National Park, in northern Benin. It has some of Benin’s best scenery, and the well-run park administration uses quality control measures, including a rating system, to ensure that you’ll get your money’s worth from guides.
4. Voodoo Fetish Markets: Although most Beninese nominally practice Catholicism or Islam, the country’s official religion is voodoo, and it wields the most influence over the spiritual lives of Benin’s people. Most open-air markets in Benin will have a fetish section, where buyers can purchase talismans, or “fetishes,” such as statues, dried animal parts, and potions. Hollywood has sensationalized many aspects of voodoo, or vodun, and it is important to treat the religion’s practitioners with respect. That said, many locals are happy to answer questions about their religion from polite, interested foreigners.
5. Slave History: A highlight of the city of Ouidah (which itself is steeped in Beninese history and voodoo mythology), the Route des Esclaves is a four-kilometer trail that traces the road from the historical slave auction square to the Door of No Return, where slaves boarded the ships that would carry them to the New World. The auction square is currently home to the Musée d’Histoire de Ouidah, inside a former Portuguese fort; there you can hire guides for the rest of the route as well as browse the museum’s sizable collection of artifacts. Various monuments and fetishes can be seen along the route.
6. Royal Palaces of Abomey: From 1625 to 1900, 12 kings of the long-vanished kingdom of Abomey lived in this enclosure, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Inside, visitors can view bas-reliefs and artifacts, including a throne mounted on human skulls. Descendants of the royal family live near the site and help to maintain it.
7. Route des Pêches: The Route des Pêches, which technically comprises Benin’s entire Atlantic coast, has some of West Africa’s quietest beaches. The best way to experience the region is at one of the small bed-and-breakfast inns that dot the coast. Canoes and kayaks are available for rental at the Mono River delta.
8. Fidjrosse Beach: Although it does not compare to some of the more remote locations on the Route des Pêches, Fidjrossé deserves credit for its agreeable climate and clean, reasonably quiet environment, especially given its proximity to Cotonou. It also offers opportunities to surf and is home to a wider variety of accommodations than you will find elsewhere.
9. Lake Ahémé: Famous as a voodoo holy place, Lake Ahémé supplies tranquillity to believers and nonbelievers alike. It is possible to camp here, and local tour operators offer traditional fishing lessons and excursions into the nearby forests.
10. Festivals in Ouidah: Benin’s main holiday is the Voodoo Festival, or Fête du Vodoun, which is observed in mid-January with raucous celebrations, music, and drinking throughout the country. The best place to enjoy the festivities is Ouidah, which is also home to the Quintessence Film Festival, a major attraction for African movie buffs. The Quintessence festival generally takes place in the days immediately before and after the Voodoo Festival.
It is best to visit during the dry seasons, from December to February and from July to September, when temperatures are higher and overland travel is generally much easier. Weather in Benin is the most temperate and pleasant in August and September. Visiting in mid-January will allow you to witness the Voodoo Festival. Some tourist facilities, particularly in the south, close during the rainy season.
Visas: You will need a passport, visa, and proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter Benin. Visas cannot be purchased at the airport. Make an advance arrangement through your country’s Beninese embassy.
Transportation: Transport between cities can be difficult, as roads are sometimes unpaved; if you must drive yourself, a vehicle with four-wheel drive is recommended. It is easiest to take a bush taxi or bus, although you shouldn’t travel in them by night. Benin has no public transportation system, but taxis and zémidjans(motorcycle taxis, also called “zemis”) are cheap and convenient. Domestic airlines offer flights between cities, and a train system connects Cotonou to Bohicon, Savé, and Paracou.
The U.S. Department of State’s consular website has a great deal of information about safety and security in Benin. It can’t be repeated often enough: be sensible when you travel. Be alert and aware of your surroundings.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Benin or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
Like the rest of West Africa, Benin has been inhabited by many small ethnic groups since prehistoric times. By the 15th century, the area had come under the power of the kingdom of Dahomey (which originated in nearby regions), and members of rival tribes were often sold to the Europeans as slaves, a practice that led to the construction of the island region of Ganvié. The territory became a French colony in 1872 and was granted independence in 1960, as part of France’s wave of decolonization. The nation endured the rule of several dictatorial, incompetent military leaders until 1989, when it became a democracy. Although not without its problems, Benin is today one of West Africa’s more stable democracies.
1. Benin uses the West African CFA franc, whose value is fixed to that of the euro. Be careful not to confuse it with the Central African CFA franc, which is used in some nearby countries but is not interchangeable with the West African franc. You can also find ATMs in the cities.
2. French is the official language of Benin, although at least eight indigenous languages are also spoken. English is rare, and travelers would do well to learn some French phrases before visiting. The country has more than 50 newspapers, both independent and state owned, in a variety of languages. Internet access is scarce outside of Cotonou, but within the city Internet cafés are plentiful and upscale hotels offer Wi-Fi.
3. Western women may attract some unwanted attention in the streets, so it is advisable for them to dress more modestly than at home, particularly in the summer. Although sleeveless shirts are fine, women should keep their legs covered at least to the knee. Pants or a medium-length skirt should be fine.
4. Tap water in Cotonou is drinkable, although bottled water is generally a safer bet, and any water that has been sitting out for a period of time should be avoided. Malaria is common in Benin; it is wise to carry insect repellent and a mosquito net with you, even during the dry season.
5. You’d do well to book tour guides, transportation, and hotels in advance: local guides are known for jacking up prices. The Beninese embassy has a helpful list of hotels in the country.