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The Republic of Benin is a small West African nation along the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic coast and bordered by Niger and Burkina Faso in the north, Togo to the west and Nigeria eastward. The country has a democratically elected multiparty government which rules over an ethnically diverse population.
Much of Benin’s ancient traditions survive and the use of figurative masks, the practicing of the Voodoo religion and the presence of witch doctors makes this country a fascinating yet mystical place.
The beautiful palm-lined tropical beaches along the coast contrast sharply with savannah in the north. The climate is classed as tropical in the south and dryer and cooler in the semi-arid northern region.
Benin’s currency is the West African Franc, presently very weak against all major currencies.
French is the official language and it’s advised that you enlist the help of a guide if self-travelling, however, staff at most popular resorts speak English.
Benin is conveniently located from Europe and the perfect destination for holidaymakers looking for an assortment of tourism options in a single country.
Things to do
Soak up the sun on the palm-lined golden beaches of Benin’s entire coastline. Surfing is popular at the Route des Pêches west of Cotonou.
In a huge valley surrounded by the Atakora Mountains lies Pendjari National Park. The park has an abundance of game and the roads are easily travelled. Expect to see big game species such as the endangered West African lion, elephant and cheetah. Avoid the rainy season between July and September and take precautions against malaria.
The old town and sprawling markets at Porto-Novo are worth a stop.
The ancient city of Abomey is a must on any itinerary to visit the beautiful UNESCO-listed royal palaces and temples believed to have been erected with mud and the blood of sacrificed prisoners. Also to be viewed nearby is the 16th century Agongointo-Zoungoudo subterranean village, built 10m underground to escape the cruelty of previous regimes.
Voodoo (Vodou) originated and is the most practiced religion in Benin. The annual Voodoo Festival takes place near the sacred forest of Ouidah and residents from all parts of the country attend the colourful festival to receive blessings from the local voodoo priest.
The stilted village at Ganvié gives the visitor an opportunity to interact with locals who still navigate the river on dugout, the design having changed little in its 300 year history.
Visit the d’histoire d’Ouidah museum in Ouidah to learn more of the greatly misinterpreted Voodoo religion.
The Road to Nowhere monument in Ouidah is a tragic reminder of the slave trade and is located on what was referred to as the ‘Road of Slaves’.
Take a guided tour up the Mono River to a village where salt is made using an age old method of sourcing from mangroves, filtering and baking into a final product.
Where to Eat
Tandoori Nights in Cotonou serves spicy north Indian dishes inside their cozy restaurant or out on the terrace. The restaurant packs in the crowds.
The Le Sorrento restaurant in Cotonou has a vast menu ranging from pizzas to French favourites. Nice ambience, the Terrine of Foie Gras dish is recommended.
Set in lovely tropical garden surroundings, the Boca del Rio restaurant in Grand Popo serves up a variety of freshly prepared meat and fish dishes. Skewers are a favourite.
Saveurs d'Afrique on Beach Road in Grand Popo is a laidback beach restaurant well-known for their excellent fish dishes. Popular for its idyllic location.
Le Gourmet in the city of Porto-Novo offers various steak dishes and local cuisine. Meals are served without accompaniments, remember to order your vegetable, starch and/or salad as a side dish. Sample a Gbékoui, a meat or chicken dish cooked in a broth of spinach, peppers, ginger and shellfish.
The set menus at Centyre in Porto-Novo are excellent value for money, offering 2 entrees, a choice of 5 main dishes, 2 side orders and a dessert. The restaurant is simply laid out with electric fans to keep patrons cool.
Le Yes Papa in Cotonou is a light night bar where up and coming musos are given the opportunity to showcase their talent. Drinks are reasonably priced and the vibe depends on the entertainment.
A more upmarket option is the Coco Cocktail in Cotonou, a nightclub with good music and lively atmosphere.
Billed as a disco, New York, New York in Cotonou draws locals, volunteers and expats to the club for a fun night out. Dance floor and casino on the premises.
Red Night Club in the same city hosts various themed parties and local DJs supplying the vibes. Bring your French game if you want to socialize.
Where to Stay
An assortment of marvellous accommodation options awaits your visit to Benin, from stylish comfortable hotels to resorts practically on the beach.
Air The main airport in Benin is Cotonou Cadjehoun Airport in the city of Cotonou.
Car There are a number of car rental companies at the International airport and in downtown Cotonou. Roads between main centres are good but be warned that traffic is chaotic on the smaller, sand roads and in the city centres.
Taxi There are no traditional taxis in Benin, bush taxis are the regular means of transport for locals. If you don’t mind a crushed ride in a less than roadworthy vehicle, the bush taxi is your best option! However, the quickest method of travel is via motorised taxi (called a Moto) to get you to your destination timeously.
Bus The bus network in Benin is good and covers all areas.
Train There is a train service that operates between the southern and central towns only. Access to the north is via bus or car.
Did you know?
Benin’s renowned storyteller, Dr. Raouf Mama is an authority on African literature and folklore. A prolific writer, he also lectures on the subjects and has won several international academic awards. He is the author of the delightful book, Why Goats Smell Bad and Other Stories from Benin.
Visas are required for travellers into Benin. Anyone entering the country is obliged to have been immunised against yellow fever and present documented proof.
Benin is a soccer crazy nation and their national team is nicknamed Les Écureuils – The Squirrels – suggesting a small creature able to climb great heights, but a name hardly likely to strike fear into opponents.
Benin's coast was once the hub of all slave trade in Africa and was known as the Slave Coast.
Unlike the Hollywood stereotype, voodoo dolls are used symbolically rather than a means to torture an enemy. When a twin dies, the other carries a doll to represent his/her sibling. The doll is carried throughout the person’s life, as the Beninese Voodoo followers believe it’s impossible for twins to die.
Often situated in exotic and outdoor locations, Bungalows offer a rustic, yet romantic form of accommodation for guests looking to get away from it all. Usually self-catering, guests can expect to find a fully functional kitchen, basic cooking and cleaning supplies and general bathroom amenities. There is often a place for some outdoor braaing, and to simply sit and take in the surrounding scenery. Bungalows are ideal for couples, small - medium groups of friends and families.