Benin is an emerging destination that could soon be the perfect place to experience the diversity of Africa in one country, but for now, it would be more enjoyable for the intrepid traveler rather than a casual vacationer. Still, this is a fascinating destination with a rather complicated history and despite the diversity in the numerous cultures here, there are deep roots where traditional ways of life are still engaged, especially in the more rural areas.
Benin is the birthplace of voodoo and one of the countries that was a major departure point for slaves being taken out of their homelands. Learning more about these two aspects will go a long way to enhance your travels in Benin. The people are quite diverse in their religious beliefs with a near equal mix of Christians and Muslims and others who still practice the traditional west African Vodun. While French is the national language, more than 50% of the people speak at least two languages and English is commonly heard. Another interesting fact is that around 50% of the population work in agriculture which is a primary feature of this country.
There are pristine beaches in the south, forested savannas in the center and a mountainous north. The wildlife opportunities here rival those in some the more traveled countries in Africa. Unfortunately, not every place in Benin is currently safe. Specifically, in the north and around the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger, where in May 2019, terrorists kidnapped a guide and two French tourists on a safari. The tourists were rescued by the French military and the guide was murdered by the terrorists.Two French soldiers were also killed during the rescue mission. This event is horrible for this country that was previously considered safe for travel and as the areas noted as unsafe are the best places to view wildlife.
There are other places in Benin to see and experience, so don't rule it out completely, just make sure you do your research before going. Also realize that tourism here is in its infancy and that most of the country is off the beaten path, if not all of it. There are several reputable tour operators that have amazing itineraries in West Africa and we highly recommend traveling in a small group when venturing into the North.
Do not go to Benin and miss a visit to Ouidah. About a 45 minute from Cotonou, situated along the Atlantic coast is the historical Port of Ouidah. This place is important as it is where countless slaves were sold in the town's market and were then made to walk to the sea where they were taken from their homeland forever. The Slave Route begins in the market and is a pilgrimage that is lined with monuments leading to the Door of No Return, a memorial arch on the beach. You can learn more about the Atlantic slave trade at The Ouidah Museum of History in a Portuguese fort built in the 18th-century. Ouidah is also the Voodoo capital and where the Fête du Vaudou takes place on the same beach with the Door of No Return. If you don't mind snakes, the Python Temple is another popular stop here and worth a visit.
The Dahomey Kingdom existed from about 1600 to 1900 and among other things is known for building an empire by selling off captured enemies into the slave trade. Now, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the modest palaces and museum in Abomey is another excellent way to learn about the history surrounding the Atlantic slave trade.
Not far from Cotonou is Grand-Popo. This a small beach town where spending a few days resting and walking around is an excellent way to spend time in Benin. Marché de Grand-Popo is a local market next to the Mono River and is a great place to walk around and experience daily life in this laid-back atmosphere. The beach here is beautiful and can produce some spectacular sunsets. Be aware there are strong currents here and swimming is at your own risk.
For a wonderful way to immerse yourself into a traditional fishing village you'll want to head to Ganvié on the edge of Lac Nokoué. North of Cotonou, this is presumed to be Africa's largest community centered on a lake where people have been living in homes built on stilts for more than 250 years. The history behind the settlement is interesting because the original people came here from in and around Cotonou to being avoid captured and sold as slaves. The best way to get here is by boat from Cotonou.
Natitingou is in the northwest corner of Benin, not far from Pendjari National Park in the Atakora Mountains. A visit to this area visiting to see the traditional Tata Somba fortresses is very interesting excursion and the best way to learn about the Batammariba people who are also known as the Somba. From Natitingou and into Togo forms the entire area known as Koutammakou or the Tata Somba Region. This is a Togo UNESCO World Heritage site extending into Benin. Benin is likelier a better place to experience this culture as it is less of a "tourist trap." Do keep in mind that these are people's homes and while they do receive tourists, it is best to go with a local guide who has a good relationship with Somba.
When To Go
Month by month, the temperatures do not vary much. There are basically two seasons, rainy and dry. If a little rain spoils all the fun, stick to mid-November until the end of March. If you aren't concerned as much with the rain and would prefer less humidity, August and September are the best times to go and during this time, the rains die off a bit as well.
January is a great time to visit because you can experience the Voodoo Festival which is certainly one of the things that makes this country such an interesting destination for those of us who love to tell stories about the places we've been and the things we've seen in the parts of the world that others never think about going.
Pendjari National Park is open from October 15th to July 31st. The best time to view animals here is March and April, though the heat is extreme, animals will gather at the remaining watering holes making it easier to spot them.
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