Bénin Guide – Places To Go
Bénin, West Africa
PLACES TO GO
Cotonou is the economic capitol of Bénin. This is where the international airport is located. It also is where the embassies, banks, and best hotels are. It is a big, smelly, exciting African city.
Cotonou is divided into several quartiérs. Here are a few that may be useful to you.
I’d advise any visitor to first stop at the Peace Corps office to talk to current PCVs about more updated information on places to go. It is located in quartiérs Jonquet, which is the red light district. There are parties all night long here in the local buvettes. Be careful here at night though, I know of several people who were robbed in Jonquet.
Quartiérs Hai Vive is a fun place to visit. This is where a lot of ex-patriots hang out. There is a nice yovo restaurant called Livingstone’s if you want to meet other westerners. It is quite cher (expensive) though. Near Livingstone’s you can find some men from Niger who sell silver jewelry and little leather boxes. Be cautious, you have to bargain hard to get an okay price. It’s not all real silver also. There are a couple of places to stay here too.
Quartiérs Ganhi is where to go to exchange money. Many people I know exchange money illegally. This is a little risky though. Best to stick with Ecobank, a big West African bank that will give you an okay rate. Expect to stand in line for a long time, and you’ll need a passport. You will need to bring money to exchange and not an ATM card, because as of 2003 there were no places that accepted ATM cards. There also is a nice little marché (market) in this area where you can get raw food as well as clothes and cheap African bootleg CDs. Check out some of the newest music! They will play the CD for you right there so you know that it works and that you like it. As with everything, the price is negotiable.
There are many places to stay in Cotonou, in every price range. Some of them are pretty disreputable, so again, I’d advise you to hunt down some current Peace Corps volunteers and find out where they stay. One place that I can full heartedly recommend is hotel du Lac which is where Peace Corps volunteers splurge to stay at. It costs about $50 per night, has AC, hot water, a big pool.
There is a nice little Centre Artisanal (artisan center) where you can buy touristy things like beads, jewelry, fabric, woodcarvings, drums. These things are not cheap though.
No trip to Cotonou is complete without a visit to Dantokpa the huge marché located in the center of town. You can find anything and everything that you could ever imagine there. Take it slow, and just ignore the guys who offer tours (they will try to rip you off). There is a really interesting Voudoun (voodoo) section with creepy dried animals, charms, snakes, etc. I’ve found the men there to be really friendly and interesting. They are willing to answer any respectful questions and explain their beliefs. There also is an awesome fabric selection, especially in the cavernous three story building that sells only fabric. There is hand woven and dyed things, wax prints, fabric from India, fabric in every imaginable print and price range. Fabric is pretty expensive, so don’t expect the price to go down all that much. I find Dantokpa to be exhausting and overwhelming. People are constantly grabbing you and yelling at you and trying to get your attention and to buy what they are selling. I’d advise you to make several short trips there, preferably early in the morning when it is cool, rather than one long trip.
In a lagoon near Cotonou is a town on stilts that was founded in the middle of a lake by escaped slaves 300 years ago. Their descendants still live in stilted houses, fishing and now selling things to tourists. And, it is very touristy, one of the first things that you see in the town is a giant sign for Coca cola. Still, it is a nice excursion. You’ll need to take a taxi and then a boat to get there.
Porto Novo is the official capitol of Bénin. It is a beautiful town, filled with the sleepy ruins of French Colonial buildings, painted in peeling pastels. There isn?t much to do here, but wander around and look about.
There is a marché selling the usual things. There are a couple of old ladies selling authentic beads (not touristy necklaces) and voudoun things. Also fabric, food, etc. Near the Marché is a large Mosqué (mosque) that is painted in brilliant, chipping colors. Porto Novo has the largest Muslim population in the south. Finally, there is an interesting school, Lycée Benhazin that is a Porto Novo landmark. It is one of the biggest schools in the country, and is quite picturesque.
Warning: People tend to be very aggressive in Porto Novo. They shout and yell and may try to grab you bags in order to get your attention, or to get you to be their customer. Be aggressive back! Any look of indecision and you are in trouble.
If you are crazy, you can continue onto Nigeria from Porto Novo, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a death wish.
To get there take a bush taxi from Dantokpa in Cotonou. Taxis are easy to get and should be pretty cheap.
Grand Popo is a town on the beach within spitting distance of the Togo border. It is known for it’s resorts and its voudoun traditions.
Along to highway on your way to Grand Popo you will notice huts with little white flags flying over them. These are where voudoun practitioners are living and selling their services. The Grand Popo marché has a nice little selection of voudoun artifacts too. Check out the twin dolls, dolls in which the soul of a dead twin can live. Every January there is a huge voudoun festival that is amazing.
There basically are two nice places to stay here. The Auberge is a little older, and touch more expensive. It has nice rooms for a variety of prices. The restaurant it awesome, but not cheap. Awalé Plage is newer and for a younger set of people. It has a bar on the beach! Again, not cheap. Both places have chairs and shaded areas on the beach, as well as pools. As tempting as the water is, beware, there is a fierce riptide and people die every year.
Besides relaxing on the beach there isn’t much to do. My favorite thing to do in Grand Popo is simply to walk along the beach and watch the local fishermen as they tinker with their pirogues and fix their nets.
Check out the Finnish Institute (Finnish, of all places!) if you want to meet other westerners. Located near the Auberge.
The country of Togo (and Ghana just beyond!) is just a hop, skip and a jump (and an insanely expensive Visa) away from here!
To get there take a taxi from the Boulevard St. Michel in Cotonou.
Ouidah was the center of the slave trade in Bénin, and is currently another voudoun hotspot.
At one point there existed five slave forts from five different European nations. Makes you proud to be a yovo. Only one slave fort is still standing, a former Portuguese fort that is now a museum. It is interesting to see the fort and learn a bit of its history. I especially like the part where it shows the influence that the Beninese culture has had on the cultures of Brazil and Haiti. From the fort, make sure to take a tour of the Rue des Esclaves (slave walk). You can find a tour guide at the fort who should take to the sites of the other forts, and along the rout that slaves took to the beach, where the ships awaited them. There is a huge monument to the millions of Beninese lost to the slave trade on the Ouidah beach.
Le Temple de Pythons (python temple) is a pretty cool tourist trap. You pay to get in and look at the pythons which are sacred to some voudoun sects. The best part is getting to hold one of the sacred pythons around your neck. Make sure to shell out the extra money to be able to take pictures to send home!
Get to Ouidah by taking a Bush Taxi from the Boulevard St. Michel in Cotonou.
A slower paced, dusty northern town, surrounded by hills. There is not much to do in Natti, but it is a good starting place to launch excursions.
There are several cascades (waterfalls) near Natti. You can talk to the zemidjan drivers there and negotiate for them to bring you to the falls and back. Do not try to negotiate for the prices in Natti! They usually give you a fair price in the beginning.
Nattitingou is near Parc Pendjari (the animal park) where you can go on a safari. If you are traveling in a group, you can rent an entire taxi to do this. Otherwise, I’d recommend that you go through a company that will fill a car up for you. You can go for an overnight and say at the hotel there or just go for the day. Either way, make sure to bring lots snacks, since the food there will be scarce and expensive. Adjust your expectations: this is West Africa (not East Africa with its abundant animals). You can expect to see lots of crocodiles, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, hippos and various gazelles. If you are lucky you will run across lions and elephants. I’m talking about people sitting squished in a car for hours looking at distant specks on the horizon. I didn?’ even bother to take a picture. Still, it was fun.
In the evenings make sure to check out the local street vendor cuisine. Do not leave Nattitingou without having a big helping of igname pile washed down by a Beninoise (see the food section).
Natitingou can also launch you into your next country: Burkina Faso (and Mali just beyond that)!
To get there, take a bush taxi from Dantokpa in Cotonou. It will take all day by taxi, and is not chea