Benin is a great country to visit on any West African itinerary. You'll find a large quantity of palatial ruins and temples of the once powerful Kingdom of Dahomey (1800s–1894). Moreover, Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (Voodoo) and all that goes with it—to this day Vodun remains the official religion of the country, and an important part of the life of ordinary Beninese. The national parks of Benin are also well worth a visit for their wildlife. It is also, fortunately, one of the most stable and safe countries of the region for traveling. With its rich history, vibrant culture, protected wildlife, Grand Popo ocean beach, and artisan market in Se, Benin is one of the best kept tourist secrets in West Africa.
The Portuguese arrived in Benin's territory in the fifteenth century, and established significant trading posts in Benin's coastal areas. Soon following the Portuguese came French, Dutch, and British traders. Over time, Benin's coast developed into the largest center of the slave trade in Africa, run by the Fon people, who dominated the Dahomey government and actively sold their neighboring peoples to the Europeans. As the slave trade increased in volume (10,000–20,000 slaves shipped off per day), the coast of Benin became known as the Slave Coast. Around this time, the port cities of Porto-Novo and Ouida were founded and quickly became the largest and most commercially active cities in the country, while Abomey became the Dahomey capital.
The fall of the Dahomey Kingom was precipitated by the banning of slavery throughout Europe in the mid-19th century, followed by the French annexation of the territory under colonial rule. Much of the Dahomey leadership broke even in the annexation, being appointed to top government posts throughout all the French colonies in West Africa. In 1960, Dahomey gained its independence, under the name République du Dahomey, which set off a long and destabilizing series of coups. In the course of just one decade, 1960—1972, the government changed hands nine times, and experienced four violent coups.
In 1972, Major Mathieu Kérékou, a staunch Marxist, organized the fourth of the military coups, and renamed the country the People's Republic of Benin. Kérékou's regime proved more successful at maintaining power, and reorganized the country on his interpretation of the Maoist model. In 1989, the French government, in exchange for financial support of Benin's flailing economy, persuaded the Benin government to abandon its one-party Socialist rule, and to move to a multiparty republic. In 1990, the country was renamed the Republic of Benin, and in 1991, Benin held its first free elections with significant success, and Kereku lost to Nicephore Soglo—Benin was thus the first African nation to successfully coordinate a peaceful transfer of power from a dictatorship to a functioning democracy. Soglo remained president through 1996, but his administration was marred by poor economic performance, leading to his electoral defeat to Mathieu Kérékou in 1996, who ruled the country and maintained popularity despite corruption scandals until 2006. The current president of Benin is today Yayi Boni, a technocrat who served under the tutelage of former President Soglo.
Today, Benin remains as an extremely poor country, suffering from poverty and corruption. Infrastructure remains very poor in condition, and the struggling economy is recovering after decades of political unrest.
The equatorial south of Benin experiences two rainy seasons of the year, from April to mid July and from mid-September through the end of October. The rainy period in the subequatorial north runs from March until October. The best time of the year to visit the country is from November to February, when the temperature moderates, and the weather is dry with low humidity.
Benin, compared to its neighbors, is geographically smaller, being 112,620 square kilometers—the size of Honduras or the U.S. state of Ohio. The country is basically divided into five geographic zones, from south to north: the Coastal plain, the plateau, the elevated plateau and savannah, hills in the northwest, and fertile plains in the north.
The nation consists of more than 60 ethnic groups. The major tribes include the Fon (40%), Aja (15%), and Yoruba (12%) in the south of the country, and the Bariba (9%), Somba (8%), and Fulbe (6%) in the north.
The most widespread religion is Christianity (43%), predominiantly in the south, and Islam in the north (24%). Most interesting for many visitors, however, is the strong influence of Vodun on Benin, practiced as a principal religion by a good 18% of the populace, and which was spread about the globe largely by the massive quantity of slaves exported by the Dagomey Kingdom.
Nationals of all African countries may enter Benin visa-free for up to 90 days.
All other visitors to Benin must obtain a visa from a Beninese diplomatic mission prior to arrival. Visas can be single entry ($40USD) or multiple entry ($45USD) and last 30 days. Visas cost $140 for US citizens. In Paris, single entry visa costs EUR 70 for all EU citizens.
Unlike before, visa on arrival at land border crossings with a possibility for an extension is not possible anymore (unless maybe when in transit in between Nigeria/Togo). A visa can be applied for in Lome before Friday and collected on Friday after 3pm. The cost is 10.000 for a 2 week single entry visa, requiring 2 pictures and maybe even proof of future onward journeys like a plane ticket.
There are many international flights arriving at the main airport in Cotonou. From here you can connect to Paris, Amsterdam, Moscow, and a variety of cities in West Africa. In order to enter the country you will need proof that you have had a yellow fever shot, and this will need to be readily available at the airport.
There are no international train services to Benin.
There is an extremely timely and reliable bus system that runs your average tour-style bus through every major city in Benin everyday, and even some in and out of Benin. There are many major lines with a range of quality of buses. The main systems are Confort Lines and Benin-Routes. Confort Lines seems to provide more of a variety of routes, and you even get some water and a little sandwich for long trips. Reservations for Confort Lines can be made in advance for 500 CFA at any regional office or by calling (001 229) 18.104.22.168. Bus lines run through: Porto-Novo, Cotonou, Calavey, Bohicon, Dassau, Parakou, Djougou, Natitingou, Tanguieta, Kandi, and even all the way up to Malanville.
Buses run on the two major paved roads running north and south, and you can have the bus stopped at any point you would like to get off at, and for differing rates. No discussion of prices is needed with the bus, as they used fixed rates. To give you an idea of prices, buses running from Cotonou to Natitingou (or vice versa) costs 7,500 CFA one way, and Cotonou to Parakou (or vice versa) costs 5,500f CFA. These are examples, because there are also buses that go as far as Tanguieta and Malanville.
By bush taxi
Bush Taxi is possible between most cities, every day in major cities, periodically for the more remote ones. The total price for long distances will be a little higher than by bus, and comfort and security are significantly lower. Drivers are often trying to maximize the number of people in the car so one can expect an intimate experience with the local population. However, bush taxis do offer flexibility that the bus systems do not; you can always find a taxi fairly quickly (at the autogarres). For trips of 3 hours (approx 150km) or less, a bush taxi might be a more flexible and reasonable option. Unlike the buses though, prices MUST be discussed in advance. Cost depends on the destination and price of gas. Ask other passengers what they are paying and always try to pay on arrival, although the latter is not always possible. A decent option for travelers not trying to go on the cheap is to buy up all the seats in a bush taxi, or at least all the seats in one row. It not only avoids having to wait until the taxi driver has filled up every seat, but it's much more comfortable than being crammed in with lots of sweaty people! If you do this, you'll typically need to give the driver some money up front so he can buy petrol along the way.
Traffic is insane and the rules on the road are almost never enforced. If you are planning on driving yourself in Benin, an International Driver's license is required. Traffic flows on the right hand side of the road as in the US and Canada.
Hiring a local guide is recommended.
Police roadblocks at night occur regularly and traveling alone with a driver (especially if you are a woman) may put the driver in an awkward position explaining and/or bribing the police.
Traveling by car is recommended only between major cities. For example, to travel from Cotonou to Porto Novo or Cotonou to Abomey etc. Most of the time, you would be required to share the car with many other travelers who are going it the same direction as you. Expect to be cramped and hot as most bush taxis are in hard shape and drivers try to cram as many people as possible into the car to make the trip as financially rewarding as possible. However, if you want to throw the extra money, you can hire a car to take you personally where ever you want to go with no stops. The price would depend on the driver and you would definitely need a local to help you to negotiate the price. For example, a 3 hour car ride from the South Central region along the main highway would cost you about 30,000 - 40,000 CFA if only 2 passengers are present, whereas if you share the ride and pick people up on the way you would only spend about 5000 - 10,000 CFA. Traveling by car within the city is not recommended at all due to the fact that it is simply unnecessary and uneconomical. The best way to travel in any city or village is by motorcycle taxi. Also, driving yourself around in a car is not a good idea. The roads are mostly of hard packed sand, with a few paved main roads in the cities and on the highways between the major cities.
The cheapest way to travel within a city or village is by motorcycle taxi (moto, zemidjan or zem). They are cheap and the drivers usually know the city well. An average ride costs 500-1,000 CFA, and they are easily recognizable by their matching colored shirts with their ID numbers on them. Prices must be discussed beforehand, and payment is made upon arrival. Remember the driver's ID number as you would a taxi driver's ID in New York City, just in case. Choose your driver carefully, drinking and driving in Benin is very common and moto drivers are sometimes involved in crime rings in major cities.
Motos have colors for different cities (for example): Cotonou: yellow Natitingou: green with yellow shoulders or light blue with yellow shoulders Kandi: light blue with yellow shoulders Parakou: yellow with green shoulders Kérou: green with yellow shoulders
There are many pirogues (kayak/canoe) used for the fishing industry. Normally one can use a pirogue to visit the lake villages.
There is a train route that goes halfway up the country, from Cotonou to Parakou, run by L’Organisation Commune Benin-Niger des Chemins de Fer et Transports (2132 2206). While the train takes longer than a bush taxi, it's a much more relaxing way of traveling. First class tickets are only slightly more expensive than second class ones and are worth the extra expenditure. The train leaves Cotonou three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at 8AM precisely, arriving at Parakou about 6:30PM, and returns the next day, leaving at 8AM from the Parakou train station, arriving 6:30PM in Cotonou. First class costs CFA 5600, while second costs CFA 4000.
The trains on these schedules will usually stop at Bohicon, which is 4 hours from Cotonou. The fare costs CFA 1400 for first class, and CFA 1100 for second.
A tour company also hires out colonial-period trains for multiple-day touring trips at expensive, but good value prices (CFA 50,000+)
The official language is French — the language of the former colonial power. Native African languages such as Fon and Yoruba are spoken in the south, Bariba and Dendi in the north, and over 50 other African languages and dialects are spoken in the country. English is on the rise.
Benin is perhaps best known to the world as the birthplace of the Vodun religion—voodoo. Voodoo temples, roadside fetishes, and fetish markets are found throughout the country, but the best known is the skull and skin-filled fetish market in the Grande Marche du Dantopka—Cotonou's overwhelmingly busy, enormous, and hectic grand market. The most important fetish in the country is the monstruous Dankoli fetish, on the northerly road near Savalou, which is a pretty good spot for beseeching gods.
Benin under the rule of the Dahomey kings was a major center of the slave trade, and the Route des Esclaves in Ouidah, terminating at the beachside Point of No Return monument is a memorial to those who were kidnapped, sold, and sent off to the other side of the world. Ouidah's local museum, housed in a Portuguese fort, unsurprisingly focuses on the slave trade, in addition to other facets of local culture, religion, and history, and is a real must see for anyone passing through the country.
Abomey was the capital of the Dahomey Empire, and its ruined temples and royal palaces, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, are one of the country's top attractions. The ruins, their bas-reliefs, and the Abomey Historical Museum in the royal palace (which contains all sorts of macabre tapestries and even a throne of human skulls) are a testament to the wealth brought to the Dahomey kings from the slave trade, and brutality with which they oppressed their enemies, fodder for human sacrifice and bondage.
Ganvie, home to 30,000 whose ancestors fled the brutal Dahomey kings by building their town on stilts right in the center of Lake Nokoué, is without question a fascinating and naturally beautiful locale, and a popular stop as one of the largest of West Africa's lake towns. But it has been to an extent ruined by the unpleasant relationship between locals and tourism. (Ghana may have much more rewarding experiences for travelers interested in West African lake towns.)
While manic Cotonou is the country's largest city and economic center, Porto Novo, the capital, is small and one of West Africa's more pleasant capitals. Most of the country's major museums are located here amidst the crumbling architectural legacy of French colonial rule. Grand Popo is the other popular city for tourists to relax, but not for the city itself as much as the beaches.
In the north, you'll find a very different sort of Benin from the mostly crowded, polluted cities of the south, of which Cotonou is such a prominent example. Pendjari National Park and W National Park (which Benin shares with Burkina Faso and Niger), is considered West Africa's best for wildlife viewing, and are set in beautiful, hilly highlands.
The unique and eccentric mud and clay tower-houses, known as tata, of the Somba people in the north, west of Djougou near the Togolese border, are a little-known extension into Benin of the types of dwellings used by the Batammariba people of Togo just west. Virtually all tourists to this area flock to the UNESCO-designated Koutammakou Valley across the border; the Benin side has the advantage of being even off the beaten path.
Also, while in Se be sure to stop by for a refreshing drink at North Pole or Victoria Palace. Peace Corps volunteers say Se is one of Benin's best kept travel secrets.
The West African CFA Franc has a fixed exchange rate to the euro. 655.957 (or in street trade often 650) F CFA is equal to €1, and roughly 500 F CFA is equal to 1 US dollar. There are banks in all the major cities, and most of the banks have cash machines. As in all the CFA Franc economies, Visa is much more popular than Master Card. For Master Card and Maestro withdrawals, try Banque International du Bénin (blue star), with SGBB (red and black square logo) being quite reliable with Visa and Visa Electron. Keep in mind that many businesses and offices, including banks, close for several hours in the middle of the day.
Prices for goods purchased in a store, restaurant, hotel, bus tickets, etc. are non-negotiable, but almost everything else is. Depending on the item, it's not uncommon for foreigners to be quoted a price that is double the final purchase price.
If you have been on the road a long time and are looking for a nice, cool and well stocked shop, try Erevan hypermarket very close to Cotonou Airport. It is reputed to be the biggest hypermarket in all of West Africa, selling all the nicest imported French goodies, as well as having a nice hardware department.
For the tourist wanting to experience the local spread, Dantokpa Market in Cotonou is the biggest local market in West Africa.
One can find any type of African commodity all over Benin.
In every city/village one will find street vendors selling anything from beans and rice to grilled chicken, goat and/or turkey. Prices are nominal. But one must be careful, always choose a vendor whose food is still hot, and they have taken care to keep the bowls covered with a lid and/or cloth.
The beer is cheap and good! Local pubs (buvettes) are on every corner in every neighborhood. You can get a bottle of local beer "La Béninoise", Heineken, Guinness, Castel and others depending on the bar. They all cost about 250 CFA for a small bottle or 500 CFA for a large bottle. In the nightclubs beer is excessively expensive, like 30000 CFA a bottle! So stick to the local pubs, or avoid buying beer at the nightclub. Local whiskey (moonshine) is also available, it costs about 2000 CFA for a liter and it is VERY strong stuff. There is also the local vin de palme (palm wine), an alcoholic beverage that is made from from sap of the palm tree.
Basic hotels can be found for 5000 CFA and more in most cities, bargaining may reduce that substantially. Camping is possible in only a few places, in Grand Popo and the occasional hotel you can make a deal with reception.
The best way to stay safe in Benin is to always always always be in the presence of a local person whom you can trust, such as a friend or even a hired tourist guide. They know which areas are safe, they know the prices of things, they speak the native languages, and they know which venues sell good food that is safe for westerners. For women, avoid travelling alone, try to be in the company of other people as much as possible. Do not travel at night alone, attacks along the beaches are frequent, and of course near hotels, nightclubs and other venues. Ignore any person who whistles at you during the night if you are alone. Benin is a peaceful country and the people are very kind and generous, but that being said muggings and robberies occur everywhere no matter how peaceful the place so be on guard. If you are a victim of a crime, contact the Gendarme (Police) immediately.
Watch what you eat/drink and where you eat/drink it. If you are going to eat street food, make sure it is served very very hot, since bacteria will not live in hot food. The most common causes of sickness is e.coli bacteria found in undercooked meat. Drinking water is readily available, if you want bottled water there is "Possatome"- a natural spring water bottled in the city with the same name. It is very good and about 500 CFA a bottle. In Cotonou, the tap water is safe to drink but is treated with chlorine which some people may be sensitive to. Malaria is a reality in Benin. Mosquitoes appear from dusk to dawn, standing water is conducive to mosquito breeding; and anti-malarial pills are available by prescription only. The only compulsory vaccination needed to enter the country is against Yellow Fever. The customs agents at the airport generally do not check to see if you have it, but it is strongly advised to get it before entering for your own health. Along with vaccines against polio, hepatitis A and B, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Lock Jaw, Rabies and all the other standard childhood vaccines (as per Canadian public school standards). AIDS is an issue in Benin as in all sub-Saharan African countries; use of a condom is highly recommended if entering into a sexual relationship with a Beninese partner. Other risks pertaining to unprotected sex are the same as in any other country whether developed or not: Syphilis, Chlamydia, HPV, etc. If traveling to Benin it is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that you speak to a doctor who specializes in travel. Ask your family doctor or public health nurse for the name of a travel clinic in your area. Go to them about 6 months prior to travel to Benin if possible. This information is designed as a guide and should not be taken as an expert account on how to stay healthy in Benin, only a licensed health professional can provide such information.