Benin: The Essentials

What not to miss in Benin

Porto-Novo

Although the government and most of its activities have moved to Cotonou, 32 km to the west, Porto-Novo (180,000 inhabitants) remains the official capital of the country. But it is above all a beautiful city marked by its past. At Adjara’s colourful market, you can buy drums, fabrics, baskets and the prettiest pottery in Benin. The Ethnographic Museum of Porto-Novo houses a superb collection of Yoruba objects. You can also visit the richly decorated Brazilian church, now transformed into a mosque.

Cotonou

Although it does not have the official title, Cotonou (800,000 inhabitants) is the real capital of the country. It developed after the abolition of slavery when Beninese, Togolese and Nigerian expatriates returned to the region. Jonquet is home to a host of lively bars and nigth-clubs, where American, West African and even Cameroonian rhythms vibrate. The city also offers a huge selection of regional and international restaurants. Its main attraction is perhaps the immense and picturesque large market of Dantokpa. You’ll find everything from blank tapes, food, X-rays to monkey testicles and voodoo love fetishes.
The lake town of Ganvié is located just north of Cotonou. Built on stilts, a few kilometres offshore on Lake Nokoué, its thousands of bamboo huts shelter 18,000 inhabitants. This city was originally built by the Tofinus, a people who wanted to protect themselves from the aggressions of the Fon kingdom of Dahomey. Religious customs forbade warriors to venture on the waters. To visit Ganvié, it is ideal to go there early in the morning or at dusk.

OUIDAH

The vodun centre of Benin, Ouidah is the most popular destination after Cotonou. It was also the only seaport in the country until 1908. Ouidah is of great cultural and historical interest. Its main sites: the Ouidah History Museum (also called the Vodoun Museum), various other museums and temples, a park known as the Sacred Forest as well as the Slave Route, which presents a sacred, symbolic and historical character. This road, 4 km long, that the slaves followed to embark on the boats is lined with fetishes, statues and small villages, from the city to the fabulous beaches. In addition, Ouidah is located 40 km from Cotonou on the main road leading to Togo. It is served by taxis departing from the Jonquet de Cotonou autogare.

Archaeological Museum

ABOMEY

Another very interesting site, Abomey is the former capital of the great kingdom of Dahomey. Its main attraction: the Royal Palace of the Fons and the museum it houses. Most of the buildings, which began construction in 1645, were destroyed by fire in 1892. Nevertheless, there are some superb and spectacular remains. The museum preserves elements concerning vodoun and traditional habitat, skulls and Portuguese objects. The best way to get to Abomey is to take a taxi to Cotonou.

NATITINGOU AND THE SOMBA COUNTRY

Located at an altitude of 440 m in the Atakora Mountains, Natitingou is the starting point for excursions to the Pendjari National Park in the north, and from the Somba country in the east and south. Its Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions gives an overview of the culture of the Sombas. The latter escaped any Catholic or Islamic influence. Known for a long time to live in total nudity, they are characterized by their habitat, composed of tata somba, small constructions in the shape of miniature castles.

The Somba Country

BOKOUMBÉ

Bokoumbé is located in the north-east of the border with Togo. To reach it, coming from Natitingou, one crosses the highest mountains of Benin. Once there, one discovers all the wonders of a shopping village in West Africa. Its market is one of the most colourful and lively in the country. Beers, jokes, palaver embellish the exchanges in this place which plays an essential role in the social life of the population.

You can buy rare and authentic sculptures or pipes as well as fabulous fresh products. Every four years or so, the village becomes fascinated by the feast of the Whip, during which young people from Bokoumbé and neighbouring villages run naked trying to whip each other. This, of course, is a rite of passage.
Bokoumbé is 43 km southwest of Natitingou and about 600 km from Cotonou. This is a journey of about 9 hours.

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