Benin has two climates. The south has a tropical climate with little range in maximum temperatures, which average 28°C (82°F). The dry season is from December to April. In the north, abutting the Sahel, the humidity is much lower, but the temperatures can be much hotter. For the best of both worlds, December to March is probably the most comfortable window of opportunity. The main celebration day, National Day falls on 1 August, and is a good time to be in Cotonou, the biggest city, or the capital Porto Novo.
The big celebrations in Benin occur on Martyr's Day (16 January), which commemorates a mercenary attack on Cotonou, Independence Day (1 August), National Day (30 November) and Harvest Day (31 December). Travellers should also inquire at the tourist office about the on-again off-again International Festival of Voodoo, held in Abomey.
Getting There & Away
Direct flights to Benin are available from France, Belgium and many African countries. You can also fly to Lomé in Togo and catch a three hour taxi to Cotonou. This is especially good if you've had trouble getting a Benin visa from your point of departure: temporary visas are available at the border on the Lomé-Cotonou road. Air Afrique flies from the USA to Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), then connects to Cotonou.
Taxi travel to Cotonou is simple but time-consuming (about 14 hours) from Niger, and will cost you about US$15. The border is open between 7am and 7.30pm. The trip is only about three hours from Nigeria. The main roads from most surrounding countries are tarred and in fair condition, so driving yourself is also an option.
BENIN - TRANSPORT
There are no internal flights.
There is a limited train service linking Cotonou with Bohicon/Abomey, Save & Parakou.
Share taxis and minibuses are the main form of transport in Benin. You can go almost anywhere but there are no timetables or published routes. All hotels can advise.
Driving is on the right hand side of the road as in USA, France, Germany etc.
Car rental is available in Cotonou on a self drive basis.
Car rental companies
- Tel: 300 192
- Tel: 312 785
In Cotonou there is a fairly wide range of hotels but a limited choice as the city is not large. Outside Cotonou accommodation is quite limited and there is less choice.
Hotel de la Plage, PO Box 36, Tel: +229 31 25 60, Fax: +229 30 02 18, Tlx: 5032
Sheraton Hotel, Boulevard de la Marina, Tel: +229 30 01 00, Fax: +229 30 11 55
Ma Compagne - To the west of the city about 16 km/10 miles.
Currency: Franc - West African CFA (XOF)
Top-end: US$3 and upwards
Top-end: US$16 and upwards
BENIN - PLACES OF INTEREST
Officially the capital, the government long ago moved itself and most of its business 32km (20mi) west to Cotonou. Nevertheless, this town of some 180,000 people remains a beautiful and historical place. Its proximity to the Nigerian border gives the appearance that more is going on than actually is, though there are still some hot spots, such as the Grand Marché d'Adjara where you can buy drums, cloth, baskets and the best pottery in Benin. The Musée Éthnographique de Porto Novo has a great collection of Yoruba artefacts. You can also visit the ornate Brazilian-style church, now a mosque.
Benin's capital in everything but name, Cotonou thrived after the abolition of slavery, growing as Beninese, Togolese and Nigerian expatriates returned to the region. There is a crowd of bright, upbeat bars and nightclubs along the Jonquet strip. The clubs feature US, West African and even Cameroonian beats. Cotonou offers a huge selection of regional and international restaurants, and - perhaps, the highlight - the huge, picturesque Grand Marché de Dantokpa. Cotonou is slowly welcoming the age of the Web - there are a few Internet centres but access is often slow and expensive.
Just north of Cotonou is Ganvié, a town of 12,000 inhabitants who live in bamboo huts on stilts several kilometres out on Lake Nokoué. In the 18th century, the Tofinu people built the village as protection against the aggression of the Fon and Dahomey kingdoms; religious custom forbade warriors from venturing into water. Now, houses, restaurants, shops and even a hotel are built 2m (6ft) above the water. Very early or at dusk are the best times to visit Ganvié. The locals object to up-close photography, so be sensitive to their wishes.
The voodoo centre of Benin, and the next most popular destination to Cotonou, Ouidah was the only sea port in Benin until 1908. A major cultural and historical destination, Ouidah features the Museé d'Histoire d'Ouidah (also called the Voodoo Museum), various other museums and temples, a park known as the Sacred Forest and the sacred, symbolic and historical Route des Esclave (the Route of the Slaves). This 4km (2.5mi) road from the town to the fabulous beach features fetishes, statues and small villages along the route the slaves took to the ships. Ouidah is 40km (25mi) from Cotonou, on the main road to Togo. Taxis leave from Autogare Jonquet in Cotonou and cost about US$0.55.
Another rival for the most interesting spot outside of Cotonou is Abomey, the former capital of the great Dahomey kingdom. The main attraction is the restored Royal Palace of the Fon and the museum inside. Most of the buildings, originally commenced in 1645, were destroyed by fire in 1892, but the remaining structure is beautiful and spectacular. The museum features voodoo, skulls, Portuguese artefacts and traditional housing. Photos are strictly forbidden. Abomey is best reached by taxi from Cotonou. The trip takes two and a half hours.
On the north-western border with Togo is the town of Bokoumbé. On the way from nearby Natitingou, you will pass the tallest mountain in Benin, and once there you will experience all the wonders of a west African trading village. The Bokoumbé market is regarded as perhaps the best such market in the country. It is as much a social event for people from the region as it is a trading point for market produce, and beer and fun are in abundance. You can buy rare, authentic carvings and smoking pipes as well as fabulous fresh produce. Every four years or so, the town is gripped by the Whipping Festival, where young men run around naked with whips beating up other young men from neighbouring villages. It is, of course, a rite of passage. Bokoumbé is 43km (27mi) south-west of Natitingou and about 600km (370mi) from Cotonou. The trip will take about nine hours.
Although it's on the main highway from Cotonou to Niamey in Niger, few tourists ever make it to Malanville. In the far north, on the Niger River border, it is a centre for village trade in the region. There are some beautiful landscapes on the way from Parakou, and once there, the market is again the feature, with many diverse peoples converging on the area. Food is plentiful but accommodation confined to one dirty campement or hostel. Malanville is 11 hours by taxi from Cotonou.
BENIN - PARKS
Today a town in the Republic of Benin situated on the Gulf of Guinea, Abomey was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Danhomè. It is about 65 miles from the coast. The Royal Palaces in the heart of the city are major material evidence of this civilisation.
Abomey Historical Museum, under the tutelage of the Ministry of Culture and
Communications, Direction of Cultural Heritage, was created by the French
colonial administration in 1943. With a surface of about 5 acres, it is situated
on the palatial site and comprises the palaces of King Guézo and King Glèlè. The
entire palatial site extends over approximately 108 acres and has been on
UNESCO's World Heritage list since 1985. It is a culmination of history, living
culture and tourism.
Parc National de la Pendjari
Savanna and woodland. Access by road from Kandi or Natitingu. Open December to May. Comfortable accommodation available. Animals living in the park include antelope, buffalo, crocodile, elephant, hippopotamus, monkey, warthog and many species of birds.
Parc National du W.
Savanna and scrub bush. Access by road from Kandi. Open December to May. No accommodation available. Animals living in the park include aardvark, antelope, baboon, buffalo, bushbuck, caracal, cheetah, cob, elephant, gazelle, hippopotamus, leopard, lion, reedbuck, serval, warthog, waterbuck and a wide variety of birds.
Benin is a perfect destination for those seeking a facinating glimpse into a complex culture. As far as organised tourist programs are concerned, though, it's pretty light-on. For a low-key safari experience, head to the far-north to Pendjari Park and W Park. Pendjari is more developed for tourists than W, and is only open between mid-December and mid-May. The park contains elephants, hippos, buffalo and lions, but you'll be lucky if you see more than a few forlorn-looking antelope, a couple of wart hogs and maybe a monkey or three.
The coastline is spectacular, and especially well suited to swimming. Four km (2.5mi) east from the centre of Cotonou is the best urban beach. It's safe, clean and regularly crowded. Head west for 40km (25mi) and you'll find the absolutely perfect beach at Ouidah (which just happens to be the voodoo capital of Benin). Just a little better than perfect, and a mere 40km (25mi) further along the road, is Grand Popo. The beaches are quite safe, the sand is a spectacular white and the water clear and clean.