Bonjour, dear ego.trippers, and bienvenue au Bénin! (yes, this is the crazy local language of Bénin they like to call: French). So welcome to Benin, ladies and gentlemen. Wait, what do you mean ‘you’re scared’? I know this is West Africa, but there’s no ebola here. Only voodoo priests, scarred faces and friendly people!
It’s been a few months now, that I got sent to Benin for one of the magazines I write for. I had to leave at the end of July, but by mid July I still hadn’t arranged my yellow fever shot (which is mandatory by the way), my visa (which costs about 70 euros and is quite easy to get) and malaria pills (which are not mandatory, but I wouldn’t go without). In other words: it takes some preparation – and a little bit of illness caused by that yellow fever vaccination – to get to Benin. But once you’re there paradise awaits.
Actually, this is not true. There’s no paradise awaiting you when you get off your airplane in Cotonou, which is not the capital of the country, but it is the biggest and most important city. The city’s situated in the south of the country, by the Gulf of Guinea, but please don’t expect picturesque stretches of clean white sandy beach, coconut trees, hammocks and beautiful views. Try to imagine a big lively, dirty city. With a shitload of traffic, dirt roads, children selling illegal gasoline by the side of the roads, little rundown shacks, dust, noise, electricity wires laying out and about, an incredible amount of motorbikes, smog, … You could hardly call that paradise.
But still… But still, ladies and gentlemen. Once you get over the fact that Cotonou is not the prettiest of cities, you’ll still find (pieces of) a gem. Go to Ganvié for instance, a huge lake village (probably the largest in Africa), established in the seventeenth century by people trying to escape slavery. Many centuries later, this village is a Unesco Heritage site. Another very interesting aspect of Cotonou is the market, which is the biggest in western Africa. Honestly, you can find everything here from clothing to beauty products and … animal parts. I didn’t mention it yet, but Benin is the birthplace of voodoo. Don’t worry, they won’t stick pins in little puppets that look like you. That’s not true voodoo. But they do worship voodoo gods and from time to time they get hungry and are in need of a sacrificed animal. On the Cotonou market you’ll find plenty of animals to satisfy the god of your choice.
After you’ve seen everything in Cotonou, and you want to get the smell of dead camels out of your nose, you can go to Ouidah, a smaller town west of Cotonou, with an incredible history (of slavery). Here you’ll find the ancient slave route of 3,5 kilometers, which leads you to the beach, where the slaves in the old days got shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean and the USA. While Ile de Gorée in Senegal is much more famous for its history with slaves, Ouidah is actually the place where most of the slaves got deported from and the black diaspora started.
Once you’ve soaked up the violent and horrible history of this place you can enjoy some downtime in Possotomè, which is close to Togo. This is the perfect place to make contact with the tribes and the authentic voodoo villages. In some of the villages in this area there are still children that have never seen a white person before. If you walk the streets, everyone will be staring at you, yelling out ‘Yovo Yovo’ (white person). Which is fun for about half an hour, then it gets a bit annoying. You must realize though that this is still pure authenticity. Because Benin attracts only few tourists, there’s nothing really here you could call a tourist trap.
Another interesting part of southern Benin is the laguna of Grand-Popo, which is a stretch of land between the sea and the lake. Here you can find a few eco-touristic huts, without electricity of course, but with plenty of charm. In the villages you get to meet the chief, you get to cook local dishes with the women and immerse yourself in local culture. An incredible experience, I must admit!
If you’re looking for Thailandlike qualities, I don’t think Benin is gonna suit you. But if you’re looking for authenticity, voodoo rituals, friendly people, decent food, (and if you want to spot 4 of the Big Five), Benin might be the right choice. Only two European airlines fly to Cotonou directly: from Paris with Air France and from Brussels with Brussels Airlines.