Benin Travel Guide
Where you may ask? Benin is a small country in Western Africa, perhaps more famous for its fine bronze sculptures than it’s tourism. Dirt poor but one of the few places in region where they aren’t overthrowing each other, Benin has kept a strong hold on its culture and history, with several intriguing cultural museums, well-preserved archeological spots, and a UNESCO historic site among its offerings. It is also one of the more peaceful places in Africa, although this fact is obscured by health issues and the region’s overall bad reputation.
When to Go
Best time to visit is from November to May. Benin has four seasons and an overall equatorial climate. Hot and Dry season is from January to April, and rainfall is heavy from May to July and September to December. Northern Benin has more extreme temperatures. There’s no need for cold weather gear, your khaki kit will look trendy but bring a rain jacket in the rainy season.
Getting There & Away
Awful! The main airport is located in Cotonou, and serves flights from Moscow, Paris, Amsterdam, and several Western African cities. Public transportation is generally unreliable, so put your patience hat on and sit ‘people watching’ with the locals. There is no rail service to neighboring countries, and traveling by car is recommended only between major cities. Mugging and similar incidents are fairly low, but the roads are poorly lit, so avoid driving around at night and off the main roads.
Health & Safety
You’ll want to visit your local travel clinic before landing in Benin. Water is generally considered unsafe to drink unless sterilized, but bottled water is readily available. Milk should be sterilized as well, in fact it’s best to avoid all dairy products and eat only well-cooked food, including vegetables. Medical service is poor, especially in the rural areas, and there is high risk of typhoid, malaria, polio, cholera, and yellow fever. You may require health certificates for certain diseases prior to entry – check the WHO bulletin for updates.
Food & Hospitality
Beer and wine are popular in Benin, and the bars serve a variety of local and Western beers. The local beer, “La Béninoise,” is worth a try, and certainly cheaper. Nightclubs are more expensive. The Food isn’t expecially reknown and since most locals eat subsistence cereals you’ll need to find a restaurant for something you can stomach.
Benin’s tourist industry is hardly a package tourist destination but various hotels can be found in urban areas and some major towns. The few high-end ones are in the capital. Alternatively you can try out the ‘local experience’ though after one night you would’ve had enough. Rustic options are found at popular coastal towns, sans pool and cocktail bar.
A week is more than enough to experience Benin.
Three days in Porto Novo with side trip to Abomay Palace
Two days in Cotonou
Two days in Ganvie
One day each in the Pendjari and W National Parks
Porto Novo: The country’s capital and administrative center, Porto Novo boasts some pre-colonial art and architecture and a lively African atmosphere, but there’s few other reason’s to hang around.
Abomay Palace: Benin’s sole UNESCO historic site, the Abomay Palace features polychromic bas-reliefs and tapestries depicting key events in the country’s history, not a bad piece of national heritage for the tourist brochures.
Ganvie: a charming lake village whose main attraction are the locals’ houses, which are built on stilts. Stay a few days, relax and take in the unusual atmosphere.
Cotonou: more famous for its role in Nigerian phishing emails, Cotonou is Benin’s seat of government and features an impressive museum and outdoor markets. Dan Tokpa is the most visited market and biggest eye-opener of the lot.
National parks: There are only two national parks in Benin. The Pendjari has an interesting wildlife collection including cheetahs, crocodiles and hippos. The “W” National Park is less developed, but also worth a visit for an ‘off the beaten track’ experience.
Shopping: You won’t exactly find Prada here, but the Boukombe market in the northeast is well worth a visit local handicrafts made by the Somba people - cheap and unusual souvenirs.
Water sports: Sailing is offered at the Yacht Club in Cotonou, but don’t expect any hi-so to rub shoulders with! If you prefer something more quiet, try hiring a canoe or motorboat at the Nakoue Lagoon, though the equipment needs a little attention!
Swimming: Quiet lakes and beaches are popular; Ouidah and Grand Popo are worth checking out, but the waters can be very dangerous during strong currents.
Beach hopping: Benin’s coastal location makes for long stretches of pristine beach, with barely a ‘Club Med’ in sight. There’s a nice urban beach just two and a half miles from Cotonou, and a particularly scenic one at Ouidah. All beaches are clean, safe, and open throughout the year but don’t expect sexy lifeguards and rental loungers.