Benin travel guide

Benin travel guide


2 MINUTE SUMMARY

Synonymous with voodoo and slavery, both terrifying spectres viewed by many as brutal and outdated, Benin has a dark image. Both have left a powerful legacy on modern day Benin, and any journey here will be led by them – as travellers slip into a country still guided – or haunted – by voodoo spirits and fetishes, and the ghosts of departed slaves.
But the darkness has turned surprisingly colourful. Voodoo, the state religion surrounded in myth and misunderstanding, is less about sticking pins in dolls, and more about embodying Gods and spirits – with fabulous costumes, seductive drumming and energetic dance. It’s about sacred python temples, and enchanted forests sheltering vanished kings. Along the Slave Coast, the Door of No Return marks the tragic embarkation point for Africans shipped to the Americas. But across Benin, culture and architecture has been influenced by this darkest of pasts: incredible clay fortresses, a town marooned in the middle of a lake, faded Afro-Brazilian buildings constructed by freed slaves returning to their homeland. And who wouldn’t want to return? It’s old-fashioned magical here…
Lift the veil on this spiritual nation with our Benin travel guide.
Benin is...

incredibly diverse. Its 10 million inhabitants speak over 50 languages.
Benin isn't...

all about voodoo dolls.
 
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If you'd like to chat about Benin or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
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WHAT WE RATE & WHAT WE DON'T


OUR BEST & WORST OF BENIN HOLIDAYS

Underrated

Meeting a king Pendjari National Park Somba villages Beninese cuisine

Meeting a king

Benin is divided into kingdoms – many villages still have kings, chiefs and palaces. Your guide may be able to request an audience with a king, where you can have an informal chat to find out about the duties of a modern-day Beninese monarch and the role he plays in the community. These important figureheads are highly venerated – local people turn to their king to resolve disputes, and a meeting is never guaranteed.

Pendjari National Park

Home to some of the last remaining big game in West Africa, this national park shelters elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and hippos in its savannah and forest. The park is part of a larger protected area which extends across the Pendjari River into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso – conserving epic migration routes so that these rare species may continue to thrive.

Somba villages

The Somba people live in Togo and northern Benin, and still hold traditional, animist beliefs. Their distinctive villages are made up of two-storey, clay buildings with thatched turrets called tatas – where the Somba sleep, store grain and shelter cattle. The castle or fortresses-like structures may have evolved to protect the Somba from slave raids by Dahomey warriors in the 1700s.

Beninese cuisine

You’d be forgiven for not having a clue where to start when it comes to local dishes (ever seen a Beninese restaurant?) but the combination of fresh Beninese produce and French colonial influence has produced a number of hearty, filling dishes, in which rich sauces play a key role. Seek out seafood on the coast and millet couscous in the north, with thick tomato, hot chilli and shrimp sauces.

Rated

The Voodoo Festival Ganvie Combining countries Ouidah

The Voodoo Festival

Benin is the birthplace of this most mysterious of religions, and it exists here in its purest form. Ouidah’s annual festival draws followers who transform into their chosen God, adopting their characteristics. The Zangbeto look like giant, walking grass skirts, while the Egungun – the most powerful – are covered entirely in colourful patchwork. There are ritual sacrifices, plus dancing, drinking and the constant beat of drums.

Ganvie

In the 1600s, the Tofinu were fleeing from the Dahomey, who wanted to sell them into slavery. The Dahomey’s beliefs prevented them from entering the water, so the Tofinu built a stilted village in Nokoué Lake. Today, 20,000 people live here, and while it may not merit the nickname “Venice of Africa”, it is fascinating to see the fishermen and floating markets – as well as a post office, bank and mosque – a true aquatic city.

Combining countries

A two week trip is plenty of time to extend your travels in West Africa by exploring Togo and Ghana. Many trips start and end in Ghana’s capital, Accra, as the flight connections are simpler – then continue through Togo and into Benin, looping round and heading back to Accra. You’ll experience mountains and coast, desert and city, Francophone and Anglophone nations.

Ouidah

Famous for being a major slave port and the birthplace of voodoo, Ouidah has a number of attractions which are both significant and unsettling. There is the Fetish Market; the Sacred Forest of Kpasse, complete with statues of gods and sacrifices; and the Temple of Sacred Pythons, worshipped by locals. There is also the Door of No Return – which marks the spot where slaves left Africa for the New World.

Overrated

Getting snap happy Roadside voodoo Touching Egunguns Giving gifts

Getting snap happy

There are many exceedingly photogenic parts of Benin – including Lake Ganvié– where local people are simply going about their daily business and would rather not have a camera pointed at them. If you can strike up a conversation, or purchase something from a local trader without taking a picture of them – great. If not, put the lens cap on and just enjoy the moment.

Roadside voodoo

Inevitably, there will be the odd, dodgy voodoo practitioner quite happy to put on a show in order to part gullible tourists from their cash. Fortunately, travelling on an organised tour with guides who are either from or have spent plenty of time in the area means you’ll be sure to witness authentic rituals – and local people will be more comfortable with your presence.

Touching Egunguns

These masked men in trances, who represent the souls of the dead, are some of the most powerful voodoo figures. Anyone touching them – even accidentally, even brushing past their colourful robes – will die, as must the Egungun. Some say all women present must die too – although other beliefs state that women cannot attend these ceremonies – which may come as a relief…

Giving gifts

You will encounter poverty in Benin. However, indiscriminately handing out clothing, money or – worse – sweets to children is not the way to resolve this. If you want to donate, speak to your travel company or tour leader to learn what’s needed, shop locally to support traders, and donate to head teachers or village elders who can distribute items fairly, and avoid westerners being seen as walking wallets.

FOOD, SHOPPING & PEOPLE


TRAVEL LIKE A LOCAL ON YOUR BENIN HOLIDAY

Eating & drinking in Benin


Benin’s cuisine is West African with a tasty French twist. It’s also heavy on the sauce – often made with peanuts, tomatoes and onions, or crab.
Seafood is abundant along the coast – with many varieties of shellfish, fried fish and smoked fish. Carbs come in the form of pounded cassava and yam (fufu and garri), black eyed pea fritters (akkara)
and fried maize dumplings (akpan).
Yovo doko translates as “European pastry”, and these roadside treats are fresh, sugary donuts, deep fried on the spot.


The Dahomey Kingdom had an entirely female military regiment. Westerners referred to them as the Dahomey Amazons – but they called themselves N'Nonmiton, meaning ‘our mothers’.

PEOPLE & LANGUAGE


Some 42 different ethnic groups live in Benin, with the Fon being the most populous; their roots stretch back to the Dahomey Kingdom and they founded Abomey and Ouidah. Other groups include the Yoruba (originally from Nigeria), the Fulani, who live across the Sahel region, and the Tammari or Somba people, known for their fortified, two-storey mud houses. However, the only official language is French; Benin having been a French colony from 1892 until 1960.

“Oku” – Greeting in (Fon)
“Ooh” – thank you (Fon)
“Oruk? mi ni……” – My name is… (Yoruba)
“Eelo ni eyi?” – How much is this? (Yoruba)

If you are a white visitor, you’ll hear “Yovo” a lot – particularly from children. It’s the local equivalent of “gringo” and not intended as an insult!

GIFTS & SHOPPING


Cotonou’s Centre de Promotion de l'Artisanat is a covered artisan centre selling everything from jewellery and woodcarving to pottery and leatherwork. Along Cotonou’s lagoon, the enormous Dantopka market also has many crafts – though many will have been imported from elsewhere in West Africa.
While it’s tempting to do all your shopping in one go, do save some of your CFAs for excursions into smaller towns and villages to support local craftspeople.
You may find ritual masks on sale, but you might want to give the fetishes – in the form of animal fetuses and skeletons – a miss.

Facts



Some Beninese believe photographs steal a part of your soul. This comes from voodoo – where strands of hair, nail clippings, clothing etc. could be used to curse or cast spells over someone.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?


Two-course dinner for two = £11

6m lengths of wax fabric from Woodin = £20

Entry to the Abomey Historic Museum = £3.20

Bottle of Béninoise lager = 80p

Ride on a zemidjan scooter = 80p

Roadside lunch with a beer: £1.30

A Brief History of Benin


West African histories are never simple, as the countries as we know them today were not named or outlined on maps until the second half of the 20th century. Prior to that, borders and territories shifted back and forth between tribes who travelled across from Central Africa and down from the Sahara. This landscape has always been fertile and desirable, with abundant rainforests, fish-filled oceans and gold hidden beneath its mountains; which raised the stakes for those fighting over this territory. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Top box: Grete Howard] Helpdesk - Somba woman wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kobli1.jpg Jacques Taberlet [Helpdesk - Somba woman: Jacques Taberlet] [Meeting a king: Native Eye] [Pendjari National Park: Marc Auer] [Somba villages: Chriswolf at wikivoyage] [Beninese cuisine: Shubert Ciencia] [The Voodoo Festival: David Bacon] [Ganvie: David Stanley] [Combining countries: David Stanley] [Ouidah: Shubert Ciencia] [Getting snap happy: Erik Cleves Kristensen] [Roadside voodoo: Erik Cleves Kristensen] [Touching Egunguns: David Stanley] [Giving gifts: David Stanley] [Eating & drinking: Daniela ] [People & language: David Stanley] [Gifts: David Bacon] [How much: Babylas]
Written by Vicki Brown
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