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Several centuries ago, Benin was West Africa's leader in terms of slave trade, exporting over a million slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean. The Dahomey kingdom which sprung up around this time profited mightily from the trade. Later, when the French came along and took over most of West Africa, the Dahomey became an educated lot, eventually turning on their French teachers and demanding independence. Since independence, power has shifted hands about as many times as Hollywood's made a bad movie. After a stint with Marxism that drew to a close in 1990, the country looks to be on the road of progress.
Benin is a land where traditional culture thrives, though it has incorportated elements of modernity and other cultures. The food's a treat, local dance is great and the sight of houses built on stilts out above the water is picture-perfect.
Benin was once part of the Kingdom of Dahomey, which spread out over large parts of Western Africa. In the 17th century is was a wealthy Kingdom. One of the main sources of income was the slaves that were being sold to the Dutch and the Portugese. In the 18th century the Kingdom started to fall apart, and fell into the hands of the French, who controled most of the region at the end of the 19th century. Dahomey was added to French West Africa in 1899.
In 1958 Dahomey got an autonomous status and on the first of august 1960, Dahomey gained its independence. After the independence many conflicts and coups took place, until in 1972 a military coup leaded by van Mathieu Kérékou took place. He introduced a Marxist regime, and in 1975 replaced the name Dahomey with Benin. At the end of the 1980's after a deep economical recession, Kérékou changed his mind and left the Marxist ideals behind, and turned the country onto the path of democracy. In 1991 he lost the elections, but got back to power in 1996. In 2006 Kérékou decided not the run for president anymore.
Benin is bordered in the east by Nigeria, and to the west by Togo. In the north it borders Burkina Faso and Niger. Benin lies between latitudes 6° and 13°N, and longitudes 0° and 4°E. With an area of 112,622 km2, Benin extends from the Niger River in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the south, a distance of 650 kilometres. Although the coastline measures 121 kilometres the country measures about 325 kilometres at its widest point. Benin shows little variation in elevation and can be divided into four areas from the south to the north, starting with the low-lying, sandy, coastal plain (highest elevation 10 metres which is, at most, 10 kilometres wide. It is marshy and dotted with lakes and lagoons communicating with the ocean. Behind the coast lies the Guinean forest-savanna mosaic-covered plateaus of southern Benin (altitude between 20 and 200 metres, which are split by valleys running north to south along the Couffo, Zou, and Oueme Rivers. Then an area of flat lands dotted with rocky hills whose altitude seldom reaches 400 metres extends around Nikki and Save. Finally, a range of mountains extends along the northwest border and into Togo; this is the Atacora, with the highest point, Mont Sokbaro, at 658 metres.
Benin is divided into 12 departments.
The Parc National de Pendjari is located about 50 kilometres north of Natitingou and borders Burkina Faso's Parc National d'Arli and the Pendjari River. and is one of the best parks in the west of the continent to view wildlife. You will have the chance to spot lions, leopards, elephants, baboons and hippos. The best time for a visit like everywhere in Africa is at the end of the dry season when the animals start to hover around the water holes. The landscape is particularly attractive as well, with waterfalls and woods and the dirt tracks are of surprisingly good quality.
Musée Historique d'Abomey in Abomey is the highlight of a visit to this place and even if you are not a museum enthusiast you will appreciate the effort that has been put in this museum to impress people. There are palaces of the ancient kings Ghézo and Glélé and royal thrones and tapestries and fetish items. You will even encounter some scary human skulls that were once used as musical instruments and the throne of Ghézo has four of these enemy skulls as well! The Royal Palaces are on the Unesco World Heritage List.
One of the most important myths in Benin comes from the Holy Forest of Ouidah: after the death of King Kpasse the Royal Family was brought to this forest by animals. Here, the ghost of the family houses in a centuries old tree. The tree is still there and is worshiped by the local people, who believe that the spirit is some kind of judge.
The Grand Marché du Danktokpa in Cotonou is a huge market which sells anything you could ask for. Food, cloths, electric goods, pottery, baskets and animals (dead or alive) are sold here and it is one colourful experience to see all these people trading their goods. Try to buy love fetishes, and after rubbing it on your hands and whispering the name of the desired one seven times, you should touch the person and he or she will be yours forever!
Voodoo Day happens on January 10 every year and is viewed by the people of Benin in the same vein of importance as the Christian Christmas or the Muslim Eid. This public holiday attracts believers from all over West Africa and the world to celebrate the unique and often misunderstood Voodoo religion. There are several ceremonies, the most controversial of which is the sacrifice where a priest rips a chicken’s neck off with his teeth. While not for the squeamish, this is quite something quite unique to witness in Benin.
An annual film festival held in Ouidah, the Quintessence Festival is simply a celebration of local and international cinema that takes place in early January. Most of the films are in French with English subtitles. There is also a special selection of African films, of which the organizers are especially proud.
Taking place during the dry season between March and May, Gelede is a festival which honors mothers in the community and to pay respect to their female elders. One of the more vibrant festivals in Benin, choreographed dances, singing, music, and drumming are loved by all. The men don large masks and walk around to amuse the women. The city of Cové is especially known for its public displays during the period.
The Waba festival is a recent initiative in order to facilitate and promote collaborative work between the visual artists in Benin. Held from June 5 to 9 in the galleries in Porto Novo and Cotonou, the event showcases works from around the country. The hope is to popularize art and start a more passionate dialogue between all sections of society about the role that art plays. Exhibitions are open to the public and are well worth a visit.
One of the last festivals of the year, the Dahomean Cultures runs for 10 days in December and is tasked with highlighting and celebrating the cultural diversity of Benin. Taking place in Abomey, the event showcases traditional songs, dances, folklore, and stories of the ancient Dahomey Kingdom and the many groups around the country.
As Benin stretches from the Atlantic coastline towards the edges of the Sahara desert, the climate, although being hot almost anywhere anytime, has some variety.
The coastal area is hot and humid yearround, with temperatures around 30 °C on most days. February to May is a bit hotter, when even nights are very warm at 26 °C on average. Although the rainy season lasts from May to October, there generally is a peak in May/June and another in October, while in between it is relatively dry.
What is rather strange, is that rainfall along the coast is less than immediately inland. There are two reason for this. First, the heaviest rainfall in Benin coincides with waters offshore being unusually cool for near-equatorial latitudes; a cool current appears on the ocean surface. Second, the coast follows a direction from west/southwest to east/northeast and is parallel with the prevailing winds.
In the north of the country, there is single rainy season from May to September and a long and hot dry season from October to April. The total amount of rain is much less compared to the southern and coastal zones. Temperatures during the hot season can reach well over 40 °C during the days. From December to February the hot, dry and dusty Harmattan wind blows over most of the country as well, reaching almost to the coast although here with prevailing southwestern winds, the Harmattan only infects life for several days a year.
Cotonou Cadjehoun Airport (COO) near Cotonou is where all international flights arrive and depart. Destinations to and from here include Abidjan, Bamako, Bangui, Brazzaville, Conakry, Cotonou, Douala, Kinshasa, Libreville, Lomé, Malabo and Pointe-Noire with Benin Golf Air. Most flights from here are within Africa, but Paris is served by Air France and Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc.
If you have your own car, you are able to cross most borders with Benin, including the ones mentioned below to Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Togo. Have your insurance and car papers in order and except to do some hassling at some crossings, most notably those with Niger and Nigeria.
Benin is connected by bus to a number of neighbouring countries. Buses connect Cotonou with Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. To Niger, there are buses from Cotonou to Niamey as well. Further, there are buses and bush taxi's on the routes towards Nigeria (including Lagos) and Togo (Lomé). You can also do most of the longer trips in stages as minivans usually connect smaller cities as well and you can walk across the border after taking a taxi from the nearest town.
Although there is a short coastline, no passenger services exist.
Government airplanes run services between Cotonou, Parakou, Natitingou, Djougou and Kandi. It is also possible to charter two-seater aeroplanes, but there are no regular scheduled passenger services.
Benin has about 600 kilometers of railways. There are trains run from Cotonou to Pobé, Ouidah and Parakou and food is available on some trains. Comfortable seat services are available only in first-class cars and these exist only on the route to Parakou. From Cotonou to Parakou is about 12 to 14 hours, to Segboroué is 2,5 hours and to Pobé is around 4 hours. At the moment trains depart at 8.30am on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Roads are generally in a surprisingly good condition and from Cotonou to Dassa, and Parakou to Malanville, roads are paved. Many secondary roads are not paved but passable in the dry season. In the wet season though you will at least need a 4wd vehicle and even then it might be impossible to travel these roads. Driving at night is not recommended due to poorly lit roads.
Rental cars are availabe at the international airport in Cotonou, downtown in Cotonou or in a few other places like Porto Novo. Traffic drives on the right and you need an international driving permit.
Bus companies like Comfort Lines and Benin Routes serve the main cities and towns from Cotonou. These aircon services are the most comfortable way of getting around the country and some include water and a small sandwich! The bus between Cotonou and Natitingou takes 10 hours and stops in all major towns en route via Savalou. Cotonou to Parakou is about 5 hours. Other destinations include Porto-Novo, Calavey, Bohicon, Dassau, Djougou, Tanguieta, Kandi, and even all the way up to Malanville.
Minibuses and bush taxis offer connections as well, but these are less comfortable and a bit more expensive. They are however faster and leave when full so you probably will be on your way within an hour or so. Safety is a problem though.
There are no regular passenger services, but a trip in a pirogue on one of the rivers or lakes to catch fish with the locals is an experience never to forget. Or you can charter a boat to go sea-fishing on the Atlantic Ocean.
Visas are not required by the following nationalities: Algeria, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Taiwan, and Togo.
Visas can be single entry (USD40) or multiple entry (USD45) and last 30 days. Visas cost USD140 for US citizens. In Paris, a single entry visa costs €70 for all EU citizens.
For more advice, check the nearest embassy or consulate of Benin.
See also Money matters
Benin uses the CFA Franc as a currency. The CFA Franc is divided into 100 centimes. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 500 francs while banknotes come in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 francs
The exchange range is fixed at aproximately 656 CFA Francs for one Euro.
In Benin the West African CFA Franc (XOF) is used which has the same vallue as the Central African CFA Franc (XAF), but it's not possible to use both currencies in the same country.
Fourteen countries in Africa use this currency, eight in West Africa and six in Central Africa. The West African CFA Franc can only be used in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo, while the Central African CFA Franc can only be used in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
French is the official language. Bariba, Fulani, Fon and Yoruba are locally spoken languages. Some English is also spoken.
In every city/village one will find street vendors selling anything from beans and rice to grilled chicken, goat and/or turkey. Prices are nominal. But one must be careful, always choose a vendor whose food is still hot, and they have taken care to keep the bowls covered with a lid and/or cloth.
Signature dishes include Kuli-Kuli and Boulets de Poulet avec Sauce Rough (Chicken Meatballs with Red Sauce).
Most cities and towns have a range of accommodation options, with the more luxurious options in the big cities and along the coast. Some off the beaten track destinations might only have some basic rooms.
The beer is cheap and good! Local pubs (buvettes) are on every corner in every neighborhood. You can get a bottle of local beer "La Béninoise", Heineken, Guinness, Castel and others depending on the bar. There is also the local vin de palme (palm wine), an alcoholic beverage that is made from the sap of the palm tree. A fermented palm liquor (Sodabi) is also available.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is required upon entering Benin. Also you have to have a cholera stamp (proof of the fact you don't have the disease) when entering Benin overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Benin. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people and time of year.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Dengue is present as well, especially in urban areas, but there is no vaccination.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
The best way to stay safe in Benin is to always always always be in the presence of a local person whom you can trust, such as a friend or even a hired tourist guide. They know which areas are safe and which are not, they know the prices of things so you won't get ripped off, they speak the native languages, they know which venues sell good food that is safe for westerners to eat. For women, avoid travelling alone, try to be in the company of other people as much as possible. Do not travel at night alone: attacks along the beaches are frequent, and of course near hotels, nightclubs and other venues. Ignore any person who whistles at you during the night if you are alone. Benin is a peaceful country and the people are very kind and generous, but muggings and robberies occur everywhere, no matter how peaceful the place seems, so be on guard. If you are a victim of a crime, contact the Gendarme (Police) immediately.
See also International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Benin is 229.
To make an international call from Benin, the code is 00.
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