ABOUT Benin is situated in West Africa on the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea. It has land borders to the north by Niger, on the west by Togo, and on the northwest by Burkina Faso. Marked by influences from the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere in Africa, along with native voodoo practices, Benin is unlike any other place in the world. Indeed, although visitors often come for the northern region’s abundant wildlife, including elephants, cheetahs, lions, and more than 500 species of birds, they often leave happily enthralled by the nation’s untouched beaches, fascinating indigenous traditions, and the thrills and chaos of the main city, Cotonou. In Cotonou: Benin’s largest city, Cotonou, is characterized by the same kind of chaos and grit as other large West African metropolises, but it also has one of the finest cultural scenes in the region and a thriving nightlife. The Fondation Zinsou, a museum dedicated to contemporary African art, is superb, and it hosts a painting workshop on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays—an excellent diversion for young children. In addition to the city’s numerous cinemas are the French and Chinese cultural centers, which hold weekly film screenings. The sprawling Grand Marché du Dantokpa offers everything from pirated DVDs to voodoo fetish objects and is worth visiting for the spectacle as much as the shopping. The Jonquet strip contains several bars and nightclubs with Beninese music and low or nonexistent cover charges. The coast has no natural harbors, river mouths or islands, due to access difficulty because of sandbanks. Behind the coastline is a network of lagoons, from that of Grand Popo on the Togo border (navigable at all seasons) and joined to Lake Aheme, to that of Porto-Novo on the east, in which flows Benin's longest river, the Oueme, navigable for some 125 miles of its total of 285 miles. Beside Oueme, the only other major river in the south is Couffo, which flows into Lake Aheme. The Mono, serving from Parahoue to Grand Pope, has the boundary with Togo and is navigable for 50 miles but subject to torrential floods in the rainy season. Ganviè possibly Benin’s most unusual attraction, the town of Ganvié is built entirely on stilts in the middle of a large lagoon. Its inhabitants are descended from the Tofinu people, who were captured and sold as slaves by the rival Abomey tribe. Because the Abomey were forbidden by a religious taboo to attack people on water, the Tonfinu constructed an entire town so that they would never have to go on land. The lagoon itself suffers from pollution, and locals hawking guided tours can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, but this city makes for an unforgettable respite from Cotonou’s mainland dominance. Safaris in Pendjari National Park: Lions, elephants, and cheetahs are the popular animals here—and that’s to say nothing of the crocodiles, baboons, and hippos that also inhabit Pendjari National Park, in northern Benin. It has some of Benin’s best scenery, and the well-run park administration uses quality control measures, including a rating system, to ensure that you’ll get your money’s worth from guides.
CLIMATE The south has an equatorial climate with four seasons. It is hot and dry from January to April and during August, with rainy seasons through May to July and September to December. The north has more extreme temperatures, hot and dry between November and June, cooler and very wet between July and October.
BEWARE There are incidents of mugging, personal assault and car-jacking in Cotonou with armed robberies being reported in other areas, notably the border area with Nigeria. Highway bandits are known to operate. Vehicle-jackings by bandits in the capital have resulted in deaths and injuries. Take personal security precautions and maintain a high level of vigilance in public places especially at Dantokpa market in Cotonou and around large hotels and other tourist areas. Avoid unlit side streets. Make sure you keep a legalised copy of your passport and visa in a separate place in case your passport is lost or stolen.