Village in Benin © rgrilo
Benin was once one of the most powerful empires in Africa, although today enjoys a low profile marked by peace, and poverty. It's a country rich in history and diversity located on the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, bordered by Niger, Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and the Atlantic Ocean. Benin ranks as one of the world's poorest nations, but happens to be one of the more stable countries to visit in Africa.
Benin played a major role in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries and reminders of this era can be found in the countless monuments paying tribute to those deported to the West Indies and Brazil. It is in many aspects a very French country due to its colonial heritage. Cotonou has its own Boul' Mich (Boulevard Saint- Michel) and it is not uncommon to see Beninois locals walking around, a baguette tucked under one arm and a French newspaper clutched under the other.
The network of lagoons and swamps found behind the coastline, from that of Grand Popo on the Togo border which are navigable throughout all seasons and joined to Lake Aheme, to that of Porto-Novo on the east, into which flows the country's longest river, the Oueme, which locals use to get around for some 125 miles (200km) by boat.
The northwest region is ruled by the Atakora Mountains, which tower as high as 3,000 feet (914 metres) and offer wonderful hiking opportunities. The two main tourist attractions are its two national parks, Pendjari and 'W' National Park, which feature a range of wildlife from hippos and crocodiles to the elusive cheetah.
The beaches along the coast of Benin at Ouidah and Grand Popo are also a major draw for tourists, but visitors should be aware of the occasionally strong rip tides at sea and which consequently limits water sport activities. The historic sites in Ouidah are worth visiting such as the Portuguese fort and a colonial temple known as the Temple of the Sacred Python. The museum in Abomey, which was once the capital of one of the ancient kingdoms of Benin, takes visitors on an eerie journey back in time through the history of the three ancient Abomey kingdoms. The museum used to be the grand palace of one of the kingdoms and a spine-chilling throne made of human skulls sits on display.
Tourists should be on their guard in southern Benin, which suffers from the crimes normally associated with tourism and it is advisable to always be in the presence of a local tour guide or friend. Muggings are the main danger for tourists on Cotonou's shoreline, even during the day, while at night it is advisable to take a taxi.
The climate is hot and typically equatorial all year round, but the best time to visit the southern region of Benin is from December to March as well as July and August. The northern part of the country is best visited between December and April when the climate is a little drier. Visitors must provide proof of a yellow fever shot which needs to be readily available at the airport upon arrival.
It may not be the first country that springs to mind when thinking of a trip to West Africa, but it's definitely worth a visit!
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