Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Grand Marché du Danktokpa
This huge must-see market sells everything from food, radios, waxed cloth, pottery and baskets to bat wings and monkey testicles. Hunt down a le fetiche d'amour (a love fetish). Rub it on your hands, whisper to it seven times the name of the desired one, then touch that person and they're yours!
Parc National de Pendjari
This 275,000-hectare national park 45km (28mi) north of Natitingou, is the wildlife park par excellence in this part of West Africa. Visitors may spot lions, leopards, elephants, baboons and hippos. The best viewing time is near the end of the dry season when the animals start to hover around the water holes.
With waterfalls, a woody landscape and good tracks, it is a pleasure to drive around. The park adjoins the Parc National d'Arli in Burkina Faso and is bordered to the west, north and east by the Pendjari River.
Musée Historique d'Abomey
Abomey's main and seriously impressive attraction, the Musée Historique d'Abomey, consists of palaces of the ancient kings Ghézo and Glélé. The museum displays royal thrones and tapestries, human skulls that were once used as musical instruments, fetish items and Ghézo's throne, mounted on four real skulls of vanquished enemies.
When to go?
If you don't want to get wet, avoid Southern Benin's rainy seasons in April to mid-July, and mid-September to late October. Northern Benin gets a soaking from June to early October. The hottest time of the year is from February to April when temperatures can soar to 46°C in the north (the coastal south is significantly cooler). Harmattan winds billow out of the Sahara between December and March, so November and February are your windows of opportunity for a pleasant stay.
Parts of the northern Atakora region occasionally receive heavy rainfall, and smaller roads throughout Benin may be impassable during the rainy seasons; notably those in the wildlife parks, particularly Parc Regional du W.
Travel Visa Overview
Two-day visas can be obtained at the border, and one-month extensions in Cotonou. When you apply be sure to have a fistful of photos.
European plug with two circular metal pins
This is a serious risk here.
Benin is prone to frequent epidemics.
While the northern area of Benin stays hot and dry from October to April, with temperatures sometimes topping 40°C (104°F), the country's diminutive coastal region has two rainy seasons (in May-June and October) and more comfortable conditions throughout the year. December to February is the time to visit the south, as the temperature remains constant around 25°C (77°F).
History and Culture
Pre-20th Centure History
The history of Benin is indistinguishable from that of the entire area of West Africa until the early part of the 17th century. Up until this time, the area had been divided into numerous principalities. It just takes one bad apple to spoil it for the rest of them, however, and in Benin's case a chief had a row with his brother and moved to Abomey before conquering the neighbouring kingdom of Dan, which became known as Dahomey (Fon for 'in Dan's belly'). He then made a pledge - repeated by each successive king - to leave more land than he inherited. Not surprisingly, this policy led to war after war, and a particularly bad relationship with the powerful Yoruba of Nigeria.
Of course, wherever there was a good fight, Europeans were never far behind, and the Portuguese and others began establishing trade posts at Porto Novo and Ouidah. The Dahomey traded with the Europeans; the hot item was prisoners of war sold into slavery in return for guns. For well over a century, an average of 10,000 slaves a year were shipped to the Americas, primarily Brazil and the Caribbean and particularly Haiti, exporting their knowledge and practice of voodoo. Benin had become perhaps the most beaten track by Europeans in Africa, and southern Benin had the dubious honour of being dubbed 'the Slave Coast'. In Ouidah, the Route des Esclaves and the Point of No Return are memorials to those thousands of shackled Africans shipped to the new world.
In the 1800s the French sashayed in and gained control of the coast, making the kingdom of Dahomey part of French West Africa. Nick-named the 'Latin Quarter of West Africa', Dahomey became famous over the next century for its educated elite, employed as regional advisors. This education process backfired on the French when the locals became vocal and began agitating for equality. They even published a newspaper criticising their colonial masters.
After World War II the people of Dahomey modernised rapidly, forming trade unions and political parties. In 1960, and without much fuss, Dahomey attained independence from France. Due to their education, many Dahomeyans were running administrations throughout French Africa. Following independence, these officials were deported en masse, forming an unstable presence at home. In 1963 this boiled over into a successful military coup. For the next nine years Benin became the Bolivia of Africa. There were five coups, nine changes in government and five different constitutions. With typical wry humour, the locals refer to this time as le folklore. Despite all of this upheaval, the famous civil nature of the Fon people triumphed. No leader was ever killed, and when the army deposed General Soglo in 1967 they politely knocked on his door and told him, 'You're through'.
The pleasantries didn't last long. In 1972 Lt Col Mathieu Kérékou seized control, renamed the national radio station 'the voice of the revolution' and fuelled anti-white sentiment. Marxism became the official ideology of the newly named Benin in 1974. There were assassinations, riots and strikes. A group of exiles, Europeans and a French mercenary landed at Contonou airport in 1977 in an attempted coup. They fought for a couple of hours then flew out again. The revolution led to centralised industry and agriculture, a warning to the churches and a militant spirit in the army, but was always more rhetorical than real. Private industry continued to flourish. By the mid-80s the economy was a shambles and the age of coups began again, with six attempts in one year alone. With the eyes of the world trained on eastern Europe in the late 80s, the outside world barely noticed the strikes, riots, lootings and crackdowns on the streets of Cotonou.
In 1989 Kérékou saw that his socialist plan was far from glorious, renounced Marxism and called a conference to rewrite the constitution. Dissidents at the conference engineered a coup, forming a new cabinet under General Soglo and relegating Kérékou to head of the army. Soglo was democratically voted into power in 1991 but he didn't last long - Kérékou was back in the hotseat by 1996. An economic crisis in the mid-90s was soon overcome, due partly to increased growth, stability and a general sense of optimism.
In 2003, parliamentary elections ran smoothly despite the opposition's accusations of government intimidation. The Union of Tomorrow's Benin (UBF - a new coalition of parties that support president Kérékou) won the elections, although their existing seat majority was narrowed somewhat. Kérékou outlived his past mistakes and Benin became perhaps the most stable democracy in West Africa. He was ineligible for another term in office due to age and a term limit clause in the constitution, and unlike many of his African counterparts, he has made no attempt to alter these restrictions on his power.
With the old campaigner Kérékou out of the race the Presidential elections of March 2006 produced a new leader for Benin, independent candidate Boni Yayi. The former head of the West African Development Bank did not gain the required 50% of the vote in initial polling but was the clear victor in the two-candidate run-off vote against Adrien Houngbedji, former speaker of parliament and representative of the Democratic Renewal party. President Yayi has pledged a commitment to democracy, unity and development.
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