In many ways Benin is the perfect introduction to Africa. A land of pristine beaches, bountiful wildlife and hospitable inhabitants, travelling around the country is a doddle thanks to its small size and advanced infrastructure.
The birthplace of voodoo and one of the major departure points for the more than eight million people forced to leave the continent as slaves, the country also has a complex and compelling history that filters down into everyday life to create a jumble of the familiar and the strange.
Stay in the south to experience Benin’s major cities, the slightly chaotic yet vibrant commercial hub of Cotonou and the laidback capital Porto Novo. Take some time out from the capital’s lagoon-side location and palm-fringed Atlantic beaches to request an audience with the tribal princes of Ajase, Porto Novo’s ancestral name, while visiting the palace museum.
Head along the coast to experience the unique lives of the Tofinu people at Ganvié, a bamboo stilt village often referred to as the “Venice of Africa.” Or take advantage of Benin’s small size and good roads to explore the country’s spectacular countryside, which harbours remote towns and exquisite national parks. Home to lions, hippos and elephants, not to mention myriad bird species, Benin’s flagship national park is Pendjari, which serves up spectacular fauna without the crowds.
A thriving arts scene across the country has given rise to stunning public sculptures and fantastic architecture, which complement the elegance of the wooden Afro-Brazilian mansions of Porto Novo and Ouidah. The latter is the beating heart of Benin’s voodoo practitioners and an important stop for those interested in the history of the Atlantic slave trade.
Small in size but not in stature, Benin has something to suit every interest, be it the wild landscapes of the north, the bustling metropolises of the south, or the shared religion and history that bind this country and its people together.