With sun-soaked beaches and a vibrant, voodoo-based culture, the tiny West African country of Benin is the place for off-the-beaten-track adventure at its rawest
The tiny West African country of Benin is living proof that voodoo doesn’t solely exist in old Hammer House horror movies or the homes of part-time Satanists from Surrey. In terms of both black magic and adventure, Francophone Benin is the real deal.
Naturally, as this is the 21st Century, I was a little sceptical as to whether I’d simply find a lot of mumbo-jumbo, even though voodoo is the state religion of this sun-drenched former French colonial country, squeezed between Nigeria and Togo. Yet the only vaguely frightening experience upon arrival in its biggest city, Cotonou, was the crazy traffic. My advice is to depart Cotonou quickly - though if you do get stuck for the night, the smart Hotel du Lac near the international airport offers a pleasant introduction.
Travelling around Benin is very cheap and easy; particularly by shared taxis known locally as taxis-brousses, which depart once full. It cost £2 and took just over an hour to journey to the undoubted highlight of Beninese tourism, Ouidah. This enchanting little town bears the hallmarks of colonial rule, with an old Portuguese-built fort and numerous dilapidated French and Afro-Brazilian mansions built on the profits of slavery. A huge basilica dominates the town square, where at dusk thousands of fruit bats darken the sky. The town is friendly, and like all of Benin, profoundly laidback.
Ouidah lies about 3km from the Atlantic Ocean and although I stayed close to the heart of town at the basic Hotel Oasis, Ouidah should be combined with a few days on the palm-fringed white sand beaches. Try the impressive resort of Casa del Papa, where sea-facing bungalows cost around £70 per night. I’d definitely recommend walking from central Ouidah to the coast along what the locals call 'the route of slaves'. Along this route, one million slaves were spirited away from Ouidah to awaiting slave galleons, to be transported to the New World. Do it with a guide and they’ll illuminate a tragic history.
My main reason for visiting Ouidah, however, was to experience a little voodoo. It is, after all, the capital of Beninese black magic. First stop should be the amazing Temple of Pythons in the main square. Snakes are sacred to voodoo practice but if you dislike serpents I’d keep away, as the temple wriggles with the slithery critters. There is also a grisly, yet morbidly fascinating, fetish stall in the local market, which supplies potions and animal parts (everything from dried chameleons to pig’s penises) for voodoo ceremonies. Be warned: the traders will ask for donations of £5 for photographs. The best opportunity to see ceremonies (albeit ones stage-managed for tourists) is to visit during the popular Festival of Voodoo every mid-January.
I soon discovered, though, that it was perfectly feasible to witness real voodoo in action at any time of year. The perfect way to do this is to hire a local guide with their ear to the ground. English-speaking guides, such as Remi Seglonou, are available and charge around £30 per day. Remi smoothed my passage into a family compound, where I witnessed a voodoo ceremony called egungun. With the goat sacrificed, the spirits of dead ancestors then possessed trance-induced relatives. Dressed in extraordinarily beautiful sequined costumes, they galloped around, scaring the living daylights out of everybody and imparting advice from beyond the grave. I witnessed this ceremony twice more by chance in Benin.
Elsewhere, I crisscrossed Benin’s flat fertile countryside via good tarmac roads. I’d recommend a visit to Ganvie to a photogenic stilted village on Lake Nakoue - but bargain hard with the somewhat predatory boatman.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the crumbling colonial ambience of Porto Novo, the official capital. Its infrastructure is very basic, like much of Benin, so accommodation options are basic too. I tended to eat at small local bars knows as buvettes, serving local inexpensive meals such as barbecued spicily sauced chicken and stodgy yam called pate. In Porto Novo I also found a local guide who helped me attend a beautiful voodoo ceremony worshipping fertility, where white-robed priestesses entered eye-popping trances. Expect to pay a donation of around £25-£50 to attend these ceremonies, and ensure this includes photographs.
There is one other absolute must that requires parting with a small financial sweetener. Kings are 10 a penny in Benin, and always happy to receive visitors - especially those bearing gifts of around £25 and a bottle of spirit! King Benhazin II of Dahomey spoke English, and granted me a joyous hour discussing his exotic ancestry.
Earlier in the day I’d visited his ancestors’ now World Heritage-listed palace in nearby Abomey, its mortar fashioned from the human blood of vanquished royal enemies. In fact, the royal throne in the palace rests on the skulls of the king’s enemies. Fortunately my royal encounter was far more amicable, and I left with something above my shoulders.
Leisure Afrique for tailor-made Benin tours & West African travel
Explore Worldwide for small group tours to Benin
Kenya Airways fly from London to Cotonou via Nairobi
Air France fly from London to Cotonou via ParisCasa Del Papa
Hotel du Lac - attractive 3-star hotel close to international airport
Casa Del Papa, Ouidah - attractive sea-facing bungalows