Benin

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Introduction to Benin

Benin has one of the hottest attractions in all of West Africa - the stilted fishing villages in the lagoon near Porto Novo. The towns however - and even Cotonou, the biggest - may seem unremarkable to the short-term visitor. It's the kind of place that hides its best features.

You need to be patient and observant to glimpse many of its cultural highlights. Beninese food is possibly the best in the region. There's also the fascinating cultures associated with Voodooism and fetishism, and their strangely attractive artefacts.

Benin might be small and obscure, but when it does something, it does it in a big way. The people in the area established the biggest slave trade in West Africa, were members of the most powerful kingdom, have had the third-highest number of coups in Africa (and that means a lot!) and was the only country in West Africa to wholeheartedly adopt Marxism. While it shares many of the problems of its neighbours, such as bad roads and infrastructure, poor water and health conditions and institutionalised corruption, it is comparatively violence-free, is richer and economically stronger than most of its neighbours and has the best beaches and landscapes.

Full country name: Republic of Benin

Area: 110,620 sq km

Population: 6.7 million

Capital City: Porto Novo (pop. 231,000)

People: Fon and Adja (40%), Yoruba (12%), Bariba (9%), Betamaribé, Fulani (6%), and 37 smaller ethnic groups

Language: French, Fon, Yoruba

Religion: Animism (Voodoo) (65%), Muslim (15%), Christian (20%)

Government: democratic republic

Head of State: President Mathieu Kérékou

GDP: US$8.2 billion

GDP per capita: US$1,440

Annual Growth: 5.5%

Inflation: 3.5%

Major Industries: Textiles, cotton, cigarettes, beverages, construction materials, petroleum, palm products

Major Trading Partners: Brazil, Portugal, France

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Traveler Facts

Visas: All visitors require a visa. For applications or extensions, be sure to have a fistful of photos.

Health risks: malaria (This is a serious risk here), meningococcal meningitis (Benin is prone to frequent epidemics)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1

Dialling Code: 229

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The big celebrations in Benin occur on Martyr's Day (16 January), which commemorates a mercenary attack on Cotonou, Independence Day (1 August) and Harvest Day (31 December). Travellers can also cathch the annual Voodoo Festival, held in Ouidah on 10 January.

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Best time to Visit

Benin has two climates. The south has a tropical climate with little range in maximum temperatures, which average 28°C (82°F). The dry season is from December to April. In the north, abutting the Sahel, the humidity is much lower, but the temperatures can be much hotter. For the best of both worlds, December to March is probably the most comfortable window of opportunity.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: West African CFA Franc

Meals

Budget: CFA260-530

Mid-range: CFA530-1600

High: CFA1600-2600

Deluxe: CFA2600+

Lodging

Budget: CFA2600-5200

Mid-range: CFA5200-8500

High: CFA8500-53,500

Deluxe: CFA53,500+

In 1994 the Beninese currency was devalued by 50% and the country subsequently suffered under inflation of 55% (up from 3%). It is a testament to the economic leaders that the following year inflation was slashed to 14%, and has continued to fall ever since. Benin is a cheap place to holiday; not uncommon in Africa, but a bonus given the attractive and comfortable town of Cotonou. You could scrape by on US$15 a day if you stayed in humble lodgings in Cotonou and looked after your centimes. If you stay in the most expensive luxury hotel, eat top-end all day and hire a Peugeot 504, you'd be looking at $230 a day, plus petrol.

Changing currency is simple in Benin, especially around Cotonou and Porto Novo. The Bank of Africa usually has the best rates and charges no commission. Ecobank-Bénin is open on Saturdays, and the Financial Bank allows cash withdrawls on Visa cards. If you're stuck at night, you can try the Sheraton near the airport, or risk the black market around the Jonquet district. Currency changes are easier from euros or pounds sterling.

With increased tourism, tipping has become a part of the tourist industry in Benin. It is common now to tip 10% at hotels and restaurants.

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Attractions

Porto Novo

Officially the capital (though the government long ago moved itself 32km (20mi) west to Cotonou), this town remains a beautiful, historical place, while its proximity to the Nigerian border maintains a busy appearance. The Musée Éthnographique de Porto Novo has a great collection of Yoruba artefacts.

Abomey

A rival for the most interesting spot outside of Cotonou is Abomey, former capital of the great Dahomey kingdom. The main attraction is the Royal Palace of the Fon and the museum inside. Most of the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1892, but the remaining structure is quite spectacular.

The museum features voodoo, skulls, Portuguese artefacts and traditional housing. Taking photos in the museum is strictly forbidden. Due to tornado damage in 1984 and slow decay over time, the Palace has been placed on the World Heritage List. Abomey is best reached by a two- hour taxi ride from Cotonou.

Cotonou

Benin's capital in everything but name, Cotonou thrived after the abolition of slavery, growing as Beninese, Togolese and Nigerian expatriates returned to the region. Bright, upbeat bars and nightclubs along the Jonquet strip feature US, West African and even Cameroonian beats.

Cotonou offers a huge selection of regional and international restaurants, and - perhaps, the highlight - the huge, picturesque Grand Marché de Dantokpa. Here you can buy a wide variety of items, ranging from blank cassettes, food and radios to monkey's testicles and voodoo fixings.

Ouidah

There's no underestimating Ouidah's cultural and historical significance in Benin. It is the centre of voodoo culture, and it was once a major exit point for thousands of slaves who took their music and religion with them to the Americas. Although Ouidah seems pretty quiet these days, underneath it all is a fascinating culture filled with voodoo fetishes, shrines, museums and temples.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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