The barre country, to the east of Cotonou, will take the longest time to regain it’s footing after the floods. The region was already partially submerged, as it consists of numerous stilt villages. Presently, this area is in need of access to health and sanitation, clean water, and shelter. Its marshlands are sure to expedite the spread of diseases that thrive in still water. In Ganvier, the most known of these villages, you can hire a guide for FCFA 40,000 per day (US$80) to take you around.
The survival of Voodoo and Benin’s animistic beliefs is perhaps one of the prime points of cultural allure attached to the country. Don’t be misled by all the glorious churches and bustling mosques littered around the country. In Benin, the saying goes, “Benin is 50 percent Muslim, 50 percent Christian, and 100 percent animist [traditional beliefs].”
While you should definitely temper the silver screen perceptions of witchcraft, there are a few voodoo centers to visit in Benin. In the cities of Abomey and Ouidah you should take a peek in the snake temples and maybe even attend a ceremony, which happens around once a week. Most “witch-doctors” will point to the most desolate of forests as prime locations for Voodoo. The power of the spirits that the shamans of Benin wield is very much described as being akin to “the force” in a Star Wars movie. As the only female witch doctor I met told me, “real Voodoo, cannot be shown.” It is still worth your while to go visit the Voodoo market in Abomey, where you can purchase your choice of taxidermy, skulls, bones, blood, shells, pythons, monkeys, scorpions… whatever your particular spell requires. Ouidah and Porto Novo are also both homes to some of the most notorious slave ports for the Atlantic slave trade.
To cap your stay in the south, relax in the chill vibe of Grand Popo. Directly on the Gulf of the only tourist-friendly beach town in Benin is the epitome of “chill.” It is not a worthy beach destination in its own right, but worth of a visit while already in Benin. The Auberge there is clean and somewhat surreal as it comprises about three old colonial buildings. Or stay at the Lion Bar, where the owner, Jirdais, will be more than happy to play whatever tunes you bring along with you.
Once these visits are completed, leave the south as quickly as possible! The north will readjust your trip's axis around nature and open spaces, with the exception of the perma-clustered bush taxis. Once north of the pleasantly quaint city of Dhassa, where you can stop off for a nice ostrich dinner, you find yourself in the savannah where the landscape opens up and the horizon suddenly seems infinite.
In the north eastern Atacora-Donga region, you can stop for a pleasant night in Natitingou, one of Benin’s more beautiful cities. Wedged between two mountains, this is where the Atacora Mountain range begins. The Hotel Tata Somba over there will be your last real chance for some familiar pampering before continuing north. In Boukoumbe you can see the real Tata Sombas, the famed two story mud houses, where many of the Bariba and Somba people still live. These areas are mostly residential. Whenever entering a rural residential area, it is always prudent to stop by the mayor's office and ask if it's alright to stroll around. It is easy enough to find a “guide” in Boukoumbe to take you through one of the houses and explain why it is built how it is. Here the witchdoctors aren’t as jaded by tourists and so are more willing to divulge the secrets behind the myriad magic potions and fetishes they place in these houses to honor the ancestors (considered Gods in many traditional Beninese beliefs) or ward off evil spirits.
To the north of that you get the most idolized of African experiences, the safari. To be clear: This is no Serengeti experience. But the Penjari National Park is definitely worthwhile. Going in season (15 December-15 May) will all but guarantee your seeing generous portions of elephants, baboons, warthogs, antelopes, hippopotami, and sometimes lions. For a little dose of adrenaline before the safari, you can jump off the cliffs of the Tanougou waterfalls on the way. This part of Benin will throw it all at you, and on some odd days it will surely overwhelm.
I experienced one such day that included cliff jumping, dirt-bike racing in the country side, barely evading an elephant stampede (never jump out of your safari car and walk in towards an elephant “for a better picture”), close encounters with a baboon, and an incredibly friendly chance dinner at a local farmer's.
The northern landscape is also a beautiful tapestry of farmland, mainly yams, corn, millet, and cotton. Most driving there is off-road, but one of the best Benin experiences is just driving through the countryside, and stopping off at any local marketplace or restaurant for food and good conversation. Aided by nature, people are also much more laid back and accepting of random visitors in the Atacora-Donga.
The north has a larger assortment of traditional villages that can be visited and walked through. The most famous of these is the Taneka villages off the road town of Copargo. Make sure you have the chief healer come out and explain how to tell the future by slaughtering a chicken, or the structure of traditional tombs. Manifested Voodoo is disappearing quickly throughout Benin, with the rampant spread of Islam in the north, and Christianity in the south.
Besides the floods, a conscientious traveler should always bear in mind the true tragedy of the destitution experienced in certain parts of West Africa. The sad reality is that it is a fertile region robbed by colonial powers and left with no infrastructure or system, except for the corrupt systems of thieving officials. The only explanation for the continued deterioration of an area so rich with resources, traditions, and even representative systems of governance is that its progress is not moving slowly, but actively stifled.
Benin has the advantage of being safe, having been peaceful since its 1960 independence. It thankfully has not been influenced by its volatile neighbor to the east. The current president Boni YayI, my choice for “Head of State with the Coolest Name,” has also been trying to steer the country in the right direction since his election in 2006.
The one true thing about travel in most of West Africa is that you will be surprised and touched in many areas that you would not have expected.