Thoughts on 13 days of travelling in Benin

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“The snakes are not bad, they do no harm” – the Vodoo adept repeats. We are travelling in Benin, where Voodoo is an official religion. The Voodoo practitioner is a perfectly respectable and trustworthy person. And indeed – although Natascha was quite nervous before our visit to the Python temple in Ouidah, she is unperturbed. In fact, she even likes the soft snakes curling around her arms.

Travelling to Ouidah we visited a Python Temple

In February we spent around two weeks travelling in Benin and found it a calm, friendly, and quite hassle-free country.

Yovo yovo, Bon Soir, yovo yovo, Bon Soir! Ça va bien, merci!“,

Even the children shouting at the sight of rare Whites (yovo), without fail, were hilarious more than annoying.

A voodoo ceremony

One evening, in Abomey, we stand behind the music troupe and watch the main square in front of the temple. Voodoo dignitaries of different temples and orders sit in front of us. It is towards them that perhaps 200 extravagantly-clad Voodoo adepts are dancing and twirling. There’s a choreography behind the movement of the skilled dancers, but on the other hand it is obviously a ritual and not a show, not even for the benefit of the seated bonzes.

A Voodoo Dance we saw in Abomey

Voodoo is an official religion in Benin, just as Christianity and Islam. Indeed, everyone we meet (including Christians and Muslims) is eager to explain that Voodoo here is not about black magic, but about good behaviour, ancient rituals, and positive wishes. They also stress that all the religions respect each other. Quite often the Voodoo temples are situated just next to churches and mosques. Presumably, the government’s decision in the 1990s to upgrade Voodoo also had a positive effect on Christian-Muslim relations.

Friendly people we met travelling in Berlin

Nine years ago, we spent some time travelling in Senegal and Mali and remember these countries, especially Senegal, as quite aggressive and demanding in terms of patience, and endurance of heat, dirt, and crammed spaces. To our surprise, on our trip in Benin we were often only 4 passengers in a shared taxi (instead of up to 7 adult travellers plus children in a regular sedan in Togo).

Le Regal Vegetal in Cotonou  was a highlight of our Benin travel and food experience!

The food in Benin was another pleasant surprise: We had a lot of fresh and incredibly sweet pineapples which fruit vendors in the street skilfully cut up in a bag without ever touching the fruit part itself . You even get toothpicks, so you don’t have to touch the bites with your own, probably dirty, hands! And, at least in the big cities, there were vegetarian restaurants with tofu dishes! Friendly passers-by would always help us to find a good place.

Brazilian influences in Benin

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Moreover Benin also offers a number of sightseeing places. They are perhaps not the world’s top-priority must-sees, but it was enough to keep us occupied and provide some structure to our travel days and the Benin trip as a whole. Those included a wide range of very different historical buildings: from crumbling colonial houses to construction styles influenced by Brazilian immigrants, who “returned” to Africa after the abolition of slavery, to traditional royal housing compounds.

We especially enjoyed our visit to Ganvié near Cotonou, a whole village built on stilts in a lake.

Further in the North, the Ottamari people have been building their tata houses like small fortresses. The large buildings have small round huts and storage houses all on top of the main house’s flat roof.

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Altargruppe (aseberia) mit König [oba) Akenzua
Benin bronzes

The aim of our original idea to travel to Benin in the first place, however, was unattainable. We knew that even before we arrived in the country – we had first seen the spectacular Benin Bronzes in an exhibition in Tokyo, long ago. They are Warrior sculptures, bronze heads, and square bronze plaques with images from the Royal Court of Benin, most dating from the 16th to 19th century.

It doesn’t really matter that these kings were based not in today’s country named Benin but in the City of Benin in what is today Nigeria. Even there, Benin is not a sightseeing destination. The city was sacked and looted in the 19th century, and practically all the famed bronze sculptures ended up in museums in Berlin and London.

We went to see some of the most beautiful pieces at a current exhibition in the Bode Museum, Berlin. And, we saw a few more at the decidedly worthwhile (if crammed) International Museum of African Art (Musée international du Golfe de Guinée) in neighbouring Togo.

During this trip we visited Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso, and liked Benin the most.

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Costs of travelling in Benin as backpackers for 13 days

With total travel costs of just below 800 € for the two of us while travelling in Benin, the country was not extremely cheap for travellers. Nevertheless, it was quite affordable. Of course, we also had costs for the air ticket from Europe to Lome/ Togo and visa costs of 75 Euro p.P. More often than not, we opted for mid-range accommodation (around 20 €) while travelling in Benin. Long-distance transport in Benin, at least for backpackers, was cheap and reasonably comfortable. In contrast, we also spent some money on sightseeing entrance fees, on tourist guides and on a 4×4 to Pendjari National Park.

Costs of Travelling in Benin for two backpackers - pie chart

Read also about our visit to the Pendjari National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Northern Benin. We went there on our way to Burkina Faso.

+++Our experience of travelling in Benin was not sponsored in any way. We organised and paid everything ourselves.+++

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  1. I’ve never read any article about Benin, so this was quite an illuminating introduction.
    I guess it’s the same with most people, and that the fascination with foreigners in Africa has always been rooted in the fact that not many of us are traveling there for ‘leisure’.
    Did you have any negative experiences?
    I have only visited Ethiopia on this continent, and can relate to some aspects of your article (I loved it, but it was also one of the most demanding travel experiences in my life), so I feel that Africa is really rewarding for ‘strong’ travelers.

    1. Dear Ivan, Benin was quite easy and relaxed to travel. We also spent 8 weeks in Ethiopia and found it wonderful (good coffee and friendly people). Of course, Africa, and especially West Africa, are a bit more demanding than European countries – but I would not use “negative” to descripe it.

  2. Wow! This was really interesting. Refreshing. I mostly read things about Europe, Australia, and the U.S. Africa usually gets left out.

    1. Dear Donna, I would say Africa, especially West Africa offers so much and it might be one of the last places on earth, where you cannot just trod along the tourist path.

  3. You had a beautiful trip to Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso. I don’t know the attractions in Benin, so I’m glad I got to know them thanks to you. It’s good to know that the food is tasty. I like that you compiled your travel costs in this country in detail.

    1. Dear Agnes, Africa, and especially Western Africa, are often overlooked by tourists. But it is a very rewarding region to travel – unspoiled and full of adventure.

  4. This is interesting and absolutely fascinating. Africa is a continent I’m a bit hesitant to travel to. As a solo traveller, I’m simply afraid to be on my own if I get sick. After all, it was in an African country where I got sick simply from too many flies… 😉 However, East Africa is high on my list. On the Western coast, I’d love to explore Senegal – have you been there?

    1. Dear Renata, yes we have been to Senegal as well. Acutally it was the country we liked least in West Africa. It was around 12 years ago, there were a lot of aggressive young men looking for a women who could take them to Europe. It was quite threatening sometimes. And we almost got robbed two times there. But I know people who had a good time in Senegal as well. So, could be due to bad luck.

  5. I knew nothing about Benin before reading this post. I also did not know there is a positive side to Voodoo or that there are Voodoo temples. It would be interesting to see them and witness a voodoo ceremony.

    1. Dear Sherianne, Vodoo is an official religion in Benin, equivalent to christianity. The Vodoo ceremony was strange and interesting. At the end some arguments between the participants got a bit violent and it got more scary. Luckily we could leave without problems.

  6. I think someone would have to do some kind of voodoo on my to let me have that snake wrap around me! Interesting that voodoo is the official religion in Benin. It was great to read that there was lots to see in Benin. And quite ok if they were not top tourist sites.

    1. Dear Linda, I was scared of the snakes too – but they were actually really smooth and soft. And the snake man was very confident and trustworthy.

  7. Great post on your Benin visit, holding the snake was a bold move. I have not heard so much about Benin, so thank you for an introduction to it’s culture and history.

  8. You did not have me at snakes! I would avoid at all costs. But if I could watch a voodoo ceremony and look at the Brazilian influences in Benin and try some delicious food, I might reconsider it!

    1. Dear Renee, a visit to Benin is possible without the snakes :-)! But – you might regret it later. I am also afraid of snakes, but it was not half as scary as I imagined it!

  9. You had quite a journey in Benin. Honestly, it’s not somewhere I think of visiting, but reading this has opened my eyes. The food sounds interesting too.

  10. I’m fascinated by Africa because of its interesting landscapes. But Benin seems to be overlooked by tourists though it also has a lot of great activities to offer. I didn’t know about Benin until this post and this got me really curious about it.

  11. Oh wow! I didn’t realize that voodoo was a religion. I always just thought it was the practice of making a doll and sticking pins in it and such. How interesting!

  12. Wow what an incredible trip and I am sure one you will never forget and how cool is it that Voodoo is an official religion! I love learning about new cultures and way of life! Also thanks for breaking down your costs, I find that’s always super helpful when planning or researching a trip or destination

    Laura x

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