I decided to squeeze Benin into my busy summer schedule between Malta and Mallorca. I thought. Easy peasy. Small country. Cotonou. 12 days. Safari. More than a perfect start of my travels in Africa. The ‘troubles’ started as soon as I started digging into the visa requirements.
The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland claimed that you can obtain a visa on the border. They simply forgot to mention that airports are not included.
After a phone call and a long conversation with the Polish Honorary Consul in Cotonou. Ms Krystyna Hounkponou. I knew I needed to obtain my visa in the embassy in Berlin. So on the day of my flight I went to Berlin. Got the express visa and was ready. Benin, here I come.
I flew from Berlin to Paris and then to Cotonou. The only direct flight from Europe! After landing I proceeded with my health passport first. You can’t enter Benin without a yellow fever vaccine. It turned out mine was not valid! How come?! Does time fly so fast?! Obviously yes.
After a short visit at the airport doctor’s I got the injection for a Toblerone chocolate. A long and funny story. Really instead of paying five euros I got the vaccine for a chocolate bar. So my advice. Do not eat it! Save it! You may need it while making your way through the airport system.
Besides all the other things. I have to tell you about something that amazed me. I think it should be practised at all airports around the world. Some airports in Kazakhstan could learn from Cotonou. Collecting your luggage is an experience. Therefore, they have special people who, before you leave, double check if you are not taking someone else’s bag with you! Superb.
To be honest, I had just arrived and I was already totally in love with Benin. I love this kind of travel spices. Like the vaccine story and people in winter jackets standing outside the terminal. I forgot it was winter time. Only 22 degrees on the plus side!
Benin is situated in West Africa. On the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Cotonou is the country’s economic centre. Doesn’t have too many sights to visit. Most of the travellers did not disport themselves here for too long.
I did. And I do not regret it even one bit. Here are some of the best restaurants in the country. Do not miss the Les Trois Mousquetaires for great French food and a very friendly chef and owner. Le Sorrento is a great spot to experience a ‘colonial time’ bar. Pili Pili is best for ‘La Beninoise’ cuisine. There were nice bars and clubs where I could see how ‘going out’ is done in Africa! The popular Jonquet and leafy Haie Vive districts are the place to be.
So if you are seeking a bit of fun and a nightlife, make Cotonou your base for Porto Novo, Ganvie and Ouidah. The Marina Hotel is a perfect choice. Right on the beach. Relaxing with great hotel stuff. Expect them to be totally shocked when you ask about pubic transport. Instead of a private limousine, like most of the other guests.
As I have mentioned before, Cotonou doesn’t have too much on the agenda when it comes to sites. Do not mind. Immersing oneself in the life of the city is the most attractive activity anyway. Catch a ‘zemijdan’, a scooter taxi. Drivers always wear a yellow shirt with the number on the back.
Drive through St Michel Boulevard to Grand Marche du Dantokpa. This endless labyrinth of alleys is one of the biggest open-air markets in West Africa. The true heart of the city. Stroll slowly among the numerous stands. Bargain with ‘Mama Benz’, a sassy female trader for handmade jewellery. Eat tasty fruits, buy African fascinators and fabrics. Or stock up on chicken heads and feet or other voodoo essentials.
If you have a big unstoppable need to see sights then the Cathedral should be first on your list. Notre Dame des Apotres stands proudly near the Ancient Pont Bridge. The distinctive white and burgundy stripes are its signature characteristic. Then contrast it with the soft blue accents of the Central Mosque.
Visit the Foundation Zinsou. A contemporary gallery displaying African art and hosting cultural exhibitions. Before the sun goes down, enjoy some beach time on the famous Fidjrosse Beach. Cotonou is located between Lake Nokoue and the Atlantic Ocean.
The coastline is truly beautiful. In many places it is spoiled by tons of plastic bottles and garbage. I may only hope that sooner, than later, African countries will take bigger interest in green awareness.
On the one hand Cotonou is hectic. Loud. Polluted and chaotic. But on the other side it is the most colourful and lively city of Benin. A perfect example of a modern African city. As many travellers seem to forget that Africa is not only about the safari. Rural villages and national parks. But no worries, on my trip there was time for everything.