Benin

Benin is a small country in West Africa about the size of the state of Ohio in the United States. Similar to the much smaller country of The Gambia to the north, the country is long and thin, with a very small Atlantic Ocean coastline on its southernmost point. On its western border is the country of Togo. Nigeria lies to the east, and the northern end borders the countries of Burkina Faso and Niger. Porto Novo is the official capital city (it lies a few miles inland), but Cotonou on the coast is the true seat of government, as well as the country's largest and most important city.

There is a surprising concentration of tourist attractions in Benin Africa given the country's small size. In the northwest and adjoining Arli National Park in Burkina Faso is Pendjari National Park. The wildlife here cannot compare to the great herds and many large predators of the Serengeti in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya, but you will find rich diversity, including elephants, a number of monkeys, herds of buffalo, and a variety of antelope species. Lions, jackals, and hyenas are the most visible predators, and there are a few rare leopards and cheetahs. Birdlife is abundant, with more than 300 species, including vultures and kestrels, kites and eagles, storks, and owls. In addition to photographic wildlife safaris, Benin earns more revenue with big game hunting allowed in three concessions around the park. W National Park, a collection of wild reserves shared by Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Benin, is also in this region. The "W" refers to the shape of the conglomeration of parks that spreads across the borders of all the countries. It is best to avoid these parks from the rainy period of June to November, as roads become difficult to navigate.

About 60 miles north of Cotonou, is Abomey Benin Africa—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here are the palaces of the Kingdom of Abomey, which was a powerful empire of the Fon people from 1625 to 1900. The palaces and their grounds continue to be used for royal and sacred ceremonies. This was a rich empire, deriving its wealth from military victories and later by slave trading with Europeans, who transported their human cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to what is now the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. Twelve kings ruled during the period, and each built their own palace. This culture had no written language.

The palaces and ancillary structures are important in that they contain historical records in the form of decorative bas-reliefs depicting both male and female warriors (who were equal to their male counterparts), mythical and fantastic animals, and other symbols of the people. This area is the center of the Vodun religious practices that came to the New World with West Africa slaves and became what is called Voodoo. Today, close to twenty percent of the people of Benin still practice Vodun.

The Benin capital city of Porto Novo is well worth a day's excursion to visit some of the fascinating museums and stroll the streets to admire wonderful French-colonial architecture. This historic city has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site tentative list since 1996. Cotonou is the center of tourism and things to do in the country. It is a major seaport and has the country's only international airport (direct flights from Belgium and France in Europe and a number of other African countries).

There are a number of excellent Benin hotels, including the three-star Novotel Orisha and the four-star Benin Marina hotel, both set on the coast. Popular tours from Cotonou Benin Africa include visiting traditional fishing villages along the coast in pirougues (a traditional flat-bottomed boat that can also be found in the Cajun regions of coastal Louisiana). Many of these small villages are literally floating and built on stilts on the water. Children as young as five years old expertly navigate in pirougues through the stilts and fish with expertise alongside their fathers. There is a beautiful cathedral, a historic stone bridge, and good museums. Look also for excellent music in beach bars and hotel lounges, as the country is known for its lively music scene.

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