If you’re heading to West Africa to unearth lost treasure, look no further than Benin. This club-shaped country, on the western edge of Nigeria, was once one of the most powerful empires in Africa – the Dahomey kingdom. The ruins of the Dahomeyans’ palaces and temples can be seen in Abomey, while Ouidah is a poignant reminder of where their riches came from: the slave trade. The Route d’Esclaves in Ouidah was the last walk on African soil for slaves bound for Brazil and the Caribbean. Museums here and in Porto Novo, Benin’s lagoon-side capital, examine the resultant Afro-Brazilian society and culture. Cotonou, on the other hand, is urban Africa at its most frazzling and polluted - but is not without its own charms, a lively nightlife and good shopping being a couple of them.
Regardless of the ill-gotten Dahomeyan gains glittering in the Musée Historique d’Abomey, there are plenty of treasures on Benin’s dusty streets and palm-fringed beaches. This is the birthplace of voodoo, the country’s national religion, exported by the slaves and distorted by Hollywood. Voodoo is an important part of everyday life and most towns bear signs of it, such as the fetish markets stocked with the heads and skins of every animal imaginable.
Elephants, lions and crocodiles can be seen in more animated form in the northern wildlife parks, notably Pendjari, one of the best in West Africa. Then there are the stilt villages, home to thousands in the southern lagoons, and the northern tata somba (fortlike mud huts) built by the insular Somba people. Not only is Benin a richly historical and cultural country, this politically stable nation is one of the easiest parts of West Africa to travel in.