Benin may have fewer visitors than its larger West African neighbors but that's no reflection of what it has to offer travelers.
This unique country has a fascinating history and culture, with fables of ancient kingdoms, beautiful beaches, incredible wildlife and its status as the birthplace of voodoo. Here's everything you need to know before booking your Benin vacation.
1. Apply for a visa early
Unless you are a member of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), you will most likely need to apply for a visa to travel to Benin. There are different kinds of tourist visas including the 30 days single entry visa, 30 days multiple entry visa and the 90 days multiple entry visa. There are other business visas available too.
If you are traveling to Benin for a short period of time, you should get the 30 days multiple entry visa. Luckily the process is pretty straightforward for most travelers and you can apply online via the Benin e-visa site. The site also has lots of information regarding which countries are covered by the e-visa and the application process. If you need more detailed assistance, you can visit the nearest Benin embassy to your country of residence. For Europe and the UK, the Embassy of Benin is located in Paris, and in the United States, the Embassy of Benin is located in Washington.
To apply for a visa, you'll need the following documents:
- A valid passport for 6 months and if you are also planning to visit Togo, your passport needs to be valid for at least a year
- At least 2 pages free in your passport
- Passport photos
- Yellow fever certificate
- Flight details
- Hotel address (for your first night in Benin)
2. A yellow fever certificate is vital
This is mandatory while traveling in African countries and also in some parts of Asia. All visitors traveling to Benin need a yellow fever certificate and you will be refused entry without one. Proof of this vaccination is also required during your application for a visa. Book it well in advance of your planned trip.
3. Cash is king in Benin
Card services are available in affluent areas in Benin but if you are dealing with local guides and need to move around, you need cash. It's always important to have quite a significant amount of West African CFA francs on you while traveling through Benin. The easiest currency that you can change is Euros – if you don't have Euros, you'll struggle to change other currencies and it's better to just withdraw cash from an ATM. Visa is widely accepted but you'll struggle a little more with a MasterCard.
It's also important to break large notes into smaller denominations for shopping in the markets and visiting villages. You're better able to bargain with market vendors with small bills and they're also handy to have for public transportation.
4. Benin is a French-speaking country
French is the official language of Benin and is spoken by everyone. English...less so. If you can't speak French, you'll struggle to communicate – your best bet is a translation app on your phone or hiring a tour guide that speaks English to help your trip go smoothly.
5. A local sim card is key
When you arrive, get a local sim card that will give you cheap access to calls and mobile data. The best network for travelers is MTN as it operates throughout the African continent and you'll have internet access wherever you are in Benin. You'll need your passport as ID to purchase the sim card and your phone will have to be unlocked.
6. A car is the best option for getting around Benin
Benin is best explored by road. You can either rent a car – the more expensive option – or you can use taxis. There are two types of taxis in Benin: bush taxis and normal taxis. Bush taxis are a shared mode of transportation that locals use. Normal taxis are fairly cheap but are unreliable and will likely result in a longer journey time because of that.
As of now, there are no taxi apps in Benin and the prices are quite unreliable. Alternatively, you can take the adventurous local option by using "zems" – motorcycle taxis that are used to travel between cities and towns.
7. Low season is the time to visit
Travel during the low season either from February to April or September to November. Conditions in Benin are at their best from September to November, just before the peak of the dry season. Temperatures aren't yet at their highest and you'll be able to move around more easily.
If you visit from January to May, you'll experience the high season in full force – the intense heat levels at this time can be overwhelming for some travelers.
8. Try the local cuisine
Besides the popular West African dishes such as fufu (maize), jollof rice, plantain, peanut soup and fresh fish, all of which are delightfully appetizing, there are delicacies including wagashi made by the Fulani people. This is a type of cheese that is unique to the region and it's delicious.
When you're exploring a beach area, try the local coconut juice that comes straight from the coconut trees towering above you. There's nothing sweeter and more refreshing than fresh coconut juice while relaxing on the beach.
9. Voodoo is a way of life
Voodoo is one of the oldest religions in the world and is often misinterpreted and misjudged by Western societies. This religion is incredibly complex and very deep. The word “voodoo” means spirit in the local Fon language. There are hundreds of deities and gods, as well as several priests, sorcerers, healers and witches.
While exploring Benin, you are likely to hear a lot about the Zangbetos (night watchmen) and the Egunguns (dead spirits who overtake a human body and directly communicate with the ancestors). You will also get to see voodoo dolls, which are a real part of the religion and used to heal illnesses and stop pain, rather than cause it.
10. Animal sacrifices are often part of voodoo ceremonies
Voodoo is primarily animalistic and the practitioners believe that animals, objects and places all have a spiritual significance. Therefore, it's likely you'll see some animal sacrifices while visiting the shrines – this is how the priests make offerings to the gods. Most of the time, these sacrifices are done to bring good fortune to the shrine or ward off bad spirits.
Many of the sacrifices are now highly commercialized and are done at a price for tourists. The animal's throat will be cut and the blood poured onto the shrine as the priest recites a prayer.
Most authentic ceremonies are not planned and you must be invited to attend one. While it is a unique experience, some travelers may find it understandably upsetting to witness if unprepared.
11. Have an open mind
If you have grown up with a Westernized belief system, voodoo may seem like the antithesis of everything you believe in. However, travel is about embracing the beauty of diverse cultures and experiencing foreign ways of life. There will be stories that you hear that do not make sense to you or things you see that seem odd or unusual. Go to Benin with an open mind and prioritize the experience rather than feeling compelled to judge it.
The Beninise are extremely superstitious and you'll see writings on the wall or unusual events occurring at ceremonies – embrace the opportunity to expand your worldview. Be curious and open-minded and you'll have an incredible experience getting to know the real Benin.