Benin

Benin is perhaps best known to the world as the birthplace of the Vodun religion—voodoo. Voodoo temples, roadside fetishes, and fetish markets are found throughout the country, but the best known is the skull and skin-filled fetish market in the Grande Marche du Dantopka—Cotonou's overwhelmingly busy, enormous, and hectic grand market. The most important fetish in the country is the monstruous Dankoli fetish, on the northerly road near Savalou, which is a pretty good spot for beseeching gods.

Benin under the rule of the Dahomey kings was a major center of the slave trade, and the Route des Esclaves in Ouidah, terminating at the beachside Point of No Return monument is a memorial to those who were kidnapped, sold, and sent off to the other side of the world. Ouidah's local museum, housed in a Portuguese fort, unsurprisingly focuses on the slave trade, in addition to other facets of local culture, religion, and history, and is a real must see for anyone passing through the country.

Abomey was the capital of the Dahomey Empire, and its ruined temples and royal palaces, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, are one of the country's top attractions. The ruins, their bas-reliefs, and the Abomey Historical Museum in the royal palace which contains all sorts of macabre tapestries and even a throne of human skulls are a testament to the wealth brought to the Dahomey kings from the slave trade, and brutality with which they oppressed their enemies, fodder for human sacrifice and bondage.

Ganvie, home to 30,000 whose ancestors fled the brutal Dahomey kings by building their town on stilts right in the center of Lake Nokoué, is without question a fascinating and naturally beautiful locale, and a popular stop as one of the largest of West Africa's lake towns. But it has been to an extent ruined by the unpleasant relationship between locals and tourism. Ghana may have much more rewarding experiences for travelers interested in West African lake towns.

While manic Cotonou is the country's largest city and economic center, Porto Novo, the capital, is small and one of West Africa's more pleasant capitals. Most of the country's major museums are located here amidst the crumbling architectural legacy of French colonial rule. Grand Popo is the other popular city for tourists to relax, but not for the city itself as much as the beaches.

In the north, you'll find a very different sort of Benin from the mostly crowded, polluted cities of the south, of which Cotonou is such a prominent example. Pendjari National Park and W National Park which Benin shares with Burkina Faso and Niger, is considered West Africa's best for wildlife viewing, and are set in beautiful, hilly highlands.

The unique and eccentric mud and clay tower-houses, known as tata, of the Somba people in the north, west of Djougou near the Togolese border, are a little-known extension into Benin of the types of dwellings used by the Batammariba people of Togo just west. Virtually all tourists to this area flock to the UNESCO-designated Koutammakou Valley across the border; the Benin side has the advantage of being even off the beaten path.