“Under neon loneliness; motorcycle emptiness” – Manic Street Preachers.
Benin’s largest city, Cotonou is a sprawling fast-paced affair drenched in predictable West African mayhem. There is no exit door, once you’ve dumped your backpack in this monster. Don’t even think about it.
Despite not holding capital city status, it’s the blood sucking beast of the country, and so Malina and I decided to base ourselves here while backpacking in Benin. But firstly be aware there is a touch of racism and hatred in the air, the city has many scammers, liars and rip-off merchants who sadly target WHITE tourists…we encountered an excrement exit scammer. Remember, this is an HONEST travel blog, after my depression caused completely by the lies of a fellow tourist, I was forced to be more precise. It was time to be back to basics.
Incidentally, the capital city of Benin is Porto Novo, which is a sombre and disorganised enigma, a particularity that we found out on our day trip there. But mostly we toured Cotonou, which through its faults, still offers a vibrancy of life and a serious reason for a lunatical Northern Irishman and an ice cool Polish lass to enjoy it. Brace yourself, Rodney…
Get this straight – Cotonou is not blessed with an abundance of loveable backpacking sights, it will NEVER make my list of top 500 cities from the 900+ I whackpacked. Nor is it an easy beast to negotiate. In fact, none of the sights are even walkable to one another! Transport wise you will be getting zemi-johns (shared motorbikes) from sight to sight. You must bargain like hell to get these for cheap. You will notice them as all drivers wear a yellow shirt ( in Porto Novo they wear blue; in Ouidah they wear green) You can, and should see all of these places in one day. Smile, baby, smile…
Check these sights out…
1. Grande Marche (Big Market)
In general, African markets are lunacy personified. Ladies walk past you carrying all kinds of random items on their heads. From well stacked bananas to pots and pans to fabrics to buckets of water, there are no rules here. How none of these items ever fall off is beyond me.
The market is frantic and at times unwelcoming and racist. Many times we were grabbed and touched by locals while wandering through the busy market. However it’s worth seeing for the maze of hectic colours. You can get black market money changed here, however when we compared the rate to the rate at the airport, the black market rate was 1 West African Franc LOWER, against what we expected.
The highlight for both of us was probably the beaches of Cotonou.
With clean beaches, the fresh sand and gorgeous sunsets, it’s totally worth a trip.
We visited the beaches at Plakodji and the one south of the USA Embassy. As the only white people on the beaches we were often approached by locals and it was clear they only wanted money, not to chat. So be aware of this.
3. Port and Slums at Plakodji
We headed to the Plakodji district where the locals really live in Beninese style. There are no brick houses here or glass windows. All the dwelling places are made of mud, stone and wood. There is electricity and a water supply, but this is often termed as a slum.
The area also offers superb views of the Gulf of Guinea and the harbour. At night it might be a bit edgy as we got a lot of stares by locals and at one point they chased us out of a pub. Despite being an area of slums, one of Cotonou’s poshest hotels is near here.
We also respected the locals demands not to be photographed too much here, when they see your camera, they often hide.
4. The Cathedral of Notre Dame
We ironically had a stop over in Paris on route to Benin. On that stop over we managed to visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Then we found out that Cotonou’s main cathedral shares a name with the French one. The resemblance ends there! Check this church out.
This Cathedral is a bright array of red and white horizontal stripes and well worth a visit. Pope John Paul II once made a visit to Benin (and Togo), but not to this exact church.
5. Place de Bulgarie
I had no idea that Benin and Bulgaria had good links to each other. What’s more is that the statue here is of former Bulgarian Communist dictator – Todor Zhivkov.
6. Foundation Zinsou Art Gallery
After negotiating a zemi-john to this Art Gallery, it turned out to be closed. It was a shame as it looked nice from the outside and there was a cool cafe beside it.
Islam and Catholicism run side by side here in Benin. The Grand Mosque dominates the main thoroughfare that leads to Independence Square.
8.Haie Vive Area
We decided to base ourselves for three nights in the Haie Vive area. This turned out to be a fantastic part of the city, especially at night.
We found cool local bars and two of them were our joint locals for three nights – Times and La Planche.
There are some good supermarkets in Haie Vive too and it’s a safer area than most of the city. Overall, despite the chaos, we had a super time in Cotonou. It won’t ever make any of my lists of best cities but on life’s corridor, it deserves to be seen.
We stayed at the Guesthouse Cocotiers in Haie Vive.
Here are some videos from my time exploring Cotonou in Benin: