In the southeast of Benin, between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Nokoué, lies Cotonou. Once a small village, the city has grown to become one of the country’s largest cities as well as its de facto capital as it houses many government and diplomatic services. The name Cotonou means ‘the mouth of the river of death’ and refers to the role of the Dahomeyan kingdom in the slave trade. Luckily for travellers, this is no longer applies and the river now leads to a city teaming with life.
Getting there and away
Cotonou International Airport is situated on the western fringe of the city. There are several airlines offering flights to Cotonou. Previously, travellers have a choice between one or two stops, but South African Airways now flies direct. Airlines that offer one-stop are Virgin Nigeria Airways, Air France, flying via Lagos, Abidjan and Paris. Kenya Airways and TAAG offer two stops. On arrival, travellers will need to provide proof that they have had a Yellow Fever vaccination if they wish to enter the country. Checking in when flying out can be a time consuming process, so make sure to arrive early.
There are various types of transportation available in the city, amongst which are bush taxis, minibuses, buses and zémidjians. The bus stations can be quite confusing, so if in any doubt as to which stop to go to, ask a taxi or zémidjians (zemi-john) to take you to the correct one. The zémidjians, meaning ‘get me there fast’, are the most notable form of transport. It is a motorcycle which carries one to two passengers for short distances in a town. The fares are negotiable as it depends on the distance of the destination but the minimum rate is 100 FCFA (less than US $1).
Where to stay
The Maison Rouge is a prime choice while staying in Cotonou as it is not only close to the town centre (a ten-minute drive), but also the airport. It is also located close to points of interest such as the Artisanal Centre, Lake Nokoue and the Cotonou Cathedral. It also offers complimentary wireless in the public areas, an airport shuttle, tour/ ticket assistance and baby-sitting services making it ideal for not only businessmen, but families as well. The Novotel Orisha is also located close to the town centre and has its own business center.
If unable to make a choice regarding cuisine, don’t worry as this city has an innumerable selection of choices ranging between French, Italian, Chinese and fast food. Pili Pili has the best fish dishes in town as well as authentic Beninese cuisine. Chez Maman Benin also has a variety of local dishes and good sized portions. Afraid to try the local dishes? New Livingstone serves Western cuisine, with oven baked pizza being its expertise.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Cotonou was a small fishing village with an intimidating name, a reflection of its past. It was subjugated by the Dahomey Kingdom until the French established a trading post there in 1851 by means of a treaty. The French were there to stay and in 1868, the land was ceded to France. In 1883, the French navy lived in the city to prevent the British from establishing a foot hold. Six years later King Behanzin tried to break the treaty, but failed after which the village quickly developed into what is now the country’s largest harbour.
In the city
There is a lot to do in the city and if feeling a bit clueless, make sure to ask the staff at your chosen hotel for advice and tour options. A must-see is the Cotonou Cathedral near the Ancien Pont Bridge, with its unique wine-red and white striped tiled architecture, reminding one of a structure made from candy. If you want to immerse yourself in the culture by learning the Fon language, contact Vinawamon or the Centre Culturel Français.
Cotonou is alive with various forms of entertainment, ranging from clubs to cinemas. If you are in the mood for music that speaks to the soul, Le Repaire de Bacchus is a groovy jazz bar whose cocktail menu is longer than its food menu. Le Livingstone provides notes of a different tune, and is a favourite with expats. If you want to try a new cinematic perspective, visit the Ciné Concorde which shows African and Western films in French.
If you like to shop then the Grand Marché du Dantokpa is the first place you should stop. It is enclosed between the lagoon and Blvd St Michel and is an almost endless labyrinth of products. While some of these may be questionable, you can find some of the more traditional products (such as Fon jewellery and batiks) in the market building. One of the quirky aspects of the market is the local matriarchs who are named after their favourite brand of car, such as ‘Mama Benz’.
Cotonou’s climate is both tropical and dry. Its year is split between two rainy seasons and two dry seasons. The rainy season is between April and July, and September to October, while in December to January there is a severe dusty, West African trade wind known as a harmattan. The temperatures average at a high of 30° and an average low of 25° C. With that being said, the best time to visit is Cotonou is between November and February when the humidity is low and the weather is dry.
Health and Safety
While Cotonou offers many pleasures, as a tourist in an unfamiliar place, one should be mindful of a few things. The beach is a lawless zone which should be avoided at all cost. The Jonquet and Ganhi business districts, as well as the port area, should also be avoided in the late afternoon. It is safer at night to take either a taxi or zémidjians, but the latter should be avoided during rush hour.