Recently I was discussing with a colleague some of the fun, off the beaten path vacations I’ve taken. We shared stories of our fun adventures and the places we discovered when we were least expecting it.
Traveling as a child we were typically always off the beaten path, as we camped for most of our family vacations. BUT the better vacations where the ones where we had an end destination, but not set path. I can remember many times that it was our curiosity as children that created the best vacations.
So it’s no shock that my traveling style as a child has followed me into adulthood. One of my favorite less planned trip was one I took with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer to Togo and Benin, small countries in West Africa.
- Togo: Means –“Upon the Hill” in Ewe (local Language57,000 square kilometers (Half the size of England)·
- Capital: Lomé
- French Speaking West Africa’s smallest nation
- Used to be a part of the Slave Coast
- Portuguese landed first in Togo where they set up trade posts
Founded by the Ewe people
End of the 19th Century the Germans came and relocated the capital to present day Lome
10km from the Ghanaian Border
Like most African countries there is always a market, and not all markets are created the same. The Grand Market, is set up differently than ones I had experienced, so we spent a long time going in circles. Since Lomé is one of the major ports in West Africa, everything is really cheap. Most Burkinabé make trips here to buy stuff really cheap, in bulk and return to Burkina to re-sell it to us. In the morning we shopped, after lunch we went to the Fetish market. This is a traditional market, where you can find anything you want for you aliments. We first took a tour of the market learning what each different object does, then after that we met with the Chief of the Market, taking us into a tiny room where he further explained some small objects, one for health, love, travel, family, etc. After that he blessed us and we were free to explore the market on our own.
Just East of Lome is a little beach town called Coco Beach. There are little shacks all up and down the beach. It provides a clean and relaxing getaway from the city. Fresh seafood is also always a plus!
- Used to be called Dahomey during the colonial period, adopted its current name from an old West African Kingdom located in present day Nigeria.
- 113,000 Square miles (size of Louisiana)
- Capital: Port Novo
- Portuguese also landed in Benin to set up ports
During the years of the Slave Trade, Grand Popo was one of the major ports, after the fall of slavery, this town become nothing more than a relaxing beach town.
We stayed at this little hostel on the beach run by some Rastafarian men. I remember spending a lot of time at the hotel due to all the rain, but we were the only tourist there, so we received a lot of attention from the staff.
The next day also provided a lot of rain, but in the afternoon the sky cleared. 5km from Grand Popo there is a huge lake, that connects to another lake in Togo, by a river. This section of the lake connects to the ocean. We took a canoe ride to see some mangrove trees, ran into a fisherman who was picking up his daily catch, and then landed on this little island. We took a tour of it, learned about its history, voodoo, saw a few different style colonial houses, and had a man climb a tree for us and cut us down some fresh coconut.
The Next day we headed east to Ouidah. We arrived by mid-morning, with no rain this time, found a place after searching for a long time. The city was a lot bigger than we expected. There were actual roads, with traffic. The afternoon turned into a nice day, so we made a picnic in the park, did a nice walking tour of the area. We took a tour of this old Portuguese fort, that they turned into the history museum for Ouidah. This fort once occupied 5 different countries, the Portuguese being the first and the French being the last. It’s a small, but well preserved. The next day we met up with some other volunteers and went to the Python Temple, Sacred Forest, and Point of no return, and Door of return.
The python temple was fun, we were the first people of the day, so the building wasn’t crowded, and we got plenty of time to play with pythons. In this building they breed pythons, and will rent them to families for protection. Then we headed over to the forest, where we learned about all the different vodu Gods, and other sacred things. After this it started to rain really hard again, so we holed up in a restaurant for a while.
The Point of no Return is referring to the slave trade that used to happen. There is a 4km stretch of road that you can take a tour of to learn about the final days/final walk of slaves in Africa. The Point of no return is the last stop on the beach, where a port used to be. Once a slave got onto a boat they would never be coming back. A few years ago a body of a slave was found and returned to the port where it was shipped from. The body returned to Ghana, and since then most other slave ports now have a door of return. It is in hopes that one day people will discover where their ancestors came from and they will return to learn about their heritage. Both places are funded by UNESCO, and worth seeing if you are ever in Benin.
Voodoo is believed to be started in Western Africa- Benin or Nigeria(depending on who you ask). In Benin Voodoo became a national religion in the 90’s, but the people that practice it use voodoo consider it a spirit, demigod or intermediary. They use this to interact with other spirits, ancestors or their supreme God Mawu. Voodoo is only white magic (good stuff) but can be used badly by sorceresses. In this case people will other offer offering, or buy a fetish (a regular object infused with a sacred power) to counter act the black magic, protect the home, or help a sick person. Normally each village has a vodu to protect their village. They build a shrine to this vodu and each year villagers make offerings, sacrifices for their protection.
When slaves were traded they took this religion to North and South America. When the Brazilians returned to Benin between the 17th -19th century they brought back voodoo mixed with their local traditions introducing different parts of that into the voodoo tradition in Benin (like voodoo dolls).
Economic Capital and Port City
West Africa’s least enticing cities
There are mottos everywhere, we spent most of our time in traffic. We found the first hotel we came across, which was a bad choice since it was dirty and near the Grande market, so it never quitted down. Since we didn’t like our hotel we spent the whole day outside. We went to the Grande Marché, where I bought a lot of shoes. We decided to cut our time in Cotonou early since we couldn’t handle all the moto traffic.
It’s a 12 hours bus ride north. It was really nice, a lot better than the ride down. We got a hotel room and called it a night. The next day we went 17km to a village where there is a waterfall and hiking. We spent the whole day playing in the waterfall and finally got some sun.
This post is a highlight of my favorite off the path places visited while in Togo and Benin in 2011.