Having been to Benin on more occasions then I’d care to count, over the last couple of years I’ve started to explore regional travel options from which Cotonou, Benin’s commercial capital, can act as a base. To the east of Cotonou, you’ll find Nigeria within easy driving distance. But to the west lies the exciting prospect of Togo and Ghana; two countries rich in history and culture; not to mention a continuation of Benin’s proclivity for voodoo and history of slavery. With that in mind I recently decided to venture across this small portion of West Africa by road, and in the process have devised my own 8-day itinerary for exploring this little explored coastal region via some of West Africa’s most interesting capital cities.
And with that I introduce you to the Take Photos Leave Footprints Coastal West African Itinerary.
Day 1: Arrival in Cotonou, Benin
Welcome to Cotonou, or ‘bienvenue à cotonou’ as the locals would say; you’re first port of call on your Coastal West African Itinerary .
Upon arrival you’ll take a yellow taxi from the airport to your accommodation for some much-earned rest (Taxis are available upon arrival outside the arrivals terminal).
I’ve stayed in a few different hotels in Cotonou (Maison Rouge, Hotel Azalai, and Golden Tulip amongst them – and the only 3 I would truly recommend). For leisure I would always suggest Maison Rouge although it can, depending on time of year, be a little pricey. The Golden Tulip is now my go-to hotel of choice because the Wi-Fi is excellent and there’s a decent bar and pool. It is however more business oriented. Finally, the Azalai has the best ocean view rooms, but I’ve often found the mosquitoes problematic here.
Day 2: Exploring Cotonou, Benin
Today you’ll be exploring some of Cotonou’s best sights on your Coastal West African Itinerary. Within the city this is largely possible by utilizing Cotonou’s relatively new fleet of yellow taxis or its motorbike taxi system known locally as ‘Zémidjan’ (Zay-Me-Jan). For more details on getting around in Cotonou check out my Cotonou Destination Guide.
We’ll start the day by visiting what I believe is Cotonou’s most interesting cultural ‘attraction’, Ganvie. Affectionately known as ‘The Venice of Africa’, Ganvie is a stilt town built on Lake Nokoue just north of Cotonou. The town was founded as a shelter from Portuguese slavers because, in the Fon religion, it is believed that raiders are unable to approach people living on water. Today, the community thrives on sustainable fishing and the income received from the relatively small tourist industry. The town is only accessible by boat, and from Cotonou, the easiest way to visit is to book a motorised boat from Hotel Du Lac. Plan to be on the water for about 3-4 hours to visit Ganvie, the markets and waterside homes of Cotonou as well as the many fisherman on the lake in their Pirogues (wooden, carved-out long boats).
For more details on the history of Ganvie, what to expect, and practical details of arranging a boat tour to the town, make sure to check out my Ganvie article.
Cotonou has a surprising variety of cuisines on offer. If you’re looking for a variety of restaurants within a small area (so you have some options), then my advice would be to head over to Piste Amalco (which I call ‘Restaurant Row’) near the airport.
This afternoon’s first stop is Dantokpa Market. Otherwise known by its shorthand, “Tokpa,” Dantokpa Market is the largest open-air market in West Africa and is the ideal way to get a better understanding of what day-to-day life looks (and smells) like in Cotonou. Dantokpa has over 20 hectares of market space (that’s equivalent to about 20 football fields), and it is home to every specialty item from food, livestock and grain to clothing, alcohol and voodoo talismans. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, then chances are you can’t buy it in Benin. For those not already acquainted with voodoo, the market is a great way to get an introduction to the rituals, artifacts and talismans of this complex religion before you move on to the capital of voodoo, Ouidah on Day 3.
After shopping like a local it’s time to head to The Artisanal Center to shop like a tourist. If you’re looking for souvenirs to take home then this is the place to buy them (unless you’re regarding voodoo ritual bones you picked up at Topka as souvenirs?!). The artisanal center is certainly a much more relaxed shopping environment than Topka and is geared more towards tourists. Hence the higher, but justified, price tags. You’ll find a whole host of things to buy including wooden carvings, bronze statues, jewelry, clothing and fabrics amongst others in what is designed to look a little like a traditional West African village setting including a restaurant and bar. Plan to spend about an hour here (excluding any time spent at the bar).
Enjoy a meal out in Cotounou on the first full night of your Coastal West African Itinerary. You could return to restaurant row or choose to get some great views across Cotonou whilst eating and drinking the night away at the sky bar on top of the Home Residence Hotel on Avenue du Canada. This is where I always go on my last night in Cotonou!
Day 3: Cotonou to Ouidah, Benin
From here, your Coastal West African Itinerary will focus on land transfers between destinations. Whilst buses are feasible (for example, STC run regular routes along the coast), they won’t afford you some of the flexibility you might want. For example, on Day 4 of my itinerary I recommend stopping at Togoville before driving on to Lome. On buses I don’t think this would be possible. The other thing to consider is that if you only speak English then trying to navigate the public bus systems, and border control posts, of francophone countries can be a daunting prospect. So, while I would say that with more time you could use public transport, for a short itinerary, and in order to avoid potential delay, I would strongly suggest you consider private transfers. This is how I managed the trip the last time I did it. I used Continent Tours who allowed me to structure my own route and itinerary; they just provided a car and driver between destinations.
This morning you’ll be up and out of your Cotonou hotel as early as possible (I’d suggest 9am) and hit the road towards Ouidah, Benin’s (and arguably the world’s) capital of voodoo.
But this morning you’ll start by getting a comprehensive overview of Benin’s sobering history during the slave trade.
Together with Elmina in Ghana, Gorée Island in Senegal and Albreda in Gambia, Ouidah was one of the four slave trade gates in West Africa from the 17th to 19th century. It’s estimated that over a million slaves left for Brazil, the U.S and the Caribbean colonies from Ouidah and the beginning of that horrific journey commenced on Ouidah’s Slave Route. Start your journey at the Museum, which was formerly the Portuguese Slave Fort and Market. The Museum now houses displays on all of the key topics of the region: the Kingdom of Xwéda, the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Slave Trade, Voodoo, and a really interesting photography exhibit on the Cultural Links between Benin and the New World. The entrance fee to the museum includes an accompanying guide in French or English (without which the museum wouldn’t have been half as interesting).
Upon leaving the Museum you can trace the 4km Slave Route from the fort’s slave market to the Door of No Return; which memorializes the slave’s final moments on African soil. Notable monuments along the route include the Tree of Forgetfulness Monument; where slaves were branded and forced to circle the tree in order to symbolically clear their memory of Africa and their homes, and the Zomaï Huts Memorial; which memorializes the huts in which slaves were kept shackled for months in perpetual darkness before boarding the slaver’s ships. It’s intensely sobering but something that should be experienced by all visitors to Benin. If you want to hire a guide (including English speaking guides) to accompany you in your car then you can pick one up at the Museum before you depart.
Your morning will finish at the Door of No Return on Ouidah’s stunning beach. Also, along the beach you’ll find a small artisan market and a couple of hotels with restaurants; the perfect spot to stop for lunch.
After lunching your focus will switch to learning more about voodoo and will start with a visit to Temple des Python. The temple’s origins can be traced back to the Kingdom of Dahomey whose King at the time was saved from impending death at the hands of ferocious warriors by the pythons which emerged from the forest. The Python Temple was subsequently built in honor of the protection that the pythons afforded the King. Today the temple is filled with 41 of the royal residents (41 being an important spiritual number in the voodoo calendar) which are considered sacred and represent the god Dangbe, who is one of the most powerful spirits of voodoo representing life and fertility. It’s safe to say that if you’re not a fan of snakes then the temple isn’t going to be much fun for you. No sooner than two minutes after entering the temple I had a python draped around my neck and another in my hands – the remaining 39 I sat with in the main temple complex. Having said that, given that all the snakes are released into town at night to feed, I guess that if you suffer from ophiophobia then Ouidah may not be for you in general! There’s a small fee to enter the temple which pays for a guide (we only found guides in French) so make sure you have local currency (in small denominations) handy.
After completing your visit to the Python Temple take the short drive to The Sacred Forest. More rugged Voodoo Park than forest, the Sacred Forest of Kpasse is said to be the final resting place of King Kpasse, the King of the Dahomey Kingdom in the 16th Century. However, like most things in a country full of legend and mysticism, this is no ordinary cemetery. Instead, the former King, who loved Ouidah and its people so much that he never wanted to die, is said to have secretly disappeared and then transformed himself into a giant iroko tree (as you do) which still stands in the forest today. The tree is today said to grant wishes to those who touch it and high above it you’ll find resident flying foxes (themselves a worthy reason to visit). The remainder of the forest is filled with a multitude of statues of voodoo gods; each with its own story which your designated guide will recount to you with much excitement in English or French. If for no other reason you should visit the Sacred Forest to get a better idea of the feverish excitement and devotion to legend that the Voodoo religion elicits from its devotees.
This evening head back to the beachfront for a seafood dinner at Côté Pêche.
For more information on tips and activities in Ouidah make sure to check out our Ouidah Destination Guide.
Day 4: Ouidah, Benin to Lomé, Togo via Togoville
Today your Coastal West African Itinerary will make your first border crossing from Benin to Togo. For some, visas will be available at the border post and at a much cheaper price than applying for them at your local embassy prior to travel. However, make sure you check the requirements specific to your nationality prior to travel.
This morning you’ll be up and out of your hotel by 9am for the drive from Ouidah to the border crossing, which is about 1.5-hours away. The crossing itself is typically quite painless and the last time I did it (when I applied for my visa at the crossing) I managed to do so in just under 20-minutes.
Once in Togo you have two options; which you pick will largely depend on the time of day you get through the border crossing. The first option is to drive straight to Lomé (about another 1.5-hours away). However, if you have more time then you could take the option to drive along the N2 towards Lomé making a stop at Agbodrafo for lunch. From here you can take a boat from Hotel Le Lac Le Paradis across Lake Togo to historic Togoville Town.
Once in Togoville take a stroll around the relatively small town. Make sure not to miss out on the German Cathedral and the museum. Also clearly visible in Togoville is the influence of voodoo; you’ll spot plenty of fetish stalls dotted throughout the streets.
Afternoon and Evening
After taking the boat back across Lake Togo get back on the N2 for the final leg of your drive to Lomé. This evening you’ll have free time to explore the area around your hotel and grab a bite for dinner in one of Lomé’s many restaurants.
Day 5: Lomé, Togo
This morning on your Coastal West African Itinerary, we say “Welcome to the Paris of Africa!”
Today you’ll have the chance to see a few of Lomé’s best sights. If you’re wondering how to get around then make sure to read my Lomé Destination Guide for more information.
After waking up and grabbing breakfast at the hotel you’ll catch a ride to Akodessawa Fetish Market. Being the largest voodoo market in the world, Lomé’s Fetish Market is equal parts, fascinating, educational and gory. My advice is to pay for one of the market’s guides (who you’ll find by the entrance gate) to walk you around. Without the guide you’re basically just wandering around the dead corpses of thousands of animals (which, I admit, smell particularly awful on a hot day). The guide’s fee also pays for a quick visit to one of the on-site fetish priests (also known as voodoo high priests, or healers). What’s important to note here is that this isn’t anything to do with black-magic or juju (so don’t worry, you won’t have anyone sticking pins in your effigy). In the West Africa region, and in particular Togo and Benin, Voodoo is a bone fide religion. Whilst the religion’s sometimes gory traditions might seem odd to some visitors, the role of the Fetish Market in finding solutions to those things that Western medicine can’t is an important cultural one. If you want to read more about my visit to the Fetish Market, together with tips on how to get there, then you can read my post here.
Nothing drums up an appetite more than scouring a market littered with corpses (that’s my British sarcasm setting in). Joke aside, there will come a point when you are ready to eat again. I’d suggest taking a look at this post for recommendations for both lunch and dinner.
This afternoon you’ll be back in the center of town at the Grand Marché. The Grand Marché is Lomé’s main market and is the center of life in the city and the primary place that locals do their shopping. It’s an absolute labyrinth of streets crammed full of market stalls and, on particularly busy days, can be an almost overwhelming riot of colour, smells, and sound. I’d advise that you try and visit early in the day before the heat gets too overwhelming; to do otherwise can end up being an unpleasant experience. If you’re looking for souvenirs then make sure you visit the Rue des Artisans portion of the market which is one street west from Rue de la Gare. Here you’ll find an abundance of tribal masks, other wood carvings, jewelry, and leather goods. Make sure you barter with the stall holders or be prepared to pay overinflated prices. For example, I negotiated 50% off of the price of two tribal masks and even then I got the sense that he was extremely happy with the deal.
Built in 1902 by the German Colonial Authorities, and one of the most iconic buildings in Lomé, the Sacred Heart Cathedral is also located in the heart of the Grand Marché. Although it’s probably one of the most photographed buildings in the capital it’s just a church (albeit an aesthetically pleasing one). You’ll no doubt pass it if you’re wandering the around the Grand Marché; if so, it’s worth popping by.
This evening is yours to explore Lomé’s nightlife. As explained in my more comprehensive guide to the city, just be sure to stay safe, especially if you’re in the vicinity of the beach.
Day 6: Lomé, Togo to Accra, Ghana
Today is the longest travel day of your Coastal West African Itinerary. You should expect to spend about 4-5 hours on the road together with the border crossing from Togo into Ghana (which can sometimes be arduously slow if you aren’t willing to pay a bribe to the Ghanaian immigration officials).
Given the long drive, and people’s different approaches to long road trips, I’m leaving this day of the schedule open to your own interpretation.
If it was me, I’d probably get up early, have breakfast in Lomé and then power through all the way to Accra in the hope of reaching my hotel (subject to Accra’s sometimes insane traffic) by about 2pm. After that you can spend a little time relaxing at your hotel or head out for a well-deserved beer in one of Accra’s many pubs (the Honeysuckle, for example, which also happens to be a great place to catch Premier League Football at the weekend).
In the evening the world is your oyster. Accra is a sprawling cosmopolitan city which, from a food perspective, caters to every single taste. From upscale Chinese food at Tang Garden (located at the luxury Tang Palace Hotel) to entrecote at Bistro 22 (which won Ghana’s restaurant of the year in 2016 and was excellent when I last visited).
Day 7: Accra, Ghana
Today on your Coastal West African Itinerary you’ll have the opportunity to explore some of Accra’s most famous sites. I’d suggest hiring a local taxi to take you around. They tend to be reasonable but just make sure that you pre-agree rates if you plan on asking the driving to wait for you whilst you explore each site.
Let’s start the day with a stroll around one of Accra’s most historic neighborhoods, Jamestown. Starting on John Evans Atta Mills High Street (I know, a bit of a mouthful) you’ll find yourself in the center of town hugging the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Guinea. This may be where Accra was founded as a trading town, but today Jamestown is a hub of artistry. Start your tour by visiting James Fort Prison and Ussher Fort, which are located about 1km from each other. Whilst Ussher was built by the Dutch and James Fort Prison was built by the British, the one thing they have in common is that both have severely deteriorated with the sands of time. Nonetheless, a tour of Ussher is well worthwhile. Next up is Brazil House, which hosts an art gallery worth stopping by. Continuing along the High Street you’ll next reach Jamestown fishing harbor and Lighthouse. The lighthouse is local symbol and the panoramic views over the fishing harbor and brightly painted boats offer some worthwhile photography opportunities.
After heading east out of Jamestown you’ll come across Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum. Together with being the final resting place of Ghana’s first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the site is host to the both a picturesque memorial park and a small museum that’s home to a number of exhibit items depicting Ghana’s struggle for independence. The mausoleum structure depicts an upside-down sword; a symbol of peace in Ghanaian culture and is clad with Italian marble. Inside the mausoleum is a skylight which, if you manage to time your visit correctly, reflects off the interior marble and creates a spectacular gleam that illuminates the whole room.
Your final stop of the morning is just up the road from Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum at Independence Square. The square, which is the second largest City Square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing, is the home of the Independence Arch, Black Star Gate, and the Liberation Day Monument, each of which are monuments to Ghana’s independence struggle.
Grab a quick lunch in the city center before heading on to your afternoon activities. There are a plethora of options to choose from in Accra!
The first stop of the afternoon will see you hopping in a taxi to check out some unique fantasy coffin workshops. Have you ever dreamed of spending the afterlife buried in a giant shoe? Perhaps you’d prefer a luminous orange fish, or a miniature Boeing 767? I thought not. Nonetheless, those are just some of the infinite fantasy coffin options on offer in the Ghanaian suburb of Teshie; a mere 20-minute drive from the center of Ghana’s capital city, Accra. This small town has found itself at the center of Ghana’s custom coffin business. A place where the term “going out in style” takes on a whole new meaning! I recommend reading my guide to the fantasy coffin workshops to plan your visit.
After visiting the fantasy coffin workshops hit the road and head towards the final stop of your trip to pick up some souvenirs; the Artists Alliance Gallery.
The Gallery is, in my humble opinion, the best place in Accra to pick up high-quality artwork. You’ll find a range of renowned artists on exhibit and everything in the center is for sale. Alongside paintings you’ll also find wood carvings, a huge collection of tribal masks, fantasy coffins, fabrics and furniture. Smaller trinkets are also available if that all sounds a bit much.
This evening you’ll head out to dinner in Accra before solemnly heading back to the hotel to start packing your bags for the long journey home.
Day 8: Depart Accra, Ghana
Goodbye West Africa! Until next time!
Is there anything you think I’ve missed from my Coastal West African Itinerary of Benin, Togo and Ghana? Would you extend and take the extra trip to the Cape Coast to learn more about the region’s history of the slave trade? Make sure to comment in the comments section below.