Quick Guide to Benin: Visa-free travel for South Africans

2018-06-20 17:09 - Saara Mowlana
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benin map

Plan your trip to Benin with this Quick Guide. (Photo: iStock)

Benin is a West African country that is deep rooted in intriguing culture and breathtaking, natural beauty.

There is a wide variety of activities and attractions to keep everyone entertained.

You can discover the magic and mystery of the state religion known as voodoo by attending one of Benin's vibrant annual ceremonies in honour of it.

Or visit the markets in Cotonou, which will have you enthralled with their compelling yet macabre fetish section.

Take to the waters and sail out to Ganvié, a floating stilted haven that sits bouyant on Lake Nakoué.

For those looking to kick back, why not lounge on the stunning, deserted, palm-fringed beaches at Grand Popo on the Bight of Benin. Here you can soak up some sun, sand, sea and palm leaf shade.

Or get wild and spot some elephants, cheetah, buffalo and lion at one of West Africa's prime game reserves.

What are you waiting for? Plan your Benin visit now.

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Here's what you need to know if you go:

  • Visas: No visa is required for South Africans for up to 90 days - granted you have a valid passport.
  • Population: About 11 447 548 +/- presently
  • Capital City: Porto-Novo
  • Flight time: About 8 hours and 5 minutes at best for a direct flight and about 10 hours 20 minutes at best with stop overs. 

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  • Currency: CFA Franc or West African CFA Franc (XAF / XOF) Current Exchange Rate: R1 = 44.12 XAF / XOF
  • Medical and health: To avoid illness and dampening your trip experience, be sure to heed the warnings and get the appropriate vaccinations beforehand. All Travellers: Routine Vaccinations, Yellow Fever. Most Travellers: Hepatitis A, Malaria, Typhoid Some Travellers: Hepatitis B, Meningitis (Meningococcal disease), Rabies.
  • Country code: +229
  • Emergencies: Dial 117 - for more emergency numbers: click here.
  • Public Transport: A network of buses, bush taxis, zemidjans (moped taxis), bicycles, motorbikes and mopeds provide the primary source of public transport and travel around Benin. Read more here.
  • Climate: Benin has a Tropical climate. Benin is prone to dry winter seasons and the African monsoon which run from May to September (in the extreme north) and from mid-March to October (in the south). 
  • Best time to go: Taking into consideration the climate, the best time to go is between mid-November and March.
  • Popular Cuisine: Popular dishes include: Yovo Doko, Fried Yam and Potatoes, Akkara, Massa and Ablo to name a few, check out more here.
  • Language: French is the official languages in Benin. Of the Beninese languages, Fon and Yoruba are the most important in the south and there are half a dozen regionally important languages, including Bariba and Fulfulde, in the north. Other languages spoken include: Mina, Dendi and English (studied as a foreign language).

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Useful phrases to know: 

French is the official language of Benin. However, you may encounter some locals who speak other Beninese languages, like Bariba, Yoruba, Mina and Dendi to name a few. Learn some key phrases in French to make your stay more enjoyable. 

Useful app to download - Duolingo and Google Translate makes learning a new language easy and fun. 

  • Hello - Bounjour (Bohn-zhoor)
  • Goodbye - Au revoir (oh-reh-vwar)
  • Yes - Oui (wee)
  • No - Non (nohn)
  • How are you? - Comment allez-vous? (kom-mohn-tah-lay-voo)
  • Please - S'il vous plaît (see-voo-play)
  • Thank you - Merci (mehr-see)
  • You're welcome - De rien (dah ree-ehn)
  • How much does it cost? - Combien ça coûte? (bee-en coo-tee)
  • Do you speak English? - Parlez vous anglais? (pahr-lay vooz ahng-lay)
  • Excuse me - Excusez-moi (excu-zay mwah)
  • Where are the toilets? - Où sont les toilettes? (ooh soo leh toilets)
  • What is your name? - Comment vous appelez-vous? (kohm-moh voo zahp-oo-lay voo)
  • My name is... - Mon nom est... (mohn noh aye) or Je m'appelle... (zhuh mah-pehl - literally 'I call myself')
  • Where are you from? - D'où êtes-vous? (do et voo)
  • I am from... - Je suis de... (zhuh swee duh)
  • Sorry - Pardon (paghr-dohn)
  • Wine list, please - Carte des vins (kah-tah dee vahn), s'il vous plaît 
  • Beautiful - Beau (boo)
  • Delicious - Délicieux (de-lee-see-you)

Practical Tips

When travelling to Benin, make sure you have the following on your packing list:

  • A valid passport, arrival ticket, return ticket, adequate funds;
  • a camera;
  • basic essentials;
  • light, loose-fitting clothing - think convenience before fashion;
  • comfortable and strong shoes or boots if you decide to trek the rougher landscapes;
  • a brimmed hat;
  • sunscreen;
  • insect repellent;
  • formal / occasional wear (depending on your reason for travel);
  • basic toiletries;
  • hand sanitiser;
  • prescription medication;
  • diarrhoea and indigestion meds;
  • sunglasses (and a spare pair);
  • a medical kit (for exploration);
  • a flashlight (for exploration);
  • video camera and accessories;
  • binoculars;
  • vaccination certificates;
  • insurance documents;
  • your credit / debit cards;
  • sandals or flipflops;
  • Benin maps - city / town maps and travel guides;
  • a notebook, tablet or smartphone.

Other

  • Avoid swimming in the sea as the ocean currents in Benin are very strong and potentially hazardous.
  • Travel light. One suitcase of up to 20kg (to check in free) and one cabin bag of up to 7kg will satisfy most airlines' requirements for economy passengers. Some travel companies supply pilgrims with appropriate cabin bags and day bags.
  • Get a waterproof cover / pack for your phone or tablet - rain or sea water, sand and electronics is not a fun mixtape.
  • Get a Beninese sim card quickly and easily when  you arrive - it will save you a lot of data roaming charges!
  • Always carry a lightweight and powerful powerbank to ensure you've always got juice on the move - snapping pics and navigating Google maps tend to chow up battery life rather fast. Make sure you have your charger and a universal adapter too while you're at it.
  • As much as the urge to take as many pictures of the beautiful country as possible is strong, be sure to ask permission before you begin to snap pictures of houses or people. In some cases, you may be required to offer a tip for those pictures. Particularly at voodoo ceremonies or fetish markets - many will simply not allow this.
  • Watch your money - Make sure that, when changing currency you do so in a reputable hotel, foreign exchange bureau or bank.
  • Drinking water - it is best to drink purified water from trusted sources or bottled water if you're able as clean and safe drinking water is limited and rare.
  • Tipping ranges between 5% - 10% in Benin depending on the service provided. 

Top attractions in Benin

The bay formerly used for slave trade has sprung a new wave. It now serves as a point of palm oil trade - a major export of the region. It is also a great place to kick back on the shores or take to the water for a beach day.

This park is a conservation stronghold in West Africa. It is part of a vital triad of parks and reserves where 90% of the West African lion population remains. Behold iconic creatures like great elephants, small bird and fish species and more!

This cathedral will have you wondering where's Waldo. Located in the heart of Cotonou - it is also known as the Notre Dame des Apostres. It is not just a place to pray, but also houses a small bookshop selling titles by regional writers and a handful of academic texts.

This market sells all things voodoo - a prominent faith of Benin. You'll find tree barks, dried plants and stalwarts (dried animal parts) - aka skins, heads and hoofs. Live rats and fish are a common appearance as well as being greeted by an strong smell pre-entry.

Fancy a refreshing dip? Consider heading to the Kota Falls. This natural haven is nestled just 15km south-east of Natitingou, off of the main highway. Hike it out in the hills, splash about the falls' pool or just chill out in the cool shade of the undergrowth.