Millions of African were shipped as slaves from the ports of Cotonou and Ouidah, spreading the religion of voodoo to the New World. Today Cotonou is a culturally vibrant Francophone city of more than 50 ethnicities and languages, still retaining the memory of ancient kingdoms.

It is a city of voodoo shrines and spirits, with little in the way of tourist infrastructure. (But it does have a beach named after an American president.) There are few good hotels, no foreign exchange bureaus, and no timetables for the public transport system.

Cotonou is loud and chaotic, colourful and lively. It is a labyrinth of alleys and markets selling chicken feet snacks and handmade jewellery. It is home to the white-and-burgundy-striped Notre Dame des Apotres Cathedral and the soft blue Central Mosque.

It’s a coastal city with spectacular beaches, from the white sands of Fidjrosse Beach to Obama Beach, named in 2008 after the USA’s first black president. Cotonou is the beating heart of Benin, and a perfectly modern African city.

Cotonou is “batonga”, which means “I can be whoever I decide to be and do what I want to do”. It’s a word created by Cotonou’s most famous citizen, the award-winning musician Angelique Kidjo, to describe the guiding principle of her life.

The economic engine of Benin, a key-shaped country wedged between Nigeria and Togo, Cotonou is a bustling city of restaurants, great night life, and the largest voodoo market in the world. The Cotonou Fetish Market is where Beninese go to stock up for the Vodun Festival, a celebration of voodoo – one of the official religions of Benin.

This colourful festival – featuring dancing, voodoo dolls and horse races on the beach – is an official public holiday, in January. Beginning at the Arch of No Return (under which slaves were marched onto waiting ships) the festival now draws larger crowds of foreign tourists, attracted to its colour and dancing, fuelled by bountiful gin. For the country’s voodoo priests, the festival is about sending all the evil in the country, and on the continent, away.

Just north of downtown Cotonou is Lake Nokoue in and the town of Ganvie, the Venice of Africa. The lake town’s population of 30 000 live, work and pray in a settlement of homes, churches and markets built on stilts above the water.

Ganvie, which means “we survived”, was settled 400 years ago by the Tofinu. According to legend, the Tofinu believed their main enemy, the Dom-Homey tribe, feared the water demon that lived in the lake. The town also offered protection from the warlike Fon, whose one weakness was that they refused to get wet.

In 12 hours you can travel Benin from Cotonou in the south to Boumba on its northern border. It’s a journey of astonishing natural wonders. The rugged mountain beauty of the north gives way to the palm-fringed utopia of the Atlantic coast, and its empty white sandy beaches.

TOP IMAGE: Boats at anchor in the lagoon in Cotonou, Benin. Cotonou is the economic capital of the West African country of Benin and is located on the coastal strip between Lake Nokoue and the Atlantic Ocean. The city is cut in two by a canal, the lagoon of Cotonou, which connects the Lake to the Atlantic. (Image: Mark Fischer, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr)

  • Words: Sulaiman Philip
  • Editing, photo research and captions: Mary Alexander