Cotonou, Benin

Photo: Osia ZANNOU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Agouti, anyone? Yes, that would be rat. It’s served fish-and-chips style here, and it’s a local favorite. You can eat it after walking over the Ancien Pont, through the largest open-air market in West Africa, or on your way to the beach. Or not. It’s completely understandable if you want to pass. Your senses are already overwhelmed on your first day in Cotonou.

Cotonou may as well be the capital of Benin. It’s only an hour away from the true capital, Porto-Novo, but with the country’s major airport and the largest port, the bigger city certainly feels more important. Cotonou sits on a narrow strip of land in between Lake Nokoué and the Gulf of Guinea. It’s home to colonial architecture and a grand cathedral, thanks to the French, who colonized the kingdom of Dahomey in the early-20th century. The Beninese people still speak French. They love football, too. But, beside that, the sprawling, congested, sweaty city is all African.

Benin is still a largely unexplored country. It has a complicated history based on voodoo and the slave trade. But after the French left and a dictatorship followed, it was the first county in the region to transition to a multi-party democracy. Much of the country is still covered with dense forests. It has a gorgeous coastline, animal-filled national parks, and incredibly friendly people, as well.

Photo: Maison Rouge Cotonou

You were surprised when you first arrived. On the shuttle from the airport, you expected chaos and confusion. Zémidjans zipped past you, but the drivers of the motorcycle-taxis were uniformed and aware that they weren’t the biggest vehicles on the road. Vendors were selling goats and talismans, as well as lots of colorful vegetables, in the Dantokpa Market. While your boutique hotel turned out to be modern and surprisingly minimal.

That hotel, Maison Rouge, sat on Boulevard de la Marina and was just steps from the golden beach. Contemporary African artwork filled the lobby. Your spacious room had two important features: a whirlpool bath and a terrace with a view of the ocean. The restaurant, which served freshly cut mango and papaya for breakfast, opened up to the garden and the long pool, where high red walls ensured complete privacy.

But you didn’t stick around for long. After checking out of the hotel and admiring the view, you hopped on one of those zémidjans to explore the city. You planned to eat, smell, and touch your way through Cotonou and return to the beach in time for sunset. But then you were offered agouti in the market. For a moment, your confidence waned and your stomach turned. How about another local speciality, spiced fish, instead?

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