Even before arriving to Benin I found on Instagram a person who was currently cycling Africa (yes, plenty of people do this…I can only begin to imagine the challenges) and noticed he rode by bike to Ouidah on a charming beach road. Once I saw this I decided I would do the same. Basically I saved the best for last without knowing it! I figured out how to rent a bike (a feat here) and took a 2 day trip to Ouidah (Wee duh)….After a few hours cycling I arrived to the Door of No Return (Le Porte de Non Retour) – 2.5 miles from town – where I would stay at a hotel on the beach. I biked into town the same day and explored as much as I could since I would head back the following day!
I decided to do the trip over the weekend because I intended to try and get my Ghanaian visa Monday from the embassy. That and the rental I found was through the Guesthouse I first stayed at and the cost was $30 a day…which seemed way too high (in fact it is!)…I questioned the price but in the end I didn´t even care. Cycling always brings me joy and I already had my mind fixed on doing it this way…so be it. It was hard enough to find a bike although I might have been able to borrow one if I had just asked around at the guesthouse (quite a few long-term residents). Instead of cycling you can take the minibus/taxi brousse (bush taxi) to Ouidah for cheap…or if you perfer to go along the beautiful Route des Pêches like me, a motorbike is fairly easy to hire (cars don´t usually go because it is a sand road and the probability of getting stuck is high).
I set off early in the morning to avoid the heat and was pleased to find a cool ocean fog coating Cotonou…I also went early to avoid traffic; the roads normally have tons of motorbikes and cars…thankfully it was the weekend and roadways were nice and clear (Sundays in Cotonou…the city is like a ghost town). It took 2.5 hours to arrive to the beach near Ouidah but really I took another hour with all my stops. It was such a joy to cycle and explore that I stopped a ton to look at the fishing villages along the way, take in the rows of palm trees and enjoy the emptiness of the sandy road all to myself (except the occasional motorbike, villager and random car).
The road being all sand was at times difficult but I made it a goal to make it as far through the loose sand parts as I could….challenging but entertaining. On my return I tried to go as far as I could along the Route before I had to touch the ground…which was about halfway…10 miles of the 22. If you didn´t want to do all sand there was a paved road out of Cotonou that went several miles (saving 30 minutes maybe) before it ended and you had to join the beach road..thought I must say the beach road kept the ocean in view the whole way and seemed more authentic.
Along the way I stopped to take photos of the palm trees, the villages and the boats. I wandered around some villages exploring and even dipped my feet in from time to time. On the way back I stopped even more. This time jumping in the ocean (it was hot for the return) only to get tumbled around quickly over and over again (very strong currents and lots of waves…) staying within the line of dangerous and fun! I watched the whole population of fishing villages appear on the shoreline to fish…pulling large nets out of the sea for hours and picking off the small fish to later eat. I spoke with some out picking fish off the net and they said everyday from 6 am until what would be 11 am when I saw them, they work the fishing net to get their meals. Being the weekend one guy I spoke with was a university student and said he comes home some weekends to help too. It was very impressive to watch…netting lay from one end of the beach to nearly the other side of the village (mind you villages are tiny) even twisting here and there. It seemed a palm tree or two was what anchored the net on land to a boat off shore. So crazy to stumble upon and witness a whole village come together to work for the greater good of the entire community.
Arriving to the Door of no Return felt like an accomplishment…I was tired but happy. I immediately went in and took it all in. A beautiful symbol they built to remember those sent away into slavery. Such detail…ironwork…and even voodoo sculptures. It is truly a site to see when walking from town or arriving along the coast. The road that ends here from town (Route des Esclaves – Slave Route) is well known and many come here to walk the same route in the heat so they can feel a tad of the hardships slaves were forced into and just remember. This is the actual road slaves walked (chained together) to reach ships off shore. It is a powerful, humanizing walk and can be especially emotional for visiting African Americans and Afro Brazilians with family history directly tied to West Africa.
I highly recommend if you visit doing the walk on this road from town to coast not just to understand the hardships more deeply but also because it is actually a beautiful setting (yes, even with the sad, harsh…horrible past) and there are many other historical slave stops plus many voodoo sculptures (placed during the first voodoo festival here in 1992) you can admire along the way. Grab a fresh coconut halfway down to refresh and let history be absorbed (not just heard).
I chose a hotel on the beach I had passed as my home for the night. Decent price for a simple no AC room…for me it wasn’t hot at night anymore so I skipped AC most of the time…a simple fan was perfect. (AC rooms were definitely available too as well as camping). I showered and changed and headed into Ouidah to find lunch and explore.
My day in Ouidah was filled stopping at some of the voodoo and artsy sites. Before doing any of that though I needed to eat…as usual it is hard for me to find places with something different…I tried several and I avoided where all other tourists (most tourists I ever saw in Benin was here in Ouidah…I think 5 total) seemed to be going. Finally though someone told me where a good place was and it was great with authentic lunch on the street where everyone around me was surprised I sat, joined them and ate with my hands lol…since I was obviously not from there. This place was packed; nearly had a line, and served delishious food! So happy I waited it out to find the best place! I even bought cotton swabs from the kid selling them…finally I understood why they sell those things randomly at unusual places…hey, when ur out and they sell what you need while u eat…you got to get on it!
My first real tourist stop was the Python Temple…very touristy with about 200 pythons that they say are from town but are filled with spirits and will not harm anyone. I was not scared and asked to try one on because why not? It is the closest I’ve ever been to a snake! They are quite cold, smooth and sexy looking. Ha ha ha By the way the snakes are sacred because during slavery times a King (there are 3 kingdoms in Benin…yes, they still exist) escaped capture by hiding in the forest and the snakes protected him….it is illegal and bad luck to kill snakes here and they apparently let them out to eat small animals in the village from time to time….
I also went to the Fondation Zinsou (museum), a family owned one in Cotonou and Ouidah…I’d been to the one in Cotonou and loved it…this one was also amazing (more visited too as they couldn’t believe I had been to the other one first). I loved the attention given At these museums. Entry is free and you are guided around with each piece explained to you (English guide is available)…and there is a community aspect too…this one had a place for kids to do crafts or exercise…oh and they offer food and have a gift shop. The building for the museum in Ouidah is of beautiful Afro-Brazilian design but the exhibit in Cotonou was my favorite because it was on African wax fabrics (patterns; wax) and I learned so much about them. I never knew or understood until my visit that each piece (pattern) has a meaning behind it (story even) and for many it’s the reason why they wear these patterns…I just figured they liked the design but noo each actually means something! Patterns are expressions and are widely understood in society…the wax fabric originate from Indonesia (batik design), were produced by Dutch manufacturers originally and the specific industry generates billions $ in sales in Africa (nowadays not all are produced by the Dutch).
I toured the sacred gardens too which were nice…they even had bug spray (needed) …with voodoo statues all over and nice guides…mine decked a University of Washington Huskies (hometown univ.) cap :D! Lastly I bought some fruit at a couple of stands on the street and was persuaded by music to a pre sunset beer at the bar… music that felt Latin but wasn’t pulled me in…ha ha..It made for a jolly ride back to the hotel as you may imagine ha ha…Somehow after all that I convinced myself to an evening swim at the hotel’s salt water pool…before dinner.
I concluded this part of the trip with an am run along the Route des Esclaves and a second swim in the pool (another potential cause of pink eye…which I got the morning after returning). On my run I turned around at the Tree of Forgetting…where slaves had to go around 7-9 times before walking to the ocean to be sent off…they were forced to do so in order to forget their family, language, culture, names, heritage and all they knew from home…essentially their last goodbye :(. Halfway back and farther West along the beach were other memorials to slave trade that I visited before starting my journey back. Although I did not walk the road I do recommend others doing so as it is a rare opportunity to go on a journey through a living museum that humanizeS the past. I chose not to as I had biked all the way and chose instead to get up very early to make sure to run it and feel it in my own unique way.
I really enjoyed the Route des Pêches and riding on the bike. I didn’t want it to end! My way back was slow…besides fishing villages and a dip in the sea, I stopped for lunch at one of the many popular weekend private beaches (names of each beach was just the name of a restaurant/club there…each with “private access”…but really the beach was free to roam…ex. Obama Beach was a club) just outside (west) of Cotonou to chill and jump in the water again. Finalizing my journey back at the Reconciliation Place in Cotonou…basically saying sorry to those sent…a different feeling compared to my arrival to Ouidah and well a great way to end this cycle adventure.
– More about my trip to Benin
– More info on Wax, African Fabrics
– More on Walking the Route des Esclaves
Where I stayed:
Hotel de la Diaspora – nice, by beach, quiet, pool might or might not be clean (then again I would just be cautious in West Africa in general), various prices. You can camp though be aware that there might be lots of mosquitos….only set back was dinner at night…only option here seemed to be at the hotels