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Cotonou, Benin

Cotonou is a busy port that serves both Benin and neighboring Togo. Although Porto-Novo is officially Benin’s capital, Cotonou is the economic heart of the nation, which stretches northward inland from the Bight of Benin. The city’s red-and-white Cathedral of Notre Dame and the twin white minarets of its mosque stand out about the low-lying cityscape. But in the teeming Grand Marché de Dantokpa, there is a thriving fetish market showing the continued popularity of traditional animist Vodun religion. Every sort of native botanical product and mummified portions of a wide variety of African wildlife are actively traded in this quarter of the city’s main marketplace. The Fondation Zinsou is a museum of contemporary African art. Two nearby attractions make this a fascinating stop. The stilt-village of Ganvie in Lake Nokoue is a unique offshore community where residents live practically their whole lives without touching dry land. Their houses are on stilts, and even the youngest children are gleefully acclimated to swimming and darting about in boats. The town of Ouidah down the coast was an important Portuguese colony where slaves were exported for the farms of Brazil. An old Portuguese Fortress is there, as well as an intriguing Vodun temple dedicated to python snakes which live in the temple. All told, Cotonou is a very unusual port of call with memorable highlights.