The number one tourist attraction in all of Benin? That would be the stilt village of Ganvie. It's a very easy trip to make from Cotonou and it's a rather fascinating place. Most travelers go to Calavi and catch a pirogue from there to Ganvie. If you're willing to take a motorized boat though, the Hotel du Lac in Cotonou runs trips all the way up the Oueme river and then across the lagoon. It costs a bit more, although it also gets cheaper the more people you have. From the river you have a good view of Cotonou, Dantokpa and various makeshift fishing villages. This picture shows the edge of a fish circle. The foliage here is a manmade ring held together with net and bamboo.
The fish circles are designed to keep fish in, and out. Small fish trapped inside the circle mature safely there. After about eight or nine months, the circle is closed, the net is lifted and the fish harvest is shared by those who built and maintained the circle. The lagoon, as it is known, is a huge brackish lake fed by the ocean tides as well as the major north-south rivers of Benin. Along with the fish, the locals catch shrimp, crab, oysters and mussels.
Out in the middle of the lagoon is the village of Ganvie. 30 thousand people live in Ganvie. The lagoon is not deep but it's many kilometers to the nearest shoreline. If you approach from Cotonou by water it is a rather long distance out across the lagoon before Ganvie appears.
Ganvie exists because the Fon warriors are traditionally forbidden from entering water. Thus, one enterprising tribe decided it was best to avoid them by building their village in the middle of a vast lagoon. Needless to say, they are still there so it was a successful plan.
Two guide books on Benin describe Ganvie as a tourist trap (and lets face it, we could only find two guidebooks in English that even mention Benin). Maybe it is, but it's not like any tourist trap we've seen. A very very small percentage of the village makes their living off of tourism, and that would be the couple of craft stores that exist along with one hotel and a restaurant. During our visit in November, we saw no other tourists at all. The craft stores do have you somewhat as a captive audience but it's not hard to escape without buying anything. What is hard is to escape without buying something once you've shown interest in it. Ganvie was the site of our first truly successful haggled purchase. We're willing to share our secrets with the general public. First you leave most of your money in the hotel back in Cotonou. Next you pick out merchandise worth way more than you actually bothered to bring. Finally, since it's a slow day anyway the woman running the store decides to let you have it for all the money you bothered to bring. [Yes you could pull this off just as well with multiple pockets but don't let your boat or pirogue pilot see you doing it]. Accidental bargaining is just as valid as intentional bargaining.
There are no dry connections between most buildings in Ganvie. Pirogues are used to go from anywhere to anywhere else even if it is only a few meters away. The market in central Ganvie is really just a large collection of pirogues, each with an individual product for sale.
There are one and a half bits of dry land in Ganvie. The full bit of dry land (seen here) is the site of the school. The half bit will eventually be a cemetery, once they've finished importing enough dry ground to start burying people in it.
Where there are little hammocks of grass, there are generally chickens, or very unhappy goats. This one has a statue that commemorates something. We're not sure our guide actually mentioned it, or maybe he did and we didn't catch it since we turned out to be lacking the French words for all sorts of lake-specific activities.
As you drift through town you'll inevitably come to the realization that most of these buildings have no business actually holding together. Many of them are only partially floored, but all of them are invariably home to at least one extended family. Away from the area which acts as sort of an unofficial visitor area the town just goes quietly on in all directions. French is spoken even less commonly in Ganvie (except of course in the visitor stores) so a little Fon would be helpful. We did not have a little Fon but we had a friendly bilingual guide.
Obviously our Cotonou-based guide didn't have many reservations about allowing us to take photographs. We have probably twice as many pictures of Ganvie as the entire rest of Benin combined. Anytime we were actually encouraged to take photographs, we took advantage of it. We left for Ganvie early in the morning which is highly recommended. By noon or so it is brutally hot out on the lagoon. From Cotonou it was probably about a 3 or 4 hour roundtrip. There isn't really all that much to do in Ganvie other than drift along and soak in the foreign-ness of it all. It is possible to stay overnight and it would probably be a very fascinating evening with the locals. We however had finally obtained all the visas required for neighboring countries and were heading back to Cotonou to continue west to Ouidah.