Grand Popo Old Town was important during the slave trade, but now is half deserted and run-down in parts. It is well worth taking a walk around the old town though because it is very charming and quite a lot of people still live there.
You can see the abandoned old Dutch warehouse, and the quaint old crumbling colonial houses mixed in with the well kept small houses still occupied. The streets are sandy and dusty, no concrete, and it is lovely and quiet. There are a few people wandering around the side streets, bathing in the river, sitting in the shade watching passers by, pigs feeding by the river and nobody hassles you, except to say hello.
Look out for the Coiffure sign - even the smallest town has one, and the interesting graffiti on the walls in places, as well as the Voodoo temples by the river.
When you have passed the river and the main part of the Old Town you can return along the beach.
We visited one of the small villages along the riverbank as part of our boat trip on the Mono River, as we couldn't get into the Mangroves to explore because the water level was too low for our boat. This village was called Avlo, with a population of 600, and as our boat approached the landing area the group of children standing on the bank watching us approach grew into a small crowd.
They followed us up the path into the village running around us and shouting. Obviously visitors are not so common here. At the entrance to the village we passed the Legba and a temple - signs that this village follow the traditional religion of Voodoo.
We entered the main village square where families were sitting and many children were running around. Our local guide who buys salt here talked to the villagers and introduced us. One lady was weaving a straw mat and another was selling bread. Most of the villagers were friendly, except for one lady who either didn't like me or didn't want visitors!
The children, as usual, all wanted their photograph taken and crowded around the camera. They always seem to think they need to get as close as possible to the camera to get a good picture. After a few attempts, we managed to get some reasonable photos of them and they were happy when they viewed them. The sticky hand prints were easily removed from the camera later with lense wipes! I gave out pens and sweets to the children and hair clips to the ladies and we watched the salt making then made our way back to the boat. On the way out we met the chief and some of his wives, and we stopped to shake hands and say hello.
The villages along the Mono River earn their living from fishing and some also make salt. Avlo village which we visited is one of these.
To make the salt they take sand from the mangroves which they mix with water and filter in a big traditional basket made from mangrove branches. The mixture is then tested for salinity in a bowl with Kola nuts. If the Kola nuts float the mixture has enough salinity, if they don't there is not enough.
The salty mixture is then skimmed off and and baked in an oven to produce the salt. The whole process takes one day and the salt block in picture 2 sells for only €3!
The beach in Grand Popo stretches all the way to Lome in Togo in one direction and to Cotonou in the other direction. At Grand Popo it is really lovely - wide with dark golden sand and plenty of space. I visited at Easter time and even then you wouldn't call it crowded.
You can't swim in the sea as it is too rough but there is plenty to see on and around the beach area I was staying in, which is The Auberge Grand Popo.
You could walk to Togo in under an hour if you were feeling energetic, but I didn't. I walked in the other direction towards the river and the old town. There are fishing boats, and nets spread out along the beach, fishermen mending their nets and a craft centre which I didn't have time to visit unfortunately. The Old Town sits between the beach and the river, and further along there are Voodoo temples and the Voodoo stadium.
You can get a drink or a meal in the bar at the Auberge Grand Popo which overlooks the beach and the sea and the Farafina restaurant is close by too, also on the beach.
The Mono River is 500km long and flows from Togo into the sea at Grand Popo.
Our boat trip took about 2 hours in a motor boat which had a cover to shade us from the sun, and travelled at a leisurely pace so there was plenty of opportunity to take photographs.
We passed a temple of the Voodoo God Zangbeto and many other temples along the way. The river has lots of small villages along its banks so there is quite a lot of activity - people fishing in small boats, women washing their clothes, people bathing and villagers travelling to and from Grand Popo to sell fish or salt, which is made in some of the villages.
We saw lots of different types of birds - kingfishers, herons, geese and different types of waders as well as black fish eagles which I had not seen before.
We travelled to Les Bouches du Roi where the river meets the sea and there is a big sandy beach deserted apart from a fisherman fishing with a net from the shore. The land there had eroded dramatically and we saw the remains of a small settlement that had partly been washed away.
On our way back we visited the village of Avlo where I took lots of photographs and watched them making salt.
We wanted to take a trip into the mangroves but the water was too shallow for the boat to get through so we returned back to Grand Popo after our boatman picked up a fish that had got caught in the magrove roots and was destined to be eaten later.
When I first saw this stadium right on the beach I thought it must be what most stadiums are for nowadays - football, or at least some kind of sport. But why on a sandy beach?
This being Benin, it is for the annual Voodoo festival that takes place in Grand Popo in January. The main festival is in the sacred forest of Ouidah but Grand Popo, which is 85km from Cotonou and far from Oiudah, has a big Voodoo tradition so the stadium was built for the festival here on the beach.
The stadium faces the beach on one side and the river on the other where there are 2 Voodoo temples directly opposite.
Grand Popo is a great place for birdwatching. I just wish I had taken binoculars.
Around the beach area and the gardens of the Auberge Grand Popo there are many types of birds, which make quite a noise early mornings and late afternoons. They are a bit difficult to see as the trees are quite thick but I saw Sunbirds, Parrots, Weavers and many others.
I think the one in the picture is a Coucal which is quite a common West African bird.
If you take a boat trip on the Mono River you will see a great variety of water birds Herons, Kingfishers, Geese and many waders. The best area is where the River meets the sea at Les Bouches du Roi.
The traditional religion of Voodoo is very popular in Grand Popo, particularly in the Old Town and in the villages along the Mono River.
If you take a boat trip along the river you will pass many temples along the riverbank where the small villages are. If you walk down to the Old Town past Auberge Grand Popo you will pass 2 temples very close together. One is a smart white one, nicely painted with a boat and palm tree, and with a white flag flying which indicates that it is a Voodoo temple. The other is a basic reed hut and the only indication it is a Voodoo temple is the black and red striped flag of Zangbeto flying above it.
Be careful taking photographs here. The people are quite sensitive about it and a lady shouted and wagged her finger at me when I tried to take a photograph. But it is easy enough to wait until nobody is around and get one then.
Opposite the Auberge Grand Popo there is a small war memorial with the inscription -
1914 - 1918
1939 - 1945
It stands in a small patch of grassland and is very simple, and has a cannon in front of it.
Grand Popo is very close to the border with Togo and the capital Lome is not far from the border. It takes about 15 minutes by car to get to the border from Grand Popo. You can even walk straight down the beach in an hour, but you still need your passport.
At the border I got a new 48 hour Benin transit visa which cost me 10,000 CFA (about €15) so I could re-enter Benin. Both visas were easy to get and I had no problems at immigration - but I did have a local guide with me.
Once in Lome you can visit Independance Square, the museum, the market and the Fetish market, have a nice lunch and be back in Grand Popo for 5 oclock.