Even if you hate the standard tourist places, Ganvie (pronounced gone-vee-AY) is a must-see. It's referred to as the tropical Venice because the thatched bamboo houses stand on stilts over water. They've been built this way since the 16th and 17th centuries, when the town's settlers left mainland Benin to escape slavery and oppression. Today, some 15,000 people have homes off the northwest shore of Lake Nokoue, a saltwater estuary.

No roads or bridges lead to Ganvie—you can only get there by water, and the ride takes about an hour. To visit, take a taxi northwest from Cotonou 12 mi/20 km to Abomey-Calavi (a water market where the people of Ganvie go to trade fish for water, fruit and vegetables). There, you can hire a motorized canoe or pirogue to take you to Ganvie via its fishing grounds, where local fishermen set traps from their dugout canoes.

Try to get there early in the morning, when the day is coolest, and you can watch as the fishermen return with the overnight catch. Be sure to tip the local fishermen who give you a ride, or they'll tip you—into the lagoon. Also, be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen, and take your own bottled water.

Ganvie has a simple bar and a tourist shop where you can buy colorful collages of the old rulers of Ganvie. The adventurous might be interested in the possibility of staying a night there—several "hotels" offer very basic accommodations (beds with mosquito nets). Allow at least half a day to visit Ganvie. 10 mi/15 km north of Cotonou.

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