Senegal might not be the first country you think of when planning a trip to Africa. But if you're looking for something different, it might just be the perfect destination. You won’t find safari packages here or Masai warriors in traditional garb. What you will find is very nice people, great food, and unique experiences that will offer you a much better understanding of African history.
Unlike most of Africa, U.S. citizens don’t need a visa to visit, and if you do a little online research, you can get here pretty cheap. I was able to buy a ticket from Houston to Dakar for $650. Senegal is also one of the safest countries to visit in Africa. Some writers have described it as Africa for beginners. I have to disagree—unless you speak French or Wolof, the native language—as public transportation is a bit difficult and renting a car can be expensive, too.
Because of all that, I hired YoYo to be my guide through Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea Bissau. YoYo took me to out-of-the way places I’d never find on my own and saved me a lot of time. Here, now, are some of the highlights from my adventure.
The island is an UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s the most visited spot in the country, famous for being the hub of the Atlantic slave trade for centuries. Visitors meander through the winding walkways, brightly colored buildings, flowers, and artist shops that juxtapose the island's dark history.
At the top of the hill you’ll find the ruins of a WWI cannon that was featured in the film The Guns of Navarone. An artist who calls himself Michael Jackson sells baby baobab trees and recycled art he’s created from items washed up on the beach. However, the most interesting person I met on the island lives directly below the gun. Aptly, he calls himself "Under the Gun," and he’ll give you a tour of his “gun lair” and dispense a bit of history, if you can find the entrance to his home. He has his own line of clothing and art, and at first glance you might think he’s a Rastafarian. In truth, he’s a Baye Fall, which is a sect of Islam where the lifestyle and clothing parallel Rastas and reggae culture.
You can also enjoy some seafood at one of the waterfront cafés while waiting for a return ferry to the mainland. Round trip tickets are around $10. While in Dakar, check out the African Renaissance statue about 10 minutes from the port. It’s surprisingly huge and you’ll want to climb up the stairs to the base of the statue to appreciate its immense size.
Whether you decide to head north to Saint-Louis or south to the Saloum Delta, you’ll want to make a stop at Senegal’s pink lake. It’s a funky experience when it’s hot and windy and the lake looks like strawberry milk. It was more of a pinkish-orange on my visit, but weird nonetheless, and it’s only an hour from Dakar. You can see where the country gets some of its salt supply and you’ll probably appreciate your job back home a little more. The pinkish tint comes from the Dunaliella salina algae that thrives in this salty lake.
To get away from it all, head south to this sparsely populated area known for its islands and mangrove forests. On your journey, you’ll see less traffic than in Dakar and far more baobab trees as the countryside becomes greener and less dusty.
Before you kick up your feet, make a stop at the twin villages of Joal-Fadiouth. Fadiouth is better known by tourists as Shell Island, an entire town reclaimed from the sea using—yes—shells. Park your car and walk across a long bridge to get to the island, where scores of pigs dig for shells at low tide. There’s a sacred baobab tree in front of the Christian church, a holdover from Animism, an Indigenous religion. The church's cemetery, surreal and Instagram-worthy, thanks to its shell graves and huge leafless baobab trees, is creepy-cool.
To get to the delta from Shell Island, head to the town of Ndangane where you can catch a boat to Mar Lodj. I stayed in a cool, little waterfront hut called Nouvelle Vogue. It’s a slow-paced lifestyle on the delta, but there’re a few interesting things to do while you unwind. Take a pirogue—a narrow and long canoe—to do some birding. Your captain may very well pull up next to the mangroves and hack off a branch covered with oysters. Millions of the little bivalves cling to the roots, and no one seems very interested in harvesting them. My boat had a little fire pit, and we threw some oysters on some coals and enjoyed them around sunset.
You can also walk or ride a horse cart into one of the three villages and wander around, go fishing, or take a swim. There’s a little Rasta bar a few minutes away by boat where you can drink a local beer and listen to reggae. The delta is a great place to escape the traffic of Dakar and see how folks in the country live. I also discovered at least three fruits I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.
Gambia and Casamance
The Gambia is an independent country, but it's sandwiched in the middle of Senegal. The northern portion of Senegal is Saharan desert and the southern part is green (and the agricultural center of the country). It’s called Casamance and has a completely different vibe than its northern counterpart. You can drive around Gambia, but most travelers opt for a day or two in this former British colony. You can get a visa at the border for around $40. Apparently, the price is negotiable and no photos are required.
After passing through Gambia, we headed to the coastal town of Abéné, an off-the-grid village famous for its African music festival. Motorcycle taxis transport folks over sand roads lined with cashew trees—if your timing is right, you can enjoy the tree's tasty fruit (most people don’t even know it exists) and roast some fresh cashew nuts over a fire. There’re mangos, as well as lots of other fruits I’ve never seen anywhere, including neew and solom. I stayed at Les Baobab, which has cute little huts near the beach, along with WiFi and cold La Gazelle beer. What more could you ask for?
Take a motorcycle taxi to Kafountine for a surreal look at how locals catch and dry fish. It’s doubtful you’ve ever seen anything that parallels the infinite racks of fish parts and the roaring fires below. The smoky haze and millions of headless fish look like an apocalyptic scene from a science-fiction movie. On the shore, it’s fishing madness with countless pirogues pulling in conch and other treasures from the sea. Kafountine also hosts the liveliest carnival in the country.
At the very southwest corner of the country lies the town of Cap Skirring. Among its beautiful palm-lined beaches and grass hut bars, I noticed an abundance of French people who'd come to escape the restrictions of the pandemic in their home country. Good food, cheap drinks, and Djembe drummers—what’s not to like? There’s an outdoor Kadioute museum if you’d like to delve into the history and workings of Animism.
An hour west of paradise lies the noisy capital of Casamance, Ziguinchor. It’s the transportation hub for those looking to head to eastern Senegal or Guinea-Bissau or or catch a bi-weekly, overnight ferry back to Dakar. I opted to do that, and it’s a unique experience. The 19-hour voyage currently leaves on Thursdays and Fridays. If you want a bed, you need to book early and ask for one. I assumed a bed was part of the deal, but I got a reclining seat in front of a blaring TV instead. You’ll want to bring food with you because the “restaurant” is really just a bar that serves barely edible sandwiches and beer. As the boat sails to the Casamance River's mouth and heads north to Dakar, you can see the palm-lined shores and maybe a few dolphins. It’s a nice change if you want to skip Gambia and a long car ride.
Saint-Louis is also a popular destination 3.5-hours north of Dakar. The old town is a UNESCO site with beautifully preserved buildings and the home of the Senegal Jazz Festival. Stop in Touba on the way, the holy city that locals visit as an Islamic pilgrimage site. It's the birthplace of Amadou Bamba, the country’s most revered religious leader, and it borders Mauritania, so some travelers opt to visit that country, too.