One Week Agenda Senegal. Here is my “perfect” agenda for a one week itinerary for the northern part (north of Gambia) of Senegal.
My plane touched down from Lisbon in the wee hours of darkness. Despite the early days of Covid-19, I sped through immigration and received my entry stamp on arrival. My driver was waiting with my car to take me to the hotel.
The ride is a long one with the airport being located on the outskirts of the capital. While this 60km long ride can be as long as 90 minutes, mine was under an hour since there is no traffic at 1am.I checked into my beachside hotel, La Maison Abaka, in the N’Gor area of Dakar. But in darkness I was none the wiser.
I woke after a short sleep and shuffled to a patio which hung over the busy and narrow beach. This was a hectic beach, not for sunbathing, but for commerce of fishermen and an apparent cottage industry of washing dozens of white sheep. I munched on some bread with jams and sipped my green tea.
I then met up with my two travel mates, Craig, who I know from Thailand, and my new travel friend Phil, who is a friend of a friend. We and our driver, Marlon, were embarking on a month road trip from Senegal to Liberia. Six countries located in West Africa.
What To See In Dakar
African Renaissance Monument
Many cities around the world are sometimes known or recognized by a singular landmark. Dakar’s premier landmark is the African Renaissance Monument, a colossal statue that sits on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This monument was completed in 2010 and was designed by a Senegalese architect, but the construction was completed by a North Korean company. Anyone familiar with North Korea knows that they excel at constructing giant statues and monuments.
This monument is 52 meters tall, making it the tallest statue in Africa, and it faces the Statue of Liberty across the Atlantic Ocean. This $27 million statue is built in copper. The monument is shrouded in controversy. The money is considered an extraneous expense for a low-income country. The rumor is that the monument was not really designed by a Senegalese but by a Romanian architect. And finally, people take umbrage that the three figures presented appear more Slavic in appearance than African.
Despite the controversy, it is well worth a visit. For a fee of 10 Euros, you can enter inside the monument which contains a museum with a guided tour. The guide will also bring you to the top of the statue, thankfully via an elevator, for a bird eyes view of Dakar.
This area was created by the colonial French overlords in the early 20th century. The Medina was employed to house the local population. Today, it is a vibrant area of everything from tailors to barbershops to markets. It also has its own native sheep washing industry. It is fun to wonder about in this dense maze of this neighborhood.
Nearby to the Medina is the Grand Mosque. The mosque completed in 1964 is a grand structure composed in white and green colors. A towering minaret clocks in at 67 meters. We were unable to enter. Things were a bit quiet here since we visited on a Sunday.
Dakar Railway Station
A beautiful, well-maintained colonial train station. The interior is currently being renovated so we were unable to enter.
The Presidential Palace
This palace was constructed in 1902. The Colonial French Governor of West Africa previously made his home here, but today you will find the president of Senegal. Do not expect a lovely tour of the grounds here, but you can stand on the far side of the street to take a photo. An honor guard clad in red stands sentry.
Where To Stay
As I mentioned I stayed at La Maison Abaka, which to me seemed to be overpriced. I stayed in a spacious, clean room, but was located in the lobby. A bit odd. The room was $70, where Craig and Phil paid over $100 for their ocean view rooms. But what soured me on the experience was the check out process. Meaning I asked the owner three times over 40 minutes to prepare my bill. This seemed to be beyond his skillset. When presented, it was an illegible scrawl in French. If you are charging a $100 a night step up your professionalism.
Where To Eat
I ate my meals at the hotel. While I enjoyed these meals, I also viewed them as being overpriced. Breakfast at the hotel was not included and they were charging nearly $8. If you wanted an omelet, get ready to spend another $5.
Dinner was good as we were able to make our own meal on a tabletop grill. But the meal was on the small side. And the owner was able to add in another $7 each for a banana flambe.
How To Get Around
I took the hotel transfer from the airport at 35 Euro. I have heard of process at 50 Euros. Otherwise, we took taxis to explore Dakar armed with Google Maps. There are no meters, so get ready to negotiate. If Uber was in Dakar prices would be two thirds cheaper. We were getting charged $5-$10 a ride. On our final day, we took a car from the hotel to the ferry, a thirty-minute ride, and he attempted to charge us $53. So be on your toes.
Traffic is quite awful. Our day of exploration was on a Sunday, which made for a stress-free day darting around the capital.
Goree Island is a spec of land just 2 km from Dakar, but it feels like a different world compared to the hustle and bustle of the Dakar. Less than 2,000 people inhabit the island with no motorized vehicles to be found. This UNESCO World Heritage Site for its infamous role in the slave trade. As slaves were kept here for their final journey to the Americas. The island which is a patchwork of generally well-maintained homes and businesses are painted in a palette of colors which are said to represent the flags of its former colonial occupiers, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English.
What To See In Goree
This island which measures 900 meters by 350 meters is enjoyable and easy to explore. We hired a local guide to take us around the island for an hour. We stopped in at the House of Slave, where slaves were loaded in the ships to the Americas. This cost 8000 CFA. We then spent some additional time exploring the town.
Where To Stay
We stayed at Chez Eric around a ten-minute walk from the dock. It was a nice place with the owner’s family living in the second floor. Again, to me it seemed overpriced. I paid $40 for a room with no AC and a shared bathroom.
Where To Eat
There is a strip of outdoor restaurants near the ferry dock. We choose to eat at Chez Tonton which was a relaxing and tasty lunch. Unfortunately, there were out of pizza.
How To Get Around
To get to Goree, you will take the Liaison Maritime Dakar – Goree ferry. For foreigners, you will pay 5,200 CFA for a round trip. The ferry does work on a schedule. Of course, once you are on the island, your only option is to walk.
Most tourists opt to do a day trip. I suggest spending the night, since the island will empty of most tourists during the late afternoon. In fact, I would have not minded spending two nights here to relax. But beware, many of the restaurants do close for the evening. Also, you will pay a tourist tax upon arrival of 500 CFA.
After leaving Goree Island, our road trip to the northern Senegal began. We were going to spend three nights in the former French colonial city, Saint Louis, as our base.
What To See In The Region
Lac Rose (Pink Lake) is outside of Dakar on the way to Saint Louis. The lake has a pink hue due to a the Dunaliella Salina algae. The lake also has a high salt content as high as 40% in some areas. This has spawned a salt processing cottage industry with 3,000 workers. I would not make a special trip to the lake since the vibrancy of the pink hues are a bit underwhelming.
When you hear old French colonial capital from the 17th century, your ears might perk up. You might recall a previous visit to Antigua, Guatemala or Trinidad, Cuba and think fondly of well-preserved colonial buildings and cobblestone roads. While Saint Louis might have some nice remnants from its historical past, overall, it is a rundown city of less than 200,000. But fear not, you can spend a half day walking around the town.
Saint Louis is powered by the fishing industry. You will see hundreds of wooden boats docked as you wonder around town. On the far west of the island you walk down the open beach for a couple of kilometers. Unfortunately, this is not some pristine beach you would see on a postcard. The beach is inundated in trash, mixed with boys kicking around a worn football. In the afternoon, boats are dragged onto shore with the catch. Fish are boiled and salted in makeshift fish processing plants on the beach. The poverty is thick and depressing.
You can check with the tourist office as they offer tours of Saint Louis.
Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary
This was a highlight of my visit to Senegal. The sanctuary is on the border with Mauritania and it sits on the Senegal River Delta. Over 1.5 million birds make their homes here when they migrate from Europe to avoid the winter. I have ever seen so many pelicans in all of my life. There are over 400 species including white pelicans, African spoonbills, cormorants, pink flamingos and great egrets. Djoud is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We left Saint Louis at 6 am so we could catch some early light. We were in the boat before 9 am. The park also offers simple rooms, so you might consider staying there to be on the boat even earlier. The boat ride lasts over two hours and when we got back to the dock, there were a couple of dozen people waiting for the boat. So it behooves you to get an early start on the day to see more active wildlife and to avoid larger crowds. The park has several fees, such as a car entry, guide, and boat. We paid approximately 60,000 CFA for the three of us. After the boat ride, we visited a couple of viewing points with our guide.
Where To Stay
Hotel Du Palais
We spent our first two nights here. It is a two-story hotel in the center of town in a walkable area. While the hotel it dated, it did the trick with its spacious rooms. There is a restaurant on site.
Our last night in St. Louis, we switched to this isolated beach hotel. This is was on the southern tip of the island, away from the poverty of the fishing area of the beach that we walked through. This was a good place to relax for one night. The one takeaway was the atrocious service at the restaurant.
Where To Eat
I ate at La Kora twice. In one day. It is a trendy restaurant right down the street from Hotel Du Palais. I sat inside for lunch and in the outdoor patio for dinner.
We left Saint Louis to continue our journey to Toubacouta. This drive was around six hours as we headed to the southern border of Senegal and Gambia.
Great Mosque of Touba
On our way to Toubacouta, we stopped at the Great Mosque of Touba. The mosque was founded in the late 19th century by Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba in the city of Touba, now with 500,000 inhabitants. The mosque was completed in 1963 and can hold over 7,000 worshippers. This stately mosque has five minarets with one of them towering over 286 feet (87 meters) high. This minaret is known as the Lamp Fall, named after Sheikh Ibrahima Fall, one of Bamba’s most influential disciples. There are three large domes with the mausoleum of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, lying beneath the central dome protected by a gold mesh fence.
We arrived at the mosque and we were abruptly corralled by a local man who stated that he was a guide for the mosque. He seemed to be semi-official but am not 100% sure. I do not think we would have been welcome in the mosque without a guide. He grabbed a small group of French tourists. The guide took us though a really rushed tour of the mosque in under 30 minutes. He warned us we needed to be out before midday prayers. He charged each person 10,000 CFA, which we bargained down to 7,000 CFA. A great deal for him and a poor value for us.
My friend Phil and I asked a woman if we could take photos of her and her children while we were in the mosque. She smiled and affirmed that we were welcome to. A man watching us, accosted us and physically grabbed me demanding we delete the photos. For a couple of minutes, he was grabbing and pushing me. The “guide” eventually intervened, and he backed off.
Toubacouta, a small village of 6,000, sits on the Sine-Saloum Delta. The Delta is a vast saline wetland that fans across a full 1,800 sq km (695 sq miles).
At Sine-Saloum Delta, we took another boat ride to check out more birds in these thick mangroves. Our guide and captain took us for a relaxing ride with a stop on a small island with a bunch of baobab trees. Our guide had in the beginning of the ride ripped off a dozen or so oysters off the roots of some mangroves. There were thousands of them. He then steamed them up after our short walk through the baobabs. The boat trip is timed in order to catch the nightly migration of thousands of birds to the island where they sleep in the evening. This evening ritual is known as the ‘reposoir des oiseaux’ which means ‘putting the birds to sleep’. This boat trip was a fun excursion, but definitely less birds than you will find in Djoud.
We were able to hire the boat for 20,000 CFA for the three of us for a two hour plus ride.
Check out the impressive performance of dancing and drumming at Les Paletuviers, a high-end hotel. There was also one insane performer eating quite a bit of fire.
Where To Stay
Mariamacounda B&B was my favorite hotel in Senegal hands down. It was the perfect mix of value and comfort. It appears to be a new hotel set within a lovely garden with pool and an outdoor restaurant. The room was nicely sized and really comfortable with a nice, modern, and fully functioning bathroom. The owners are a couple from Belgium.
Where To Eat
This is the place to eat, Les Paletuviers, and probably the place to stay as well (but very expensive). I was a bit surprised to see a 5-star hotel in this small village. The hotel had expansive, well-maintained grounds, including a large al fresco restaurant. I opted for the wood-fired, homemade pizzas, about 5,000 CFS.
Fathala Wildlife Reserve
I love safari, but I have been spoiled. I have been to some of the best parks in the world, whether it is Masai Mara, Ngorongoro Crater, or Etosha. So, when Craig, one of my fellow travelers, suggested Fathala Wildlife Reserve just north of Gambia, I was on the fence. The reality is that West Africa is not known for its wildlife. This reserve is 6,000 hectares large.
I took two game drives, an afternoon and morning drive. We were in a real safari truck and we were lucky to be the only guests on each drive. This park is not as rich as the East African parks, but we saw a fair number of zebras, giraffes, and other animals. The guide stated the animals were totally independent, but then I noted that at the watering holes were several troughs of food. So, in retrospect not sure how authentic of a safari this park was, but a pleasant enough of experience. We were able to track a rhinoceros for quite a while. This was best access and light I have ever had with a rhino.
Where To Stay
This ended up being a very good experience staying at the Fathala Lodge. A main lodge served as the center with a restaurant, pool, and deck observing a small watering hole. Wooden decks extend out to the tents. These cavernous canvas tents are fully equipped with your own private bathtub and double outdoor shower. You could pay extra for the wifi. Don’t do it, it doesn’t work.
Where To Eat
Your meals are included at the hotel. Dinner is a set menu, while breakfast was a buffet. A nice break from the local food.
A couple of things here … there seem to be a fair number of tourists who travel for the day from Gambia to take a game drive, which would mean it is in the middle of the day. The best time for drives is after sunrise and before sunset. So, I would suggest that you sleep over at the lodge, so you can take advantage of the drives without the large groups of day tourists when the animals are not active.
The pricing is very competitive compared to East African safaris, with the games drives at only 44 Euro. If you are an overnight guest, you can bundle in other activities at a discounted price.
This is a natural last stop in Senegal if traveling next to Gambia. The border is less than 30 minutes away.
Senegal packed in a lot of activities and things to see. I was surprised and impressed on the upside. The sights and activities are spread afar, making it much easier to do this trip in a private vehicle. This will allow for more flexibility and efficiency in terms of visiting multiple sites.
I was a bit irritated with the pricing. Hotels seemed to be mispriced for value. I mentioned the hotel on Goree which was $40 with a shared bathroom.
I am also sorry to report that my interactions with the locals were on the tedious side. There were very few positive, genuine interactions. Most people were simply interested in selling you something and getting some cash from you one way or the other. I also was very disappointed in the man who physically grabbed me in the mosque. Obviously, his actions do not represent the populace. And a final note, the locals are allergic are to cameras. Asking for photos, typically results in a no, request for money, or occasionally some aggression.
As I mentioned, myself and two friends were to drive in West Africa for the month. Our guide/drive is Marlon from Thiosane Travel based in Burkina Faso. Readers of my blog might recognize this name, since Marlon and I have been on two road trips previously. I recommend him for trips to Burkina Faso and regional trips to West Africa.
Here is a great overview of our trip created by Phil Marcus, one my travel buddies in Senegal.
Travel In The Times Of Covid
Unfortunately, our trip came to a abrupt end. After leaving Senegal, we crossed into Gambia. On our first evening in Gambia, we decided to cancel out trip and left the next morning on March 16th. We read the tea leaves and borders were beginning to close at a rapid pace. You can read about Boy Interrupted Travel In The Time Of Covid.