Considering to visit Africa? I recommend you to start with Senegal, a country with no extreme weather conditions, acceptable facilities and the most welcoming people. These are some of my travel memories to this country, including a few suggestions and advice to go backpacking Senegal.
Having grown up in Southern Spain -so near, yet so far from the forgotten continent- I always felt a particular affection for Africa. Since childhood, I have been incredibly interested in its culture and history; I listened to African music, had a big African bucket list and generally felt connected to this huge and complex continent. But the truth is, I did not meet many people who shared this interest. Most of my friends dreamed about places like Paris or New York, not remote African towns.
It was not until I moved to Berlin in 2011 that I met Kappi, a very good friend and a soul mate in regards to Africanism. Kappi, who lived in both Berlin and Dakar, never stopped trying to persuade me to visit the country of her heart and, though I was broke at that time and could not afford the ticket, I knew someday I would see Senegal through Kappi’s eyes.
In 2013, I finally had the savings I needed and didn’t think twice before booking my flight, destination: Dakar. These are some of my memories including a few suggestions and advice to go backpacking Senegal.
Senegal, an Introduction
One of Africa’s most stable nations, Senegal is not boring at all. Dakar, its capital, is a vivid introduction to the country, where elegance meets chaos, noise, colorful markets, and a vibrant nightlife. When the sun sets, clubs fill in with people dancing sensually, while in the street you can clearly hear the call to prayer for Muslim devotees. A contradiction? For sure not in Senegal, a country made up of paradoxes where reality surpasses reason.
Senegal is a perfect starting point with the African continent. Being a country with no extreme climate conditions, welcoming people and admissible facilities, Senegal is considered the “soft Africa”. Much less touristic and perhaps not as attractive as Tanzania and Kenya, Senegal is not a country to see, but rather to experience.
- Languages: French and Wolof.
- Religion: mostly Muslim population (however, it feels like a “more open“ version of Islam, in which women have a fairly active role).
- Money: the unit of currency is the West African CFA franc (1 € = around 656 CFA).
- Weather: Senegal’s peak season goes from December to May when the weather is pleasant and warm. The rainy/wet season normally begins in July and ends in September. Temperatures are high in summer.
But, Is it Safe to Travel to Senegal?
Unfortunately, Senegal has the stigma of insecurity and poverty as many other African countries. However, I must say during the three weeks I spent in Senegal, I never felt the slightest threat. Obviously, bad things can happen anywhere, and you always need to be careful, watch your pockets and bags and use your common sense. I recommend not to bring anything of value you would be sad to lose, don’t carry too much cash and don’t walk alone at night in the suburbs.
Senegal Packing List
Make sure to get the Yellow Fever vaccination and to bring along the International certificate of vaccination or prophylaxis as proof of vaccination. They probably will not ask for it at the airport, but have it handy. It is recommended to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B, Tetanus and Typhus and to take antimalarial medication. If you don’t want to take the Malaria prophylaxis, be very vigilant about not being bitten too much. A good mosquito net is key! Even if flats/hotels have their own, it is better to trust yours, with no holes.
– Health insurance: I haven’t needed to use it in Senegal (and I am thankful for that), but while traveling, you never know what can happen (especially when you are in a country you are not familiar with). Never consider your health insurance as a waste of money, your health matters! I recommend getting your health insurance with World Nomads.
- Sunblock and after sun care.
– First aid kit (including painkillers, antibacterial creams, and anti-diarrheal drugs).
- Wet wipes (always a good idea is to have a little stash of toilet paper in your pocket…)
What to Wear in Senegal:
Light, loose, and long-legged clothing. You will have to hand-wash your own clothes while there, so bring things that dry quickly.
Some tourists do wear shorts or little tank tops but, since everyone in Senegal covers their legs pretty much, I don’t think it is appropriate. On a separate note, if you are going out at night, that’s a completely different thing! Then you can go as sexy as you want! Welcome to Senegal, enjoy the madness!
- Trekking-type sandals
Swimwear, bikinis 🙂
- Hat and sunglasses
Free mobile phone.
If you want, a good idea is to bring some children’s clothing and school supplies to give away to the families you will probably meet during your trip. Remember that much of the stuff that is basic for us, it is a luxury in Senegal.
Backpacking Senegal: What to Visit
The beauty of Senegal’s capital is not really in its architecture, the dusty streets or the roads collapsed by traffic: but rather in its atmosphere and cheerful people. The smiling locals walk through the city wearing flashy clothes while causing a color explosion. Though it is worth a visit, the center of Dakar is definitely not the best place for a relaxing walk. In my experience, the best of Dakar is in the outskirts of the city and in the villages along the coast (like N’gor and Yoff).
Best places to stay in Dakar
When I visited Senegal, I stayed most of my time in N’gor, a small fishing village in the outskirts of Dakar, with a much more relaxed energy than the center of the capital. Ngor is a great place for backpacking in Senegal.
I stayed in a room in a guesthouse near the beach called Chez Soukey. I do not remember the price, but it was a good value. I could not find it online but, if you travel to Dakar and want to stay there, just go to N’gor and ask around for it!
N’gor beach is relatively clean and quiet. It is usually full of young people playing djembe, street vendors and families. For 500 CFA, you can go to N’gor Island, which is just a short pirogue ride from the beach. N’gor Island is more touristic and peaceful. I am sure you did not expect Senegal to have such nice beaches!
Best places to stay in Ngor
Yoff is a village characterized by its strong Islamic culture: smoking and drinking are not allowed and visitors should be appropriately dressed (meaning covered legs and arms).
Besides visiting Layen Mausoleum, it is worth going for a walk in Yoff beach. You will have to be careful to not to step in fish waste, but you will love the views and scenes of real Dakar.
Best places to stay in Yoff
Les Almadies is the wealthy neighborhood in Dakar where you will find plenty of luxury resorts, a couple of private beaches and lots of seafood restaurants.
You will also find the westernmost point on the continent of Africa: Pointe des Almadies (Almadies Bridge).
Best places to stay in Les Almadies
A must visit is the Island of Gorée, only 20 minutes by ferry from the center of Dakar and part of the UNESCO World Heritage since 1978. While Dakar is all noise, chaos, traffic, and smoke; the Island of Gorée, with no cars and no paved roads, is all calm and peace. But, despite being a lovely place today, Island of Gorée has a nightmarish past: from 15th to 19th century, this small island was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. The Island of Gorée today is a memorial to the African diaspora and it continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and a sanctuary for reconciliation.
In Gorée Island, you can visit the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves); a small house where more than 100 slaves (men, women, and children) were forced to live in overcrowded conditions before being carried away to America, Brazil, or the Caribbean.
Apart from the House of Slaves, the Island of Gorée has places to spend an entire day. Besides restaurants, colonial architecture with a Mediterranean flair, and a peaceful beach, there are outdoors art exhibitions where you can buy colorful African paintings.
Best places to stay in La Goree
Saint Louis, the first French colony in Africa, is one of the most fascinating cities in Senegal. Located 260 km from Dakar, the heart of this old colonial city is on a narrow island over the river Senegal and linked to the African mainland by the bridge Faidherbe.
Founded in 1659, Saint Louis was the capital of Senegal from 1872 to 1957. Many of the buildings retain their former colonial character. The island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Best places to stay in Saint Louis
Another not to be missed destination while backpacking Senegal is Mbour, known for its incredible fish market. On its beach, hundreds of pirogues put to the sea every day. At sunset, they return loaded with fish that they cut and sell on the seashore, at the spectacular and slightly nauseating fish market.
At Mbour beach, you can also enjoy breathtaking sunsets like the one in the following picture. When the sun sets, the beach fills with young guys playing football or djembe.
Best places to stay in Mbour
Only 30 minutes drive from Mbour, you will find Joal and Fadiouth, two sister towns where Muslims and Christians live together, proud of their religious tolerance. The peculiarity of Fadiouth is that it is an artificial island made entirely of shells and connected with Joal by a wooden bridge. In their common cemetery, both Muslims and Christians rest in peace.
Best places to stay in Joal Fadiouth
Pink Lake (Lake Retba)
Less than an hour away from Dakar, there is an unusual lake that will surely catch your eye due to its vivid pink color: Lake Retba (or Lac Rosé). Its distinct color is caused by the Dunaliella salina algae, which is attracted by the lake’s high salt content. The algae produces a red pigment to absorb the sunlight while giving the lake its unique color. Since the algae which gives the lake its color is completely harmless to humans, swimming is possible.
When you decide to go somewhere by public transport, you will realize you really are in Africa. Getting around can be a real pain due to bad road conditions, old cars with no air conditioning and, even worse, no fixed departure times (vehicles will only leave once when they’re full).
By far the most popular and fastest way of getting around the country is by sept-place taxi (ramshackle Peugeots 504 with three rows of seats that can accommodate 7 passengers). Whoever comes first, can sit in the front beside the driver’s seat, while the last to come will have to squeeze in the back (but won’t need to wait till the car gets full).
In the city, you can travel by bus or taxi. Since there are no indications in bus stops, it can be time-consuming and difficult to figure out how to get around by bus. Going by taxi should be easier, but before getting in, you will have to bargain the price with the driver. Your best bet is to ask a local how much would he pay for the journey you want to do and then learn how to bargain with Senegalese taxi drivers. It can seem challenging and a little scary at first, but after you get used to it, it becomes really fun!
Tip: if you can’t get the price you have asked for, it’s fine to say no. There are LOTS of taxis to choose from in Dakar. When I could not get the price I wanted, I started to walk away and the taxi driver called me back and gave me the price I asked for.
Sex and Sex Tourism
Despite being a Muslim country, sexual energy in Senegal is unleashed. You can feel it, smell it and, sadly, you can also buy it. It is not uncommon to see European women “of a certain age“ going out with much younger and more handsome Senegalese men (and vice versa). The growth of Senegal’s sex tourism has its roots in the poverty and lack of jobs and opportunities for the country’s youngest people (being Senegal’s unemployment rate more than 40%). Read this article to know more.
If you’re white (especially if you’re a white woman), you will need to get used to being the center of attention: everyone will want to talk to you. However, at least in my experience, I never felt harassed. I have traveled to other countries where I have felt awkward because of the way some guys were looking at me or the kind of comments they were making. This was not the case in Senegal where, despite being surrounded by men almost at all times, I never felt harassment, but only genuine interest.
If you’re a woman, you will attract attention and people (men in particular) will come to talk to you. Many will give you a compliment, the cheekiest ones will ask you out… If this bothers you, just say “no, merci” and smile. Smile all the time and everything will be all right. It is very important to come prepared to laugh a lot and don’t take anything too seriously.
If you are curious and want to know more about Senegal, start immersing yourself in Senegalese culture. Here are a few recommendations:
I’m a fond of African music: before, during, and after my trip, I soaked up Senegalese music. I highly recommend to start traveling through Senegalese music and to listen to these artists:
Orchestra Baobab ( Senegalese Afro-Cuban, Son, Wolof and Pachanga band. I saw them live in Dakar and loved them!)
– Princesa de África (Princess of Africa) – (Juan Laguna, 2008)
SYNOPSIS: Sonia, a Spanish dancer, becomes the third wife of a Senegalese musician, and she moves to Africa to live with her man and her new family. How does a European woman accept polygamy? Her story is the story of Princess of Africa and the result is “a rare documentary film: beautiful, colorist, musical” (El País).
– La Pirogue (Moussa Touré, 2012) – Tells the dramatic story of a group of African men leaving Senegal in a pirogue captained by a local fisherman to undertake the treacherous crossing of the Atlantic to Spain, where they believe better lives and prospects are waiting for them (IMDB).
Some key phrases in Wolof
If you can speak French, you will have no problem communicating in this country. If you don’t, remember the universal language in Senegal is the smile. You should also learn a few key phrases in Arabic and Wolof that you will hear all the time:
Salaam Aleikum (and the answer: Aleikum Saalam) > “peace be with you“
Nan ga deff? > “how are you?“, you will hear this all the time and you will have to respond: Mahn gii fii > ‘I am fine“ / “I am here“
Jarrejeff > Thank you
Nookobokk > You’re welcome
Amul solo > No problem
Wow wow > Yes
Ded ett > No
Ded ett, merci > No, thank you
Alham doulilah > Thanks be to Allah
Insh ́allah > Allah willing
Degguma Wolof > I don’t speak Wolof
The so-called “Gate of Africa” may not be the most beautiful place on earth or a holiday destination for those seeking comfort, but it has everything for a fascinating experience as a whole. Senegal is defined by its small details: the baobabs, the teranga (hospitality of its people) and the smiles of the children that you’ll meet, who will love to talk and play with the toubabs (white). You will be captivated by the colorful pirogues of the fishermen, the flashy dresses of the women, the sounds of the djembe, the endless dancing nights, the mythical sept-places (and all the stories that will happen to you inside them) and the eternal African sunsets.
It was definitely one of the most significant travel experiences that I have had and is one of the places I am most fond of. I met a Senegalese friend who complained about how difficult living in Senegal was. He complained that he did not have a job and when he got one, he could only afford unsatisfactory living conditions. He complained he had no money to get a driving license and he dreamed of being able to buy a guitar someday. I recently talked to him on Skype and he told me that he got married to a European girl and is now living in Belgium. However, every time we talk, he tells me how much he misses Senegal, he says Europe is cold and people are not happy. He is sad because this is not like Senegal and is already dreaming of coming back. To be honest, I understand him well.