When you think of West Africa, what first comes to mind? Possibly the Ebola virus scare, safety issues, or the history of slave trade. On my recent visit to Senegal with G Adventures, I was pleasantly surprised by this African nation. Here are some things I discovered during my journey.
1. The people are friendly. Senegalese are possibly the most polite and hospitable people on the continent. They speak French, in a cute, subtle accent and will always greet you, make eye contact and ask about your day. Even in the villages, little kids would run up to me and say “Bonjour! Como sava?” without expecting a tip or gift in return. And they also love to pose for photographs 🙂
I found the staff at hotels and restaurants to be very accommodating as well. When I went to a local restaurant in Dakar by myself, the waitress (who didn’t speak any English) helped me with my shawarma order and asked where I was from. At another occasion, I randomly walked into a shop and the lady behind the counter (a 5th generation Senegalese Indian), sat me down for a chat and brought out tea and croissants!
2. It is safer than you think. I spent about 10 days in Senegal, mostly with a group, but often walking around by myself, and never once felt unsafe. Vendors often approached me trying to sell souvenirs or tours but never pressed hard to make me feel uncomfortable. It was actually the women who tried the most, inviting me to “their shops” and wanting to bargain for their goods.
That being said, like anywhere else in the world, you cannot be careless when traveling. Carry little cash, watch your bag in crowded places, and don’t draw attention.
3. There’s no ebola. It is imperative to know that there was only 1 case of ebola reported in Senegal (in 2014) and it is not a threat. You are more likely to suffer from malaria (carry deet), cholera (only drink bottled water), travelers diarrhea (select clean restaurants), or asthma (because of the dust and pollution). On our tour, we were taken to relatively clean restaurants and I ate fruits and salads, and was fine.
4. It’s a tolerant society. Senegal is a peace loving country with no history of wars or religious tension. Majority of the population is Muslim with Sufi influences, but they inter-marry with Christians and often attend each other’s places of worship. You should dress conservatively, covering your arms and legs when traveling through Senegal.
5. Being vegetarian is hard. Practically every Senegalese dish has some meat or fish in it. If you go to traditional restaurants, choices will be limited to chicken, lamb, beef or fish, often times used to season the rice or chere (millet couscous). There were a few vegan and vegetarians on my tour, and there weren’t many options for them aside for juice, rice, fruit and potatoes. Seasoning is often basic – made with lemon juice, tomatoes or onions and herbs.
In bigger cities like Dakar and St Louis, you can find few French, Arabic and American restaurants. I also discovered Cremina Gelato and Cafe in Dakar, which was really good.
6. The beaches are nice. Many Europeans travel to Senegal for beach getaways. There are lots of beach resorts and rental properties at Somone beach in the Saly neighborhood near the airport catering to every budget. You can take a boat ride in the lagoon, eat at a beach shack, shop for souvenirs and visit the mangroves.
There are lots of fishing villages dotting the coastline as well, though these are not the best beaches for bathing. Often times, they are crowded with local boats and fishermen.
7. There’s wildlife in West Africa. Prior to visiting Senegal I did not know there was much wildlife in West Africa. Most of it was wiped out by drought, but recently reserves have been established to restore the populations. Animals are brought from other parts of Africa and you can see zebras, giraffes, rhinos, elands, buffalos, gazelles, monkeys and more at Bandia Park near Senegal. A drive by safari takes only couple of hours and because of the low shrub cover (in June), you can spot the animals easily.
If you like to bird watch, Senegal is an ideal destination. You can take a boat safari and see over 400 species of birds at Barbarie National Park and Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, near St Louis.
8. There’s a desert too. I was surprised to see how beautiful and clean the orange sand was in the small Lompoul Desert. There was hardly anyone around near our Desert Ecolodge, offering a quiet haven under the stars. The tented camp I stayed in had comfortable beds, running water and a flushing toilet.
9. Traveling in Senegal is not cheap. Contrary to what most people think of prices in Africa, tourism related businesses in Senegal charge about the same as what you would pay in the US. The locals usually don’t go out to eat (unless its easily accessible street food), so restaurants cater to tourists and expats. A bottle of still water is $2-3, and sparking as much as $7-10. Most meals costed me $18-25 (not including alcohol). For hotels, there are options from 3-star (which has a different meaning in Africa) to 5-stars. Even the nicer hotels we stayed at were not updated due to lack of turnover. The newer hotels are quite luxurious and offer all the amenities (approx. $200-300/ night).
10. You’re on Africa time. Senegalese people, like most Africans, have a leisurely concept of time, so do not get frustrated when your tour departs half an hour later or the road trip takes two extra hours. Generally, people are in no rush. Immigration officers at the border will like to have small talk before stamping your passport, may you will repeat the process with a few different officials. You may have fixed an appointment with someone but that person may forget to show up. Remember, people value social relationships more than punctuality, so you will need to adjust your attitude based on the culture.
I was on G Adventure’s inaugural tour to Senegal and The Gambia in June 2019. Click here to learn more about their upcoming tours to the destination.