The Best Places To Visit in Casamance, Senegal

Discover Senegal’s unique and wonderful region of Casamance
Discover Senegal’s unique and wonderful region of Casamance | © Sylvaine Poitau / Alamy Stock Photo
Beetle Holloway

As the most southern region of Senegal, Casamance is a tropical paradise of waterways, fishing villages, palm forests and river towns that are geographically and culturally removed from the north.

Separated from the north of Senegal by the Gambia, Casamance is unlike any other part of the country. Straddling the banks of the Casamance River, the region lies in the sub-tropics with the increased rainfall carpeting the landscape in lush grasslands and dense forests. Waterways, known as bolongs, nourish the distinct flora and fauna. Pristine palm-fronted beaches brush against the Atlantic coast.

Unlike the Wolof-dominated north, Casamançaise way of life is synonymous with the Diola people, their language, traditions and animist beliefs. Even village architecture is different with Casamançaise villages known for their impluvium-style huts, whose doughnut-shaped roofs allow the seasonal rains to fill an internal water trench and cool the home.

After independence in 1960, tensions flared between Casamance and Dakar, culminating in a 30-year guerrilla conflict from 1982. However, with a ceasefire agreed in 2014, this captivating region is once again begging to be explored.

A basketmaker sells his wares in the central handicraft market in Ziguinchor

Founded by the Portuguese in the 17th century, Ziguinchor is the sleepy, sprawling capital of Casamance. Lying on the southern bank of the Casamance River, it’s a slow-paced city with a small-town feel. The suburbs are villages with roaming pigs, goats and chickens. Colonial architecture lines the wide-open boulevards of the centre. Moored fishing boats bob along the riverbank.

The hub of activity is on the water. While one end is dotted with hotel fronts and private jetties, the other is an industrial hub of docks and warehouses. Connecting Casamance’s eastern edge to the Atlantic, the river remains a major thoroughfare for locals and goods, such as the prized redwood used for building pirogues.

Back on land, the lazy streets of Ziguinchor make for the perfect walk. Here, visitors can peruse the wares at the artisanal market before enjoying a drink on the river. Stroll the palm tree-lined paths around the governor’s mansion and then unwind in the Alliance Française cultural centre and gardens made, naturally, in impluvium style.


The people of Abéné take great pride in their heritage

Nestled on the coast a few miles south of the Gambian border, Abéné is known for its yearly festival celebrating Casamançaise culture. After Christmas, the town swells as visitors and performers flock to this Atlantic enclave for a 10-day extravaganza of dance, music, theatre, sport and local beliefs. Representatives from the area’s villages descend into healthy competition, in everything from wrestling to drumming, while all take part in traditional ceremonies, such as the masquerade dance of the Kumpo, a mythical figure bedecked in bamboo and palm leaves who promotes community, respect, justice and protection of the natural world.

However, Abéné is a destination in its own right throughout the year. Less busy than other Casamançaise coastal towns, Abéné and its long golden beach is almost devoid of activity bar fishermen heading out to sea or locals washing livestock. Artists provide craft workshops in the town and mud hut camps offer an ideal place to unwind. In the evening, think dreadlocks, drumming and campfires on the beach with reggae on the selecta being played at late-night bars.

Cap Skirring

Cap Skirring is a key draw for francophone tourists

With 5.6km (3.5mi) of uninterrupted coastline kissing an unusually calm Atlantic, Cap Skirring is, unsurprisingly, the most-visited town in Casamance. Since the 1970s, francophone expats have been opening hotels, restaurants and sailing schools here, and it even has its own airport and golf course.

Foreign investment can have adverse effects, but Cap Skirring has avoided the pitfalls by embracing the advantages and retaining its distinctive charm. Without the popularity, there would be no smattering of beachside shacks offering cold beers or laid-back local restaurants serving fresh fish. The beach’s length makes crowding impossible – you’re likely to see more cows and dogs than people – and even the relics of old hotels, now reclaimed by nature, give this stretch of sugar-like sand a unique sense of place.

Away from the ocean’s edge, Cap Skirring town is a hodgepodge of lively bars and market-ware shops, while further afield lies the network of wildlife-rich bolongs. Lined with mangrove forests, which provide nurseries for fish and crustaceans, these briny channels are teeming with aquatic life, including barracudas, giant carp, moon fish and even dolphins. The water is lake-still, but the sky is full of activity with local birds sharing the skies with millions of avian tourists who pack their bags for the semi-tropical climate of Casamance each winter.


Pointe-Saint-Georges is situated on a bend of the Casamance River

Pointe-Saint-Georges is Casamance tied up in a village-sized parcel. Situated on a secluded bend of the Casamance River, Pointe-Saint-Georges is either accessed by boat or a seasonal dirt road, which passes through rolling grassland and rice paddies until hitting the water’s edge. Here, a little pirate paradise awaits: a smattering of fishing boats, a cluster of houses, a gathering of vultures, pigs and crabs scuttling in unison.

In the water lives the village’s most famous resident: the manatee. Pointe-Saint-Georges is one of the few places in West Africa where it’s possible to see these reclusive gentle giants, which come every day in low tide to drink from a freshwater pool. On the beach, a rickety wooden tower provides the viewing spot as the manatees’ dark grey heads and tails pop up and down in the water like lethargic meerkats.

There are no five-star hotels in Pointe-Saint-Georges, but the views from the rough-and-ready camps would trump most of them. At low tide, the beach encapsulates the slow pace of Casamance life, with fishermen ambling, young kids playing and dogs bathing in the shade of the wooden pirogues. At night, the high tide of the river engulfs the beach, lapping a metre from the camp and reflecting the star-filled sky.

Ile Carabane

Île Carabane is Casamance’s answer to Dakar’s Île Gorée

Île Carabane is often referred to as Casamance’s answer to Île Gorée. A former French trading post, this 58 sq km (22 sq mi) island at the mouth of the Casamance River provided an export hub for wood, ivory, wax and slaves. Like Gorée, the French made Carabane the first administrative capital of the region in 1836 and like Gorée this lasted until the early 20th century (moving to Dakar and Ziguinchor respectively). But, Carabane’s subsequent path has taken a different trajectory from its better-known cousin.

In its pomp, Carabane was home to over 1,500 people. The Carabane school, built in 1892, was one of the first in the region. A Catholic mission erected a church alongside the many magnificent colonial administration buildings. But as it lost its capital status, the island started to lose its amenities, its trading houses and its population.

Now, Carabane has 400 permanent residents living in the northeastern point of the island (the rest is a wilderness of mangroves, baobabs, palm trees and fromagers). Here, among the colonial ruins, village life trundles on an economy of rice cultivation, palm wine production and fishing. Domesticated animals run free in the grounds of the church, the mosque and the primary school. Efforts to boost tourism have been rebuffed, but a handful of fishing camps provide lodging and activities for those stopping off the Dakar-Ziguinchor ferry.

Getting here

By air

Air Senegal and Transair operate six daily flights from Dakar to Ziguinchor with returns costing about £80. The flight is particularly breathtaking: taking off in sub-Saharan scrubland, the small plane passes over the lush sandy beaches of the Petite Côte, the intricate natural maze of the Sine-Saloum Delta and the basking mouth of the Gambia River, before touching down in the verdant paradise of Casamance just 25 minutes later. One for the window seat.

By water

The overnight Dakar-Ziguinchor ferry makes the trip three times a week in each direction. Cabins range from about £24 to £40 per person (armchairs are available for around £20, but it’s not worth it) with four- and two-person cabins including a free breakfast. Leaving Dakar at 8pm (although passengers are required to arrive a few hours earlier), the ferry has a reasonably priced restaurant on board (about £6.50 per main course) and a bar that sells beers, cocktails and snacks into the early hours.

As the ferry sets sail, the lights of the coast glitter in the horizon before dimming as it passes the delta. By the time passengers awake, the morning light shines on the resplendent Casamance Estuary as the ferry stops first at Carabane (7am) and then Ziguinchor (10am). It costs about £90 to take a car one way.

By road

Driving is the best way to take in other locations en route (and for sporadic stop-offs in the small towns, plains and waterways of Casamance), but it is not for those with limited time or patience. The most direct routes to Casamance from Dakar involve passing through the Gambia. In theory, drive time should be about seven to eight hours, but add in two border crossings and the reality is 11 hours regardless of the route (either over the new Farafenni Bridge or via the ferry at Banjul). If driving (not by bus or bush taxi), be prepared for a host of taxes, fees, delays and bribes.

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