Dakar is the most westernmost city of mainland Africa. With direct flights from Europe and North America, it’s known as the ‘gateway’ to West Africa and its backpacker scene is on the rise. With no set routes or tours, travelling around Senegal suits backpackers who like making their own way at their own pace, especially given the unreliable public transport between cities.
In addition, Senegal is a country of contrasts: vibrant cities and lazy fishing villages; verdant forests and arid desert; at times cheap, at times expensive. As long as you’re willing to take the rough with the smooth, then Senegal promises an unforgettable backpacking experience.
The main cities do not venture too far from Senegal’s coastline, and phone signal and WiFi tend to be extremely good (less so inland). Pulling up a chair in a café or bar will almost always give you the opportunity to research your next destination. This is particularly useful when taking a taxi as there’s no guarantee the driver will know where they’re going (as a tip, have your destination saved on Google Maps – it works offline – as this can save a lot of hassle down the line).
French is the official language of Senegal, and most Senegalese in the coastal areas will speak it to a certain degree. Having some basic phrases in your back pocket is always helpful as you can’t expect anyone to speak English (of course some do, but normally it’s limited to conversations about football teams and “nicecoolfine”). Then there’s the local languages, such as Wolof in Dakar and the Petit Côte. Having ‘taxi/market Wolof’ – such as “nangadef” (“hello”), “ñata la” (“How much is that?”), “deefa cher” (“That’s too expensive”),”waañi ko” (“Lower the price”) – may not save you any money, but will likely raise a smile.
Life in Senegal is not fast-paced and no amount of huffing and puffing is going to make it so. Traffic is often at a standstill (try and avoid rush hour in Dakar), meetings are never on time and public transport doesn’t leave when it says it does, so don’t be surprised if your 2pm ferry doesn’t turn up until 3.30pm.
Restaurants, however, can send even the most zen backpackers into a fury. Sometimes the wait between order and delivery is better counted in hours, especially if you order fish in a small beach restaurant (they often go and buy what you have ordered in a market). To speed things up, mention you have a flight/boat to catch, or order items they will have pre-prepared.
Senegal is known for its safety. One of the most politically stable countries in Africa, the Senegalese treat neighbours and visitors alike with tolerance and respect. You can be confident walking down a side street at night or giving a barman your phone to charge.
However, petty crime does of course happen. In ‘tourist’ areas like downtown Dakar, pickpockets and scammers have numerous ways to trick or guilt you into unburdening yourself of money and valuables. Zipped pockets and rucksacks are a good idea, but don’t put wallets/phone etc into the front pouch of a bag on your back. Also avoid answering friendly questions, as most scams involve befriending you (‘what’s your name, where are you from’) – pretending you don’t understand or just repeating ‘no’ is usually quite a good deterrent.
The biggest danger though is the roads. No rules, lots of vehicles and plucky pedestrians are a potent cocktail, so vigilance is key (often better to just get a taxi than driving yourself). Also avoid inter-city travel at night: the Transport Minister has been looking into banning the practice due to the high number of accidents, as the Senegalese often like driving without lights.
In the major cities, you can find almost every cuisine imaginable for every sort of price imaginable. Sushi, burgers, Thai and Italian in Dakar could set you back anywhere between USD$5 and USD$50. It’s the same for the local produce. Head in to a local restaurant away from the beach in Ouakam, for example, and you can get Thieboudienne (fish and rice) for 700f (USD$1.20). The same meal could cost you 7000f (USD$12) in certain beach side restaurants.
In general, fish-based dishes are a safe and plentiful option when by the coast for obvious reasons, while chicken and beef also make up a good deal of the key Senegalese dishes, such as Mafé (peanut-based beef curry) and Yassa Poulet (chicken with lemon, garlic and onion sauce). Vegetarian dishes are harder to come by, given a lack of local demand for meat-free meals, but tend to take the form of a curry or soup made up of local vegetables (tomatoes, aubergines, cabbage and carrots) and spices (ginger and chili).
For those on a budget, head to local corner shops or street-side stands for egg or chicken sandwiches for around USD$1, but be wary in supermarkets, as some items are wildly expensive (e.g. broccoli head for USD$6; pack of Doritos USD$5). Price is invariably determined by whether the locals eat or grow it.
Accommodation is a similar story. From five-star hotels to homestays, Senegal offers up the ultimate range. Hostels (USD$17 per night for a single) are vastly outnumbered by hotels (USD$30 per night for double), but the costs are similar if travelling in a two. Outside the capital, prices tend to plummet, and you can find huts on the beach for USD$15 per night. Alternatively, if travelling in a group, think about renting your own house or apartment on Airbnb.
Senegal is known as the country of ‘Teranga’ – in effect, hospitality. The people are welcoming and friendly and will sometimes wish to speak to you for hours, offering up a glass of attaya (sweet mint tea) as you peruse their shop or converse on the beach. In terms of fellow backpackers, the lack of a set travelling route in Senegal means meeting people ‘on the go’ is less likely than in hostels, bars or out on the water (if surfing is your thing).
Currency – the CFA. For those of you who like to have some currency in your pocket on arrival, good luck. The West African Franc (CFA) may be used in seven countries, but outside of them it isn’t easy to either pick up or get rid of after a trip. However, the swish new Blaise Diagne airport outside Dakar has a number of ATMs (euros or dollars are good back-ups).
As of August 2018, USD$1 is 575 CFA and when taking cash out, you’ll often get dumped with the very unhelpful 10,000 CFA notes (USD$17.40). These are hard to break, so best to use in chain stores, supermarkets or ‘fancier’ restaurants. Try and keep the smaller notes (500, 1,000, 2,000) for use in taxis (who often ‘don’t have change’) as well as general living. Don’t expect to use your card anywhere except a supermarket or hotel.
1 meal (USD$1-10) – all depends on what type of traveller you are
1 beer (USD$2-3) – Flag is nicer than a Gazelle and tends to be a little bit more expensive
1 night at hostel/hotel (USD$30-60) – for a private double room
1 taxi inner-city (USD$2-$5)
1 hygiene / medical essential (USD$5-25) – like with food, if the locals don’t use it, it’s very expensive. Bring sun cream with you
1 affordable experience (USD$10) – i.e. visit to museum / island
A UNESCO World Heritage site situated a few miles of the coast of Dakar. This tranquil island of cobbled streets and pastel-coloured houses has been transformed from a slave centre into a sanctuary. It’s normally at the top of many travellers’ to-do lists for good reason.
Senegal’s southern region, cut off from the north by the Gambia, is unlike any other part of the country. Flush with vegetation, it’s a verdant paradise infused with white sandy beaches and waterways. Even the ‘tourist spot’ of Cap Skirring is sparse enough not to feel touristy.
The former colonial capital is built on an island in the middle of an estuary. Labelled the ‘Venice of Africa’, a trip to Saint-Louis is a trip to Senegal’s past. It’s also disappearing into the sea, so you may not get another chance.
Almost 100 km (62 miles) of golden coastline south of Dakar, Petite-Côte is Senegal’s playground. From distinct fishing villages and incredible seaside restaurants to wildlife reserves and baobab forests, there is an endless variety of ways to lose track of time.
This just goes without saying. The capital city of Dakar will constantly surprise you.
Float on your back in a pink lake
Lake Retba, known almost universally as Lac Rose, is Senegal’s very own Dead Sea with its remarkably high salt content turning the water varying shades of pink. What’s more, due to the much higher density of the water, taking a dip is more bobbing like a human buoy than sinking like a stone.
Tame some of Africa’s most consistent waves
Dakar has long been a secret surfers’ paradise. A peninsula that catches swells from north and south means locals, expats, and visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to riding the waves. With around 15 distinct locations within a 30-minute radius of each other, there is a spot for every ability.
Cruise the waterways of the Sine-Saloum Delta
Below the Petit Côte, the vast Sine-Saloum Delta is a labyrinth of rivers, waterways and islands. Head out in a pirogue (a motorised canoe) and be amazed by this UNESCO World Heritage site.