The first half of my 4th of July weekend this summer was spent in Dakar, Senegal. The Western most country and city on the African Continent. It is also one of the few, if not only, African nations that has not seen a coups in post-colonial times. What makes it even more fascinating is that despite being a Muslim-majority country, the Senegalese people voted democratically for a Christian President. I think this speaks volumes about the culture and people here.
I had 0 idea of what to expect or do, let alone think I’d ever actually visit Senegal and Dakar. I had visited Ghana before and loved it, so I figured Senegal being another rather politically stable and culturally rich West African nation, it would be similar. It is in that people in Senegal are friendly, but it is definitely a bit more impoverished than some of its wealthier neighbors. But I will say it is quite safe, yes there have been accounts of pit pocketing and what not but that is just the nature of travel no matter where you go. Keep your wits about yourself and you will be fine, people here are friendly and welcoming. They may pester and try to extort money from you but a polite no and thank you to them and they will kindly step aside, but will not get angry like in some countries.
The best summary and insight into this lesser-known country is an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Part Unknown” series where he visits and at the end puts it fittingly: “Africa, more than any other continent, needs to be seen by the world. It’s both the place we all came from and where we are going.”
Delta Airlines flies nonstop flights from JFK and South African Airways flies nonstop from Washington Dulles to Dakar. The flight is not too long either, at just over 6 hours. We arrived on a Friday morning, stayed for two nights at La Maison Abaka on the shores of N’Gor Beach on the western coast of the city, where many expats live and hangout.
Getting around is not that easy, the real only option are the ample amounts of taxi-cabs, some in great condition, some not so much. No meters either so its all about negotiating. We lucked out and had a friend who spoke great French which helped, but if not just stand strong and keep to your price, there are so many cabs you’ll eventually find one who will be willing to take you. Generally speaking the range we paid for cabs was 1,000-3,000 Francs ($2-$6). The country is also cash-heavy, so advisable to exchange to the local Francs at the airport, for 2 days I’d say around $200 is just about right.
- Arrived in Dakar Airport, got into a faux-cab and paid more than one should for a cab to our hotel, but its fine!
- Arrived and checked-in to La Maison Abaka, which is a great small hotel on the beach, and is a dive center as well.
- Had a couple of beers on the beach at Black and White right next to the hotel and on N’Gor beach.
- Took a cab to the African Renaissance Monument, Africa’s largest statue built with the assistance of North Korea. You can go in and go up, if the box office is open and the agent isnt on break….which happened to us so we didnt go in.
- Walked across the street to the other hill that forms Mamelles Hills (the two breasts hills), to tour the Phare des Mamelles (Mamelles Lighthouse). For around 1,000 XOF per person one can enter and tour the lighthouse with a guide, and he is awesome and knowledgable.
- Took a cab to Almadies, got some $17/person tickets for a Youssou N’Dour concert happening the next night. The tickets were bought at a security guard house on a private property, not at a normal box office.
- Returned to N’Gor beach and took a boat to N’Gor Island, just 700 meters off the coast. You have a few options, you can pay 500XOF and take the local “ferry” or charter a “private” boat operated by local fisherman, which is what we did and it later included a full island tour we had no expected nor did we ask for. They then asked for money to pay for rice or couscous for their village, now whether this is true or not, we really did not have enough cash on us to do this and our guide and boat operator said fine and let it go after a few attempts, but still with a smile.
- Returned to the mainland at sunset.
- Had dinner and drinks into the night at the rooftop bar/restaurant Bayekou. Not local cuisine, but tasty and fresh seafood pastas. It was also interesting to people watch and see the expat culture in Senegal.
- Had breakfast at the hotel, not complimentary.
- Took a cab to the other side of town, the main downtown area, to the Port de Dakar to take the ferry to Ile de Goree (Goree Island). NOTE: Bring a photocopy of or your original passport as they check IDs before entering the port and do not accept other forms of ID for foreigners. I believe this is to ensure no one tries to escape Senegal on one of the international vessels docked there. We learned the hard way and were asked to pay and bribe the guards, but we stood our ground and eventually were let through even with global entry IDs for some of us.
- The ferry schedule is posted online, and is accurate.
- After the 20 minutes ferry ride we arrived. You have to pay a park fee upon arriving. You can also hire a guide on the docks but its a small and easy enough island to just tour yourself. The island is entirely walkable and quite beautiful, full of colonial architecture and has similar vibes to any historic Caribbean island town. Most people come here to visit Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), even the Obamas visited, a pink slave house said to have housed some slaves before their passage, though historians agree it was used in the trade some differ on how significant it was and the actual volume of slaves housed her compared to Cape Coast in Ghana. Nonetheless worth a visit and the small entry fee.
- We then walked around the island and visited the hilltop monuments Memorial Goree-Alamadies and Canon de Navaronnes. Afterwards we slowly made our way back to the dock, not before being stopped by a restaurant owner who tried to tell us that the next ferry wouldnt be for another 2 hours so why not sit down and eat, but like I said, the online schedule was accurate and sure enough the next ferry docks shortly after and we left the island.
- Returned to the mainland and walked in the main downtown business district around the Place de L’Independance. We walked to have lunch at a popular amongst both locals and tourists restaurant Chez Loucha, for a proper local Senegalese meal. We ordered some Chicken yassa (Grilled chicken with Senegalese sauerkraut) Ciof (Senegalese Grouper) Yassa, Lamb Mafe (peanut curry lamb), Thieboudienne (cod with steamed rice, sweet potato, yucca, grilled onions, and some sauces) and Dibi (grilled/ roasted lamb), and the common drink is a ginger or hibiscus drink, both delicious.
- We then walked across town to the downtown waterfront to Restaurant le Lagon 1 to have some seafood in a fancy expat and rich local filled dock. The sea urchin and oysters in Dakar were both surprisingly fresh and delicious, and cheap.
- We then cabbed back to N’Gor and took a short afternoon break before our evening and night time activities.
- We had sunset beers at Black and White before taking a short taxi ride to the Western tip of the continent and had dinner at Le N’Gor Restaurant, a eclectic mosaic filled ocean cliffside restaurant with great food and views.
- After dinner we walked across various large ambassador residents to the King Fahd Palace Hotel, where a tent was set up for the Youssou N’Dour concert.
- Nightlife in Senegal begins really late, live music bars and clubs dont start until 1am, the concert opener came on at 11PM and Youssou didnt show up until 1AM.
- The crowd went wild for him, and he was indeed really really great, that is when we could hear him over the crowd’s passionate sing-a-long. It was also great to see snapchat so popular in Senegal, showing that these apps and mobile technology has really crossed all borders and connected humans in new ways.
- Returned to the hotel.
- Breakfast at the hotel, and just relaxed by the beach.
- Cabbed to the airport to check in, only to have my departing flight get delayed for 3 hours.
- Depart Dakar for Lisbon, Portugal.
Over all, I quite enjoyed my 2 nights in Dakar. This was just the right amount of time to fully see and experience the city. Now, this is definitely not a destination I’d recommend to everyone as it really is not for everyone. But I’d say it is worth checking out, as Africa is more than just South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and safaris, it has a lot to offer if only it were given the proper chance and tools.