Real Stories from a Journey Backpacking Senegal

Most of my time in Senegal was spent in Dakar while I learned French but I did travel around afterwards overland while I explored the region. Below is my itinerary. In the post that follows I provide my personal journey though Senegal and though it may be a good reference for those wishing to travel there it does not necessarily reflect how it is to travel the country.

My route:

Dakar —> St. Louis —>Dakar —>Ziganchor —> Guinea-Bissau —> Cap Skirring —> The Gambia —> Toubacouta —> La Somone (Mbour, Fadiouth, Saly) —> Cabo Verde —> Dakar (Lac Rose).

Before we get into my real adventures, if you haven´t read about Senegal in general, click here.

After a month in Dakar I decided I would head South and see a few nearby countries. I started my journey taking the ferry service to the Casamance region first. It was an overnight ferry which arrived to the second port, Ziganchor, around 10 am. Most tourists seemed to get off on the first stop, a tiny island on the coast. I chose the 6 female sleeper cabin option (no mixed sex cabin unless married) as I intended to sleep and didn´t mind spending a bit extra cash for it. The cheapest option was standard seats which plenty of people choose and slept in. There was a bar outside on the back deck that many chilled at maybe even all night and a prayer area towards the front of the boat. I would only stay one night in Ziganchor since I was actually traveling onward to Guinea-Bissau but planned to return and check out Senegal´s lower coastal region (where most people headed once off the boat) later when I passed through again. 

My day in Ziganchor was filled with visa processing, which literally took 5 minutes, no forms were needed, dude was on the phone the whole time and waa la approved and processed…that is once I found the correct location…I originally walked through a neighborhood where the Guinea-Bissau residence is located instead of the embassy (embassy is nearly straight once out the ferry terminal and I had turned left…). Afterwards I went to my reserved hotel which was next to a market in a red zone ( fail – place was ok but neighborhood was very sketch for a single female traveler). I entered room hot and sweaty after walking everywhere and just wanted to have a place already but didn´t want to mess it up so I thought about the situation I was in for about 20 minutes (frustrated) before I decided to leave. I found another place bit farther out of town that was the same price and way nicer. In addition it felt way safer to walk around then the red zone one, it was peaceful and had mangroves to walk around behind the hotel. I spent the rest of the hot sweltering day wandering around town and eventually stopping for food! More on Guinea-Bissau click here.

A week later when I did return I headed straight to Cap Skirring (Cap) on the coast. The coast here seems like a never ending stretch of beaches with a very laid back vibe (almost hippie compared to Petite Cote in the North). There were plenty of tourists here wandering around and staying because the city offers the facilities and some of the comforts most tourists seek. You can ferry plus taxi here, fly or sept-place (7 seater Peugeot car – p isn’t pronounced in sept…nor – e in place) to Cap. Here it was most evident to me how well set up Senegal is for tourism. I highly recommend Senegal as your first country in West Africa, it will still be a shock to the system and is still challenging but it has a good mix of real life on the streets and comforts of home for when you need it. For example, in Cap, if you wanted to avoid street life (which I never recommend) you could go to Club Med right around the corner…quite a nice piece of land they own…and might I say the beach made for an awesome swim (open water)…there is a pool and 9 hole golf course too.

In Cap I found a lovely place to stay near the beach (the fishing beach). It was so comforting to be here after Guinea-Bissau that I almost stayed longer. I stayed just 2 days. In that time I got my run along the many secluded/private beaches (you can walk between them at low tide), rented a bike for a few hours and went to the end of the road, visited a museum on African Traditional Religion and the Diola people (Sangawatt Museum – continuation of Animist in Guinea-Bissau), swam at Club Med´s beach, watched a live band at my hotel, relaxed, drank smoothies and made more 24 hour friends.

When I say 24 hour friends I refer to the men I met daily that started conversation and followed me around. It is a name I gave them and I didn’t necessarily have them for 24 hours but could have been anywhere from 1-2 hours or half a day but since I visited places for only a day and had maybe one or two 24 hour friends, the name seemed to fit. These “friends” were between the age of 17-40 and generally asked for my phone number and would by the end of the day or shortly after conversing say they loved me ha ha. Oh Africa and it’s 2 seconds ‘I am in love with you’ (pretty sure it’s just I like you wrongly translated…because the difference does exist in most languages)!

I quite enjoyed my 24 hour friends because they allowed me to speak French, helped me keep the # of them per day lower because no one else would bug me, kept me company, provided useful local insight and above all were kind, respectful and nice people. Senegal is one of the friendliest places I have visited in West Africa, you always have a friend and conversation even if it is just to go down the same street and then split to each others destination. The 24 hour friends existed all the time even when you didn’t want to talk or have them around…yes, even on a verge of a breakdown they persisted…teary-eyed and all they conversed!

My short time here was the perfect refresh and offered plenty of things to do besides just beach time but I had other places I wanted to discover. I headed next through the Gambia another week and then slowly overland back to Dakar. More on The Gambia click here.

Once I made my way through The Gambia I landed in Toubacouta…with 20,000 Central/West African Franc (CFA) to my name…no problem since in Senegal ATMs exist unlike The Gambia…or so I thought…This town was small and although quite touristy it had zero Atms…in fact the closest was 2 hours away! Yeah another one of those stories…who would have thought since the rest of Senegal I´d seen always had atms readily available.

Tourists come here to fish, to see the mangroves and unique fishing villages along the mangroves in the region. The latter is why I showed up. I arrived early am and had heard about a boat tour you can do, so I thought I could easily find one being so early…no luck…but I found one for the evening at a fancy hotel where I could use my card to pay! I didn’t sign up at first because I needed to first find a place to stay for cheap…touristy town…no such luck on the cheap option but as I was leaving the last hotel of the search I was offered two decent options and had to make a decision. A European guy there offered to share his room while the owner offered me give me a ride to the atm because he was going that way. 

If I went to the atm 2 hours away I would not return and if I stayed I had a place for free with a stranger and could do my tour. I chose to stay…happy with a place to crash…until I realized this dude was going to follow me around all day and act kind of like a gigalo…he even paid for my food all day even though I had plenty of money for that. By the end of the day I nearly checked myself into the expensive hotel but instead decided I would stay on one condition….I was sleeping on the floor. Oh man he did not like this news, he thought it was so weird, but I just felt more comfortable on my blowup mattress with mosquito net. Thank god I did that because he totally slept naked…ewww. I was up early and out of there! I am very thankful for the place to crash and the way he treated me but the whole situation was just weird…he was a tourist too but well known in town for being a great fisherman…so weird. That is the story of Eddy Bordeaux…and yes, he even walked me toward the bus in the am…ha ha….oh yeah by staying I did do the evening boat tour and they almost wouldn’t except my card as payment because of the amount due ($20 usd maybe)…OMG!

After all the craziness from the past weeks I decided I would head again to the beach to rest but this time closer to Dakar…originally I was avoiding this very touristy area in Senegal but I was in need of a break…so I headed to La Somone (near Mbour)…or at least that was what I thought. From Toubacouta all was great but when I changed sept-place in Kaolack to my destination I somehow got on the wrong sept-place…one headed the opposite direction…and didn’t realize until 2 hours later…frustrated, over my bad luck…I forced the driver to pull over and let me out (he didn´t believe me and almost wouldn´t stop)…money lost, time wasted, middle of nowhere…I walked it off until I was calmer, eventually accepting a ride to the nearest bus station where I could wait again until a sept-place was full to head back. Turns out that in Kaolack I had to go to a completely different bus terminal all together (the city has 2)…and I should have known since I waited forever to leave when the place I was supposed to be heading was only 2 hours away (usually more frequent service)…and they had said 4 hours…Damn it!

By sunset (6 pm) I was just arriving to the area (I’d left at 8:30 am), gorgeous indeed this area past Fatick but I was in a car on Senegal roads getting dark…not something I ever wanted to encounter because roads are dangerous…and this road had many trucks…I made it and paid a taxi to my hotel which turned out to be another fail… Upon arrival I was told there was an error on the price and they reported it to while I was traveling and all was agreed upon…the true price was double the original quoted price, well beyond my budget and they couldn´t make any lee way…I left crying…today the world didn’t want me to succeed at alll!!!!! FUCK! I grabbed the first shared car into the center of La Somone and tried the hotel a friend recommended as I’d also seen rooms available on…hours ago…but now…full…It was weekend in the beach town, a place where all people flee to from Dakar…great, just great! I wanted to give up, I wanted the day to f**in end! The next place I tried had a room, it looked nice for a good price so I took it. For some reason everyone wanted to talk to me this night and I was in a pissy f*in mood, crying and needed to hide…omg. I still needed dinner so I ate at the hotel, but of course two 24 hour friends made their way to my table (one after the other), then started smoking –  which I hate – so I moved tables each time…I know rude but who sits down at your table without even asking…more rude! I was in no mood for kindness and their friendliness couldn’t even read my face…just wow! Lights out! Day over!

The next day I took a walk at sunrise and was accompanied by a dog, which many times, including this one, I realize they are angels to protect/care for me or in this case, cheer me up…well at least that is the energy I feel from them. Later into my walk I ran into one of the smoking 24 hour friends…he is a local guide and walks with me…he knows I am not looking for his services but offers his business card which shows he speaks Spanish, English, Wolof, French and Portuguese…we eat breakfast on the street (my suggestion and chosen location)…my Senegalese favorite, good French baguette with beans, eggs and onion and while wandering I mention I want to change hotels and he kindly shows me a local one right on the beach then waits for me to check-out and even shows me to a beach for wifi…I stay 3 nights relaxing, resting and swimming in the ocean. 

This was actually the first time on my trip that I looked up tickets to fly home. I was so over travel and its challenges! It had crossed my mind many other times in the past 2 months to go home but I’d never gotten to the point of actually looking to leave…so this said a lot. I contacted the person storing my bag in Dakar because I thought this flight home might happen but then I realized I needed my new passport, my 75 page passport was completely full! It being a weekend there was no way to get the passport and bag before my next flight where I’d thought I would fly home from…so no go…breathe! Sucks though because when I contacted the person about getting the bag early they freaked out now wanting the bag out of their place…they said they were tired of having it and would leave it down the street at a store I was familiar with…just wow…add to list of crap happening to me 😦 and signs of “ go the f*** home”.

In the area there was one place I really wanted to visit and I somehow managed to pull myself from the relaxing beach and venture out for a half-day trip (not before an am ocean swim though). I went to see this popular seashell island and learn about it’s history. I even stopped to see the massive fishing market at Mbour on the way back and caught sunset at the even more upscale beach town of Saly (all relatively close and easy to do in a day). This trip to see the sea shell island of Fadiouth was my favorite stop in all of Senegal because of it’s history. The locals dug clams (still do) and with all they ate they used the shells to create this island which also happens to be 98% Catholic, an interesting place in a 95% Islamic Senegal. There are so many shells that not just the island but also the cemetery across from the island was made this way. The cemetery was the absolute best! It is entirely made out of shells too but less trampled on than the inhabited island making it one of the prettiest cemeteries I have seen in the world and of course the interesting aspect that it is mainly Catholic but also shared by the 2% Muslims of the island. Which meant Catholics buried facing up shared with Muslims, on a small side, buried with their head facing Mecca…aka on their side…the mix was very cool and unique. On top of that I liked that one African American was buried there because her grandfather spoke of a shell island when she was young and this allowed her to know where she came from…something many who were sent over lost…their history…so to see her there and know that she returned from the diáspora is something special. She was laid at the highest part of the cemetery with the first priest of the island and one other important figure. 

For me another interesting thing was looking at the names on the graves because the Catholic ones were obvious like Maria, Teresa, Jean and Paul while the Muslims were like Bineta, Mamadou and Ousmane. Just a very, very cool stop and I’m so glad I managed to go even after all the mess I´d been through. 

From the beach resort that felt like some other world, maybe a European resort, I headed directly to the airport and took a flight to Cabo Verde. What would turn out to be the best 4 days ever…a great break from all this stress of travel on the continent and what gave me the energy needed to keep going to my next destination, Benin. Click here for more on Cape Verde.

After Cabo Verde I had 3 days in Dakar to see friends, get my bag from the store…my passposrt and go to the Lac Rose…pink lake (one last touristy stop). 

On my return flight from Cabo Verde I met a guy who lives in the US but was originally from Guinea…I helped him arrive to the city and in the end he offered me a spot to crash. I actually had couchsurfing lined up but choose this spontaneous opportunity instead because the guy seemed (and was) cool, respectful and had an interesting local insight I enjoyed hearing about. It was his first trip to Africa after 14 years living in the US! I became his guide basically and he became my historian…ha ha. I learned so much from him. I did feel bad for my couchsurfing friend who I’d actually met before but was happy about the spontaneous plan with my new friend which flowed easily. 

I saw my closest friends Pierre, Bamba and my French professor before leaving town. I managed to get my passport which was a treat since my return flight from Cabo Verde was delayed (no one even complained…African patience lol) and arrived too late to get it on the actual pick up date maintained by the embassy of 3 days a week during a 1 hour time frame…instead I tried on a Friday when they don’t provide services and close early…I was so happy I could get it because that meant I didn’t need to change or miss my next flight to Benin :D. I picked up my bag too, but it wasn’t at the store which had me worried. I called to ask it´s whereabouts and turns out it never left the house…instead  I had to visit the person´s house to get it. Happily the conversation was simpático (nice).

I did one last touristy thing while in Dakar and that was out to see Lac Rose, a pink lagoon used for mining salt that is literally a quarter mile or less from the sea. I’d waited to do it last on my trip because they say the lake is more pink at the end of the year…not rainy season…it definitely was but nothing like I’d hoped. We arrived later than expected and it took longer than planned to arrive which messed up my evening plans. Lesson learned! Just take a taxi to the lake…forget local transit…sooo slow! Evening ended well at a beach with some beer.

One place I really wanted to visit was Touba but it wasn’t happening, at least not this trip.

Click here to continue to the next destination, Benin!

More on Senegal here.

More here on learning French in Dakar, Senegal.

2 thoughts on “Real Stories from a Journey Backpacking Senegal

  1. tchubb11 says:

    Glad you didn’t go home then like you were thinking about! I hate the travelling days like that that everything goes wrong. It’s cool that you write about it though. Most people like me just try to forget. Haha

    Nice work balancing the basket on your head for 20 seconds! I’ve always wondered how they can do that.

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    Liked by 1 person

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