Senegal is the gateway to West Africa and the heart of culture, customs, a rich and vibrant culture where music propels you forward in your exploration. It also leads the way and sets an example in arenas of human rights, renewable energy, and so much more.
Senegal takes hospitality so seriously, they even have their own word to define it. “Teranga” and the 10 reasons below should help you put Senegal on the top of your travel bucket list.
The Sacred Griots
A griot (man or woman) is a historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician who maintains a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa. Traditionally, the griot is often seen as a societal leader due to his or her traditional position as an advisor to the royal family.
The local tribes such as Mandika and Wolof all celebrate this all-wise and all-knowing spirit even after they die. When a griot dies, they are buried inside the center of a sacred baobab tree but not underground.
“We put griots in baobabs because they are considered sages. They’re the ones who reorient the community when there are problems. Griots are the repositories of knowledge. If griots are buried underground, it would be as though we were burying our history. We can’t bury knowledge because it enlightens our future,” said Abdoulaye Sene, a griot from the Serere Community.
The baobab is considered a sacred tree that symbolizes longevity and knowledge, an appropriate place to store the remains of griots.
Bandia Safari Park
Midway between Dakar and Saly, stop at Bandia Safari Park. You will be whisked off in a Land Rover to see the magnificent rhinos, giraffes, and if you are lucky like we were, a dancing ostrich. (Full disclosure: the ostrich we saw was doing a mating call, but we still tell everyone we know that we saw the ostrich Stanky Leg dance.)
The safari tour lasts about an hour so it is child-friendly. After your tour, you can enjoy the most incredible lunch overlooking the river full of sunbathing alligators. Beware, brazen monkeys will most definitely snatch your French fries if you turn your back.
You will not, I repeat will not go hungry during your trip to Senegal.
Local rice and onion-based dishes come with either local fish (Yassa poisson) or chicken (Yassa poulet). My husband’s favorite, Thieboudienne is filled with spice and everything nice. The vegetables are also incredible due to the amazing rich soil.
You MUST also slow down when you see children or women carrying bags of local oranges in bags on the sides of the road. They are a heavenly sweet snack.
We still have a lot of food cravings from our time living in West Africa!
There are quite a few famous tea drinks in Senegal. They are all made from local ingredients and all very sweet—the Senegalese do not mess around when it comes to adding sugar.
The three juices you’re likely to encounter the most in Dakar are bissap (hibiscus and my personal favorite), bouye (“bwee”; baobab fruit), and gingembre (ginger).
For the adults, do not miss out on the Gazelle beer. Drink responsibly, but drink all you can while enjoying the breathtaking coast or enjoying a drum circle. Beer is widely available, however, Senegal is a Muslim country, so please be cognizant and respectful of where you are before enjoying alcohol.
Lac Rose, or Lake Rebka, is a giant pink lake about a 90-minute drive from Dakar. The lake’s pink hue is caused by its high salt content and an algae that produces a red pigment. Even more of a fun fact, it has a higher salt content than the infamous Dead Sea. Floating in a sea of pink should make the kids and adults reading about Lac Rose raise both hands.
We have a house full of the most incredible hand carved djembe drums from Senegal. Please don’t skip getting to know the heart and soul of the culture; the local music. You can’t miss the music, but you can rush around and not enjoy it. I am rooting for sitting back and truly listening to music at a local restaurant or bar.
Furthermore, if you are lucky to be invited to a Sabar, it is a custom performed to the beats of the Sabar drum and a cultural experience you will never forget.
Sabar dancing celebrates feminine sensuality. It is a dance of expression that uses every part of the body. From the arms and legs to the eyes, it incorporates lots of hip twisting, jumping, arm swinging and high knee lifting.
Most Westerners are shocked at the Senegalese women participating in this freedom of sexual expression. Sabar breaks every religious and gender stereotype with every flip of their waist beads.
St. Louis Jazz Festival
One of the world more premier jazz is found at the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival. You can’t miss this incredible event every year in May. Book a stay at Hotel de la Poste at least 6 months in advance and experience an unforgettable ritual right from your own balcony.
While you wait for the fun in the evening , be sure to book a tour to see the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary lies on the southeast bank of the Senegal River. Djoudj holds almost 400 species of birds, the most visible are pelicans and flamingos. It is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the exciting boat ride is a wonderful adventure for all ages.
Not a fun fact, but a critical place; Goree Island, Senegal was one of the main locations for the West African slave trade. It’s a popular pilgrimage spot for people of the African diaspora including Kobe Bryant and Barack Obama.
Our guide was spectacular as he told us the stories of unspeakable pain as well as the glorious resilience of the history of the slave trade and its effects on Senegal. If you can’t make it to Goree Island in person, you can take a virtual field trip or visit to Goree island.
Most would say best beaches in Senegal are found in Cap Skirring and Dakar. Cap Skirring is located in southern Senegal in the Casamance region of the country.
Senegal has some of the best surfing in Africa. The country features consistent waves without the crowds of tourists you might find in other areas. It’s a hop, skip and a jump from several destinations in Europe — certainly much easier than flying out to California or Australia for Europeans. Another plus is there has never been a recorded shark attack.
Insider tip: If you aren’t going for surfing, go 90 minutes south of Dakar to the Petite Cote beaches. Book the Rhino Resort Hotel and Spa for the romantic getaway. Book the Lamantin Hotel on the beach for the family beach and jet ski getaway.
For budget traveling or to experience a more authentically local experience, stop 30 minutes north of the Saly resorts. Stay at the most incredible beach and art hotel run by locals called Sobo Bade Hoel in Toubab Dialow.
No hot water at the hotel. However, you can enjoy a $5 for a HUGE plate of Massa and a giant Gazelle beer on a crystal blue beach surrounded by cliffs. All the while listening to the drum performances from the art school students… well worth skipping the hot shower for a couple of days.
Human Rights Leader
It was the first country to ratify the International Criminal Court. Don’t look to Europe or North America. Senegal was the first country in the world to ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.
This was done in order to charge people with crimes from other countries. In February 2000, a Senegalese court indicted Chad’s exiled former dictator, Hissène Habré, on torture charges.
Senegal is Part of the Resistance
Senegal is home to the tallest, and arguably most controversial statue in Africa, the African Renaissance Monument. Bigger than the Statue of Liberty and completed in 2010, this 49-foot bronze monolith is a beacon of hope for some, and a monumental failure to others. If you can’t make it all the way up the steps, the monument can be easily seen from points in the city.
Bonus: Book Recommendation
Don’t miss the amazing middle-grade book, One Shadow on the Wall.
“In a story laced with magical realism, recently orphaned Mor Fall and his two younger sisters must figure out their next steps in the world amidst bullying, and the threat of separation from their home and everything they know.
Set in contemporary Senegal, One Shadow on the Wall focuses on family, unexpected friendships, courage, and creating your own future—even when it’s hard to do.”
I met author Leah Henderson at a writer’s conference recently, and she is a fellow world traveler and the real deal. Support this amazing author while you learn more about Senegal with this dynamic and award-winning book.
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