Senegal travel guide
For fans of abandoned places, southern Senegal offers a pleasant surprise. Dwarfing the nearby village Djoromait the huge Complexe Hotelier Djiromait is a five-star hotel and resort that has been left to the whim of nature. Built in 1983 it has never seen a single guest. The reasons why the complex has been abandoned varies. Some claim that it was so far out of the way that the intended VIP's couldn't be bothered to visit. Others tell that it was built without the required government permits and that the authorities still claim that they "do not know of any hotel in the area" – despite having built a brand new road out to the place. Regardless the reason, to this day, the complex offer a bit of urban exploration in the Senegalese bush, though it might be necessary to pay the guardsman a small fee for the privilege.
If you always wanted to meet a king, a visit to Oussouye might be your chance. Residing in a sacred forest on the outskirts of the small town, this animist king is an important figure in central Casamance. The king is chosen by the village elders, on a rotatory basis between the areas' three oldest families, and keeps this position for the rest of his life. His role is to act as adviser, broker, conflict manager, and social security (if villagers go hungry, they can ask for rice from the king's field) for the villagers of the seventeen villages that this traditional kingdom consists of. Seeing him walking around town in his all red dress is certainly possible, but otherwise, ask local friends to help you arrange an audience as this must be done through the proper channels.
Senegal's least visited region is also its most traditional. Far away from Dakar and the Islamic centre of Touba, life here moves slow between the clay-and-straw build huts and a distinct mix of Christianity and animism provide the spiritual guidance. The region is named after the Bassari people, but the villages here are inhabited by different tribes, including Bédik and Fulbe. Common for them all are a fierce independence and almost stubborn rejection of outside influences, whether this have been Islam, colonialism or globalisation. The best time to visit is May when the Bassari village of Ethiolo hosts the traditional coming of age ceremonies. Alternatively, can rituals improving the harvest be experienced throughout the rainy season in the fields outside the Bédik villages. Visits to the villages should be done with a guide who can act as translator and help buy the tributes that must be paid to the village chiefs granting visitors access. Usually these consists of a mix of groundnuts, soaps, candy or whisky – the latter only if a large party is visiting.
Second, only to Saly on La Petite Côte, Cap Skirring is one of the most popular package destinations in West Africa. You will almost inevitably see the wristband-carrying all-includers stroll around town, when they, by accident, have left their resort. However, there are plenty of beach and family owned guesthouses and bungalows to go around – and plenty of these are far from the resorts' private beaches. It's one of those rare places on the West African coast where it's possible to indulge in all those usual beach vacation activities. From lazing around on the beach chairs, over dune buggies and surfing, to diving and water skiing. Here's even a golf course.
Anyone who believes that traditional African architecture and building techniques are limited to small round clay huts with straw roofs is surely mistaken. Evidence of this in Senegal comes in two forms, both found in the southern Casamance region, but thought to originate elsewhere in West Africa. The casa à étage is a massive structure. Build in two stores by mud, wood and other local materials, these are created by impeccable craftsmanship and are, deservingly so, admired throughout the region. The other, the casa à impluvium translate into "rain reservoir hut". Its doughnut-shaped construction provides a central, circular and shaded courtyard, surrounded by internal doors into a number of private rooms. This ingenious design would make sure that rainwater would be collected in the middle of the yard as an insurance against the region's dry climate. Luckily for the visitor, many of these traditional houses have been made into local run hotels and campements making it easy to admire them in detail.
Hate it or love it – Dakar is one of Africa's most chaotic and lively cities. It is West Africa's epicentre for art, music, nightlife, food and just about every other sinful joy of life. Once you've figured out how to negotiate the traffic, hustlers and con-artists, and gotten used to the pollution, here is plenty on offer. Except in the realm of sightseeing, where Dakar has surprisingly little to offer. However, some travellers find the city too much, too large and too chaotic and prefer to get out of there quickly after the main sights have been visited. Both stances are legitimate, though it would be a shame not to spend a few days here to figure out which of the two camps you belong to.
Riverside fishing hamlets, traditional villages, isolated islands, dense rainforests, endless rice fields and savanna full of palm trees - all separated by the mangrove forests and bolongs of the Casamance River. The Casamance region's small side and natural, as well as human, diversity, makes it perfect for all sorts of explorations. From multi-day hikes, bike tours or canoe trips the region has something to offer for almost everyone. Two addresses are paramount to know for anyone setting out to explore this tour de force of natural beauty. First stop is the Office de Tourisme de Casamance in Ziguinchor, where there is a broad range of maps, brochures and cultural information. The staff here can help suggest or tailor unique itineraries in the region and often know about local festivals and ceremonies. The second is Casamance VTT in Oussouye that offers guided tours and rents out quality bikes and canoes to those preferring to explore the region on their own.
Too many visitors only visit Gorée Island as a short day-trip from Dakar, but they will miss out. Let the tourists, souvenir sellers and school classes leave Gorée with the last ferries and stay behind for what is, by far, the best antidote for chaotic and polluted Dakar. The island is less than a kilometre long and not 400 metres wide. Here are no cars, no con-artists and no worries. Visiting on a Monday will ensure that this feeling lasts all day as all the museums are closed. Instead, wander the cobblestones between the colonial houses that dominate the island, some restored, some crumbling; visit the craftsmen on the hill; wash the fresh seafood down with a drink. However, the museums, which include a fort, some the colonial buildings and the world famous Maison des Esclaves (covered elsewhere in this guide), are essential what all the fuzz is about and should not be missed.
As the location for the first European settlement on the West African coast in 1659 and the capital of French West Africa until 1902 the island of Saint-Louis is synonymous with colonial history. Today, life between the island's colourful colonial buildings barely moves faster than it did back in the island's prime. Many of the quaint buildings have been restored, adding to the small island's relaxed and somewhat artsy atmosphere. A stroll through the sandy streets, in the shade of charming balconies, reveals many more workshops and galleries than the island's small size should justify. Such a stroll can justifiably last for days here. The colonial tranquillity appears as in a time warp compared to the bustling neighbourhoods of modern Saint-Louis surrounding it. The island is connected to these more lively parts of town by no less than three bridges, the most famous one been Pont Faidherbe, allegedly build by a certain Mr Eiffel. If you are around in May, be sure not to miss the city's world famous Jazz Festival
A visit to a 19th century isolated and tropical island sounds like a tall order. However, a visit to Karabane Island at the mouth of the Casamance River is indeed just that. Established as a French trading station in the middle of the 19th century it was overtaken by history when the French moved their trade to Ziguinchor in 1901. Since then, the small community here has become even smaller and the building has been left largely to themselves. Besides the old colonial buildings, a number of campements are placed right on the beach. Thus this is a place where it's easy to lose yourself for a couple of days and then some. Here, the hours are passed by rolling out of bed into the water a few feet away, lazing in the sand under the palm trees and eating quality food a couple of times a day. The only break from the illusion of isolation is the modern Dakar-Ziguinchor ferry passing the island once a day.