My wife and I went to the Gambia in July after our long tour in South East Asia to spend few lazy days on sandy beach. We’ve been recommended to book the tour with the Gambia Experience – the UK’s only Gambia specialists.
If you are planning to travel to Gambia one day, you may like to read this travel guide to know what to expect.
What do you know about the Gambia?
Nicknamed ‘The Smiling Coast,’ the Gambia is a laid back little country, with miles and miles of unspoiled sandy beaches. Even in the height of the season, the most popular ones, never get overcrowded.
Its’ Africa’s smallest continental country that is surrounded by Senegal on all but one side – its coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. The Gambia became a part of the British Empire after an agreement with the French Republic in 1889 and while they went on to gain their independence in February 1965, their official language remains English to this day.
The main source of economy in the Gambia is through tourism, farming and fishing. Despite of the diversity in economic source, the Gambia remains to be one of the poorest countries in Africa. In fact, a third of the population is living below the international poverty line.
Where to stay
The Gambia is a long thin country, with only a small coast line. Whilst some people do choose to stay inland, most commonly for trips to Gambian eco resorts, the majority of tourists like ourselves will visit the Serrekunda area, it’s best to go for a hotel around there.
The best hotel is probably the Sheraton Gambia Hotel Resort and Spa (it’s not a Sheraton anymore, new name is Labranda Coral Beach Resort). Outstanding location, excellent swimming pool, good access to beach, overall, despite a few minor problems, we had a very good experience.
The country looks really nice from five star hotel, but once you venture beyond the gate, you are in the real Gambia, a place of concrete and corrugated tin, dust and potholes, subsistence living and visible poverty…
What to do – the main attractions
If you get bored with sunning yourself on the beach and would like to immerse more fully into the culture of a country, there are few things to see and do outside of Banjul, other side of the River Gambia.
Kachikally Crocodile Park
What about stroking and touching a fully alive and awake crocodile? If you like the idea, then it’s a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon at Kachikally Crocodile Park, the Gambia’s highest-rated attraction.
Kachikally is located in Bakau and has a museum of ethnography and a forest nature trail in addition to its sacred crocodile pool, which is considered by local Gambians to have healing powers, and is where people come to pray for secret blessings.
Interesting fact: The locals believe that crocodiles have a magic power. For example, when a woman is infertile the maraboe, the sacred one, sends her to a crocodile pond to wash herself in the water. After this she should be fertile.
The crocodiles have become so used to visitors that you can walk right up to them and actually stroke them if you are brave enough!
Museum is a fairy small, dusty and dimly lit but somehow well organized. There are some nice displays of cultural and historical collections, including documents, musical instruments, ethnographic items and agricultural tools.
Travel Tips: Opening hours: 9am – 6pm Monday – Thursday, 9am – 1pm Friday and 9am – 2pm Saturday. Entry fee: D50 (about £1 GBP)
North East of the town of Lamin, through the mangroves across a rickety looking bridge, made of sun-bleached wood, you’ll find Lamin Lodge, overlooking a tributary of the River Gambia. From there you can take a boat trip across the water or simply relax with a drink or a meal.
We had a coffee with some mini donuts with a nice view of the river. With monkeys all over the place, it was a challenge eating our snack in peace. Honestly speaking, the focus here is on the atmosphere and surrounding nature rather than the food.
Tanji fish market
The air is filled with the odour of smoked fish; an unimaginable number of flies swarm around fresh or discarded seafood, seagulls hover overhead looking for scraps, fishermen land their afternoon catch from long African pirogues, passing buckets of catch onto the heads of local women, who then ferry it to the shore. It’s Tanji fish market – the most wanted spot of the Gambian tourism. It represents in fact, one of the major costal fishing communities of the country from where seafood is sold or exported to neighbouring West African countries.
We’ve got invited to see a haring smoking shop. They smoke the haring on a wooden stove. The smell was horrendous! But it did look nice and they need it, since not many people own a fridge.
The entire activity was frenzied and messy (really stinky), but surprisingly efficient. People where a bit anxious about my camera, so I didn’t take too many pictures.
Travel Tips: I need to mention that for “unknown reason” local people don’t like being photographed, so you’ve better be careful when clicking.
The Gambia is famous for birdwatching because there are so many different birds found here – some 560 species. The best way to go birdwatching is to hire an official guide. We have booked a tour and were ready to be picked up from the hotel at 5 am (we’re told that you’ve got to get out at dawn if you want to hear the birds singing), however after 1.5 hour waiting we realised our tour was most likely cancelled, so frustrating! End of the day the guide showed up around 7 am with silly excuse for being late.
By the way no one is punctual in Gambia; everyone is late to everything. It was a bit irritating. I doubt that the local languages has a word for “late.”
As you can imagine we skipped our birdwatching tour that day but we’ve heard it’s worth to go and see country’s hidden natural beauty.
This is a popular street market in the capital city of Banjul. This is the main urban market of Gambia, which is bustling and lively. Everything from fruit and vegetables to local crafts, textiles, clothes, shoes and ‘stuff’ is for sale here.
Well, I love local markets and have visited dozens of them, on every continent, however this one ranks among the most boring and the filthiest local markets I’ve ever visited.
Best time to visit
- The best time to visit the Gambia is between November to the middle of July when there is no rain. And temperatures in the 30s, it is a very good winter sun destination.
- You’ll find it much cheaper than many other popular winter sun locations such as the Caribbean etc. Plus it is less than 6 hours away and within the same time zone as the UK, so there is no need to worry about jet lag.
Health and Safety in The Gambia
- First of all you need to check with your GP about the vaccinations. You may need a yellow fever certificate – check before you go. You may also need to take malaria tablets and make sure you have any medication (pain relief, supplements for digestion etc) with you as it will not be easy to find once you are there.
- Don’t drink the tap water!
- Crime involving tourists is rare in the Gambia and safety is not a major concern, but robberies involving travellers are on the rise, particularly the stealing of passports and valuables from hotel rooms. It is wise not to carry valuables or large sums of money or display them in public.
You might see a lot of poor people or even some of them asking you for money, but they are harmless and you can politely reject them. You don’t have to give everyone money, as much as you would like to. Want to do something nice for the kids? Bring toys or school supplies to give to them like pens of pencils. Clothes are also always a winner.
Photography © Gurcan Sarisoy