The Gambia is a wonderful place. Nicknamed “the Smiling Coast,” Africa’s smallest continental country has brilliant beaches, wonderful wildlife and a colourful culture which attracts lots of visitors from Britain, Scandinavia and The Netherlands each year.
It’s a summer break for the winter, with more than simply sunbathing and swimming on offer for tourists. But, like with visiting any foreign country, there’s a few things you ought to know before landing in Banjul.
1.Exchange money there
Although Gambian Dalasi is scarcely available in the United Kingdom, it is worth waiting to get The Gambia to exchange money (and I don’t mean in the airport).
When we went in December 2016, the exchange rate was roughly 55 GMB to the pound. But when we went to exchange offices on the Senegambia Strip, we enjoyed rates of 56, 57.75 and 58 GMD.
An obvious lack of regulation and the value of foreign currency to Gambians makes it a profitable business for both parties.
2. Tourist taxis are a rip-off
Green tourist taxis can be found hanging around outside hotels and by the main tourist haunts in The Gambia. They try and lure tourists in but fares come at a premium, even for short-distance journeys.
I found much better value in taking yellow bush taxis around the country, which are mainly used by the locals. Prices can be bartered and agreed before you get in the taxi, and it’s much cheaper than a tourist taxi.
Sure, tourist taxis are required by law to have basics like seatbelts and working indicators, but I always felt safe in a bush taxi and it was worth the risk.
3. Be ruthless at the market
The Gambia has some fantastic markets where you’ll find clothes, crafts and other souvenirs available for purchase.
The markets are just worth going to for culture, colours and to browse around, but if you want to buy something make sure to set a low marker and stick to it.
As with a lot of markets across the world, prices aren’t set, and the general idea is for the seller to start high, the buyer to start low and the two to meet mutually in the middle.
But I did find in The Gambia that the seller will usually cave if you don’t budge far from your initial offer and really good deals can be struck for multiple items.
4. Where you should go in the airport
After checking in for your flight out of The Gambia, the obvious thing to do would be to breeze through security and heading through to the departure lounge.
But a less-crowded alternative is Banjul International Airport’s restaurant and lounge, which can be found at the top of the stairs in the departure hall.
It’s quiet, there are televisions, nice views out over the tarmac and table service is quick due to a lack of passengers.
5. Use Arch Tours
Going on a day tour in The Gambia is highly recommended. There are plenty of options, from hippopotamus spotting to retracing Kunta Kinte’s steps on the Roots tour, and you should definitely take a break from sunbathing on the beach or sitting by the pool to explore more of the region.
By far the most reputable and reliable tour operator in The Gambia is Arch Tours. They have great reviews on TripAdvisor, have a wide range of tours available and offer a fantastic door-to-door service that starts before anything has even been booked.
Shout-out to Abdul and his team, because they were simply fantastic when we took a trip to go on safari in Senegal. It was easily one of my favourite travel experiences, and they helped make it that way.
6. Be firm, not rude
In The Gambia, you will almost certainly be pestered by ‘bumsters,’ who are young, usually unemployed, young Gambian men who hassle tourists for money.
You’ll be a target, especially if it’s your first time visiting, but the best advice is to give these people a firm “no,” but refuse whatever they’re trying to sell or ask for without being rude or offensive. The vast majority are polite and will wish you a good day regardless, but not all take kindly to rejection.
Some will try giving you bracelets as a “free gift” before going on to ask for money for them, while some will offer up sob stories in hope of making a fast buck. Don’t fall for these stories as they are almost always entirely made up for the purpose of begging.
7. Stock up on sweets and stationary
The Gambia is a poor country, and often children will be out in the day helping their parents to earn money. Whether it’s selling packs of peanuts or begging at the side of the road, these kids are put to work earlier than they ever should be.
One thing we were told before we went to The Gambia was take some pens, pencils, workbooks and sweets with us to give to these children. They may be cheap and basic to us, but they mean a lot to the kids over there.
As it turned out, the children we met were thrilled with the present we gave them. One of the best instances was when we were on the way back from Senegal in our safari jeep. We were passing through small, rural Gambian towns and villages, throwing sweets to the children from these places. When we were driving through, the roads were quiet, almost dead.
But once we stopped off to hand out the candy, all of these kids appeared from nowhere, and kept coming in waves. It was both hilarious and humbling to see, but they were happy, and that was the main thing.
8. Pound coins at the ready
People will often try to help you in The Gambia. The country is full of nice people, and when they help you it’s only fair to offer them a tip in return.
Giving them a one pound coin is a great way to do this, so make sure you take a handful in your wallet or purse so you can dish them out where necessary.