Country: The Gambia
Time zone: UTC +0
Closest airport(s): Banjul International Airport (BJL)
A little bit about The Gambia
Africa’s smallest continental country, the Republic of The Gambia is a small nation in west Africa that is surrounded by Senegal on all but one side – its coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. The nation sits either side of the Gambia River and 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 country was ruled for 22-years by iron-fisted president Yahya Jammeh, who came to power following a bloodless coup in 1994. But despite bringing stability to the country, his reign met an acrimonious end when he was defeated in a shock election result by now-president Adama Barrow, and Jammeh only left office after intervention from neighbouring countries and the threat of military action.
Nicknamed ‘The Smiling Coast,’ The Gambia is one of Africa’s major tourist destinations and is one of the continent’s safest and most inviting countries.
Why should I go?
The Gambia is an alternative ‘fun in the sun’ destination that tends to attract hordes of British, Dutch and Scandinavian tourists each year.
The prime time to visit is in Europe’s winter months, where holidaymakers can escape the cold, rain and snow in search of sunnier climbs.
One of the benefits that The Gambia brings is a completely different culture to what can be found on a traditional summer holiday to, say, Spain or Greece, which makes it a much more adventurous option. The Gambia is safe for tourists, although visitors should be advised to monitor travel advice from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, following political tensions which arose at the end of 2016.
The Gambia has beaches, friendly people, low prices and plenty of activities and attractions to fill a week with, and if you want to try something different around Christmas and New Year then this small, African nation would be a good way to go.
The main attractions
This may sound pretty ambiguous, but there are a number of day and overnight tours available to tourists, which are a great way to explore more of The Gambia and its surroundings.
My biggest recommendation would be a day trip to Fathala Game Reserve in Senegal. We were picked up at six in the morning, got to take in the sunset as we crossed the Gambia River on a ferry going from Banjul to Barra, then headed to the reserve where we got up close and personal with some of the most amazing wildlife. We saw a rhino, antelopes and giraffes, said hello to some zebras and even walked with lions.
We booked with Arch Tours, and I couldn’t recommend them enough. Abdul, the owner, was very inviting when we went to book at the office, even giving us complimentary cold bottles of water to cool off from the afternoon heat and everything felt like a legitimate and above-board enterprise.
The tour was in the region of £100, with breakfast, lunch and refreshments provided throughout the trip and two fantastic tour guides who were a credit to themselves.
There are plenty of other tours and other tour providers in The Gambia, with the opportunity to see hippos, retrace the steps of Kunta Kinte, or have a river cruise and fish in the Gambia River.
Kachikally Crocodile Park
Kachikally Crocodile Park is The Gambia’s highest-rated attraction if TripAdvisor is anything to go by, and it’s a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon there.
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.
At the pool, visitors can greet the reptiles, holding the little snappers and posing for pictures with the big boys. Kachically opens daily from 09:00 until dusk.
Bigilo Forest Park
Bigilo Forest Park is located a few hundred yards from the Senegambia Strip and is home to a variety of wildlife, including several species of monkey, which is why it is also known by its alternative name, ‘Monkey Park.’
The monkeys are the main attraction there, and visitors will have the chance to feed the little creatures throughout the trail. It’s best to get a guide and bring some extra peanuts along, because when the ones they give you run out, the fun won’t stop.
It was one of the best things we did in The Gambia, and it was as therapeutic as it was amazing having the monkeys take whole peanuts out of my hand, then watching them crack open the shells before eating the contents. It’s an experience not to be missed.
Albert Market is a large market selling food, clothes and other bits and pieces, and is located in the heart of the capital city, Banjul.
It is a great way to spend a few hours of your time in The Gambia, and isn’t too far from the tourist epicentre in Kololi.
The most convenient way of getting there is by taxi, and should take roughly about 20 minutes from the Senegambia Strip to the market itself.
There are so many stalls in Albert Market, that it’s easy to get lost. But chances are a Gambian will accompany you around the market in hope of earning themselves some cash. We paid our guide 50 dalasi, and even though he was hoping for more it was a fair tip as we hadn’t actually requested his services in the first place.
You should also be pretty careful when visiting Albert Market. We were followed around by another person, who got pretty angry when I was browsing stalls, but wasn’t actually buying anything. I think a lot of the locals assume that because we’re from Europe that we’re walking pound signs and, therefore, should be spending money non-stop. Don’t feel threatened by these people, and be firm. You don’t have to buy anything if you don’t want to.
And for extra security, wear rucksacks and other bags on your front to help prevent any pickpocketing taking place.
Abuko Nature Reserve
The Abuko Nature Reserve is a nature park which can be found just outside of the village of Lamin in the Kombo North District.
It is one of the smallest protected areas in Africa and was The Gambia’s first designated wildlife reserve.
It has a diverse portfolio of wildlife including monkeys, crocodiles, cobras and mongooses and is The Gambia’s most visited tourist attraction, receiving approximately 33,000 visitors per year.
The main way of getting to The Gambia is by air. The country’s only airport is Banjul International Airport, where 12 airlines operate 17 routes to 11 countries, including the United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Belgium. Thomas Cook are the main Gambia tour operators in the UK.
There isn’t really much of a public transport network in The Gambia, and tourists would be best getting a taxi for places that aren’t reachable on foot.
There are two types of taxis in The Gambia – green tourist taxis, and yellow ‘bush’ taxis. The tourist taxis are very expensive and prices are usually set, but can sometimes be negotiated. They are also required to have basics such as seatbelts and working indicators, unlike bush taxis.
However, bush taxis are a lot cheaper and what I used to get around. The price can be bartered and massive savings can be made. These yellow taxis are usually used by locals.
Where to stay
Most of The Gambia’s accommodation is centred on and around the Senegambia Strip in Kololi, so it’s best to go for a hotel around there.
The best hotel is probably the Senegambia Beach Hotel. They have beautiful rooms and suites, fantastic grounds with three swimming pools and an entrance right onto the beach for its guests. It is worth noting that it’s quite a bit more expensive than the other hotels, but it is luxurious in comparison.
We stayed at the three-star Smartline Palma Rima – a Thomas Cook hotel. It wasn’t the flashiest place, but they had decent rooms and bungalows with a cracking swimming pool. It was good value for money and the road alongside it provided a short pathway to the beach, although it was about a 10-minute walk from the strip. I recommend both hotels as they are safe and secure.
Eat and drink
There is a decent choice of restaurants in The Gambia, with most of them located on, or just off, the Senegambia Strip.
The best meal we had in The Gambia was at a restaurant called Scala, who have an all-you-can-eat weekly BBQ, with incredible meat and fish available. There’s no compromise on quality here, and customers won’t leave disappointed.
Another favourite was African Queen. The food was nice and the staff were great, particularly Chris, their on-street promoter, who was welcoming, friendly and not pushy whatsoever.
As for drink, beer, wine and cocktails are widely available. The local beer is Julbrew and averaged out at around £1 per bottle. It was a really nice brew, as was Vimto, which is a Gambian favourite. There’s something about their Vimto that makes it super-tasty and highly addictive. I must have gone through about 20 bottles in that one week.
An amazing exchange rate
Although not widely available, it is possible to buy Gambian Dalasi in the UK. But I really wouldn’t recommend it.
We took Pound Sterling with us, and when we got there found that in some currency exchange places, the exchange rate was actually better than the business rate.
I’m not sure of the reason as to why that was, but for the first time ever, I was able to get more for my money than the banks would have you believe.
Use bush taxis
On our first night in The Gambia, we were heading to the Senegambia Strip for dinner and were approached by a man operating a ‘tourist taxi,’ who offered to take us there (just under a mile away) for about 200 dalasi, which is approximately £4). When we told him ‘no,’ he began to get very angry and aggressive, which ended his chances of ever having us as customers.
We ended up using a bush taxi – the taxis that are mainly used by the locals – which have a distinct yellow paintjob with green stripes running down the middle.
You will have to hail bush taxis and negotiate the price with the driver, but they are always cheaper than the green tourist taxis and more authentic, too.
There’s also a rumour that you aren’t insured in a bush taxi, whereas you would be during a ride in a tourist taxi, although I am unsure whether this is actually true as it seems more like an unlikely sales tactic.
It’s a dating playground
One of the running hilarities during our trip was seeing older men and women from Europe shacked up with younger, Gambian counterparts.
Although, I assume, the vast majority would be dismissive of it, it would appear that the deal is sex from one side, and money and a passport for the other.
I’ll leave you to connect the dots, but I will say that it was comical to see a big-bellied man in his 60s getting cosy with a beautiful Gambian woman who can’t have been any older than 25.
Prepare to be hassled
Some Gambians are truly nice people. One guy I met called Chris was working for restaurant African Queen on the Senegambia Strip, and his friendly approach and charm won us over, leading us to eat there on two nights.
But not every Gambian is that nice. Some of them will mercilessly hassle you, particularly ‘bumsters,’ who hang around on street corners and pester tourists for money. Some of their tricks include giving out wristbands as ‘gifts,’ yet still expecting money in return, or offering to take you on a day tour. Make sure you only book tours through reputable tour companies, and if you do get hassled the best course of action is to not engage with them and keep going about your business. Be firm, not rude.
Barter, barter, barter
Set prices are a rare commodity in The Gambia. Unless you’re eating at a restaurant and there’s a number by the food, then chances are that the price of something can be haggled, especially when it comes to markets.
The Gambians will play the game and start high, while you’re supposed to start low and the two of you end up meeting in the middle. But if you’re ruthless enough, you can get them further towards your starting price leaving you a happy customer.