With over 50 different countries making up Africa, as you can imagine there is a vast array of cultures, landscapes and wildlife to see. A visit can be very different from how you might imagine – another world from the Africa you’re read about or seen in the movies. One of my favourite corners of the continent is West Africa. The Gambia, in particular, is a popular holiday destination with the British thanks to its golden sandy beaches, year-round hot weather, colourful culture and friendly English speaking locals. It’s in the same time zone as we are too which is handy! For many years, I worked for a tour operator to West Africa, visiting regularly for over a decade, both for work and on holiday. While many tourists rarely leave the beach or the poolside, there are no end of things to do in The Gambia, even on a tight budget. It’s a fabulous place to explore.
Why go on holiday to The Gambia?
Long sandy beaches that are never overcrowded, a vibrant colourful culture, wonderful wildlife and friendly English speaking locals; there’s no end of reasons why you should consider a Gambia holiday.
The Gambia in West Africa is a fascinating place, and with no rain between November to the middle of June virtually guaranteed. And temperatures in the 30s, it is a fantastic winter sun destination. The coast has many lovely, long sandy beaches which are never over-crowded, even in the height of the season. And you’ll find it much cheaper than many other popular winter sun locations such as the Caribbean. 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.
Some people also like visiting in the summer when it’s quieter. Rain tends to fall in short, sharp showers, often at night, but in the day it’s never long before the sun starts shining again. It is very humid, though, and it’s worth noting that many restaurants and some hotels shut down in the summer.
You might also want to read about Where to stay in The Gambia.
Gambia Fact Box
- Where is The Gambia? In West Africa, with a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s surrounded by the much larger country of Senegal on three sides.
- What language do they speak in The Gambia? There are several local languages, but the official language is English.
- What’s the weather like in The Gambia? Average temperature highs range between 29°C and 34°C with long hours of sunshine year-round. In the summer months, it is very humid with short but heavy rain showers. In the winter, there is low humidity and little rain, the perfect location for a winter sun holiday.
- What’s the food like in The Gambia? The resort areas have a fabulous range of restaurants serving everything from fish ‘n’ chips to cuisines from around the world. Look out for local dishes too which are usually quite spicy and served with rice, such as the peanut-based domoda, fish benachin or chicken yassa.
- What’s the currency in The Gambia? The Dalasi (GMD).
- Where to stay in The Gambia? Read about the different resort areas and the best hotels and B&Bs in The Gambia, here.
Things to do in The Gambia on a budget
Many holidaymakers from Europe head here to relax by the sea or pool but it would be a crime for any visitor to stay in their hotel and not get out and about, meet the locals, discover the culture and see some of the beautiful wildlife. Gambians are incredibly friendly, some might say too friendly, but even the most persistent ‘bumster’, as the local boys who hang around the tourist areas are known, mean you no harm and just hope to make a little money by being your guide, friend or boyfriend. There are some great organised excursions, but these can be expensive so here are my top tips for things to do in The Gambia on a budget, many of which are entirely free.
1. Craft markets
Now that you’re an old hand at haggling having negotiated a great price for your taxi, visit a local craft market and hone your skills. Whatever the stallholder asks for, you want to at least half it and end up meeting in the middle. The trick is to think before you start – Do I really want this and what price am I willing to pay? I’m hopeless at mental arithmetic, so I’ve been known to keep a credit card size conversion table (that I’ve made myself ) in my purse which I can glance at as needed. Some stallholders can be a little pushy but smile, stick to your guns, take your time and go with the flow.
The best-known markets are at Serrekunda, the largest town in The Gambia, and the Royal Albert Market in the capital, Banjul. Both of these towns have large markets selling everything under the sun with a tourist craft market attached. There are many other craft markets dotted around, including Kololi, Kotu, Fajara and Bakau. While people are usually happy to have their photograph taken in the tourist craft markets, in the parts of the markets aimed at locals, many people do not like it or will expect to be paid. I find the easiest thing to do is to hire a guide (your driver can help you find one when you get there). Explain that you want to take photographs and ask your guide to ask people for you if they mind and to explain that you are not able to pay anyone.
You might also enjoy Exploring Albert Market in Banjul.
2. Fishing Village
There are fish markets at Bakau, Tanji and Sanyang. These are colourful, vibrant places where you can watch the pirogues (fishing boats) come in and unload the day’s catch. Men and women wade into the water and bring back buckets on their heads full of fish. Women buy and sell the fish while the seagulls squawk overhead ever hopeful of a few scraps. Any keen photographers will love all the colour and action but keep in mind that, as with the local markets, many people don’t like to be photographed. While you’ll have to pay for a taxi or hire a bicycle to get there once there, it is free to watch all the action.
Discover more about Tanji Fishing Village
3. Sanyang Beach
4. Drink Julbrew
Although a predominantly Muslim country, where most citizens don’t drink alcohol, The Gambia is very moderate and tolerant of other religions and cultures. So much so that they even have their own brewery, Julbrew. While I’m not a huge lager fan, I do enjoy a cool Julbrew by the beach, preferably watching the sunset. My favourites places to drink it are the beachside restaurant at Cape Point called, Calypso and at the Baracuda Bar in the Kombo Beach Hotel in Kotu (pictured below).
5. Kachikally Sacred Crocodile Pool
6. The monkeys at Bijilo Forest Park
There is a lovely walk through the trees and a huge population of green vervet monkeys which are great fun to watch. You may also see a Western Red Colobus monkey (look up into the trees). This is an endangered species, and they are struggling to survive here because of the number of vervet monkeys. The vervets are doing so well because the tourists feed them and have become humanised so that they no longer fear us but instead see us a food sauce. Not only can monkeys carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans, once they lose their natural fear of us, but they can also become problematic to local people, invading their homes and causing a significant nuisance.
Bijilo Monkey Park is even cheaper to enter than Kachikally (and free if you enter away from the main entrance, I believe). While you don’t need a guide, they are very good at spotting and identifying birds that you might otherwise miss. If you are told that it is OK to feed the monkeys, it is just so that you will buy some peanuts. PLEASE don’t buy them and don’t feed the monkeys. IT IS NOT OK! (sorry, did I raise my voice there!)
The Gambia is famous for birdwatching and is a favourite location of BBC wildlife presenter and birdwatching expert, Chris Packham because there are so many different birds found here – some 560 species. The best way to go birdwatching is to hire an official guide. However, many of the hotels have lovely grounds where a variety of birds can be seen, and it is worth asking if they have a bird guide book you can borrow and even some binoculars. The guides have an office by Kotu Bridge.
If you are staying in the Kololi/Senegambia area than Bijilo Forest is within walking distance. While it may not be my first choice for birdwatching, it isn’t bad at all and saves you the cost of hiring a taxi. If you are staying in Kotu then a walk along Kotu creek, starting at the bridge is a great option. You can read about the birds I saw in Bijilo Forest in my post, From blue-bellied rollers to little bee-eaters.
8. Traditional Drumming and Dance Show
Many hotels and some restaurants lay on entertainment. This can vary in quality and style, but there are a few superb traditional groups that play the circuit of hotels, and you can watch them while eating or over a drink. Please do tip them as some of the hotels pay them very little.
9. A walk along the beach at sunset
The sunsets in The Gambia can be spectacular. Being so near the equator the sun goes down very quickly around 7 pm (give or take half an hour). If someone comes over to chat to you, but you’d rather be alone take off your shoes and walk in the water. The local young men who try to befriend tourists in the hope of making a little money, known as bumsters, do not like getting their shoes wet. While their attention can, at times be annoying, in my experience, it is never threatening. I’ve visited the Gambia alone for work several times and never felt unsafe there.
10. Have a drumming lesson
Sitting under a palm tree on the beach, enjoying a drumming lesson is a great way to spend an hour or two while learning about the local culture. The lessons I’ve had have all been organised through the Kombo Beach Hotel but wherever your staying I’m sure a local hotel (or one of the performers you can see in many of the hotels and bars) will be able to put you I touch with a teacher. And they charge very little compared to what you might pay for a music lesson in the UK.
11. Feed the vultures
The sky is thick with vultures, swooping and squawking, eager to grab their share of the feast. Watching vultures being fed is an incredible sight.
You can see them every morning in the gardens of the Senegambia Hotel in Kololi at around 11 am or by Kotu Bridge on the road leading to Kotu. It’s completely free, but a donation to the organisers is appreciated. While I wouldn’t normally condone feeding wild animals, in this case, I’m prepared to make an exception. While vultures are common in the Gambia, worldwide, the hooded vulture is an endangered species. And with so few work opportunities for Gambians, I have to applaud these initiatives, particularly in Kotu where the vulture feeding promotes the services of numerous bird watching guides.
12. Visit a luxury hotel for a massage
I know! That doesn’t sound like something to do on a budget. However, it will cost you a fraction of the price that it would at home. I once treated myself to two and a half hours of total self-indulgence with a hammam, followed by a hot stone massage and ending with an Asian foot massage at the most luxurious hotel in The Gambia, the Coco Ocean Resort and Spa. It currently costs D2,200 (around £40 GBP). In England, that would probably cost you a couple of hundred pounds in a five-star hotel. Even if you can’t afford to stay in one of the luxury or boutique hotels in The Gambia, there are some lovely ‘value for money’ hotels, and there’s no reason why you can’t visit one of the top hotels for a treat, be it in their restaurant or their spa.
Want to know more about The Gambia? Then check out my Gambia travel blog from this wonderful little country.
Dealing with bumsters in The Gambia
The Gambia is known as the smiling coast of Africa with good reason, as the people here are among the friendliest you could hope to meet anywhere in the world. Sadly, however, The Gambia has acquired a bit of a name for itself as a destination where middle-aged European women go in search of toy boys while on holiday in The Gambia. With little work or prospects, many young men fall into this trap. In the tourist resorts, you will find these ‘bumsters’, as they are known, hanging around, looking out for the latest arrivals and hoping to make some money, whether by offering their services as a guide or escort or by trying to sell you something. This should not put you off, though. I have visited the country many times, as a solo traveller as well as in a group, and while the bumsters can be annoying at times, I have never felt unsafe. A firm but polite, “No, thank you!” usually does the trick. Never say, “Maybe later”, as they will only hear the later and not the maybe and will come looking for you!
Top tip: If people are annying you as you walk along the beach, take off your shoes and walk in the water. The bumsters won’t follow you as they wouldn’t want to get their trainers wet.
How to get around in The Gambia | A guide to local transport
The cheapest form of public transport is the bush taxi. These are white minibuses that travel set routes between towns and cram the passengers in, but they are incredibly cheap and have a fixed price of around 10 Dalasi (£0.16 GBP). Journey’s do tend to take a very long time though, especially if you need to change buses.
The yellow taxis, with a green stripe down the side, cost about the same as the minibuses, charging per person at a fixed rate and they are likely to pick up further passengers along the way. These are not allowed to drive into the main resort areas, so if you are staying in a hotel, you will have to walk to the main road to pick one up. Always check the price before getting in and make it clear that you are happy to share otherwise they will assume you want a private taxi (called a town trip) and you will be expected to pay at least 50 Dalasi. It’s worth keeping in mind that The Gambia is a developing country and safety standards are not as high as they are in many other countries.
The tourist taxis are green, and it is these that you will find outside the hotels. They are very much more expensive but are usually in better condition and reputedly have better insurance. The drivers are happy to act as guides which can be very useful, and they are happy to wait for you for a few hours while you are in a restaurant for example, rather than lose the return fare. There will be boards displaying a fixed price, but if you are good at bargaining, you may be able to get this down a little. You can also hire them for half days or whole days, and they will take you around the local sights. This will generally be cheaper than going on an organised excursion. Do make sure that everything is agreed beforehand regarding costs and time.
You can hire a car in The Gambia, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Driving is chaotic, there are few road signs, and many roads don’t even have names. At night, all drivers keep their headlights on full beam so that no one can see a thing!
Hiring a bicycle can be a cheap option but please don’t cycle at night on the roads, when drivers have their headlights on full beam and probably won’t see you. Other than that, a bicycle is a great way to get around, and if someone does start to be a nuisance, you can hop on your bike and cycle off.
There aren’t any trains in The Gambia.
The Gambia is a thin slither of land following the line of the River Gambia which effectively cuts the country in half. All the tourist resorts, most hotels and the airport or on the south bank. There are no bridges spanning the river, so if you want to get to the north bank you have to go by boat. The Main ferry crossing is at Banjul and is an experience in itself. Head up to the top deck and sit at the front where you can watch what’s going on below.
Four things you must pack when visiting The Gambia
I lost count of the number of times I’ve visited The Gambia a long time ago. I’ve stayed in a variety of hotels, travelled there with friends, on my own, with my husband, for work, on holiday and as a volunteer. Here are the four things I never travel to The Gambia without.
1. Anti-malaria tablets
It’s perfectly safe to travel to The Gambia as long as you take the necessary precautions. Thousands of holidaymakers go there and have a fabulous time, but malaria can kill and but is not worth taking the risk. You can buy anti-malaria tablets online, via a pharmacy, or from your GP.
2. Mosquito repellent
Even though you are taking anti-malaria pills, it’s safer still if you don’t get bitten. Mosquito bites can also be unsightly, as well as uncomfortable, so a reliable mosquito repellent is invaluable. Rohan offers a great range of insect repellents as well as first aid kits, blister kits, sunblock and mosquito
3. Mosquito repellent clothing
When I first heard about mosquito repellent clothing I was a little dubious but, having tried it for myself, I can verify that it works. My favourite item is this sarong, but there’s a good range of shirts, hats and trousers available with mosquito repellent impregnated with mosquito repellent. I can also recommend the Rohan range of anti-insect clothing for men and women.
4. Plug converter
The hotels in The Gambia use a variety of electrical sockets. Many fit English style three-pin plugs, while others fit European two-pin plugs. Make sure you take the right converter so you can’t get caught out. Worldwide travel adaptors are perfect no matter where you are travelling from or to. Buy this one from the US or this one from the UK. It’s pretty much the only one you’ll ever need.
Don’t forget your travel insurance!
My travel insurance company of choice is World Nomads. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities from air guitar to spelunking! Many of the sports and activities that are covered as standard are not commonly included in other insurance policies. You can buy and claim online, even after you’ve left home. Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com is available to people from over 130 countries.
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