The Gambia in West Africa is a fascinating country to explore with golden sandy beaches, year-round hot weather and, with the official language being English, almost everyone you met will be a fluent English speaker.
Many holidaymakers from Europe head there 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 wonderful 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. There are some great organised excursions but these can be expensive so here are my top tips for things to do on a budget in The Gambia.
1. Explore (and a mini guide to local transport in The Gambia)
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 extremely 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 in order 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.
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 the best condition and have the best insurance, I am told. 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 for the journey home rather than lose the 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.
There are no trains in The Gambia and there are no bridges across the River Gambia which cuts the country completely in half. If you want to get to the north bank you can catch a ferry at Banjul but this is very unreliable at the moment and I really would not recommend it.
Lastly, remember that The Gambia is a developing country and safety standards are not as high as they are in many other countries.
2. 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 stall holder 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 stall holders 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.
3. 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.
4. Sanyang Beach
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, they can become problematic to local people, invading their homes and causing a great 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.
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
Many hotels and some restaurants lay on entertainment. This can vary in quality and style but there are a few great 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 7pm (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 a number of times and never felt unsafe there.
10. 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 other articles from this wonderful little country, The Gambia.
I travelled to The Gambia with The Gambia Experience. As always these are my own, honest opinions.