(This blog post is updated and revised to include Covid-19 specifics)
It is another rainy evening in Florida as I start writing this blog post. I had always wanted to visit Dakar. I had a few Senegalese friends and was always intrigued by the new reporters who got assigned to cover West African news and would often report from a location in Dakar. Growing up we talked about getting our hair braided “Senegalese style” which often indicated a microbraids or micro twists at the time. My initial impressions of Senegal were later reinforced by my husband who had visited a few times before. I looked forward to this trip and meeting his Senegalese friend of whom he often spoke. They met one summer in Paris during a semester studying abroad and had remained great friends for over 25 years now.
In the fall of 2019 we were fortunate to have mom stay with the kids while I seized the opportunity to visit and experience Dakar for the first time. We arrived in the afternoon on a direct flight from JFK, New York. We typically try to stay at a locally owned hotel when we travel and because it was just the two of us, we chose a modest option located downtown, Le Ndiambour hotel et residence. It attracts all kinds of visitors as it has standard rooms and suites with kitchenette options, conference rooms, full-service restaurant with an amazing breakfast buffet (pre-pandemic), a rooftop gym and swimming pool. It can accommodate short or long term stay with standard wi-fi accessibility and friendly, helpful staff. It is located 2blocks from the corniche heading west and is within walking distance to several restaurants, coffee shops, and open markets. When traveling with children, the resort Terrou Bi would be my choice for a relaxing and fun stay. Located along the corniche on Boulevard Martin Luther King in the Fann Hock neighborhood, it is conveniently located on a private beach and has more amenities than one could wish for. It has rooms with seaside views, infinity pool, restaurants, and room service, not to mention the casino. Nearby is Magic Land, a popular amusement park for kids.
Like most of our vacations, this was a six-day trip and almost every morning we would get up and walk along the corniche before returning to our hotel for breakfast. I was amazed at how many people or different ages were exercising (jogging, walking, group workouts) along the corniche at all times of the day. It would seen the Senegalese were health conscious and there was a culture of sports and staying active at every phase in life. At some points further down the corniche on a couple of occasions were teenagers crossing the street carrying surfboards running toward the beach. I soon learned the coast here is famous for surf breaks at particular times of year.
Back at the hotel the breakfast buffet was a great blend of continental and local options with a wide variety for a very modest price. The service was beyond satisfactory as well. We also made good use of the rooftop pool which had a low occupancy every time we went for a swim during our stay. Its location made dining quite easy as there were many options in walking and driving distance. A quaint café up the street Presse Café was a five-minute walk. It had a food menu along with beverages, a comfortable space to decompress and free Wi-Fi. For authentic Senegalese fare such as Yassa chicken or seafood Thieboudienne, we visited Le Djembe restaurant. If you do go here, you must try one of their fresh locally made juices. I had the red hibiscus (bissop) and baobab (bouye) and they were amazingly refreshing. I must admit I have never found so much variety of freshly made juices and non-alcoholic beverages in any country we have visited so far. For more European fare, Caesar’s Republic restaurant has a less sophisticated atmosphere with faster meal options and good service.
Out and About
Dakar is rich in history and has made valiant efforts to celebrate its culture and African history at large. Our first stop on our tour of the city was to the African Renaissance Monument located on one of the twin hills outside Dakar, Collines de Mamelle which translates into “breast shaped hills” in English. This got me thinking of a family trip we took with the kids the year before when we visited the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming (similar French themes 😊). In any case, this 160ft monument made of copper was started in 2008 and completed in 2010. It is the tallest statue on the continent and represents an African family drawn up toward the sky with a man holding a baby on one arm while a woman by the waist on the other arm as they all overlook the Atlantic Ocean.
There are tours of the monument which can be ascended by elevator after climbing several flights of steps to the base of the statue. As one goes up the steps there are breath taking views of the city and the ocean. Once inside, there are several levels of floors of displayed art, craft and a history collection which tells a concise story of Africa and the diaspora.
Goree Island – This small island just south of the Cape Verde peninsula was the largest slave trading center on the coast of Africa between the 15th and 19th century. It can only be accessed by ferry ride and once at the island, one will notice there are no cars allowed or driven on its narrow streets. The island is home to the House of Slaves built in 1776 and is now a destination for tours which illustrate the inner workings of slavery at that time. The ferry ride is approximately 30minutes and the rides are scheduled only a few times a day so it is advised to check the schedules and possibly purchase ride and tour tickets before you head out to the island.
The island is home to less than 2000 residents and has few buildings and minimal amenities. Any given day, there are crowds of visitors at the shores and several people sunbathing and swimming, especially children. As beautiful as the island was, it was hard to feel cheerful after the tour of the slave house and the door of no return. It is best to visit with a local or have a designated tour guide otherwise you may come across tour guides on site who may not be as organized or provide accurate information. On the second level of the House of Slaves are displays of instruments used and documents pertinent to the institution of slavery at the time.
Back in the city the following day, we went to the open market to shop for Senegalese clothing and printed wax cloth. The Sandaga market was approximately 1km from our hotel and bargaining yielded better results once the vendors realized we spoke French even though we were neither Senegalese nor spoke the local language, Wolof. For art and craft shopping, I recommend Soumbedioune market which is located along the corniche. This artisanal “village” is clean, well-organized, and the quality of the products is great however my impression was the vendors were more acquainted with tourists paying full price and not bargaining as much and are less flexible with their pricing. For grocery or convenience shopping especially with children, Casino Supermarket which is one of three chain grocery stores is located along the corniche and carries most household needs.
On the 4th day in Dakar we visited the Museum of African Civilizations which was a 30minute walk from our hotel. This 150,000sqft circular building was modeled after the traditional design of homes in Senegal’s Casamance region. This museum sits on beautiful and well-maintained grounds with the Megaliths of the Senegambia next to it. Stories of the continent and the diaspora are told through exhibits such as “The Caravan and Caravel” and “African Civilizations: Continuous Creation of Humanity”. Located across from the museum is the Grand National Theater, a performing arts theater which seats 1800.
A short walk from the museum toward our hotel and we would pass the train station of Dakar in the square called “Place du Tirailler” or Riflemen Square which has a monument of “Demba and Dupont”. This station which was first built in 1885 has a colonial style and has been closed, repurposed, reopened with different routes over the years. During our visit 18months ago, the station was under renovation and not opened to the public.
Walking the streets of Dakar, one gets a general sense of security within the city given the ease of movement and the cosmopolitan nature of both visitors and locals alike. We noticed a few hawkers and those we came across were respectful and courteous, not aggressive or pushy in selling their wares. There are restaurants and cafes in the downtown area and there is access to alcoholic beverages, though limited and not advertised. Currently, due to Covid-19 pandemic, there is an evening curfew mandating the closure of all recreational establishments and non-essential businesses after 9pm.
In Case of Emergency and Covid-19 Testing Update:
As always, it is important whenever traveling to know where to go in case of emergency. When in Dakar, we would recommend the following clinics and urgent care centers in case of medical emergency; Clinique de la Madeleine, Clinique du cap and Clinique Bellevue. These three are private facilities are located in the downtown area in Dakar. Clinique de la Madeleine will consult on adult as well as pediatric and obstetric complaints/emergencies. However, they are not consulting or treating patients with any symptoms or diagnosis of Covid-19. The price for services are standard and one can call to schedule an appointment. Emergency ambulances are available if necessary. I recommended reviewing the terms of health coverage under your travel insurance plan prior to traveling so you are prepared in case of medical urgency or emergency.
**Covid-19 PCR testing for travel** – Prior to travel to Dakar and upon return to the US, all travelers are required to provide proof of a negative PCR COvid-19 test (SARS-COV-2). The non profit public oragnization, the Institut de Recherche en Sante, De Surveillance Epidemiologique et de Formation (IRESSEF) will reliably perform this test and provide results confidentially to your phone or email within 24-36 hours.
Must See Next Visit:
IFAN Museum – The Musee de I’Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire or IFAN Museum of African Arts was one of the sites which we could not visit due to time contraint. This museum has art collections from Senegal and the continent at large. A mix of ancient and contemporary art which we look forward to exploring our next trip.
Lac Rose (Lake Retba) – One hour from Dakar is this “pink” lake which gets its color because of the activity of the bacteria in it. Most reviews indicate the timing of year is important in order to observe the lake in pink hue.
It would seem our trip was short and the itinerary somewhat crammed, but it was a great way to spend a few days off, far away from the usual schedules and demands. This brief visit left us wanting to take with us more of the atmosphere and vibe of Dakar. An active yet reasonably paced flow of day to day events and quality of living with more than just the bare necessities. Home to the original “jollof rice” a.k.a. thieboudienne with a city rich in history and culture, Dakar in no time revealed to us why it has been coined “the soul of Senegal”.