It took me over 40 hours to travel to Banjul, all the way from Pakistan, but I made it to West Africa. It was late November 2019 and I arrived in country no. 103 on my journey to visit every country in the world. The Gambia was my first country in West Africa and only my 4th country in the whole African continent at that time after Seychelles, Namibia and South Africa.
After traveling continuously for 7 years by 2019, it was about damn time I finally started exploring Africa. It never really was high on my bucketlist. Luckily things have changed.
In this Gambia travel blog I will tell you all about my travel adventures in this small country. In total I stayed 4 nights in The Gambia before I continued traveling onwards to Senegal over land.
Arrival at Banjul Airport
After I was stamped into the country at immigration I was a bit lost in the arrival hall. I was traveling with hand luggage only and the police seemed to find me an interesting object apparently. There were a bunch of people hanging out, but I couldn’t see my pick up yet. In all honesty, I expected it to be way more chaotic in the arrival hall, it was pretty quiet.
Let’s get a sim card first I thought. For about $10 USD I got 5 GB data, with Africell and I can recommend it. According to locals Africell is the best sim card in The Gambia! I pulled out my GoPro to take a little video that I arrived in West Africa and within no-time one of the police guys came to me explaining that taking a video in public is not really appreciated in The Gambia.
Ok, sorry! But he came to the rescue because when I told him I couldn’t find my pick up he directed me outside of the terminal.
Once I walked out of the door I instantly realized why it was so quiet in the arrival hall. There is the chaos, I expected. People were hold up by security and were not allowed to enter the arrival hall of Banjul Airport.
I quickly found my guide and was transported to my guesthouse. It was dark outside, the streets full of people, some cars had lights, some not, sandy roads, very dusty, no street lights, I could hardly see anything. I thought to myself… where am I going!
Though the next morning I woke up at my guesthouse and all was quiet. I had some breakfast and had to change money and walked to the beach. It wasn’t the most pretty walk to the beach, but I already experienced the bustling street life vibes of West Africa and was greeted by a truck full of people with crazy loud music.
Once I got to the beach I understood why Gambia is a popular beach destination in West Africa.
Beach days in Gambia
The first 3 days of my Gambia trip I spent walking up and down the beach, every day about 15 kilometers from where I was staying until Senegambia, one of the most popular places to visit in The Gambia. I stopped for lunch, beers, coconuts, coffee, juice or a snack in one of the many beach bars lined up along either Kotu Beach or Kololi Beach.
There are many lounge bars, restaurants or shags to choose from along the beach. One of my favorites was Barista Bar in Kotu, it kind of gave me a Bali feeling. A modern-chic boho interior, all in white, Definitely recommend you going there on your trip to The Gambia.
The Gambia is notorious for touts at the beach that constantly approach you to sell their stuff. They are annoying, yes! But keep in mind that just 10 minutes walk from the beach you can find slumps and village where there isn’t even running water, so all these people are trying to do is making a living.
Personally the touts on the beach didn’t bother me too much. There weren’t as many as I expected and the ones that I came across were very respectful. I think your attitude is also very important. Make clear through your body language and by ignoring them in a polite way that you are not interested and most of them don’t even approach you.
Older white women and local young Gambian guys
Yes this is real, this isn’t a myth! I saw loads of examples on the beach and it made me smile. Why judge when two people are having a good time? The guys need the money, the older white women want the pleasure. As far as I heard, no one is forcing anyone, it is their own choice.
Local food in The Gambia
I tried the local cuisine and wasn’t really enthusiast to be honest. I wasn’t a fan of the greasy Domoda, a peanut sauce dish with fish and rice, however Benachin (chicken, rice, some veggies and a thick gravy) reminded me of grandma’s dinner and was pretty ok.
A good restaurant that I can recommend you is The Butcher’s shop. A modern-chic restaurant that I coincidentally walked into. For Gambia standards it is a little pricier, but my delicious fresh tuna steak was only $12 USD. With a little starter and water I paid less than $20 USD for a great dinning experience. The Butcher’s Shop is located in XXX
From Gambia to Gambia Charity
Coincidentally I ran into a Dutch lady called Marleen. She happened to be the owner of Barista Beach Bar, one of my favorite lounge bars along the beach. I loved listening to her Gambia stories and especially learning from a local as she lived here now for many years. When she told me about her project From Gambia to Gambia I got excited to help.
From Gambia to Gambia buys jewellery and all other kinds of small accessories produced by locals in Gambia and then ship them to The Netherlands. In Holland they sell all of the Gambia accessories on local markets and the revenue comes directly back to Gambia. From Gambia to Gambia helps villages in need and hands out books, pens, etc.
Marleen told me there was a simple way I could help and I arranged to meet her the next day. Together we drove to a local store to buy a big bag of 50KG rice for around $25 USD. With the rice and a bag full of stuff for kids to play with we drove to a nearby village. Just about 10 minutes away from the nice hotels at the beach where all the tourists hang out.
It was an overwhelming experience, but one that showed me the reality of what a country and the people of The Gambia are struggling with on a daily bases. The beautiful long sandy beaches with the lovely hotels for tourists is not at all what the country is like. As soon as we parked our car kids came running from far and they were fighting over a bit of rice, a pen or a little toy.
It was a small thing for me to do, but it felt very rewarding and unbelievably humbling and eye-opening of how good I have it being from a Western country.
Crossing the Gambia River
One of my most crazy travel experience ever was definitely here in The Gambia. Probably also the most dangerous so far. I crossed the river on a local boat, I felt like a refugee crossing the Mediterranean… don’t try this yourself! Take the normal ferry.
The Gambia is separated in a northern and southern part by The Gambia river. There are no bridges, but there is a ferry crossing from Banjul to Barra. There is not really a time schedule and crossings are very irregular. After exploring Banjul a little bit, I guess the Albert Market is the best thing to do in Banjul, I found out all ferry rides were cancelled for the day. It was only 1:00pm so I was caught by surprise, but well I needed to cross to the other side somehow.
The river crossing is only 4 kilometer, can’t be that bad I thought.
A Mauritanian guy helped me to get to the local boats just 5 minutes walk away. In the beginning it seemed like a cool travel adventure but it quickly turned into a disaster. I was carried through the water on to the boat, but with me another 80 people or so. However, there was only space for about half of them.
People panicking, West African chaos, shouting, fighting for life vests… can you imagine?
When we were just about to leave the Mauritanian guys bailed last minute: this is too crazy, get off the boat they shouted at me! But I couldn’t…
I sincerely couldn’t leave the boat anymore, I was cramped in and between people, the water was too high and I of course had my little backpack on me with my camera gear and my Macbook.
And there I sat as the only white guy in the scorching sun.
As soon as we were about 50 meter out of the shore the boat started making water as it was totally overweighted, the panicking people suddenly were all super quiet and instantly started praying! Oh my f#$king God! What the hell did I get myself into…
Mid way across the river, about 2 kilometers from shore it got even worse and the engine stopped working. In my head I was creating my escape route. I stuffed my phone and credit cards in my pocket, closed it with a zipper and said goodbye to my Macbook, camera and the rest of my electronics. If this boat is going to sink Im gonna dive deep down and swim away from this madness otherwise I would die trying to help other people who couldn't swim.
It was all in my head… I was ready for the disaster I pictured in my head.
The boatman couldn’t get the engine back on and we were drifting for about 20 minutes out into the ocean. The chaos was complete when people started panicking and shouting at each other. I could see the fear in their eyes. The boat was making a lot of water, which wasn’t helping either.
Miraculously suddenly the engine came back on after a million tries. I have no clue what would have happened if they didn’t get the engine back on as we drifted pretty far out towards the ocean already. Even with the engine running I still wasn’t sure if we would even make the other side as waves slammed into this little wooden boat which was completely overloaded with people.
But end good all good. It took another terrifying 20 minutes before we actually got to calm water and finally reached Barra.
Although filming in West Africa is not really appreciated among locals, I did manage to get a little footage from my most stupid travel adventure. I really recommend you to watch my videos about this river crossing in The Gambia.
I never feared for my life, but I did make up a plan to escape from a disaster and if this boat would have actually sank, a lot of people would have died.
Feel Free Lodge
This is my number one travel tip for when you visit The Gambia. My last two days in The Gambia I wanted to spend on the Northern side of the river close to the Senegal border and I found a cool place to stay: Feel Free Lodge. Located in the Niumi National Park, right on the beach. This place is completely off the beaten path in The Gambia.
Somewhere you wanna come to totally unwind. There is NOTHING around here and even to get to Feel Free Lodge is already a cool travel adventure.
This unique Gambia accommodation is located on Jinack Island on the Northwest coast, walking distance from the Senegal border. When you book this hotel you will get picked up in Barra by the lodge staff on a scooter, then cross the water on a raft and continue with a scooter on the beach for another 20 minutes or so to get to the lodge.
Feel Free Lodge is a pretty basic hotel, but it is only about $20 USD per night. The cabin was clean, there was a shower and the bed was good. The staff cooked me breakfast, lunch and dinner and in total I paid about $12 USD for those meals, excluding my $1 USD beers! :)
What did I do? I swung in hammocks, ran on the beach, swam in the ocean, walked into Senegal, watched the sunset, had a couple more beers, watched shooting stars, got high and had the best night sleep, because I was offered some happy stuff to make me smile.
Absolutely amazing adventure and recommended when visiting The Gambia.
Best place to stay in The Gambia
Of course I would recommend you to spend at least two days at the Feel Free Lodge somewhere on your trip to Gambia.
The other days I would recommend you to stay close to the beach in either Kololi or Kotu, that is where I hang out the most. It also is the most touristy place to visit in The Gambia, so there are all the facilities you are looking for: restaurants, bars, beaches, tour operators, atm’s, etc. Senegambia is the most popular place visit in Kololi.
I stayed actually in Fajara, which is about 20 minute walk north of Kotu Beach. Senegambia is another 40 minutes walk south from Kotu along the beach. When I was looking for accommodation in The Gambia I found Sarawally Guesthouse. I booked a nice and clean room with good reviews for around $30 per night.
I had no clue where it exactly was but it turned out to be in a quiet residential area about 15 minutes walk from the beach. I must say the place was a little off the beaten path but the owners were super friendly and breakfast was included in the price. Great value for money.
I was traveling in The Gambia end of November, beginning of December and prices for accommodation and hotels on the beach were pretty expensive. If you visit the beaches I would recommend you to book a place to stay within 5-10 minutes walk from Senegambia or Kotu Beach. This is where everything is happening!
Visa for The Gambia
For most European countries The Gambia is visa free. After I landed I got in a long line waiting for my passport to be stamped into The Gambia. No payment needed to be made, neither did they ask for my yellow vaccination vaccination. Not that I had it with me btw, I forgot it at home! Not smart when you are traveling to West Africa.
Cost of traveling in The Gambia
The food in The Gambia is pretty cheap when you eat in local restaurants. A meal can be as low as $2 USD, mostly rice and chicken. For 4 night accommodation I spent $105 USD. Transportation in The Gambia is cheap, but you have to haggle. From Kotu to Banjul I took shared taxis. It took me 1 hour to get there, but I only paid like $3 USD in total.
In total I spent about $200 USD in 4 days traveling in The Gambia. Must say I did not book any tours, I mostly just chilled on the beach and walked around. When visiting every country in the world you have to make choice. In all honesty I found the tours in The Gambia pretty expensive. Paying $80 USD for a day trip is considered normal apparently.
Flights to and from The Gambia
My flight from Pakistan to Banjul had 2 stopovers. I flew from Islamabad to Istanbul, then from Istanbul to Dakar, Senegal and then onwards to Banjul. This flight was $620 one-way and I booked it about 1 month in advance. From Gambia I traveled onwards to Senegal over land.
This Gambia travel blog was written by Traveltomtom back in 2019, but only published exactly 4 years after his trip to The Gambia in December 2023. Why? Well, I don't even have the answer to this myself.
In the meantime I visited The Gambia for the second time back in June 2022 as part of my big overland trip in West Africa from Mauritania to Togo.
Thanks for keeping up with adventures of Traveltomtom!