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Senegal - When and where to visit
Senegal essentially has two seasons, rainy and dry. The rainy season, commonly known as hivernage, runs from about June until September or October, but it varies greatly in length and intensity depending on where you are in the country, and the north gets only 300–350mm of rain annually as compared with the 1,000–1,500mm that fall in the south. Starting in October, the rains taper off and (relatively) cool and dry conditions prevail for the next several months. Not coincidentally, this is the peak tourism season. The hot, dry and dusty harmattan winds also start to blow in from the Sahara around this time, and these prevail until temperatures once again start to climb around April and the rains follow once again in June.
While it’s perfectly possible to visit Senegal at any time of year, tourism here is highly seasonal and you’ll get a very different experience depending on when you show up. November to March is the core tourist season, peaking over the holidays, when you should absolutely make reservations in advance and expect to pay a premium on all accommodation (though if you’re interested in spending the holidays in Senegal, many of the larger hotels offer packages). The weather is relatively cool and dry, and you’ll be glad to have your sweater – the average low temperature in Dakar is under 20˚C for most of the season, with highs closer to 27°C. It’s also the time for birders, as all the European migrants are in town.
Expect hotter temperatures from April to June, but the rain is still some months away and a number of Senegal’s coolest cultural festivals take place in these months, like the Saint-Louis Jazz Fest, Dak’art Biennial, and the annual Bassari initiations. Note that Ramadan will take place over May/June for the lifetime of this edition, so some of the festival schedules may shift to avoid the effects of the holy month. In June the rains start to hit, and they stick around until September or October, depending on where you are. (They start earlier and finish later in the south.) This is when many places (including hotels, national parks and restaurants) start to close up shop for the season and, while this means your plans might be interrupted by closures, you’ll be one of the few tourists in town – hello, empty beaches and negotiable prices. Another payback for the sometimes oppressive humidity is the riot of greenery that erupts all over the country, turning parched earth lush, filling rivers and sending waterfalls crashing over their precipices nearly overnight. Transport in the wet season isn’t the problem that it used to be as nearly all of Senegal’s trunk roads are now surfaced, but it’s still possible to run into issues off the beaten track.
A local mural in Saint-Louis © Marco Muscarà
Saint-Louis The best place in Senegal for an evening stroll, when the ghosts of history come out to play in this most evocative of Senegalese towns.
Dakar The unquestioned beating heart of Senegal, there’s almost nothing you can’t do in Dakar. Dance all night, surf all day, eat like a foodie and soak up some culture at one of the city’s many festivals.
Gorée Thirty minutes and a world away from Dakar, leave the traffic on the mainland and soak up the rhythms of life on this enchanting and tragic island.
Fadiouth Surely one of the only towns in the world built on a foundation of nothing but discarded seashells, marvelling at the island’s unlikely existence and feeling the shells crunch underfoot on a walk through one of Fadiouth’s mazelike alleyways is an experience you won’t soon repeat.
Podor Hugging tight to both the past and the northernmost curves of the Senegal River, Podor feels every bit the frontier outpost, an otherworldly holdout staunchly resisting the advance of the Sahara beyond, and seemingly also the passage of time.
Ziguinchor This steamy river town is the stuff of film sets, and there’s no more iconic Casamance experience than pushing out on to the water in a pirogue and watching the crumbling colonial city disappear out of view as you head into the mangroves beyond.
Désert de Lompoul Escape to the wildlands of the Sahara in this unexpected 20km2 patch of towering sand dunes, and indulge your nomad fantasies with an
overnight here in a traditional Mauritanian tent.
Cascade de Dindefelo Hike through the nearby forests until you’re stopped by a sheer rock face – it’s here that you’ll find the 115m Dindefelo waterfall, and a tranquil pool at its base offering cool waters and the best swimming for miles around.
Sine-Saloum Delta Cross the vast, watery knot of mangrove swamp, shell islands and timeless fishing villages in a motorised pirogue, where you can grill your freshly caught fish right on board and stop off on a deserted island for a post-dinner dip.
Cap Skirring’s beaches The kilometres of powdery white sand here are the stuff of postcards and daydreams, and the herds of long-horned cattle that occasionally meander across the plage are a picture-perfect reminder that you’re still in West Africa.
Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj Your jaw might look much like the birds’ after spotting the mind-boggling 15,000 great white pelicans crammed on to a tiny island here, and there’s still another 16,000ha of wetlands here to explore.
Lac Rose Though its colour ebbs and flows with the season, when it’s putting on its rose-tinted show, the lake’s salt-encrusted Pepto-Bismol waters and their dunescape surrounds are an unlikely scene pulled straight out of an acid trip.