Into Dakar: The logistics of a journey into Senegal

It’s surprising to many that Dakar is actually closer to the United States than many points in Europe. As the crow flies, it’s under 4000 miles from New York City to the westernmost point on the continent, a 7.5 hour flight from the bustling streets of Queens.

Given the proximity, it’s not too difficult to manage a trip as short as a weekend or use DKR as a waypoint for further travel into Africa. Delta Airlines flies direct from New York’s JFK and Atlanta, while South African also connects from Washington Dulles and JFK on its way south. Tickets start at around $1000.

Unfortunately, Dakar airport charges airlines an outrageous tax for flights departing and arriving during daytime hours, so many flights transit between the miserable hours of 2AM and 5AM. Knowing this, the airport stores and restaurants also stay open during these times, providing solace from the often unbearably unconditioned terminal.

Once you reach the border, you’ll need to fill out a common immigration form and present it upon entry. There is no advance visa or fee to worry about, but you’ll need to put an address on your form, so make sure you either know where you’re going or have a fake address ready.
Dakar airport is also one of the few in the world without an ATM or money changer handy, so you’ll either need to be prepared to pay in dollars or use one of the stodgy money changers that drift around the airport. A fair exchange rate is 500 francs to 1 dollar, so you can expect to get 250 to 400. If you exchange a twenty now, you can withdraw francs from one of the numerous ATMs in the city later.

Taxis (especially from the airport) should never cost more than 5000 CFA in the city, while most fares shouldn’t be more than 3000. If you don’t find a driver that will accept your offer, try moving outside if the airport a bit. Many taxis circle and drop off passengers, and one of these will surely take a reasonable offer. You can give your driver instructions to your hotel in French or just give him a map – chances are, he won’t speak English.

Once established in Dakar (and most likely after your nap) getting around the city is fairly easy by cab. As an alternative, it’s often possible to take car rapides, a sort of minibus throughout the city, but for the casual traveler it’s probably not worth your time acclimating to the routes and payment systems.

Good restaurants can be difficult to find, so make sure that you print out the wikitravel guide or tear out a few pages of your Lonely Planet before heading out into the streets. And while the the tap water is clean and drinkable by even tourists, it’s probably a safe bet to drink bottled water wherever you are.

Finally, observe the practices and patience of a smart traveler. While Senegalese are very welcoming and supportive of toubab (literally “of European descent”) travelers, belligerence and ignorance have no place in this country. Keep your head down, quiet and your money in your front pocket and you’ll have a great time in Dakar.