The Gambia may be the smallest country on the continent, but its captivating array of attractions belies its tiny size. Surrounded by Senegal, The Gambia has a mere 50 miles (80km) of coastline, but what a magnificent stretch it encompasses: golden beaches backed by swaying palms and sprinkled with scenic lagoons, sleepy fishing villages and biologically rich coastal reserves.
Of course there’s much more to The Gambia than just sun and surf. Its namesake river is teeming with wildlife, including nearly 600 bird species, plus manatees, hippos, crocodiles and troops of wily colobus monkeys. Boat trips and overnights at forest ecolodges reveal some of the great wonders of the hinterland, from a chimpanzee island reserve to the ruins of a 17th-century British fortress. The greatest treasures, though, are the warm-hearted Gambian people, who more than live up to their homeland's moniker of the ‘the smiling coast of Africa’.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Gambia.
Abuko is rare among African wildlife reserves: it's tiny, it's easy to reach and you don't need a car to go in. With amazing diversity of vegetation and animals, this well-managed reserve is one of the region's best bird-watching haunts (more than 250 bird species have been recorded in its environs). There are 5km of paths through the 106-hectare reserve, and a field station with views over a watering hole that's often a good place for wildlife watching.
Two huge ibex grazing amid swirling waves, a blue tattooed lion, and a lovestruck blacksmith are just a few of the striking images awaiting visitors who stumble upon the village of Kubuneh, located a few kilometres outside of Makasutu Culture Forest. The simple homes of this African settlement have been transformed into a riotous collection of thought-provoking street art, courtesy of a talented group of international artists who have brought a touch of surreal beauty to this corner of West Africa.
Like a snapshot of The Gambia, Makasutu Culture Forest bundles the country's array of landscapes into a dazzling 1000-hectare package. The setting is stunning, comprising palm groves, wetlands, mangroves and savannah plains, all inhabited by plenty of animals, including baboons, monitor lizards and hundreds of bird species.
This project forms the beating heart of River Gambia National Park. Comprised of so-called Baboon Island and several smaller islands, this is one of the most important wildlife sites in The Gambia. Despite the main island's moniker, this place is really the kingdom of chimps – over 100 of the primates live across it and three other islands in four separate communities.
Archaeologists believe the Wassu stone circles are burial sites constructed about 1200 years ago. Each stone weighs several tonnes and is between 1m (3.3ft) and 2.5m (7.5ft) in height. There's a small but well-presented museum with exhibits discussing the possible origins of the circles. Stonehenge this isn't, but nevertheless, it's fascinating evidence of ancient African cultures.
This small 51-hectare reserve makes for a lovely escape. A series of well-maintained walking trails (ranging from 900m to 1400m) takes you through lush vegetation, gallery forest, low bush and grass, towards the dunes. You'll likely see green vervet, red colobus and patas monkeys – avoid feeding them, as this only encourages them further.
One of The Gambia's most popular tourist attractions is a sacred site for locals. As crocodiles represent the power of fertility in Gambia, women who experience difficulties in conceiving often come here to pray and wash (any child called Kachikally tells of a successful prayer at the pool). The pool and its adjacent nature trail are home to dozens of Nile crocodiles that you can observe basking on the bank.
Colourful pirogues roll in the waves, women ferry fish elegantly to shore atop their heads, and crowds swarm the beachfront at this charismatic fish market. On show and on sale is everything from smelly sea creatures and colourful peppers to bright flip-flops and clothing. It's busier in the morning, but in the late afternoon it's incredibly photogenic – step inside a smoke house, which preserves masses of bonga (shad fish), and you'll see entrancing rays of light cutting through the thick air.
Since its founding in the mid-19th century, the Albert Market, an area of frenzied buying, bartering and bargaining, has been Banjul's main hub of activity. This cacophony of Banjul life is intoxicating, with its stalls stacked with shimmering fabrics, hair extensions, shoes, household and electrical wares and the myriad colours and flavours of the fruit and vegetable market.