Doing Dakar, Senegal, on a Budget

When travelers think of third-world countries, they often expect rock-bottom prices – cheap hotels, dollar-a-meal food, souvenirs for chump change. But Dakar, Senegal, perched on northwest Africa’s coastline, is hovering between worlds, an interesting mix of poverty and prosperity that’s anything but mega-affordable.

In Dakar, most restaurant prices are comparable to those of the Western world and groceries can be sky-high ($12 a head for broccoli?!). But if you’re savvy about a few key things, you can explore this West African hub on a backpacker’s budget.

Don’t Even Think About Renting a Car

Public transportation in Dakar is lacking for a decent-sized city. There is no rail system and the bus system is often discouraged for foreigners for safety reasons. (Violent crime in Senegal is virtually nil, but petty theft is common.) A car is indeed the easiest way to traverse the town – but let someone else do the driving. A rental car will cost about $500-600 for a week’s time and many rentals are equipped with manual transmission.

Rather than visiting the rental car counter when you touch down at Senghor International Airport, opt to take taxis (and do your fair share of walking). Taxis are much cheaper than in Western countries, with a 15-minute ride costing about $3 USD. Negotiate your price before you hop in the back seat to make sure you’re getting a fair rate; cab drivers in Dakar are notorious for overcharging tourists.

Offer to Housesit for an Expatriate

Hotel rooms in Dakar can be found in all ranges of prices and quality. Expect a decent budget hotel to run about $60 a night at the low end; cheaper accommodations can be found, but many places don’t have a web presence for pre-booking. If you don’t want to take your chances on finding a room once you arrive and you want to save some cash, offer to housesit for one of the many expatriates who reside in Dakar.

The United States embassy in Dakar has a weekly newsletter that features free classified ads; contact the embassy at least a few weeks before you come to West Africa and offer your services. You might have to exchange some light cleaning duties or pet care for your stay, but you’ll likely be staying in a nice apartment or house in a safe part of the city and have internet access. Alternatively, you could offer to stay with a family and do some basic household duties in exchange for a room.

Drink at a Surf Shack – Not a Hotel

Dakar’s hotel restaurants can be appealing; many have rooftop views and swank lounges. But the drinks can be expensive; I recently ordered a simple vodka and orange juice at the Hotel Fleur de Lys in the affluent Almadies neighborhood and shelled out about $15 USD.

The beach shacks that line Dakar’s surfer-friendly beaches offer much more affordable options, in addition to outdoor seating right next to the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Try a Flag or Gazelle, two local brews that get positive reviews from many beer-imbibers.

Be Prepared to Drop Some Dough on Dinner

Budget meals can be hard to come by in Dakar. It’s easy to find a mid-priced meal; if you’re willing to spend about $8 USD, you can find good crepes, burgers or a variety of local fare at many different restaurants. Truly cheap meals of the dollar variety are more difficult to find. If your French is decent and you’re feeling bold, you can step inside one of the cloth-doored restaurant shacks found on many side streets and ask what they’re serving up.

A better strategy might be skimping on lunch and allowing yourself a little budgetary freedom at dinner. Buy some lunch staples at a grocery store or corner stand and save your cash for enjoying one of Dakar’s many worthwhile dinner locales. There’s no shortage of types of food to be had, with Italian, Indian, French and Moroccan fare available along with traditional Senegalese dishes such as yassa poulet (a roast chicken dish accompanied by a rich, onion-y sauce). Just plan your timing accordingly; many restaurants don’t open their doors for dinner until 7 p.m. or later.

 

Rachael Cullins is an American freelance writer living in Dakar, Senegal, with her husband and two dogs. She will reside in Dakar until summer 2013, when she and her family will move to another foreign locale. She blogs about her expatriate experiences at Girl Guy Globe and tweets at @rachaelcullins

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