Contrary to what many people can imagine, tourism in Senegal actually started many years ago. I know people in Italy who visited this fascinating country already way back in 1995. And my sources confirm that plenty of tourist resorts along the coast of Saly were already built by that time, but nowadays, for unknown reasons, the country seems to be struggling to attract tourists. It’s probably not communicating enough on its assets to sell itself as a travel destination.
Luckily for me, since I started traveling many years ago, it has now become important to discove new horizons which really take me out of my comfort zone. In other words, I’m not that intrigued by the usual places that can be seen anywhere.
This is why when I accidentally came across Senegal, I decided to go deeper.
To be honest, the first images I saw on Google were not that catchy, but deeper research confirmed everything I had heard about Senegal.
There are plenty of things to do in Senegal. Besides its interesting history, there is also interesting nature which step by step surprised me a lot. For example one of those sights is the Pink Lake: a rare wonder that only a few countries in the world can boast of having.
The first stop of our Senegal itinerary was the Lake Retba or Lac Rose as it is widely known by the locals (meaning Pink Lake).
Retba Lake, a fascinating corner of Senegal.
Besides countries like Canada, Spain, Azerbaijan, and Australia who are beneficiaries of this unique gift of nature, Senegal is the only African country that got its fair share. Above all, the surrounding context makes the Senegalese pink lake much more interesting than all the others. Indeed, Retba Lake or Lac Rose, nature’s stunning pink gift to Senegal, has been a tourist delight over the years. And even now it is the number one tourist attraction in the country.
Retba Lake is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by only a narrow corridor of dunes, and it is known for its high salt content which is 10 times more than the oceans and almost twice that of the Dead Sea.
And, because of this only a few organisms can survive here.
The pink lake in Senegal is three square kilometres in size and there are no big towns developed along its shores.
Where is the pink lake in Senegal?
Retba lake lies in a village called Niaga. It is 30 km north-east from the capital Dakar, less than an hour’s drive. The distance is more or less the same if you are landing at the Blaise Diagne International Airport.
Why is the Retba Lake in Senegal pink?
Retba Lake is named so for its pink waters caused by the presence of Dunaliella salina algae. The algae produce a red pigment which is particularly visible during the dry season (from November to June) and is less visible during the rainy season.
Which is the main activity at the Retba Lake?
Retba Lake is a prime source of salt and there are men and women who work from dawn to dusk, six to seven hours a day, to manually collect salt. There are about 3000 workers, and they extract approximately 60.000 tons of salt each year.
At the pink lake in Senegal they have two different types of salt: The first is called ‘medium salt.’ This type is bought by people drying fish or working in the leather industry. The second is called ‘big salt’ and it is used in food.
Every day before getting into the pink waters with their wooden boats, the workers rub on their body some shea butter derived from the local tree nuts. This is supposed to protect their skin from the corrosive effect of the salt which in the long run can cause abrasions and cuts.
Every day after the work they also apply strong glue to seal the wounds.
What do you think these people earn each week? Quite nothing. For each ton of salt (a week’s work) they get around 35 US dollars.
It is not worth the risk I would say! But this is how it works and I’m thinking that those few dollars have a certain value in Senegal. And I very much hope that it’s true!
How to reach the pink lake in Senegal?
After my wonderful self-driving experience in Morocco, I can only say that self-driving to the pink lake in Senegal is the best way ever! However, I won’t suggest you do this if it is your first day in the country, if your arrival to Senegal is scheduled for late evening, or if you are tired from the long journey. Part of the route leading to the pink lake in Senegal is unpaved with no road signs, so it is easy to get lost, especially during the dark hours.
In this case, I strongly suggest that you consider the use of a taxi service. Having a driver who is able to orient himself even without any specific indications is a considerable help.
If instead you are not tired and are smart enough, then you can also consider the possibility of reaching the Retba Lake by using the Senegalese public transport. Going around Senegal by Sept places and minibuses is a once in a lifetime experience.
Again, I’d think twice about that if it is your first day in Senegal.
How much does it cost to reach the pink lake in Senegal?
Let’s say that both from Dakar and the Blaise Diagne International Airport, the taxi ride to the pink lake costs around 20.000 CFA. If you are smart enough, you can negotiate the price down to 10.000 CFA.
Keep in mind that tourist scams in Senegal are rampant. Therefore, if they can charge you 40.000 CFA or even more, they will do it with no mercy.
Things to do at the pink lake in Senegal.
Day tours from Dakar are the most common way to visit the Retba Lake, and these usually include round trip transportation, lunch, and a boat ride on the lake.
I have nothing against day trips, but in this case I would suggest that you consider staying a night around the Retba Lake. It is worth it. The unspoiled nature and the numerous activities won’t leave you disappointed.
Among the excursions offered on this site are canoe trips, dune visits by quad, camel rides, swimming in the pink lake, taking a walk around, tasting Senegalese dishes, or taking a boat tour. I would say that this last option is not to be missed since it gives a better opportunity to check out the salt-collecting industry on its shores.
Boat tour at the Retba Lake.
If you have reached this far, then I’d say that the boat tour at the pink lake in Senegal is a must. It is really worth it. There is no better way to experience the Retba Lake. This way not only will you catch some of the impressive views of the lake, but you get to know the sad reality of the salt collectors. Yes, this fascinating corner of Senegal has a bitter truth. Beyond this natural wonder, you will be impressed by the salt collectors who work hard to extract salt from the lake.
It is really heart wrenching to see how people work so hard in such bad conditions to take back home just a few dollars.
The boat tour at the Lac Rose costs 5.000 CFA for a boat. And there is no need to book ahead. Once you reach the lake shore, you will easily find men offering trips of all varieties. Maybe during the high season you will have to wait a little, but know that Senegal does not have massive tourism so you won’t have to wait that long.
Photography at the Retba Lake
Pink lake in Senegal is a stunningly beautiful place with an extraordinarily varied view, perfect for taking photos. But you should know that photography is a sensitive subject in Senegal. Most of the Senegalese people don’t like to be photographed at all, and if you try to point a camera in their face without asking first, they will get angry and come after you yelling and pointing fingers. From what I understand, photos are not seen as travel souvenirs or travel documents, but they are more like personal memories. So they are meant to remain inside of people’s homes.
But rest assured, thankfully not everyone is like that. So, you can manage to take home some good shots.
In any case, at the pink lake I advise that you ask your guide that you have hired for your boat trip for help with this. He has his own circle of people that you can safely photograph.
Where to stay at the pink lake in Senegal?
Being Senegal’s number one attraction, there are plenty of hotel options around the pink lake in Senegal. We stayed at Le calao du lac rose. The property is owned by a French man and it is perfectly looked after. It’s just a short walk from the resort down to the lake, and it’s nestled in a lush green environment.
It has a pool, a restaurant, and a bar. There is also a great kids’ play area with swings and a fort. The staff is kind and are always ready to help you out.
They also arrange excursions and taxi services. This is a great place for families but would also be good for a romantic getaway.
The only thing you need to know about the hotels at the pink lake in Senegal is that during the low season many of them stop offering some services. So, the restaurant could be closed down or access to the pool may not be permitted. Before booking make sure of these things with the hotel.
Five curiosities about the pink lake in Senegal.
· Retba Lake is famous for having been for years (until 2008) the last stage of the Dakar Rally.
· Retba Lake is under consideration to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
· Because of its high concentration of salt, people can float easily at the Retba Lake.
· The people working at the pink lake in Senegal are Malians; some are Guineans, some Ivoirians, Burkinabe, and even some from Guinea-Bissau. There are also some Senegalese, too.
· The Retba Lake is not always pink!
My experience at the pink lake in Senegal.
It was in September that we decided to visit Senegal and as you can see from my photos here we were blessed to see the Retba Lake coloured pink.
It was late evening when we landed at the Blaise Diagne International Airport and since Lac Rose was the first stop of our Senegal itinerary, we went straight to our hotel in Niaga by taxi.
The taxi driver first asked for 40.000 CFA, but by negotiating we got it for half. We were aware that the piece of road from the airport to the pink lake should have cost around 7.000 CFA from some Senegalese people we met in Italy, but we couldn’t lower the price more. It was late and it was dark, and especially since it was our first day in Senegal we felt like it was not worth insisting.
Precisely because it was late, we couldn’t find a place to eat along the way. We were hoping to eat something once at the hotel.
Sadly, they only had bottled water, so we had to settle for chocolate bars we brought from Italy.
While we were trying to figure out what to eat, the taxi driver decided to ask for more money than what we had initially agreed upon. I mean he stepped in our portico and seemed like he wasn’t going to leave. We tried to make him understand but….
So, eventually we decided to ignore him completely and that’s how he finally left.
The hotel we were staying at was only a few steps away from the pink lake. In fact, the next day we walked to the lake and when we arrived by its shore, men sitting here and there approached in an attempt to sell some handcrafted items. They had paintings, statues, wristbands, and pearl necklaces. Among them, some offered boats trips on the pink lake, which we obviously wanted to do.
As I said already, if you have reached this far it is mandatory to try the boat trip experience. I liked it a lot.
Wrongly we stayed only a day in Lac Rose, so right after the boat trip we had to leave. We wished we could have stayed at least one more day. Next time, maybe?
The hotel management helped to arrange a taxi from Pink Lake to Lompoul village, which cost 20.000 CFA. Before leaving Niaga we stopped by the lake for lunch. I had rice with fried chicken and Alessandro had rice with fried fish. Further food choices were not available, by the way.
The next stop of our Senegal Itinerary was Lompoul Desert.
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