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One of the world's most spectacular lakes, Lake Retba-or Lac Rose as it is known in French-lies gleaming among the sand dunes of western Africa. Unusual as it is to find a natural lake here in the hot and dry desert, Lake Retba garners most of its international attention because it is pink! In fact, at certain times during the dry season, its unique color has been compared to a strawberry milkshake, pink lemonade and among the more pragmatic, Pepto Bismol. The color varies according to whether the water has been diluted by inflow during the rainy season and the resulting condition of the tiny Dunaliella salina algae in the water that create the red color. As the salt content in the lake reaches 40% in some areas, there are no fish in the lake. However, salt extraction is a major local industry. The unusual natural lake is under consideration to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lake Retba is increasingly found on the itinerary of Senegal tourist agencies. Although only about 20 miles northeast of the capital of Dakar, getting to Lake Retba takes about an hour. A small number of resort hotels are located near the shoreline and cater to tourists. Some of the resorts are very modern, offering wireless internet, children's playgrounds, hot tubs, excellent food, individual cottages and tent lodgings. Many of these hotels offer a swimming pool; the saline content in Lake Retba is too strong to comfortably swim for long periods of time.
Locals harvest lake salt for sale and spend six or seven hours in the water. They protect their skin with shea butter to prevent damage from the salt. Most visitors go for a dip in the shallow lake just to experience the ability to defy gravity, easily floating due to the buoyancy factor of the salt water. The lake's stunning pink color is a startling contrast to the surrounding desert and dunes that stretch to the Atlantic Ocean five miles to the west. The only greenery found near the lake are the small farm plots watered by hand from wells dug to reach fresh water. Some areas around the shore are salt-caked and show that Lake Retba was once larger than its current size. Scientific study reveals that the lake was once a cove of the Atlantic Ocean which was cut off from the ocean in the long-distant past.
The color of Lake Retba varies widely. Some visitors experience periods when there is just a pink tinge to the water, while others enjoy various shades of pink to a nearly dark red color. There is little precipitation in this desert area; evaporation is high due to unrelenting summer heat, and there are no year-round inflowing streams. So, the dry season has higher levels of salts in the water, and the tint-producing algae proliferate. Most tourists try to time their trip to the lake during the best viewing season. Lake Retba is a popular spot for picnics by locals. The wind blows almost continuously and is the reason for the odd-looking houses in the area that appear to have no roofs. Walls are built higher than the roof to protect them from being blown off.
Many foreign visitors headquarter their visit in Dakar on Cap-Vert, the most westerly point on the entire continent. These areas near the coast can experience very different climate, as cool breezes blow inland from the cooler Atlantic Ocean. A number of resort hotels cater to sea-lovers with beautiful beaches, swimming and water sports. Dakar has modern buildings and offers several museums. One of the museums is located on Goree Island, infamous for several centuries under various European rulers, as an African slave imprisonment and shipping center. Thoroughly modern in contrast to villages just outside of the city, Dakar is known for its shopping, local marketplaces, excellent restaurants, hotels and nightlife.
Senegal is one of the more underdeveloped countries in western Africa and is just coming into its own as a tourist destination. The former French colony became fully independent in 1960, but local strife and border disputes have prevented developing Senegal's infrastructure. Around Lake Retba, visitors are more likely to see horse-drawn carts than motorized vehicles. Touring the countryside and desert by either horse or camel is thus quite attractive. At least one of the resort hotels can arrange for guests to rent quad-bikes or ATVs which are well-suited for exploring the sandy terrain. Several seacoast resort areas are known for excellent accommodations and entertainment, but areas out of the city such as Lake Retba are often best enjoyed with a knowledgeable guide. Most locals are friendly and try to sell their souvenirs such as wood carvings, handcrafted jewelry and artwork.
Senegal is beginning to develop wildlife and ecological reserves, already offering at least seven major nature preserves. Many visitors to the country try to visit the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, which supports an amazing variety of birds. Another favorite spot is the old French Colonial capital of Saint-Louis. The architecture of Saint-Louis is remarkably similar to New Orleans with wood balconies overlooking the narrow streets. For several years the famous Dakar Rally off-road race, begun in 1978, used to route from Paris to Dakar, ending very near Lake Retba. Because of dangerous travel conditions in the area, the race was moved to South America in 2009 and won't return to the Dakar area until fighting on the African continent ends. The rally is very much missed in the region, because it brought in a number of tourists bringing welcome dollars for local business.
If you've never seen a pink lake, particularly a pink lake seen from the back of a camel, you must visit Lake Retba. All major tourism agencies doing business in Senegal can make sure you see the pink lake and the sites of historic Dakar. A week at one of the resorts along Lake Retba will rejuvenate your senses. The dry season starts in December, so start planning your trip to Lac Rose.
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