The smallest country in Africa, The Gambia, is surrounded by Senegal, apart from its coastline. Although tiny, there is so much more to this country than paradise beaches and sunshine - it has culture, history, and authentic African life at its heart. The sheer abundance of wildlife here makes for a fantastic experience. You'll have the opportunity to see an array of wildlife only in American zoos in their natural habitats. Most of these encounters can be had from boat trips on the Gambia River that cuts straight through the country. The Gambian people are welcoming to visitors, despite collective memories of the slave trade era, which was largely controlled from an island at the mouth of this country's great river. This painful part of African history is now an opportunity for both visitors and local children to educate themselves on the history of The Gambia.

01Walk Alongside Monkeys in Bijilo National Park

Baobab tree peeterv / Getty Images

This small rainforest nature reserve is situated on the coast of The Gambia and consists of pathways winding through the forest, dunes, and lush greenery. The most exciting part of a walk around the park is encountering the wild animals that roam freely - especially the monkeys. The signs warning visitors not to feed the four species of monkeys that live there are a clue as to how brave and close they can get. Other species you might see include Monitor Lizards, Horntail birds, and the thick-trunked Baobab tree that is nicknamed the Tree of Life.

02Look Over The City From Arch 22

Banjul, The Gambia: triumphal arch at the entrance to the capital - Arch 22, the gate to Banjul mtcurado / Getty Images

The Gambia's capital city, Banjul, is situated on an island surrounded by mangroves and is guarded by a huge Neoclassical archway that you must pass through to enter it. Visit the top of the archway and enjoy the cafe at the very top for the best view of the city from above. A gold statue of an unnamed soldier holding a baby in his arms sits in front of the arch, alongside various other statues of musicians in the nearby vicinity.

03Experience Gambian City Life at Banjul

Woman in the kitchen of a tour boat for tourists, on the Gambia rive

Banjul is largely untouched by tourism and retains its traditional Gambian charm and style. Cookery classes are a must-do for foodies. They typically involve local Gambian women taking a small group of tourists to shop for ingredients at the frenzied Albert Market, then preparing and cooking authentic local dishes. The St Joseph's Adult Education Centre in Banjul provides opportunities for local disadvantaged women to learn skills such as sewing, tie-dye, and crafts. Tourists can watch a class taking place and buy the products directly.

04Sample The Laid Back Beach Life

Crowd at Tanji beach fish market. peeterv / Getty Images

The Gambia is an unexpected beach paradise, with golden sands and turquoise seas and a pleasing lack of crowds of holidaymakers. The beautiful beaches spread along the coast provide a place to sunbathe, walk, swim, and meet the locals. For a more authentic taste of Gambian beach culture, visit Bakau, a working beach where local fishing boats bring in their catch of the day. On any beach, be aware of the local 'bumsters,' young men looking for money and romance; they will leave you alone if you give them a firm no or tell them you are married.

05Stroke a Wild Crocodile at Kachikally Crocodile Pool

Crocodiles in the Holy Pool of Kachikally. Thomas Guenther / Getty Images

Getting up close to wild crocodiles may not have been your first plan when planning your visit to The Gambia, but the various crocodile pools will see some brave visitors touching and stroking them. The Kachikally Pool is considered a sacred site, and locals go there to pray and ask for blessings, particularly women with fertility issues. For most tourists, however, it provides the chance to wonder at the 80 or so crocodiles that live there, many taking advantage of the photo opportunity of petting the wild animals.

06Feed Your Senses at Senegambia Craft Market

Traditional vegetable bazaar in Farafenni, Gambia

Senegambia craft market lines the streets of Serekunda, with more than 60 stalls. This is a haggler's dream as the first price given is rarely what you'll end up paying. You'll find a huge variety of goods for sale - keep an eye out for hidden gems and local delicacies. The sheer color and vibrancy of this street market is nothing like you'll see back home. Take your time and soak up the sights and smells as you decide on your purchases.

07Visit the Gateway to the Historical African Slave Trade

James Island / Kunta Kinteh island, The Gambia: jetty and crumbling walls of Fort James, its foundations eroded by the river Gambia - a UNESCO world heritage site, occupied by the Portuguese in 1456. I mtcurado / Getty Images

Kunta Kinte Island, also known as James Island, is a historically and culturally significant site at the mouth of the Gambia River. Used as a gateway to Africa by the Europeans controlling the slavery trade. This site is a reminder of the painful yet hugely significant point in The Gambian past. Tourists can travel by small boats to experience the island alongside local children who learn about this important time of their national history.

08Explore the Gambia River By Boat

Beautiful and peaceful sunset over calm Gambia river, The Gambia, West Africa atosan / Getty Images

The Gambia River runs directly through the middle of the country, splitting North from South. The river is a source of income for Gambian people as well as a great experience for tourists. Boat trips on the river are easily accessible; food and drink are often included, and you're likely to spot a variety of wildlife and bird species, with the chance to enjoy a swim in the river yourself before returning to land.

09Support the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project

Chimpanzee in its natural habitat on Baboon Islands in The Gambia Denja1 / Getty Images

The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project (CRP) works for the care and reintroduction of orphaned and unwanted chimpanzees in The Gambia. Once native to the country, the work of this organization has reintroduced wild chimpanzees, which now inhabit three of the islands in the River Gambia National Park. The CRP opens its doors to visitors from Thursday to Sunday every week. While visiting you can take part in a boat tour of small river islands where you'll catch a glimpse of a variety of wildlife in their natural habitats.

10See The Bird Species of Brufut Woods

Two little bee eaters purging. Peter Eriksson / Getty Images

You may not include bird watching among your usual pastimes at home, but you may feel differently when you witness the range and beauty of bird species in Brufut Woods. This small but dense nature reserve is home to a huge multitude of wild birds indigenous to the area. The best time of day to visit it the late afternoon and early evening, when the local owls are roosting.

11Enjoy Some Time Out At A Spa

Idyllic beach near the Senegambia hotel strip in the Gambia, West Africa evenfh / Getty Images

After all your adventures exploring the delights of The Gambia, relaxing at a spa may be just what is needed. With a few luxury, high-quality spas to choose from, it's not hard to find somewhere that suits your needs. Relax with a Swedish massage, detox in the sauna, and reinvigorate in an ice plunge pool; all for a fraction of the price you might expect to pay back home. Many of the leading hotels have spas, but if yours doesn't, most welcome day visitors if you book ahead.

12Watch The Vultures Feed At Senegambia Hotel

Feeding of vultures at hotel Senegambia

The wild vulture feeding time on the grounds of the Senegambia Hotel really is a sight to behold. Around late morning, the staff bring out scraps and discarded food to the hotel gardens, which the local vultures have come to expect. Don't worry; you won't miss feeding time - the birds gather in the air above, circling ominously as they wait.