The Republic of Mali is a jewel of the Sahel, the sub-Saharan region of North-West Africa. A land of diverse cultures and tribal traditions, Mali is a country of landscapes that are more like dreamscapes, and entire cities made of dried mud and wood. Although travel here is not always easy, as there are several areas of persistent conflict to be avoided, the tourist infrastructure is well developed.
The ancestral lands of the Dogon tribe are crisscrossed by ancient roads and paths that make up the iconic Dogon Trail, a hike like no other. It can take up to five days to complete the trail with a guide to lead you up and down the cliffs and rocky terrain between villages. Not for the faint of heart, but this is an epic adventure. The region has been politically unstable for several years, so be sure to get a status update before planning an expedition.
Built from mud and dating from 1907, the Great Mosque is the centerpiece of Djenné, a town that features great examples of Malian mud architecture. Capped with solar wells and minarets, the Mosque requires regular re-plastering, especially in this time of increasing drought.
This city made of sand has long been a trading outpost where African culture meets Berber, Sufi, and Arabic influences. Today, Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage that's in constant danger from the encroaching desert and periodic damage by Islamist fundamentalists. Check first to make sure it's safe to visit and plan to arrive overland from Mopti in a 4 X 4 or by boat. The site of the Mamma Haidara and Imam Essayouti, this legendary town with streets of sand, has had a long history as a center of scholarship, West African history, and hand-painted manuscripts.
Troglodyte homes are ancient dwellings that appear in many parts of the world. They take advantage of natural topographical features, such as cliffs and caves, to provide shelter. The traditional Dogon lands along the Bandiagara escarpment include perched private homes clustered in villages, as well as granaries and sanctuaries, all formidably safe from attack. Today, visiting these dwellings can be hard work, with lots of guided travel time from nearby Mopti and scrabbling up rock faces, but it's worth the effort.
Mali is part of a large swathe of Africa that is slowly losing a battle of attrition to the Sahara Desert. As a result, there are many picturesque patches of desert dunes, especially in the North. La Dune Rose, named for its pink hue, is the largest and loveliest. Climbing to the top reveals tremendous vistas of nearby Gao and the Niger River. Always check that it's safe to go and find yourself an experienced driver or guide.
Diverse spiritual and religious practices exist side by side in modern Mali. Islam, Christianity, and the animist traditions of tribal culture meet in the marketplaces of cities like Bamako, the region's capital. There you can browse the many masks or shamanic tokens used in ceremonies across the country. Guides are available to share all the backstories of how each item is used.
Other African countries may have more diversity when it comes to large mammals, but the Boucle du Baoulé National Park in west Mali features prehistoric rock art and tombs of African kings. Those interested in viewing some of the last wild chimpanzee populations might want to head further south to Bafing National Park, which has more a more developed trekking infrastructure. Elephant buffs can try their luck spotting these animals at the Douentza Elephant Reserve to the east.
Once a year, a small muddy lake in the middle of Mali is the site of a tradition-fueled frenzy. Fishing is prohibited in Lake Antogo, but during the dry season, an auspicious date is chosen by village elders to remove all the fish by hand in a frenzy that lasts mere minutes. Like many Dogon traditions, this ritual is only for the men.
The late Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi declared Timbuktu as his favorite city. While at the height of his power Gaddafi channeled money into the city, buying up property and encouraging infrastructure. One of his projects was a hotel complex with a canal designed to bring guests by water from the Niger River. Gaddafi is long gone, the hotel failed, and the canal is now an annual flooding hazard and an object lesson in the fallout of hubris.
Salt has been a valuable resource in Mali for centuries. Mostly mined in Taodenni to the North, salt was carried to Timbuktu to be dispersed to Europe and beyond. Taodenni salt is still mined under conditions unchanged from the old days, and tourists can follow the ancient salt road by camel. Caravans laden with slabs of salt still traverse some parts of the Sahel.