Choosing a reliable and reputable tour guide for a trip to Mali has never been more important as much of the country’s northern portion, including Timbuktu, has been occupied by radical Islamists since early 2012. Experienced locals can best direct visitors which areas are safe to explore. Countless generations of exotic wildlife have roamed past the ancient tombs and prehistoric rock art at Boucle du Baoulé National Park, the oldest park in Mali. Even further off the beaten path lies Dogon country, whose people have been sheltered from the outside world by the Bandiagara Cliffs for centuries. Even the most experienced hikers should not attempt this arduous trek without the supervision of knowledgeable guides. Visitors can join a salt caravan between Timbuktu and Taoudenni by camel. Pinasse canoe tours along the Niger and Bani rivers are a far more relaxing way to travel across the vast West African country.

No hiking in Mali’s isolated Dogon country should be attempted without the supervision of a reputable company like Saga Tours, whose guides possess official identification cards. These private 15-day treks depart from Bamako on Saturday and include seven days of hiking and a strenuous climb up the Bandiagara Escarpment, which has long sheltered the Dogon people from the outside world. Camping conditions are primitive, with infrequent showers and food prepared by locals.

Some tour operators, like the Surfing Camel and Footloose Adventure Tours, allow visitors to observe and even participate in the grueling salt caravans which still travel 15 to 18 hours a day between Timbuktu and Taoudenni. Although growing numbers of trucks have joined the caravan, most people still transport their salt by camel in the same way their ancestors did when Timbuktu became the final stop on the Sahara Desert’s most important trade route. Food and sleep are both limited on this 413-mile journey, and interpreters cost extra so plan accordingly. November and December are comparatively better months for caravans as there are no harmattan winds and the desert is not uncomfortably hot.

Satimbé Travel is among Mali’s leading providers for boat tours along the Bani and Niger rivers. Mopti is the usual departing point for these private river tours which travel with the current past nomadic camps, fishing villages and swimming hippos. Another local company, Bakaye Minedou Traore, operates traditional pinasse voyages between Timbuktu, Mopti and Korioumé. Cargo stops and vessel malfunctions can extend the regular three-day journey to six days.

The Hand of Fatima’s towering 3,000-foot spires rank among the world’s most challenging rock climbing spots. Toguna Adventure Tours also organizes excursions to Mali’s Siby region, located northwest of Bamako. The Arch of Kamandjan may be the most impressive and is surrounded by landscapes reminiscent of Colorado or southern Utah.

The Bandiagara escarpment is Mali’s main horseback riding destination, and the horses offered by Cheche Tours and other local companies were bred primarily for racing. These thoroughbreds take their riders past countless rock painting sites and carved houses.

Mali Experience Tours through the country’s ever-growing desert include tree planting. In this northern Mali region whose sandy lands increase by the size of the state of New York each decade, environmental groups believe one tree should be planted to replace each one cut down. The mango, acacia, tamarind, and baobab trees planted during these tours provide locals with fruit, medicine and protection against the encroaching desert.