Nearly everyone has heard the expression, "From here to Timbuktu," but few know where it originated from and have set foot in the legendary and exotic city. The country of Mali may rank among the world’s poorest nations, but its world wonder was once one of West Africa's most prosperous places as well as the world’s leading Islamic education center. Sadly, much of Timbuktu’s fabled history has been demolished by the radicals who occupy much of northern Mali, but many more of the country’s landmarks remain intact, making for fascinating sightseeing.
The country’s national capital and most populous city is Bamako, situated several miles south of Timbuktu. Bamako’s main attractions include the National Museum of Mali and its seemingly endless stream of outdoor markets, the biggest and most chaotic being La Marché Rose. Djenné’s Grand Mosque is the world’s biggest mud-brick structure, which is painstakingly restored by the city’s population every year and modern conveniences like ceiling fans and electricity have not reduced the 15th century Tomb of Askia’s splendor.
Much of Mali remains frozen in time. Camels remain the main mode of transportation for salt caravans, the 125-mile long Bandiagara Cliffs have long sheltered the Dogan people from the rest of the world and exotic wildlife still roam free around Boucle du Baoulé National Park’s ancient rock art. Unfortunately not immune to climate change, tree planting has become an important part of many tours through the ever-expanding Sahara Desert.
Mali’s recent Tuareg and Islamic uprisings have caused a number of hotels to close due to the decline in visitors. However, this will hopefully be temporary until peace is restored to the country. Accommodation quality ranges from Western-style hotels to rustic rooftop beds with mosquito nets. These primitive roof beds can literally and figuratively be the country’s coolest accommodations and provide their guests an unforgettable opportunity to sleep under the stars. November through January is the best time to come weather-wise, which makes it the busiest tourist season.
North American passengers must connect through Paris or Casablanca as Mali’s largest airport has no non-stop flights across the Atlantic Ocean. Bamako Senou, situated eight miles from the capital, has only recently reopened after the early 2012 military conflict with Tuareg and Islamist rebels. Visitors can also reach Mali by traditional pinasse or pirogue boats via Senegal River crossings from Guinea, or by bus from five other West African nations.
As many Malian roads are downright dangerous, most of the country’s rental cars come with experienced chauffeurs. Four-wheel drives are the only safe vehicles for excursions to Timbuktu and the Sahara. Communities not situated along either of Mali’s two main bus routes are served by slow taxi-brousse bush taxis without fixed schedules. Both are prone to breakdowns and frequently stop to assist other stranded vehicles. The country has been without train service since 2009, while Western-style cabs can be found in Bamako. During Mali’s dry season, visitors can also board public pinasses boats across the Bani and Niger rivers.
- Admire Boucle du Baoulé National Park’s prehistoric rock art and exotic wildlife
- Hike along the Bandiagara Escarpment to the sheltered Dogon country
- Take a pinasse boat tour along the Niger and Bani rivers
- Plant a tree whose roots may someday protect Malian farmland from the Sahara Desert
- Appreciate the unique mud-brick architecture of Djenné’s Grand Mosque, Timbuktu’s Djinguereber Mosque and the Tomb of Askia
- Barter with the merchants at Bamako’s lively La Marché Rose market
- Observe – or participate in – one of Mali’s centuries-old salt caravans, which still use camels to transport goods between Timbuktu and Taoudenni