Mali is one of the most peaceful nations on the African continent. The country has a great culture, friendly people, and breathtaking landscapes. This West African gem typically entices the more adventurous traveler with its wonderful outdoor excursions.
Mali is home to a great many legendary characters: the Tuareg desert nomads, recognizable by their deep blue garments, the ancient and mystical society of the cliff-dwelling Dogon, and the internationally renowned musicians Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré. It is a nation that exists in harmony with its shining past and celebrates it by preserving musical, religious, cultural, and culinary traditions.
Mali held its first democratic elections in 1992, in which Alpha Oumar Konaré was peacefully installed as president of the republic. In 2002, Amadou Toumani Touré succeeded Konaré in elections deemed democratic and fair and was reelected in 2007. Touré will continue to lead the Malians until 2012.
1. Bamako: Mali’s capital is a colorful, throbbing metropolis that’s home to several museums displaying Mali’s rich history and culture, such as the Musée National. Shop in Bamako’s many markets, wander the tree-lined boulevards, and sample both traditional Malian cuisine and international fare. The nightlife and the music scene in Bamako are legendary. This city makes the perfect first stop on your Mali adventure.
2. Mali’s Rivers: Mali’s largest and longest river is the Niger. The third-longest river in Africa, the Niger plays an important role in Mali’s economy and its population’s mobility. Taking a boat to get from one city to another is not only a great way to explore Mali but also a fine way to get around. It is also possible to hire pirogues or catch a ferry on the Bani and Sénégal rivers.
3. Djenné: Visit the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the most important centers of Islamic education in Mali. It’s home to the largest mud-built structure in the world, the Great Mosque. It is easy to find a guide to show you around the Old Town; in fact, one will probably approach you as soon as you arrive. However, we recommend hiring a guide with Mali’s tourism bureau in advance. Arrange to visit the mud-dyed tapestry workshops of Djenné, where these beautiful traditional works of art can be purchased.
4. Dogon Country: The Dogon people have lived along the 250-kilometer Bandiagara Escarpment for thousands of years, once in houses carved out of the rocks. Today they live mostly in small villages on the plateau beneath the cliffs. There are no cars in the Dogon, and the only way to get around is by hiking or hitching a ride on a donkey-drawn cart. Learn about the Dogon through their mask dances and wooden sculptures, and fall asleep on the tops of adobe houses under a dark sky spattered with stars.
5. Fatima’s Hand: Located in the Hombori Mountains is Fatima’s Hand, a natural rock formation perfect for rock climbing. For those who like to climb outdoors, this is one of the best and most beautiful places in Mali to visit.
6. Boucle de Baoule National Park: Given that much of Mali’s wildlife has disappeared under the hands of poachers, an animal safari will be hard to come by. But if you want to experience wildlife, the Boucle de Baoule National Park is your destination. The park covers 800,000 hectares of protected land where visitors can observe a myriad of birds and, if they’re lucky, even some lions. Also of interest in the park are ancient Malinke tombs and rock art.
7. Segou: The second-largest city in Mali and capital of the former Bambara kingdom, Segou sits on the Niger River, in the agricultural heart of the country. Among its highlights are the town’s famous pottery, the Niono mosque, and the colonial architecture of the city’s administrative buildings. We also recommend taking short pirogue rides on the Niger to neighboring villages.
8. Mopti: This city is often referred to as the Venice of Africa because of its busy river port, built hundreds of years ago. Originally a small fishing village, Mopti is now a major trade center. The Moroccan-Sudanese architecture of some of Mopti’s neighborhoods, as well as the main mosque, is worth checking out. Enjoy the bustle of port life, and visit the Marché des Souvenirs for trinket shopping.
9. Sahara Desert Excursion: Have you always dreamed of riding a camel through the Sahara desert and camping in the dunes under cold, starry skies? The Sahara stretches over much of northern Mali, and desert excursions with experienced guides can be arranged from Timbuktu or Kidal. These excursions have lately been discouraged due to activity by Islamic extremist groups, but do your research thoroughly beforehand.
10. Timbuktu: Founded in the 12th century, Timbuktu is a city in the north of Mali. In 1988 it became a World Heritage Site, but Timbuktu has always been considered a special place. Also known as “the mysterious city,” Timbuktu has long enticed foreign travelers. Visit the Djinguereber mosque, and admire the mix of Berber, Andalusian, and Egyptian architecture of this city.
Though Mali is, by Western standards, hot all year round, it does have three seasons. February through June is dry and hot, especially in March through May. The rainy season lasts from June through November, with more humid and milder weather. November through February is cool and dry; we recommend that period for travelers who struggle with high temperatures.
Visas: Most foreigners visiting Mali need a visa, and all need proof of yellow fever vaccination. One can apply for visas of various durations. Fees vary depending on country of citizenship. Check out the complete visa requirements for Mali.
For those entering Mali from a bordering country, short-term tourist visas can be purchased at the border. Be sure to photocopy the first three pages of your passport, including the page containing your visa, and keep the photocopies separate from your passport in case it should be lost or stolen.
Transportation: It is possible to rent a car or a four-by-four to get around Mali, though we recommend hiring a driver along with your vehicle. Outside of urban areas, roads are often unpaved or in poor condition.
A number of bus companies operate throughout Mali, most with hubs in Bamako. Buses traveling to small towns often do not run on set schedules, and they depart when they are full; make sure your schedule is flexible! Otherwise, buses to bigger cities are generally on time. Most roads in Mali are unpaved, so whether you are driving or being driven, be prepared for a bumpy ride.
It is also possible to travel by boat to and from cities along the Niger, Bani, and Sénégal rivers. The largest company running ferries up and down the Niger River between Bamako and Mopti is called COMANAV. You can catch the boats at various ports. This mode of transportation, while scenic, is extremely slow.
Mobile Phones: Even if you have an international plan on your mobile phone, making local calls or calls back home can be very expensive. If you plan on needing or using a phone while traveling, we’d recommend renting a SIM card or buying a prepaid mobile phone and adding minutes as needed.
Mali is known for being one of the most peaceful countries in West Africa. However, we advise checking the U.S. Department of State’s consular website for up-to-date Mali travel warnings, especially if you are considering traveling to northern Mali. Though Malians are known for being extremely helpful and generous: always have your wits about you while traveling, and mind your belongings.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Mali or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
In 1960, Mali gained its independence from France. In the past 50 years, Mali has experienced military and single-party rule, but in 1992 democratic elections were finally held, bringing Alpha Oumar Konaré to power. Mali is now one of the most peaceful and stable democracies in West Africa.
The Republic of Mali took its name from the Mali Empire, which once spanned the territory from the West African coast to present-day Gao, in northern Mali. The Mali Empire began as a small kingdom of the Malinke people in the upper Niger River area. At the time, the kingdom was part of the powerful Ghana Empire, which stretched across West Africa. Mali controlled the salt trade, and it began to make the kingdom very wealthy. When gold was discovered in Guinea, in the 12th century, the kingdom attained even greater wealth and was able to rebel against the Ghana Empire. The Mali Empire began to encompass gold fields and salt mines, as well as the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenné. It was in the early stages of the empire that Islam became its official religion. North African traders and scholars spread Islam through the empire, and the major cities of the empire soon became important centers of Islamic learning.
In the 15th century the Songhai Empire, centered in Gao, dissolved the Mali Empire. Moroccan armies invaded the area in 1590 but were unsuccessful in ruling, allowing smaller kingdoms to break up the land. In the 19th century the French arrived and by 1898 controlled much of West Africa. Mali was incorporated into the French territory as French Sudan.
Modibo Keita led Mali’s independence movement in the 1950s and became president in 1960, governing the country under a socialist policy. In 1968, Lieutenant Moussa Traouré led a bloodless coup against Keita’s government, and Mali’s period of military rule began. In 1979, Traouré ran virtually unopposed in elections and was elected president of Mali’s civilian government.
Opposition to Traouré’s single-party rule increased over the next 13 years, until he was overthrown; democratic elections were held in 1992, taking Alpha Oumar Konaré to power. In 2002, Amadou Toumani Touré was elected president and reelected in 2007.
1. Mali is the largest country in West Africa, slightly less than twice the size of Texas and roughly five times the size of Great Britain. It is divided into eight regions that are further divided into cercles, which are subdivided into arrondissements. The autonomous District of Bamako is the home of Mali’s capital, Bamako.
2. The currency in Mali is the CFA franc, which is also used throughout the rest of French-speaking West Africa. The symbol for the West African CFA franc is XOF.
3. Mali is a predominantly Muslim country (90 percent of the population follows Islam). Alcohol is still widely available and consumed, though, as are cigarettes. It is important not to wear revealing clothing, especially when visiting a mosque or religious site.
4. The official language in Mali is French. Bambara is spoken by 80 percent of Malians and is often used for trade and administrative purposes. It is difficult to find English speakers in Mali, so we recommend learning a few basic French or Bambara phrases to get by.
5. The type of food available to travelers varies depending on where you go in Mali. In Bamako, one can find anything from pizza places to Vietnamese restaurants. Standard fare throughout the rest of the country includes freshly baked baguettes (a vestige of French colonialism), millet in all shapes and forms (but most commonly served as a paste called tô), rice, meats such as goat and beef, peanut sauces, and capitaine, a freshwater fish found in the Niger River. Outside of Bamako and other major tourist destinations, most restaurants will offer only one or two dishes, often made from the ingredients mentioned above.