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There is more to Mali than the sand of the Sahara desert. Malian towns, such as Timbuktu and Djenné, have been important centres on the trans-Saharan trading routes for centuries, and the markets still flourish.

Mali’s lifeline is the Niger and most cities and villages are located close to the water. There is a boat that connects the settlements along the river, but the Niger only carries enough water for boats to pass for half of the year.

The Festival of the Desert takes place 60km outside Timbuktu every year in January, and attracts world musicians. The Festival of the Niger in Ségou celebrates the culture along the river with some top musical acts playing every year.

Dogon Country offers travellers excellent trekking opportunities along the Bandiagara escarpment and insight into one of Mali’s indigenous cultures, while Africa’s northernmost elephant herd can be seen in the Réserve de Douentza.

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  1. Take the riverboat along the Niger and experience the people and towns along the way.
  2. Visit Dogon country along the 150km Bandiagara escarpment – there are over 30 settlements along the cliffs, and treks last between a few days to three weeks.
  3. Take part in the Festival of the Niger, which is held in Ségou every January. It’s just as impressive as its rival in the desert, but easier to get to.
  4. Stroll around the ancient trading city of Djenné, with its Moroccan-influenced architecture. The Grand Mosquée is the world’s largest mud building.
  5. Feel like a Tuareg and venture into the desert on an overnight camel trek from Timbuktu, or explore the Sahara by 4WD.
  6. Rub shoulders with the locals and experience Tuareg and Songhaï culture while drinking tea in Gao.
  7. See the last remaining herd of elephants in the Sahel at the Réserve de Douentza.
French (official language) and Bambara, as well as numerous indigenous languages
13.4 million
Int. dial code
Time zone
220V 50Hz AC
Central African Franc (CFA). There are just a few ATMs in Bamako and the rest of Mali, and they should not be relied on. Commissions are usually high, and some banks will not change US dollars. Euros are the best currency to carry. Some hotels and supermarkets change money and traveller cheques.

If you’re planning to visit the Festival of the Desert in Essakane, note that tickets should be bought well in advance; travellers can choose between full board and bringing their own camping equipment. It does get very cold in the desert, so warm clothes are recommended.

When to go

Mali’s rainy season runs from June to September, while the hottest months are April to June. The best months to visit are between September and January, temperatures are moderate and the water level of the Niger still allows travel by boat. From January to June, the harmattan wind swirls up the dust and reduces visibility.

International airports

Bamako-Senou International airport (BKO) is just south of the capital.

Getting around

Domestic flights operate twice weekly between Bamako and Timbuktu, some of which also stop at either Mopti or Kayes. Passenger boats operate on the Niger between Koulikoro and Gao, and take at least six days, calling at Mopti and Korioume.

Buses run between main towns, and taxis can be hired for short routes. Another option is to hire a car with driver.


Accommodation ranges from backpackers and church missions to hotels, although many cheap places are not the cleanest. Another option is to stay at campements (basic hotels, not necessarily camp sites). Many places also allow travellers to sleep on the roof, which is usually cheaper than staying in room.

Food & drink

Mali is not known for its cuisine. Rice is a very common base for the meals, which usually contain meat as well as tigadege, a peanut sauce. Capitaine (Nile perch) is often served along the river. Fruits and vegetables are available in the south of the country, but rare in the north.

Because Mali is a Muslim country, alcohol is hard to come by and the drink of choice is sweet tea.

Health & safety

Consult your GP or travel health clinic to check the appropriate vaccinations. Malaria is a risk, especially along the river. A yellow fever certificate is also required.

Water is safe to drink in Bamako, but should be sterilised or bottled elsewhere in the country.