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Introduction to Mali

Mali is not the place to go for safaris. What it does have is a smorgasbord of surreal landscapes, beautiful artwork, Timbuktu, castellated mosques made entirely of mud, pink sandstone villages carved into cliff faces, and undulating desert scenes that look like outtakes from Lawrence of Arabia.

Unfortunately Mali is rapidly being swallowed up by the desert, and is still suffering the aftershocks of a drought of biblical proportions accompanied by the full chapter and verse in plague, pestilence and famine. This has made it one of the five poorest countries in the world.

Malians, by nature and circumstance, are a stoic and enduring people and the passion for their homeland and traditional way of life may have finally paid off with the discovery of deposits of gold potentially huge enough to lift the country from its economic doldrums.


Travellers are advised to avoid the regions bordering Mauritania and Niger as well as north of Timbuktu, as they are the domain of desert bandits.

The Cote d'Ivoire border has been closed due to ongoing unrest. This situation can change at any time but travellers are advised to be vigilant in Mali's southern regions.

Full country name: Republic of Mali

Area: 1.24 million sq km

Population: 11.6 million

Capital City: Bamako

People: Bambara, Tuareg, Dogon, Songhaï, Senoufou, Fulani

Language: French, Bambara, Songhai, Arabic

Religion: Muslim (90%), traditional African religion (9%), Christian (1%)

Government: republic

GDP: US$8 billion

GDP per capita: US$790

Annual Growth: 4.6%

Inflation: 5%

Major Industries: cotton, livestock, gold mining and fishing

Major Trading Partners: France, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Germany and Switzerland

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Visas are required for all visitors, except French nationals. Visas are not available at the border so arrange them prior to your departure.

Health risks: malaria (Malaria precautions should be taken)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +0

Dialling Code: 223

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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The most captivating event on the Mali calendar is the crossing of the cattle at Diafarabé. Every year during December, in a tradition that goes back 160 years, Diafarabé gears up to cope with a sudden influx of cattle and herders as they converge on the river bank. It's a time for celebrations and festivities as herders are reunited with friends and family after several long months in the desert. Local chiefs and elders meet before the big event and the order of the crossing is decided by the processes of fair play and democracy. The cattle are then led to the grass that is (both proverbially and literally) always greener on the other side.

The Dogons are famous for their masks and during the five-day Fête des Masques in April many of them are used in ritual ceremonies that go back more than 1000 years. The most famous of these ceremonies is the Sigui, which only occurs once every 60 years, and is probably connected to the Dogon agrarian calendar. This calendar has an eerie Twilight Zone mystique to it: it's thought to be based on the orbital cycles of a white dwarf star that is invisible to the naked eye. It was only discovered in the 1960s by a high powered telescope, despite the fact that the Dogons had been using the star as a seasonal marker for more than a millennium.

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Best time to Visit

The very best time to visit Mali is November, before the heat hits in March and after the wet humid season. Trips down the Niger are also a good bet in November as the river is usually high enough for passenger boats to get through. By December and January water levels are iffy and boat trips may be more of a hop from one sandbank to another if not cancelled altogether. November, though, is also the high tourist season so if you prefer to sacrifice a bit of comfort for peace and quiet, you could go in December for the crossing of the cattle at Diafarabé. In fact anytime from October through to February is a reasonable time to go, but trying to get around Mali in the hot season from March to May is strictly for masochists.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: West African CFA Franc


Budget: US$1-2

Mid-range: US$3-6

High: US$7-10

Deluxe: US$10+


Budget: US$2-6

Mid-range: US$13-30

High: US$48-70

Deluxe: US$70+

The CFA is fixed against the euro; the best currency to travel with is the euro, in a mixture of cash and travellers' cheques, and it's essential to take some euros in cash. You can get away with spending as little as US$10 a day but this often means grungy rooms, lax security and beef brochettes from the food stalls. If you'd like self-contained rooms, air-conditioning, and the odd meal of steak or chawarmas you can expect to pay US$30-40, while staying in grand old colonial-style hotels and dining out on pigeon and perch will set you back about US$100 a day.

There are a number of banks in Bamako that change money but all of them charge high commissions. If you're coming from Burkina Faso, Niger, or Senegal you're better off changing your money in those countries as the commission rate is lower. Most money transactions in Mali take time, the patience of Job, and a little bit of pleading and cajoling, particularly if you have denominations other than euros. It is possible to get cash from Visa cards in Bamako, but don't expect the process to be easy.

As in most West African countries a 10% tip is expected in better class restaurants.

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You'd expect the capital city of one of the poorest countries in the world to be sullen and down-at-heel but Bamako is a brash cacophony of music, motorbikes, and people buying, selling and trading under the hot midday sun. Despite its problems it's got chutzpah.

You can find everything in the new version of the Grande Marché, from indigo cloth to gold to tapes of African music. There's also a traditional medicine vendor should you find yourself running short of travel essentials such as porcupine quills, dried birds and monkey heads.

Falaise de Bandiagara

A hiking trek to the Dogon country, travelling the length of the Falaise de Bandiagara or Bandiagara Escarpment, is likely to be the highlight of any visit to Mali. The Dogon have a fascinatingly complex and elaborate culture and are well known for their traditional art work.

The treks are a great way to get a first-hand look at the pink sandstone houses and granaries carved out of the cliff face, and to gather tips on gardening in very small spaces. The Dogon actually grow their crops in small plots on cliff ledges.

The Niger River Route

The Niger River is the life blood of Mali, entering the southern end of the country and running into the interior as far as Gao, before turning right and flowing back toward the ocean. The boats which run up and down the river between August and November are one of the best ways to see the country.

Most travellers find the journey fascinating, experiencing all the hurly-burly of port life along the river. Conditions tend to vary: at best not quite the Love Boat, at worst a floating hellhole with sweltering cabins, dirty toilets, food shortages, sandbankings, and cargo spread everywhere.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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