The jewel in West Africa's crown, Mali seems to have all the right stuff. Occupying the very area that at one time contained Africa's most powerful empires, this is a country steeped in historical riches. Here you'll find the legendary Timbuktu, the crazily improbable mosque of Djenne, and Mopti the thriving river port. The history of this country has always been one of rivers and deserts. The Sahara's trade routes here made this area one of the world's wealthiest. One of the most famous rivers in Africa, the Niger, is the lifeblood of Mali to this day. Many journey along the river to Timbuktu, a great adventure by any standard. Along the riverbank is the Falaise de Bandiagara, an enormous sandstone escarpment where the Dogon people live, some of West Africa's most fascinating people, their villages clinging to the rocky cliffs. The dogon are known for their mask dances, mythology, wooden sculptures and their sandstone architecture. Dogon Country is the first place any traveler to Mali should go.
Others intriguing cultures include the nomadic Tuareg people in the Sahara and the Niger River fishing villages made up of the Bozo people. All over Mali you'll find rich traditions steeped in ceremony, music, and dance. Mali Festival Au Desert is one of the richest festivals in the country and attracts many visitors. The Festival in the Desert is held in January.
Who wouldn't want to go to Timbuktu for the name alone? For centuries the ancient city has represented Africa's mystery and inaccessibility, a last-place-on-earth allure. Much more than its famous name, Timbuktu got its fame from its location—at the very top of the Niger River Bend and at the very edge of the Sahara. It was also a key player in the camel caravan route since medieval times, linking West Africa with the Mediterranean, as well as being a stronghold in Islamic learning with its vast universities which flourished under some of the continent's richest empires. Today, Timbuktu is a mere shadow of its old self, sprawling with flat-roofed shabby buildings barely able to show off their former grandeur. And always, the streets are full of sand blowing in from the Sahara. None of this stop travelers however.
Djenne is one of the major attractions of West Africa. A World Heritage Site, sitting high up on an island of the Bani River, this mosque is worth the trouble to get here. The world's biggest mud-built structure, it looks like a giant sand castle. The mosque is the perfect backdrop to the vibrant and noisy market, hardly changed at all since medieval times when camels were bringing salt across the desert to the gates of Djenne. This is also a town full of madrassas where young boys are leaning the Koran. Just outside of Djenne are the ruins of Jenne-Jeno, dating back to 300 BC, one of West Africa's oldest archeological sites. Djenne is known for its mud cloth called bogolan, on sale through the town.
Note that travelers need to exercise caution in parts of northern Mali because of bandits and kidnappings.
For insights into the history of Mali, read "The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu" by Alida Jay Boyce.