Tourism & Communications
Foreigners are particularly drawn to Mali by its music scene and festivals, especially the famous Festival in the Desert at Essakane, which lies 60km from Timbuktu.
How did Timbuktu get its name?
Tombouctou (the local spelling of Timbuktu) is a Songhai word meaning ‘hollow’ /‘depression’ because of the town’s location in a dip of the desert.
Surrounded by the sands of the Sahara, Timbuktu is famous for being one of the most inaccessible places in the world. Though the town is no longer a key trading centre, it has many traditional mud buildings and ancient mosques. Timbuktu is therefore on the World Heritage list.
Visitors to Mali also head for the dramatic landscapes and traditional communities of the Dogon region in the south, where people retain their old customs and ways of life. Here, villages are made up of an unusual collection of mud architecture, such as round granaries with pointed thatch roofs. And in certain areas, buildings perch dramatically along the cliff faces. Settlements along the Bandiagara Escarpment (see photo opposite) have been declared a World Heritage site.
Mali’s most famous mud building is the great mosque at Djenné. For visitors who can’t make it there, a miniature version of the mosque can be seen in the capital among replicas of Mali’s famous buildings at the Bamako National Park. Watch the video of Bobo's visit.
Take a slow boat
The River Niger is a vital means of communication, especially for isolated towns along the inland delta and to the north and east of the country.
During the high-water season (between July and January), the river is navigable for large craft. Diesel ferries operate between Gao in the east and Koulikoro in the west, which lies 57 km from the capital Bamako.
Boats on the river
As well as cargo boats, the pirogues (narrow wooden canoes) of local fishermen can be seen along the river.
For the rest of the year, the full length of the river can only be travelled by ‘pinasse’, dugout wooden boats with a motor attached. These are used for transporting goods through Mali.
On the road
The road network has improved considerably over recent years, with tarred highways to most of the main towns and cities (except for Timbuktu). Financed by the government and foreign funds, major roads now link the capital Bamako with Kayes and Kita in the west, Sikasso in the south and Gao in the east.
When it comes to local travel, the streets are filled with the buzzing sound of mopeds. However, for a quieter journey, donkeys still play an important role in carrying people and loads.
With the improvement of the roads, the railway is mainly used for transporting freight. Only a few passenger trains run in either direction west to east.