Dogon Country (French: Pays Dogon) is the name used for a region of south-central Mali renowned for its secluded villages embedded on cliffs that are up to 500m tall which were inscribed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.
The Dogon people have been living in this area for more than a thousand years following their refusal to forcefully convert to Islam. This then led to the development of their own religion, culture, and language. Most visitors to Dogon Country will start in one of the major towns such as Bandiagara and trek to smaller villages.
The main reason to take on the expense and time of going to Dogon Country is to hike the many small villages that exist there, perched either up on the plateau or down in the sandy lowland. Below are the villages that are most commonly visited.
Dogon Country's villages lie among the plains, and especially the cliffs along the Bandiagara Escarpment. For obvious reasons, it's rather difficult to reach the steep cliffside villages, where the Dogons have lived to protect themselves from potentially hostile neighbours, as well as wild animals. Today, the vast majority of the population lives in the plains below the escarpment in more recently constructed villages, but the old homes remain, and are taken care of and in excellent shape.
The Guide to guides
From the moment you step off the bus, open your car door, sit down in a restaurant, or have a stretch outside your hotel, you will most likely have someone offering to be your guide through Dogon Country. They can be quite insistent, annoying, and act to be offended if you yell at them to go away. Some travellers have mused that the sole purpose of hiring a guide is merely to chase off other would-be guides.
Do you actually need a guide? Numerous guidebooks will tell you that you do, while some allude to the fact that actually you don't. The guides in Dogon will almost always tell you that you do and there are even some signs telling you that entry to the village is prohibited without a guide. The truth of the matter is that really, you aren't required to have a guide. There are some caveats to this:
If you do decide to use a guide, how much should he (they are always men) cost? Again, guidebooks will generally quote the amount at around 10,000-15,000 CFA per person, per day, which gets quite costly quite fast and explains why so many people are trying to act as guides given that most people in Mali earn about 1,000 CFA a day. Most will ask for a great deal more than this amount initially and you will absolutely have to haggle him down. Due to the incredible amounts of money spent by various travelers to Dogon Country, some will even start out their prices at 50,000 CFA per person, per day.
The price you pay can include any variety of things, but it should absolutely include visiting 2-3 villages per day, the tax for those villages, and meals. It will not include drinks (which are quite expensive in Dogon Country) or transportation. If you can, insist on writing up a contract prior to leaving so that there is no changing of plans during the trip. Proper agencies, while more expensive should always print a contract as well as require the money upfront.
If you opt to hire a local guide upon arrival to the villages, they will generally charge about 3,000 CFA for everyone as well as the village tax (generally from 1,000-3,000 CFA.) For those wishing to save money, directly support those who choose to stay in their villages to carry on the traditions, as well as discourage the guide industry seen in larger towns, this is a good balance of options. For those wishing to have someone lead them on a hike (ex. from Dourou to Nombori), a local can be hired for 3,000 CFA to walk you down. Again, it directly supports the local people and works well for those willing to adventure a little.
The local Dogon language is spoken by everyone, but due to its popularity with tourists French remains the lingua franca. English is spoken by only a handful of tour guides in the entire region and practically no one outside the handful of cosmopolitan (relatively speaking) base camps/towns. A working knowledge of French is essential unless travelling with one of the few guides who speak English.
Unfortunately you have to hire some kind of car to get in to the heart of Dogon, whether you rent it with or without a driver. With a driver, cars in Mopti will generally costs 50,000 CFA per day plus gas. You might be able to haggle them down to 25,000 if you're going to rent it multiple days or it is the low season, but it will be money hard-won. Drivers are difficult as they generally don't like to drive and if you want to visit three villages in a day, most will get grumpy, which means you will have to be firm and emphasize your plan.
Bandiagara, Bankass, Douentza are the three main town entry points in to Dogon and places where you can find a never ending supply of harassing guides as well as supplies for the trip, although they will cost a great deal more than in a town such as Mopti.
For those who will make the hike down in the villages, the most common starting point are the larger villages of: Kani-Kombolé, Djiguibombo, Endé, Dourou, and Sanga.
There are almost no roads in the region, except those connecting a couple of towns used as base camps with the neighboring regions. You will need to go on foot and be in relatively good shape. A number of the hikes are quite strenuous, although you'll see village women trekking up them with piles of goods on their heads. Despite the fact that the Dogon people walk these trails in sandals, it is advisable for anyone visiting to wear either a sturdy pair of running shoes or hiking boots depending upon your needs.
There are hundreds of unique towns scattered throughout the region and while all are unique and, while there is no "typical" Dogon village, most can be found built into the sides of hills and escarpments.
People generally plan any number of approaches to Dogon Country. Most common is to spend about three days which allows one to visit several villages, stay in them (amenities are generally rather comfortable all things considered) and then get out. Day trips are also quite doable to a number of villages, such as Nombori. Villages like Songo can be visited in a morning.
There is also the opportunity to spend a week or more hiking the entire escarpment. This is recommended only for the truly adventurous who want to take the time to plan out the trip and be prepared to buy supplies en route.
Sadly, many (but not all) of the villages have learned the value of tourism and while the culture remains strong and the villages remain spectacular, expect to pay for everything from entering each village to photographing anything inside villages to meeting certain people (i.e. chiefs). Most villages will sell arts and crafts to tourists.
Towns will generally sell small quantities of food to tourists, but there are no restaurants outside the couple of major base towns. You will likely be sharing a meal with a family. You should bring food with you to eat, although there is food to be had in the more recent small guest-houses, where they will feed you sauce (occasionally meat sauce) over rice, noodles, or couscous. It's simple, but quite tasty and cheap.
Water is a scarce commodity (do not expect to use water for bathing or hand washing) and you should bring some with you, especially to prevent dehydration while trekking between villages.
There is no alcohol to be found outside of the couple of base towns, where you'll find beer, coke, and bottled water for about XOF1,000. It is more cost effective to stock up on supplies in a town such as Mopti where you will find a greater selection and better, albeit still higher prices. Inside Dogon Country, a 1.5 litre bottle of the Malian Diago brand of water will costs around XOF1,250, although it is often the case that they will lower it if you buy more.
Dogons are very spiritual and visitors should be very keen to respect their beliefs. One should always ask if it is appropriate to photograph something. Altars may look like piles of dirt to the untrained eye and religious buildings may look like just a house, both of which (along with people, unless you ask permission) should not be photographed.
If trekking, you should be in good physical shape and carry and drink lots of water to prevent dehydration. Head covering is also recommended as the midday sun is exceedingly strong and can even catch a well-hydrated traveller offguard. Good, sturdy shoes, whether general running/walking type or hiking boots are recommended for the treks as the terrain can be difficult to traverse on some of them.
Many people find walking poles to be helping for the flatter parts of the trip, but in general, they are a hindrance, especially when navigating steep areas. Use your own judgement when carrying them, but be advised that they will be dead and awkward weight if you find you don't need them.
Lastly, be careful of snakes in brush (although most are nocturnal).