Earth : Africa : Sahel : Mali : Mopti (region) : Dogon Country
Dogon Country (French: Pays Dogon) is the name used for a region of south-central Mali renowned for its secluded villages embedded on cliffs and for the region's distinct culture. Most visitors to Dogon country will start and in one of the couple of major towns connected by roads and trek to smaller villages.
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 neighbors, 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.
It's wholly possible to travel to Dogon Country without a guide, especially considering that you can hire a (French-speaking) guide at any of the villages for a negligible sum.
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.
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.
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.
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 1,000CFA. 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 liter bottle of the Malian Diago brand of water will costs around 1,250 CFA, 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 traveler 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 judgment 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).