Arriving in Mali can be quite a shock. As you step out of the air-conditioned cocoon of a modern jet at Bamako's airport, you may feel as though you've left modern Western civilization behind. If you look beyond the dusty infrastructure, you'll see the real Mali: distinctive mud dwellings inhabited by flamboyantly dressed Malians going about their business. In many ways, little has changed since Mali's days as the site of great empires. Travelers willing to brave the heat and dust will find that they have entered an impressive civilization, where life today is much as it always has been.

Mali has more archaeological sites than any other African country except Egypt—it is a poor country with an extremely rich heritage. Mali, however, is more than ancient artifacts. It contains within its borders the transition between the tropics of West Africa and the arid northern region. The cultural mix makes for a colorful population, and the geographical variety accounts for the country's beauty. Given the diversity, Mali would be the destination we'd choose if we could make only one stop in West Africa.

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