Visiting the top sights of Bamako in a day on my trip to Mali during Wandering West Africa.
This city has recently gotten much negative press due to a terrorist raid on the Radisson Blu Bamako which claimed over twenty lives. I was in the city only a couple of weeks prior and was really saddened by this news. Bamako seemed like a pleasant city with friendly people that were trying to rebuild their capital and reputation. These types of attacks can happen anywhere though obviously some locations are less secure than others.
Bamako is not a touristy city. The only foreigners I saw were ushered around in SUV convoys with armed guards and police guiding the way. However, there is a hidden side to the city where life goes on as it does everyday and this can truly be felt by interacting with the Malian locals.
This is my story of visiting the main sights of Bamako on a day-long layover.
My flight from Ouagadougou with Burkina Air arrived on time at 8 a.m. Immigration was surprisingly efficient and my visa (which I secured in Nouakchott) was fine. The officer stamped my passport and welcomed me. Country 149 complete!
Right outside the airport several taxi drivers were yelling ridiculous prices for a ride into the city. I eventually bargained with the driver of an old beige Mercedes to take me to the sights for 12,000 CFA (~$20). He was friendly and optimistic about the city stating that it was very safe.
The city center wasn’t that far and with light traffic we arrived in twenty minutes or so.
Crossing the Niger River into the central area, there were the large commercial and government buildings. We passed through a street-side market with plenty of football jerseys. I stopped the driver and shopped around until I came upon a Bamako tourist shirt. Perfect! Appropriately dressed, we continued our tour.
The Grand Mosque was our first stop. The driver found a parking in the adjacent market parking lot. The gate was closed and I wasn’t sure visitors were allowed in.
Nearby is Institute National des Art, a school for artists in the heart of the city. We heard music coming from inside, so we asked if we could visit. The staff lounging at the opening of the gate just waved us in. The driver and I walked in an auditorium during a dance practice with drumbeats and synchronized traditional dancing. We sat and enjoyed the show which amused some of the students.
The market where we parked had a section catered to tourists with the typical African souvenirs. The fetish market on the outskirts was interesting to see, but pictures of the animal corpses were not appreciated.
A large group of Chinese were making their way through holding the attention of the shop keepers so I had a fairly relaxed visit. At one point boy about 10 years old selling handmade drums started pitching his product in fluent Chinese! I was very impressed and even held a short conversation with him. The wonders of working in a foreign speaking environment.
The National Museum was central passed some official buildings and heavy security. Situated on a large plot of land, shared with the Parc National du Mali, the area was well kept and had tight security.
The museum is on one side and requires a separate ticket from the park area. A couple of the exhibits were open displaying some interesting artifacts from Timbuktu and other archeological sites as well as cultural items from Mali. Unfortunately no photos are allowed and to make sure of this a security guard follows your visit the entire time.
Within the walls of the park is a quiet oasis where birds are chirping, families are having picnics, kids are playing on the jungle gym, and people are jogging. The gardens and lawns were very well maintained with staff busily brushing dead leaves and trimming bushes. There also seemed to be a zoo attached and a couple of cafes.
Our last stop was the Cathedrale du Sacre Coeur, the main cathedral of Bamako. There happened to be a wedding in the church when I visited.
There are also several monuments throughout the city, like the Martyr’s Monument in roundabouts or on the side of the road.
I made one more stop on the banks of the Niger River for a couple of pictures before heading back to the airport.
So I saw the few main sights in less than half a day and still made it back with plenty of time for my 4 p.m. flight to Ghana.
Bamako–Sénou International Airport is not a great airport for lounging. You can only enter the airport when your flight is ready to check-in and there are only a few shops and cafes outside along with hundreds of tiny flies.
Waiting inside is more pleasant as sparrows trapped in the building fly in endless circles overhead.
Despite the travel warnings, I found a calm and orderly city with plenty of security. This high level of security reflects the danger of the area, but also adds a sense of safety. I was not threatened walking around alone in the center and all the stares I received were curious ones, not menacing.
With a brief but meaningful visit, I found a friendly Malian people proud of their heritage. When I asked about visiting Timbuktu, they brushed off the rebels in the north saying that soon things will be back to normal. Despite all the hardships the country has gone through, people remain optimistic and positive. Life goes on.
I will definitely return one day to discover this inspiring destination more thoroughly in the future.