How to get to Timbuktu

Mali on the map

Mali on the map

Getting to Bamako, the capital of Mali is easy – there are several air lines landing there every day.  The distance between Bamako and Timbuktu is 700 km as the crows fly.  You can fly to Timbuktu – there are several airlines servicing the route.  One of them is Compagnie Arrienne du Mali (CAM) flying to Timbuktu on every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and flying back to Bamako on every Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with a stop over in Mopti.   One way ticket is CFA 102,000 (= just over US$200).  It takes less than 3 hours, if you’re lucky.  Delays are not unusual.   Another airline is MAE

Another way to get to Timbuktu is to catch one of the many tourist pinasses from Koulikoro or Mopti.  But that is possible only during the wet season when the water in the river is high enough for the boats to navigate the river.  Cruises by pinasses on the Niger River take 3 days and 2 nights to get from Mopti to Korioume – 15 km south of Timbuktu, or Kabara, 7.5 km south of Timbuktu.  During tourist season there will be plenty of people waiting to go so you can group together to hire one of the pinasses. At night you will be camping on the shore and there will likely be a cook on the boat, they even have ‘toilets’ at the back.  The price depends on the type of accommodation you will desire.   The boat trip is VERY slow and can be very boring – the distance from Mopti to Timbuktu by road is 360 km – if things go well, you can make it in about 8 hrs even by public transport.  But if you have the time and crave the experience, by all means – do it.  How many of your friends can boast that they traveled to Timbuktu by boat on Niger River.

Map of Timbuktu

Map of Timbuktu

If you want to go by road, you can hire a 4 wheel drive at US$90 – $100 a day+ fuel + accommodation and food for the driver.  A new paved road is under construction between Niono (342 km NE of Bamako) and Timbuktu running to the north of the Inland Niger Delta. The 565 km road will pass through Nampala, Niafunké, Tonka, Diré and Goundam, making the distance 907 km.  The road distance from Bamako to Timbuktu through Douentza is 995 km.   You can make it to Mopti (635 km) or Douentza (795 km) in one day on a sealed road, but the last 195 km between Douentza and Timbuktu is a bone rattling dirt road and it takes anything between 6 hours and 12 hours.  It wouldn’t be recommended to anyone to do it in night.  You can shave off a few km, if you turn off the bitumen road at Konna and go to Timbuktu through Niafunke and Goundam.  But then you will miss out on the breath taking scenery at Qualo, Bota and Gafiti, just north of Douentza.

The mode of travel recommended most is either a 4 wheel drive or a bus.  The bus companies say that it takes 20 hours, but that’s when everything is going smoothly, which is VERY rare in Mali.  Count on anything between 28 and 36 hours.  The trip will be very uncomfortable, but hey – you are going to the ends of the Earth, one of the most remote and inaccessible areas on the planet.  There is nothing like seeing the landscape through the bus window.  You can’t get the feel of remoteness of Timbuktu if you land there a few hours after leaving crowded Bamako by airplane.  Especially the section between Doentza and Timbuktu will hammer home the message of remoteness of the town.

There are three transport companies that provide regular services between Bamako and Timbuktu – GDF transport, Sangue Voyage and Binke truck-bus.  The cost is $35.  There is also SONEF transport that will take you to Doenza, where you can stay overnight in one of the hotels and next day take a bush taxi.  For 15,000 CFA you’ll get a seat in the cabin, for 9,000 CFA you will have to be happy sitting in the back of the truck.  When driving to Timbuktu, you should strive to have a seat on the right side of the vehicle to get a good view of the cliffs at Qualo.  You can also continue on the SONEF bus all the way to Gao – 397 km from Doentza.  You will come to Gao in the morning – have a stroll through the town, the port, the market, see the tomb of king Askia and the mosque, go to the pink dune (5 km out of town) and in the afternoon you can take a 450 km bush taxi ride to Timbuktu.  The trip is about 16 – 20 hours and costs 10,000 CFA.  (If you do the trip, ask the driver to stop in Tondibi – 40 km NW of Gao – and show you the place where in a battle on 12/Mar/1591 the Moroccan army equipped with firearms defeated the much larger Songhay army, armed only with spears, arrows and swords – that was the end of the golden age of Timbuktu). There are only a few hundred thousand westerners in the world that can say they’ve been to Timbuktu.  How many can say they’ve been 450 km beyond Timbuktu.  Not all that much to see and do in Gao, but the bragging rights are priceless and worth the extra day of your travel time.