Few names are as iconic in the travelling community as Timbuktu. In fact, the name Timbuktu in French, “Tombouctou” is often used as a generic name for a place, far, far away. Timbuktu was and always will be that far, far away place that makes explorers dream about. With its legends, being at the center of the ancient Muslim world and an important trading center along with its famous mosques, the UNESCO city has everything to make traveler dream. So this leaves us with the question: How to go to Timbuktu
To get to Timbuktu, one has more than a few choices, depending on time, comfort and cost level you are aiming for.
Disclaimer: It is currently very unsafe to go to Timbuktu. Timbuktu faces great problems with Jihadists and insurgents at the moment and foreigners are definitely targeted. While some ways might be safer, none of them are something we’d advise to do for foreigners at the current time. The objective of this guide is to lay the information there and entertain, while we are waiting for Timbuktu and the surrounding region to find peace once again. Young Pioneer Tours strongly discourage any traveller from going to Timbuktu at the moment.
Definitely the fastest way to get to Timbuktu, It is possible to get in touch with those in the know to charter a flight from Bamako, the capital of Mali, to Timbuktu. Those flights do not come cheap, with a roundtrip flight going for slightly above 2500 EUR. The plane used for those can seat about 10 passengers, so it might become reasonable if you share it with a group.
This is the method for those who want to see Timbuktu but are time-conscious and do not really wish to go on an adventure. The flight takes a bit more than two hours and gets you straight to Timbuktu, avoiding the most dangerous roads and bringing you to the somewhat safer city centre.
By water ways
The current go-to choice for locals, it is possible to reach Timbuktu on a cruise on the Bani river. To start such an adventure, you’ll have to reach the city of Mopti, which is just under the UN-safety lines. Mopti is a fascinating city and its port, which you can see in this video, is a sight in itself. It is here that people get onboard of boats heading north. There are multiple options for people wishing to go North by boat.
The big tourist boat
That is the boat that Michael Palin took in Palin’s travels. This leisurely boat contains rooms, beds and a restaurant. It goes at a rather slow but enjoyable pace and you can always go for a comfortable nap back in your room. You’ll also have plenty of space to walk around in case you are getting cabin sickness.
At the moment, the tourist boat was recently suspended and no one knows when it will resume it service. It is moored in Mopti, wishing for better days.
The speedjet boat
This boat is mostly for locals with a bit of money. This boat goes straight to Timbuktu at a much greater speed than the tourist boat and the pinnace. With this boat, you will get to Timbuktu in one full day. A seat on the boat costs about 100 EUR and a few rooms are available on the boat. The rooms are fully furnished with bed, washroom, fridge and so on. A room on the boat costs about 200 EUR. You’ll have room to go around and there is a restaurant. It is probably the perfect compromise for people who want a cruise to Timbuktu without the discomfort.
The pinnaces (or pinasse, in french) are long boats most locals use to get from Mopti to Timbuktu and anywhere in between. They are quite the experience and are truly for weathered travellers only. Those small boats are packed with people, merchandise and sometimes livestock before they leave the port of Mopti. Every pinnae is slightly different from the others, but the majority of them do not have sanitary installation. A traveller has to improvise! On those boats, you’ll meet locals from all walks of life who are sure to take a deep interest in the crazy toubabu who decided to travel with them.
Some pinnace have a room on the roof. On this roof, you’ll often find someone making simple food and serving coffee. Some seats are available on the roof and make for a more comfortable experience, if that can be said…
As the most common mean of getting to Timbuktu, you’ll find plenty of pinnaces heading out there every day at all times of the day. It suffice to go to the port of Mopti to find a boat, negotiate a price, and hop on the adventure right away, with no need for scheduling or booking in advance (which is required by every other way of reaching Timbuktu). A seat on the pinnace will set you back about 15000 CFA (a little more than 20 EUR) to take you all the way to Timbuktu.
On such a pinnace, it takes about 3 days and 2 nights to reach Timbuktu. This won’t be the most comfortable experience in your life (probably makes the Iron Ore Train of Mauritania feel like luxury) but it is definitely a solid notch on any traveller’s belt!
Finally, one could reach Timbuktu by land but, honestly, almost nobody does it. Think terribly roads, rampant banditry and a long drive where you can expect a few technical issues with the cars. Maybe someday China will come here and build a road as they do all around Africa and this will probably kill the trade and epic cruise on the Bani river
Still, it is considerably fast from Mopti to Timbuktu. It would take eight hours to reach Timbuktu by land, if everything goes well. If you’re leaving from Bamako, you’ll have to approximately double that time.
While it is very unwise at the moment to go to Timbuktu. YPT dreams of taking you there and you can be sure that we will do so as soon as it is safe. For the moment, we have a wonderful tour of Mali which takes you safely all around what can be seen of the country, experiencing its thriving culture and phenomenal sights.