The so-called Dogon Country is not as famous in the outside world Timbuktu or even Djenné. However, it is definitely somewhere that is truly unique, and which in my opinion should be on the itinerary of every visitor to Mali.
The picturesque geography of the area is among the main reasons for spending some time there. The defining feature of the local landscape is the 100-mile long Bandiagara Escarpment, which separates a rocky plateau from the dusty plain below. The countryside is not only picturesque, but is also particularly good terrain for hiking, especially in the vicinity of the cliff.
However, what makes the place really special is the utterly distinctive culture of the local tribe that it is named after. Numbering around 300,000 people, they moved into the vicinity several centuries ago in order to avoid the encroachment of Muslim tribes. The migration proved to be so successful that the way of life has survived to this day pretty much intact, thanks mainly to the rugged and remote nature of the territory. The animist religion and cosmology is a remnant of the traditions that once predominated in the region, and is renowned for both elaborate rituals and intriguing artistic expression. To be honest, it is far too complex to explain here, and anyway learning something about the beliefs from the friendly locals is probably the most fascinating aspect of being in the area.
The villages, especially those along the foot of the escarpment, are not only aesthetically unusual and very attractive, but are also physical representations of the traditional ways, especially the intricately carved wooden doors and window shutters that feature symbolic designs from the mythology. The mud-covered granaries, which have conical straw roofs and that stand on stone plinths for protection against pests, are another common sight. Every settlement also has a squat dry stone thatched building where the older males gather to socialise and debate issues. Meanwhile, carved into the rock face are the former dwellings of the Tellem, the mysterious original inhabitants, which have long since become burial chambers.
Although hiring someone in Bankass or Sanga to give a guided tour and act as an interpreter is by no means essential, it is undoubtedly extremely beneficial. Otherwise the level of cultural understanding gained will be minimal, there is the danger of causing accidental offence, and missing best hikes and places to stay, as well as the most interesting things to see, is a real possibility.
Finally, it is even more vital than usual to practise responsible travel. The way of life has only continued due to lengthy isolation, and thoughtless tourism could easily succeed where history has previously failed. Dressing appropriately, bringing one's own water, resisting the temptation to hand out frivolous gifts, and other such common sense measures are critical.