Bamako to Timbuktu with my two-year-old
I travelled to Mali alone with my 2.5 yr old daughter in 2007. It was perfect timing - she was curious about everything and everyone, and all over Mali people were curious about us. She opened many doors that might have stayed closed otherwise.
We made it overland to Timbuktu and took the obligatory overnight trek to a Touareg encampment in the Sahara. In Bamako we stayed at Djembe Hotel, a family-run B&B - it was a brilliant introduction to West African family life.
We did one trip by bus, and although it really was interesting and not as bad as it might have been, it was a very slow way to get around the country. After that we did a nine-day circuit by 4x4 with our own guide and driver, devised our own itinerary, and saw a lot in a short amount of time.
Finding palatable food in some of the rural areas we visited was a bit of a challenge and there were a few days we had to fall back on to our supply of trail mix and powdered milk. All part of the experience - testing the mettle, etc.!
I think Mali is a great place to begin exploring West Africa. Not too frenetic, reasonable tourism infrastructure, stable in most areas, French spoken widely. I know everyone thinks of Africa and safari, but Mali has the wonderful Niger inland delta which has fantastic birdwatching. There's amazing hiking in Dogon country. Bamako has great night life. There are hidden gems like Segou and Djenne. The architecture is fascinating, the local animist traditions are still strong, the people are warm and welcoming, even if they do want you to pay for their brother's wedding! There's tons of different traditional crafts in silver, leather, wood and fabric. Really, I can't say enough what a brilliant time we had.
Susan Pickin, NYC