For me, Mali in West Africa is by far the most exotic place I have been to. The subtropical landscape of this landlocked country is eerily beautiful - strung along the banks of the Niger River that traverses Mali from north to south are small villages and towns surrounded by date palms and lush greenery. The capital city of Bamako, located in the southern part of the country reminds me superficially of Palm Springs, a popular resort in Southern California. The country is primarily Muslim and the official language is French but the majority of the people speak Bambara, one of the many African tribal languages spoken in Mali.
Walking through Bamako and the Tourist Mecca of Mopti, I saw many people (especially the ladies) adorned in some very colorful African cloth - the outfits worn by the men and the women are known as boubous and dashikis. The people here move so gracefully and effortlessly unlike people in the Western World – it is as if they are being carried by the rhythms of their ancestral tribal music.
I could never get a grip on the culture of Mali - a unique synthesis of African, Western and Muslim traditions and beliefs - but I did sense a certain degree of tolerance among the people, who for the most part are very friendly and very poor. The strange indigenous mud walled architecture, the ornate and peculiar looking mosques, the diverse mix of peoples and cultures – including the nomadic Tuaregs, rulers of the desert and the Dogons, an animist tribal group (farmers by occupation) whose settlements are in the rugged cliffs of the interior – and the sinuous, rhythmic qualities of modern Malian pop music all add to the exotic, spellbinding appeal which is Mali.
Ghana, Costa Rica and Thailand are my honorable mentions.