One of the largest countries in North Africa, Mauritania is a mix of desert and ocean—but mostly desert. The bulk of Mauritania's large area is made up of the world famous Sahara Desert, while the country's west coast hugs the Atlantic Ocean. The large contrast between these diverse environments means that there is plenty for travelers to see and do. The beaches on the west coast are a worthy break from the humming interior city of Nouakchott, while various medieval sites, including Chinguetti, offer amazing views of ancient buildings, some of which are considered to be national symbols. The country's many desert mosques are some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in all of North Africa.
1. Nouakchott: There’s plenty to do in Mauritania’s capital city, including dropping by the many souks or markets, like Marche Capital or Marche Sixieme. The Saharan sand dunes on the edge of Nouakchott are worth checking out, especially at sunrise or sundown.
2. Beaches: While not as popular as other beaches on the Atlantic, Mauritania’s coast is still worth seeing. The most popular beach is the Plage de Nouakchott. Plan to drive in a four-by-four to travel to and around this site, and be aware of any warnings of strong currents if you plan to swim. There aren’t many hotels along Mauritania’s coast, but traveling to the beach is still a worthwhile daytime trip.
3. Banc d’Arguin National Park: Located between Nouakchott and the city of Nouadhibou, this nature reserve is a fantastic site to see migratory birds, including flamingos and pelicans. The coastal sides of the park are known for their seaside flora, and close to the park are fishing villages that are worth a visit, too. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
4. Chinguetti: An amazing medieval town in the interior of Mauritania, this city is home to plenty of incredible ancient sites, including the Friday Mosque, a sandstone-colored building that is considered by many to be the national symbol of the country.
Mauritania’s rainy season lasts from July to September; average rainfall during the year is about 20 to 23 inches (51 to 58.5 centimeters.) The country is also a recipient of the harmattan, a trade wind that blows from the Sahara, bringing with it sand and limited visibility. The best times to visit Mauritania are between March through June, when the weather is generally calmer.
Visas: All travelers except West African nationals need a visa to get into Mauritania. Arrange your visa in advance.
Transportation: The most common way to get into Mauritania is to take a charter flight from a European country like France. Most travelers fly into Nouakchott International Airport. If you are traveling elsewhere in West or North Africa, you can drive into Mauritania by car, bus, or bush taxi. Take note: traveling near the border of Western Sahara is not advisable, due to the presence of land mines.
Within the country, the most common form of transportation is by car or bush taxi. Hiring a private driver and car is relatively inexpensive, and having one makes travel between the cities and the beaches that much easier.
Mobile Phones: Most GSM phones work in Mauritania. If you don’t have a GSM-enabled phone, buy one cheaply in the country you live in, or buy one in Mauritania. Purchase a SIM card in Mauritania and enjoy inexpensive calls and text messages.
As mentioned before, women should take care not to follow men into enclosed environments, like offices or cars. If you are a woman, make sure you are always in sight of a group or a street.
Because of activity by organizations such as Al-Qaeda, the U.S. Department of State has issued a number of travel warnings for Mauritania. Be careful when traveling across the borders of Western Sahara and Mali as land mines and religious fundamentalist groups are present. Traveling from Morocco to Mauritania is also not advised. Keep apprised of travel warnings before traveling to Mauritania.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Mauritania or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
Before the modern history of Mauritania began with the arrival of France, the country was inhabited by the Berbers, the Moors, and eventually by Arab settlers. In the late 1800s, French explorers arrived and annexed Mauritania as part of its swath of French West Africa. Slavery was abolished during this time, and despite one battle (known as a jihad in Mauritania) against France in 1912, relative peace was assumed. France withdrew from the country in 1960 and Mauritania declared independence, establishing Nouakchott as its capital.
In 1976, Mauritania, along with Morocco, annexed part of Western Sahara, but due to violent attacks by the Western Saharan nationalist group, the Polisario Front, Mauritania retreated in 1979 and Morocco took up its holdings.
Mauritania has witnessed a number of political coups by the military, the latest happening in 2008, when former president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was removed from his post by troops led by General Muhammed Ould Abd Al-Aziz. Post-coup, in 2009, Abdallahi formally resigned his presidential post and Al-Aziz was voted as president in public elections. However, many African and European countries are still upholding sanctions against Mauritania that were installed after the 2008 coup.
1. Mauritania is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and by Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali, and Senegal along its borders.
2. Mauritania’s official name, reflecting the majority religion in the country, is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. We advise keeping aware of local customs: women especially should take care to dress either modestly or conservatively. As well, if women are either traveling alone or with a group, take care—individual women should never follow a man alone, whether it’s a police officer or a potential travel guide. Use common sense and remain in public with strangers when you can.
3. Arabic and French are the predominant languages of Mauritania. Learn a few French phrases if you plan to spend the majority of your time in the cities or on the more populated beaches. Wherever you’re traveling, greeting people with the common Arabic phrase salaam aleikum will put you in good graces with anyone you’re communicating with.
4. Mauritania’s currency is called the ouguiya and is abbreviated as MRO. ATM machines are very few and far between, and credit cards are almost universally not accepted. Plan to change money and carry cash with you when arriving in the country. Nouakchott has a number of change bureaus.