Mauritania is about desert and ocean, and sometimes both at the same time. Although twice the size of France, it has only 3 million inhabitants.
Mauritania is an Islamic Republic. Don't be afraid of this political status - most Mauritanians are not extremists, even if the majority of the people in the North are very conservative and quite reserved. The Southern part of the country is filled with friendly people, and they are very welcoming, if a little unused to tourists.
The main attractions for most tourists are the desert in Adrar and Tagant areas (around Atar), and the ocean in Banc d'Arguin (a natural reserve with dunes ending in the sea, full of millions of birds and protected by UNESCO).
The Adrar is exactly how you've always imagined the Sahara: endless ergs (dunes) and regs (rocky desert) with tabular small mountains. Travelling there is becoming easier, with charter flights from France to Atar through the winter, and guides and tourist agencies are quite easy to find.
Places other than Banc d'Arguin and Adrar are slightly more adventurous. Most tourists stay along the west coast of the country, although there are a few beautiful sights far into the interior (rock formations in Aioun, for example). If you decide to travel off the beaten path, leave plenty of time to get around.
An important note: Mauritania is not connected to the international banking system. Your Visa card will not work in the ATM, and credit cards are accepted almost nowhere. It is easy to change euros, dollars and CFA in Nouakchott, however.
Internet cafes with DSL internet can be found in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou for 200-300 UM an hour. Slower connections plauge "cybercafes" elsewhere in the country, but if you are desperate to check your email it is usually possible.
FYI, if you are white, "Nassarani" and "Toubab" means you. Little kids, and sometimes rude adults, will refer to you by this name.
Mauritania Visas and Documentation
All visitors to Mauritania require a passport. French, Italian and West African passport holders do not require a visa to enter. All other countries require a visa, as well as proof of yellow fever vaccination. Visitors must also have proof of onward travel and sufficent funds.
There are charter flights from France to Atar and regular flights from Europe to Nouakchott. A charter flight costs around 400 euros. Nouakchott is also serviced by Royal Air Maroc flights from Casablanca and Air Senegal flights from Dakar. Many airline websites do not list Mauritania (even the RAM site) so you may need to call for flight information.
No trains run between Mauritania and its neighbor
Mauritania has open road borders with Western Sahara, Mali and Senegal. These borders are open to crossing by private motor vehicle or bicycle.
The road from The Western Sahara/Morocco enters the country near Noaudhibou. The road is paved all the way to the Moroccan border post in Fort Guerguarat, where one has to traverse about 7 kilometers of twisting, stony, but straightforward pistes to reach the Mauritanian border, where the tarred road begins again. Although the driving is simple, care should be taken not to leave the well worn pistes between the two border posts, because the area is a mine field. This danger is still present once you reach the tar on the Mauritanian side, and the area is not considered mine-free until you pass the railway line.
The crossing formalities are straightforward, and transitvisas, valid for 3 days only, for Mauritania can be bought at the border. There is a bureau de change at the border, and a vehicle insurance office and numerous hopeful guides for making the old desert crossing down to the capital.
There are numerous pistes running across the Mauritanian border from Mali. These used to be the de facto route between the two countries, however there now exists a new tar road connecting Nara in Mali to Ayoun al Atrous in Mauritania. The border formalities in Mali are completed at various buildings around Nara town (local children will lead you to the police or customs for a small present). The Mauritanian formalities are conducted at a string of road-blocks along the border road.
By Bus/Bush taxi
From Morocco : Buses are at present not running although CTM (the Moroccan national bus company) is planning to run services from Dakhla to Nouakchott by the end of the year. Access is currently available by hitching with overlanders from Dakhla (most can be picked up from Camping Moussafir just north of Dakhla) or by paying for passage with Mauritanian traders. These can be found opposite the first police checkpoint north of Dakhla, the going rate is currently 250-300Dhs (negotiable) the ride should be started rather early and takes most of the day. From Senegal : Bush taxis can be taken from Dakar (6,000 CFA) and St Louis (2,000 CFA) (amongst others) to Rosso, where a ferry makes the trip across the Senegal river, and further bush taxis can be taken to Nouakchott (about 2,000 UM).Other crossing points from Senegal include the Diama dam just north of St Louis, public transport also operates on this route. From Mali : Pickup trucks leave Kayes for Selibaby daily. It is also possible to enter at Nema, and across the southern border at several points.
In Nouakchott, taxis usually cost 200 UM (regardless of the number of people). For a longer trip, expect to pay 300 to 500. At the airport, drivers will try to get 1,000 or more. If you are not comfortable bargaining, simply walk outside the gates to the road.
Inexpensive public transport exists between main cities in the way of bush taxi. If you really want to avoid waiting and potentially long car rides, renting a 4x4 is almost mandatory and not so expensive if you share the cost. There are tons of car rental places in central Nouakchott; it is a good idea to hire a driver.
Bush taxis run between most cities. Mercedes are most expensive followed by peugeot 504s and pick up trucks/minibuses. For off-road travel, 4x4s and pickup trucks are used. The best option for bush taxis, usually, is a Mercedes. When traveling by bush taxi in Mauritania, know that a full car means four across the back and two sharing the front passenger seat. Buying a "place" will not mean a full seat. For a more comfortable trip, you may want to pay for two places. Cars do not travel on a schedule; rather, they leave when there are enough passengers. You will stop at the whim of the driver to eat or pray. Keep ID handy for police check points.
The desert train can be taken between Nouadhibou, Choum, Fderik and Zouerat, and many smaller stops in between. Riding on top of the iron ore wagons is free (if cold and dirty), and the passenger wagon has a small cost. From Atar, take a pickup to Choum and wait for the train to stop around sunset. You will arrive in Noaudhibou the next morning. There is only one train a day.
Hassaniya Arabic is the language of the Moor majority, while languages are spoken by Southern black Afrians include Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke (especially in the Guidimakha region around Selibaby). French is spoken by many.
In general, the quality of most Mauritanian souvenirs is not what it could be. That said, you can find leather products, pipes, wooden bowls, tea pots and silver jewelry among other things (be careful with the quality of jewelry). Fabric, however, is tie-dyed by hand and can be quite beautiful. Fabric will be sold as a mulafa (veil)--usually gauzy and one piece--or as material for a boubou, with two separate pieces for a skirt and top. Fabric is sold anywhere for anything from 1500 UM to 8000 UM, depending on the fabric quality and work involved.
Souvenirs can be bought at Marche Capital or Marche Sixieme in Nouakchott, or at tourist shops in the Adrar. Fabric will be sold in boutiques all over the country, but Kaedi is famous for its tie-dying.
When buying anything in Mauritania, feel free to bargain. Sometimes the beginning price will be three times the actual price. Stay friendly, but don't worry about insulting anyone by asking for a lower price.
There is a decent variety of restaurants in Nouakchott with plates from 1000 to 2500 UM. Most restaurants in the capital offer pretty much the same menu - simple pizzas, hamburgers, sandwiches, and salads. There is a string of restaurants on the road from the Stade Olympique to the French Embassy. Good ones include Pizza Lina, Cafe Liban, and Le Petit Cafe. The Sahara Cafe, on the other side of the stadium, is also a good place for pizza, sandwiches or Lebanese, and has some of the best reasonably-priced food in town. Near Marche Capitale, there is a street of sandwich shops that offer near-identical menus, the best of which is the Prince (which taxi drivers know by name).
Outside of Nouakchott, it is possible to find a hamburger in Atar. Otherwise, you are looking at local dishes: fish and rice (chebujin) in the south and rice and meat or couscous in the north. Hole in the wall restaurants can be found everywhere and serve plates from 200 to 500 UM. Mechui, or grilled sheep, is also delicious if a little more expensive. Look for carcasses hanging by the side of the road. Some fruit can be found in most regional capitals. Note that most restaurants outside of Nouakchott do not have very high sanitation standards in regards to food preparation. Since most small restaurants go under within a few years of opening, your best bet in trying to find one in a regional capital is to just ask locals for directions to whatever is nearby. Another alternative, in the absence of a restaurant, is paying a family to prepare food for you, which should be relatively inexpensive (no more than 1500 um), even if it takes a while (up to a couple hours to buy the food and prepare it).
Bottled water can be bought for 200 UM and is a good idea for anyone not accustomed to Africa.
If none of this sounds good, keep in mind that boutiques everywhere stock bread, cookies and sodas if nothing else!
Tea is usually served after a meal, but it is not included with the meal at restaurants. If you are offered tea in someone's home, it is impolite to leave until at least the second (of three) glasses. The whole process takes about an hour.
Despite being an Islamic country there are a few fun bars in the capital. Drinking can be expensive however: beers can go for about $6! There is a nightclub inside the French Embassy compound. For the non-French, try the Salamander or the trashy (but open late) Club VIP. Next door to VIP is the Casablanca, a more low-key bar with live music on the weekends. It is illegal to import alcohol!
All ranges of accommodation are available, with the highest class hotels available only in Nouakchott and Atar. "Auberges" and Campsites can rent beds/mattresses for as little as 1000 ouguiya in the Adrar and Nouadhibou.
There is usually at least one hotel in the regional capitals in the rest of the country, although they can be expensive for what you are getting. If possible, make friends with a local and try to get invited to stay with their family. As long as you don't mind a)sleeping on the ground on a foam mat b)sleeping/eating near animals or c)using a latrine, you will probably end up having a nice, memorable stay.
Universite de Nouakchott.
The area near the Western Sahara is heavily mined and travel through this area is highly unadvised. Border areas lining Algeria and Mali are notorious for banditry. In other areas, one should avoid flaunting wealth or expensive wares. Daunting though it may seem, a bit of research and common sense will ensure a pleasant trip in Mauritania.
Gay and Lesbian travelers should be extremely careful when traveling through Mauritania. The official punishment for homosexuals is death.
For the majority of Westerners, the local water in any part of the country (including Nouakchott) is not safe to drink. Visitors are advised to drink only bottled water if they don't have access to some type of water purifying or filtration system.
Malaria is endemic in the Southern part of the country, and visitors should always use a mosquito net there. Mosquitos are less common in the dry desert in the North of the country, but exist year-round in the South, if a bit less prevalent during the dry season (December-May).
Learn "Salam alaykum" and use it when greeting people. If you are a man, don't try to shake hands with a woman, and vice versa (note that some African women will not have a problem with shaking a man's hand, but it is best to not try to initiate contact, just follow their lead). You can, however, say hello and touch your hand over your heart.
Be careful to eat with your right hand, especially outside of Nouakchott where you may not be offered silverware. Like other places in the Arab world, the left hand is reserved for the bathroom. If you're left-handed... try hard.
If you are traveling with someone of the opposite sex, avoid touching in public. It's actually much more common see two men holding hands than a woman and a man. As far as dress, the more skin you show, the more negative attention you will receive. In Nouakchott, women can wear pants, but avoid tank tops and to-the-knee skirts everywhere. Long skirts are the best choice for women. Covering your head isn't required, and it may cut down on the "Madame ou bien Mademoiselle?" question, but Westerners, especially women, will be the target of unwanted attention and minor harassment everywhere in the country.
Beware of people who may try to take advantage of Westerners' unfailing politeness in order to try to make a sale. Be aware that in market areas, almost everyone who tries to befriend you is trying to sell you something at an inflated price. They will try many tricks to get you to buy items from them (including "giving them to you as a gift"), and a few might even accuse you of not liking Africans if you decline to look at their souvenir shop. If someone is going beyond the normal limits to bother you, it is not impolite to tell them, without question, that you are not interested.
There are two operators of a GSM-Network: Mattel (excellent English website) and Mauritel Mobiles. Prepaid plans are available for both of them. Further Information regarding Coverage and Roaming are available from GSM-World.
For tours into the dessert where no GSM-Network is available satellitephones are a good solution. Thuraya, Iridium or Inmarsat. Thuraya tends to be the cheapest and the most easy to use. The equipment is also available for rent.