Mauritania is a country in the Maghreb region of western North Africa. It is the eleventh largest country in Africa and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Morocco and the remnants of Western Sahara in the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mali in the east and southeast, and Senegal in the southwest.
The country derives its name from the ancient Berber Kingdom of Mauritania, which existed from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century, in the far north of modern-day Morocco. Approximately 90% of Mauritania’s land is within the Sahara and consequently the population is concentrated in the south, where precipitation is slightly higher. The capital and largest city is Nouakchott, located on the Atlantic coast, which is home to around one-third of the country’s 3.5 million people.
About 20% of Mauritanians live on less than US$1.25 per day. Mauritania suffers from several human rights issues, including slavery, where an estimated roughly 4% (155,600 people) of the country’s population are being enslaved against their will, especially enemies of the government.
Official Name. Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
Capital. Nouakchott. 18°09’N 15°58’W
Languages. The official language of Mauritania is Modern Standard Arabic. However, the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic is the language of the Moor majority, while other languages are spoken by Southern Black Africans including Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke (especially in the Guidimakha region around Selibaby). French is spoken by many especially near towns.
It is considered polite to say Salaam Aleikum when entering a taxi, office or when greeting someone. It is the first greeting for most of the dialects spoken in the region.
Government. Unitary Semi-presidential Republic
Area. 1,030,000 sq. km (397,685 sq. mi)
Population. 2015 estimate 4,067,564. 2013 census 3,537,368. Density 3.4/sq km
GDP (2013 estimate). Total $8.286 billion (134th). Per capita $4,287 (140th)
MONEY. Mauritanian Ouguiya (MRO), which is subdivided into 5 khoums. Exchange rates in September 2016 were 1€ = 400 MRO; 1US$ = 357 MRO. It is one of two circulating currencies, along with the Malagasy ariary, whose division units are not based on a power of ten.
ATMs that accept foreign cards can be found at branches of BNP and Societe Generale in Nouakchott, Atar and Nouadhibou. Otherwise, credit cards are accepted almost nowhere. It is easy to change euros, dollars and francs CFA in Nouakchott.
VISAS. Nationals of Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Syria and Tunisia do not need a visa. Holders of passports issued by any country can obtain a visa on arrival at Nouakchott International Airport. For tourist purposes, a letter of invitation is not needed
Visas are no longer available on arrival at land borders, so overland travellers have to arrange them in Rabat, Morocco, Dakar, Senegal or Banjul, Gambia. Single entry visa fee is 62.5 EUR, double entry is 125 EUR. Two passport-size photos are required, as well as a copy of the information pages of your passport. Visas are available on the next day for people of most nationalities, including Americans.
For most people there are no vaccinations required in Mauritania. Only ones coming from yellow fever endemic zones are required to present a vaccination certificate.
Visas for Onward Travel. Senegal – one month visas are issued in 24 hours (4 photos + passport photocopies).
Mali – one month visas same day (2 photos and passport photocopies).
Ancient History. The Bafours were primarily agriculturalists, and among the first Saharan people to abandon their historically nomadic lifestyle. With the gradual desiccation of the Sahara, they headed south. Many of the Berber tribes claimed Yemeni (and sometimes other Arab) origins. Other people also migrated south past the Sahara to West Africa. Berbers established trading routes all over the Sahara, including Mauritania. In 1076, Moorish Islamic warrior monks attacked and conquered the ancient Ghana Empire that covered much of present day Mauritania. That victory led to the spread of Islam throughout Western Sahara and Mauritania. Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce resistance from the local population (Berber and non-Berber alike) to dominate Mauritania.
The Char Bouba war (1644–74) was the unsuccessful final effort of the people to repel the Arab invaders (led by the Beni Hassan tribe, its descendants became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Hassaniya is the dominant language among the largely nomadic population. Berbers retained a niche influence by producing the majority of the region’s marabouts: those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition.
France. France gradually absorbed the territories of present-day Mauritania from the Senegal River area and upwards, starting in the late 19th century. Treaties with the colonial power were drawn up in 1903–04 and 1912. Mauritania was part of French West Africa from 1920. French rule brought legal prohibitions against slavery and an end to inter-clan warfare.
During the colonial period, 90% of the population remained nomadic. Many sedentary peoples, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier, began to trickle back into Mauritania.
Independence. Mauritania became an independent nation in November, 1960. The previous capital of the country, Saint-Louis was located in Senegal, so when the country gained independence in 1960, Nouakchott, at the time little more than a fortified village (“ksar”), was chosen as the site of the new capital of Mauritania.
Ould Daddah era (1960–78) An authoritarian presidential regime with a one-party state. Daddah was reelected in uncontested elections in 1976 and 1978. He was ousted in a bloodless coup on 10 July 1978. He had brought the country to near-collapse through a disastrous war to annex the southern part of Western Sahara, framed as an attempt to create a “Greater Mauritania”. In 1975 Spanish Sahara was divided between Morocco and Mauritania. But the Polisario Front launched a guerrilla war to oust both. Mauritania was incapable, both economically and militarily, of fighting such a war. The government renounced all claims to Western Sahara in 1979.
After gaining independence, larger numbers of indigenous Sub-Saharan African peoples (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. Educated in French language and customs, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state. This occurred as the French militarily suppressed the most intransigent Hassane tribes of the Moorish north. This changed the former balance of power, and new conflicts arose between the southern populations and Moors. Between these groups stood the Haratin, a very large population of Arabized slaves of sub-Saharan African origins, who lived within Moorish society, integrated into a low-caste social position.
The great Sahel droughts of the early 1970s caused massive devastation in Mauritania, exacerbating problems of poverty and conflict. The Moors reacted to changing circumstances, and to Arab nationalist calls from abroad, by increasing pressure to Arabize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between Moors who consider Mauritania to be an Arab country and others who seek a dominant role for the non-Moorish peoples. Daddah took a hard-line against the (mostly black African) southerners who were treated like second-class citizens. Any opposition was brutally suppressed.
Issue of Western Sahara. Mauritania, along with Morocco, annexed the territory of Western Sahara in 1976, with Mauritania taking the lower one-third at the request of Spain, a former imperial power. After several military losses to the Polisario – heavily armed and supported by Algeria, the local hegemon and rival to Morocco – Mauritania withdrew in 1979. Its claims were taken over by Morocco.
Due to economic weakness, Mauritania has been a negligible player in the territorial dispute, with its official position being that it wishes for an expedient solution that is mutually agreeable to all parties. While most of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco, the UN still considers the Western Sahara a territory that needs to express its wishes with respect to statehood. A referendum is still supposed to be held sometime in the future, under UN auspices, to determine whether or not the indigenous Sahrawis wish to be independent, as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or to be part of Morocco.
CMRN and CMSN military governments (1978–84) The CMRN junta proved incapable of either establishing a strong base of power or extracting the country from its destabilizing conflict with the Sahrawi resistance movement and quickly fell, to be replaced by another military government, the CMSN. By giving up all claims to Western Sahara, he found peace and improved relations with its main backer, Algeria. But relations with Morocco, the other party to the conflict, and its European ally France deteriorated. Instability continued, and Haidallah’s ambitious reform attempts foundered. His regime was plagued by attempted coups and intrigue within the military establishment. It became increasingly contested due to his harsh and uncompromising measures against opponents; many dissidents were jailed, and some executed. In 1981 slavery was legally abolished, making Mauritania the last country in the world to do so.
Ould Taya’s rule (1984–2005) Retaining tight military control, Taya relaxed the political climate. He re-established ties with Morocco to attract support from Western states and Western-aligned Arab states. Its position on the Western Sahara conflict is, since the 1980s, one of strict neutrality.
All land not clearly the property of a documented owner was nationalized with government seizure of traditional communal grazing lands. The Mauritania–Senegal Border War started in 1987 between Moorish Mauritanian herders and Senegalese farmers over grazing rights. Riots against Moorish Mauritanians who dominated the local retail business led to a campaign within the country of terror against black Mauritanians, who are often seen as ‘Senegalese’, regardless of their nationality. This ethnic discord was evident during inter-communal violence that broke out in April 1989, but has since subsided. Mauritania expelled some 70,000 sub-Saharan African Mauritanians in the late 1980s. Ethnic tensions and the sensitive issue of slavery – past and, in some areas, present – are still powerful themes in the country’s political debate. A significant number from all groups seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.
In 1991, Mauritania supported Iraq and all aid dried up.
As conflict with Senegal continued into 1990/91, the Mauritanian government engaged in or encouraged acts of violence and seizures of property directed against blacks against a background of Arabization. Of 5,000 blacks (mostly slaves) imprisoned, as many as 500 Fula and Soninke political prisoners were executed or tortured to death by Mauritanian government forces. The war culminated in an international airlift agreed to by Senegal and Mauritania under international pressure to prevent further violence. The Mauritanian Government expelled tens of thousands of black Mauritanians. Most of these so-called ‘Senegalese’ had no ties to Senegal, and many still reside in refugee camps in Mali (13,000) and Senegal (53,000).
Political parties were legalized again in 1991 and 12 major political parties were active in 2004. PRDS, formerly led by President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya has dominated Mauritanian politics after the country’s first multi-party elections.
During the mid-to late 1990s, Mauritania shifted its foreign policy to one of increased co-operation with the US and Europe. It was rewarded with diplomatic normalization and aid projects. On 28 October 1999, Mauritania joined Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan as the only members of the Arab League to officially recognize Israel. Ould Taya also started co-operating with the United States in anti-terrorism activities, a policy which was criticized by some human rights organizations.
The 2001 election was cosmetic and in the 2003 presidential election, Taya won reelection with 67.02% of the popular vote.
August 2005 military coup led by Colonel Vall ended Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya’s twenty-one years of rule. A new 2005 constitution was approved by 97% of the population. Mauritania’s establishment of relations with Israel – it is one of only three Arab states to recognize Israel – was maintained by the new regime,
2007 presidential election. Mauritania’s first fully democratic presidential elections took place on 11 March 2007.
2008 military coup. A day after 48 lawmakers from the ruling party resigned in protest of President Abdallahi’s policies, a coup was coordinated by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. After the coup, Mauritania was isolated internationally, and became subject to diplomatic sanctions and the cancellation of some aid projects. Demonstrations were banned and opposition activists cracked down on. The new government broke off relations with Israel in 2010.
New elections in 2010 selected Abdel Aziz as civilian president by a 52% majority. Despite marginal complaints, the elections were almost unanimously accepted by Western, Arab and African countries, which lifted sanctions and resumed relations with Mauritania.
Arab Spring. In February 2011, the waves of the Arab Spring spread to Mauritania, where thousands of people took to the streets of the capital. The largely peaceful protest movement has demanded President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz institute political, economic, and legal reforms. Common themes included slavery, which is officially illegal in Mauritania but is widespread in the country, and other human rights abuses the opposition has accused the government of perpetrating.
In November 2014, Mauritania was invited as a non-member guest nation to the G20 summit in Brisbane.
The economy has grown, in part due to mineral extraction, gas exploration and new factory fishing licences given to EU and Chinese fishing fleets.
A prolonged drought in 2011 led to rocketing food prices and an increase in aid dependency. Mauritania’s long border with Mali has received large numbers of refugees.
Modern-day slavery is still a common practice in Mauritania. According to some estimates, up to 600,000 Mauritanians, or 20% of the population, are still enslaved. A 2012 CNN report, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” by John D. Sutter, describes and documents the ongoing slave-owning cultures. This social discrimination is applied chiefly against the “black Moors” (Haratin) in the northern part of the country, where tribal elites among “white Moors” (Beidane) hold sway. Low-caste groups within the sub-Saharan African ethnic groups of the south are also sometimes enslaved.
20% Haratines (black Moors) Descendants of sub-Saharan peoples enslaved by the Moors, have assimilated the Moorish culture and speak Hassaniyya, an Arabic dialect.
40% Non-Arabic speaking Africans living in the south along the Senegal River: Wolof, Bambara, Toucouleur (settled farmers), Fula, Soninke, mostly nomadic stock-breeders. These groups speak Pulaar (Fula)
40% Moors of Arab and Berber descent – Moors of purely Arab descent are called Bidan and hold the levers of political power.
The extended family, clan or tribe remains the cornerstone of society, especially among the Moors. The iconic image of nomadic Moors sipping a cup of tea under a tent in the desert belongs to the past. Over the past 3 decades, drought has resulted in a mass-exodus of traditionally nomadic Moors from the desert into Nouakchott.
Only one-third as many women as men are literate and few are involved in commercial activities. Female genital mutilation and forced feeding of young brides are still practiced in rural communities. Mauritanian women do have the right to divorce and exert is routinely.
Religion. Islam 99%, most Sunni. The minority Sufi brotherhood, the Tijaniyah, has had great influence not only in the country, but in Senegal and Morocco as well.
Christian 1%. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nouakchott, founded in 1965, serves the 4,500 Catholics in Mauritania. There are extreme restrictions on freedom of religion and belief in Mauritania; it is one of thirteen countries in the world which punishes atheism by death.
Health. Life expectancy at birth was 61.14 years (2011 estimate). In the early 21st century, there were 11 physicians per 100,000 people. Infant mortality is 60.42 deaths/1,000 live births (2011 estimate).
The obesity rate among Mauritanian women is high, perhaps in part due to the local standards of beauty, in which obese women are considered beautiful while thin women are sometimes regarded as “sickly”.
Education. Literary Arabic; French is introduced in the second year, and is used to teach all scientific courses. The use of English is increasing. Mauritania has the University of Nouakchott and other institutions of higher education, but the majority of highly educated Mauritanians have studied outside the country.
At 1,030,000 square kilometres (397,685 sq mi), 90% is desert, or semi-desert. As a result of extended, severe drought, the desert has been expanding since the mid-1960s. Mauritania is the world’s 29th-largest country (after Bolivia). It is comparable in size to Egypt and twice the size of France. It lies mostly between latitudes 14° and 26°N, and longitudes 5° and 17°W.
Mauritania is generally flat, with vast arid plains broken by occasional ridges and cliff-like outcroppings. The highest peak is 915m rising from the 500m high Adrar Plateau. The south is mostly flat scrubland.
The 700kms of coast includes Parc National de Banc d’Arguin, one of the world’s major bird-breeding grounds and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Overfishing is a concern.
Despite being rich in natural resources, Mauritania has a low GDP. A majority of the population still depends on agriculture and livestock for a livelihood, even though most of the nomads and many subsistence farmers were forced into the cities by recurrent droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. Mauritania has extensive deposits of iron ore, which account for almost 50% of total exports. With the current rises in metal prices, gold and copper mining companies are opening mines in the interior.
The country’s first deepwater port opened near Nouakchott in 1986. In recent years, drought and economic mismanagement have resulted in a buildup of foreign debt. Privatization remains one of the key issues. Mauritania is unlikely to meet annual GDP growth objectives of 4%–5%.
Oil was discovered in Mauritania in 2001 in the offshore Chinguetti field. Although potentially significant for the Mauritanian economy, its overall influence is difficult to predict. Mauritania has been described as a “desperately poor desert nation, which straddles the Arab and African worlds and is Africa’s newest, if small-scale, oil producer. There may be additional oil reserves inland in the Taoudeni basin, although the harsh environment will make extraction expensive.
The Abdallahi government was widely perceived as corrupt and restricted access to government information. Sexism, racism, female genital mutilation, child labour, human trafficking, and the political marginalization of largely southern-based ethnic groups continued to be problems.
Following the 2008 coup, the military government of Mauritania faced severe international sanctions and internal unrest. The Mauritanian legal system functioned with complete disregard for legal procedure, fair trial, or humane imprisonment. The Mauritanian government has practiced institutionalized and continuous use of torture throughout its post-independence history, under all its leaders.
Discrimination against black population, mainly Fula and Soninké, has been endemic since independence. They contest the political, economic, and social dominance of Moors. Mauritanian blacks face discrimination in employment in the civil service, the administration of justice before regular and religious courts, access to loans and credits from banks and state-owned enterprise, and opportunities for education and vocational training. Armed groups have carried out low-level rebellions in the southern part of Mauritania because of these continuing discriminatory practices.
Modern slavery. Slavery persists in Mauritania. Although nominally abolished in 1981, it was not illegal to own slaves until 2007. Abuses in Mauritania include: mistreatment of detainees and prisoners; security force impunity; lengthy pretrial detention; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests; limits on freedom of the press and assembly; corruption; discrimination against women; female genital mutilation (FGM); child marriage; political marginalization of southern-based ethnic groups; racial and ethnic discrimination; slavery and slavery-related practices; and child labor. Women and children are most targeted. Government efforts have not been sufficient to enforce the antislavery law. Only one person has been prosecuted for owning slaves in 2011. In 2012, it was estimated that 10% to 20% of the population of Mauritania (between 340,000 and 680,000 people) live in slavery. According to the Global Slavery Index 2014, there are an estimated 155,600 enslaved people in Mauritania, ranking it 31st of 167 countries by absolute number of slaves, and 1st by prevalence, with 4% of the population.
The government of Mauritania denies that slavery continues in the country. Obstacles to ending slavery in Mauritania include: The difficulty of enforcing any laws in the country’s vast desert, poverty that limits opportunities for slaves to support themselves if freed and the belief that slavery is part of the natural order of this society.
Mauritania is a land about desert and ocean. The main attractions for most tourists are the desert in Adrar and the Tagant areas, 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). 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.
The Adrar is exactly how you’ve always imagined the Sahara as full of stunning desert scenery: endless ergs (dunes) and regs (rocky desert) with tabular small mountains. Take a 4×4 off-piste across rocky terrain and through narrow canyons to explore the lush, hidden oases that have provided water and refuge to traders crossing the Sahara for centuries. The Adrar contains two of the countries magnificent historical cities. Chinguetti was once a trading center and center of Islamic scholarship whose architecture remains unchanged in nearly a millennium. Along with Ouadane and a few other small towns, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is some superb traditional architecture in these ancient Sahara towns.
Don’t forget the world’s longest train either just for a glimpse or to hop into an iron ore car filled with Mauritanians for the 12-hour ride from the Adrar to the coast. The remains of the Almoravid capital Azoughui as well as rock paintings are also draws of the Adrar.
Parc National du Banc d’Arguin. Much of the central coastline is home to millions of migrating birds each year and it is one of the world’s greatest birdwatching venues. At Nouamgar, you can watch the unique spectacle of local tribesmen communicating with dolphins to round-up teams of fish into shallow waters for them to be netted.
Oualata an oasis city in the southeast, the southern end of most trans-Sahara trading routes in the 13th & 14th centuries. The city boasts colourful buildings, many of which feature intricate geometric designs. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also boasts a manuscript museum with examples of ancient scrolls in fine calligraphy.
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. Neither slavery, female genital mutilation, child labour nor human trafficking are rare and racism against people with darker skins is both open and prevalent. The Southern part of the country is filled with friendly people, and they are very welcoming, if a little unused to tourists.
Travelling to Mauritania is becoming easier, with charter flights from France to Atar through the winter months. Guides and tourist agencies are quite easy to find.
The climate is characterized by extremes in temperature and by meagre and irregular rainfall. Most of Mauritania is located in the tropics, and the weather is often very hot, although night-time temperatures can dip below 7°C and as low as freezing point in the Sahara during the early morning.
Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, Atar, Chinguetti, Nouadhibou, large fishing center and industrial harbor, Tichit
Air. Nouakchott International Airport (NKC)
Mauritania Airlines International flies to, Dakar, Casablanca and Zoueratt.
Air Algérie flights from Algiers
Air France flies from Paris Alternatively you can take a charter flight, which costs around Iberia flies Noukchott to Madrid via Las Palmas in the Canaries.
Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul
Train. No trains run between Mauritania and its neighbours.
Land Crossings. Mauritania has open road borders open to crossing by private motor vehicle or bicycle:
Western Sahara/Morocco – Nouadhibou. Paved from the Moroccan border post in Fort Guerguarat, then about 7 kilometers of twisting, stony road to reach the Mauritanian border, where the tarred road begins again. Do not to leave this well-worn road because the area is a mine field and is not considered mine-free until you pass the railway line. Transit visas – valid for 3 days – can no longer be bought at the border.
Mali. 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. An alternative land route goes direct from Mauritania to Timbuktu,
From Morocco: Supratours runs a nightly bus from Dakhla to the border at Gargarate.
It is also possible to get to the border by hitching with overlanders from Dakhla or in Rabat, or by paying for passage with Mauritanian traders. The ride should be started rather early and takes most of the day.
From Senegal: Bush taxis can be taken from Dakar and St Louis to Rosso, where a ferry makes the trip across the Senegal river, and further bush taxis can be taken to Nouakchott. At Rosso you will be told innumerate lies: CFA cannot be changed on the other side of the river, that the next free ferry is two hours away and you should hire a boat, that you should arrange onward transport Senegal side for a better deal etc etc. None of this is true. Admittedly the banks will not change CFA but the shops will and at a better rate than the guys hanging around the ferry. The ferry goes back and forth non stop. You do not need any help at customs. 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.
Train. The only train line in Mauritania links Nouadhibou with Choum and Zouerat, but it’s a tourist attraction itself. The train is said to be the longest one in the world, having over 220 cars and being over 2 kilometers long. It’s used to carry iron ore from the Zouerat mine to Nouadhibou harbour.
The train departs daily from Nouadhibou at around 3pm and arrives in Choum at around 2am the next morning. Check departure times on arrival.
There is normally only 2 unheated passenger carriages on the train. One overcrowded regular and one first class with uncomfortable bunk beds. Traveling in an iron ore hopper is also possible, free and advisable. A scarf to cover your face is necessary as there is a lot of dust. There is no food or drink for sale on the train. From Choum to Nouadhibou, the train is then filled with iron ore, a bit more pleasant than when it’s empty – slower, less bumpy and the view is better standing on top of the pile of stones. To sleep, pick a corner in the front of the car, flatten the ground, tuck yourself in a sleeping bag and you will sleep just fine.
From Choum it’s possible to get to Atar with a bush taxi in 2 hours on a bumpy unpaved road.
Fiche. Most roadblock/checkpoint police will require a fiche – a document with your data on it in French (name, nationality, itinerary for the journey, etc.). Have at least 50 fiches for Mauritania when driving Morocco-Mali or Morocco-Senegal. Another dozens for Western Sahara.
Silver work. Most prized are wooden chests with silver inlay, silver daggers, silver and amber jewelry.
Fabric will be sold in boutiques all over the country, but Kaedi is famous for its tie-dying 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.
In general, the quality of most Mauritanian souvenirs is not as good as one might expect: leather products, pipes, wooden bowls, tea pots and silver jewellery among other things (be careful with the quality of jewellery). When buying anything in Mauritania, feel free to bargain. Sometimes the starting price will be three times the actual price. Stay friendly, but don’t worry about insulting anyone by asking for a lower price.
The desert cuisine of the Moors is unmemorable and lacks variety. Dishes are bland and limited to rice, mutton, goat, camel or dried fish.
Most restaurants in the capital offer much the same menu – simple pizzas, hamburgers, sandwiches and salads. 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. Most restaurants outside of Nouakchott do not have very high standards of cleanliness. Mechui. Traditional nomad’s feast of roasted sheep stuffed with rice, is also delicious. Look for carcasses hanging by the side of the road.
Fruit can be found in most regional capitals. Another alternative, in the absence of a restaurant, is paying a family to prepare food for you. Bottled water is a good idea for anyone not accustomed to Africa.
Southern cuisine is Senagalese, has more variety, spices and even a few vegetables.
Boutiques everywhere sell bread, cakes, biscuits and drinks if nothing else
Tea is usually served after a meal, but it is not included with the meal at restaurants. Strong, sweet and endlessly decanted between tiny glasses to produce a frothy head. 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.
Zrig is unsweetened curdled goat or camel milk often accompanying meals served in private homes.
Despite being an Islamic country there are a few fun bars in the capital: the Salamander or the trashy (but open late) Club VIP. Next door to VIP is the Casablanca, Drinking can be expensive, with a beer costing up to $US6. There is a nightclub inside the French Embassy compound. 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 1500 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.
Mauritania is generally one of the safest countries in Africa, particularly the capital and the main tourist region of the Adrar.
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 and jihadism. The one paved road coming from Morocco was especially dangerous at one point in time, being the site of jihadhi and related Al Qaida kidnappings. however, as of November 2015, the Mauritanian military keeps a tight hold on the highway from the border to Nouadhibou and on down to Nouakchot. If you travel by day and stick to these main routes, you’ll have no problems. In 2008, the Paris-Dakar Rally was cancelled due to threats against the Mauritanian leg by Islamist groups.
Check your Embassy or Consulate travel advisories carefully. Due to increasing numbers of attacks on Westerners by Jihadists in the past several years, most Western nations advise great caution. Resident expatriates travel between cities by day, in groups and on major routes.
For the majority of Westerners, the local water in any part of the country (including Nouakchott) is not safe to drink. Visitors should drink only bottled water if they don’t have access to some type of water purifying or filtration system. The Sahara is a very dry climate. You may become dehydrated quite easily, and not be aware of it. The best rule of thumb is to be sure that you have urinated three times each day, at reasonable intervals. In the hottest part of the year, this might mean drinking several liters of water each day.
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 Salaam 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.
Women. Covering your head isn’t required, but it is polite. 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. Be aware though, that many Mauritanians, both male and female, think that a direct gaze is a sexual invitation. There is even a phrase in Hassiniya, ayna m’tina, meaning strong eyes, to describe what many people feel is an aggressive act. Just because you are in a foreign country doesn’t mean that the men have carte blanche to be jerks, though. Calling them on their bad behaviour, or pointing it out to the ever-present bystanders, can often work. If you give respect, you can demand it also. The Moors respect women who stand up for themselves.
If you are travelling with someone of the opposite sex, avoid touching in public. It’s actually much more common to 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 trousers, but avoid tank tops and to-the-knee skirts. Long skirts are the best choice for women. It is a good idea to cover your arms also. Trousers display the crotch area and thus are also disturbing, especially to people in the countryside who aren’t as used to seeing this as the city folk. Most people will be very polite, and you will not know what they are thinking.
If you are a female, there is no non-sexual reason, EVER, to go off in private with a man. If they ask you to step into an office, or back of a shop or anywhere; don’t. The men are aware that is an unreasonable request, and no one would ask you for a private chat if they meant well. If you allow yourself to be alone with a man, for however brief a time, everyone will assume you had sex, and will judge you accordingly.
Gay Travellers. If you are LGBT, stay out of Mauritania. Violence happens all the time with police joining in or turning a blind eye to violence towards LGBT. No businesses are LGBT friendly. Mauritania imposes the death penalty for homosexuality.
If you are white, Nasrani, Toubac and Toubab refers to you. Little kids, and sometimes rude adults, will refer to you by this name. Nasrani actually means a person from Nazareth. Since Christians follow Christ’s teachings, and Christ is from Nazareth, then Christians are all honorary Nazarenes.
Beware of people who may try to take advantage of your 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. If they ask for something that you own, just say that you need it right now, and can give it to them in a month or so.
Telephone. There are three operators of a GSM-Network: Mattel (excellent English website), Mauritel Mobiles and Chinguitel. Prepaid plans are available for three of them. You can make international calls and send faxes at post offices. There are no telephone area codes.
For tours into the desert where no GSM-Network is available satellite phones are a good solution. Thuraya, Iridium or Inmarsat. Thuraya tends to be the cheapest and the easiest to use. The equipment is also available for rent.
Internet. It’s better to use your mobile’s data connection. Although, Internet cafés with DSL internet can be found in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou for 200-300 UM an hour. Slower connections plague “cybercafes” elsewhere in the country, but if you are desperate to check your email it is usually possible.