Mauritania (Arabic: موريتانيا, Mūrītānyā; French: Mauritanie) is a land of desert and ocean. It is of course no wonder that 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 Mauritanian Adrar is probably exactly how you've always imagined the Sahara: endless ergs (dunes) and regs (rocky desert) with tabular small mountains, but most tourists stay along the west coast of Mauritania. 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.
Mauritania is the least developed and poorest country in northwest Africa, and extremist groups pose a danger to visitors.
|Coastal Mauritania (Nouakchott)|
the narrow coastal strip with a crashing Atlantic coastline and the capital city
|Sahelian Mauritania |
semi arid region in the south including the patchily lush Senegal River valley
|Saharan Mauritania |
huge northern desert area which is largely very empty
- 1 Nouakchott (Arabic: نواكشوط) –– the capital of Mauritania and one of the largest cities in the Sahel.
- 2 Atar
- 3 Chinguetti (Arabic: شنقيط) –– a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home of the Chinguetti Mosque.
- 4 Nouadhibou (Arabic: نواذيبو) –– the second largest city in the country.
- 5 Tichit
- 1 Banc d'Arguin National Park — a breeding site for many different species of migratory birds, this coastal national park is a world heritage site.
|Currency||Mauritanian ouguiya (MRU)|
|Population||4.6 million (2021)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug)|
|Time zone||UTC±00:00, Africa/Nouakchott|
|Emergencies||101 (emergency medical services), 117 (police), 118 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Southwestern Mauritania was once home to the Ghana Empire, one of the earliest urbanised civilisations to emerge in western Africa, with its capital at Koumbi Saleh.
Mauritania is an Islamic Republic, but few Mauritanians are extremists, even if the majority of the people in the North are very conservative and quite reserved. However, for people from outside the Maghreb there is a risk of kidnapping, especially in the more remote northern and eastern parts.
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. Guides and tourist agencies are quite easy to find.
Politics and government
The climate is characterized by extremes in temperature and by meagre and irregular rainfall. Annual temperature variations are small, although diurnal variations can be extreme. The harmattan, a hot, dry and often dust-laden wind, blows from the Sahara throughout the long dry season and is the prevailing wind, except along the narrow coastal strip, which is influenced by oceanic trade winds. Most rain falls during the short rainy season (hivernage), Jul-Sep, and average annual precipitation varies from 500 to 600 millimetres in the far south to less than 100mm in the northern two-thirds of the country.
Haratin, sometimes referred to as Black Moors, are the largest single ethnic group in Mauritania, constituting 40% of the population, and are descendants of former slaves. About 30% of the population are Bidhan, also called Moors. The rest of the population mostly consists of members of peoples who also live in neighboring Sahelian countries such as Senegal and Mali, including the Fula, Soninke, Bambara and Wolof.
Islam is the main religion in Mauritania and is practiced by virtually all Mauritanians.
Mauritania's visa policy is remarkably liberal and has open borders; everyone can get a visa on arrival at the international airports or land borders for US $60/€55 (as of Jan 2023). Cash only and no coins, so plan accordingly.
You can, if you like, obtain a visa from a Mauritanian embassy. For instance, it can be arranged in Rabat, where a single entry visa fee is 1,000 dirham. A double entry visa is also available for 1,100 dirham. Two passport-size photos are required, as well as a copy of the information pages of your passport. Visas are available on the same day in the afternoon if applied for in the morning for most nationalities.
Nouakchott–Oumtounsy International Airport (NKC IATA) is the base for Mauritanian Airlines, which flies in from Bamako, Dakar, Abidjan and Nouadhibou. It also receives flights from Algiers on Air Algérie[dead link] and from Paris on Air France. Tunisair has flights from Tunis, Senegal airlines has flights from Dakar, Turkish airlines has flights from Istanbul, Royal Air Maroc has flights from Casablanca, CanaryFly have flights from Gran Canaria.
The road from the Western Sahara/Morocco enters the country near Nouadhibou. The road is paved all the way to the Moroccan border post in Fort Guerguarat, where one has to traverse about 7 km 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. Transit visas, valid for 3 days, can no longer be bought at the border, although this may change. There is a bureau de change at the border, and a vehicle insurance office and numerous hopeful guides for making the old desert crossing to the capital.
There are numerous pistes running across the Mauritanian border from Mali. These is 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 which goes direct from Mauritania to Timbuktu, Mali is to travel the road Southeast from Néma, which is at the end of a good tarred road from Nouakchott. This dirt road continues to Bassekounou before crossing the border near Léré, Mali, where it improves to a good dirt road to Niafunké and on to Timbuktu.
By bus/bush taxi
- From Morocco: Supratours runs a bus to the border at Guerguerat. It departs from the Dakhla waterfront at 08:00 and arrives at the frontier at 13:00 for 160 dirham, 15:00 from the frontier to Dakhla at 20:30. Access is available by hitching with overlanders from Dakhla (most can be picked up from Camping Moussafir just north of Dakhla) or from the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat, or by paying for passage with Mauritanian traders. These can be found opposite the first police checkpoint north of Dakhla, the going rate is 250-380 dirham (negotiable) the ride should be started rather early and takes most of the day and border crossing is closed overnight. Cars with experienced drivers can be organized from Hotel Sahara (the budget one). This costs around 250 dirham per person.
- To Morocco: Cars with drivers can be arranged to cross the minefield from Mauritania to Western Sahara from Hotels in Nouadhibou.
- From Senegal: Bush taxis can be taken from Dakar (6,000 CFA francs) and St Louis (2,000 CFA francs) (amongst others) to Rosso, where a ferry makes the trip across the Senegal river, and further bush taxis can be taken to Nouakchott (about 200 ouguiya). Be careful of bush taxis offering deals that seem too good to be true. They may be illegal taxis and could prove to be a dangerous means of transport. There will most likely be a number of drivers waiting. Ask around and find out the going rate. 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.
Make sure to have plenty of passport copies for travelling between towns. It’s not uncommon to give away up to 5-10 passport copies a day to police at checkpoints.
Some countries, such as the United States, advise their citizens to not use Mauritanian taxis because they are poorly maintained. If you must get around a city, only use trusted, pre-arranged taxis. Your hotel or your tour agent may help you with this.
Ride-hailing is available in Mauritania.
It's no open secret; the Mauritanian rail network is limited and underdeveloped.
As of 2023, there's only one train line linking the following cities: Nouadhibou, Choum and Zouerat. The rail network is mainly used to transport iron ore from mines in Zouerat to the port in Nouadhibou, but some people ride on it to travel to other cities. The full journey takes about twenty hours.
Although this may seem like a good way to explore the Saharan desert, keep in mind that the train can be overcrowded, it can be quite uncomfortable, and that it is depressingly common for people to fall from the train. The scorching hot temperatures of the Saharan Desert can make things even more uncomfortable and difficult. If you are not acclimatised or used to travelling in difficult conditions, travelling by train is not advisable.
The train departs daily from Nouadhibou at around 15:00 and arrives in Choum (for Atar) at around 02:00 the next morning. Check departure times on arrival.
There is only one passenger carriage, but travel in iron ore hopper is also possible (and advisable, as the passenger car is usually overcrowded and tickets are required). There is also first-class accommodation, seats are limited, but they allow access to a smaller room with bunk beds. Although it does not necessarily ensure more comfort. Ticket price is 300 ouguiya (2018) for second class in the passenger carriage and travel in the hopper is free of charge. Remember to have a scarf to cover your face, as there is a lot of dust.
From Choum it's possible to get to Atar with a bush taxi. The journey could take up to eight hours if the vehicle has a breakdown.
Arabic is the official language of Mauritania. The Modern Standard dialect is the main language of the government, whereas the Hassaniya dialect is the local vernacular. Hassaniya Arabic contains many loanwords from various Berber languages and differs significantly from Modern Standard Arabic.
French is widely spoken, a reminder of the country's colonial heritage. It is taught from the sixth grade in Mauritanian schools and it serves as one of the main lingua francas of the country. It's widely used in everyday business and government. Most websites in Mauritania are either in Arabic or French. If you don't know any Arabic, having some knowledge of French would make your trip smoother.
English is not widely spoken, but its use is gradually increasing, especially among Mauritanian youth. Although the government encourages its citizens to study English, many English-teaching institutions in Mauritania are poorly structured and lack direction. Still, Mauritanians see English as an important skill to have in the job market. You're likely to find an English-speaker in the capital, Nouakchott.
The Adrar massif in the north is full of stunning desert scenery. Take a 4x4 off-piste across rocky terrain and through narrow canyons to explore the lush, hidden oases which have provided water and refuge to traders crossing the Sahara for centuries. The Adrar contains two of the country's magnificent historical cities. Chinguetti was once a trading centre and centre 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. And do not miss 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 journey from the Adrar to the coast. The remains of the Almoravid capital Azoughui, and rock paintings, are draws of the Adrar.
Much of the central coastline is part of Parc National du Banc d'Arguin, home to millions of migrating birds each year. 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.
In the southeast, the oasis city of Oualata was the southern end of most trans-Sahara trading routes in the 13th & 14th centuries. The city has 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.
- Visiting the Hamoni library in Chinguetti
Exchange rates for Mauritanian ouguiya
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The country's currency is the Mauritanian ouguiya (pron. oo-gee-ya), denoted by the symbol "UM" or "أوقية" (ISO code: MRU). It was revalued in Dec 2017: 10 old UM (ISO: MRO) = 1 new UM (MRU).
Mauritania is poorly connected to the international banking system. Many ATMs in Nouakchott now accept international Visa cards at banks such as BNP, Attijari and Societe Generale (the latter also accepts Mastercards) in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, but otherwise, credit cards are accepted almost nowhere. It is easy to change euros, US dollars and CFA francs in Nouakchott. There are few Mastercard and Visa card ATMs in Nouadhibou.
Souvenirs can be bought at Marché Capital or Marché Sixième 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.
In general, the quality of most Mauritanian souvenirs is not as good as one might expect. Typical souvenirs include leather products, pipes, wooden bowls, tea pots and silver jewellery; be careful about the quality of jewellery. 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 UM 150-800, depending on the fabric quality and work involved.
When buying anything in Mauritania, be sure 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.
Mauritanian cuisine is often overlooked in favour of the more recognisable cuisines of North Africa and the Middle East. Don't let that stop you from fully experiencing Mauritanian gastronomy; Mauritanian cuisine is a unique blend of flavours and incorporates African, Arab, and French influences.
There is a decent variety of restaurants in Nouakchott with dishes costing from UM100 to 250. Most restaurants in the capital offer 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, Café Liban and Le Petit Café. The Sahara Café, on the other side of the stadium, is also a good place for pizza, sandwiches or Lebanese dishes, 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, the choice is 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 meals from UM 20-50. 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. Most restaurants outside of Nouakchott do not have very high standards of cleanliness. 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 UM 150), even if it takes a while (up to a couple hours to buy the food and prepare it).
Bottled water can be bought for UM 20 and is a good idea for anyone not accustomed to Africa.
If none of this sounds good, keep in mind that 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. 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, with a beer costing up to US$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 beyond 0.5 litres, which must be declared.
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 UM 150 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 sleeping on the ground on a foam mat, sleeping/eating near animals or using a latrine, you will probably end up having a pleasant and memorable stay.
The University of Nouakchott Al Asriya is the largest university in the country.
Mauritania is a country that has long been associated with a tradition of North-South trade and is favorable to free markets and entrepreneurship. The government welcomes businesses and individuals that can contribute to Mauritania's long-term development because the government is keen on overcoming a history of poverty and economic disarray.
Although that sounds impressive, Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries. With such high rates of poverty, bureaucratic corruption, and illiteracy, Mauritania isn't thought of as a top destination for expatriates. There are not enough jobs for everyone; the country suffers from high levels of unemployment. This is often blamed on a poorly developed educational system.
Nepotism is common in the Mauritanian business world. The country's association with tribalism and tribal ties means that there are patronage networks in the country.
If you have no knowledge of either French, Arabic, or both, expect things to be an uphill battle; very little English is spoken in Mauritania and you can expect all business transactions and communications to be conducted in either French or Arabic.
The importance of having connections in the country cannot be overstated. Maintaining good contact with the Mauritanian government and having a degree of influence within the local community will help you or your business succeed in Mauritania.
The area near Western Sahara is heavily mined, and travel through this area is highly inadvisable. Border areas lining Algeria and Mali are notorious for banditry. The single paved road coming from Morocco is perilous, having been the site of Al Qaida kidnappings. If you must travel on this path, it is best to do so in a tight caravan. 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.
Check your embassy or consulate travel advisories carefully. Due to increasing numbers of attacks on Westerners in the past several years, most Western nations advise great caution. Resident expatriates travel between cities by day, in groups and on major routes.
Mauritania is an Islamic country, and the government recognises Islam as the sole religion of its citizens.
Under current laws, Mauritanians who convert to other religions lose their citizenship.
Under current laws (Article 306 of the Mauritanian penal code), the death penalty is statuatory for apostasy and blasphemy, i.e., criticising or disrespecting religion.
It is unwise to speak badly of Islam, hand out non-Islamic religious literature, or encourage people to participate in religious debates.
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 litres of water each day.
Malaria is endemic in the southern part of the country, and visitors should always use a mosquito net there. Mosquitoes 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).
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Mauritania during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
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 cutlery. Like other places in the Arab world, the left hand is reserved for the toilet. If you're left-handed... try hard.
Covering your head isn't required, but it is polite. It may cut down on the Madame, ou bien Mademoiselle? (Mrs or Miss?) question, but Westerners, especially women, will be the target of unwanted attention and minor harassment everywhere in the country. 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. This doesn't mean however, that the men have carte blanche to harass. 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, even while they push you to see how far they can get.
If you are travelling with someone of the opposite sex, avoid touching in public. It's 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 dwellers. 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 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. As a weakling, not as dissolute.
Slavery is a sensitive historical and social issue in Mauritania. While there do have laws prohibiting and criminalizing slavery, such practice still persists in the local society, and there are records of government harassment. As a tourist, you are best not to be involved in the situation.
If you are white, Nasrani, Toubac and Toubab refers to you. Children, and sometimes rude adults, will refer to you by this name. Nasrani 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 now, and can give it to them in a month or so.
There are three operators of GSM networks: Mattel (excellent English website), Mauritel Mobiles [formerly dead link] and Chinguitel[dead link]. Prepaid plans are available for three of them. Further Information regarding Coverage and Roaming are available from GSM-World.
For tours into the desert where no GSM-Network is available satellite phones are a good solution. Service providers include Thuraya, Iridium and Inmarsat. Thuraya tends to be the cheapest and the easiest to use. The equipment is also available for rent.
Internet cafés with DSL internet can be found in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou for 200-300 UM/hour. Slower connections plague "cybercafés" elsewhere in the country, but it's possible to check emails.