Mauritania Travel Guide
A nation defined by sand dunes and the sea, Mauritania is a great place for those looking for a challenging trip in one of Africa’s larger Saharan countries. While there are places along its lonely border regions that pose a risk for travellers (groups affiliated with Al-Qaida haunt those areas), the majority of the country is a safe and welcoming place for foreigners.
From dry and dusty Saharan towns to coastal fishing villages, migratory bird reserves to desert oases, there are plenty of amazing experiences waiting for you in Mauritania.
Currency: Mauritanian Ouguiyas
Languages: Arabic, French, Soninke, Pulaar, Wolof
What To Do
Unless you are travelling overland from the Western Sahara or Senegal, chances are you’ll be beginning your Mauritania adventure in Nouakchott. A small but bustling city that is home to just under a million people, there are a number of attractions that will hold your attention here, but if you are looking to grab some great pictures, make your way over to Port de Pêche in the afternoon.
At this time, fishing fleets are making their way back into the harbour, carrying massive catches with them. The boats are colourful, the workers are as real as they come, and photographic opportunities are many. Just be respectful and keep your distance, and you’ll have an eventful day to start off your trip to Mauritania.
Once you are ready to make a push into the Mauritanian interior, make Chinguetti one of your first destinations. Sitting well within the bounds of the Saharan Desert, the windswept feel of this town will only compliment the sandstone and mud structures that stand strong against a forbidding landscape.
While there are many striking buildings within its old town, be sure to check out Bibliotheque Habott before moving on in your travels, as its many ancient texts and architecture will take you back in time to the medieval era, when this part of the world was at the peak of its glory.
It may not be an activity causal travellers would go for, but if you have a thirst for adventure that simply must be quenched, seriously consider catching a ride aboard the infamous Iron Ore Train.
A freight train that travels from the mines at Adrar to the coast, it is the longest train in the world, with three kilometres worth of cars from the locomotive to the caboose. Bring plenty of water (multiple big bottles – the Sahara Desert will dry you out faster than you realize), sunscreen, a scarf to keep the sand out of your hair and mouth, and food (to share with others in addition to feeding yourself).
It’s easier than it sounds, but it will make you look like a hardcore traveller to your friends and family back home, so give it a go if you are thinking about doing it.
If you aren’t fond of such wild adventures, the Mauritania Sahara still has plenty to offer conventional travellers. The Richat Structure is a good place to start, as this bizarre geological formation has attracted attention for its eye-like appearance.
Although it will look like nothing special when you initially arrive at this sight, going up in a hot air balloon will make you understand why NASA uses this circular formation as a landmark.
The Sahara Desert can be an unforgiving place, but thanks to places like the Terjit Oasis, caravan trade routes have been able to exist across its sandy expanse for countless generations. Today, it is a lush place for travellers to visit, as palm trees grow alongside a stream that arises from a wadi, as if by magic.
Camp in the yards of locals for a small fee, and you’ll have the chance to connect with residents in this unique place, where you can see every star in the night sky without the interfering influence of artificial light.
When you make it back to the coast, spend some time exploring Banc d’Arguin National Park before making your way back to Nouakchott. This nature preserve in Mauritania is best known for being a place where migratory birds breed.
Terns, sandpipers, pelicans, and flamingos are just some of the avian species that spend part of their year here. Coming from as far afield as Greenland and Siberia, the protection of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is vital to the long-term health of many visiting species.
What to Eat
Want to dine on the national dish of Mauritania? Ask some locals where you can find some Thieboudienne. A seafood dish that combines rice, fish, tomato sauce, onions, carrots, cabbage, and cassava, it is a meal that celebrates the contribution of this nation’s fishers to its cuisine.
If you’d prefer a meal that comes from the land rather than the sea, be sure to order some Méchoui. A simple but satisfying dish, it consists of a sheep or a lamb that is roasted whole over a charcoal barbeque.
This meal is often eaten without utensils, so be sure to only use your right hand, as locals typically use the left for cleaning up after going to the washroom.
Those looking for something light but satisfying at lunch will want to have some Harira. A complex soup containing chickpeas, tomatoes, lentils, rice, eggs, meat (beef, lamb, or chicken) and varying herbs & spices, it is a treat that will have you asking for seconds.