Mauritania Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

Mauritania, located in northwest Africa, beckons intrepid travelers with its vast expanses of Saharan desert, diverse landscapes, and rich cultural tapestry. As a destination less frequented by mainstream tourism, Mauritania offers a unique and authentic experience for those seeking adventure off the beaten path. From the ancient cities of Chinguetti and Oualata, recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, to the captivating landscapes of the Adrar Plateau and the Banc d’Arguin National Park, Mauritania unfolds as a destination of historical significance and natural splendor. Travelers can immerse themselves in the nomadic traditions of the Moors, explore prehistoric rock art, and traverse the undulating dunes of the Sahara. With its distinctive blend of history, culture, and untouched beauty, Mauritania awaits those with an adventurous spirit and a desire to explore a lesser-known corner of the African continent.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? 📅

The best time to visit Mauritania as a tourist largely depends on your preferences and the specific activities you plan to engage in. Generally, there are two main seasons in Mauritania: the dry season and the wet season.

  1. Dry Season (November to April):
    • This is considered the best time to visit Mauritania for most tourists. During the dry season, the weather is more comfortable, and the landscapes are arid and picturesque.
    • November to February is particularly pleasant, with cooler temperatures. It’s an ideal time for activities such as exploring the ancient cities of Chinguetti and Oualata, visiting the Adrar Plateau, and trekking in the desert.
  2. Wet Season (May to October):
    • The wet season brings higher temperatures and occasional rainfall, particularly from July to September. While this is not the most popular time for tourism, it can offer a unique experience.
    • The wet season brings a burst of life to the desert, with the chance to see green landscapes and migratory birds in Banc d’Arguin National Park.
    • Travelers should be aware that some desert areas may become temporarily inaccessible due to heavy rains, and humidity levels can rise.

It’s important to note that Mauritania’s climate can vary between regions, and the desert areas, in particular, can experience significant temperature fluctuations. Travelers interested in cultural events and festivals should check the calendar for local celebrations.

Ultimately, the dry season, especially from November to February, is generally recommended for a more comfortable and versatile tourist experience. However, individual preferences and the specific activities planned should be taken into consideration when choosing the best time to visit.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? 🚌

Getting around Mauritania as a tourist can involve a combination of transportation options, as the country has a diverse landscape that includes desert regions and urban centers. Here are some common ways to get around:

  1. Domestic Flights:
    • Domestic flights can be a quick and convenient way to cover longer distances, especially if you’re traveling between cities. Nouakchott, the capital, has an international airport, and there are smaller airports in other cities.
  2. Buses and Shared Taxis:
    • Buses and shared taxis (known as “bâchés”) are commonly used for inter-city travel. Buses operate between major cities, while shared taxis are a flexible and cost-effective option for shorter distances.
  3. Car Rental:
    • Renting a car provides flexibility for exploring Mauritania, especially if you plan to venture into more remote areas. However, road conditions can vary, and driving in the desert requires some experience.
  4. Camel and 4×4 Tours:
    • For desert excursions, camel or 4×4 tours are popular options. Local guides and tour operators can organize trips into the Sahara, offering a chance to experience the unique landscapes and nomadic traditions.
  5. Urban Transport:
    • In cities like Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, you’ll find taxis and “car rapide” (shared minivans) for local transportation. Taxis are usually more readily available in urban centers.
  6. Motorbikes and Scooters:
    • In some urban areas, motorbikes and scooters are available for rent, providing a convenient way to navigate through traffic.
  7. Ferries:
    • If you plan to travel to Banc d’Arguin National Park, you may need to take a ferry from Nouadhibou to reach the park’s entry point. Check with local operators for ferry schedules.
  8. Guided Tours:
    • Engaging local tour operators for guided tours can be a practical and enriching way to explore specific regions, especially in the desert. These tours often include transportation, accommodation, and knowledgeable guides.

When traveling in Mauritania, it’s advisable to plan transportation in advance, especially for longer journeys. Additionally, be flexible and consider local conditions, as road conditions can vary, and travel schedules may be subject to change. Always check the latest travel advisories and local recommendations.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of Mauritania is Arabic. Additionally, French is widely used in government, education, and business. Here are some basic Arabic phrases that may be useful for tourists in Mauritania:

  1. Hello:
    • Arabic: السلام عليكم (As-salamu alaykum)
    • French: Bonjour
  2. Goodbye:
    • Arabic: وداعا (Wada’an)
    • French: Au revoir
  3. Thank you:
    • Arabic: شكرا (Shukran)
    • French: Merci
  4. Yes:
    • Arabic: نعم (Na’am)
    • French: Oui
  5. No:
    • Arabic: لا (La)
    • French: Non
  6. Please:
    • Arabic: من فضلك (Min fadlik)
    • French: S’il vous plaît
  7. Excuse me / I’m sorry:
    • Arabic: آسف (Aasif)
    • French: Excusez-moi / Je suis désolé(e)
  8. How much is this?:
    • Arabic: بكم هذا؟ (Bikam hatha?)
    • French: Combien ça coûte ?
  9. Where is…?:
    • Arabic: أين (Ayna)
    • French: Où est… ?
  10. Help:
    • Arabic: مساعدة (Musa’ada)
    • French: Aidez-moi
  11. Water:
    • Arabic: ماء (Ma’)
    • French: Eau
  12. Food:
    • Arabic: طعام (Ta’am)
    • French: Nourriture
  13. Bathroom:
    • Arabic: حمام (Hammam)
    • French: Salle de bains / Toilettes
  14. I don’t understand:
    • Arabic: لا أفهم (La afham)
    • French: Je ne comprends pas

It’s worth noting that while Arabic is the official language, the specific dialect spoken in Mauritania may have variations. Many people in urban areas, especially those involved in tourism, may also understand and speak French. Learning a few basic phrases in either language can enhance your travel experience and interactions with locals.

Where to Stay? 🏨

Mauritania offers a range of accommodation options for tourists, catering to different preferences and budgets. Here are some common types of accommodations and areas where you can find them:

  1. Hotels:
    • In urban centers like Nouakchott, you’ll find a variety of hotels ranging from budget to luxury. Look for hotels that offer amenities and services that meet your needs.
  2. Guesthouses:
    • Guesthouses provide a more intimate and often budget-friendly option. They can be found in both urban and rural areas, offering a chance for cultural immersion.
  3. Desert Camps:
    • If you’re planning to explore the Sahara Desert, especially near Atar or Chinguetti, consider staying in desert camps. These camps provide a unique experience, allowing you to sleep under the stars in the desert.
  4. Auberges:
    • Auberges are small inns or hostels and can be found in various parts of the country. They offer a simple and affordable accommodation option.
  5. Resorts:
    • For a more luxurious experience, some coastal areas may have resorts that offer beachfront accommodations. Check locations like Nouadhibou for such options.
  6. National Park Accommodations:
    • If you plan to visit Banc d’Arguin National Park, inquire about accommodations in the park or nearby. There are eco-friendly options available, and staying within or near the park allows for better access to its natural beauty.
  7. Online Booking Platforms:
    • Utilize online booking platforms to find and book accommodations in advance. These platforms provide a wide range of options, allowing you to choose based on reviews, prices, and locations.
  8. Local Recommendations:
    • Seek recommendations from locals or fellow travelers for unique and off-the-beaten-path accommodations. This can lead to discovering hidden gems and experiencing authentic Mauritanian hospitality.

Popular areas for accommodations include:

  • Nouakchott: The capital city offers a variety of hotels, guesthouses, and international chain accommodations.
  • Nouadhibou: A coastal city known for its fishing industry, where you may find resorts and beachfront accommodations.
  • Chinguetti: A UNESCO World Heritage site, known for its ancient libraries and historic significance. Consider staying in traditional guesthouses.
  • Atar: A gateway to the Adrar Plateau and the Sahara Desert, offering accommodations ranging from hotels to desert camps.

Before traveling, it’s advisable to check recent reviews, consider the proximity to your planned activities, and book accommodations in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons.

What to Eat? 🍽️

Mauritanian cuisine reflects the nomadic and Bedouin traditions of the country, with a focus on simple and hearty dishes. Here are some must-try foods for tourists in Mauritania:

  1. Thiéboudienne:
    • Thiéboudienne is the national dish of Mauritania and is widely enjoyed across West Africa. It consists of fish (usually mullet or grouper) cooked with rice, vegetables, and a tomato-based sauce. It is often seasoned with spices and herbs.
  2. Couscous:
    • Couscous is a staple in Mauritanian cuisine. It is typically served with a flavorful stew made from meat (lamb, beef, or chicken) and a variety of vegetables.
  3. Mechoui:
    • Mechoui is a roasted lamb or goat dish that is often prepared during festive occasions. The meat is seasoned with herbs and spices, slow-cooked, and served with bread or couscous.
  4. Chermoula:
    • Chermoula is a marinade used for grilling or roasting meat, fish, or vegetables. It typically includes ingredients like garlic, coriander, cumin, and lemon juice, creating a flavorful and aromatic dish.
  5. Maghrebi Mint Tea (Atayef):
    • Similar to the traditional mint tea in other Maghreb countries, Mauritanian mint tea is a sweet, aromatic beverage made with green tea, fresh mint leaves, and a generous amount of sugar.
  6. Lahm lahlou:
    • Lahm lahlou is a sweet and savory dish made with lamb, apricots, and almonds. It is cooked in a sweet sauce, creating a unique blend of flavors.
  7. Dates and Milk (Rougui):
    • Dates and milk, known as Rougui, is a popular traditional Mauritanian snack. The sweetness of dates complements the richness of fresh milk.
  8. Aghroum Bread:
    • Aghroum is a traditional flatbread made from millet or sorghum flour. It is often enjoyed with various accompaniments, such as honey, olive oil, or cheese.
  9. Grilled Fish:
    • Given Mauritania’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, fresh seafood, especially grilled fish, is a common and delicious choice. Fish markets in coastal cities offer a variety of options.
  10. Chebakkia:
    • Chebakkia is a sweet pastry made from layers of dough, fried until crispy, and then coated in honey. It’s often enjoyed during festive occasions.
  11. Bouilli:
    • Bouilli is a hearty soup made with meat (often beef), vegetables, and legumes. It’s a nutritious and filling dish, especially popular in rural areas.

When dining in Mauritania, consider trying local eateries and markets to experience the authentic flavors of Mauritanian cuisine. Additionally, be open to trying various dishes prepared by locals, as hospitality plays a significant role in Mauritanian culture.

What to See? 🔍

Mauritania boasts a diverse range of landscapes, from the vast Sahara Desert to historic cities and coastal areas. Here are some must-see places for tourists in Mauritania:

  1. Nouakchott:
    • The capital city, Nouakchott, offers a glimpse into modern Mauritanian life. Explore the markets, visit the National Museum, and experience the local culture in this bustling urban center.
  2. Ancient Cities of Chinguetti and Oualata:
    • Chinguetti and Oualata are UNESCO World Heritage sites known for their ancient architecture, including mosques, libraries, and traditional houses. Chinguetti, in particular, is famous for its ancient Quranic libraries.
  3. Banc d’Arguin National Park:
    • A UNESCO World Heritage site, Banc d’Arguin is a coastal park renowned for its biodiversity. It’s a haven for migratory birds, seals, and other marine life. Take a boat tour to explore the park’s islands and sandbanks.
  4. Adrar Plateau:
    • The Adrar Plateau, located in the Sahara Desert, is characterized by stunning landscapes, including canyons, dunes, and ancient caravan routes. Atar, the gateway to the Adrar region, serves as a starting point for desert excursions.
  5. Terjit Oasis:
    • Terjit Oasis is a lush and picturesque oasis nestled in the desert near Atar. Visitors can enjoy a refreshing dip in the natural pools surrounded by palm trees and explore the nearby canyons.
  6. Tichitt and Oudane:
    • These ancient towns are part of the World Heritage site that includes Chinguetti. Tichitt and Oudane boast well-preserved examples of traditional Saharan architecture, including houses made of stone and mud.
  7. Iron Ore Train:
    • For a unique experience, consider taking a ride on the Iron Ore Train, one of the longest trains in the world. This freight train transports iron ore from Zouérat to Nouadhibou, passing through the desert landscapes.
  8. Nouadhibou:
    • Nouadhibou is a coastal city known for its vibrant fishing industry. The beaches are home to shipwrecks, creating a unique and somewhat surreal landscape. It’s also a gateway to the Cape Blanc peninsula.
  9. Cape Blanc Peninsula:
    • Explore the Cape Blanc Peninsula for its scenic coastal views and the possibility of spotting seals and other marine life. Visit the lighthouse for panoramic vistas.
  10. Lompoul Desert:
    • Lompoul Desert, also known as the Pink Sand Dunes, offers a mesmerizing landscape of rolling pink sand dunes. It’s a popular destination for camel treks and dune adventures.

When traveling in Mauritania, it’s essential to consider the vast distances between attractions, especially in the desert regions. Guided tours and local guides can enhance your experience and provide valuable insights into the cultural and natural wonders of the country.

What to Do? 📸

Mauritania offers a range of unique experiences for tourists, from exploring ancient cities to venturing into the Sahara Desert. Here are some must-do things for tourists in Mauritania:

  1. Explore Chinguetti’s Ancient Libraries:
    • Visit the ancient city of Chinguetti, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and explore its well-preserved Quranic libraries. These libraries hold manuscripts dating back centuries and showcase Islamic scholarship.
  2. Visit Oualata’s Traditional Architecture:
    • Discover the unique mud-brick architecture of Oualata, another UNESCO-listed city. The intricate designs of the traditional houses and structures provide a glimpse into Mauritania’s rich history.
  3. Take a Desert Excursion:
    • Venture into the Sahara Desert on a guided excursion. Explore the vast dunes, visit oasis villages, and experience the unique beauty of the desert landscape. Popular starting points include Atar and Terjit Oasis.
  4. Ride the Iron Ore Train:
    • Experience a journey on the Iron Ore Train, one of the longest trains in the world. This freight train travels through the desert, offering a distinctive and immersive perspective of Mauritania’s landscapes.
  5. Banc d’Arguin Boat Tour:
    • Take a boat tour to Banc d’Arguin National Park to witness its diverse marine life, including seals, dolphins, and migratory birds. Explore the park’s islands and sandbanks for a unique coastal experience.
  6. Enjoy a Camel Trek:
    • Embark on a camel trek in the desert for an authentic nomadic experience. Local guides can lead you through the dunes, providing insights into traditional nomadic life and the desert ecosystem.
  7. Visit Nouakchott’s Markets:
    • Immerse yourself in the local culture by exploring Nouakchott’s vibrant markets, such as the Marché Capitale and Marché Sixième. Experience the lively atmosphere, shop for traditional crafts, and interact with locals.
  8. Attend a Traditional Festival:
    • Check the local calendar for traditional festivals and events. Participate in cultural celebrations, music festivals, or religious ceremonies to gain a deeper understanding of Mauritanian traditions.
  9. Relax at Terjit Oasis:
    • Visit Terjit Oasis near Atar to relax in the natural pools surrounded by palm trees. Enjoy the tranquil atmosphere and take a dip in the refreshing waters.
  10. Stroll Along Nouadhibou’s Shipwreck Beach:
    • Explore the shipwrecks along the coast of Nouadhibou, a testament to the city’s history as a major fishing and shipping hub. The decaying vessels create a unique and surreal landscape.
  11. Experience Mauritanian Cuisine:
    • Indulge in local dishes like Thiéboudienne, Couscous, and Mechoui. Visit local eateries to savor the flavors of Mauritanian cuisine and try traditional mint tea.
  12. Birdwatching in Banc d’Arguin:
    • If you’re a bird enthusiast, Banc d’Arguin offers excellent birdwatching opportunities. Spot migratory birds and unique species in this coastal paradise.

As you engage in these activities, consider hiring local guides to enhance your experience and gain insights into the culture and history of Mauritania. Additionally, always be mindful of the local environment and follow responsible tourism practices.

Culture and Safety 🦺

Culture in Mauritania:

  1. Islamic Culture:
    • Mauritania is an Islamic Republic, and Islam plays a significant role in daily life. Visitors should respect local customs and traditions, particularly in religious spaces. Modest clothing is recommended, especially in more conservative areas.
  2. Hospitality:
    • Mauritanians are known for their hospitality. It’s customary to accept tea when offered, as it symbolizes friendship and warmth. Engaging in conversations and showing genuine interest in local culture is appreciated.
  3. Nomadic Traditions:
    • The influence of nomadic traditions is evident, especially in rural areas. Visitors may encounter traditional Bedouin-style tents and experience a lifestyle deeply connected to the desert environment.
  4. Language:
    • Arabic is the official language, and French is widely used in administrative and educational contexts. While English may not be as common, locals appreciate any effort to communicate in Arabic or French.
  5. Cultural Events:
    • Check for local cultural events and festivals, which provide insight into Mauritanian traditions. Traditional music, dance, and religious celebrations are integral to the cultural fabric.

Safety Considerations:

  1. Travel Advisory:
    • Before traveling, check for any travel advisories and stay informed about the current situation in Mauritania. It’s advisable to register with your embassy upon arrival.
  2. Health Precautions:
    • Ensure vaccinations are up-to-date, and consider health precautions such as malaria prophylaxis. Carry necessary medications and stay hydrated, especially in the desert regions.
  3. Political Situation:
    • While Mauritania is generally stable, it’s essential to stay informed about the political situation. Exercise caution, particularly during periods of political events or elections.
  4. Desert Safety:
    • If venturing into the desert, hire experienced guides. The desert environment can be harsh, and it’s crucial to take necessary precautions, including having sufficient water, proper clothing, and reliable transportation.
  5. Local Customs:
    • Respect local customs and traditions, particularly in more conservative areas. Ask for permission before taking photographs, especially of people, and be mindful of cultural sensitivities.
  6. Transportation Safety:
    • If using public transportation, be aware of safety standards. In more remote areas, roads may be less developed, so consider the type of transportation that suits your comfort level and the destination.
  7. Currency and Valuables:
    • Exercise standard precautions regarding valuables. Be cautious of pickpocketing, especially in crowded areas. Use reputable currency exchange services and be aware of local scams.
  8. Dress Modestly:
    • While more relaxed in urban centers, dressing modestly is advisable, especially in rural and conservative areas. Women may choose to wear loose-fitting clothing that covers the shoulders and knees.
  9. Emergency Services:
    • Be aware of the location of emergency services and medical facilities. Have emergency contact information readily available.
  10. Travel Insurance:
    • Consider obtaining travel insurance that covers medical emergencies, trip cancellations, and other unforeseen events.

By respecting local customs, staying informed, and taking necessary safety precautions, travelers can enjoy the rich cultural experiences that Mauritania has to offer while ensuring a safe and enjoyable journey.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mauritania offers a unique and enriching experience for tourists, blending Islamic traditions, nomadic heritage, and diverse landscapes. From exploring ancient cities like Chinguetti to venturing into the Sahara Desert, visitors can immerse themselves in a culture deeply connected to the vast and captivating surroundings. The warmth of Mauritanian hospitality, coupled with a respectful embrace of local customs, enhances the travel experience. Travelers should prioritize safety considerations, stay informed about the political climate, and engage in responsible tourism practices to ensure a memorable and secure journey in this West African gem.