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Mauritania is not a destination that most people have ever heard of, let alone have it high on their list of places they want to travel to.
Which is one of the reasons why I wanted to go there!
When heading to a place that isn’t well travelled means that there isn’t a lot of information out there. Because I that I wanted to share everything I learnt about Mauritania so that when you travel to Mauritania, you have all the info that you need.
Where is Mauritania
Mauritania is a large country in west Africa. South of Morocco and Western Sahara, west of Mali and north of Senegal. Over 90% of the country is in the Sahara desert with a majority of the 4.4 million population living on the coast with a third living in the capital Nouakchott.
Getting to and from Mauritania
Mauritania can be reached overland from Morocco or Senegal. A popular overland route travelling through West Africa will get you through these countries. However, almost all tourists would enter Mauritania by flying into the main airport in the capital Nouakchott.
Only a few airlines fly into Nouakchott, including Royal Air Maroc and Turkish Airlines. Tunis Air and Air France have occasional flights as well. Being a less than popular destination means that flights aren’t cheap and the prices are similar whether you book months in advance or just a few days.
I booked my flights from Casablanca to Nouakchott with Royal Air Maroc just a few days before my trip and cost £568 return.
At Nouakchott Airport
A lot of what I had read online about the airport was incorrect so I will explain my experiences travelling in June 2022. After going onto the Nouakchott Airport website, I don’t think the information there has been updated since 2018…
Visa on arrival in Mauritania
Most nationalities can get a visa on arrival for €55 or $60USD and it needs to be paid in cash. There weren’t too many foreigners on my flight but it still seemed unorganised. In one booth they take your photo and details, you then must fill out a form and give it to someone in another booth who you pay and they give you a receipt. With a visa in your passport and a receipt in hand, I then had to show my vaccine pass at guy that would’ve waved you through regardlessly before getting stamped in the country at an immigration booth.
Contrary to what I had read online, it was impossible to get a SIM card at the airport. There was one shop that may have sold them but was closed when I arrived (it was pushing 2am by this point). Considering that the airport only has between 3 and 5 flights per day and they are all at night, this seemed strange.
There was also no place at the airport to get or exchange any money with what looked like a bank being closed. There were 3 ATM’s in the airport, but only one was working. After using 5 different cards of all different varieties between myself and friend, we weren’t given any money. I highly recommend carrying Euros in this situation.
Taxi from the airport
There is no public transport available from Nouakchott airport to the capital. The airport is located about 40km north of the city. If you hotel can arrange a pick up service, I would recommend doing this.
In the end, me and a friend had to take a taxi. A policeman from the airport helped up choose a reliable taxi driver with a transport ID. However saying his car was in a battered state would be an understatement. As we didn’t have any Ouguiya (local currency) we offered to pay in Euro or US Dollars and ended up paying in €30 for the 40 minute journey to the accommodation. I found that in a lot of places in Mauritania it is more beneficial to have Euros as an additional currency option.
Departing Mauritania from Nouakchott Airport
I also flew out of Nouakchott airport back to Morocco. The airport remains closed until 3 hours before your flight so you will have to wait outside if you arrive early. Security will check your documents before you are allowed into the airport so ensure you have copies available/ a fully charged phone.
There is a departure card to fill out before going through immigration. Contrary to what I had read online, there is a duty free shop (no alcohol of course) and a small cafe that did some snacks and drinks. As there are few departing flights each day, there is actually plenty of room to sit in the airport due to lack of visitors.
Travelling in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania
Nouakchott has to be one of the least appealing cities I have been to. It has wide dusty road and scorching temperatures for most of the year. There is little in terms of night life, good restaurants or things to see. However, most people will stay for at least one night at the start and end of their trip as this is where you will fly into. I stayed at the Auberge Samiraa where the owner, Abdouly stayed up until 3am to check me in as I arrived so late. He was also one of the few people I met in Mauritania that spoke good English.
Not all ATM’s in Nouakchott will work with foreign cards but the Societe General worked for me.
To get around Mauritania, use the shared taxi’s that the locals do. Depending on the distance, this starts at 10 Ouguiyas to 100 Ouguiyas for a journey across the city. There may be up to 7 people in the small cars and you may be asked to move seats depending on how many females are travelling in the car and who they are related to.
Travelling around Mauritania
Most of the travel around Mauritania will be done by long distance minibuses. These can be found in all the major towns and cities with a few private companies offering routes, all with a similar price.
The distances between places are vast and there may only be one bus per day if you go to very remote places. Just because a bus has a certain number of seats, that doesn’t mean that is all who is going to be on it. They will often try to cram a few extras on. Not to mention the luggage and goats on the roof.
Another option would be to hire a driver or 4×4. This can be done as a tour from Nouakchott or more local companies in smaller towns around the country. If you are heading into the desert, a 4×4 is a must.
Everywhere you go in Mauritania, you are also required to have a fiche. This is basically a photocopy of your passport that you need to hand over at police checkpoints. And trust me there are a lot! In my week in Mauritania I think I got through about 20 fiches. If you do not have one, you will need to get out with your passport and copy down all your details in the police officers log book. This will soon getting tiring and will annoy your travel companions. Most hotels will be able to photocopy your passport for you for a small fee or there are various copy shops in most towns and cities.
What to do in Mauritania
Nouakchott has very little to see and do unlike most capital cities. However if you are stuck I can recommend the Port du Peche, the fish market where you can watch the fishermen haul in their catch and locals gutting and selling the fish next to the beach. The boats are colourfully painted and the beach is nice in places. Go in the afternoon for the busiest times at the market and good sunset colours.
There is also a large mosque and a camel market in Nouakchott but very little in terms of good restaurants and cafes.
This ancient town may be the only major tourist draw in the country. Recognised as the 7th holiest city in Islam due to its trade routes across the Sahara, it has continuously been rebuilt as the Saharan sand has taken over. The original city is now under sand. The second and current city is standing strong, but barely. So a third city is being constructed a short distance away and will be moved there when the sand takes absorbs the current buildings.
It is now a UNESCO site and contains many important Islamic manuscripts. Walking past the Friday Mosque and hearing the children chanting verses of the Quran in their madrassa was also a highlight.
Another ancient town that was used on the Saharan caravan routes and hub for salt and gold. Now there is little to do in the town other than to admire the relics of yester year. Ouadane is the closest town to one of Mauritania most incredible natural phenomenon…
The Eye of The Sahara
The Eye of The Sahara or Richat structure for its scientific name, is a geological structure in the middle of the desert. It is a series of rings thought to be formed when a geological dome eroded away leaving the rings 40km in diameter. For those that love the science there is a much better explanation on Wikipedia.
The structure is best seen from space however it is still special driving into the centre where an eccentric old lady lives hoping to garner the power of the structure.
Terjit is special as its one of the only places in the country with anything green. This small oasis town has natural spring water that you can drink and bathe in and palm trees allowing cool shade. A short hike will bring you above the tree line for some incredible photo opportunities.
Atar is the largest city in land and capital of the Adrar region. This is the place if you want to get supplies if you are venturing further into the desert.
It is also the place where I met Sidi Ahmed, the owner of the Auberge Imini who led a tour around Chinguitti, Ouadane and the Eye of The Sahara. He only speaks Arabic and French but is a wealth of knowledge and took me to places that I wouldn’t have otherwise got to.
Iron ore train
I already have an in depth post on the Mauritanian Iron Ore train you can find here. But it truly was one of the most incredible things I have ever done.
The Iron Ore Train terminates in Nouadhibou and is an important fishing city for the country. There is another fishing market here which seems busier and less organised than the one in Nouakchott.
For those looking for a bit more adventure, you can head to the Ghost Town across the border of Western Sahara. You will need to get a permit to visit from the military as I got turned back.
If you liked this, check out my adventures in Papua New Guinea or North Korea!
Other useful information for travelling to Mauritania
The plugs are European style with two round pins. Make sure you travel with an adapter like this one.
The few guest houses I stayed at did have wifi available but speeds were slow as expected. Don’t expect to stream a movie but it is good enough for basic web browsing.
Mobile internet is available but most of the time you will be using 3G. Only one network has 4G capability and that is only in the capital.
Hassaniya Arabic is spoke across the country which is very different to other dialects you may have come across in the Middle East. French is also widely spoken. If you look western, many will start conversations with you in French as opposed to English like in much of the rest of the world. French travellers still make up a majority of tourists in Mauritania.
There’s very little English spoken in Mauritania. I came across only a few that could hold a conversation in English. It would be more beneficial to learn some French for basic ordering and interacting with locals (unless you already have a good grasp of Arabic).
Food and Drink
If you are looking to be blown away by food on your travels, you’ll be dissapointed in Mauritania. Much of the food is rice or cous cous based as can be seen in the image above. Eating is usually a communal experience with many sharing a large plate of food and eating with your hands.
Fish can be found near the coast and goat and camel are more staples inland, with baguettes serving as a good street food but most of what you will be eating will be beige.
Tea is a national institution in Mauritania and no event can happen without the elaborate way tea is made. Tea leave are boiled before a lot of sugar is added. It is then poured from one small glass to another to aerate it and give the tea bubbles which rise to the top, like the head you would see on a beer. Perhaps each glass is no more than 40-50ml, in 4 hours waiting for a bus I must have drank 10 cups and offered many more.
Like elsewhere in West Africa, Cafe Touba can be found on some street stalls. Other than that, soft drinks and water will be your staple.
Alcohol is illegal in Mauritania. There are only a couple of Chinese restaurants that sell it in Nouadhibou and Nouakchott. Walking through the door, around concrete dividers in an S shape and then a gate to get to these restaurants makes it seem like you are doing something illegal, which you are.
I never once felt unsafe in Mauritania. Many of the locals were extremely friendly and happy to talk with foreigners. I undertook usual precautions when out and about e.g. not staying out late in the dark, being aware of my surroundings and not taking too many valuables with me. Female travellers that I have spoken to that have travelled Mauritania have said they had a similar experience.
I have since found out that there have been instances of clashes with rebels in the desert near the Malian border. However, this is deep into the Sahara where there is no reason for general tourists and travellers to go.
Costs of travelling in Mauritania
Unfortunately, this is one of the countries where I did not keep a breakdown of all my costs. I was travelling with friends so a lot of the time we shared costs, or paid for things for the group that was then paid back in other ways. It is also a very cashed based economy and as I was travelling without a majority of my technology, I didn’t get to record how much I spent on individual items.
However, I do know that in my week in Mauritania, I spent 13,500 Ouguiyas (£290, $360USD). This included all accommodation (some of which wasn’t cheap), all food and drink, all transport and one of the most expensive aspects was the tour which cost 4000 Ouguiyas for 2 days and 1 night.
(If you are looking for a card that doesn’t charge ATM or currency fees abroad, I highly recommend Wise which I have now used in over 15 countries! Use this link to start saving abroad now!)
Travelling in Mauritania is not for the faint of heart and it is one of the more challenging countries I have been to. I wouldn’t recommend it if this would be your first trip outside of your continent, but for those experienced travellers that still need a kick of adrenaline, Mauritania should definitely be added to your list!
As always, if you have any experiences or want more advice, feel free to contact me for more.
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.