Earth : Africa : Sahel : Mauritania
Mauritania is a land about 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 Adrar is exactly how you've always imagined the Sahara as: endless ergs (dunes) and regs (rocky desert) with tabular small mountains. 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.
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. 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. Some charter flights have been canceled this past month due to security concerns. Guides and tourist agencies are quite easy to find. However, Mauritania is not connected to the international banking system. Your Visa card will not work in the local ATM. There are now international ATM's at BNP and Societe Generale in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. Otherwise, credit cards are accepted almost nowhere. It is easy to change euros, dollars and CFA in Nouakchott, however.
The climate is characterized by extremes in temperature and by meager 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), from July to September, and average annual precipitation varies from 500 to 600 millimeters in the far south to less than 100 millimeters in the northern two-thirds of the country.
Citizens of all Western nations need a visa to enter. Holders of West African passports do not require a visa.
As of 2009, visas for Mauritania are no longer available at on arrival at land borders, so overland travellers have to arrange them in eg. Rabat. Single entry visa fee is 37 EUR, double entry is 52 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. As of January 2012 this is true for Americans as well, although it is advisable to check that there have been no recent issues with long waits, so your travel plans are not interfered with.
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.
Nouakchott International Airport (IATA: NKC ICAO: GQNN) is the base for Mauritanian Airlines , which flies to, Dakar, Casablanca and ZOUERATT. It also receives flights from Algiers on Air Algérie  and from Paris on Air France  . Alternatively you can take a charter flight, which costs around €400. From July/August 2012 Iberia are launching a route from Noukchott to Madrid via Las Palmas in the Canaries. Fares from Mauri to LP seem to be hovering around 200 Euros. On November 16th, 2012 Turkish Airlines  will add Nouakchott, to its network by extending its current Dakar service to the Mauritanian capital. Three direct flights per week will operate from Istanbul (Atatürk International Airport), on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
No trains run between Mauritania and its neighbors.
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 kilometers 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 again. There is a bureau de change at the border, and a vehicle insurance office and numerous hopeful guides for making the old desert crossing down to the capital.
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 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
There is only one train line in Mauritania, linking Nouadhibou, Choum and Zouerat, but it's a tourist attraction itself. The train is said to be the longest one in the world, having over 150 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 (for Atar) at around 2am the next morning. Check departure times on arrival.
In Mauritania there is only one passenger car, 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 acommodation - first-class seats are limited, but they allow access to a smaller room with bunk beds. It does not necessarily ensure more comfort, though. Ticket price is 1500 ougiyas for second class in the passenger car and travel in hopper is free. 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.
Hassaniya 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 the second official language and is spoken by many. This is especially true near towns. In the countryside, individuals may often speak several languages but not French.
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.
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 countries magnificent historical cities. Chinguetti was once a trading center and center of Islamic scholarship whose architecture remains unchanged in nearly a millenium. Along with Ouadane and a few other small towns, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And don't forget to 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 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.
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 boasts colorful 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.
Souvenirs can be bought at Marche Capital or Marche Sixieme 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. That said, you can find leather products, pipes, wooden bowls, tea pots and silver jewellery among other things (be careful with 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 1500 UM to 8000 UM, depending on the fabric quality and work involved.
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.
There is a decent variety of restaurants in Nouakchott with plates from 1000 to 2500 UM. 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, Cafe Liban, and Le Petit Cafe. The Sahara Cafe, 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, 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 and serve meals from 200 to 500 UM. 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. Note that 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 1500 um), even if it takes a while (up to a couple hours to buy the food and prepare it).
Bottled water can be bought for 200 UM 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 $US6. 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. Note that 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.
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. The one paved road coming from Morocco is especially dangerous, being the site of recent 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.
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.
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 agressive 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 (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 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 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. In fact, if you have a boyfriend, not a series of boyfriends, most people are a bit flattered. The men are pretty uninhibited, very sensual, and can be lots of fun.
If you are a LGBT visitor, do not try to be open about your sexuality to any Mauritanian. They will act very harshly to this. Also do not make any acts in public that would imply the fact that you are LGBT: Mauritania imposes the death sentence 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.
There are three operators of a GSM-Network: Mattel  (excellent English website), Mauritel Mobiles  and Chinguitel . 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 satellitephones 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 cafés with DSL internet can be found in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou for 200-300 UM an hour. Slower connections plauge "cybercafes" elsewhere in the country, but if you are desperate to check your email it is usually possible.