I knew very little of Mauritania other than that it was below Western Sahara, a disputed territory occupied by Morocco. I had doubts in visiting Mauritania, since the US government website stated about potential kidnapping in the country. I contacted a few couchsurfers there and found out that it was safe. Thus, I decided to visit.
I had a five-night stopover in Las Palmas, Grand Canaria which was a lot of fun and relaxing. I stocked up on chocolate, cheese for my host, and malaria pills for my West Africa invasion. The flight from Las Palmas to Nouadhibou was only one and a half hours and a further one hour from there to Nouakchott, the capital.
Arrival in Nouakchott
My couchsurfing host Sara told me in advance that the ride from the airport into town would be around 30 Euros. Luckily, I was sitting next to a local girl Sumea and she was kind enough in giving me a ride into town. The procedure at the brand new airport was straightforward. There were only three foreigners on the plane and we had to get our visa on arrival. The process took less than five minutes and I paid my 55 Euro visa fee to get into the country. The airport was immaculately clean but I was wondering why it was so far away from the city center.
Sumea’s brother and her nieces were there to pick us up. I got into the spacious car and we sped off to town. The ride was roughly 25 minutes, since there were very few cars and pretty much sand and water on both sides. Once again, why did the government build the airport so far away? It could have been just 5 or 10km away.
They dropped me off in front of the French Embassy and I was able to unite with Sara and her sister Ruth, who was visiting from Switzerland. I was safely in the hands of these foreigners, we had a short discussion and then went to bed. Speaking of going to bed, I slept on the rooftop, gazing at the stars and the full moon that evening. I had a mosquito net covering my mattress and it was an awesome experience sleeping outside. It was more like camping, but no tent, but just a mosquito net. During the night, it got a bit chilly, but more or less, I had a wonderful sleep during my stay.
Sara was working at a dairy plantation, so I spent the day visiting the main sites in Nouakchott. Nouakchott offers the following points of interest for tourists:
- Plenty of markets
- Olympic stadium
- Capital market
- Nouakchott beach
- National Museum
While I was wondering around, I had a tough time finding food, since there were very few restaurants and I was not going to try the street food. Well, it was difficult finding street food as well. I had to ask around five people, before I stepped into a Moroccon restaurant. I had the chicken tajine, which was amazing, so I ordered another helping on the spot. FYI, I ended up going there again the next day.
Mauritania had a mixture of ethnicities, some were black, some looked Moroccon and some looked like Arabs from Northern Africa. I could totally see how this country was a melting pot in the past. As I walked around town, I saw very few women and mostly men only. The men all had their traditional outfits on, which looked kind of cool, but it must be really hot wearing additional layers. The women had colorful outfits, 95% of them covering their head.
It was not easy to communicate with the locals, since only the educated ones spoke French. Most of the people spoke Arabic and almost nobody spoke English. I was looking for the National Museum for about one hour, asking every other person walking by. Finally, I went into a building and the guard guided me to a gentleman that spoke French fluently and I finally navigated my way to the National Museum.
I got there and I was the only person in the two story museum. I paid my 500 Ougiya entrance free and it only took around 45 minutes to zip through the place. The problem was that everything was in French and trying to read French writing in the so called “museum language” was extremely difficult and tiring!
The main market of Nouakchott was close to the museum and it had every single thing that you can think of. I’m not sure of the hygiene of the place, since they were selling meat and fish, but without any kind of refrigeration and hundreds of flies all over the place.
Fish seemed like it was the main staple there, while there were plenty of imported fruits from Morocco. Most of the fruits were third grade quality, the ones that did not make it to Europe and the second grade for Morocco itself.
That afternoon, I got back to Sara’s place and I had my second lunch of the day when her boyfriend Cher (not sure of the spelling and definitely incorrect) cooked a chicken dish. It was delicious trying local food and despite being full from my first lunch, I demolished my plate. I found out then from Cher that Mauritania is an Islamic Republic and 100% of the population are Muslim. It is not allowed by law to convert from Islam to another religion, in which case you are caught, you will jail sentences. Interesting to know!
On one afternoon, I followed Ruth to the beach. She was learning how to kitesurf so I tagged along. We met her Spanish instructor Cristina, who was from Cadiz, but have been living in Mauritania for over seven years. Geeze, I wondered why would any foreigner want to live in this desert and isolated area for such a long time? The isolated beach was only 20 minutes away by car and the wind was blowing hard. It was a perfect day for kite surfing, but Ruth was only learning how to use the kite on land.
Thus, they did not even go into the water. I took a nice nap by the beach and did not bother going into the water since there were jellyfishes. The beach reminded me of the beaches in Oman, with miles and miles of beach without a single person.
There was really not much to do in Nouakchott, so I decided to head down to Senegal after a few days. You can check out the trip from Nouakchott to St. Louis in Senegal.
· Currency – Mauritanian Ougiya
· Money Exchange – The best exchange was at the Western Union downtown, which gave me 405 to 1 Euro. The exchange at the airport was only 380 to 1 Euro, where the internet rate was 409 to 1 Euro. There were ATMs at the airport and money could be withdrawn.
· Internet was available but a bit slow – there was a restaurant called Colibri right across the French Embassy that had pretty strong internet and it was free.
· Language – Arabic was the official language, but most people spoke some sort of French. Very few people spoke English, so you better brush up on your French.
Where to stay
I stayed with my couchsurfing host for a few nights and thus, I did not stay at any of the hotels. There were plenty of hotels and guesthouses in the city. There were very few tourists so it should not be a problem finding a place to stay.
Where to eat
Eating outside was a bit of a problem, since there were very few eateries. Places to eat were not abundant, otherwise, you will be stuck with the meat sticks sold on the street. I decided to try that only once. There were plenty of fruits and water sold at the little roadside stands.
- If you can, bring snacks and food from abroad, but it is not necessary. If you crave chocolate, bring them from outside, since they were crap and expensive. Otherwise, bring your usual traveling goods, since buying those in Mauritania may be a bit complicated and more expensive.
- Traveling by local transportation takes a long time. Near the capital the roads were adequate, but once out of the center, the roads got bumpy and lots of pot holes.
- It is best not to change money on the street. Make sure to go into a proper financial institution, since you will get a better rate.
- At the market, make sure to negotiate, since you will get the foreigner rate.
I visited in July 2017.