A magnetic playground for wannabe explorers, Mauritania has vast dune fields, giddying canyons, eye-popping plateaus, a wild stretch of coast and enough oases to calm the most stressed minds.
Capital City: Nouakchott, Population: 3.2 Million, Area: 1 million Sq.km, Official Languages: Hassaniya (Arabic), French
In Mauritania, wild coast meets Saharan dunes. Desert, rocky plateaus and sand dunes are Mauritania’s signature landscapes, but the country also boasts 700 kilometers of shoreline, including the Banc d’Arguin National Park, one of the world’s greatest bird-viewing venues and a World Heritage natural site.
History in a nutshell
From the 3rd century AD the Berbers established trading routes all over the Western Sahara, including Mauritania. In the 11th century the Marrakesh-based Islamic Almoravids pushed south and, with the assistance of Mauritanian Berber leaders, managed to destroy the Empire of Ghana, which covered much of present-day Mauritania. The descendants of the Almoravids were finally subjugated by Arabs in 1674. In 1904 the French made Mauritania a colonial territory. Independence was fairly easily achieved in 1960, but the first 40 years of the country’s autonomy were not particularly rosy, marked by repressive regimes, coups, guerilla wars and ethnic tensions.
The year 2005 marked a turning point for Mauritania, when it gained a government led by Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. He won popular support during a transition period leading up to presidential elections in 2007 that were considered to be a step towards the establishment of a proper democracy. The elections' victor was Sidi Ould Cheik Abdallahi, a former cabinet minister. However in 2008, the head of the Presidential Guard, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, overthrew Abdallahi. Following a general election held in 2009, which was found acceptable to many in the international community, Abdel Aziz has been the president of the country.
Of Mauritania's estimated 3.2 million inhabitants, about 60 percent are Moors of Arab and Berber descent. The other major ethnic group consists of black Africans, who are ethnically split into two groups. The Haratin, or black Moors, are the descendants of people enslaved by the Moors. They have assimilated the Moorish culture and speak Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect. The other groups are the Soudaniens, black Mauritanians who live in the south of the country along the Senegal River. They are mostly Fulani people (also known as Peul) or the closely related Tukulor, and speak Pulaar (Fula). There are also Soninke and Wolof minorities.
Mauritania has a GDP per capita of US$2200. Mauritania's main resource has traditionally been iron ore, which currently accounts for nearly 40 percent of total exports, but the discovery of oil reserves in 2001 could bring a new impetus to the country's economy; commercial oil production in offshore fields off Nouakchott began in 2006. The nation's coastal waters are among the richest fishing areas in the world, but over exploitation by foreigners is a major concern.
Nouakchott, the capital, is a discombobulating city that reflects the geographical duality of the country. Though it is only five kilometers inland from the Atlantic, it is more a city of the interior than of the coast - yet it boasts the most active fish market in West Africa; every day between 4pm and 6pm hundreds of colorful fishing boats return and innumerable teams of men drag heavy fishing nets onto the beach. Nouakchott has modem amenities, a couple of hip restaurants serving French cuisine, the odd bar and comfortable hotels – bliss after the austerity of the desert.
The whole country goes gaga during the much-awaited Guetna (date-harvesting) season from June to August. The heat is stifling, with temperatures reaching 45°C, but it is a very festive time, and many Mauritanians from the cities return to their tribes and take part in the harvest. There is a mellow atmosphere and a great deal of socializing, drinking of tea and zrig (unsweetened curdled goat's or camel's milk), playing games and dancing. There are also virtually no tourists – it is the perfect time to sample Mauritanian hospitality at its best.
You can travel for free in the open-topped wagons of the iron-ore train - if you can survive the dust. Nouakchott's fish market is the most colorful in West Africa. Although slavery was declared illegal in 1980, it still exists in pockets of Mauritania, according to human rights groups. The coastal waters of Mauritania have one of the world's highest densities of fish.
In the north of the country, the Adrar is the jewel in Mauritania’s crown. For desert lovers, this area is a must, with mighty sand dunes that looks as if they have been sculpted by an artist, ancient Saharan towns, mellow oases and grandiose basaltic plateaus. To the south, the Tagant region is even more spectacular. Compared with the Adrar, it is much less touristy and virtually untouched.
Between Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, the Banc d'Arguin National Park is a paradise for bird-watchers and one of the best bird-watching venues in the world -an important stopover and breeding ground for multitudes of birds migrating between Europe and Southern Africa. Most birds nest on sand islands in the shallow ocean.
The oil boom that began in 2006 with the exploitation of offshore fields off Nouakchott should foster growth and have a positive impact on the country. More investments and more expats mean more jobs and a growing need for infrastructure and a greater choice of activities, both in the capital and in the desert. But it is also synonymous with inflation.
Getting up at the crack of dawn to catch a glorious sunrise from the labyrinthine lanes of the old city of Chinguetti
Experiencing the magic of the Sahara, via either a four-wheel-drive tour or a camel trip: sleeping beneath the star-studded skies at the saffron dune fields in the Adrar region, then cooling down in Tedist, a palm-filled oasis
Looking through your binoculars at vast flocks of birds from a traditional pirogue at Banc d'Arguin National Park
Admiring the elaborate decorative paintings that adorn the traditional houses in Oualata, one of Mauritania's best-kept secrets
Hopping on the iron-ore train, the world's longest train, for an epic journey through the Sahara
Best Time to Visit
OCTOBER TO MARCH