Mauritania

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Introduction to Mauritania

Mauritania is venturing through towns half-blanketed in sand, sipping tea with nomads under their colourful tents, crossing plateaus that resemble the moon and gazing at prehistoric rock drawings and ancient Saharan architecture. One thousand-mile stare coming up.

The biggest attraction Mauritania offers is the very desolation that keeps so many people away. For those with the true spirit of adventure, Mauritania is one of the least trodden spots in the world - and even those who find it godforssaken agree that it's exotic.

To see more than sand outside the small, staid capital of Nouakchott (which has its fair share of sand too) requires some planning and some luck. There are some nice spots for fishing, birdwatching and even surfing along the coast and a few caravan towns in the interior that might be of interest.

Caution

Travellers to Mauritania should avoid political gatherings and demonstrations. Those planning to travel through the disputed territory of Western Sahara should note that many areas are mined. Reports circulate of assaults by bandits in the north and near the border with Mali.

Full country name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Area: 1.03 million sq km

Population: 2.5 million

Capital City: Nouakchott (pop 600,000)

People: Black Moors 40%, Moors 30%, Black Africans (Soninké, Pulaar, Peuls, Wolof) 30%

Language: Arabic, French, Wolof

Religion: Islam

Government: republic

GDP: US$2.2 billion

GDP per capita: US$1,050

Annual Growth: 3.3%

Inflation: 4.7%

Major Industries: Iron ore, fish

Major Trading Partners: Japan, Italy, Algeria, China

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Visas are required for all visitors except citizens of France and Italy.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +0

Dialling Code: 222

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Aside from Muslim celebrations, and in particular the feasting of Tabaski (Eid-al-Kabir), Mauritania is not the best destination if you're looking for flamboyant, joyous displays of culture. Independence is marked on 28 November.

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Best time to Visit

With little else going on for the traveller in Mauritania, weather is as good a guide as any for influencing the timing of your visit. The most tolerable weather occurs between November and February, when it's hot and sunny during the day, but cooling off in the evenings with southerlies blowing in from the desert. From June to October it's very hot all the time, but bearable for brief visits. Never go between March and May unless a constant blast of sand and hot wind is high on your list of priorities.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Ouguiya

Meals

Budget: US$0.50-1.50

Mid-range: US$1.50-5

High: US$5-10

Deluxe: US$10+

Lodging

Budget: US$4-20

Mid-range: US$20-30

High: US$30-40

Deluxe: US$40+

In the early 1990s, the ouguiya lost almost half its value against the US dollar. Despite this, Mauritania remains the most expensive country in West Africa. The bottom-end hotels are usually dirty and poorly lit, while the street food is plain and often unidentifiable. All the same, if you're stranded in Nouakchott and don't care where you sleep or what you eat, you could get by on less than US$15 a day, although there are regulations that stipulate that foreigners must spend at least US$30 a day. Hire cars are ridiculously expensive throughout West Africa, but if you insist on the convenience, you'll probably want a flash hotel room and great meals all day as well; budget on over US$200 a day. Humble comfort, nice food and taxis will set you back less than US$80 a day. There is a thriving currency black market, easy to find around the market in Nouakchott. There are also numerous bureau de change outlets offering better rates than the banks and longer opening hours. Credit cards can only be used at the big international hotels in Nouakchott, while some travellers cheques - notably American Express - are regularly refused.

Tipping is a difficult issue throughout Africa. Basically, if you look like a hitch-hiker, take buses or shared taxis and eat at African restaurants, you won't be expected to tip. If you're clean-cut, you'll look rich; 10% in restaurants, hotels and taxis is considered appropriate. The same rule applies whether you're a westerner or a wealthy African.

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Attractions

Nouakchott

Created from a grassy fertile plain in 1960, Nouakchott is one of the newest capital cities in the world. When Senegal and Mauritania split at independence, Mauritania was left without a capital. The grassy plain is now surrounded by the Sahara, with sand piling up against walls and fences.

Its markets are lively and its beach good for swimming and jogging (and, some say, mugging). Designed for 200,000 inhabitants, Nouakchott has about five times that population already; the outer areas are little more than slums of metal shacks and tents.

Atâr

The nomads of Mauritania come here to eat, drink and be merry. The town is split in two by the market: of the halves, the narrow winding streets of the smaller Ksar area are more interesting. As a base Atâr has several interesting side trips but make sure you're cashed up as Atâr has no banks.

Nouâdhibou

On the coast, but in the far north and literally metres away from the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, is the fishing town of Nouâdhibou. Situated on a peninsula jutting southwards from the mainland the town is on the east or bay side, with the ocean side held by Morocco.

The area is separated by landmines so go no further west than the train line. The airport is modern - complete with muzac - but the rest of the town is basic and caked in sand. Swimmers, water-skiers and anglers will be in heaven - the seas boast one of the largest fish populations in the world.

Rosso

Rosso, on the Senegalese border, is a busy town of almost 30,000 residents. Despite the large population and the large amount of traffic, there is little to see. Still, the road trip from the capital is interesting - made more so by frequent police checks - and it's possible to visit on a day-trip.

The town does boast Mauritania's only black market, but authorities take a dim view even of curious tourists, so steer clear of anything that looks dodgy. Rosso is 160km (100mi) south of Nouakchott.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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