Kidnappings and regional factionalism, coups and military juntas: life has hardly been easy for the great slab of the African Maghreb that is Mauritania.
It’s for these reasons and others that most foreign governmental offices now warn against all but essential travel to great swathes of this land.
Hopefully one day the cautions will clear, and the sweeping Saharan dunes and the fringes of the Sahel will once more be on the traveler’s map.
Why? Well because they bring with them the old Berber settlements of the desert, topped with ancient sandstone mosques and adobe villages now turned ghost towns. Because there are cities like Nouakchott and the throbbing fish markets within to explore. Because there are some of Africa’s most impressive arrays of birdlife just waiting to be seen along the salty edges of the Banc d’Arguin. Because there are wild desert plateaux to see, and earthy camel trading towns of centuries gone by. That’s why!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Mauritania:
Chinguetti literally emerges from the shifting sand dunes of the mighty Sahara (the hills of dust that surround this one have been encroaching and encroaching for decades, and have even claimed some of the residential areas on the edge of the settlement). A place of eerily empty streets that have been chiselled and chipped by the winds, it was once an important trading stopover between the Med in the north and sub-Sahara in the south.
Today, it draws some of the country’s biggest crowds, who flock to wonder at the brick-built towers and the old fortresses of the Berber tribes and Almoravids dating all the way back to the Middle Ages.
The spot is also part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site; one that also encompasses a number of other historic desert towns in the Adrar region and beyond.
A sprawling, dusty haze of a capital city that’s packed with tooting traffic and crumbling low-rise homes, Nouakchott is a curiously endearing place.
That might be because it’s heavenly comfortable compared to the sun-baked Berber caravan settlements of the great Sahara (where most travelers are either heading or have been), but it could also be something to do with the city’s earthy vibes and unpretentious character too.
Built for just 15,000 people, the greater metro area here is estimated at around over two million now! That brings a frenetic life to the shanty districts and the nomad barrios, while the Nouakchott Fish Market is unquestionably the place to be.
Here, salt-washed pirogues clamber in from the Atlantic Ocean packed with fish and seafood each morning, sellers haggle, and the locals go about their daily business.
Atar is the gateway to the Adrar Plateau, and the place where visitors come to plan trips out to desert-shrouded medieval caravan towns like aforementioned Chinguetti.
Sat close to the very heart of the country, but also close to the border with Western Sahara, the town has an earthy bazaar and sprawling crafts markets – perfect if you come in search of those traditional Mauritanian trinkets.
There’s also a clutch of welcoming guesthouses and restaurants touting desert fare, which make Atar a great jumping off point for further travels to wonders like the Richat Structure or the oases of the Sahara nearby.
Taking us just a short drive south on the main road out of Atar, the oasis town of Terjit remains one of the most interesting backcountry draws in all of Mauritania.
It springs up from the dry-cracked desert lands on the edges of the Sahara in a medley of verdant date palms and babbling streams; a speck of tropical greenery surrounded by a sea of sand.
It’s set between a series of steep-sided gorges, which rise to meet the escarpments of the Adrar Plateau in dramatic fashion.
There are on-site camping spots below the palm boughs, a petting zoo with camels, and even a history of regal coronations to unravel!
5. Banc d’Arguin
Banc d’Arguin National Park is Mauritania’s only large-scale national park.
And boy does it deserve the title! A vast patchwork of low sandbanks and rock-speckled beaches that drops down into the waters of the Bay of Arguin on the extreme northern fringes of Mauritania, it’s famed for its booming biodiversity, which is highlighted by the sheer amount of migratory birds that pass this way each year.
Spotters can see the likes of sandpipers and flamingos, pelicans and terns in the shallows, while it’s thought that the population of nesting birds here is the highest in all of West Africa! It’s also the home of the traditional Imraguen folk, who can often be seen bobbing on pirogues between the sandy islets and the lapping waves.
At the very end of one long and winding road that ranges from the capital at Nouakchott and deep into the heart of the Mauritanian Sahara, the dust-caked town of Ouadâne is a haunting, interesting place that does well to reveal the harsh realities of life in this arid, arid landscape.
It crumbles and cracks under the scorching desert sun, with its collection of adobe stone barrios cascading down the rough escarpments and into a center of winding lanes and alleys inhabited by the occasional, lonely Berber nomad and their collection of mismatched crafts and goods.
Although still officially inhabited, most of the locals here have packed up and departed for more hospitable climbs.
And when the dust winds blow and the midday heat hits its zenith, it’s easy to see why!
Tichit still clings to life from its far-flung position deep in the midst of the Sahara Desert.
Another aspect of the country’s UNESCO Ksours, the town is a truly breathtaking affair.
Look up and you’ll see the soaring tower of the Tichit Mosque, topped with crenulations and inlaid with interesting triangular window spaces (it’s perhaps the most famous mosque in the country). Then, take some time to wander the ancient city and see the curious use of coloured quarry stones – it’s unique to Tichit alone!
One part of Mauritania’s acclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the desert (the ancient Ksours of the Sahara), Oualâta is unquestionably one of the most enchanting and impressive wonders in the country.
Head in to wander between the age-old sandstone frontispieces, where elegant Berber and Moorish patterns are scrawled on the lintels and mantelpieces, and earthy arabesque designs mimic the elegance of Morocco’s great kasbahs in cities like Fez and Marrakech.
Don’t leave without strolling the collapsed old town, or wondering up at the towers of the great Oualâta Mosque.
Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean from its home on the spit of desert land known as Cabo Blanca, the town of Nouadhibou is the engine room of the Mauritanian fishing industry.
Its seemingly endless docks, which fringe the frantic town along its southern edge, are home to a forest of sails and bobbing skiffs by the thousand.
These head out daily to catch their Atlantic quarry, while other industries in the city include the processing of Iron ore as it comes in off the caravans from the desert mining centers.
Don’t leave without gawping at the rusting colossuses of decaying liners on Nouadhibou Bay, or enjoying the sunset in seaside Cansado.
Kiffa is an interesting crossroads town set under the shadow of the dramatic Affolle Mountains, which rise in sheer walls of rock and flat-topped bluffs where the southern reaches of the Sahara crash into the lands of the African Sahel.
Some come this way to head out and explore the backcountry towns in the mountains, while most come to seek out the fabled Kiffa beads that were made famous by the local crafters here.
Produced using a super-secretive mixture of powdered glass, they are one of the most iconic and recognisable forms of jewellery to come out of the region.
And as if that’s not enough, you can also see the impact site of a large meteorite that crashed into the mountains back in 1970 nearby!
If you’re looking for a glimpse of the old nomadic way of life that once dominated the lands of Mauritania, then perhaps the windblown settlement of Néma, all the way at the end of the so-called Road of Hope from the capital, is the place to go.
Located just a short distance from the border with Mali, the place has always been a popular stopover for traders heading in and out between the Atlantic coast and the heart of West Africa.
Today, it’s also known as a place that champions the old brousse: the traditional country life of Mauritania’s original people.
That means you’ll get crumbling districts of mud-brick homes, dusty streets and simple, endearing folk.
The town of Kaédi exhibits a rare speck of urban greenery, for which you’ll need to travel to the extreme southern reaches of the country, where the Senegal River bends and winds around the country of Senegal itself.
The architecture of the place is a curious mishmash of styles, and it’s easy to see the intermingling of the Moorish and the sub-Saharan traditions between the old low-rise cottages and that fascinating beehive-built hospital.
Like so many of the country’s border towns, there’s also a great marketplace here, filled with colourful goods from the fertile south and earthy crafts from the Saharan north alike.
Another town with its feet firmly placed in the more tropical reaches of the African Sahel, deep down on the southern fringes of the nation and close to the border with Senegal, Sélibaby is a crash of tight-knit lanes and ramshackle barrios.
Thanks to its university and the all-new regional hospital facility (funded, like so many new projects in this part of Africa, by the Chinese), the place has a certain energy to it.
It’s also finely placed for further travels into the southern half of Mali – which sits just to the east – and to the jungle-side towns of Senegal, which begins with the town of Bakel just across the Senegal River to the south.
Industry, industry and industry are the three things that have, above all else, governed the rise and times of the sprawling town of Zouérat.
Set between the great beige and brown bluffs of the Tiris Zemmour ranges, in the northern reaches of the country, it’s long been known for its proximity to some of Africa’s richest mineral reserves.
That’s the reason for the smoke and dust belching factories and refineries, and for the steady stream of convoys making their way south to the ports of the coast.
Travelers would probably do better just glimpsing the industrious nature of the locals here, before heading off to see the Saharan settlements of Fderik or the likes of Chinguetti.
15. Diawling National Park
A small enclave of greenery deep on the southern edge of Mauritania, the Diawling National Park is another of the country’s birding hotspots.
Packed with pelicans and northern pintails, Sudanese golden sparrows and pink-hued flamingos, it’s a great place to come and spot the curious flying creatures of West Africa.
It’s also known for its sweeping acacia woods and packs of golden wolves, not to mention wealth of riparian habitats where crocs meet ducks and hippopotami along the muddy banks.