Many countries have current travel warnings for Mauritania. Most strongly advise against travelling there. These travel warnings are absolute over-reactions to things that actually happened in Mali, not Mauritania, 20 or more years ago. I travelled to remote areas of the country, where according to the travel warnings, the possibility of something dangerous happening increases. No matter where I was, I never felt anything but safe.
Wherever you are in country areas, locals are always willing to take you under their wing, to make sure you’re safe and comfortable. There are definitely countries in Western Africa that are much less safe, but do not have current travel warnings. If you have any reservations or doubts, it’s always prudent to get in touch with some locals to check the actual situation before altering your plans.
Entering From The North
This border is confusing with absolutely no signage to tell you where to go. You will also spend extraordinary amounts of time waiting. Waiting in lines, waiting for visas, waiting for people to input your details into the computer system using the ‘two-finger typing’ method, waiting for transport, waiting for other people in your van to get visas. You will be asked the same questions in several different rooms and show your passport to several different people. Some of them will be super serious and others will try to joke around with you. Just remember that you will be there for at least 2 hours, but expect that it will be closer to 4. It may be an all day mission, so try to get there early and bring snacks!
Mauritanians run on tea, it’s tradition and it’s a chance to be social. If you talk to someone in the street for more than 2 minutes, expect to be invited for tea. It’s a very strong blend of tea with mint and they tend to add a lot of sugar. If you don’t like or can’t eat sugar, they’re also happy to make it without for you. It’s probably the best tea I’ve tasted in Africa, so definitely worth a try!
Last year, the government decided to issue a new version of Mauritanian Ouguiya(MRU). The new currency is worth 10 times more than the old currency, so there are now roughly 400MRU to 1 Euro, as opposed to the previous 4000MRU to 1 Euro. It can be confusing at times, as everyone still quotes prices in the old currency, but you will get the occasional person quoting the new currency. The best way to save yourself having a heart attack when you’re told your roadside BBQ for 3 is 4000 (10 euro), is to ask, “Old or new?”. Once you know it’s old, take a away a 0 and breathe a sigh of relief.
There are numerous police checks when travelling overland in Mauritania and at each one you are expected to supply a Fiche. For those of you that don’t know what a Fiche is, it’s a piece of paper with all of your passport and visa information, as well as a copy of your passport information page. The police will accept this in lieu of checking your passport. Having several copies will save you and your fellow travellers a lot of time at these checkpoints.
Even though I had about 20 ready to go, I personally only had to hand over 5 of these information sheets on my travels through the country. Four of those were distributed on my last day when heading towards the Senegal border. I was lucky to be waved through many of the checkpoints without having any documents sighted, but I know other people who’ve travelled through the country and have used 10 or more.
Men’s Thoughts On Women
While I don’t like to over generalise, there were some definite trends on display when it came to male attitudes towards females. The majority of people you’d see on the streets were males, as those who are husbands will not let their wives go outside by themselves. This means that many males think that any women outside are fair game and can be asked totally inappropriate questions. Where it gets even trickier, is that sometimes even just acknowledging these men are talking to you can be seen as an invitation for more. These are terrible attitudes and I’m by no means implying that all men in Mauritania share these thoughts, but women do need to be careful of those that do.
That been said, people were generally friendly and helpful. I had some really nice men that started talking to me just to find out how I was liking the country. They seemed genuinely interested in talking to non-locals and finding out about foreign cultures.
Mauritania is a desert country, which pretty much means it’s one big dust bowl with about 3 trees. While I may be exaggerating about the trees, I’m not exaggerating about the dust. It’s everywhere and will end up in places you thought were impossible to reach. You will still be finding dust in your clothes and bags weeks later. You will also eat it at some point. It’s all part of the experience.
Navigating Mauritanian cities is very difficult, especially because a lot of the roads are not sealed and even the sealed roads end up partially covered in sand, so they all start to look the same. Even my Mauritanian friend got lost twice trying to find my hosts place. The best plan of action is to befriend some locals to help you get around. Luckily, the locals are always willing to help, even if it takes a bit of trial and error to get there. One caveat there is that you may need stop for some tea first.
Exiting in the South
Getting to the bus station is a complicated undertaking, it usually requires taking 2 separate taxis, but luckily we had a local helping us, who managed to get us into a taxi going all the way to bus station. The bus will only take you within a kilometre of the border, so you have to walk or get a taxi the rest of the way. To make things even more fun, there will be people yelling at you from every direction before you even get out of the bus.
This is another complicated border with little to no signage that may require the help of a local to navigate. Despite the complications, it’s a relatively quick passage and the reward for making it through the chaos is a nice relaxing journey across the Senagal River in a wooden canoe.