Welcome to Mauritania
What is Mauritania:
Mauritania is an Islamic republic in the Sahara Desert in northwestern Africa. It is located north of Senegal, West of Algeria and south of the Western Sahara. Mauritania is twice the size of France but has a population of just 4.5 million making it one of the least dense countries in the world. The capital and largest city is Nouakchott. Due to the inhospitable desert, nearly the entire population lives either along the coast or near the southern border. The population is approximately 30% Arab-Berber, 30% Black African and 40% Haratin (a dark-skinned Berber ethnic group). The lingua franca is French. With the exception of French businessmen and diplomats, the country is 100% Muslim. Mauritania’s economy heavily reliant on exports of two products: iron ore and fish.
Living in Europe has made travel to North and West Africa exponentially cheaper for me than when I was in Los Angeles. I have therefore tried my best to see as much of this part of the world as possible. I have heard from multiple sources that Mauritania is one of the most interesting countries in Africa. However, for a long time, it was rated a Level 3 by the US State Department, which is the level where my parents might question my judgement. However, in 2019, the US State Department lowered the rating of Mauritania from Level 3 to Level 2, the same as Spain.
In early March 2021, I had a 5-day weekend from school and decided that this would be the optimal time to go. March is one of best months weatherwise, the country was free of COVID and restrictions, the country was allowing foreigners in, and all my other long breaks from school fell during Ramadan. In short, all the dominos fell into place. The flight was expensive, but not atypical for the route and certainly cheaper than a similar flight would be from Los Angeles.
Mauritania does not have a developed tourist infrastructure. Independent travel is possible but would be extremely difficult for me due to the language barrier and a lack of pricing knowledge. Therefore, I determined that the best course of action would be to hire a guide.
Coincidentally, there was a post on the Facebook group Every Passport Stamp about tour guides in Mauritania. Nearly everyone on the group recommended a man called Hademine at Time4Mauritania. I searched his webpage and then sent him a WhatsApp.
Tours in Mauritania (and Africa as a whole) are expensive. However, Hademine was testing out a “guide-free” trip for 1/3 the typical price of a tour with him. Hademine would organize all the logistics and be my point of contact but would not actually travel with me outside the capital. Instead, he would pass me along between his trusted contacts around the country. In Nouakchott, Hademine would personally handle all logistics and show us around. Hademine said that he had run some number of these trips before without issues and that the country was completely safe for tourists.
A couple days before the trip, my school friend Jordan heard about the adventure and decided to join me. He has been to over 60 countries and is a very smart and fun guy. There are not many people who I would trust to go on this trip, but Jordan is one of them. Jordan independently reached out to Hademine and was actually able to craft a better (and cheaper) itinerary for us than the one that I had planned. We wouldn’t get to ride the famed iron ore train, but we would get to visit the Adrar region.
March 2, 2021: Welcome to Mauritania
We flew to Nouakchott, Mauritania via Casablanca, Morocco. The flight took 3 hours and was completely full. I knew I was going somewhere different the moment I stepped onto the plane. Everyone was wearing traditional attire. Blue desert cloaks and turbans, how exotic! There was one exception, a Canadian man working for a mining company. His company has just purchased a mine somewhere in the desert and this man was sent to not only see what they bought, but also come up with a game plan to start extracting resources.
For nearly the entire flight, I looked out from the plane window and could see only darkness. Just before touching down, the plane turned sharply to the right. All of a sudden, I could see the shining lights of Nouakchott. This city is very remote.
The flight landed as scheduled at 2AM. Why 2AM? I have no idea. The Canadian man deboarded right behind us and was met by an assistant on the jet bridge. He was then whisked away, presumably to skip all the lines. TIA- This is Africa!
Nouakchott’s airport surprisingly modern and clean. On arrival, Jordan and I purchased our visas on arrival for 55 euros. Next, we cleared immigration where the officer could not believe that we were arriving as tourists and questioned our motives. After showing him Hademine’s contact information and a brief itinerary of our trip, we were let through with a hearty “Welcome to Mauritania”.
Once outside, a lanky man in a collared shirt emerged from the shadows. “I am Hademine” he said in a high-pitched British accent.
We got into Hademine’s car and drove into town. The airport is located well beyond the city limits in the middle of the desert. 20 minutes of nothingness later, we reached a Chinese-built road with an obnoxious number of solar-powered streetlamps. After taking this for 5 minutes we reached a police checkpoint.
Hademine lowered the window and saluted the officer walking over. In the local Hassaniya language, he explained that he was taking two tourists back from the airport, at which point we waved. The officer then let us through.
This exercise went on somewhere between 15 and 20 times! Hademine said that these roadblocks were due to the midnight COVID curfew and is not normal for Mauritania. Surprisingly, we never had to pay a bribe! Perhaps the North African highway police are not corrupt! I remember passing by an insane number of police in Algeria as well.
By the time we reached Hademine’s house, it was 3:30 am. We were exhausted and ready for some sleep.