Introducing Mauritania

Desert inhabitants © Droz Jean Paul

Arab and African influences mesh and collide in the northwestern African country of Mauritania. Northern Moors are the majority while Tukulor Africans mostly populate the southern regions. The tug of war between power centres results in unstable politics, including a recent coup unseating the country's first freely elected leader. Mauritania is blessed with breathtaking natural beauty and some fascinating historical sites, but it is not currently considered a safe destination for travel. The UK Foreign Office advises against all travel to the provinces of Tiris Zemmour, Adrar, Tagant, Hodh el Chargui, Dakhlet-Nouadhibou and Inchiri due to a high threat from terrorism. They advise against all but essential travel to the rest of the country, including the capital, Nouakchott. The unstable political situation and the murder of four French tourists in 2007, which was attributed to terrorism, are a deterrent for many travellers. However, tourists who are willing to overlook these dangers are often richly rewarded.

Mauritania is a land of rare natural beauty and dramatic open landscapes. The Sahara scenery in the north shifts slowly as sand dunes move across the desert. The north's nomadic people follow suit, traversing the sea of sand. The central land is covered by two vast plateaus only broken by occasional cliffs. Flat plains and desert dunes stretch uninterrupted across most of the west. These are some of the least populated regions in West Africa. The stunning, unspoilt coastline of Mauritania is the most alluring attraction for many travellers; the country's 468 miles (754km) of seashore is characterised by sandy beaches with hardly any development.

Tourists dry up in summer months when the heat can become unbearable. Throughout the rest of the year travellers can arrive over the sand dunes from Morocco or across the river from Senegal. Larger cities such as Chinguetti, Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and Atar have some small guesthouses and hotels, but the general lack of tourist infrastructure makes Mauritania a country for the adventurous. Visitors are advised to travel with reputable guides and tour operators, or in large convoys. Various forms of four wheeled transport from old cars to sturdier jeeps can get travellers about. There is also a main train line.

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