Desert inhabitants © Droz Jean Paul
Arab and African influences mesh and collide in the north-western 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. Yet the Islamic nation has some unusually western friendly laws including religious freedom and female representation in government. It also one of few Islamic countries to have diplomatic ties with Israel.
The coup is yet another reason travellers are uncertain about the region. A further deterrent was the murder of four French tourists in 2007 which was attributed to terrorism. However, tourists who are undeterred are privilege to the rare beauty of the country's 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 dunes. 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. Farther to the south, scenery begets more permanent landscape and residents, as the southern Senegal River allows for permanent agriculture.
Unspoilt coastline is the most alluring aspect for most visitors. Mauritania's 468 miles (754km) of seashore is characterised by sandy beaches with little 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 a small tourist infrastructure with small guesthouses and hotels. Various forms of four wheeled transport from old cars to sturdier jeeps can get travellers about. There is also a main train line.
Yet little tourist infrastructure means most travel within the country is for the adventurous. Visitors are recommended to travel with guides or in convoys if far out of city centres.
Possibly a boon to future western tourists is the reversal of female beauty: in Mauritania fat women are considered the height of attractiveness.
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