What makes Mauritania a unique country to travel to?
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a developing country in northwestern Africa. Arabic is the official language, but French is widely used and several local languages are also spoken. Tourist facilities in the capital, Nouakchott, are adequate, but limited or non-existent elsewhere.
Overall, crime in Mauritania is not unlike crime in any major city in the United States. Most incidents occur in the cities and larger towns and are petty crimes, such as pick-pocketing and the theft of improperly secured or openly visible valuables left in vehicles. To reduce exposure to theft and increase personal safety, lock up valuable items and keep them out of sight. Walking alone at any time is discouraged, especially for Western women. Residential burglaries and robberies, particularly at the beaches in Nouakchott, are not uncommon. In Nouakchott, travelers should avoid the beach at night.
Violent crimes and crimes involving the use of weapons are rare. Rapes and assaults have occurred and, in some instances, involved U.S. citizens. The majority of sexual assaults have occurred at night in taxi cabs. Combined with the lack of government regulation of taxi fares and poor regular maintenance, Westerners should avoid taxis and public transportation. Foreign tourists, including U.S. citizens, might be targeted for kidnapping in Mauritania.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, purchasing them may also be breaking local law.
While traveling in Mauritania, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places, you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places, driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Mauritania, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical facilities in Mauritania are limited. There are few modern clinics or hospitals beyond the capital and a few major towns. At local pharmacies, some medicines are difficult to obtain or may be counterfeit; travelers are advised to carry their own medical supplies and medications (over-the-counter and prescription). There are no modern mortuary services available in Mauritania. Procurement of caskets and materials to ship the remains of deceased citizens internationally are not available in Mauritania.
Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease. Chloroquine-resistant P. falciparum malaria is a severe form of the disease that is found in many parts of western Africa, including Mauritania. Because travelers to Mauritania are at high risk for contracting malaria, they should take one of the following anti-malarial drugs: mefloquine (Lariam™), doxycycline, or atovaquone/proguanil (Malarone™). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have determined that a traveler who is on an appropriate anti-malarial drug has a greatly reduced chance of contracting the disease. In addition, other personal protective measures, such as the use of insect repellents, may help to reduce malaria risk. Travelers, who become ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling in a malaria-risk area, and up to one year after returning home, should seek prompt medical attention and tell the physician their travel history and the names of the anti-malarial drugs they have been taking. For additional information on malaria, please visit the CDC travelers’ health website.
The latest outbreak of Rift Valley Fever occurred in October 2012 in the Tagant region of Mauritania. The first outbreak was recorded in December 2010 and subsequently detected in the Adrar and Inchiri regions of Mauritania. According to the CDC, Rift Valley Fever is a viral disease that primarily affects animals, but also has the capacity to infect humans. Infection can cause severe disease and death in both animals and humans. Humans usually get Rift Valley Fever through bites from infected mosquitoes and other insects. Humans can also get the disease if they are exposed to the blood, body fluids, or tissues of infected animals.
Safety and Security
The current Travel Warning for Mauritania warns U.S. citizens of the continued risks of traveling to Mauritania, and urges extreme caution due to activities by terrorist groups in the region, including Al Qaeda in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). As noted in the Department of State's Worldwide Caution dated February 19, current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions across Africa. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings.
As a result of perceived Western involvement in counterterrorism efforts, terrorist groups have declared their intention to attack Western targets in Mauritania and the region. It is possible that these terrorist groups will attempt retaliatory attacks against Western targets of opportunity. Al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations have previously conducted kidnapping of Westerners for ransom and suicide bombing attempts. The Mauritanian military continues to engage in action against these elements.
Because of terrorist activities in the vicinity, travelers should avoid all non-essential travel to:
the Mali border regions,
the Hodh El Charghi and Hodh El Gharbi regions of southeastern Mauritania,
the eastern half of the Assaba region (east of Kiffa),
the eastern half of the Tagant region of central Mauritania (east of Tidjika),
the eastern half of the Adrar region (east of Chinguetti), and
the Tiris-Zemmour region of northern Mauritania.
U.S. Embassy staff members are authorized to travel to these regions only in limited circumstances. Given threats by Al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations and other terrorist organizations, and because of indications of a desire to kidnap Westerners for ransom, U.S. citizens are urged to remain vigilant and be alert to surveillance or other risks to their safety. Faith-based organizations, regardless of their location, may also be particularly targeted.
Traveling Safely within Mauritania: Travelers should exercise prudence and caution when traveling in Mauritania. Be particularly vigilant when traveling by road outside of populated areas, even when traveling along main routes and highways. The U.S. Embassy discourages travel outside of urban areas unless in a convoy accompanied by an experienced guide, and even then only if equipped with sturdy vehicles and ample provisions. Driving outside of urban areas after dark is also strongly discouraged. The U.S. Embassy has received reports of banditry and smuggling in the more remote parts of Mauritania.
In Nouakchott and other major cities in Mauritania, there is an increased security presence and additional checkpoints. Police routinely conduct roadblocks at which they may ask for proof of identity and driver’s licenses. Travelers should be prepared for such inquiries by carrying identification at all times. These checkpoints should be respected, even if they appear to be unmanned. Drivers should stop, sound their horn, and pause for an adequate amount of time before proceeding through the checkpoint to avoid any type of confrontation. It is best to drive cautiously and be prepared to stop at short notice.
Travelers should be aware of their surroundings at all times and maintain good personal security practices, including always locking homes and cars, varying routes and times of travel, and maintaining a low profile. When going out, avoid being part of large, highly visible groups of Westerners (but do not travel alone), and avoid sitting in areas that are easily visible from the street when in restaurants or cafes. Be particularly alert when frequenting locales associated with Westerners, including cultural centers, social and recreation clubs, beach areas, and restaurants.
Landmines remain a danger along the border with the Western Sahara and travelers should cross only at designated border posts. Travelers planning overland trips from Mauritania to Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, or Mali should check with the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott before setting out. For more information about travel in Mauritania, please see the section on Traffic Safety and Road Conditions.
Political Concerns: In September 2012, many countries around the world, including Mauritania, experienced political demonstrations protesting the controversial YouTube video and cartoon. Also, several political opposition parties have joined together as the Coordination of the Democratic Opposition, and organize regular demonstrations in the capital of Nouakchott seeking the departure of President Aziz. Although the political rallies are generally calm and peaceful, the possibility of political instability or spontaneous violent protests remains. In addition, deteriorating economic conditions could cause civil unrest. Some previous protests in Mauritania have turned violent. An anti-government group calling itself the Youth of February 25 Movement held a series of protests in the capital of Nouakchott in 2011 calling for political, economic, and social reform. A separate group, Do Not Touch My Nationality, organized several demonstrations in 2011 over alleged discrimination in a national registration drive in Nouakchott and in smaller towns throughout Mauritania. Most of these demonstrations turned violent and one protestor was fatally shot by security forces during a September 2011 protest in Maghama. The demonstrations were generally announced in advance in the media and on the Internet. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid political rallies and street demonstrations, and to maintain security awareness at all times.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in a foreign country, visitors may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Mauritania is provided for general reference only and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Public transportation is not safe and road conditions in Mauritania are generally poor, particularly in the interior. Overland travel is difficult and roadside assistance is non-existent. The country’s size (larger than Texas and New Mexico combined) and harsh climate make road maintenance and repair especially problematic. Mauritania has only about 2,070 km (1,286 miles) of surfaced roads, 710 km (441 miles) of unsurfaced roads, and 5,140 km (3,194 miles) of unimproved tracks. Travelers should not offer rides to hitchhikers, nor should visitors to Mauritania accept rides offered by strangers. Taxis and public transportation and are not considered to be secure forms of transportation for western visitors to Mauritania.
The traditional route to Nouadhibou, prior to the completion of a paved road, was along the beach during low tide. Some travelers continue to use this route, as do visitors to coastal fishing villages and other points of interest, as well as smugglers and others who try to avoid the security checkpoints that are often established along the asphalt roads. Pedestrian visitors to the beach should exercise caution because of the beach’s use as a route for motorized vehicles.
U.S. citizens traveling overland for long distances in Mauritania should travel in convoys, and be sure to have suitable four-wheel drive vehicles, a local guide, an adequate supply of water and food, and a second fuel reservoir. Multiple vehicles are recommended in case of breakdown. A Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and satellite phone are essential when traveling in remote areas. Visitors are urged not to travel alone into the desert or after dark when outside of major urban areas.
Driving in Mauritania can be treacherous, and we encourage travelers to hire a trained local driver. Traffic patterns differ considerably from those in the United States and many Mauritanians drive without regard to traffic signs or rules. Roadway obstructions and hazards caused by drifting sand, animals, and poor roads often plague motorists. These hazards, when combined with the number of untrained drivers and poorly maintained vehicles, make heightened caution imperative at all times. Drivers should be extremely vigilant and all vehicle occupants should always wear their seat belts. Motorcycle and bicycle riders should wear helmets and protective clothing. Nighttime driving is discouraged.
The telecommunications infrastructure, including cellular telephone coverage, is limited. For those traveling outside the major urban areas, it is recommended to have a satellite telephone readily available.