All the below info related to obtaining a visa is outdated. Check the Thorntree forums for the current situation.
Considering the amount of time I’d spent planning (okay, daydreaming) this trip, I really should have spent more time in Mauritania. I had to bail out after two weeks because I ran out of hard currency, plus I had more pressing things to attend to up in Morocco. So I can’t give a comprehensive low-down on the entire country. But for anyone who’s interested, here’s a brief account of my two weeks in the most memorable place I’ve ever visited. In summary, I had an immeasurable amount of fun and made friends with everyone I met, and if you’re asking yourself whether or not you should go, I implore you to open your mind, strap on some sand goggles, and set your sights southward.
Update: apparently the visa is now €40 whether you get it at the border or the embassy. I don’t know which is easier. Check on Thorntree for latest info.
The Visa: Get it in Rabat, Morocco. There’s a lot of outdated info on how difficult it is to obtain — as of January 2015, it is completely straightforward and clockwork. I showed up at the doors to the embassy at 7am on a Thursday expecting there to be a long queue; in fact there was only an English couple who had been reading the same dire “get there at the crack of dawn” warnings online. Shortly after 7:00 a man popped out of the office and handed us the visa forms, saying that they wouldn’t open until 8. But all the same he collected the forms as soon as we finished them (took about 15 minutes). The only trouble I had was with my photos. The automatic photo booth two minutes’ walk from the embassy was out of order, so I had to spend an hour hunting down someplace else. 15 minutes’ walk northeast on the main highway is an excellent little photo shop that will give you 8 copies for 20dh, but it’s off the main road so you’ll have to ask directions, but here is the approximate location. Finally I was able to hand over the photos with
340dh ( €140 as of 2016) €40 as of 2017. I was told to come back at 2:00 but I showed up an hour early and my passport was good to go.
Getting there: I took a bus from Rabat direct to the southern city of Tiznit, and hitchhiked the rest of the way. Coach companies CTM and (I think) Supratours run direct routes from Rabat to Dakhla, but that would be a very cramped 24 hours. Plus you won’t have the chance to explore the Saharan coast so very many times in your life; might as well embrace the opportunity.
A political apology: So there’s a large territory between Tarfaya and Mauritania, often called the Western Sahara, which is a ‘partially recognized state’, many of the native Sahrawi people claiming sovereignty. Moroccans, who say it is rightfully their land, just call it ‘the south’. Both sides get very, very emotional about how you refer to the region. I respect the Western Sahara’s claim to independence, but in fact the the Sahrawi only control the eastern half of the territory, and I only traveled in the west. So while I don’t claim to have been to the Western Sahara, I have traveled through the western side of the Sahara (if that makes sense). As long as I don’t capitalize that ‘w’, I hope I can avoid offending anyone.
Though I spent a long time moving through the western Sahara, I spent most of it standing by the roadside. So I can’t tell you much about it. The coast is beautiful, vast, and sublime. But it is also coated in a rancid shell of trash and pollution washed in by the sea. There’s so much plastic lying around the beaches that it’s impossible to imagine what it might have looked like fifty years before.
Most of the tourists I saw here were French or German pensioners in camper vans, who are typically seen fishing off of cliffs or searching village markets for barbecue equipment. As a subculture of travelers they seemed a little incongruous in that environment. But putting myself in their place I think I saw the attraction — there was something about this deserted stretch of coast which made me think of D.H. Lawrence’s search as a middle-aged traveler for “liberty, liberty, elemental liberty.” Hundreds of these RVs drove by while I was hitchhiking and not one ever gave me a lift. It’s demoralizing to be perched in an environment as alien as that and to watch one car-full of countrymen after another drive past you heedlessly. A gang of tour-package overlanders with colorfully spray-painted cars drove past me twice on the journey, at which point in the voyage I was lonely and pining for some English-speaking company. Each time I watched an EU license plate recede into the distance had me seething.
There are two major cities in the western Sahara, Laayoune, which is nice, and Dakhla, which is nicer. In Laayoune I got chummy with a 20-something Sahrawi kid who studied political science up in Morocco. He invited me to his house for my first taste of Saharan tea – four parts foam to one part liquid, which takes so much time to prepare that I got the low-down on the entire Western Saharan political situation before I took my first sip.
Dakhla is a clean coastal city which sees a lot of tourists come in for the kitesurfing. I shared a hotel room with a gentleman who had interests in cigarette smuggling; he recommended a seafood place in which I enjoyed what must be one of the best fish tagines in North Africa. Apart from that, my favorite memory from the western Sahara was when I hitched out of Dakhla at dawn, driving up the peninsula and watching the sun rise above the desert, silhouetting the early morning kitesurfers.
The border: On the Moroccan side of the border is a sort of truck stop, with a couple cafes and hotels in addition to the military posts. I got a ride there with a convoy of trucks. The border had closed for the evening, so we joined a massive queue of vehicles ready for the scramble the next morning. The smaller cars were all let through before the trucks, so don’t worry about queueing 12 hours before if you’re just driving a Mazda.
At the border the truckers were all whooping it up in the cafes, where a wide range of Arabic, Berber, and sub-Saharan French dialects were audible. I inspected the hotel rooms they had on offer but they were uniformly repulsive, while the prices they were demanding of me as a tourist were insulting to begin with. I shouldered my gear and headed out into the night to look for a place to pitch camp, walking past my convoy and then nipping off onto the hilly shoulder of the highway. There was a deafening whistle behind me and a tall guy in a high-vis vest was waving at me.
I walked toward him far enough that I could shout “Pas de problem, I’m just looking for a place to camp!”
“Monsieur, come back! There are bombs! Boom! Bombs under the ground!”
He made explosion noises like kids do while playing. Then he turned and got back to some paperwork he was holding as if his conscious was cleared of anything that might happen to me. I retraced my steps (quite literally and very carefully) back to the truckstop, my knees shaking slightly. I spoke to the guy in the vest and he said I should just camp right there on the sidewalk. In Europe or the States this isn’t something I would have considered doing, given the sketchy reputation of truck stops back home. But at this point I was so fatigued, his word was good enough for me.
It turned out to be a quiet and comfortable night; once the truckers had bored of the televised football and finished pissing the caffeine out of their systems they headed back to their cabs for a hard-earned sleep. There’s a great deal to be said for Islamic civility. I didn’t hear a peep out of anyone all night and I didn’t wake until the overlanders drove in needlessly early and started a game of football on the minefield.
I had paid my trucker to take me to Nouadhibou, but he was getting cold feet and asked me to arrange my own transport across the border; he’d pick me up on the other side. By this point I’d gotten friendly with the overlanders, and I was able to ride across no-man’s-land in their guide’s car. I paid him 40dh. After dealing with paperwork for the Moroccan authorities we lead the convoy single file into no-man’s-land, a heavily mined stretch of wasteland which forms the border (emphasis on wasteland — it really isn’t as exciting as it sounds). We stopped in the middle of it all to conduct shady currency exchanges, sort out paperwork, and take lots of photos.
Changing money: I changed money with one of the shady fellows who lurk on either side of the border with great wads of Mauritanian Ouguiya. Don’t worry about finding them; they’ll find you. If you’re the kind of person who’s easily bereft of cash, maybe think twice before dealing with these guys; but the fact is they do give you a good exchange rate. I think at that time the official rate was 32,000 MRO to €100, and I traded with a guy at the border for 35,000, saving me about €9. I have no idea whether using euros gets you the best rate (as opposed to dirham or GBP), but it sounds reasonable. Contrary to current info online, there are ATM machines in Nouadhibou. However my card was rejected by the one I tried. It was a very new looking machine at the reputable Attijariwafa bank (on the main street uphill from the Port des Pêcheurs), so I don’t know what the problem was. Perhaps contact your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling to Mauritania. With ATM access I would have been able to relax far more while there.
The Mauritanian side of the border was a bit more organized. A competent (if disheveled) team of officials dealt with our papers and took digital fingerprints. While the overlanders were arguing about some ‘fee’ they suspected might be a bribe, a sniffer dog went over our bags and in all the car trunks. Luckily for me it hadn’t been trained to detect whisky. By the time I was cleared for entry the truck convoy I’d been with was still nowhere in sight. As the overlanders had no room for me, I said goodbye and got a shared taxi straight to Nouadhibou. I think I paid 3000 ouguiya after a little haggling, and there was one other person in the car.
Nouadhibou: This city is so strikingly different from any Moroccan city, I finally felt I was in Africa Proper. It’s a sprawling colonial layout set over an awkwardly hilly peninsula. There isn’t a scrap of shade outside and the dust in the streets is ankle deep. Stop at a pharmacy to buy some extra strong sunscreen and get the biggest bottle of water you can find to keep in your hotel room. Getting around is easy via the shared taxi system; it’s 100 MRO for most rides, and 200 for longer distances. Not that the city is unpleasant to walk around provided you’re protected from the sun. Westerners are not an unfamiliar sight in the city; people didn’t look at me with much interest. More than once I met taxi drivers who spoke no French, but insisted that I must speak Amazigh since I was obviously with the Peace Corps.
Accommodation: When first arriving in the city, I recommend telling your taxi driver what your budget for a hotel is, so he can find you an appropriate one in Nouadhibou. My driver even haggled with the concierge over the price of the room (I didn’t tip him for this, I guess I should’ve). I ended up paying 12,000 MRO for two nights; initially they wanted 10,000 for one night. I’m certain non-Westerners would pay a fraction of this. So wherever you stay, barter hard. My room was decent with en-suite and a TV, but the plumbing was in a hopeless state of malfunction.
I’d planned on spending two full days here with the ambition of bribing some fishermen at the famous Port des Pêcheurs to take me out on the ocean with them. The port isn’t so hard to find if you follow the main street south past the airport and then cut off toward the sea. Or just follow the smell of fresh fish. Once there, introduce yourself to someone and you might get a little tour around. I set about my mission of obtaining passage on a fishing boat. The fishermen spoke terrible French, and mine was even worse, so it took the best part of the day, and making a nuisance of myself to a solid dozen different crews, before I understood that the boats go out for days at a time, not just the afternoon. I was quoted 10,000 MRO for a quick private excursion, but I was already getting anxious about funds. Apparently a passenger ferry leaves periodically from the port, but I don’t know where it goes. So I just bought some dates and peanuts from a street vendor and contented myself with people-watching. If you make it to Nouadhibou, don’t miss this place.
- Fiche forms to speed passage through police checkpoints. For details, check out this page. It’s a good idea to add a photocopy of your passport to each page. 10 fiches were enough for my whole trip. You’ll use them in the western Sahara too.
- Standard school-style backpack. Get a sturdy one; it’s going to take a beating.
- Water bottles totaling a 2.5 liter capacity
- Military surplus mosquito-repellent popup tent. More for peace of mind regarding scorpions than mosquitoes.
- North Face ‘Blue Kazoo’ 3-season sleeping bag. Two-season would have been sufficient.
- Wool jelaba from Chefchaouen. This works wonders in helping me blend into the crowds in Morocco, but I found it had the opposite effect in Mauritania. Saharans have their own unique style and the Moroccan robe made me stand out like the white plume of Navarre.
- Messkit for camp food
- Sand goggles. These are absolutely essential for riding the train. Close-fitting sunglasses might do the trick, but to keep your eyes grit-free, eye protection really needs to be airtight.
- Map of the country, 1:2,000,000 scale (from Amazon)
- Reduced medikit: burn gel, paracetamol, water purification tablets, immodium, gauze
- Balaclava — far more practical than a traditional headscarf for train-riding purposes, if not as trendy.
- Pennywhistle. The seclusion of the Sahara is great for practicing instruments with which you have no skill whatsoever.