Mauritania - Attractions
Created from a grassy fertile plain in 1960, Nouakchott is one of the newest capital cities in the world. When Senegal and Mauritania split at independence, Mauritania was left without a capital. The site chosen was many days walk from the desert, but is now entirely surrounded by the Sahara, with sand piling up against walls and fences like snow drifts. The city lost some of its energy (already in short supply) following the riots in 1989, but the two markets are lively and the beach good for swimming and jogging (and, some say, mugging). Although designed for 200,000 inhabitants, Nouakchott has about five times that population already; the outer areas are little more than slums of metal shacks and tents.
As a useful and interesting introduction to the lifestyle and culture of the nomads of Mauritania - to the complete exclusion of the Black population - visit the well-organised National Museum in the heart of Nouakchott. Just out of town at Port de Pêche visitors can watch the fishermen go about their business. It's a beautiful area, and the workers - mostly Wolof and Pulaar people - don't mind being photographed, and will talk about their work if asked. Women can be observed going about their work hand-knotting rugs at the National Carpet Office. Nouakchott has finally opened its arms to the cyber-age and the two Internet cafes in the city are the only places in Mauritania you can get online.
This is where the nomads of northern Mauritania come to eat, drink and be merry. This market centre is the base for several interesting side trips but bring lots of ouguiya - there are no banks. The town is split in two and conjoined by the market: of the two halves, the narrow winding streets of the smaller Ksar area are more interesting.
Also on the coast, but in the far north and literally metres away from the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, is the fishing town of Nouâdhibou. Situated on a peninsula jutting southwards from the mainland - and only about 500m (545 yards) across - the town is on the east or bay side, with the ocean side held by Morocco. The area is separated by landmines so go no further west than the train line. The airport is modern - complete with muzac - but the rest of the town is basic and caked in sand. Swimmers, water-skiers and anglers will be in heaven - the seas boast one of the largest fish populations in the world. About 520km (325mi) from Nouakchott, Nouâdhibou is accessible by air twice a day, train or truck (up to 30 hours). Do not attempt the drive without a guide and remember to take eyedrops and plenty of water.
Rosso, on the Senegalese border, is a busy town of almost 30,000 residents. Despite the large population and the large amount of passing traffic, there is actually very little to see in Rosso. Still, the road trip from the capital is interesting - often made more so by frequent police checks - and it's possible to visit on a day-trip. The town does boast Mauritania's only black market, but authorities take a dim view even of curious tourists, so steer clear of anything that looks dodgy. Rosso is 160km (100mi) south of Nouakchott.