Mauritania is one of those countries where you can have a feel for endless spaces and the illusion of unconditional freedom. Mauritania is mostly a Saharan country and Sahelian in the south. The geography is thus dominated by desert, sand and stone.
The country is divided into three geographical regions: the Sahara along the Atlantic coast, steep plateaus in the central region and wide stretches of dunes in the east. Mauritania is crossed by two rivers: the Karakoro and the Senegal. The latter is nearly 1,100 miles long and has dug a valley along the southern border of the country, creating an agricultural region.
The highest mountain in the country peaks at 915m and is in the north, next to Zouerate.
Mauritania also has several national parks and nature reserves where a multitude of birds spend the winter during their migration. Mammals and humans also live in these parks.
Though visitors mainly visit Mauritania for its excursions in the desert, its towns and cities are full of surprises. In Nouakchott, its capital, the contrast between the luxury villas in the north of the city and the slums in the south is striking. The daily return of the fishing boats to Nouadhibou is an impressive sight, while in Chinguetti visitors can admire a superb mosque dating back to the 13th century.
The Mauritanian climate, hot and dry, is not very favourable to living form development. Some animal and plant species have nevertheless managed to adapt to these arid conditions. All the water bordering the country is however very rich in fish, some of the world's richest.
Mauritanian culture is the foundation of the country's society. Influenced by Islam, France, the Berbers and traditional Sub-Saharan Africa, the country's arts and culture are based on music, poetry and tales.
Traditional Mauritanian music alludes to the feats of the warrior princes of Mauritania's great empires as well as love stories. The songs are sung to the music of the 'tidnit' (a four-stringed instrument), played by the men, and the 'ardine', played by the women. These singsong melodies might irritate those who aren't use to this type of music!
Poetry and tales are the most popular art forms among the Mauritanians. They like to come together around a fire in the evening to sing, tell tales and recite poems (we promise, this isn't just a cliché!). The tales also play an educational role, transmitting proverbs and knowledge to children, with developed examples in the form of short stories.
The Sahara is also rich in rock paintings and sculptures dating from the beginning of the Neolithic era. They depict the wildlife present at the time as well as scenes of daily life.
Mauritania's towns and cities are full of monuments bearing testimony to the country's historic past. The national museum in Nouakchott gives visitors a good idea of how living conditions in the country once were. It is still possible to see remains from medieval times in the historic caravan city of Aoudaghost.
Like many Sub-Saharan African countries, the traditional religion in Mauritania is animism. It is based on the belief that every natural creation, be it a human being, an animal, a tree, a rock or a river, has a soul. For animists, drought, disease and hunger are the consequences of a major wrong that has been committed. Although most Mauritanians are Muslim, ancestral animistic practices can still be plainly seen in the country.
The customs and traditions may be age-old but they are still part of everyday life in rituals like greeting someone and eating. The tea ceremony is a particularly important element in the daily life of the Mauritanians. If you refuse the invitation or wish to leave after just one cup you will probably upset your host. Mauritanians are very hospitable and it isn't rare for them to invite strangers into their homes to drink a cup of tea, enjoy a meal or even sleep.