Visiting Nouakchott, the worst capital in the world
Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, may be one of the least favorite capitals among African overlanders, and I include myself in this group, because I also don’t like Nouakchott.
In fact, I think that it really sucks and, from a tourism perspective, it’s a city with very little to highlight.
Nevertheless, if you are an avid reader of this blog, you will know that, when I travel to unappealing destinations, I always strive to find the one reason that makes a certain place unique, or makes visiting it worth the shot at least.
Today, I wanted to tell you why I personally believe Nouakchott can be a pretty boring city to visit while also highlighting all the good things about it.
Don’t forget to check my Mauritania travel guide with all tips and information
Nouakchott, the new capital of Mauritania
Nouakchott is a relatively new African city.
Until the middle of the 20th century, most Mauritanians were still nomadic, living spread out in the desert, and Nouakchott was nothing but a small, fortified fishing village home to a few thousand people.
It was shortly before independence, in 1960, when Mauritanians had to choose a capital for their brand-new country, that they chose Nouakchott because it was right between Saint-Louis, the colonial city from where Mauritania was ruled, and Nouadhibou, the economical center.
Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Nouakchott was also choosen as the capital because it wasn’t predominantly dominated by any of the main ethnic groups, Arab-descended Moors or sub-Saharan Africans.
Check the cultural section of my Mauritania travel guide for more information about this.
After independence, many Mauritanians quit their nomadic lifestyle, moved to their new capital, and Nouakchott grew exponentially.
Today, Nouakchott accommodates more than 1 million people.
Why Nouakchott sucks
My arrival in Nouakchott could not have been more unfortunate.
After a long flight with layover included, the local authorities confiscated my drone with the excuse I didn’t have the required authorization which, according to them, I could easily get through the Ministry of Aviation in Nouakchott.
I looked forward to flying my drone over the sand dunes and the oasis of Terjit so, before beginning my route around Mauritania, I spent the following days trying to get the supposedly needed permit.
For that, I counted on help from a local working in tourism, a foreigner also working in tourism, and even staff from the Spanish Embassy, but nothing; it was impossible and all I achieved was wasting 6 precious days in a city I didn’t like.
After finishing my tour, which ended up riding onboard a cargo train across the Sahara, I went back to Nouakchott, where I had to wait for 3 days before getting my visa for Mali, and 2 more additional days to take the PCR test and get results, so 11 days in total, during half of which a sandstorm was hitting most of the country, preventing anyone from being outdoors.
After all those days, my conclusion was that Nouakchott doesn’t have much to offer.
On the one hand, it’s always so hot (and I was there in winter), and there’s sand and dust absolutely everywhere, no wonder most locals always cover their entire faces with a traditional sheesh, or turban, which I always did as well.
On several occasions, I actually attempted to work from the garden of Triskell Hostel (great hostel, by the way), but my laptop always ended up covered in dust and even today, some of its keys still rustle when I type.
On the other hand, other than Port du Pêche, I felt there weren’t any remarkable sites to visit. Architecturally speaking, Nouakchott lacks historical architecture, and its only landmark is the Grand Mosquée of Nouakchott, which is nothing more than a normal large mosque.
Moreover, there are no bars (and no alcohol), no good restaurants, or even cafés with decent Wi-Fi from where to work.
Even Riyadh in Saudi Arabia can be more fun.
It’s the African capital with the highest rate of abandonment among Western expats – an English teacher told me, and one can understand why, since their understanding of social life differs greatly from ours.
Strolling down the streets wasn’t very pleasant either. They were filled with trash – even in fancier areas – and piles of sand, loads of actual Sahara sand. In fact, Nouakchott must be the only capital in which I have seen actual Sahara dunes in the city center.
Before even traveling to Mauritania, I had already been told not to spend much time in Nouakchott and, after my 11-day visit, I can understand why all the warnings.
Nevertheless, this is just one side of the story, the most visible one, and intrepid travelers may be able to enjoy the hidden Mauritania, which not many tourists know about.
Good things about (and to do) Nouakchott
Nouakchott is one of the few worldwide capitals where it is so easy to connect with the locals. Whether through Instagram or Couchsurfing, my 11-day stay turned out to be a great one because I met a lot of people who invited me to family gatherings, lunch, dinner, or just to hang out at their place. I was even invited to a wedding but, unfortunately, I couldn’t make it because it took place the day I rode the Iron Ore Train.
Moreover, generally speaking, local chance interactions are also great. Once, a man randomly stopped his car next to me and insisted on taking me wherever I was going to and I gladly accepted, of course. The people working in restaurants, cafés and any shop were also lovely, and helpful.
I have had similar experiences traveling in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but so far, never in Africa.
The most traditional capital ever
As you know, up to 1960, Mauritania was a predominantly nomadic society and still today, Mauritania is a country with very little Western influence, and even the young generation like to always dress in their traditional clothes and spend their weeks in a traditional haima in the desert.
In most developing countries, one tends to see a huge contrast between the capital and smaller, rural towns but not in Nouakchott, where most people still have a tribal mindset (in the good sense of the word), a Mauritanian told me.
The largest variety of African food
Something that characterizes Mauritania is that it is ethnically mixed, with people from the Maghreb and several sub-Saharan countries, meeting altogether in Nouakchott so, while Nouakchott lacks good gourmet restaurants, it has the largest offering of African cuisine, from Ivory Coast to Senegal, Mali and Nigeria.
For someone like me, who hasn’t discovered much of this region (yet), this is something worth highlighting.
No traffic, no chaos
In Nouakchott, you find dust and sand but, unlike other African capitals, life is pretty slow here and it’s not particularly chaotic, perhaps not as peaceful as Asmara in Eritrea, but definitely, the most chilled city I have ever visited in sub-Saharan Africa.
The camel market
Located just outside Nouakchott and far less visited than Port du Pêche, this is one of the greatest camel markets I have seen – and I have seen quite a few – because nowhere else I haver seen so many camels in such a tiny area, not even in Hargeisa (Somaliland), Saudi Arabia or Sudan.
Port du Pêche
The tourist’s favorite and the most visited attraction in Nouakchott is the Port du Pêche, aka harbor and fish market, which is supposed to be one of the liveliest harbors in West Africa.
Every day, between 2 and 5pm, hundreds of boats come to shore loaded with tons of fish which will be later sold to the adjacent market, and it’s a pretty cool event to witness.