I think my friends all hate that I travelled to Mauritania. When I eventually came out of the country it was really all I could talk about, nearly every story I told started with “this one time in Mauritania,” and the truth is that my time in the ancient village of Chinguetti had a lot to do with there. My time there was sobering, refreshing and more than anything it was inspiring. I slept under a sky full of stars each night, ate and drank tea with warm and welcoming locals, and wandered into beautiful stretches of pristine sand dunes. Bad rumors and continual bad press have made this region a place void of tourism. However, as much as any place I have visited so far in Africa, Chinguetti deserves your visit. It is simply incredible.
Time Needed: 3-5 Days
Backpacker’s Budget: 30-40USD
Things to Do and See in Chinguetti
The old town of Chinguetti is a quiet settlement build of brick and sand. It’s easy to feel completely lost in time while wandering the sandy streets lined with stone fences. It’s quite possible to wander through town in just a couple hours. However, if you really want to get a true feel for the region it’s worth organizing an excursion out of town and into the powerful desert. Below I have listed some things to do both in and around the city.
- The Old Mosque (in Town): The old mosque in town is quite beautiful, but if you’re not Muslim you’ll have to admire it from the outside. It’s said to be one of the oldest mosques in Africa, but the one out of town, I’m told, is even more ancient.
- The Old Mosque (out of Town): To get here you’re going to have to hike, or hire a 4×4. I hiked out leaving the hotel at about 4pm arriving in time to get some incredible shots right around sunset before hiking back in the dusk of the desert. To get here, if you’re in between the old and new towns of Chinguetti put the old town on your right hand side and walk. If you follow the base flat you’ll get there in about an hour or so. Be sure to tell someone you’re going, for safety reasons.
- Libraries: Around the old mosque in town there are a number of collections of ancient books. Chinguetti was the center of Islamic teachings in this part of Africa and much of that history was kept in books that are still on the shelves of these libraries. There are lots of different ones, so ask where you’re staying to recommend the best one.
- Camel Sunset: In the flat lands between the old and new towns of Chinguetti, the nomads come into town each night with the camels. It is a sight, and sound, in itself. But with the sunsetting behind them it makes for an incredibly “out of this world” sight.
- Camel Trekking: If you really want to get into the desert you can get on the backs of a camel. The best trips are 3 days to an oasis. It is possible to do day trips, but don’t expect to do much more than just scratch the surface of the desert in a day.
- 4×4 Trips: A real good way, if you have the money, to carve some serious time out in the desert is by 4×4. It will likely cost you abour 50-70USD a day for a vehicle, but if you’re in a group of 2-3 it might very well be worth it.
- Star Gazing: It would be a sin to spend your nights in a room. Regardless of where you leave your stuff, drag a mattress out to a rooftop and enjoy the beautiful sight of desert stars. It’s unreal.
Where to Stay in Chinguetti
The way to go in Chinguetti is to hook on with a local guesthouse. Not only will it be cheaper than the couple of hotels in town, but you’ll get a much more personal and authentic experience. I stayed with a man names Lilame Hadjeiws while I was there and he was incredible and he did everything he could possible do to take care of me. To get a hold of him talk to Just at Bab Sahara in Atar. You can email Just at justusbuma(at)yahoo(dot)come or call Lilame at 46492747. Really, the only other choice in town when I was there was the Auberge des Caravanes, a hotel which is quite appealing but over on the new side of town.
Where to Eat in Chinguetti
Simply put, you’re not going to find a restaurant in Chinguetti. You’ll need to arrange meals with your lodging. Most will just assume you are eating. The one thing I must warn you is to be prepared for slightly strange keeping of hours when it comes to meal time. Expect a late breakfast consisting of bbq at about 10am, you’ll have a light lunch at about 3 and then an even lighter dinner once the sun goes down. It is actually a good way to eat, just different. The bonus, however, is there will be tea about 20 times a day.
Getting out of Town
It’s not difficult to get out of town, but you’ll have to plan a little bit. Generally, in heading to Atar there is only one vehicle leaving each day. If you ask at your hotel they will likely be able to organize something for you. If you’re planning on taking the famous Mauritania iron ore train from Choum to Nouadhibou, ask around to find out when you need to be in Choum. Chances are there will be a vehicle leaving each day to Choum but be sure to ask at your hotel.