Located in the outskirts of the Sahara, Chinguetti and Ouadane are two hidden gems Mauritania is hidding from the rest of the world.
Unspoiled, mysterious and rich in culture, the cities of Chinguetti and Ouadane in Mauritania are an ode to the past. More than 1000 years ago, they were two of the most important cultural hubs in Africa and an obligatory stop for those embarking into the hot and dangerous Sahara. Today, conflict, lack of infrastructure and exodus to bigger cities are threatening their existence and how things are going, they are not going to prevail long.
I visited Mauritania searching for adventure and excitement but end up finding two magical cities everyone should at least know and learn about.
What makes Chinguetti and Ouadane special?
Located on the Adrar Plateau in northern Mauritania and separated by only 130 km, the cities of Chingetti and Ouadane were considered the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, a name given to the connections between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa between the 8th and the 17th century.
Due to its unique location in the outskirts of the Sahara, nomads coming from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa used them as trading spots and places to recharge or prepare for their ardous journey. At the same time, travelers arriving from the Middle East and North Africa, saw in these cities a great spot to spread their goods directions south.
As time passed by, these cities for trade became cultural hubs. Books coming from all parts of the Arabic world passed through this city and Chinguetti became one of the first educational hotspots in the Sahara, as well a very important gathering place of Muslim pilgrims on the way to Mecca.
Unfortunately nowadays there is no trade and the importance of these cities declined significantly. Many of the buildings are abandoned and in most parts of the city, there are only ruins standing that show a glimpse of its golden past.
But unlike other ancient cities like Rome or Athens, Mauritania is far away of being a tourist destination. Walking around the ruins in Chinguetti and Ouadane felt just like a journey though time and history. Debris from collapses centuries ago seemed like they happened days ago and since tourism is almost inexistent in this part of the world, these is a big sense of isolation as you are the only traveler exploring these cities most of the time.
During my visit to Mauritania, I was the only visitor exploring Chinguetti and Ouadane. I didn’t see another tourist outside the capital and for short moments, I felt I was the only person that has been there in a long time.
How to get to Chinguetti and Ouadane from Nouakchott
Traveling using public transportation
Made only for those with a lot of patience and nerves, traveling in Mauritania using public transportation is a pain in the ass. Transportation is extremely unreliable and there are dozens of military stops along the way in which you have to get yourself through by providing again and again your private information and reasons for traveling.
Still, for those who still think the journey is worth it, there are several (and very unreliable) minibuses connecting the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott and the city of Atar. As timings are as well very unreliable, inform yourself a day or two in advance, at what time you should be at the station. Once in Atar, local pick-ups can take you to Chinguetti or Ouadane for around 200 MRU (5 EUR). This is another journey you will probably have to wait for several hours and test your patience with military officials again.
My friend Joan Torres wrote a great guide for traveling Mauritania independently and without a guide.
Traveling with a private guide
Way more expensive (between 500-1000 EUR for 5 nights), but at the same time a thousand times more comfortable, private tours are definitely the best way to move around Mauritania. Local guides not only take care of your paperwork, but they also plan a full itinerary, and support you constantly, so you can make the most during your stay and avoid wasting time waiting for buses or filling personal details.
Most tours in Mauritania include a visit to Chinguetti and Ouadane, and even though you only spend one night in each of these places, this will give you enough time to get a good glimpse of the history of these former hubs and at the same time explore by your own.
Inside tip: While searching for tours in Mauritania, there is a big chance you will end up at the website of some travel company in Europe or USA. Instead of booking there, skip this middle man and try to find the local operators these foreign companies collaborate with. You will save money and also get more control over your itinerary.
What to do in Chinguetti and Ouadane
The old towns of Chinguetti and Ouadane are archeological treasures you can explore independently. Getting lost in their ruins is simply a must you can’t miss and the best way to sense how living at these cities was like. Their labyrinthic narrow alleys and collapse buildings transport you immediately to another era – a location for only you and history.
Furthermore, one of the biggest treasures you can find in Mauritania is having the opportunity of entering the libraries of Chinguetti, five libraries located in the old quarter of this city containing some of the most important Quranic texts in history and papers about astronomy, mathematics and science dating back to the middle ages.
And of course, since you are in the outskirts of the largest desert on the planet, getting on a 4×4 and heading to the dunes of the Sahara is not only one of the coolest activities you can do in Mauritania, but also the most interesting way to travel between Chinguetti and Ouadane. This is also an opportunity to see another facette of Mauritania, as you pass by camel caravans, stop at nomad villages and, at least once, will have to help your driver getting your vehicle out after getting trapped in the sand.
Read more: Visiting the White and Black desert in Egypt
NOTE: As you can imagine, exploring the dunes of Mauritania is impossible without the help of a guide. Going in the Sahara is not a game and this is something you can’t do independently. I’ve heard horror stories of travelers getting lost in the Sahara and if you are planning to do some self drive, get an expert that at least guide you.
Is it worth it?
Visiting Mauritania is way different that exploring other countries around the world. This is probably one of the most untouched countries today. With most infrastructure being completely undeveloped for tourism, this is really an opportunity to see how life was decades, or even centuries ago.
Read more: What to do in Djibouti City