Crossing Into Mauritania From Western Sahara
Crossing borders overland can be a difficult, complicated process. This usually makes for great travel stories even if it is often accompanied by a massive headache. As far as complicated border crossings go, Mauritania makes it to the top of many travelers’ lists. You do not have to apply for the visa ahead of time and if you do not have a vehicle, you can walk right through the border from Western Sahara, no problem. It is what happens after that which becomes the issue.
Once you exit Western Sahara, you are in what is aptly referred to as No Man’s Land, a 3km stretch of land between countries that technically does not belong to any state (it is actually super interesting and you can read about our experience walking across it here). People will offer to take you across and you can either hop in for a fee or just walk, like we did!
The next 3 kilometers are a stretch of post-apocalyptic wasteland with burned out cars and barren desert stretching as far as the eye can see. This is the glorious route to Mauritania!
When you arrive at the border, you give your passports to two guys who write your name and information down on a piece of paper. Hopefully you can slide your passport in before a massive stack of other ones gets shoved in front of yours by the for-hire fixers people pay to “expedite” the process. It is here that you fool yourself that the whole visa-getting ordeal has been blown out of proportion and you are the lucky one who has hit the border at the right time! This feeling fades quickly when you realize that these guys have nothing to do with you actually getting your visas and your name getting written down in this paper is most likely a pointless waste of time. For after this station, you are directed to the actual visa office, where the real fun begins.
There is no cue to get your visa so people just crowd around the one door waiting to become the next chosen one to be led into the mystery room where the visa awaits. Fortunately, the waiting area is outdoors so we had a breeze, even if shade was lacking. There is one man guarding the door and every time it even cracked open, people swarmed it passports at the ready. The border closes at 6pm and when we arrived it was nearing 4 so we were pushing it as we had heard stories of visas taking up to 4 hours to be issued.
We had packed some provisions, as we usually do on big hitchhiking days, and we were happy to have the bread and amlou (especially after our 3km walk through No-Man’s Land). We also brought our homemade granola, which we distributed around to other people waiting in the hopes of making friends (always a good idea in tense waiting room situations. You never know when people will snap!)
We knew the border closed arbitrarily between noon and 3:00 as the border patrolmen all sit down together for lunch. We had assumed we had missed this part of the day but sure enough, soon after we arrived in the waiting area, the Mystery Room door opened and everyone inside filed out into another room for what looked like afternoon tea. Classic Mauritania.
Tea time lasted quite a while but eventually the men piled back in the Mystery Room and the swarm of the door commenced again. By this time the fixers were beginning to get some business as people began to worry they would not get their passports handed in before the 6pm deadline. We were already preparing ourselves to have to spend the night, which fortunately we were equipped to do.
Just then, the door opened and a man appeared and all of the fixers seemed to know this was the time and the guy to throw your passport at because all of a sudden passports were being pulled out from everywhere, people scrambling to get theirs in the stack. We managed to fit ours in and it looked promising that we wouldn’t have to sleep at the border after all.
Another eternity passed by and my name, along with all of the other women, was called. There was no time to waste and I ran for the door to get my passport like a starving peasant being called to receive her rations. Gabe’s name was not called and I tried to pull the “we’re married and he must accompany me everywhere” card. The door guard acknowledged this was indeed an error on their part and assured me they would get him into the room as well. In conservative countries sometimes it does pay to live up to your stereotype.
Being inside the Mystery Room was much less alluring than it seemed from the outside. In fact, it is a room, strewn with discarded paper from the visa sticker, five chairs (four for waiting, one for doing your bio-metrics), and two plain-clothes visa officers, along with an assortment of fixers. They all seem to be enjoying socializing much more than issuing visas and I would understand were it not for the fact that this was their job and there were still heaps of people outside waiting.
The way the two men conduct the process of scanning passports and printing visas was a bureaucratic nightmare. First, you wait ages (obviously), then you have to really assert yourself by assuming the chairs are the cue and moving a chair closer to the bio-metric seat every time someone gets up. Once you are in the hot seat, you are still not guaranteed a swift process and the computer/camera/scanner is guaranteed to fuck up and at least one of the processes involved will have to be redone. You give the officer your passport, have your picture taken, fingerprints scanned (many of the women’s fingertips were fully covered in henna, which prolongs the scanning process), have your destination and where you are coming from documented, pay the man 55€ (be sure to have Euros with you to avoid an extortionate exchange rate) and your passport is put on the scanner.
You return back to one of the four waiting chairs as your passport is put in another stack awaiting the final visa sticker. If there are any fixers left, their passports are handled first. At this point Gabe had been allowed into the room so our passports were together in the final step. Within another 20 minutes or so we had our passports complete with our visas and we were off…to another station.
Before you can leave, you have to be checked out by the police where they (again) want to know your destination. The police office had two officers, one doing paperwork, the other perpetually on the phone. It is a good idea to kind of loiter outside of this room to ensure your passport does not get pushed aside. People are starting to get pretty testy at this point about getting through the border and if you are not there to insist the officers process your passport before someone who showed up after you, you could be there a while.
We told the officers we were hitchhiking, which they seemed confused about but fine with and they asked for the number of our Couchsurfing host, which we gave and they called. They wanted to know our itinerary for Mauritania so we listed off a few towns we wanted to visit and that seemed sufficient. This process was by far the easiest and within 10 minutes or so we had our entry stamps and were finally able to go!
All in all the process took about 3 hours, but we heard it could have been much worse. Fortunately, we were traveling on foot because apparently taking a car across initiates a whole other litany of potential complications. It was an annoying process but it wasn’t as complicated as we had expected.