How to ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania

By Joan Torres 47 Comments Last updated on April 29, 2024

Iron Ore Train Mauritania

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The initial idea was to jump in one of the first wagons but, apparently, I was at the place where the tail of the train would stop.

The problem, however, was that it was a 2.5km long train that stopped in the middle of the desert, in a particularly inhospitable place with no signposts and markers, and walking along it with all my luggage, plus the several liters of water needed for the 20-hour trip across the desert wasn’t a very appealing idea.

Fortunately, a good man offered to take me in his 4×4 to the exact spot where the locomotive would stop, allegedly, a location even more inhospitable than the previous one, where there was nothing but sand and a few rusty wagons along the train tracks.

It was 1pm and, apparently, the train could show up at any time between 11am and 7pm, so I was there waiting, with the uncertainty that the train could arrive at any moment, but I only had to wait for two hours when, all of a sudden, I felt the noise of a locomotive approaching followed by an endless line of wagons.

The locomotive stopped pretty much in front of me.

About 15 wagons away, I was able to make out a Mauritanian loading tens of goats and, a few wagons further along, another man seemed to be loading more than 30 suitcases, as if he decided to move out to his new place riding on the Iron Ore Train. Pretty epic.

With my face wrapped in a sky-blue Mauritanian turban and a pair of ski goggles, I was ready to climb the ladder of the wagon, not without being a little nervous, of course, since I was about to cross more than 700km of the Sahara riding on top of a wagon filled with toxic dust, completely alone.

For more information about the country, don’t forget to check my travel guide to Mauritania

how to ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania

In this Iron Ore Train in Mauritania Guide you will find:

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What is the Iron Ore Train of Mauritania?

Operating since 1963, the Iron Ore Train – Train du Desert in Mauritania – is a train that connects the iron ore mines in the town of Zouérat, located deep into the Sahara, with the port of Nouadhibou, located on the Atlantic coast.

The aim of the train is to transport thousands of tonnes of iron ore, distributed in more than 200 wagons, making it become the longest and heaviest train in the world, at 2.5km long, although it can be up to 3km, depending on the loading.

The longest train in the world
The longest train in the world

Exporting this mineral has become one of the basic pillars of the impoverished Mauritanian economy, and the train journey is an essential part of the process.

The total journey is 704km across the most offbeat desert landscapes, only disturbed by the occasional Bedouin who for convenience, decided to settle next to the train tracks and it also goes through the disputed or unrecognized territory of Western Sahara.

Le Train du Desert in Mauritania
Le Train du Desert in Mauritania

On the other hand, traveling to Nouadhibou by train also saves more than 500km from the journey by road, which inevitably passes through Nouakchott, the reason why there are many Mauritanians who like to undertake such a trip, either in the passenger wagon, or riding on top of the iron ore.

And that was the main reason why I wanted to travel to Mauritania:

To cross 700km of the Sahara sitting on top of an iron ore pile.

It’s a strange adventure, kind of masochist, but it has become one of my best experiences ever, and the ultimate adventure that all intrepid travelers should experience once in their life.

Because this is what it is about, a one-lifetime-experience, that’s it.

This adventure is as spectacular as arduous because, while everything you experience and see during daylight is a real blessing to your eyeballs, the night becomes tough and exhausting.

Nevertheless, I guarantee you that, despite a 20-hour journey in which I barely slept, ate, and ended up covered in dark, toxic dust, I got off the train with a huge smile from ear to ear.

Read: Mauritania travel itinerary

My experience riding the Mauritanian Iron Ore Train

Iron train Mauritania
An epic journey

When I returned from Mauritania, many were surprised not by the train journey itself but how I even discovered the existence of such a tourist attraction.

I don’t really remember but I think I saw it in a documentary not so long ago. In any case, riding this train was enough motive for making a trip to Mauritania.

My experience with the train began upon my arrival in Zouérat, in a hotel I booked into named Tiris, whose owner spoke impeccable Spanish.

My daughters have been living in Barcelona for many years now, and I go there quite often – he said.

We chatted about the purpose of my visit, and he never managed to assimilate why the hell I wanted to ride the train with all the dust, when I supposedly could pay the 15€ cost of getting into the passenger wagon, a significant amount many Mauritanians can’t.

In any case, that man helped me a lot. In fact, he was friends with the Railway Company director who, by the way, also spoke fluent Spanish, and it was he who took me in his car to the actual station, located 20km from Zouérat, not without first filling our bellies in a restaurant whose owner had lived in the Canary Islands for more than 20 years.

Once at the station, all I could see was the passenger carriage and a few locomotives.

The wagon seemed to be already packed, something I never understood, since we still had several hours for the train to depart and the air inside there was extremely suffocating. Everybody was telling me to hurry to get in.

No, thanks, I want to ride on top of the wagons.

The passenger wagon

Some engineers invited me into one of the locomotives, where they gave me a small tour around the tiny compartment, while they also prepared some Mauritanian tea, which we all drank together later. It was they who informed me that, if I wanted to ride on the first wagons, I had to go more than 2km further, but they were actually kind enough to take me there.

Preparing some tea inside the locomotive

From that point, I was all by myself, alone in the middle of nowhere, until the Train du Desert finally came, 200 wagons pulled by an EMD electric-diesel locomotive with an Arabic acronym that said SNIM (Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière) written on its side.

Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière, Mauritania
When the train finally arrived

As I said in the introduction, I was feeling frankly nervous at that precise moment, especially because I had no company for making such a journey, but I didn’t think it twice when I dropped all my luggage on the wagon and decided to climb up the metal ladder.

Slowly, the train began to accelerate until it reached an average speed of 35km/h and, from there, I have nothing to tell but wonderful things.

Your hands become black in a matter of seconds

From the top of the iron ore, being able to overlook the vastness of the Sahara beyond the horizon, while greeting the occasional Bedouin and witnessing a breathtaking sunset, was an unbeatable experience, and I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

At night, however, it’s a different story. You see nothing besides the starry night and well, I am not going to lie, but from that moment it can get tough, but not as bad as you may think, and, by the end of the day, the whole experience makes up for it.

Sahara sunset from the Iron Ore Train
Sahara sunset from the Iron Ore Train

Tips for riding the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania (FAQ)

What is the official train itinerary?

The itinerary is Zouérat – Choum – Nouadhibou

Zouérat – Zouérat is the starting point, a mining town located in the northeast of Mauritania, around 700km from the coast, where the iron mines are.

After traveling around Mauritania and visiting places such as Terjit, Chinguetti or Atar, Zouérat feels like a surprisingly modern town – according to Mauritanian standards – and, despite being so remote, it is home to the most relevant and important industry for Mauritania’s economy.

Choum – A tiny settlement located between Atar y Zouérat, and where the train does a quick 10-minute stop.

Nouadhibou – Mauritania’s second city – and economic capital – is the train’s final destination, where the iron ore is unloaded and made ready to be shipped to different parts of the world.

An engineer greeting me from the locomotive

Can you ride the train in the opposite direction, from Nouadhibou to Zouérat?

Yes, you can, but I don’t recommend it for two reasons:

Where should you start from, Choum or Zouérat?

Most travelers catch the train in Choum, for the simple reason that it’s closer to Nouadhibou, hence they cut the journey a few hours short.

However, I definitely recommend starting your journey in Zouérat, and my reasons are as follows:

  1. It’s way more epic and, as you have already traveled all the way to Mauritania and you’ll probably never ride the Iron Ore Train again, you should do it in its entirety, otherwise you may regret it.
  2. Apparently, 1 out of 20 times, the train doesn’t stop in Choum but it goes straight to Nouadhibou. I don’t know the actual reasons, but this is Mauritania and you don’t always need to find the logic.
  3. The ride from Choum to Nouadhibou takes 12 hours and, depending on the time the train departs from Zouérat, you may ride the whole journey in complete dark. For example, in my case, the train departed Zouérat at 3pm, arriving in Choum at 7:15pm, when it was already dark. We arrived in Nouadhibou at 7:30am, shortly after sunrise, so if you had taken the train in Choum on that day, you would have only gotten 10 minutes of sunlight.

Learn more about how to organize your trip in my Mauritania 2-week itinerary

Awaiting for the train arrival

How to get to Zouérat or Choum from Nouakchott or Atar

If you are in Nouakchott, the first thing you must do is take a bus or shared local taxi to Atar, the capital of Adrar and the base for reaching places like Terjit, Chinguetti or Ouadane.

From Atar, you can catch a direct bus to Zouérat (4 hours) which also stops in Choum.

Being such an important industrial center, the security level in Zouérat is stricter than in other parts of the country and remember to have your hotel contact details handy on your arrival. Otherwise the police will waste your time, like they made me waste mine.

Obviously, they will also ask for your fiche (check the security section of my travel guide to Mauritania for further details).

How much does it cost to ride the Iron Ore Train?

Riding the Iron Ore Train on top of the wagons is completely FREE OF CHARGE.

There’s also no control or checking whatsoever. The train arrives and you jump on, that’s it.

However, among the 2.5km of loaded wagons, there is one passenger carriage, which tends to be the last one.

To get in that carriage you have to pay, but no more than 10-15€.

Riding on top of the wagon vs traveling in the passenger carriage

If you don’t feel like taking such a wild journey, there is the option of traveling in the actual passenger wagon, even though some intrepid travelers may tell you it’s not that worth it.

I disagree. While it’s true that traveling with all the dust is, weirdly, an outstanding experience, each traveler has a different worldview with different objectives and life ambitions and, depending on your preferences, not everybody enjoys 20 hours sitting on top of a toxic pile of dusty iron, plus this is an adventure for which you need to be logistically prepared, with proper clothes and gear, and there are few who travel with all this equipment.

Furthermore, in the passenger carriage you are likely to meet curious Mauritanians with whom to interact, share stories, have some tea, etc., but keep in mind that it’s always packed, with barely any place to sit, so don’t expect it to be the most comfortable journey ever.

On the other hand, undecided travelers have the alternative of making the journey from Zouérat to Choum on top of the iron ore, and once in Choum, getting down to the passenger carriage.

A lady standing next to the passenger wagon

At what time and day does the train depart?

The Iron Ore Train departs every single day of the year, with absolutely no exception.

The official departing time from Zouérat is 11am but I was told that it has never departed before 12-12:30pm and, unofficially, they say the train can leave at any time between 12pm and 6pm, or even later. Mine left around 3pm.

What I recommend is going to the railway office (located here) to ask for the approximate departure time from that day in particular. The office is where shared taxis to the station depart from. I recommend going there at 11am.

From Zouérat to Choum takes 4 hours, approximately, so the train can leave at any moment between 3pm and 10pm, but it may be delayed even more.

This is Mauritania, and having an extra load of patience is a must.

On our way to the station on the back of his pickup

Where is the station?

The train departs from Zouérat mines but the actual station is in a small settlement named Fderik, 24km from Zouérat towards Choum.

This is the exact location for both stations, Fderik and Choum.

How long does the journey take?

Assuming things go smoothly and there isn’t any breakdown, the journey takes 18-20 hours from Zouérat.

Where should you go, at the beginning or at the end of the train?

The advantage of riding on one of the first wagons is that you won’t be bothered by the dust coming from the 200 wagons in front of you because of the wind.

Apart from that, I think it doesn’t matter but just don’t go in the middle, since you won’t be able to appreciate the train’s real length.

I think I jumped on the 4th or 5th wagon.

Pro Tip – Choose a wagon with a tall iron pile, so you will have a clearer view of the whole train.

What to do once you reach Nouadhibou

The train stops a few kilometers outside of Nouadhibou, in the middle of nowhere, where several taxis will be waiting for the passengers.

Nouadhibou has a wide offer of accommodation and I stayed at Hotel Esma. It’s a modern hotel costing 50€ a night.

Is it safe to ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania?

Potential dangers:

I am joking 😉

As long as you wear warm clothes, enough water, cover up your face and don’t balance on the edge of the wagon unnecessarily, it should not be dangerous, not at all.

Read: How safe is traveling in Mauritania

Doing some unnecessary, stupid equilibrium with the train moving… I am joking, again, the train unexpectedly stopped for a few minutes

Can you do it alone?

I did it all by myself. Honestly, I would have liked to make the journey with another traveler, but it didn’t turn out to be a big deal anyways.

There’s also the possibility of getting on a wagon with Mauritanians but the few locals I saw getting on at Zouérat were more towards the middle, and I wanted to be at the beginning.

Alone? No problem. How did I take all these photos? I buried the tripod into the iron ore

What is the best season for riding the Iron Ore Train?

Each season presents its pros and cons:

Winter – During the day, the trip is particularly pleasant but nights are cold. You must wear warm clothes.

Summer – The sun will be harsh but nights will be warmer.

I did it in February and it was great. During the day, from Zouérat to Choum, it was delightful and at night, with a good jacket and sleeping bag, I never felt any cold.

Eating and drinking on the train

It’s complicated, especially because your hands will become dirty as soon as you get in, so I recommend bringing only food that can be eaten without touching, like bananas or a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil, for example.

I did bring a sandwich and ate it during the 10 minutes that we stopped in Choum. In Zouérat, I had a full meal before getting in.

Sleeping on the train

The iron ore is pretty soft, with a similar texture to sand. At night, I set up my sleeping bag in a corner and managed to feel cozy at some point. I barely slept, but felt comfortable. The iron molds to your body pretty well.

My stuff 🙂

Packing list for riding the Iron Ore Train

Here’s what you need to bring:

Read More Travel Stories

📢 In my Travel Resources Page you can find the list of all the sites and services I use to book hotels, tours, travel insurance and more.

Also check our travel guide to Mauritania.

Mauritania Iron Ore Train Tips


Really cool Joan! I’ve always wanted to do this!

Also, you should visit Suriname. It’s one of the most off the beaten path destinations and COVID cases are relatively low.

This is the most enjoyable reading I have had in a long while. Thank you for bringing out the kid, I mean the adventurer in me.

Totally riveting. Wish I could go!!!!!
Love train journeys and deserts. This would be the perfect adventure.

Hi, Joan
Its always refreshing to read your travel blog, more than the travel information it’s your approach that’s interesting. Keep it up have a wonderful life.

This has been on my radar for a while now. Like you, I can’t remember where I first saw it but I’ve been wanting to do it for a while! Especially as a way to see Western Sahara. Thanks for sharing and great tips.

The Point Noire-Brazzeville train through Congo is on my list too.

You mentioned the iron ore as toxic. How serious is the risk that some of it gets into your mouth or nose, or even on your hands and other body parts? Seems like you have to get well wrapped around and protected, is it? And how about it getting into your stuff, clothes and so?
It all sounds like some adventure I would like to try. Thank you.

Hi, Joan
Thanks for sharing your experience. Do you think it is difficult to do it for a person with 60 years old? I am thinking to go to Mauritania or to Iraq.I know they are completing different destinations, but what is your recommendation ? Thanks!

Hi Margarida, it’s not about the age, but how you feel phisically. I think the worst part of the journey is not being able to sleep for the entire night but otherwise, the iron ore is soft. If I compare Iraq with Mauritania, well, Iraq all the way. There’s much more history, geographical diversity and I just prefer the Middle East over the Maghreb.

Hi Joan, do you have any recommendations for women travelling there, although you are male and it might be hard to imagine how your travel would have been if you would be a female in relation to the interaction with local men (did you also interact with local women?) How about this topic, how would European female travellers be seen in the context of the culture and possible traditional gender roles of that country?

Hi Joan, thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience! The iron ore train has been on my list for quite a long time. I would like to know is it possible to take the train from Zouérat to Choum only? I am not really interested in spending the whole night on iron ore… The main question is, will there be some cars waiting for picking up passengers at Choum train station to Atar when the train arrive from Zouérat? Or I have to spend one night in Choum? Thanks!

Hi David! You can definitely stop in Choum no problem. About cars going to Atar, I am not entirely sure, but unless you are at the end of the train, where the passenger car is, I don’t think you’ll find any because cars will be gone by the time you arrive there (it’s a long train!). However, the station isn’t very far from the town and if it’s not too late, you may find cars going to Atar

it is possible – I watched a video of a guy who went from Nauazibu to Choum in empty carrier and then continued to Atar
#95 Przez Świat na Fazie – Cmentarzysko samochodów | Najdłuższy pociąg świata | Mauretania
it’s in polish language but with english subtitles, next chapter show Choum a bit

Hi David!
I had been wanting to do this for quite a while after watching videos of the ride on Youtube. Your articles about Mauritania were one of my main sources of information for planning my trip. I did this in August 2021, I was 19. It is probably the most memorable adventure of my life. I went to the desert for adventure and I found it. I expected the inhospitality of the environment to make the whole trip quite hard (poor country + Sahara desert in August), and basically wanted to do a badass adventure just for the sake of it. Well as it turned out, I liked the country more than I could possibly imagine. The people there are the most welcoming I’ve seen in any country.
Also, for those wondering, Mauritania is indeed perfectly safe as long as you stay out of red zones. I felt way much safer during my 10 days in Mauritania than during the 1 day layover in Tunis.
I think most of the places I stayed at were the same as those you stated on other articles, apart form the hotel in Nouakchott. I went to Auberge Triskell, close to the US Embassy. There is also a restaurant at the same place called Nakhletein. The owner and guy in charge is a Frenchman named Sebastien. It is a good place to meet mostly french tourists and expats there. Food is insanely delicious, Sebastien is super nice and makes you feel at home (maybe because I am french as well). I highly recommend to go there.
Last advice: bring at the very least 10L of water on the train in summer, especially when it’s 47°C outside. I only took 4 or 5. Luckily, there was a local on the wagon next to me, close to the engine, who had plenty of water so he offered me some. But bring more.
Thank you again for all the infos David!

Hi Joan,

Thanks so much for these posts. I’m planning to go to Mauritania and ride the train in April. Do we need to book hotels in advance? My previous experience of travel in West Africa is that you can just rock up in a town and find somewhere and it doesn’t appear that either of the websites you suggested have bookings available in Mauritania anymore.

Many thanks,

HI Joan, done this trip a few weeks ago (January 2023), from Zouerat to Nouadhibou, the blog was a great help! Just a few words for anyone going- MAKE SURE YOU ASK AT THE RAILWAY OFFICE IN ZOUERAT. I had assumed it always stopped at Fderick, and was going to just get a taxi there, but changed my mind because I wanted to know when it was departing. On that day, it wasn’t going to stop at Fderick at all, and instead left from just south of Zouerat, stopping for 30 minutes about 5km further up the track to pick up more wagons. The railway officer there can arrange a taxi for you, but he’ll rip you off a little bit – he asked us to pay 800 for his friends taxi (In fairness the taxi waited until the train arrived and drove us to the front too). We got there at 12:30 and the train departed around 2pm.

Also, we stopped at Choum, it was about 8/8:30pm so already dark. We had about 15 minutes of light in the morning, so if you got on in Choum, you wont have much time where you can see, although the sunrise was class. The sunset was pretty spectacular too.

Also, try to get a spot in a iron dust wagon not a rocky wagon – you’ll get more dirty but its 100 times more comfortable. Also, if it has a big pile or two in the middle, and not much on the ends – this helps at night as you can sleep close to the end of the wagon, out of the cold wind.

Amazing!! Congrats! We are thinking of doing it, but one question topped out on my brain… how about toilet? What do you do if you want to pee?

Hello! I just got a video from a train accident. The train has derailed!!!

Hope everybody is fine.

If you want the video contact me!

Hey Domi,
I came into Nouadhibou on the train just a few hours before that happened. I’d love to see the video.

Do you have Telegram?

Hi! This is amazing and I want this to be my next adventure in 2024!

Quick question, for a Canadian, what are all of the requirements I would need to meet and documents I would need to have ready if I want to complete this trip?

I am also curious on where my first country would be (Maybe Morocco?) and if it’s possible to fly back from Mauritania. Any help would be appreciated!

Hello!!! Is it safe to do this trip and to go to Zouerat these days? I read everywhere “avoid non essential travel” due to the threat of terrorism and so on. Even Zouerat on some maps is in so-called “red zone”.

Hola Juan, your blogs with all the detailed info are a blessing for all of us!! A question about shoes for traveling in Mauritania but also Mali: from your experience, which is best in this region: closed walking shoes or “trekking” sandals (which are obviously open)? I travel very light and would prefer avoiding taking both .. Gracias!!

Hi Joan, I’m currently travelling around Mauritania and I your blog very useful for information on the Iron Ore Train, so thanks. I thought I would let you know that I went to Hotel Tiris in Zouérat but it is now closed and looks like it’s been closed for a while. I struggled to find other hotels so I ended up staying at the SNIM Hotel (Tazadit hotel), it wasn’t great but at least there was a good breakfast included! Funnily enough I’m now staying in the hotel Tiris in Atar. I took the train from Nouadhibou in the sleeper carriage and the the next few days I’ll be going back to Nouadhibou on top of the iron ore from Zouérat after my jaunt around the Adrar. I don’t do a blog myself but if you want to keep in touch to discuss travel I’ll put my FB link here. I have been full time travelling for the last 11 years! Safe travels and maybe see you on the road.

Hey, I am planning to go, in general how safe are the places? I travel with a lot of camera gear as a travel photographer so are there muggings and kidnappings in West or other African countries in general in general tourist areas.

Hi, I’m currently on site and for the last 2 weeks it’s been forbidden for tourists to travel in coaches and this is currently being checked. In Nouadhibou, as well as in Zouerat. But it is Mauritania and can change quickly or the corruption will increase 🙁
In Choum you usually arrive at night, so there will be no checks there.

Rided the train on the 1st of May. Indeed since the last 2 weeks tourists are not allowed to ride the iron ore trains. Just the passenger wagon. There were police in Choum even late at night not allowing tourists to get up. They escort you to the passenger wagon.

The train did not start at Fderik. We waited there for 3 hours when suddenly a car came by and a guy apparently working for the company informed us that the train will not stop there but will start from Zouérat and that locals are allowed in the iron ore wagons. Anyways we called a taxi. And he sneaked us in a specific spot in the middle of the train where we quickly got on the iron ore wagons and did not get up until the train was far away from Fderik. We had no problems onwards as the train made only a 5 minutes stop at Choum so no one bothered on those who were already on the wagons

What we heard was that there was an incident with some influencers that urged them to ban tourists from riding the train. Would be nice to have some extra information.

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