With the recent surge in negativity towards tourism in cities like Venice and Barcelona, how about visiting a place that’s pretty much never been on the tourist map, where you’ll be one of only a handful of English-speaking tourists in the entire country. Not only that, but the biggest one in Africa!
Algeria has struggled for many years to diversify and attract tourists, varying factors have resulted in lacklustre results but the Government now appears to be focussed solely on promoting itself as a “must-see destination”. Unlike neighbouring Morocco, Algeria receives only 20% of their tourist figures, so there’s quite a long way to go. Having now visited both countries I think you can guess which is the easiest to get to, travel around and do business in; yes you guessed it – Morocco.
After Sudan broke in two, this country is now the largest in Africa and the 10th biggest in the world so I had my work cut out trying to figure out where to visit on my very short five day trip. Located only a short hop away from Spain, Malta and Italy, yet very few international tourists actually step foot on this side of the Mediterranean. Although the last decade has been marred by terrorism and revolutions, Algeria is now relatively stable but sadly finds itself surrounded by conflicts on all sides. With Libya and Tunisia to the east, Niger and Mali to the south and Mauritania and Morocco to the west the Government certainly have their work cut out to remain stable.
Situated in North Africa, 80% of this country is actually occupied by the largest hot desert in the world; the Sahara. A place that has always fascinated me and was top of my must-see list, thankfully I got to explore the unique desert oasis cities of Timimoun and Ghardaia. Although Algeria is striving to be individual, many aspects of life seem to have continued and not dropped out of fashion since the time when France was the Colonial power. This includes things like eating bread or a baguette with every meal, trying delicate and beautiful cakes similar to a Parisian patisserie or even taking the Metro – which to me felt like a replica of the Paris metro. It’s not surprising though, between 1830 to 1962 this country was under French rule and up to 20% of the population was European.
My Travels in Algeria
Firstly let me start by saying this is not an easy country to travel around alone, if you don’t speak French or Arabic you will need a guide or someone to travel with who’s a bit more . Sadly for me, languages were never my strong point at school but the benefit of this is you do get to meet some new friends around the world whilst travelling who are willing to help you out. My friend Mohammed; a Yemeni national who currently lives in Algeria was kind enough to invite me to travel with him, thankfully for me he can speak both of the native languages. Phew!
Before I started researching I didn’t have a clue what to see or where to go, many of the must-see places aren’t that famous and there was also some off-limits places to contend with. After browsing various adventure travel company itineraries I put together a couple of ideas, I really wanted to explore Tamanrasset and the south of the country but this proved tricky and expensive so I set my sights on the centre and the mighty Sahara.
Upon arriving in to Algiers, the nerves kicked in and I wasn’t sure whether I would even be allowed in with my visa. I flew from London with Air Algerie, as airlines go they weren’t bad but definitely won’t feature on any award-winning airline listings any time soon. Algiers International Airport is currently being redeveloped and is being extended, until this happens don’t expect European standards, I wasn’t very impressed with the welcome from the passport and immigration people. Upon arrival you’ll be greeted by two different lines, one for Algerian passport holders and the other for, well, Other passport holders (as is written on signs). Well this turned into chaos as people starting queuing thinking they were in the right place only to be shouted at to get in to the Algerian passport holder line. Confused? Absolutely, anyway I ended up at the back of the line and it took almost an hour to get through – ridiculous!
Thankfully all along the Algerian Mediterranean coastline there’s several cities that I could have flown into including Oran and Constantine, it just so happened that I picked Algiers – a.k.a The White City. Sadly the Metro doesn’t yet stretch as far as the airport, but I believe this is in development so hopefully it should rectify the rather horrendous taxi ride that you have to take into the city. If a taxi driver notices that you are foreign or can’t speak French/Arabic they will try to overcharge, quoting prices like 2,000 – 3,000 dinar whereas the real price should be more like 900 – 1,500 dinar maximum.
Algiers appears to be going through a renovation period as almost every building in the Casbah area had scaffolding up, I visited just before Eid so many families were out and about buying from the local markets. It is quite an assault on your senses as people will come at you from every angle whilst you’re trying to guide yourself and looking out for your possessions meant it was more of a quick visit to the Casbah area. Hopefully next time I’ll plan it better and then I can discover more of the incredible architecture. Algiers felt like a fairly safe city, it reminded me a lot of Beirut with its eagerness to modernise and adapt to a more European style.
After spending a rather sleepless night in Algiers I ventured back to the airport early to catch a domestic flight with Air Algerie to Timimoun. It isn’t a place that’s widely known in the travelling community, but it seriously should be – this place is like stepping back in time. I don’t use those words lightly, but it is one of the most beautiful oasis towns in the Sahara. Remember when you were a child and you were shown some worn out, black and white photos of explorers dying of thirst and looking a little rough, well this place is what I imagine they found.
Sadly for me the first thing that happened when I stepped off the plane was the local gendarmerie wanted to know who I was, why I was there and where I had been previously. After being escorted from the airport to the central police headquarters in the city I waited for two hours before the chief dealt with me. He spoke a little English but mostly communicated via my friend Mohammed, his main questions were, what is my job, why am I here and unfortunately the biggest question – why did you visit several countries. My current passport is full and I need to renew it, this means I have visas from various countries that certain places don’t like, sadly I didn’t realise Algeria would make such a fuss over my Iranian and Russian visas. The police chief could not understand why I would have visited either of these countries as a tourist, but he had no choice but to let us walk free as he had no reason to keep us at the police station.
After our brush with the law, it was time to try and find somewhere to stay for the evening. As this trip was done on a budget I resisted staying in the typical luxury tourist hotel and opted for a traditional local one that was a former caravan site in the centre of the city. I did however decide to visit the other hotel, just for the view…
Sadly there isn’t much of a tourist industry here, it is a shame as there’s quite a lot to see and I was taken back by how much this reminded me of other famous places. It is a unique spot to visit and is featured in the song Timbuktu to Timimoun, funnily enough the architecture is almost identical when it comes to the traditional water wells. As you venture towards the edge of the city you are faced with an incredible sight – the Sahara desert! It’s almost like the city gives way for this incredible mass of sand.
As you can imagine, this place is in the middle of the Sahara, so don’t expect any fine dining restaurants but you can expect several local take away places. I went to somewhere that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since 1974, but thankfully they made pizza from scratch and it cost less than £1. BARGAIN!
Also don’t expect any local transport, Timimoun isn’t visited by many tourists so most people, including me, must hire a taxi. Ensure you look around and try to bargain with them for the best deal, sadly for me I ended up paying $100 and although I visited some great places I don’t think it was the best option, I’d say if I’d arranged it through my hotel then it would have been a better experience.
Sadly my time in Timimoun was short and sweet, it was time to take an 8 hour bus journey across the Sahara to another desert outpost. Ghardaia and the M’Zab Valley is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site, founded by the Mozabites it is located on the Sahara’s northern fringe at a strategic point along the Trans-Saharan Highway. To get from Timimoun you’ll need to either drive yourself or take the long bus journey, which I unfortunately endured. Although it was safe enough, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it at night. My bus was completely full with around 40 men, all of whom if only they’d known the truth about me would have probably murdered me there and then, thankfully for me though I don’t wear my gayness on my sleeve (so to speak).
Upon arriving in Ghardaia I discovered that only recently there had been a revolution and fierce fighting between the rival Berber Mozabites and Chaamba Arabs tribes. The source of the conflict stemmed from arguments surrounding jobs, land and housing and unfortunately due to the sheer number of police I saw on almost every street corner this situation doesn’t look like it is going to disappear anytime soon. It made me feel pretty uncomfortable, I didn’t see any other tourists and I think if I’d have researched properly before I got here I wouldn’t have visited.
Thankfully though, I did and I saw some fascinating things including many of the historic buildings that are painted in a distinctive white, pink or red colour. A must-see place is the settlement called Beni Isguen, an UNESCO World Heritage site that’s a fortified city originally constructed in the 10th century. It is a very religious place that previously only muslims were allowed to enter, thankfully now tourists can venture but they aren’t allowed to take photos of locals, smoke or wear revealing clothing (including shorts).
It hasn’t rained here for over 4 years, I’ve no idea how the locals cope as it was pushing 40 degrees when I visited. Be sure to hire a guide when you visit, it’s only 300 Dinar (£1.50) for 1-3 people, although unfortunately it’s only in French. One unique and rather fascinating fact about this place is that the women, unlike in other Islamic parts of the world, wear white to symbolise peace and they are only allowed to have one eye uncovered from head to toe. I’ve no idea how they manage to walk around, but they are incredible and a sight to be seen.
Clearly some people who ended up in Ghardaia aren’t from here originally as I saw a lot of begging and homeless people, something that is forbidden in Islam. Located at a crossroads, many people have made it here from other parts of Africa and are heading north to the Mediterranean, it was really sad to see and is just one more problem for this unique Saharan oasis city to tackle.
Sadly it was time for me to leave Algeria, after thankfully flying back from Ghardaia to Algiers it was time to face the dreaded immigration/passport control people once more at the airport. I really thought us Brits were meant to be good at queuing but after seemingly being in the wrong line again and being shouted at again, after more than an hour I finally made it through to departures. I was so happy to discover Algerian wine being sold. I didn’t see it anywhere else, although to be fair I didn’t look very hard but I’ve heard it’s pretty good quality so I’ll let you know once I’ve opened the bottle.
There were literally hundreds more places I could have visited that would have all been just as stunning, something that I learned quite quickly is that if you embrace the country, the country will embrace you back. It reminded me a lot of pre-war Syria, as if something is about to kick off and it made me feel a bit uncomfortable at times; although most of the people I met were friendly and welcoming I think I’ll leave it a few years and see whether my feelings on the situation have changed.
Travelling around Algeria
Well, it was certainly an experience to say the least. It isn’t easy due to a high police presence, however they are more there to protect you rather than anything else. This can often been seen as a good, or a bad thing. For me personally I found it quite threatening at first but when you realise they are just looking after your safety and not just being a pain then I felt a bit more comfortable, however I’ll let you make your mind own up.
Air Algérie is the national airline of Algeria and is pretty much your only option if you wish to get around the country quickly. They have regular flights to various far-flung places, I travelled on several internal flights to Timimoun and Ghardaia with them on a rather scary ATR 72-500. Seriously these planes should be scrapped and put in a museum, they are old, they are falling apart but at least they do give you some service on board (unlike British Airways!). Although they aren’t the best, they are also by far from being the worst too, one amusing thing to note is that if your flight isn’t full they may attempt to leave early!
Often the most complicated part of visiting a country is applying for the visa, thankfully I’ve put an easy guide together for how to apply if you have a British passport. Click here to check it out. Algeria is one country that seriously needs to loosen the strings on its visa restrictions as it’s definitely affecting the number of people visiting, you must be in possession of a visa before arriving!
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.
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