Algeria is among the those Maghreb nations that has suffered not just one but many difficult births, and as it emerged from Carthaginian domination before the common era it fell under Roman, and from Roman successively under Vandal, Arab and French authority, and finally under a phase of internal repression and gradual political Islamization that has yet to solidify. All of this has tended to mark Algeria as the restive problem child of Francophone North Africa, but has also layered the history and culture of the nation with a mixed strata of influences that serve to make it one of the most interesting travel destinations in the region.
It is a vast country, the second largest on the continent, and the eleventh largest in the world. Although much of this area is within the Sahara belt, Algeria commands a section of that desert that is topographically diverse, with among other major features the Hoggar, or Ahaggar Mountains of the interior. This is a region of desert highlands situated some 900 miles south of the Capital Algiers, through which one of two southerly overland routes across the Sahara desert cross from Algeria into Niger, and which is the cultural heartland of the Tuareg people.
The coastal region is rolling and fertile, with occasional high mountainscapes related to the Atlas range. The coastline itself is broken, with rocky promontories guarding sheltered expanses of sandy beach, all with a distinctly Franco/Ottoman flavour. The principal coastal cities are Algiers, at one time the jewel of the French overseas empire, and now a sprawling coastal metropolis, the second largest of the Maghreb, and Annaba, tucked in the lee of a sprawling bay, and also with a strong, continental/Ottoman flavour.
Replete with the ancient mystique of the region, Algeria has several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and diversity of landscapes, languages, peoples and influences. It is the gateway to the Sahara, and the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa.
Travel To & Within Algeria
Why Travel to Algeria
Algeria is one of those dualistic societies like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa and many others, with at times retrogressive, corrupt and oppressive governments, deep internal contradictions, and a lumpenproletariat with a propensity for medieval violence, all combined with a high degree of social sophistication, a celebrated history, and a fraternity of world class artists, writers and musicians.
Also like a lot of those countries a visit to Algeria, even in the midst of one of its many violent seizures, need not necessarily be any more dangerous than a visit to Israel in the grip of an intifada, or a stroll through the Kirstenbosh Botanical Gardens in Cape Town as the shantytowns of Johannesburg seethe with internecine violence.
Algeria has been the theatre of much great history since the time of the Phoenicians, and evidence of that is everywhere. The most prominent layer is the most recent Francophone imprint, which is particularly evident along the coast, but sites of interest are scattered around the country from the Roman ruins of Timgad to the ancient rock art of Hoggar. The desert hinterland is itself a destination, and a favourite of European overlanders for whom the expanse of the Sahara is a short ferry ride from any number of points along the northern Mediterranean coast.
There is much to see, and much to do, and although infrastructure is limited, the upside of this is that the mass tourist market is focused to the west in Morocco, leaving Algeria largely open for venturesome travellers whose interest is in the open road, and the sights and sounds of a region of multi-layered history and culture.
When to Visit Algeria
Algeria has an orthodox view of Ramadan, which can be a severe inconvenience for unbelievers travelling in the country with the expectation of food and drink during normal business hours. It is therefore wise to avoid the Ramadan period in Algeria. Besides this there few consideration other than the weather.
The Algerian climate obviously varies considerably from north to south, and while the area is within the winter rainfall belt, this is hardly a consideration in the south where more than anything the searing heat of the Sahara summer is a factor to be avoided. Therefore if it is your intention to strike south into the remote regions of the desert, choose the winter months of mid-November through to late March, and if your intention is to explore the beaches, cities and coastal mountain ranges, then choose the months between April and November, with the months of October and November being the most popular.
Algeria is within the Arab/Middle East axis and is therefore in an area of high terrorism risk. This is not theoretical, and attacks have occurred in which foreign nationals have been killed or injured. Algeria is also an area of internal unrest with the resultant risk of kidnapping and banditry.
In the southern regions and in the Sahara desert the risk of terrorism is low, but the area is extremely isolated, and far from any recourse to law and order. The abduction in 2003 of a group of unaccompanied foreign tourist in this region underlines the risk. For current and up to date information.
Random and violent crime is not a major problem in Algeria, with the regional propensity for pick-pocketing and bag snatching tending to make up the bulk of reported crimes. There have been incidences of muggings and car jacking, and the standard rules of common sense must apply at all times.