Algeria is largely made up of the Sahara. This desert covers more than 80% of the land in this nation. One of the charms of visiting this country is wandering the desert on camel or caravan and spotting palm-decorated oases and towns sprung up out of nowhere. But Algeria is also a travel portal back in time; it is filled with marvelous reminders of the past – whether it’s through the Roman theatre of Tipasa, the 1700 year-old ruins of the church of Saint Augustine in Annaba, the 11th century “Great Mosque” of Algiers, or the stone forum, temple, and arch of a Roman city still standing in Djemila. And then there are also modern resort areas in Algeria such as along the Turquoise coast, which features Mediterranean beaches, contrasted by the touristy ski resorts in the Kabylia Mountains.
Geographically, Algeria includes two ranges of the Atlas Mountains: the Saharan Atlas and the Tell Atlas. Both ranges cut across the upper portions of the country, with the Tell Atlas lying north of the Saharan Atlas. The region north of the Tell Atlas along the Mediterranean coast features a fertile land of oak forests, citrus trees, olive groves, and vineyards. Between the Tell Atlas and the Saharan Atlas is a vast land of dry, grass-covered plateaus dotted with salt lakes that dry up in the summer. This region supports the farming of wheat, barley, and sheep. South of the Saharan Atlas is complete desert, broken up by the Ahaggar (or Hoggar) Mountains in southeast Algeria. Flat and rugged dunes characterize this wasteland, which is also interspersed with oases, large rock formations, and oil rigs.
Most of the large cities in Algeria are located along the northern coast, including the largest city and capital, Algiers. The country’s second largest city is Oran, which serves as the country’s seaport and industrial center. Annaba is another important industrial port. In the desert, there are smaller towns centered around oases.
The people in Algeria are mostly Berbers and Arabs. The Berbers still live, like they have for centuries, in the mountainous Kabylia, in the Aures Massif in the interior, and in the oases of Mzab beyond the mountains. The Sahara is dominated by the Touaregs, a nomadic subset of the Berbers who are famous for wearing distinctive blue robes and black veils that cover their faces. The country is officially Muslim and religion plays a central role in the lives of the people. The mosque is like a community center and not just a place where Muslims gather to pray on Fridays.
The best vacation area is probably the Turquoise Coast in the north along the Mediterranean. Resorts and holiday towns line this coast, many of them easily reachable from Algiers. Among them is Oran and its notable beaches – Ain El Turk, Canastel, Mostaganem, Andalouses, Kristel, and Sablettes. This vacation area features long beaches, rocky coves, picturesque marinas, well-equipped water sports facilities, and chartered cruises.
In the Kabylia and Chiffa Gorges, you’ll find beautiful rural mountains that harbors ski resorts in the winter. In the summer, the scenery is romantic; with its olive and fig groves, it looks a lot like France and Italy.
The Ahaggar (or Hoggar) Mountains in the south is another natural attraction of Algeria. Its jagged ranges are surrounded by deserts from all sides. Its plateaus consist of volcanic rock and its cliffs of granite present interesting black basalt, pink, and blue shapes. Several mountains such as Mount Tahat, Atakor Massif, and Assekreu are found in the Ahaggars, as well as picturesque towns like Tamanrasset, which is a favorite destination for tourists. Visitors enjoy hiking, touring the mountains, caravanning the open deserts on camels, and coming face to face with blue-robed Touaregs, an ancient nomadic people.
The Sahara is another lure of Algeria, easily the country’s most striking feature. Especially breathtaking is the view of the El Kautara Gorges, the gateway to the desert from the south. You can venture as far north into the desert as your courage will permit and explore the vast dunes of the Sahara. Oases are dotted throughout including at the town of El Golea, which is known as the “enchanted oasis” or the “pearl of the desert” with its vegetation and abundant water seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Algeria also offers numerous historic sites, including at the Tassili N’Ajjer, which is a volcanic plateau with massive gorges that have been carved by rivers long dried out. In the underground reaches of Tassili, there are unique rock paintings that date back to the Neolithic age.
Other historic sites can be found in Tipasa, where you’ll find a Roman theatre, a Numidian mausoleum, and Punic and Christian ruins. More Roman ruins can be found at Timgad and Djemila. Tlemcen is known for its imperial (12th to 16th century) architecture, which includes mosques, ramparts, and fortresses. And Constantine features palaces, mosques, citadels, and a few Carthaginian ruins.
The food in Algeria is very spicy and flavorful. Many of the dishes are seasoned with pepper, ginger, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, anise, pimiento, coriander, and parsley. The national dish is Couscous, which consists of grains of semolina served with steamed chicken, lamb, or fish accompanied by vegetables like carrots, squash, onions, and green peppers and seasoned with hot pimiento sauce. Black coffee, sweet mint tea, and syrop, which is a sweet fruit drink, are popular.
Terrorist insurgencies still pose a threat to tourists. The roads in northern Algeria are at risk of attacks by terrorist groups. The provinces of Illizi, Tamanrasset, and Djanet in the southeast are particularly dangerous. It is recommended that travelers make personal security arrangements throughout their stay.
The original inhabitants of Algeria were the nomadic Berbers from North Africa. In 900 BC, the Phoenicians established the state of Carthage in Tunisia and expanded their kingdom into Algeria. After the Carthaginians were defeated by the Romans in 146 BC, Algeria became part of the Roman Empire, until the Vandals broke through around 430AD. The Byzantine Empire conquered the Vandals a century later. In the late 7th century, the Arabs arrived from the Arabian Peninsula conquering the Berbers and converting them to Islam. The Muslim Berbers began an independent Algerian dynasty of their own in the 13th century, conquering neighboring Morocco. In the early 1500s, Spain occupied the coast and ports of Algeria before they were ousted by the Barbarossas of Turkey, ushering in 300 years of Ottoman Turkish rule. In 1830, French conquered Algeria and made it a part of France, not merely a colony. This annexation lasted until 1962, when Algeria was granted independence after a successful rebellion.
Since independence, the country has been mired in political and religious conflict. The army overthrew President Ben Bella in 1965 to replace the one-man political party rule and set up elections with multiple party candidates. Trouble brewed when the Islamic Salvation Front won a majority of the legislative seats in 1991 in the nation’s first multiparty elections. The Islamic Salvation Front wanted to establish a regime based on Islamic law. The military took control, canceled the elections, and outlawed the Islamic Salvation Front party, which led to a civil war between Islamist terrorist groups and government troops. From 1992 to 2002, more than 160,000 people died, including innocent civilians not involved in the political fight. In 1999, president Abdelaziz Bouteflika representing the military was elected president. He instituted an amnesty program that allowed guerrilla terrorist groups to surrender and receive amnesty. More than 80% of the terrorists took advantage of this program, reducing the violence to a manageable level. Since then, insurgency has been largely quelled, although some areas still experience sporadic fighting. President Bouteflika has managed to stabilize the government and the country, and Algeria is now recovering and developing rapidly thanks to increased foreign investment and the high prices of oil and gas.