Feb 1st, 2018, 07:50 PM

Discovering Africa's Largest Country: Algeria

By Ali Benzerara
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Oguz Dikbakan
Myths to ignore and tips to explore while traveling through Algeria as an American.

Living in Paris but having grown up in Santa Rosa, California, I'm constantly aware of my father's homeland. I hear the languages of Algeria in the streets and on the metro, and through friends I'm aware of the multiple connections between France and its former colony on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Algeria is a country that I visited as a small boy; ever since then, I will always remember the night carnivals on the shores of Kala, the natural banana taste of their Coca-Cola, or running around the Roman ruins with my younger brother.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Akimova Lidiia

Since the 1900s, the United States government has had Algeria on its list of dangerous countries. The country went through a terrible period of civil strife in the 1990s, with thousands murdered in terrorist attacks. As a consequence, Algeria was long considered as 'a highly dangerous place to travel for Americans.' However, without delving into the political details, Algeria has progressed significantly since the early 2000s, with large parts of the population living better than previous generations. This is largely a result of government spending on oil wealth in infrastructure development and social services. While one would be hard-pressed to argue that Algeria is an emerging democracy (the military remain powerful in politics), it is certainly a better place to live than it was twenty years ago. 

It's irresponsible to visit Algeria and not be aware of its geopolitical context. While most of North Africa and the Middle East revolted during the Arab Spring in late 2010 and early 2011, Algeria did not participate in the trend of its neighbors. While greater political freedoms are desirable, they arguably were not worth risking a repeat of the 1990s for most Algerians. Today the USA's travel warning is at level two, i.e,  the same threat level as the U.K and the Republic of Congo. For an American, Algeria is still a safe place to travel to; possibly safer, in fact, for Americans to travel to than many cities in the United States. So, here are five myths to bear in mind should you be thinking of going to North Africa's largest country.

    1. Algerians hate Americans

Although there are a handful of jihadists in the isolated mountain areas, the authorities have been remarkably efficient in dealing with the terrorist threat.  It is a myth that the majority of Algeria's citizens hate the U.S. In my twenty years of traveling through Algeria, everyone I have talked to about the United States has told me that they 'would love to visit America,' because they see the country as a land of opportunity and wealth. There is a huge desire to know 'what America is really like' and what it has to offer.

    2. Cities are safer than rural areas

The U.S. travel warning, which suggests staying close to major cities and tourists areas, is arguably inaccurate. The assumption is that you will be safer, or less likely to be targeted, if you stay out of the countryside. This is an absolute myth. While I have never visited the capital, Algiers, I have visited Constantine and Annaba numerous times, and I have witnessed more potentially dangerous situations in these cities than I have in small towns like Sedrata, Khemissa, and El Kalaa. Sure, there are some rural areas to be wary of (like Tamanrasset in the far southeastern desert), but this is due to that town's proximity to the border with Libya, a country where law and order has broken down significantly.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sun_Shine

Important note: Algeria is 83 percent desert and the major cities in the north are strung out along or close to the Mediterranean coast. Travel in the Sahara should be with groups organized locally by a reliable tour company. 

    3. There is not much to see

Spending time in Algeria gives evokes a cultural blast from the past. The archeological sites are spectacular. You can visit the excavated ruins of ancient Numidian and Roman cities along with Berber villages across northern Algeria. Entry charges are small, and you are free to explore the amphitheaters, stone arches, and still-standing houses for as long as the site is open. I have visited the site at Khemissa, in the northeastern Souk Ahras region. Though generally located out in the countryside, most archeological sites are very safe.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Yacine Ketfi

Aside from Roman sites, Algeria is home to some of the world's oldest cave and rock paintings, dating back to the hunter-gatherer period. The Tassili n'Ajir massif where the prehistoric art is to be seen is a UNESCO world heritage site and the rock formations are extraordinary. The best time to visit is the winter. The services of a UNESCO-trained local guide are essential.

     4. The military is the worst thing to run into as an American tourist

This is part myth and part truth. When I was a kid, I remember my dad telling me, "when we come to a military road block just look down at the ground and don't say a word." Then, he would get out of the car and give cartons of cigarettes to the patrol as a bribe. My dad doesn't even smoke. Once upon a time, there were horror stories of tourists getting into altercations with the police and/or military, never to be heard of again. This is now a thing of the past. The military, while important, seem to be losing their grip, and military police are even helpful to tourists. The last time I traveled there, I actually had a friendly conversation with a patrol.

Disclaimer: There are a couple parts of Algeria where the military is extremely corrupt, and tourists still need to proceed with caution when dealing with them. Keep this in mind if considering travel to Algiers, and near the eastern border close to Libya.

    5. The water will make you sick

I've never been to Mexico, but Montezuma's revenge must have a brother living in Algeria. Living in a developed country like the United States leaves you with a less diverse immune system, so to speak. Almost every time I go to Algeria, I get sick for about three days because somewhere along the way I drank the tap water, or had a homemade cold drink. So, it's bottled water only! While the trots is anything but fun, it lasts on average three days, you can be left feeling weak for up to a week.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sun_Shine

So if you're planning a trip to Algeria, forget all the faux danger that various websites may warn you about. Once your eyes gaze upon the golden hills of the Sahara and the ancient homes of Berbers and Romans, you will realize that Algeria is a must-see destination in order to truly grasp what makes North Africa so captivating.