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August 10, 2014, 11:52 am

Vast desert, oasis towns, tribal cultures and a rocky Mediterranean coast make Algeria one of the most versatile places to visit, but a difficult history means that only truly intrepid travelers make it in.

Capital City: Algiers, Population: 32.9 million, Area 2.4 Million SQ KM, Official language: Arabic, French m Berber

Algeria is Africa's second-largest country, after Sudan. About 85 percent of the country is taken up by Sahara, while the mountainous Tell region in the north makes up the balance. The Tell is made up of two main mountain ranges: the Tell Atlas, which runs right along the north coast into Tunisia, and the Saharan Atlas, about 100 kilometers to the south. The area between the two ranges is known as the High Plateau. Summer in the north is hot and humid, and the winters are mild and wet. Summer in the Sahara is ferociously hot. Daytime temperatures seldom fall below 25OC in winter, but nights can be very cold, particularly in the Hoggar. Rainfall ranges from over 1000 millimeters per year in the northern mountains to zero in the Sahara.

History in a Nutshell
Algeria’s original inhabitants were Berbers; the Arabs conquered North Africa in the 7th century. After the 12th century, coastal Algeria, together with Tunisia, was one of the main outposts for pirates operating in the Mediterranean. The pirates were only truly beaten with the arrival of the French, centuries later. In the 16th century the Ottomans waltzed into the country and established.

themselves as rulers. The French took over in 1830, much to the displeasure of the Algerians. Their struggle for independence began in 1954, headed by the National Liberation Front, which came to power once independence was achieved in 1962. Following civil protest in the 1980s, the Algerian politics of the 1990s were dominated by the struggle between the military and Islamist militants. In 1992 a general election won by an Islamist party was annulled, starting a civil war in which more than 100,000 people were killed. Upon being elected in 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika pronounced an amnesty, leading many rebels to lay down their arms.

Though Algeria is now a peaceful country, Bouteflika's government, elected again in 2004 and 2009, continues to struggle with issues of high unemployment and corruption, the minority Berber community's demands for autonomy, and extremist militant activity. And in 2012, despite the Arab Spring that had toppled many long-standing rulers in the region, Bouteflika once again returned to power through parliamentary elections that were considered by and large free by international monitors.

An estimated 99 percent of Algeria's populations are Sunni Muslims; the majorities are Arab-Berber and live in the north of the country. Berber traditions remain best preserved in the Kabylie region southeast of Algiers, where people speak the local Berber dialect as their first language, French as their second and Arabic as their third. After sustained protests and rioting, Berber was finally recognized as an official language in 2002. The Tuareg people of the Sahara are also Berbers, but they speak their own tribal language, Tamashek.

Algeria is potentially a wealthy country — it possesses the seventh-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and is the world's second-largest gas exporter. It also ranks 14th in oil reserves. But this economic potential has failed to translate itself into a higher living standard for the majority of the population, and despite the government's continued efforts to diversify the economy through attracting foreign and domestic investment outside the energy sector, the country's high unemployment rates and low living standards remain.

Random Facts
The Tuareg are known as blue men because they color their faces with indigo for celebrations.
On a visit to the hot spring of Hammam Meskoutine, on the Mediterranean coast, it is traditional to cook an egg in the 980C water and eat it.
In the Ibadite town of Beni lsguen, women are allowed to show only their left eye in public.

Natural Beauty
Algeria has two contrasting sides to it: the Mediterranean coast and the parched Sahara. Both are beautiful, but it is the Sahara that epitomizes all the exotic and mysterious ideas of the desert, and what fascinates most visitors to the country. It covers a great range of landscapes, from the classic S-dunes of the great ergs (sand seas) to the rock-strewn peaks of the Hoggar Mountains in the far south. The vast empty space is interrupted by volcanic hills and mountains and oasis towns.

Urban Scene
Algiers, the country's capital, is a kicking urban center, with sprawling French mansions stretching from the Ottoman medina. There is a real mix of the traditional and the modern, with old men fishing at the port, fez-wearing salesmen making their pitches at the medina, and youngsters in designer outfits strolling down the wide boulevards.

Natural gas
Rai music king Cheb Mami
Sublime Saharan stories
Football player Zinedine Zidane

Meals are big deal in Algeria, and family larders are full of wonderful things like couscous, seafood and lamb, prepared with vegetables, herbs and spices that your taste buds will crave forever once you have tried them. Family meals are usually elaborate and enjoyed over a few hours and big festivities like Eid or weddings are an occasion for a three-day feast. Algerian dishes include the amazing lavender couscous, orange and onion salads, spicy octopus soup, lamb bombarded with olives and chicken sauteed with diced pumpkin - not to mention exquisite pastries such as the semolina-flour ghribia.

Algeria's vast, undeveloped and untouched landscape is still relatively little visited, and there are many people who would like to see things stay that way. However, as Algeria's political situation becomes more stable, exploring the country is becoming relatively easier. Concerted efforts are being made, for the most part by individuals and private agencies, to preserve the Saharan landscape and emphasize ecofriendly tourism.

Essential Experiences

Cruising on a walking expedition with the Tuareg through the desert, eating by the campfire, seeing incredible desertscapes and sleeping under the stars. Climbing up onto Assekrem, the highest peak of the Hoggar mountain range, playing dominoes with the Tuareg and watching the sunrise.
Seeing 8000-year-old rock art in Djanet and Taghit.
Trying to work out who's who in the sea of veiled 'blue men' in the Tuareg capital, Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara.
Admiring the beautiful terracotta architecture and getting to know the wonderful people of the oasis town of Timimoun.
Taking in the Ibadite town of Beni Isguen, where 1000-year-old Islamic traditions survive, men and women live completely separate lives, and no non-Muslim visitor can go in alone or stay the night.

Best Time to visit: March to June

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