North Africa

The Arab spring, violence and heat jump into many people's mind. The reality is ancient history, amazing architecture and a warm friendly/welcoming Arab culture. A little hectic in hotpots like Cairo and Marrakesh. The beaches, mountain villages and desert oasis are a world away.

Pyramids Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, info and summaries for:

North Africa - Egypt, Libya, Morocco & Tunisia.

Libya information remains on this page, but the situation there now means it is pretty much off-limits. Following the 'Arab Spring' that started in Tunisia and spread across North Africa, much has changed in the countries on this page, but little from a traveller's perspective. [As always] check your government's latest advice, be aware of hot-spots and enjoy reduced crowds whilst supporting the crucial tourism industries in these fantastic countries to visit.

* It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for travelindependent.info

Ramadan

A quick note about Ramadan. The 9th and most important month in the Islamic Calendar. During this time Muslims abstain from eating, drinking or smoking until after sundown on each day. As a traveller of course you don't need to follow this, but some Muslims appreciate that you don't eat meals or smoke in public places. Many restaurants and cafes won't open until after sundown and public transport may be less frequent, shops close earlier, before sunset and the pace of life is generally slower. So travel can certainly be a bit more difficult, but Ramadan is no major hindrance to travel and certainly not in moderate Islamic areas/countries.

Ramadan in 2015 starts 18th June until 16th July (6th June till 5th July in 2016). Note the festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days. Eid al-Adha is the other major festival: 23rd September 2015 (11th Sept 2016). Exact dates will depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.

* Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

  • Giza, Egypt

    Intro: Egypt has under gone dramatic political changes over the last few years and scenes of Cairo's main square full of demonstrators become familiar to those that could be bothered to follow the extraordinary events that took place as a popular revolution removed not one, but two regimes. These images and the notion of Africa's most popular (and Muslim) city is enough to put many off, however very few travellers won't have aspirations of standing in front of the pyramids or aside the Nile and for good reason. Egypt is simply jam-packed with some of the most famous, spectacular, historically important sights on earth. When you couple this with Egypt's culture and close proximity to Europe (which provides thousands of package tourists arrive every day - typically to one of three or four beach resorts) and you'll realise just how crowded and how much hassle Egypt can be. If it is anything that puts visitors off and creates stress when visiting, it's not Islamic beliefs, the hot sun, nor the politics, it's hundreds of thousands of souls trying to eke out a living from dealing with tourists, of which numbers have yet to recover from the decline since the Arab Spring.

    That's the big down-side, okay your attitude and dress can lower the level of hassle you receive and likewise the time of year or current political situation with the Arab-world/Egypt can alter all this positively, but the bottom line is that crowds and hassle will affect how you feel about Egypt. A trip to Giza to see the pyramids is easily ruined, you may need to fight your way around the Egyptian museum, women will often receive sexual overtures from youths (nothing to be overly worried about if in a pair or with a male - similar to parts of India) and from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave (the only escape is a Nile boat) you will be offered souvenirs, transport (especially feluccas) and hotels. Sometimes you just want a moment to yourself to enjoy the sunset over the Nile. It takes getting used to and Egypt can be 'full-on' in a way often associated with India - but that's a positive not a negative, after all it's a must see and at present, the price is right and with general western concern/fear regards terrorism and the Arab world - crowds are down.

    • Highlights: Temples in and around Luxor , Abu Simbel, Siwa Oasis, Egyptian museum in Cairo and your first glance of Giza's Pyramids . Plus getting off the beaten track on the Mediterranean coast or desert areas

    • Lowlights: Large numbers of tourists (mainly package), big red sea resorts and constant hassle (especially for women) at major sights/attractions

  • Visa strategy: On arrival at major airports, cost linked to nationality (about US$25). For a visit to the Sinai only, it's free at the border or at Sharm el Sheikh airport for 14 days. Or for the whole country a visa is issued 'while you wait' in Eilat (Israeli border) or Aquba (Jordanian border). Otherwise a few days in any major capital city.

  • Typical tourist trail: Cairo, train to Luxor, boat to Aswan, dash to Abu Simbel, all the way back to Cairo and then onto Dahab

  • Dangers: There have been sporadic bombings and other incidences loosely aimed at tourists in the past few years, however for those who remember the Luxor massacre, such a large scale attack on tourists has not been repeated - authorities protect tourist safety zealously and Egyptians are friendly enough.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Cairo, the Sinai and northern Egypt are not overly warm in winter and you'll require a sweater. The very south is hot all year round and unbearably so in the middle of summer

  • Costs: Generally cheap, but admission fees (tourist priced) do add. Having a student card (ISIC) reduces admission costs. US$25-35 a day easy if you watch your costs and downgrade a little on your hotel (i.e. skip the AC).

  • Money: ATMs or change any hard currency

  • What to take: International Student Card and ear plugs

  • Egypt FlagGetting around: Great cheap trains, busy holiday periods excepted, it's not normally difficult to get 1st class tickets on the day of travel or the day before. To avoid complications, book as far ahead as possible. Otherwise excellent buses and faster mini-buses or shared taxis. By air internally is expensive as the national carrier with the best network has to a two-tier pricing structure - guess what: foreigners get the higher tier. By boat/ferry, Egypt is more of leisurely experience rather than practical. This normally constitutes of a Nile cruise or Felucca journey from Luxor to Aswan. Externally, car ferries run between the Red Sea resorts of Hurghada and Sharm-El-Sheikh, Aqaba in Jordan and Nuweiba in the Sinai and a weekly ferry also runs between Wadi Halfa in Sudan, and Aswan in Egypt. There are also ferry boats available to and from Red Sea to ports in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

  •  

    Guide book: The Rough Guide is excellent, as always, the Lonely Planet is ubiquitous.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Generally nice people, despite the constant hassle you'll get. However, you may end up disliking Egyptians through day to day experience with touts and pushers

    • Other travellers: Loads of package tourists getting off Nile cruisers dressing and acting improperly go a long way to explain the hassle factor and warped ideas Egyptians seem to have about western/European women. Aside from the predominantly European and Russian package tourists, you'll find plenty of backpackers including a good number of Australians. Israelis don't tend to stray out of the Sinai, if visit at all.

  • Tourist factor: 9/10 or 6/10 post Arab Spring. Now things are getting back to normal expect a lot of tourists in high season on the beaten track

  • Accommodation: Loads of choice, shop around, some places much quieter than others.

    • Hot water: Never a problem

    • Average cost: As little as US$10, but US$15 to US$30 gets you a good standard if you're willing to hunt for it. Touts can be a help to find the cheapest places.

  • Communications: Internet cheapest in Alex, okay in Cairo, expensive in Luxor and Dahab and more expensive still in Aswan or the desert

  • Health: Easy to pick up a stomach bug - watch what you eat, especially on Nile cruises, where food hygiene standards can be abysmal.

  • Media:

    • Books: Imported newspapers and news magazines. Book shops in Cairo, Luxor and Dahab

    • TV: Normally just Al-Jazeera

  • Food: Loads of McDonalds, good food not that easy to find

    • Vegetarians: Okay

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Loads of touts and haggling. Tell me which part of La do you not understand the L or the A! (No)

    • Women alone: Expect hassle, even accompanied. Show limited flesh and remember that the kissing sound men make is to draw attention and generally not a sexual overture

  • Local poisons for the body: You'll probably be offered dope. The drugs scene in Dahab is a far cry from its hey day

    * Rating: 7.5/10

Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - However bear in mind: some hassle and fairly large tourist numbers.

Recommended

-divider-

VisaSince joyous rebels seized the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the country has lurched from crisis to Crisis, yet somehow stayed afloat. It is sinking however under the weight of too many guns and too many factions, with too few institutions to repair the damage of the war and the erratic dictatorship of Qaddafi. This is not perhaps the time to visit. Head to a neighbour instead.

  • LibyaIntro: It is fair to say that many of the country summaries on this website can get outdated (despite constant updating efforts). Given that we are always surprised as to how little changes when we return to update. The same can't be said of Libya. Clearly travel in Libya will change dramatically, but right now the situation prohibits free and totally safe travel. The eventual outcome, how things eventually stabilised and what this means for travel is uncertain. Hopefully the compulsory tour will be dropped and you can once again travel freely. Or it could be not recommended for another twenty years. Watch this space. What follows relates to travel prior to the 2011 uprising and its complications.

    Libya is a very intriguing name in a world so heavily travelled and even more so in a region like North Africa, which is particularly heavily travelled and on Europe's doorstep. Closed off from the west for decades, home to some spectacular parts of the Sahara and ancient ruined cities. Despite a widely held belief Libya is actually very easy to visit and isn't too different from its neighbours. The real problem concerning Libya is as an independent traveller you are not welcome and visa regulations specify that you must be accompanied by a Libyan guide during your trip. Add this to the fact that to travel in the spectacular south (Sahara region) of the country you need to hire transport (4x4) that is well out of the price range of budget travellers.

    Nevertheless, despite the rules and regulations, it is entirely possible to visit Libya as an independent traveller. All you need to do is find an agency in Libya who will sponsor your visa application without insisting you be booked on a tour. However, travelling in Libya independently without a guide or tour will mean you will have to keep a low profile and stick only to the Mediterranean coast. If you want to go further or avoid (potential) hassle you will need to shell out for a guide (50-100EUR per day) or a tour.

    Really the big question regarding independent travel in Libya should not be is it possible (it certainly is, no matter what anyone tells you)? Rather is it worth it? Libya is indeed a fascinating country with an interesting history and warm, friendly people, but no more than many other countries that could be mentioned - countries where you will be 100% free to travel independently anywhere you want.

    GaddafiThe big draw cards that attract so many to Libya are: The Sahara, Roman ruins and an isolated (Colonel Qaddafi) image - all of which are over-sold in travel literature and would-be travellers' imaginations. The Sahara is indeed stunning making up most of Libya, but the need (for the most part) for 4x4 transport makes it very expensive and there are no opportunities for a quick taste of desert as in Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt. Covering over 3.5 million square miles, there are many other chances to get into the Sahara (and see rock art) elsewhere in the region. The most well-known and impressive ruin is Leptis Magna, which is indeed impressive (mainly due to its size and location spilling into the Mediterranean), but is not entirely unique in the region/Europe. Greek and other ruins are interesting, but far from compelling unless you have a specific interest. And lastly, despite being isolated for so many years Libya is not startlingly different to other Arab and North African countries. It's cities are pleasant, but far from 'world best' (certainly along the coast). Posters of Qaddafi can be seen throughout the country, but consider that apart from being widely recognised in the west this is hardly the only country in the world that has posters of it's leader(s) splashed everywhere. Finally, since Libya has been open to tourists for such a relatively short period and then only to the more well-heeled brand, you will see fewer tourists than in say Morocco or Tunisia, but you will far from have the place to yourself as big tour groups can be found at every notable attraction.

    • Highlights: A friendly population which is happy to see foreigners now Libya is open to the world. The Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. The town of Ghadames (despite the cost/hassle to get there) and just saying you were there, getting your photo taken next to a poster of that famous all present image of the Colonel.

    • Lowlights: Extreme barriers to independent travel, visa fees and hassle. Tour groups and language barriers. Costs when visiting the Sahara.

    Libya StampTo secure a tourist visa you need to enlist the assistance of a registered agency within Libya. If you are booking on an expensive tour this will be done for you, but for the rest of us, the best bet is to crawl the internet and fire off a few e-mails. Such an agency will file for your visa request within Libya under their own name and obtain a visa authorisation code/letter which will ensure you have no problems getting a visa. Head down to a Libyan embassy without such a code/letter and you will be sent packing, on the whole you will not even be entertained. The official policy is no independent travellers, so no tour/agency - no visa.

    Any agency who will obtain a visa for you will charge a hefty fee, normally in excess of 100Euros and will want to know all your details such as entry details into the country and what you plan to do. They will also offer you their tours and other services. To travel independently the most sensible method is to state you are only staying for a few days and only in Tripoli and to meet a friend (or other vague reason). Or book a tour for one or two days. The visa authorisation will take about three weeks to arrive and you will normally have to provide details of entry.

    When authorised you will receive a letter stating your acceptance of which you will need in order to board the plane. At the airport or border you will be met by your agent (if you enter over-land the agent will have to come to the border at a fixed time and will charge you dearly for the time/effort to do so) and your passport will be stamped without hassle.

    Note you are technically required to have a 1000USD or equivalent on you when you arrive to cover the cost of your trip. This may or (likely) may not be enforced.

    The next day, the agent will want to take your passport to be registered (and probably want more money for that service) and it will be stamped again. If you are not booked on a tour the representative will probably ask you what you plan to do and if asked by anyone not to show your passport or declare who sponsored your visa. Technically at this point you are free to travel around.

    If a Libyan passport holder travels outside the Arab world they are requested to have their passport translated into Latin script and ergo the logic that when visiting Libya with a passport in Latin script it should be translated into Arabic. This highly inconvenient ruling comes and goes in the strictness of it's enforcement and of late has been enforced with some planes being turned around due to the fact none of the passengers had their translations in place. Despite all the other hassle with travel to Libya, the enforcement and confusion as to what is expected with passport translation installs more fear and consternation in would-be visitors than anything else. At present you don't need a translation, but check before you go with your visa sponsor (check here).

    Here's what to do. Firstly the agency arranging your visa is going to tell you if such a translation is needed. If it is, don't worry. What having you passport translated actually means is that in on one page within your passport you obtain an official stamp from your passport office/embassy which takes a full page and lists all the headings of your details such as NAME (blank), PASSPORT NUMBER (blank), EXPIRY DATE (blank), etc., all the information is in Arabic of course. It is then up to you to get the blanks filled in. The main hassle is having to go to your embassy/consulate or passport office to get this translation stamp. The main confusion is who should fill out the details. The main mistake is to get the translation on a separate bit of paper and not in the passport. !- see image of translation stamp from UKPA.

    So who should make the translation?: In reality it doesn't matter, a guy you met in a cafe who writes Arabic is technically just as good as a sworn translator (and much cheaper), the rules are nonsense since different sources tell you different things. A sworn translator can't stamp in your passport (only write) and any translation they make on paper is not valid/irrelevant. Your embassy can only provide the stamp, not check or validate anything. You will hear this and that on the internet (normally by those who have not visited). In 2011 first-hand experience was a translation in our passport which we had a friend fill out was hardly even looked at and no other document (translation on headed paper we had put together/forged) was requested. You will likely need a translation in your passport, but for the most part it is a lot of noise about nothing.

    As noted the official rules are that when travelling in Libya you should be accompanied by a Libyan guide or on a tour, but none the less it is quite possible to travel without. Those picking up a copy of the Lonely Planet or similar will see numerous references under sections regarding visiting sites such as Leptis Magna or the Jamahiriya museum in Tripoli that a guide is compulsory with a huge price listed next to it. This is not enforced and other little - almost all minor - niggles when in Libya without a guide be can talked around. Equally getting around in Libya on the coast is very easy in shared taxis/mini-buses and so is finding places to stay. What should always be borne in mind is there are loads of tourists in Libya (normally in big groups with one guide) and if seen alone by anyone who does care (which is hardly anyone) they will likely think you are part of another group. Likewise there are thousands of foreign workers in Libya who move around without such regulations. Speak to most Libyans and they don't even know the rule themselves. It's easy enough to walk straight up with confidence to the ticket booth in Leptis Magna and buy your ticket, and easy enough to tell anyone in the event of being challenged (which we had no experience of) that your guide is in Tripoli or your passport is in your hotel, or other such blow-off.

    Travelling away from the Mediterranean into the Sahara and you are going to find problems and will really need a guide. Equally when leaving the country, since you will come across border police who know the rules very well, they will likely want to know where your guide is and see the supporting documents your entry was issued under. For this reason it is worth having your guide come to the airport or border with you. If not possibly expect some hassle and maybe a long wait.

    Above all if you are travelling independently in Libya you need to be respectful and remember that the agency who issued you a visa invitation without a tour booking have put their neck on the line, thus act properly and not create problems for them or let anyone know unduly how you got a visa without a tour.

    A third way: Looking over the majority of the text you can be forgiven for thinking, 'do I really want to travel independently in Libya with all this hassle/problems'? and 'is there another way'? In answer, a 'third way' would be to compromise and travel independently, but hire a guide to be with you while travelling (this way you could also hire a car or bring your own) - this can be done and you should think in the region of 100Euro per day for such a service plus paying for your guide's hotel each night. Additionally you could book a tour for a day or one part of your trip (say Ghadames or Ghat) and then travel independently for the easy legs such as a visit to Leptis Manga or Benghazi.

  • Typical tourist trail: Tripoli along the Mediterranean coast to the nearby Leptis Magna and further to Tolmeitia near Benghazi. Further South the town of Ghadames and into the Sahara, the Ubari lakes, Ghat (plus near-by Jebel Acacus and Wadi Methkandoush feature on many (tour) itineraries.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: During winter months the coast, while far from freezing is cool enough to warrant a thick jumper. Desert temperatures also drop during this time and at night, while during the summer the coast roasts and the Sahara is an extremely dangerous place.

  • Costs: Those attempting to see some of Libya independently can find cheap enough hotels and transport and happily keep costs below US$40-50 per day. A tour will work out around US$150-200 per day and perhaps more if a small group with a lot of 4x4 use. To hire your own Libyan guide/escort (you supply the transport plus a bed for him each night) will cost around US$150-200 per day.

  • Money: Plenty of ATMs in major cities. Otherwise USD and EUR can be exchanged with ease - the latter being preferred.

  • Getting around: Those sticking to the Mediterranean coast will find a shared taxi/mini-bus station (area is a better word) in all towns. Simply tell someone where you want to go, he'll point out the vehicle, get in and wait. It's always cheap and overcharging doesn't happen. To move further there are long distance buses and internal flights. To explore the Sahara you really need a private vehicle.

  • Guide book: There are several guidebooks available, all of which have great detail on Libya's history and sights, but few with much independent travellers can really use as they will tell you over and over again that you can't visit independently! The new Lonely Planet for example is full of shite from cover to cover, frequently telling you that you need a guide to enter this site or can't go there - things do change, but don't pick up this book and let the constant references to needing a private guide put you off.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: It's hard to really gauge Libyans as few speak English or French so communication is a little difficult, but they are a fairly welcoming bunch who are happy to see tourists to remind them the country is 'open' to the world after so many years of isolation.

    • Other travellers: Large numbers of tour groups, notably Italians.

  • Tourist factor: Despite its isolated image and difficulties visiting, Libya's main attractions do see fairly concentrated visitor numbers. However tour groups tend to swarm in and out.

  • Accommodation: Tours stick to high standard hotels, but there are plenty of cheapies, including a basic hostel or two. The problem however is locating cheap hotels not aimed at tour groups or those visiting on business, since street and hotel names are normally in Arabic script.

  • Food: Plenty of places to eat, many of which are set up for tour groups.

    • Vegetarians: Not really a problem, but can be an issue if menu is in Arabic. Expect to pick bits of meat out of couscous in worst case.

    * Rating: 6/10

-divider-
  • MoroccoIntro: Sights wise Morocco pales in comparison to Egypt, nevertheless it's a remarkable place to visit. Excellent marketplaces dot cities; colourful palaces, mountains, beaches, friendly locals (plus the usual band of con-men, hustlers, beggars, and pushers notwithstanding) this is an excellent gateway into Africa. So if you are holidaying around Spain and Portugal and have a little more time on your hands you can't go wrong with paying a visit down south to Morocco.

Marrakech's Djemaa el-Fna (loaded with fire eaters, food stalls, and other curiosities), the Roman Ruins of Volubilis, The beaches of Essaouira and Agadir, The Medieval Splendour of Fez and Chefchaouen.

Tangier and Teutouan are fairly dodgy (plenty of cons and ripoffs) however are the only way to get to Morocco other than flying in.

  • Costs: Can get by on US$20-30 a day.

  • Money: ATMs readily available as are exchange booths and banks. Notably in towns with ferry connections to Europe, don't pay for anything in Euros or Dollars and let anyone who asks for them (typically taxi drivers) know that you will pay in Dirhams. Basically any quote not in Dirhams should be treated with suspicion.

  • What To Take: Poker face and the ability to be diplomatic

  • Typical Tourist Trail: Taking a Ferry from Algeciras in Spain (every hour on the hour) or Gibraltar (much less frequent) to Tangier or Teutouan from where the typical tourist trail circles around the Imperial cities (Rabat, Mekenes, Fez, and Marrakech) with forays into the Rif mountains and the Beaches of Essaouira (Jimi Hendrix Town).

  • Visas: Citizens of the UK, EU, US, Australia and New Zealand do not need visas. Three-month visitor's stamps can be extended by Immigration or Bureau des Etrangers in most large towns.

  • Taxi by Tauri Tuubel  - http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?photo_id=24867Getting Around: An excellent train network (covered by Interrail pass) which is the preferred option and far less cramped and stressful alternative to local buses. Train network links Marrakech and Tangier via Casablanca and Rabat, a branch line near Meknes goes to Oujda. A bus network that takes care of where trains can't travel to. You can find luxury buses between towns usually run by CTM, Supratours and smaller companies. Shared taxi services (grande taxi) also operate between towns; fares are fixed and shared equally between passengers. Grande taxis are often the cheapest way of travelling between towns and cities in Morocco, but unless the Grand Taxi is full you will have to pay for all the unsold seats (you'll find that sometimes drivers head off assuming the 'rich' tourist will cover the whole cost). Renting a car or bringing your own is also a valid option as the main roads are top notch.

  • People Vibe:

    • Locals: Generally nice people - are times you will have to say no without hurting feelings. Impress them with your knowledge of French and Islam (though explaining why you're not a Muslim even though you know the five pillars may be tricky). Hustlers are aggressive and when getting tours or transportation make sure that you agree on a rate and insist the price is set in stone (they will try to weasel out extra from you). Stand firm. Ignore hustlers who feign anger at you telling them to get lost.

    • Other Travellers: Southern Spain sells overpriced package tours of the Northern tip of Morocco (Tangiers, Teutouan, Spanish Ceuta and Melilla) which attracts mostly gullible middle aged tourists. Other than that there are the usual band of European, Aussie, and Kiwi travellers (with a sprinkle of American and Canadian tourists) looking for a good time and to get high.

  • Tourist Factor: Before the Arab Spring about 7/10 so it might have declined to 5/10 since especially with the terrorist bombing of Casa. Since the Casa incident Morocco has been free from such incidents and tourist are returning again in numbers.

  • Accommodation: Plenty ranging from guest houses to hotels and hostels.

    • Hot water: some places have no hot water but you can get a Hamaam bath for as little as US$0.50-2

    • Average Cost: US$5-20 a night

  • Weather: Boiling in the summer in the interior, but the coast is manageable. Son't under estimate the need for a good sweater in winter and for a wetsuit if surfing Essaouira or any other Atlantic Ocean resort where the water can be quite cold.

  • Communications: Internet available in major cities

  • Health: Be vigilant about bottled water (make sure it's sealed) and drink a lot of it. Stay away from salads and melon.

  • Media:

    • Books: News stands carry Time, The Economist, WSJ, Herald Tribune, and USA Today. Some English bookstores.

    • TV: Might get CNN or BBC at more up-market hotels. American Movies play in theatres

  • Food: Epicurean delights of Brochettes, tajines (stews), fish, pastilla (baklava with pigeon), harrira (lentil soup) and cous-cous chased with mint tea. Almost unbearably sweet tea and coffee is the order of the day throughout the country.

    • Vegetarians: Lots of Cous-cous and omelettes (harrira and vegetable tajines might be flavoured with meat stock)

  • Hassle and Annoyance Factor: As with Egypt a notable factor. Having to bargain for almost everything can take its toll.

  • Women Alone: Dress conservatively. Be assertive.

  • Local poisons for the body: Kif (powder made from the dried flower of the female cannabis plant) is easy to find and you can be offered any time. Cultivation of kif is tolerated to some extent in an area of the high Rif mountains, where it constitutes the main cash crop of the local farmers. Chefchaouen is where you are the least likely to get ripped off or turned into the police. The famous Moroccan hashish world renown and many travellers never get beyond the Rif mountains where it's mainly grown. Hashish is so cheap in the mountains that when backpackers arrive there they act like they have broken into the sweetshop. Majoun (marijuana in candy form) is known for inducing paranoia and dehydration. You may be inspected upon your return to Spain as Morocco is the Colombia of Europe.

    Alcohol: wine is not too bad. Beer is below average. Local bars (as opposed to those in posh hotels) tend to be dark, gloomy, and attract alcoholics and a slightly dodgy crowd.

    * Rating: 7.5/10

-divider-
  • EasyIntro: You could forgive Tunisia for being more 'tourist' than 'traveller' friendly. The country has made quite some efforts to attract and become acceptable to the European package holiday hordes and has a lot to offer in return, notably it's location right on the continent's doorstep, glorious beaches, French language, compact size and monuments. Nonetheless it's okay to be a tourist and those who want to travel around the country rather than stay put in one beach resort will find fairly good transport links, much to see and above all a compactness and lack of hassle fairly unique in North Africa.

    If you discounted Egyptian ruins, you could almost say that Tunisia is a packaged compact Northern Africa, with a taster of everything – desert oases, Berber architecture, ancient (Roman) ruins, the Sahara, bizarre landscapes, green highlands, golden beaches, great medinas, stunning mosques/bath houses and chilled out (out-of-the-way) towns – given that none of which are perhaps the best examples of such in the region if considered as a whole.

    Considering this and given that (at least on paper) Tunisia has so much to offer, some might feel slightly let down. Others will be more than happy to perfect their French, not to have to travel too far from home and be able to see so much in a small space of time.

There are many resort towns which exist almost entirely for tourists, which can get prohibitively expensive for those looking to find on-the-spot cheap accommodation at the height of the high season. Equally in the far south there are a few places difficult and/or awkward to reach by public transport and a few more that require your own vehicle or joining a tour, but for the most part travel is a breeze and getting anywhere and finding a place to stay is easy with it all being pretty good value. Some minor hassles do exist and lone female travellers might have the odd reservation, but it is a far cry from the situation in Morocco or Egypt. Then again you will find plenty of crowds as in Morocco or Egypt, but not really the same backpacker circuit.

  • Highlights: (all fairly low-key) Tozeur and the surrounding area, including Chott el-Jerid. Matmata, El Jem's colosseum, Kairouan, Tunis' medina and many other of the country's medinas. Sidi Bou Said, ruins at Dougga and Cap Serrat in the north for some less crowded and laid back beaches.

  • Lowlights: Tourist numbers, many of whom are on package trips. Package resort towns (such as Hammemet). Inflated prices in high season and temperatures in mid-summer. Transport and again crowds in far south. The Sahara is better experienced elsewhere if you want to appreciate its tranquillity.

  • Sand DunesVisa strategy: Free for most on arrival at all major airports and crossing points.

  • Typical tourist trail: Most visitors (tourists) stick to one of the main resort destinations such as Jerba or Hammemet. Travellers normally head from entry in Tunis to the South, Tozeur, Matmata and around with a few stops on the way in places such as Kairouan and Sousse (as a base to visit El-Jem and others).

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Varied climate. What is for sure is a visit in mid-winter will be colder than you expect and a visit in mid-summer will be hotter. The Sahara and the south really bake in summer months and becomes fairly unpleasant. From November to March, it is worth packing a few jumpers as there is not much heating and the far north gets pretty chilly in the evenings/nights/during rain.

  • Guide book: Nothing stands out - LP most popular and fairly good.

  • Getting around: Great, cheap and efficient public transport - a reflection on how much more developed Tunisia is compared to other North African countries. Mini-buses (called louages) depart regularly (when full) from various points in any major town. On the whole you never have to wait too long for a departure. You might have to hop from one to another if wanting to travel right across the country and frequency is much greater in the morning. Normally you pay when you leave the vehicle (apart from in large towns which have much more organised stations and you pay in advance). Prices are very reasonable and there is never a problem with over-charging.

If you do find problems getting a departure (say holiday period or late in the day) it is possible to charter a taxi, but you will need a few people to get the per person price down. For long-distances, buses will be better as they depart to a time-table.

Be warned that departure points vary depending where you are heading and a town might have a bus station and several louage stations - finding the right one and understanding the system takes a little time if your French is not great.

  • Language: As with Morocco and Algeria, French is spoken, which you will need to master a few phrases in order to travel. Apart from the epicentres of tourism in the country, English is rarely spoken or understood.

  • Tourist factor: Without a doubt Tunisia receives a huge number of tourists, and being quite a small country with limited destinations this is extremely notable. Without knowing exact figures you could consider for every one independent traveller there are 10 package tourists or well-heeled French or Italian independent travellers, many of whom come with their own 4x4 to experience the desert. 9/10

  • Costs: Fairly on a par with the rest of the region, if not a little more expensive than Morocco and certainly more than Egypt, but still good value. US$40 would be an average budget, but this can inflate dramatically if adding tours/trips and some luxury.

  • Money: ATMs plentiful in major towns. Of course in small places like Matmata there are no banks so a little emergency EUR, as always is worthwhile holding, notably if crossing by land. USD/GBP not so welcome.

  • People vibe: Can you help?

    • Locals: Generally indifferent and used to tourists.

    • Other travellers: Typical North African backpacker crowd, being a sprinkling of Northern Europeans (mainly Dutch, German and English), Australians and the odd Japanese or Korean. However most visitors are not backpackers.

  • Accommodation: There is minimal accommodation specifically aimed at backpackers, but plenty of cheap places to stay. Although the range, price and availability do vary from town to town and in the epicentres (beach resorts) of the summer peak, expect very limited budget accommodation. Inland away from the beach you will find plenty. Lack of heating in the winter and air-con in the summer in cheap places is a little painful. A basic breakfast is normally included in the price of a room.

    • Hot water: Generally, but not guaranteed if you go ultra-cheap.

    • Average cost: 15-30USD

  • Communications: Internet is rarely found in small private shops (internet cafes), rather larger government run centres of which there is always one in any big/medium town, known as Publinet. They are quite cheap and connection speeds, while not lighting are okay. The same centres sometimes have facilities to make international calls.

  • Media:

    • Books: You will find some English language books and guidebooks in the biggest book stores of Tunis. You will also find Time, The Economist and similar, including yesterday's English, German, Italian and of course French newspapers in the biggest cities and major tourist resorts.

    • TV: Don't expect any English language TV, only French with some Italian channels.

  • Food: There is plenty of good food to be found. In tourist resorts it will likely find you, but off the beaten track will take more looking for, a little sense of adventure (since places don't always look too appealing) and a fondness for couscous which is the most usual fair coupled with a briq (crisp, very thin pastry envelope that comes with a range of fillings). Tunisians also have a fondness for canned Tuna, crepes and bread (which is subsidised, very cheap and supplied with most meals).

    • Vegetarians: Not always the easiest as meat features in most meals (most meals being couscous). If you are a fish eater life is easier due to canned tuna featuring in some fashion on many menus. Briqs (see above) are often vegetarian and a good option. If you can handle it, picking the lumps of meat out of a dish of couscous is a fail safe.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Relative to Morocco and Egypt there is no real hassle in Tunisia. This is one of the wealthiest countries in the region and it shows it in the fact you are not really ever besieged by touts, salesmen or beggars. There is minor hassle from souvenir sellers and restaurant owners, but it's nothing significant.

    • Women alone: Again, no real problems compared to Morocco or Egypt and the main tourist resorts see their fair share of tall blondes in mini-skirts that don't seem to get that much attention. However the same clothing in more conservative inland cities would be a big issue and it is important to remember this is still a Muslim country where some men do have warped impressions of western women. So as a female alone you need some degree of confidence and sensible clothing, but you need not expect the worst as problems are rare.

      * Rating: 6.5/10

B For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.

Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours).

M Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

"Surely every one realizes, at some point along the way, that he is capable of living a far better life than the one he has chosen."

— Henry Miller