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Pyramids[i]  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 http://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: 4th October 2014. Exact dates will depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.





*   North Africa

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

» Egypt Giza, Egypt

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

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» Libya

! Since 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.

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. Gaddafi

The 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.

Visa strategy:

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.

Passport translation:

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.

Potential hassles when travelling independently:

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.

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» Morocco

  • Intro: 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.

    • Highlights: 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.

    • Lowlights: Tangier and Teutouan are fairly dodgy (loaded with cons and ripoffs) and are the only way to get to Morocco other than flying in.

  • 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.

  • 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.



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»  Tunisia

  • Intro: 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.

  • 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.





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




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