Algeria: Discovering a Desert Oasis
Taghit: An Algerian Oasis on the Edge of the Sahara
By Tuve Floden
Our hotel bus sailed down the paved road from the airport, as rocky outcroppings dotted the sandy landscape outside our windows.
The road dipped and turned, following the gentle rise and fall of the low hills.
Finally, as the bus mounted another rise, there it was – the Algerian oasis of Taghit.
Thick groves of green palm trees stretched down the valley, punctuated by the rosy hues of houses and homes. Towering dunes rose behind the city, framing our view like a beautiful backdrop, with only the desert beyond it.
Algeria and Taghit
In fact, the country’s population of 40 million rests largely along the coastal region in the north. Large metropolitan centers like Algiers (five million inhabitants), Oran (two million), and Constantine (one million) all lie on the Mediterranean Sea.
Algeria’s interior has a rich history too, however. Take Taghit for example. Although today this small oasis only has 6,000 permanent inhabitants, people have lived in the region for thousands of years, since the Neolithic era. Located in western Algeria, the oasis is about 60 miles south of Bechar, a crossroads for trans-Saharan travelers not far from the border with modern-day Morocco.
What to See in Taghit
Taghit is popular with both local and international tourists, who come to enjoy the area’s historic sites and frolic in the natural environment.
The eleventh-century ruins of the ancient city, now partially restored by the government, rest on the edge of the town. A tall archway leads one into a maze of narrow alleys that slope downwards along the hill.
Carved wooden doorways dot the mud-brick passageways, revealing a small scattering of shops and guesthouses opened by local entrepreneurs. One vendor sells vivid paintings and a large variety of drums, guitars, and Arabian ouds – all handmade.
The city’s covered alleys and ventilation shafts once served as a primitive air-conditioning system, circulating fresh air during the summer months, and also preserving some warmth during the winters.
A short drive outside of town, petroglyphs of cows and antelopes dot a rock-strewn hillside. Visitors can clamber directly amongst the ancient drawings, ascending the boulders to get a view of the entire basin.
From there, the diverse terrain of the oasis is more apparent. Low shrubs dot the basin, with groves of palm trees closer to the villages. The winter rains often flood some of the low-lying areas, later leaving large deposits of hard, cracked mud when the rainy season subsides and the water evaporates.
Back in town, it’s just a short walk to the desert dunes, whose tall faces flank the eastern edge of the city. Making the ascent to the top of the highest dune (about 600 feet tall, according to one guide) is a must for any visitor.
From there, one can watch the sun slowly set over the city or turn around to gaze at the sea of rolling dunes that fade into the distance.
Camels and 4×4 ATVs are available for rent as well, allowing one to meander through the palm groves or drive up and over the dunes and gullies. Companies provide helmets for the ATVs and some will lead groups on a 4×4 ride all the way to the petroglyphs.
Food and Accommodations in Taghit
For tourists, there are two main hotels: the Bordj Taghit and the Hotel Taghit Saoura, a branch of the local El Djazair chain. Both facilities boast stunning views of the dunes and the surrounding city.
The Bordj Taghit is a rustic inn built on the ruins of a French colonial outpost. It offers single and double rooms, all with heat/AC and private bathrooms.
The Hotel Taghit Saoura is larger, with a more modern aesthetic. Their outdoor pool is open during the warmer months, and the premises include a small bar that serves alcohol.
Rooms are either singles or doubles, also all with heat/AC and private bathrooms.
There are not many restaurants in the city outside of the two hotels. In the center of town, a small shop sells takeaway pizza, while a rotisserie restaurant around the corner displays a tall case of chickens cooking slowly on rotating spits.
A small outdoor market sells fresh fruits and vegetables daily, and fresh baguettes are brought in each afternoon from a neighboring town. A grocery store nearby sells drinks, yogurt, cheese, and snacks, and the Gazelle Café along the main street serves tea, coffee, and local sweets in a relatively clean environment.
That said, many tourists choose to take all their meals in the hotels, which cook delicious Algerian food.
During my recent stay at Bordj Taghit, the kitchen presented us with succulent dishes such as fresh couscous and vegetables, tender beef, curried soup, and local flatbread pizzas.
Our last night featured an additional treat, tender roasted chicken cooked slowly amongst the hot coals of an open fire and then served outside in the warmth of a carpeted tent.
While the meat cooked, the chefs pulled out a drum and a guitar, singing local songs as the sun dropped below the horizon and a chill settled into the air.
Tel: +213 (0) 49-25-33-67 (office) or +213 (0) 558-48-42-77 (cell)
Hotel Taghit Saoura
Tel: +213 (0) 49-25-30-07 or +213 (0) 49-25-31-83
The best way to get to Taghit is to fly from Algiers to Bechar, and then drive to the oasis. The airline Air Algerie offers regular flights from Algiers, which take about two hours. Both hotels in Taghit will meet you at the Bechar airport and take you to the oasis, a trip of about one and a half hours.
When to Go
Summers in Taghit can be unbearably hot, with temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (over 40 degrees Celsius). Thus, the best times to visit are the late fall and early spring, when temperatures range from 50-80 degrees (10-27 degrees Celsius), or in the winter when highs are in the mid-60s and lows are in the upper 30s (3-20 degrees Celsius).
In any case, be sure to bring multiple layers of clothing. The weather is sunny and warm during the day, even in the winter, but when the sun sets, the temperatures quickly drop. Hotel rooms are warm and offer many blankets, but outside you will easily alternate between t-shirts, sweaters, and coats, depending on the time of day.
Getting an Algerian Visa
Americans can submit visa applications, based on their state of residence, to either the Algerian Embassy in Washington D.C. or the Algerian Consulate General in New York. Detailed information on the visa process is available on their websites.
I encourage other nationalities to consult their local Algerian Embassy to find details on obtaining visas. website. Note, the cost for a tourist visa is $160US.
In addition, Algerian travel agencies and hotels can often provide an invitation letter, a useful attachment to support your visa application. For this reason, I suggest booking hotels before applying for your visa. In my experience, the more details you provide on your visit (including the cities you will visit, your travel dates and hotels, etc.), the better your chance of getting a visa.
Tuve Floden is a freelance writer and independent scholar specializing in the Middle East and expatriate life abroad. After growing up in the U.S., he has lived in Benin, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia and the U.K., He currently resides in Yerevan, Armenia, and lived in Algeria for many years. For more, see tuvefloden.com.