Female shoppers in Tripoli's old Medina.

Libya and Algeria have a lot in common. Both North African countries encompass vast tracks of Saharan desert and their capitals and major cities are on or near the Mediterranean. Both possess some of the ancient world’s finest archaeological sites and both experienced long periods of European colonization.

In a way, the difficulties modern travelers experience in obtaining visas for these countries are a legacy of their troubled modern histories. While one can land in Morocco, Tunisia, and Eqypt without a prearranged visa, Libya and Algeria have strict entry requirements.

Things have recently become easier in Libya with group tourist visas available upon arrival for members of prearranged package tours. Trouble is, airline officials are often unfamiliar with the change and passengers without proper documentation are routinely denied boarding for Tripoli at European airports. Only those in possession of an advance clearance form in Arabic bearing their name and passport number are allowed through.

Is it worth it? Having just returned from 10 days touring the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, I can say yes without reservations. The Libyans are universally friendly and the country is quite safe to visit. Tour group members will have all the rough edges smoothed out for them (there are numerous police checkpoints along the highways). At this time of year, the climate is cool and invigorating. Even the food is pretty good (although less chicken and more fish would be an improvement on the tour circuit).

The ancient cities of Sabratha west of Tripoli, Leptis Magna east of Tripoli, and Apollonia and Cyrene east of Benghazi are nothing short of spectacular. Modern Tripoli and Benghazi have bustling markets and streets lined with Italian buildings dating from before the war. Tripoli’s Medina or old town is very well preserved with numerous mosques and historic buildings, plus an excellent National Museum in the Al-Saraya al-Hamra Fortress.

But Libya’s most memorable sights lie farther south. The old city of Ghadames near the point where Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria meet remains as it was in the time when Saharan caravans passed this way. Ghadames residents moved to an adjacent new city some years ago, allowing the undamaged old town to remain intact. Deeper into the Libyan Sahara are high shifting sand dunes best explored in 4X4 vehicles. The Saharan lakes hidden in this desert must be seen to be believed, while the rock carvings at Wadi Matkhandoush are thousands of years old.

I visited Libya with Caravan-Serai Tours of Seattle, Washington, which has another trip coming up in late February. Expect to pay around US$3,000 per person including all transportation, admissions, accommodations, and meals in Libya. Delta Airlines can fly you to Tripoli from many American cities for around US$1,200 return. Just make sure you have that Arabic group visa clearance form before heading out! Of the 1,117 photos I took in Libya, my 47 favorites are on my Flickr page.

Filed Under Africa & Middle East


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