I had no idea how to picture Algeria. I’d been to Morocco and Tunisia, so figured it was something like that?! For some parts it was, but other parts were completely different. As not many travelers go here nowadays, I could hardly find any travel blogs and was armed with a 10-year old travel guide and some youtube videos in the back of my head. So here are my experiences; I hope others can benefit from it and be a bit better prepared.
Algeria is a big country and traveling around costs time. Think well before booking your tickets. We only wanted to go to the eastern parts (for now), which meant that it was easier to fly to Tunis and cross the border from there.
Early in the morning, we took a bus from Tunis to Annaba, which surprisingly left on time. The bus ride was approximately 9 hours (including crossing the border). That in itself was an adventure though.
You cannot get a visa for most Western passports on arrival at the border, so I’d already applied for it back home. Once at the border, we first had to leave the Tunisian side. Meaning: everyone out of the bus, going to a desk for stamps and stuff. With a lot of hassle, that worked. This border was the typical: ‘if I don’t like your face, I’m not going to let you pass’-border. I’d crossed a few borders like that before, so I thought it would be fine. I underestimated this! When they threatened to send us back (after so many hours in a warm bus and no taxis around!), I started to get slightly nervous. Luckily after a lot of hassle, high officers, etc., we received our stamps.
Then we had to get our luggage checked. We’d considered taking a bottle of wine, but I’m truly thankful we never did. Men and women were separated, the bags were opened and searched thoroughly (read: every single coin, panties, and sock passed them). We were already intimidated by how hard it was to get the right stamps, so when they, rather unfriendly, asked whether we had any cash money on it, we instantly felt it was better to ‘change’ the truth a little bit. My friend told the officer that I had all the money. But we couldn’t really communicate since he was on the men’s-section. I guessed that no one spoke English well enough and tried to overwhelm them with a friendly waterfall of quick English. Our approach worked and about 1,5 hours later (at least 1 hour delay was on us, apologies to all the bus passengers) we were on the move again: to the Algerian side. This was a lot friendlier, yet still took forever. Where it was my friend who got all the questions on the Tunisian side, it was my turn now. They wanted to know in detail where I was from and what my plans were in Algeria. That was quite easy. But the difficult part was to describe my job. Something with recruitment, refugees and helping less fortunate was too difficult. Eventually I ended up being self-employed somehow.
What made it a lot better was the light in the officer’s eyes when I understood 2 words in Arabic. Eventually after a lot of delays we were all loaded in the bus again and were really in Algeria.
Once back in the bus, a young man came in the bus to change money. Suddenly everyone had lots of money with them that the officers had never seen! Apparently me and my friend weren’t the only people performing a nice show at the checkpoint. This man offered a really good conversion rate for which you can’t change in banks nor in dodgy corners of the town’s square. So bring some cash, hide it well, and change here. Ok, I need to add that this is obviously not allowed, but happens right under everyone’s eyes so is apparently tolerated.
It seems like a lot of hassle, crossing the border in northern Tunisia, but it’s still a lot easier than flying to Algiers and then travel all the way through the country. And to be honest, when you get the occasional view like this from the bus, it’s all worth it.
Back from Algeria to Tunisia
On the way back from Constantine to Tunis, we took a shared taxi, which was a lot quicker than the bus. Shared taxis leave from Annaba and Constantine and just leave when the car is full. Please note that this is officially illegal (again, sorry). We were stopped on the way by a tough-looking police officer. It was quite obvious that he’d stopped us to earn a little extra money. But when he, super unfriendly, said: ‘Hulanda, how much did you pay the driver for this trip?’ I was slightly uncomfortable. Luckily he didn’t speak much English and left me alone. We were stopped a few times and every time they had to check our luggage. There’s a lot of smuggling between Algeria and Tunisia, so I understood it. But after the fourth time of opening my bag, I wished I’d put some interesting underwear on top, just to make them really uncomfortable and let us go (I dare you to do this! I’m sure you’ll have an interesting trip ;)).
Our taxi driver seemed to have invested in contacts at the border crossing, because this went a lot quicker than the first time. On the Algerian-side my passport had to pass a few hands of high officers, but this seemed to be more of a formality. On the Tunisian side we were met by friendly officers who gave me the list of old soccer players that you always hear when you’re travelling and then welcomed me to Tunisia. We were only stopped once on the way, but in Tunisia it helps to show your blonde hair. So I always make sure they’ve seen me, and off you go again!
Considering to cross like this?
I’ve never flown into Algeria, so I have no comparison. But if you just keep in mind from the start of the trip that you’ll spend most of the day travelling, it’s not that bad. It’s part of the experience. Though make sure you have your visa sorted!
I’ve heard they recently opened a railway connection between Algiers and Tunis. It’s supposed to only take 8 hours. I don’t know how comfortable it is and whether it’s really only 8 hours, but it sounds interesting. Next time….