Ghardaia is an incredibly unique community overlooking a desert oasis in Algeria. With its many fascinating cultural nuances and traditions, we believe that it is an absolute must-see for a world traveler. But before you go, you might have some questions about what to expect. As a travel company based in North Africa, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about traveling to Ghardaia and the M’Zab Valley into one place.
Read on for our top facts, highlights, and tips for travel to Ghardaia!
- What is Ghardaia?
- What to see traveling to Ghardaia
- How to Travel to Ghardaia
What is Ghardaia?
In the Western world, few people are familiar with the African country of Algeria. Certainly, even fewer are familiar with the remote, desert town of Ghardaia. Because of this, when our travel clients receive their tour itineraries many of them are puzzled, questioning if that tiny spot in the center of Algeria is really worth a multi-day visit.
But there is much more to Ghardaia than what you see on the map!
Here are the key facts about the Ghardaia villages, their position in the M’Zab valley, their oasis, and their unique subculture:
The M’Zab Valley
First, to get the right perspective, Ghardaia is not technically the right name to represent the whole community. In fact, Ghardaia is only one of five nearby towns that share the oasis valley. Although maps and travel guides usually lump together the towns and refer to everything as Ghardaia, the better and more local title for the area is the M’Zab Valley.
Each town in the M’Zab valley is within eyeshot of each other, positioned on strategic mountains overlooking their oasis. They each have their own fortified walls, their own clans, and leadership. Altogether, however, they are closely unified in their cultural practices, religious sect, and the task of stewarding the oasis that keeps them alive.
Despite being surrounded by a vast desert, the M’Zab valley is fertile, sparking with life. Date palm trees, olives, and fruits brightly contrast the lifeless sandy province. For centuries, the local communities have learned how to care for the oasis sustainably. Locals built complex irrigation and well-water systems to leverage their agriculture industry even through years of drought.
Today, the oasis industry is still strong. Algeria is a world exporter of date fruits, a large amount of them coming from the M’Zab valley. Hence, nearly every person’s job has some connection to providing for the industry; whether you grow dates yourself in your backyard or help out during the harvests.
All this mutual dependence and their complete isolation from the rest of the world have led to a great sense of unity. For centuries, they have had to work together to survive. This is closely connected to the development of their own fascinating and unique subculture, identity, and pride.
The Mozabite Identity
When taking tours of the Ghardiaian ancient cities, you will undoubtedly notice a great sense of pride. From our experience as travel experts visiting many countries across North Africa, they have the greatest community pride we’ve seen. They emphasize clearly that are the Mozabite people. It is who they are. It is what they teach their children. Heck, it’s why they call it the M’Zab valley (M’Zab is shorthand for Mozabite).
“[When raising our children] the most important thing is that they remember their identity,” one of our local guides said on our last visit, “They are free to grow up and leave this place, so long as they remember who they are: they are a Mozabite.”
From a young age, their children are trained to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. Kids spend up to 12 hours in school every day. Aside from regular academics, they take classes about their culture, marriage, their religion. Many children memorize the entire Quran.
All this is not about brainwashing their children, but about raising them to value their culture; to value their people, their heritage, and their way of life.
Mozabite Traditions vs. The World
The way of life for the Moabites is very strange to us Westerners. Possibly even absurd. Particularly, their rigid social structures, ultra-conservative clothing, and monthly weeklong parties come off upside down. (By the way, we’ll discuss more specific details on those cultural practices in the “What to See” section below)
But to them, this is just who they are. Their traditions and ideals are not a burden to them. Rather, it is what they’ve learned to love. It connects them with each other. It gives them a sense of self.
Even in the new age of modernism and globalism, when many Mozabites own cell phones, they have not lost this vision. While many other ethnic groups harmonize with the world and lose their cultural distinctiveness, the Mozabites still hold fast to their identity. And they would like to keep it that way.
What to see traveling to Ghardaia
Seeing and encountering the Mozabite pride in person is a wonderful, eye-opening experience. In hopes that you’d like to go and see this alien world for yourself, next we’ve compiled some top things to see in Ghardaia. After that, we’ve also got a few travel tips for planning your visit.
But notably, these are not going to be about cool sites or buildings (although they do have great sights and views). We’re going to focus on the experience. The most memorable parts of a travel through Ghardaia will not be some neat rock formation or tower, it is the captivating historical and cultural experience.
Discover a Deep History
Whether you’re a major history buff or just genuinely love learning about cultures, journeying through the historical Ghardiaian communities will certainly hook you. Visiting these well-preserved walled cities feels like going to another world—another time.
History’s record of the M’Zab Valley starts back a millennia ago: 1012AD.
In the beginning, sojourning native Berbers decided to make their first settlement in the luscious oasis valley. Understandably, not intending to build directly on top of fertile soil, they built the first city (El-Atteuf) on a nearby ridgetop.
They started by building a Mosque minaret at the pinnacle and designed the city around that. Strategically, they purposely made the streets narrow, winding, and complicated. This was to make invasion as challenging as possible for lawless attackers. Following, as populations and trade grew, the four other cities were built the same way.
Today, on your visit to these communities you can walk those same winding, ancient streets. You’ll be immersed in its history, seeing what life was like ages ago—and still is for these timeless people. Come travel to Ghardaia and let your imagination go wild!
See a Fascinating Culture
The highlights of a trip to Ghardaia will not just be feeling like you are literally inside a history book. On top of that, being engrossed in the fascinating Mozabite culture will make for unforgettable memories. Its rich culture led it to be declared one of Algeria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Perhaps one day, you’ll take a trip to the dry riverbed that transverses the valley. Locals host daily, authentic open markets in the riverbed. Check out their spices, their pottery, or meaning-filled carpets. Observe how they do things, and how they live their lives.
Unless that is, you’re unlucky enough to come during a flood. Or maybe lucky… It’s a matter of perspective. The valley’s rivers flood with water every 2-15 years. Seeing that would sure be a memorable experience!
Women in White
But anywhere you go, one cultural phenomenon that will certainly stand out to you is the local’s conservative clothing. Yes, married women there wear all white. They are completely covered except for one eyehole that they peek out of. It is very interesting—almost creepy.
I am sure wearing these in the summer months must be HOT.
Nonetheless, to the Mozabite women, their dress is not something they are burdened by or ashamed of. Rather, they take it as pride to wear their traditional attire established for generations. Wearing white is a way of honoring their community and their husbands. Plus, they are free to take it off when they are at home or on the rooftops.
Speaking of, the rooftops are reserved solely for women. They are also painted blue to ward off mosquitos. Supposedly, bugs stay away from the color thinking it may be water. It reminds us of the history of Tunisia’s blue doors, another interesting cultural phenomenon. Read about them here.
Wondering the Question: Is This Utopia?
With such an interesting world to experience as you travel Ghardaia, there will be no shortage of awe. There are so many interesting facts to discover. But when we visited the cities ourselves, there was one question that bugged us repeatedly. Could this be a utopia?
As we walked the M’Zab streets, everything that our local guide told us about the community sounded almost too good to be true. The more and more you discover about the people, the less you can believe.
On one hand, they claimed a 0% unemployment rate. Then, they told us the typical retirement is at 40. In terms of justice, we’re told communities are completely self-governing. Elders are selected peacefully and mediate fairly. Further, marriage counseling is free. Everyone volunteers 7 hours weekly to tend to community needs. It’s quiet and safe. Streets are cleaned, projects are publicly funded, and market prices are regulated to stay reasonable.
Could this place be a utopia?
Pondering this question as an outside observer is a surprisingly entertaining project as you are guided through the streets. On the surface, the cities seem like perfect, harmonized societies. Sure, they have some wild traditions, but they seem very happy and proud of their home.
What do you think? Would this be a place you would be willing to live? Or are you skeptical about its social unity? Comment your thoughts below!
How to visit
We hope you are convinced to visit the M’Zab valley on your next trip to Africa. Of course, before you hop on the plane, there are a few things you need to know. Here are our inside tips and tricks for when you travel to Ghardaia:
First of all, it is important you pick the right season for travel to North Africa. While many of us Westerners prefer to plan our travels in the summer season, this is not recommended. From June to September, the temperature is extremely hot. It regularly exceeds 40° Celsius, over 100°F. Most local guides will not even offer tours.
Instead, the best time to visit is in Autumn or Spring. Most specifically, the top month is October, during the date harvest. Algeria is known for its palm tree dates, hosting many varieties of sweetness and purposes. Palm dates hold a significant part of the North African tradition, and it is a special treat to be exposed to their cultural legacy.
Bonus activity: during a trip to Algeria, ask your guides about the types of palm tree dates they grow. You might hear some interesting facts about them, such as a supposed cure for diabetes.
Wherever you travel, to get a full, authentic experience, local guides are a necessity. They know the routes to take, the best food, and the locations to see. Their insights into their history, traditions, and architecture are invaluable. Without their explanations, many travelers leave countries with inaccurate views of other cultures.
But regardless of whether you like guides or DIY your vacations, you don’t have a choice anyways. (Sorry!) In Algeria, guides are required. So, you might as well pick a good one. Be sure to do your research and hire an educated, English-speaking guide. Or, better yet, hire a tour company like us to find them for you!
Because of inaccurate impressions of its culture and government policy, many Westerners avoid visiting locations in Algeria. Certainly, regulations make the country more difficult to work with. However, once you get through the challenges, it is still well worth it as an overlooked and underestimated destination.
The Algeria, government as a whole has a few regulations you will need to abide by. The visa process is more thorough than Western governments. A local guide and an organized itinerary are required. Security escorts, while very unnecessary, are required in some locations.
In case you’re wondering, alcohol is available in private locations. As a Muslim-majority country, it is hard to find and illegal in public.
Additionally, there are a few local ordinances pertaining to the Mozabite community. These apply whenever you enter their walled communities. Firstly, you must wear appropriate clothing. No shorts, skirts, or tank tops. Second, unsolicited photos of locals are not allowed. Ask your guide when it’s appropriate to take a picture. Finally, smoking is prohibited in town.
Generally, stay respectful and things will be fine. If you have a good guide team, they will keep you informed and flexible. And if you would like help finding a good guide and making a well-planned trip, our travel experts would love to use our connections to build you an unforgettable trip.
In such a niche, unique destination like Ghardaia, there are few hotel accommodations. Instead, you will need to find a guesthouse. Contrary to what the name suggests, guesthouses are (typically) not sketchy add-on apartments. Many of them are nice bed and breakfasts or Airbnb’s.
When we plan trips to Ghardaia, we usually book Dar Akham (aka Maison d’Hote Akham). It’s a lovely villa right in the oasis. The staff is kind and the rooms are spacious. But, please note dinner is not included and can be expensive.
If you’re interested, here is another article we wrote about Ghardaia accommodations.
Private Tours to Ghardaia
Our travel company, Mosaic North Africa, is located in the neighboring country of Tunisia. We have made on-the-ground connections to build the most authentic, customizable experience of North Africa. We would love to plan your next trip for you—and keep it as easy and stress-free as possible for you.