The Saharan mirage gives way to a wonderful sight of a palm fringed oasis, a caravan town of white Islamic architecture that provokes images of a lost ancient desert masterpiece. The shimmering gold sand dunes in the distance add contrast to such a perfect image. This is not a dream, this is reality if you can make it to the far flung capital of Ghadames, Libya. Ghadames beauty if only the beginning, the hospitality and culture of Ghadames inhabitants will be your lasting memory. This whimsical desert odyssey is not for the faint of heart as getting here requires a plethora of security issues, but for the jaded traveler this makes the allure of visiting Ghadames even more.
Getting a Libyan Visa
The first issue that you will come across with any journey to Libya is obtaining the Libyan Visa. The situation is constantly changing and so is the security of Libya. The best and safest way to obtaining a Libyan Tourist Visa is to contact your nearest Libyan Embassy. I received my three month Libyan visa from the embassy of Ottawa in Canada.
Your other option is to go through a tour company, its more expensive than going to the embassy directly, but some companies have ways to get the visas for you. Most of the companies however will want you to take some sort of a tour with them. If you decide to go through a company, try Wadi Tidwa. When I lived in Libya I became friends with the owner who is now based in Tunisia. In the past he helped a few of my friends get into Libya for Travel.
How to Get to Ghadames
Ghadames is 611km south of the capital Tripoli. There are buses coming from Nalut, which is connected to Tripoli. The bus however may refuse you as a foreigner due to security concerns. I highly recommend not using the bus for this same reasons, I have heard stories of fake road blocks that kidnap people on this route.
The best and safest way to Ghadames is to fly. Libyan Air offers several flights a week which take just over an hour. The planes are new and professionally run. One way tickets start at 150 USD. To book a flight you will most likely have to book from the office directly when you arrive to Tripoli as the website does not take credit cards. Air Libya has several offices in Tripoli and there are many local tour companies that can book for you.
Where to Stay in Ghadames
When I landed in Ghadames finding a hotel was extremely confusing. Since tourism officially ended when the revolution began, the majority of hotels have closed down. Two hotels happened to be open, the Ben Yedder Hotel and the Dar Ghadames Hotel.
First I checked the Dar Ghadames Hotel thinking they would provide me a discount from the lack of tourism. They only kept three rooms open and no discount was given. They recommend I try the Ben Yedder near the town centre. The Ben Yedder was like any budget hotel, decent rooms and only 30 USD per night. It was also conveniently located just two block from the old city. I asked reception if they could get me a guide to show me around and the helpful reception set me up with a great guide!
Ghadames Old City
The highlight of my trip to Ghadames was definitely the Old City. My first day in the city I wandered this abandoned and seemingly haunted ancient city.
Ghadames Old City consists of around 1600 buildings, which include 1250 houses, 21 mosques and 17 religious colleges. Although the city has been abandoned and the residents relocated to New Ghadames next door, Ghadames Old City is still in use. The previous owners take great care of their heritage homes and often visit them to relax in the gardens, or do any repairs that the homes might need.
Many of the covered alleyways open up to stair wells that lead you to the roof tops of Ghadames. From here you can further explore the city, crossing from one house to another without leaving the roof. It is said that the roof top gardens were reserved for the women of Ghadames while the men stayed down below. This way the women could watch the men without them knowing!
My second day in Ghadames my hired guide from Ben Yedder brought me to his family heritage home in the heart of Ghadames Old City. Inside the white mudbrick house the walls were covered in brightly coloured murals and the entire house had hand woven carpets covering every inch of floor space. He also had many family heirlooms like a seven-foot rifle, old brass coffee pots, and art work from his ancestors.
Ghadames Old City Sights
Bab al-Burr – Bab al-Burr was the main gate to Ghadames Old City. This gate was used by locals only while a separate entrance was used by foreigners.
Ghadames Doors – Incredibly picturesque and ornate are the hundreds of stunning brass doors that are located through out Old City.
Ghadames Old City Heritage Homes – There are roughly ten heritage homes open to foreigners. These homes have been kept in the exact original state. They provide a great insight into how the Old City used to be.
Omran and Yunnis Mosque – Ghadames has many mosques, but they two with there soaring white minarets stand out from the rest specifically because of there interesting architecture. You must observe from the outside as the mosque are closed.
Tayibiyeh Sufi School – Worth a visit to learn more about the impact of Sufism in Ghadames. Tayibiyeh also has amazing views from its rooftop.
Gardens and Public Wells – Nearing the end of the old city are palm oasis gardens and public wells. Here kids come for a swim in the palm tree reservoirs and colourfully dressed women carry water atop their heads from the well. Its natural beautify is worth the visit.
Into the Libyan Sahara
My third day in Ghadames, my guide took us into the desert for some hiking. The barren landscape is stunning. Large rocky outcrops emerge from the landscape, if you climb them you will be provided with views all the way to the Algerian border. Getting around you will need a 4×4, so its essential to hire a guide.
After hiking my guide recommended we visit the massive sand sea near the Algerian border as there was Libyan off road rally happening. Arriving to the sand dunes we climbed to the tallest one and watch kamikaze Libyans soar over the dunes in their SUV. Some of which rolled in attempt of miraculous adrenaline pumping feats.
To our luck they noticed me and invited me to join them. There white knuckle driving was fun but intense!
Libya Travel Advisory
At the moment no trip to Libya is without risk. If you choose to travel here it must be understood that there is a high chance of kidnapping, terrorist activity and even arrest as there is no stable government. Take this warning very seriously and if you still decide to choose to travel here then understand what you are getting into.
Libya Travel Information
Location: Ghadames, Libya
Recommended Libya Guide Book: Libya Lonely Planet, Arabic Phrasebook Lonely Planet
Tour Companies: Wadi Tidwa Tours