Travelling in Eritrea – one of the least visited countries

Getting the Visa for travelling in Eritrea was less tiresome than we had imagined, not least because we had allowed a couple of months for this task. The embassy staff crowded around us excitedly when we showed up in person to ask for a tourist Visa: “We had 900 Visa applications last year! Travel in Eritrea is increasing! Can you write a guidebook about our beautiful country?!” Never mind that they forgot to pass on the application at first…… But repeated phone calls did the trick and we finally could pick up our visa.

20200211 Asmara Fiat Taglieri Building P1770224
The Fiat Taglieri building in Asmar

A visit at the tank graveyard

Once in the capital Asmara, getting the necessary travel permits and arranging a car for an excursion on the last day proved somewhat more difficult. We did this in the wrong order: by the second day we had received the permits for excursions to Massawa and Keren on public transport, and fixed a deal for a car on the final day. With the car’s number plate we could now apply for that last permit – but all our previous permits had to be submitted in the original for another day or so. Only an “exceptional exception” (after some discussions) made it possible to receive all permits before we started out for Massawa. Meanwhile we explored the sites in the capital Asmara, like the infamous tank graveyard: A junkyard of military vehicles left over from the Independence war.

Rusty tanks at the so-called tank graveyard in Asmara, an Eritrean travel highlight

“You can reserve a seat on the bus the day before”, the ambassador in Berlin had advised us, but perhaps mixed that up with German bus stations. After an hour’s wait for more passengers our crowded minibus winds down the spectacular, if potholed, road to Massawa, 2300 m lower on the coast.

A crumbling Ottoman trading town

An Ottoman trading town on an island (linked by a dam), the historic old town was heavily bombed during the independence war but retains at least remnants of those beautiful Ottoman and Egyptian-period houses with arched doorways and shaded arcades. Some of the houses are restored or reconstructed after an earthquake in the 1920s, but the recent damage incurred during the independence war has not been repaired. In spite of this, people are living in some rooms of the crumbling buildings. We were planning to explore the alleys but soon end up lazily sipping tea in a café with outdoor seating on the main square.

Muslim Sahaba Shrine in Massawa
This might be the oldest mosque in the world

The next day we visit the local museum and go on a tour to Massawa’s potentially most important relic: the Sahaba Shrine. The Sahaba Shrine is a small open mosque oriented towards Jerusalem rather than to Mekka. Archeologists think it was built in 615: Early followers of Muhammad including the prophet’s daughter Ruqayyah, who were fleeing persecution from Mohammed’s opponents, may have settled here.

Queue of Erirtrean travellers at the bus station in Masawa

Travelling in Eritrea by bus

The next morning the queue for buses back to Asmara is long. Hundreds of small bags snake a long line around the bus station marking the position of their owners, but no bus has even arrived. An hour later, we have bought a place near the front of that queue from professional queuers, and someone hands us a plastic card as a pre-reservation. By the time the bus arrives, a new queue has formed. Bags have been rearranged, and eventually we are lined up at the door based on queue position and neediness: disabled people and clueless foreigners may board first, strict order is maintained. Half an hour later the bus is on its way to the Highlands and to the capital Asmara.

Juvenile conductor at a bus travelling in Eritrea

Waiting for the bus in various forms takes up some time on the other excursions, too. There are different rules and procedures for large public buses and private minibuses, we discover. We do a day trip to Decemhare, a small town built by the Italians, were 1940s buildings with an Italian Art Deco feel line the street.

Old vendor with parasol at the market in Decamhare

We also visit the rather colourful Saturday market, but otherwise there’s little to do.

Men selling camels at the camel market in Keren, a highlight of travelling in Eritrea

Visiting the Keren market

The same goes for Keren, one of Eritrea’s largest towns at a medium altitude (about 1600 m) with a very pleasant climate. A commercial hub for the North of the country, Keren has extensive souks, a large open market in the dry riverbed, and a busy livestock market on the outskirts on Mondays. It is the only place in Eritrea except for the Asmara permit office where we see other tourists, most of them in small groups. It is also the only place in Eritrea were begging schoolchildren with their greetings of “Money!” and “10 Nakfa!” are a hassle and at times even aggressive.

Ruins of Maryam Wakito in Qohaito
The archeological site of Qohaito

Cultural travel in Eritrea

On our last day of travelling in Eritrea, we spend hours on the long, winding, and ill-maintained road towards the Southern border with Ethiopia. The archaeological site of Qohaito belongs to pre-Aksumite and Aksumite civilisations with remains that are well over 2000 years old. This high plateau of 2600 m was an important trading post once. There used to be a route between the Red Sea harbour of Adulis and the (now Ethiopian) town of Aksum. But the lack of archaeologists and funds (not to speak of the wars) means that the ruins remain enigmatic. Not much has been excavated and studied so far. Only a few columns of temples and, later, Christian churches, rise from the desert ground. The view from the plateau towards the coast is quite spectacular, however.

Woman looking at Petroglyphs in Qohaito

A highlight of travelling in Eritrea was seeing the prehistoric cave paintings on the cliff below. They are only accessible from the ancient footpath that has been linking Qohaito to the Red Sea coast for several thousand years.

A art-deco public pool in Asmara

In between all these excursions we always had to go back to Asmara. So we had often time to relax in this restful little capital with palms and a night sky full of dreamy stars, hundreds of sleepy cafés, dozens of Modernist colonial buildings such as cinemas and a swimming pool – and not a single working traffic light, as far as we could make out (there were traffic lights though…).

Altogether we enjoyed our time travelling in Eritrea, but found that 10 to 14 days was enough time in the country. Most other travellers we met spent only 2 to 4 days there, mostly in Asmara. We would suggest a bit more time for arranging permits and getting a feel for the vibe and the pace of the country.

Have you ever been to Eritrea or are you thinking about travelling there? Tell us more in the comments.

How to travel in Eritrea

In order to travel to Eritrea, we applied for the tourist Visa at the embassy in Berlin, which took a few weeks. At least, with a German passport, it was not difficult at all. We flew with Emirates via Dubai, but there are also a number of flights to Ethiopia, Egypt and very few other destinations. Flights to and from Asmara are cancelled or postponed regularly due to fog (our return flight was).

Retro Lobby in the Red Sea Hotel in Massawa

We stayed in midrange hotels (around 50 € per double room, without prior reservation), all with a proper hotel atmosphere, reception desk, restaurant, and running water, but not necessarily hot water and not quite European standard: Sunshine in Asmara (hot water, breakfast included, good service, very friendly); Red Sea in Massawa (no hot water, breakfast not included, friendly, interesting architecture); Costina in Keren (hot water, breakfast included, quite unfriendly).

Apart from the car with driver we arranged for Qohaito, we travelled around Eritrea on public buses, which was cheap but time-consuming.

Eritrean Fattah with potatoes, bread, salad and egg
Fattah, a traditional Eritrean dish

Eritrea was not a culinary revelation and most locals don’t eat out, but we could get fatta (bread in tomato sauce) and pasta as well as decent coffee; in most places we treated the tap water with Micropur pills – bottled water is very expensive.

Note: We were not sponsored in any way or received money or other benefits for and during our travel in Eritrea. All expenses were fully paid by ourselves.

22 Comments

  1. I couldn’t read most of it as the colour mode makes it nearly impossible and does hurt my eyes even in dark mode too (makes little difference). I think my colour blindness causes this as my sister has no problem. If you have any red/green colour blind friends see what they experience.
    I always look forward to your travels but this time too painful!

  2. Hello Dennis,
    I am sorry for that – I just changed the text colour to make it darker, but I’m not sure that will be enough.
    You could send us an email for a plain text version…
    Happy travels!
    Isa

  3. I have never considered travel in Eritrea so this was really useful to read. Your comments about the professional queuers made me smile & miss those unique travel experiences, although frustrating! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Eritrea is a very relaxed and safe destination in Africa. Easy to travel, but accommodation and restaurants are pretty basic most of the time. Transport also is a problem in most parts of the country as is the tiring process of getting permits for everything.

  5. Africa is one continent that I have not explored much. And as you said I had never heard of Eritrea till now. It is good to know that it is not hard to get to the country and the visa is easy as well. I have now added this country to my list and I will make sure I visit it. It is also good to know that the stay is as cheap as 50 Euros, helps in planning.

    1. Actually Eritrea has a reputation for being very difficult with visas – I felt we were lucky and the German embassy in Berlin seems to be easy-going with the visa process. If you have not traveled in Africa much you might want to start with a more developed country like Ghana or South Africa as the infrastructure in Eritrea is quite poor. Although dealing with the permit office is quite a hassle.

  6. This is another great location to appreciate archaeology and history and to form intelligent guesses about things around us. Those ruins and cave paintings are amazing. I’ve never considered visiting this part of Africa. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yes, not many people visit Eritrea and most of the visitors stay in Asmara. But you won`t regret it, if you take some time to travel around.

  7. I have to start by saying I have never heard of the country of Eritrea. Good to know that travel planning may be complicated. But there are some interesting sites if you can get the necessary tours and/or approvals. I would be worried that we would miss so much on a short 2-4 day visit if our permits got delayed. At least with a longer visit you have some buffer in your planning.

    1. Eritrea is a very interesting country with very friendly people. The Ethopian-Eritrean war is still quite fresh in the memories of the people and we had a lot of conversations about it.

  8. To be honest, this is the first time I heard about Eritrea. I am not really familiar with the place. Thank you for sharing about it.

    Though it’s not my ideal destination, it is nice to know about it. I am happy that I learned something new today.

    1. It is a very small country next to Ethiopia. To make things complicated, it is not possible for most foreigners to enter the country via land border. And not many airlines go there.

  9. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know anything about Eritrea, but now I’m excited to learn more about it! Thank you for introducing me! We might have to add it to our list when we go visit Ethiopia!

    1. Eritrea is a great country to visit! As there was a long war between Ethiopa and Eritrea and they still do not have a peace treaty, transport is difficult between the two countries. Land borders are definitely closed and even direct flights are almost non-existent. You might have to fly via Kenya or Egypt.

  10. It was nice to read about Eritrea and learn about its culture. I had heard about it but not considered a travel yet. The pictures show authenticity. The Sahaba Shrine and the Keren Market sounds interesting. Thank you for the virtual culture travel through this part of the world. I would love to go there for the culinary indulgence.

    1. The food is good – but choices are limited in most places. Pizza, Pasta and Fattah are available anywhere. Most people are too poor to afford restaurant dining. So, they usually just have a coffee. You can get a good coffee basically everywhere.

  11. It looks quite exotic. But doesn’t appear to be doing well economically. I wonder if it’s advisable to travel alone here. Must say you are brave enough to travel in public transport. However, not all history needs to be written and even the half excavated places leave one curious to see and know more. I would like to see this enigmatic archaeological site of Qohaito.

    1. Traveling alone is fine. People are very friendly and helpful and as there are not that many tourists there it is easy to get into a conversation.

  12. I’m embarrassed to say that I have not heard of this county before, thank you for introducing me to it. I definitely understand why you said the highlight of the trip was to see the prehistoric carvings. I can only imagine how fascinating it would be to see that.

    1. These carvings were so remote that visiting them had a strong explorer feeling. Eritrea is a great country to explore if you are willing to endure some uncomfortable bus rides or hotels with cold showers. Getting the visa might also be a bit of a hassle.

  13. Wow. I have never, ever heard of Eritrea before. It seems like an interesting place! I love abandoned places, and the tank graveyard seems like it would be such a cool glimpse of times gone by. I appreciate you letting me know about this country!

    1. The tank graveyard is sort of a must see in Asmara. Every tourist goes there. But I have to admit it was quite depressing. Eritrea was involved in a long and bloody independence war with Ethiopia and one cannot help to think of all the lifes lost in this war when visiting the tank graveyard.

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