I don’t know many people who have visited Eritrea.
One could blame underdeveloped tourism infrastructure, universally expensive organised tours, difficulties to secure visas and bureaucracy involved in travelling around Eritrea for the fact that Africa’s second youngest country receives relatively few tourists.
Eritrea recently embarked on a path of change, with promising results for its budding tourism industry. The 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia opened doors to regular flights between the two countries, greatly facilitating cross-border travel in the broader region and connecting Eritrea more conveniently with the rest of the world. And with its visa policies more relaxed compared to only a few years ago, Eritrea is unlikely to remain a travellers’ secret for much longer.
I visited Eritrea for two weeks during the winter of 2018, and was positively surprised by what I saw. From the Modernist architectural jewels of Asmara to the decayed charm of old Massawa, from the turquoise paradise of the Dahlak archipelago to the sobering history of Keren, from the natural wonders of Senafe and Kohaito to stepping back in time onboard an old steam locomotive zigzagging its way through spectacular mountains, Eritrea has a lot to offer to any type of traveller.
I would like to plan a second visit to Eritrea one day. Until then, here is some information I hope can be helpful in your travel planning for Eritrea.
HOW TO GET TO ERITREA
Note that it is currently impossible for foreigners to cross into or out of Eritrea by land. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travelling within 25km of Eritrea’s borders with the exception of three border crossings to Ethiopia: Sehra, Debay Sime and Adi Quala. Since borders with Ethiopia opened in September 2018, many Eritreans have undertaken the journey: as few Eritreans have international travel documents and Ethiopia only requires a local ID to enter, Ethiopia is currently the only country that most Eritreans can freely visit.
Barring Ethiopians, you are effectively restricted to enter Eritrea through Asmara International Airport. Despite only having 7-8 scheduled flights daily, Asmara is conveniently served by four major airlines. I flew into Asmara with FlyDubai on my usual combination with British Airways flights between London and Dubai (I collect oneworld miles and this all makes sense, I promise). FlyDubai has four weekly flights to Asmara which arrive / leave in the early (but not unacceptably so) morning hours. I paid around $450 for a return flight, likely higher than usual being around Christmas and New Year. For a supposedly low-cost flight, this definitely wasn’t cheap.
At the time of writing in March 2019, EgyptAir appears to have the most convenient and cheapest connection between Asmara and London on both legs, operating a daily flight, though arriving to and departing from Asmara at a highly ungodly hour in the middle of the night. Ethiopian Airlines are not far behind in terms of total flight time, and certainly win in flexibility by operating two daily flights to Asmara in the morning and in the afternoon, far more than any other foreign airline. The reestablishment of an air link between Addis Ababa and Asmara in July 2018 followed 20 years of broken relations and greatly improved Asmara’s connection with the rest of the world.
Turkish Airlines operate only three flights a week and are therefore somewhat less convenient. I also note that the Sudanese-owned Tarco Air lists three weekly flights from Asmara to Khartoum and could be an option for those travelling across a broader region.
The Eritrean flag carrier, Eritrean Airlines, is a bit of a dark horse. Very few online resources are available about it (in English, anyway), and none seem to agree on the basic facts about the airline, including its fleet size. Most sources quote the fleet of Eritrean to consist of one leased Boeing 737, while Flight Radar additionally shows a Boeing 767. Assuming the 767 is the aircraft I saw permanently parked at Asmara International Airport, it cannot possibly be flying: with its rust-streaked tail and fuselage and sealed nacelles, it looked decidedly non-flightworthy. And, suspiciously, in all existing imagery, be it travellers’ photos or satellite, the 737 parked at Asmara airport never seems to change position.
A tweet from Eritrea’s Minister of Information dated 4 August 2018 listed destinations served by Eritrean Airlines as Khartoum, Cairo, Dubai, Jeddah and Addis Ababa, while Flight Radar additionally shows scheduled flights to Djibouti. However, there are close to no Flight Radar records for Eritrean flights, online booking is non-existent and the last review of Eritrean on SkyTrax is dated 2012. Further, the last Flight Radar record of Eritrean flights I could find was for about a dozen flights to Milan, Jeddah, Dubai and Khartoum in March 2018 using an Airbus A320, wet-leased from Olympus Air, not Eritrean fleet. Despite extensive research, I have been able to speak to precisely one traveller who has flown Eritrean Airlines, but it was a relatively long time ago in 2013. The much-lauded first Eritrean flight to Addis Ababa may have received a lot of publicity, but it doesn’t look like it became a scheduled service.
In short, I seriously doubt that any Eritrean Airlines’ flights showing as ‘scheduled’ are actually operating at present, especially those for the aforementioned Boeing 767. I further doubt that Eritrean is a normally functioning airline. Given good international connections on other airlines and an apparently intermittent, restricted schedule, it seems unlikely that Eritrean Airlines will be of much use to a foreign visitor. But I could be wrong and would love to hear from you if you flew Eritrean in the last 1-2 years.
ARRIVING IN AND LEAVING ERITREA
To enter Eritrea, you will need to have an Eritrean visa in your passport or to have pre-arranged a visa on arrival. Having heard stories of the lengthy application process at the Eritrean Embassy in London (reportedly involving an interview), I opted for a visa on arrival. Note that it is only possible to apply for one if there is no Eritrean Embassy in your country of residence; I bypassed that by stating my Latvian address in the application. I actually own a flat in Latvia and have plenty of proof of residence, but, to my surprise, I was not asked to provide any. I have also heard that a fellow traveller used a friend’s address to apply for a visa on arrival in the same way with no issues.
To arrange a visa at an Eritrean Embassy, you will likely (though not necessarily – see below) need a letter of invitation from an Eritrean tour operator. One list of such operators is available here. Requirements vary notably across embassies, and you are best advised to check with yours individually. Based on the information from fellow travellers I have spoken to, applications at embassies can take anywhere between two and six weeks – all applications are sent to and approved in Asmara – but some take much longer.
Visa on arrival does not require an embassy visit, but still needs to be approved by the Department of Immigration and Nationality of Eritrea before your trip. My visa on arrival took approximately four weeks to be approved, after which I received a photo snap of the approval to be presented at check-in. Note that the FlyDubai representative at the check-in desk also insisted to see that I had a passport photo with me, and this is actually listed among the IATA requirements for a visa on arrival to Eritrea. Nobody asked for a passport photo at Asmara airport – the visa was issued without it – but do make sure to carry one to avoid being denied boarding.
Upon arrival in Asmara, I paid $70 in cash for my visa. The process was uneventful but painfully slow at around two hours: I was the second last person to exit the airport that morning.
CHOOSING A TOUR OPERATOR IN ERITREA
It used to be a common route for travellers to Eritrea to arrange a visa (whether on arrival or not) with the help of an agency called Asmara Grande, owned by Tekeste, a self-proclaimed TV celebrity and former shipping magnate (I have a feeling there is a degree of exaggeration there).
Unfortunately, it seems that Tekeste has become overwhelmed with rising tourist interest, rendering his services highly unreliable. I first got in touch with Tekeste in June 2018 and, by October, it became increasingly clear that I was getting nowhere. Perhaps due to rising demand, Tekeste took a significant time to respond to any emails or calls and never once acknowledged my increasingly desperate inquiries on the visa process. It also sounded like he was not keen to help with only a visa, instead asking me to book a full tour. Hearing that Asmara Grande had previously left travellers stranded at Asmara airport in the middle of the night, failed to make requested hotel bookings (not that you will likely need those in Eritrea) and was late applying for vital travel permits, I understandably started looking for other options.
With little time remaining until my trip, I contacted EriNine, a locally registered company owned by Gianmarco, an Italian with connections to Eritrea. After having chased Tekeste for months to no avail, EriNine were a welcome change: they responded to queries immediately, spoke excellent English and generally seemed switched-on. Unfortunately, they, too, would not assist on the visa unless I booked a tour, and, given that I was going to spend two full weeks in Eritrea – more than most visitors – and my departure date was relentlessly approaching, I decided to throw some cash at the problem and indeed book a private tour for my husband and me.
Eritrea is certainly not a cheap country to visit on an organised tour. I paid around $285 per person per day based on two people travelling, including a guide/translator, all internal transfers, hotels and breakfast (full board on the two days spent on Dahlak). For comparison, Asmara Grande quoted us around $270 per person per day, offering a cheaper hotel in Asmara, a reduced meal plan and only one night on Dahlak.
Post-factum I contacted another local company, Oasis Travel, which offered a comparable tour for a competitive $255 per person per day, though I have heard mixed feedback on the company itself. None of three other local operators I contacted, namely Explore-Eritrea, Damera and Eagle, responded to my price inquiries. Run by a former pilot, Damera famously used to be the most economical local tour operator in Eritrea, but sadly looks to be out of business at the time of writing.
Finally, I have run an online comparison across five Western-based tour operators offering organised trips to Eritrea, which ranged between $171 (Young Pioneer Tours) and $356 (Steppes) per person per day based on travelling as a group, two people sharing a hotel room and not taking into account differences in hotel quality, meal plans or length of time (if any) spent on Dahlak. The average price came to $247 per person per day.
Technically, I did not need to book a tour. Travelling independently in Eritrea is possible and a much cheaper alternative to booking a costly tour, especially given how inexpensive Eritrea is on the ground. Based on what I hear from fellow travellers, it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain an Eritrean visa directly, without a letter of invitation, though requirements vary widely by embassy. I have heard good feedback on Eritrean embassies / consulates in Stockholm, Abu Dhabi, Washington DC and Melbourne, while the Moscow embassy is reportedly unfriendly.
I booked a tour for three reasons. First, my nearest embassy in London was not answering calls and did not have a functioning website or email address while my trip was mere weeks away. Second, I was planning to spend two full weeks in Eritrea on holiday from work and needed everything to go as smoothly as possible. Third, I was dead set on seeing every place in Eritrea open to foreign visitors and could not afford to risk losing even one. Whilst it is possible to apply for travel permits for each destination independently at the Eritrean Ministry of Tourism, involvement of a local tour agency reportedly increases the chances of all such permits being granted. All independent travellers to Eritrea I have spoken to visited for less than a week and did not cover areas outside Asmara, Massawa and Keren.
That said, I did not enjoy seeing my savings go down by a full digit and will most certainly travel to Eritrea independently next time.
WHERE TO GO IN ERITREA
Roughly the same size as North Korea (and, some might argue, the similarities do not end there), Eritrea may seem small enough to cover in a matter of days. This, however, is deceiving as travelling around the country is not straightforward. Outside Asmara, transferring from one destination to another invariably involves backtracking to the capital city and de facto transit hub. Moreover, while main motorways are in a reasonably good shape, their many bends will inevitably slow down your journey.
A classic itinerary in Eritrea covers the cities of Asmara, Massawa and Keren. The capital, Asmara, is truly the jewel in Eritrea’s crown and a highlight for many visitors. Albeit relatively little known compared to many African capitals, Asmara is celebrated for its unique Modernist architecture, which won the city a UNESCO World Heritage status in 2017.
Asmara is also wonderfully calm. There isn’t a single functioning traffic light, and traffic remains blissfully light at all times, making Asmara a perfect place to pass a few peaceful moments over fabulous food (see the Food in Eritrea section below), superb traditionally brewed coffee and the ubiquitous Asmara beer. Many visitors rush through the city, but I recommend planning an extra day or two there with no plans whatsoever – and who knows which architectural treasure will emerge from around the corner to surprise you.
An exciting day trip from Asmara is a ride onboard an old steam locomotive to Nefasit. Negotiating 2.4 km of altitude along the way, the track was considered a masterpiece of Italian engineering when inaugurated in 1912. These days the train runs only with prior reservation, with the largest tour companies typically booking entire cars if they have enough guests in the country at a given time.
Thanks to its focus on Italian tourists – the largest tourist group visiting Eritrea – EriNine are probably the safest company to travel with if you have your heart set on the Nefasit train ride. Booking a full car costs an exorbitant $1,050 (although it seats up to 21 passengers), and it is not uncommon for tour companies to try and free ride off competitors. I watched clients of Asmara Grande being helplessly offloaded from the car booked by EriNine, unaware that their payment had secured no guarantee of travel, a process that resulted in a lot of emotion and frayed tempers.
MASSAWA AND KEREN
Massawa and Keren couldn’t be more different. Sat on the Red Sea coast, the sweltering Massawa boasts an Ottoman-styled old town, which is slowly crumbling away from the lack of maintenance and the effects of fighting during the Eritrean War of Independence, yet miraculously maintains plenty of decayed charm and a bustling nightlife. A highland city famous for its Second World War cemeteries and Monday Cattle Market, Keren reminded me more of Sudan than elsewhere in Eritrea. Both cities could be visited on day trips from Asmara, but adding at least one night in each is recommended for a fuller experience.
Day or half-day trip options from Massawa are the archaeological site of Adulis, the “Pompeii” of Africa (three muddy holes in the ground only an expert would find impressive – sorry, Adulis!) and Gurgusum beach (underwhelming compared to Dahlak but a nice break from the heat of Massawa). Keren is typically visited as a one-day, one-night trip from Asmara and does not offer any day trip options, largely as it is at the boundary of where foreigners are currently allowed to explore.
Italian War Cemetery in Keren holds many graves of unknown Ascaris, Eritrean soldiers who fought for the Italian Army
Massawa also serves as the gateway to the spectacular Dahlak archipelago. At around $1-2k for a 2-day trip depending on which islands are covered and the degree of comfort, it is admittedly an expensive addition to the itinerary. There is no public transport to the islands besides the long boats used by locals, and tourists are unlikely to be issued travel permits to Dahlak if not travelling on an arranged excursion. This means that an entire boat along with a captain, his mate and a cook needs to be chartered for however many days, and all necessary supplies brought along from the mainland.
Tourists typically camp on small, uninhabited islands of the Dahlak in very basic conditions. Shower facilities are non-existent, and, whilst a camp toilet is supposed to be used, it was out of order when I arrived on Dur Gaam. I made do by digging holes and making a good use of tidal flows, but the situation grew critical when a group of 10 Italians descended upon the camp on the second day. The new guests frequented every inland bush around the camp with not an implement for digging a hole between them, and I dare not think of the state of the tiny island after the five days the group had intended to stay. I was, however, not surprised when I later heard that three of these travellers got so sick that they had to be taken to hospital. I can only stress that, if you go to Dahlak, remember basic hygiene.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Besides the above destinations and activities, tourists can also visit Adi Quala, a town famous for the Coptic Church of Madonna with elaborate frescoes inside, and Adi Keyh, a non-remarkable town serving as a gateway to Senafe and Kohaito, two settlements boasting archaeological sites and spectacular views. Both Adi Quala and Adi Keyh lie on the routes leading south to Ethiopia, greatly revived by the recent reopening of the borders between the two countries. Climbing Mount Metara dominating the otherwise flat dozy town of Senafe was without doubt one of the absolute highlights of my visit to Eritrea.
Foreign visitors to Eritrea will need to secure permits from the Ministry of Tourism to visit areas outside Asmara as well as the so-called Tank Graveyard in the outskirts of Asmara (massive piles of junk metal lying around – what’s not to like?). In a testament to the prevailing bureaucracy, each area commands a separate permit. Permits for places on the standard tourist trail, including Massawa and Keren, are straightforward to receive but are reportedly randomly denied for sensitive areas such as Dahlak. Having a fixer involved apparently helps to speed up the process and increase the probability of success: it took us exactly half a day (a Saturday, no less) to receive eight permits, covering us for the entire two weeks, all done as we explored Asmara in blissful ignorance to the bureaucratic hoops being jumped through. These permits do get checked in hotels and checkpoints on the southern routes leading to Adi Quala and Adi Keyh, so do not even dream of bypassing them.
Most visitors to Eritrea arrive on arranged tours that include hired vehicles and drivers. I understand that it is possible for foreigners to hire a car directly after obtaining a temporary driving licence, reportedly a hassle-free process; I would love to hear from you if you have successfully rented a car in Eritrea as a foreign tourist. Roads in Eritrea are in a reasonably good condition, but some require a 4WD, including the route between Massawa and Adulis and areas around Adi Quala, Adi Keyh and Senafe. Introducing a 4WD to the entourage balloons costs significantly: the price I paid for my package would have been around 60% higher based on using 4WD only. Save your cash: a 4WD is not necessary on the standard Asmara – Massawa – Keren route.
There are no operating domestic flights in Eritrea. Independent travellers can get around by public buses and minibuses to popular destinations like Massawa and Keren, but departures from Asmara to the south are significantly fewer: I saw many locals trying to hitch rides on the side of the road amid nearly non-existent traffic. It is therefore far safer to charter a vehicle if you are planning to visit Adi Quala and Adi Keyh.
Overall, I was happy with my 14-day itinerary in Eritrea. It would have definitely been possible to see all of the destinations I covered in 2-3 days fewer, but I enjoyed having downtime and going with the flow, Eritrean style. If your time is limited, I recommend the following 10-day itinerary: Asmara (2 days), Massawa (1 day; three days were excessive even by my standards), Dahlak (2 days), Keren (1 day) and Adi Keyh and the surrounding areas (2 days), allowing two more days for the various transfers.
WHERE TO STAY IN ERITREA
Judging from my experience and that of a few fellow travellers, hotels in Eritrea can be a bit of a hit-and-miss. I recommend that you peruse this post by Nick of concreteandkitsch for further insight into the surreal world that is Eritrean hotels. Common complaints include lukewarm water (if any), absence of WiFi despite it being promised, persistent lack of day-to-day cleaning even in top-notch hotels and patchy electricity. That said, you will not be staying in a dump: there are reasonably comfortable hotels in every part of Eritrea where tourists are permitted to visit.
I stayed in four different hotels in Eritrea, as detailed below.
ASMARA: ALBERGO ITALIA
Built in 1899 in Italian colonial style and fully renovated in 2004, this is the oldest hotel in Asmara. With functioning WiFi in the lobby and the bar (albeit only reachable from fewer than a handful of rooms thanks to the stubbornly positioned router), hot water available in at least one room (#2006, you are welcome) and a central location a few blocks from the Catholic Cathedral, this was the best hotel we stayed in in Eritrea. Disappointingly, two out of three rooms we tried offered only lukewarm water – torture after cold or no showers for days outside Asmara – but, given all the above advantages, it was still worth it. Albergo Italia was also our most expensive hotel in Eritrea.
There are dozens of alternatives in Asmara, most reportedly not offering hot water or WiFi. Sunshine Hotel ($80 double) and Crystal Hotel ($80 double) are popular with western travellers, with cheaper options also available. Located off the airport road in the middle of nowhere and equipped with a swimming pool, Asmara Palace is the most expensive hotel in Asmara and will set you back around $200 for the simplest double room: this is where diplomats and posher tourists stay.
MASSAWA: GRAND DAHLAK HOTEL
With a handful of cheaper hotels in Massawa, the battered Grand Dahlak seems to be the preferred choice of most visitors to Massawa, including wealthier Eritreans who descend here on weekends. Designed, for the most part, in the traditional Arabic Kasbah style, the hotel was originally envisaged as part of a much larger complex – the dream that never materialised.
With crumbling walls, exclusively cold water, mouldy swimming pool, WiFi not working for most hours of the day and lights only randomly coming on, it was obvious that Grand Dahlak had seen better days. I enjoyed it though: first, for the phenomenal sunrise views across the causeway and, second, for the very Spartan plastic chairs and tables – the extension of the nearby outdoor bar – arranged right by the water, the no-frills experience defying the outward grandeur of the hotel itself. Oh, and the bar boasts its very own pet rooster who has full rights to roam around tables and terrify the non-suspecting guests. What’s not to like?
KEREN: SARINA HOTEL
A relatively modern hotel near the entrance to Keren, this was possibly the best value-for-money hotel I stayed in in all of Eritrea. The water was the hottest anywhere, WiFi worked and the dimly lit bar downstairs was atmospheric enough. The main disadvantage of Sarina – that of being located at least a 30-minute walk from the centre of Keren – wasn’t a big problem.
As Sarina was overrun by a loud cacophony of Italians when we were there, my guide was forced into the centrally located Keren Hotel and returned with horror stories. Known for its simple restaurant and sweeping rooftop views, Keren Hotel apparently ruins its rap with squalid rooms and shared showers. I am sure an intrepid traveller would easily survive such minor inconveniences though, and the location is to die for.
ADI KEYH: CENTRAL HOTEL
The only option in Adi Keyh (gateway to Kohaito and Senafe), Central is a family-run hotel with simple rooms and a dingy downstairs bar spilling into a somewhat grubby paved courtyard. The hotel has a good reputation, but I was out of luck: the entire region had experienced a major power outage during my visit and there was no electricity anywhere. Very surprisingly for an establishment of its kind, Central Hotel did not own a generator, and things got progressively worse as the hotel quickly ran out of running water, too. In addition, the courtyard’s open-entrance toilet obviously served as a pit stop for locals slipping in and out: some spent long minutes there performing all sorts of oblations in full public view as various smells creeped out towards guests for the lack of an obstacle. I eventually ran out of patience and fled to the much nicer (and generator-equipped) Milkias bar next-door.
Finally, a word on Dahlak. Tourists normally camp out in tents on small uninhabited islands in the archipelago, and conditions can vary widely. My tent was large enough to stand in and fit two canvas camp beds in addition to two people’s belongings. I was given a small pillow and a single sheet as bedding, which I folded in half and used as a sheet and blanket simultaneously. The resulting narrow hard bed was incredibly uncomfortable: I highly recommend bringing a sleeping bag and sleeping on the ground instead.
LANGUAGE IN ERITREA
Fascinatingly to a language enthusiast like me, Eritrea does not have an official language, its constitution (not yet implemented) guaranteeing equality of the indigenous languages spoken by the country’s nine ethnic groups. Native to over half of Eritrea’s population, Tigrinya is the most widely spoken and a de facto language of the national identity. Other indigenous languages spoken in Eritrea are Afar, Beja (spoken by the Hedareb), Bilen, Dahlik, Kunama, Nara, Saho and Tigre.
I didn’t have any problems being understood in Asmara, Massawa and Keren, where English is widely spoken. English is the language of instruction in Eritrea starting from secondary school. Many older Eritreans speak varying degrees of Italian: Italians make up a lions’ share of tourist arrivals in Eritrea, and European-looking people are likely to be first addressed in Italian in Asmara and other major settlements. Arabic is also cited as a working language in Eritrea alongside Tigrinya and English.
MONEY IN ERITREA
The local currency is the Eritrean nakfa (Nf), so named after the city of Nakfa, the site of the first major victory in the Eritrean War of Independence. The nakfa is officially pegged to the US dollar (15 Nf = $1), the rate offered at the several official Humbol exchange bureaus in Asmara city and airport. The black-market rate for the US dollar is not far off at around 18 Nf. I mainly brought Euros into Eritrea (official/black rate of 17/19.5 Nf), which worked out well; I hear that British pounds are also readily exchanged. The only two occasions on which I had to use US dollars were for my visa on arrival at the airport ($70) and the return locomotive ride from Asmara to Nefasit ($60).
Remember that exchanging foreign currency on the black market is illegal: foreigners are unlikely to have the necessary connections to do so smoothly and are very likely to stand out while doing so. It is therefore advisable to leave any such machinations to a local friend, who will likely have their well-established channels. It is also recommended to make your first exchange at an official Humbol bureau and keep the receipt in case you are queried about your source of nakfa. You can arrange any subsequent transactions on the black market.
For some reason it is not allowed to carry too much nakfa out of Eritrea. I have been quoted different limits, most recently in person at the Asmara airport of 1,000 Nf. Nobody checked the exact amount I was carrying, and I am not sure why anyone would choose to smuggle out the currency that is effectively worthless abroad. There are a few shops inside the departure area of the airport that will happily accept your last remaining nakfa – I found the Awghet Book Shop particularly captivating.
Note that foreign credit or debit cards do not work in Eritrea and there are no ATMs anywhere.
INTERNET IN ERITREA
Internet in Eritrea could easily be a topic for a separate post. Eritrea remains one of the least connected countries in the world: reportedly, only around 1% of the population are internet users, internet quality is poor and prices of home broadband are prohibitively high for many Eritreans. Despite this, there are dozens of internet cafes all over Asmara, with groups of young people permanently hanging around the most popular ones. I haven’t tested the connection quality there, but prices are manageable at 15 Nf (less than $1 at the black-market rate) per hour.
My mobile phone with a UK SIM refused to connect to a network in Eritrea, robbing me of access to mobile data. I understand that this is the case for all foreign SIM users in Eritrea. A local SIM is cumbersome to buy and would hardly be of any use: there is no 3G network in Eritrea, with even locals not being able to access mobile data. However, Ethiopian networks offering data are accessible in border areas such as the town of Senafe, and some Eritreans use Ethiopian SIMs to access data in the border-adjacent areas.
I found WiFi in hotels to be patchy: it ranged from reasonable (though by no means stellar) at the Albergo Italia in Asmara and Sarina in Keren to barely usable at the Grand Dahlak in Massawa to non-existent anywhere else. Albergo Italia offered by far the best WiFi in the country: I could access social media apps, including being able to upload simple phone-shot photos to Twitter at certain times of day (it was in Eritrea that my Twitter following soared). However, opening complex sites was usually out of question.
FOOD IN ERITREA
Books can be written on the explosion of taste that is Eritrean traditional food. Culinary traditions differ across Eritrea’s various ethnic groups and geographic regions, but most Eritrean meals take some form of a tsebhi (stew, somewhat similar to curry) served on a spongy flatbread (called taita). Berbere, a unique spice blend prepared from chilli powder and fenugreek is a basic ingredient in the preparation of most Eritrean dishes. The tsebhi can be made from mutton, chicken, fish, vegetables and legumes – anything but pork, which is forbidden to both Muslims and Coptic Christians in Eritrea – while the taita is made from teff seeds. You may have heard the term “injera”, used interchangeably with “taita” to refer to the flatbread, but my Eritrean contacts insist that “taita” should in fact be used as “injera” more generically refers to any kind of bread. Semantics, semantics.
My favourite Eritrean stew was quanta (dried beef cooked in a spicy sauce). I also tried zigni (beef stew in tomato sauce), kitfo (minced beef marinated in spices and herbs), zilzil (shredded lamb or beef marinated in spices), alicha (mild stew of meat or vegetables prepared without berbere), dorho (spicy chicken stew), shiro (stew from ground chickpea flour, onions and tomatoes), timtimo (lentil stew with onions) and fata (spicy tomato bread salad with yoghurt: not a stew and served on a plate). Fish stew options are available in coastal areas. I highly recommend trying a different dish every day to embrace the vast variety of Eritrean national cuisine.
There are plenty of restaurants in Asmara, though many specialise in fast food or Italian cuisine rather than traditional Eritrean fare. My favourite restaurant in the city was Ghibabo: set in a layered open-air courtyard around the corner from Asmara’s Opera building, it provides fantastic atmosphere and is popular with locals and expats. At around 180 Nf per meal of tsebhi and taita, it is a little on the expensive side. Cheaper restaurants I liked include New Fork off Harnet Avenue (100-150 Nf per meal in an atmospheric, dimly lit setting) and Pizzeria Napoli on Adi Hawesha St (100-150 Nf per medium pizza, lively and popular among locals despite pizza being very average to a European palette), and there are plenty of smaller no-frills eateries scattered around Asmara.
Dining options diminish significantly outside Asmara. In Massawa, I was recommended a Christian-run restaurant called Banuna in the old town: their spicy fish was so incredibly good that I returned every single day. In Keren, I had a solid meal at Keren Hotel (mixed meat was delicious), albeit amid a complete lack of atmosphere. The two main choices in Adi Keyh are Milano (their fata is excellent) and Milkias (slow service but good food amid lively buzz). Finally, on Dur Gaam island in the Dahlak archipelago I enjoyed amazing meals of fresh fish, pasta and salad from a cook who typically spends a few weeks on the island at a time camping out in a tent. That home-cooked food was my favourite during my entire stay in Eritrea.
When it comes to after-hours, Eritreans definitely love their bars. Central Asmara alone boasts dozens, while life in old Massawa – albeit majority Muslim – seems to revolve around multiple adjacent drinking joints. The staple drink on offer is the creatively named Asmara beer, a very decent lager produced at Asmara Brewery and normally priced at 12-20 Nf per 0.3 litre bottle depending on the establishment. Interestingly, beer generally costs more in shops, which, for the lack of a necessary licence, typically resell bottles purchased from bars and restaurants.
Following the opening of the borders with Ethiopia, several Ethiopian beer brands have also made their way into Eritrea and are priced similarly to Asmara beer: I particularly liked Balageru pale lager.
My favourite bars in Eritrea were Albergo Italia in Asmara (fabulous nostalgic setting in a namesake hotel), Bar Impero in Asmara (excellent people watching on Harnet Avenue), Savoiya in Massawa (plastic chairs and tables and blasting local music included in the price of excellently chilled beer) and Milkias in Adi Keyh (cheapest Asmara beer I found anywhere and lively when there is football being shown). You will definitely not go thirsty in Eritrea. Oh, and the coffee was universally amazing.
WHAT TO WEAR IN ERITREA
It isn’t for nothing that Eritreans refer to their country as “three seasons in two hours”. Thanks to altitude differences, Eritrea has a variety of climates. At an elevation of over 2.3 km, Asmara, Adi Keyh and Senafe are pleasant year-round, with temperatures averaging in the mid-teens (Celsius, obviously) and rainy season falling in July and August. Coastal areas including Massawa and Dahlak can get fiercely hot in the summer and receive some rain amid intense humidity in the winter. Keren falls somewhere between the two, at 1.5 km above sea level understandably more resembling other highland regions.
It may be hot for us Europeans, but it is still winter for this warmly dressed local boy near Dekemhare
I visited Eritrea in late December and early January, and can attest to that being a perfect time to be in the country: temperatures in the highlands fell notably at night but rose to near 20C during the day, while coastal areas were tolerable with high 20C. I lucked out to see not a drop of rain during two weeks. If you are visiting Eritrea in the winter, I recommend packing a thin jacket for the highlands and light cotton summer wear for Massawa and Dahlak.
As far as local attitudes, I found Eritreans to be relatively liberal towards dress. Men can expect to dress the same as they do at home, though I didn’t see any sleeveless tops worn by locals. Local women in Asmara can be seen donning fairly open clothes, exposing calves and shoulders without hesitation. The same cannot be said about more conservative, majority Muslim cities of Massawa and Keren or rural areas where women are often wrapped from head to toe in single bright sheets of fabric. I tried to stay on the cautious side and brought several long loose dresses alongside more summery ones going to the knees, and found that both worked fine. I would probably avoid flaunting bare shoulders anywhere outside Asmara, but nobody in Eritrea will lynch a foreigner over their choice of clothing. Bikini on the Gurgusum beach and Dahlak is absolutely fine.
HUMAN RIGHTS IN ERITREA
I cannot conclude this post without mentioning Eritrea’s infamous record on human rights. Countless articles have been written on the subject, most of them by people far better qualified than me – but here we are. Doing your research before travelling to Eritrea will help you understand the country and its people better, and, in light of serious reported human rights violations, I recommend that you do not visit Eritrea blindly.
Being based in Europe, it is easy to miss Eritrea in the statistics for asylum seekers dominated by the more populous Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. However, a closer look reveals a disturbing picture. According to the America Team for Displaced Eritreans, Eritreans comprised the ninth largest refugee group in the world in 2017, with around half a million people displaced. A total of 8,700 unaccompanied and separated Eritrean children were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as of 2017, altogether the eighth largest children’s group in the world. In 2015, it was reported that an average of 5,000 Eritreans fled their country every month against the total population of around 5 million, and 15 thousand people, most of them not planning to return, were reported to have crossed into Ethiopia during the first two weeks of the borders being reopened last year.
Why do Eritreans risk everything in search of better lives elsewhere? The answer primarily lies in the mandatory conscription, which international publications have compared to forced labour. Most Eritrean children spend their final year of school at a military-style Sawa camp in the Gash-Barka region near the border with Sudan, reportedly living in squalid conditions amid extreme temperatures, inadequate food and water supplies and exhausting routines.
Sadly, the ordeal does not end there: every high school graduate in Eritrea proceeds to embark on so-called national service. Originally 18 months long, national service was extended indefinitely following Eritrea’s bloody border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, and has been widely reported to pose a major strain on family lives and aspirations of young Eritreans. Whether in the army or in a civilian role, national service can and does last for decades, is not adequately compensated, leaves recruits at the whim of their commanders and has no clear criteria as to whether one has fulfilled the expectations of the state to be discharged. Eritreans who attempt to avoid national service are jailed, and a citizen can only be issued international travel documents and permission to travel abroad (the infamous exit visa) after presenting evidence of having completed the national service.
It is not a surprise therefore that many flee. After publishing some photos from Eritrea on social media, I have been contacted by numerous Eritreans in exile, scattered from Switzerland to Israel to Ethiopia, who lamented not being able to go back. One woman sent me photos of herself in a military camp, fully clad in khaki and wielding an AK-47; she spent 2.5 years in the national service, eventually had enough and crossed into Ethiopia in the dark of the night, risking severe punishment if caught. She is now happily based in Addis Ababa, but the route to freedom for many other Eritreans involves a far more treacherous journey to Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea, held at the mercy of their smugglers.
Eritrea has been displaying a number of classic symptoms of a dictatorship since its victory in 1991 in the prolonged Eritrean War of Independence. Its record on the freedom of speech is abysmal. The president, Isaias Afewerki, in power since 1993, has been accused of silencing critics by making them disappear and imprisoning journalists without trial. Eritrea ranked 7 out of 7 (the lowest ranking) in the 2018 Freedom in the World index, as well as in prior years and had the second least free press in the world as of 2018 (after North Korea).
Amid this bleak reality, signs of hope are emerging. After peace with Ethiopia was declared in July 2018, ending the long-standing conflict and allowing Eritrea to return to the international scene, the latest national service recruits were reportedly told that their enlistment would not exceed 18 months. While similar announcements have been made in the past – and never acted upon – the formal ending of the war effectively eliminated the major enemy the establishment has consistently used to justify interminable national service. It remains to be seen what course the Eritrean authorities choose to take and whether change is indeed coming to Eritrea.
OTHER WRITTEN ACCOUNTS ON ERITREA
Browsing around popular existing blog articles for Eritrea written by fellow travellers left me disappointed. Most lacked depth, presented inaccurate information or were hopelessly out of date. The two traveller-penned posts listed below are the only ones I feel comfortable to recommend, but please feel free to share with me links to good posts on Eritrea not mentioned here.
- I love this honest recap of a week-long trip in Eritrea by my friend Nick of concreteandkitsch. Don’t forget to browse around his other posts on Eritrea, including hotel horror stories and a guide to Asmara’s Modernist masterpieces.
- And the top Google hit for “Eritrea travel blog” was also written by Nick! I enjoy the hosting page, Heart My Backpack run by Silvia.
Like me, Nick of concreteandkitsch is a big fan of unusual architecture, including this unique entrance to Medebar Market in Asmara
Despite this not being a traveller’s story, I also wholeheartedly recommend an article by Abraham T. Zere, Eritrean journalist in exile, reflecting on the reasons foreign travellers may be enticed to visit Eritrea. Abraham left Eritrea in 2012 to study abroad and currently lives in the United States. He is a vocal critic of Afewerki’s regime and an advocate for free press in his country of birth.
Finally, take a look at this eye-opening article in the New Yorker describing members of Eritrea’s national football team defecting while on an away match in Botswana; remarkably, this was not the first time a similar escape happened. I only spent two weeks in Eritrea, but the author’s descriptions of daily life there resonated strongly with me.