Eritrea – Africa’s Hidden Gem?

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What’s it like to visit a country where some people are trying to escape? Well, surprisingly interesting and beautiful!

Don’t believe the headlines, in the UK and other Western media the truth is often stretched and Eritrea is made to sound like a war zone that isn’t safe. Although I’m not political I’m sure some unsavoury things do happen and this is potentially why the advise not to go exists. When I told people that I was going here, they just looked at me and thought, why?!
You won’t find up to date guidebooks on this place, I also struggled to find any blog articles about fellow travellers who’d been there, honestly this place is the definition of off-the-beaten track!

Five facts about Eritrea:

  • Eritrea was an Italian colony between 1890 – 1947
  • Eventually it was taken over by the British who annexed it to Ethiopia
  • That then started the war of independence and has meant there hasn’t been an official land crossing for more than 20 years
  • Anyone who wants to own a mobile phone must apply to the Government
  • Eritrea was the first country in the world to turn its entire coastline into an environmentally protected zone

Where is Eritrea?

Located at a strategic point in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea has been fought-over many times but only gained independence in 1991. A relatively small country in African terms, this place is about as unknown as it gets, unless it’s for negative reasons. Once described as one of most repressive and secretive states on earth, although I don’t usually speak politics, personally I don’t think it could be further from the truth.

I was super excited to be granted a visa!

I was super excited to be granted a visa!

Visa process for Eritrea

Surprisingly it wasn’t as difficult as you might think. You’ll need a company to provide visa support and then go to your local embassy to apply. It can be a bit daunting but when I arrived I get asked whether I was visiting because of the marriage scandal that had just been leaked to the media.
What I hear you ask? A Government story was made public confirming that men had to marry at least two women or face imprisonment.
Well, it was turns out the story was a hoax, and no it was definitely not the reason I visited!

Where should you visit in Eritrea?

Situated in East Africa, for a country similar to the size of England, Eritrea packs a huge amount in to such a small space. There’s huge potential for a tourism industry to flourish, with Italian art deco architecture and pristine Red Sea beaches. Here’s what I got up to in my week visiting Eritrea;

Asmara (a.k.a Little Rome)

Beautiful Asmara

Beautiful Asmara

A relic from the Italian colonisation, Roma Theatre - still in use!

A relic from the Italian colonisation, Roma Theatre – still in use!

Architects will almost certainly cream their jeans in the Eritrean capital, it’s one of the most intact examples of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world. The best thing is that due to Eritrea’s isolation it has largely remained untouched.
Asmara has to be the safest capital city in all of Africa, I was easily and freely able to walk around at night without any hassle. Feeling more like a minor celebrity, most people would say hello and were interested in trying to talk to you which was a lovely change from unfriendly London!
I made sure on my visit to sit and soak up the atmosphere and sit in one of the many coffee shops on Harnet Street, watching the world go by.
Although in Africa, Asmara is a beautiful cosmopolitan city that welcomes adventurous travellers (like me).

Although in Africa, Asmara is a beautiful cosmopolitan city that welcomes adventurous travellers (like me).

Kids are the same everywhere in the world, inquisitive and excited to meet someone new. A fascinating experience that is priceless!

Kids are the same everywhere in the world, inquisitive and excited to meet someone new. A fascinating experience that is priceless!

Eritrean Highlands

Capturing the moment you realise how beautiful Eritrea is! It was well worth the 6.30am wake up call.

Capturing the moment you realise how beautiful Eritrea is! It was well worth the 6.30am wake up call.

Quhaito

Quhaito

After waking up at 6.30am having not slept property for 48 hours, the 4 hours drive south from Asmara seemed like a very long way! Although it was on a bumpy and winding road it wasn’t so bad when you peered out the window staring at the stunning Eritrean highlands. You’ll also discover Quhaito, an ancient city that once existed here provides fascinating rock art and even an Ancient Egyptian tomb.
For me, the best views were overlooking the valley below. As it’s situated at one of the highest points in Eritrea, for me it took a lot to go near the edge as I hate heights and the sheer drop beneath didn’t entice me. However, this place was simply beautiful.
You'll spot baboons on your way into the highlands, careful though, they want anything they can get hold of!

You’ll spot baboons on your way into the highlands, careful though, they want anything they can get hold of!

A mosque near Quhaito

A mosque near Quhaito

I'm terrified of heights so having this photo taken took a lot of determination!

I’m terrified of heights so having this photo taken took a lot of determination!

Massawa

Imperial Palace in Massawa was destroyed during the war and sadly hasn't been restored (as yet).

Imperial Palace in Massawa was destroyed during the war and sadly hasn’t been restored (as yet).

The only way to describe Massawa is that it has huge potential! This place is a gold mine just waiting to happen, with streets resembling Havana (minus the mojitos) it’s such a shame there’s very little investment happening here.
This is the starting point for any journey to any of the Eritrean Red Sea islands, the port is severely underused and urgently needs upgrading. However within 45 minutes you can be on your very own paradise island.
A reccuring theme in Eritrea - a railway line but no train

A recurring theme in Eritrea – a railway line but no train

A lady walking past a mosque in Massawa

A lady walking past a mosque in Massawa

Looking more like the Wild West, this place is a hidden gem that is so off-the-beaten track it is rarely visited

Looking more like the Wild West, this place is a hidden gem that is so off-the-beaten track it is rarely visited

Dahlak archipelago

Dahlak Archipelago in the Red Sea

Dahlak Archipelago in the Red Sea

When I first Googled the island that I was visiting, I found very few images so this place is totally off the grid and is very rarely visited by tourists, yet it’s a beautiful island in the Red Sea! However don’t expect to find any 5* resorts here, far from it, we camped overnight and boy was it a surreal experience.

Although not quite uninhabited, Dessie Island is a remote place just off the mainland in the protected Marine National Park. This is the perfect location for spotting dolphins and going snorkelling like I did around the many coral reefs. It’s the first place I’ve ever been chased by a parrot fish!
Dessie Island in the middle of the Red Sea

Dessie Island in the middle of the Red Sea

Eritrea is an Ornithologists paradise!

Eritrea is an Ornithologists paradise!

Keren

Bustling Keren camel market

Bustling Keren camel market

Just north of the capital, Keren is a bustling market town with plenty to offer tourists seeking some bargains. It is home silver and gold markets, many cheaper than Asmara. On my very brief visit here, I explored the camel and food markets. A fascinating insight into daily Eritrean life and often how hard it can be just to survive.

I wanted to buy these two cuties!

I wanted to buy these two cuties!

#Wearealleritrean - This photo taken in the highlands symbolised the strong friendship and solidarity they have with each other in search of peace and stability. Absolutely beautiful.

#Wearealleritrean – This photo taken in the highlands symbolised the strong friendship and solidarity they have with each other in search of peace and stability. Absolutely beautiful.

Visit Eritrea

Fancy following in my footsteps? I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who offer budget travel to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

19 thoughts on “Eritrea – Africa’s Hidden Gem?

  1. Absolutely beautiful travel geek! Usually when we see our country in any type of western media its usually through a lense of superiority complex. Usually their reporting or blogging starting by saying “poor” or “tiny” which reeks of plagiarism. I’m glad that you went beyond the negative unsubstantiated claims in the media to come and see for yourself. As an Eritrean i love the way you talk about this ancient land 🙂 be blessed!.

  2. Travel Geek UK, thank you for sharing your positive experience about my beloved Eritrea! I’m glad to hear your enjoyed your visit and I hope you’ll keep visiting…our people will welcome you with open arms!😊

  3. Great article and beautiful photos. So happy to hear you had an amazing time. Thank you for sharing your lovely experience with us. I’m visiting this spring and looking forward to the trip!

  4. Hi,
    Great to hear you had a nice time in Eritrea. And yes, Eritrea is beautifull and full of wonderfull people and history. It is also as you mentioned and experienced a very safe place. I know from a tourist perspective all is safe and good, I get that! BUT, look at all the facts and absence of basic rights for the common man in Eritrea and you will see a different country.
    Just to mention some, the country:
    -Has no Constitution, i.e. No laws!
    – No indecent judiciary system
    – Has not had elections for 25++ yrs
    – No freedom of expression
    – No free media
    – No right of movement
    – No religious freedom
    – No right of assembly
    – Has indefinite military service
    Put that together with the thousands imprisoned without a day in court then you would know why many are “flowing” from Eritrea.

    The safe part is for travelers, especially western non-eritreans. For the average Eritrean there are many risks involved because of many complicated factors. One being the occupation of land by Ethiopia and the constant threat from Ethiopia.

  5. Wow, it looks like my husband and I are taking a trip very similar to yours this coming January – starting with a couple days in Cairo, then a week in both Sudan and Eritrea.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Did you have any issues with exhanging currency? I’m thinking about a trip myself but the disparity between the official exhange rate and the black market is hard to deal with- either my trip will be 3x more expensive or I might languish in an African prison for two years.

    • Good question – I exchanged money at the airport with a very lovely lady and I’m not sure when the last time she had updated the exchange rate but it was extremely out of date so I got far more for my money than I should have had I gone to the bank

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