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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.