As a frequent flyer of Ethiopian airlines, my account had miles that were soon expiring and I definitely did not want to lose them. Coincidently, around the same time, a newsletter from Ethiopian airlines caught my attention. It said, “Now, we fly to ASMARA”. So began my odyssey to Asmara. To my pleasant surprise a friend of mine wanted to join me and so, there were two of us. Having travelled extensively to Africa and being a numismatist, I had heard of Eritrea but was unaware that Asmara is the capital. I got curious and immediately reached out to Mr. Google to gain more insight about Asmara. Instantly, I knew where the lapsing miles could be put to use. Eritrea is the most secretive country in Africa with an intriguing history and inspiring culture.
But wait! After researching further, I realized that getting a visa for Eritrea is pretty tough. Apart from that there are many challenges traveling to Eritrea. Mobile phones do not work in Eritrea on international roaming, as the only telecom operator of Eritrea does not support it. They do not issue local SIM cards to the tourists either. Even if you manage one there is no data or international calling in it. The concept of public Internet does not exist. Access to extremely slow dial-up Internet requires a license. You need to go to the Cyber Cafe to access the Internet. It will take an hour to upload one picture on Facebook. There are no ATMs anywhere in the country.
The famous Church of Our Lady of Rosary in Asmara Eritrea
We gauged that December - January would be a good time to visit keeping in mind that this was an abstruse city and would not be teeming with tourists and guess what, we were right! After some exploration on options for accommodation, we decided to do Airbnb and fortunately we discovered an Airbnb host who is Eritrean, but lives in Europe. Her house was exquisite and was in the outskirts of Asmara. The host was extremely helpful with guidance and support. She even arranged a car for us at a reasonable cost. We eventually landed in Asmara airport, the only major international entry point.
My travel to Asmara has given me complete clarity about permits and visas to this country. We understood that we needed separate permits to visit places outside Asmara. First thing first, we visited the Information Centre to obtain necessary permits. The heart of Asmara city is teeming with umpteen restaurants, heritage buildings with Italian architecture and of course the famous Cathedral to optimally use your time while waiting for the permits. With the paperwork sorted, it's now time to enjoy the city! The first came to our mind was the Tank graveyard of Eritrea.
Military Tank graveyard Asmara - wreckage of World War II and Ethiopian war
Eritrea is well connected with the public transport system (buses) within Asmara as well as between Asmara and other cities like Keren, Massawa, etc. It is a cost effective and safe way to commute within the city while experiencing the local flavor. There are yellow cabs for the less adventurous. Personally, my style of travel is off the beaten path. I enjoy driving around the city at my pace and capturing the spirit of the city on my camera. So we hired a private car and our host volunteered to drive us around for a very reasonable cost. We were plain lucky because hiring a private car through a travel agency is exorbitant. Hiring a self-drive car is an option for the rather valiant and adventurous.
With Bruk, our super-friendly local host and guide from Asmara Eritrea
The 4-hour drive from Asmara to Massawa passes through the famous town of Nefasit and has breathtaking views of mountains. This was our first road trip in Eritrea and it was exhilarating. We meandered through several mountains and passed by many quaint towns on our way, one of them being beautiful Nefasit.
A beautiful landscape with cloud covered mountains on a scenic drive from Asmara to Nefasit
Eritrea is known to be a land of Three Seasons in 2 Hours and we truly witnessed this. I was quite amazed to see the condition of Asmara to Masswa road and driving sense of Eritreans. We had multiple pit stops on the way to capture the breathtaking and varying landscapes, one of the advantages of having a car.
Lush green landscape of Ghinda town on a scenic drive from Nefasit to Massawa
The Italians built a railway network between Massawa and Asmara, which is partially functioning as of now between Asmara and Nefasit. However, the train does not run on schedule but has to be chartered to enjoy a beautiful journey passing through mountains and tunnels. You can pay and board the train if a large group has chartered it during your visit. However, we were not lucky enough during our stay and missed out on this unique experience.
Breathtaking drive on Eritrea Mountains passes through railway bridges built during Italian colonization in early 1900s
Massawa, once an Ottoman Empire in 1557, boasts of strong Turkish influence with the old city built with exquisite Turkish architecture. It was a buzzing city with Massawa sea port on the Red Sea and an important destination when Eritrea was an Italian colony during World War II. Massawa was also the capital of Eritrea under the Italian colony until it was moved to Asmara in 1897. It is known to be one of the hottest places on the earth. Ethiopian airstrikes on the civilian areas of Massawa during 1990 converted the entire port city into rubble.
The ruins of ancient Ottoman Empire after Ethiopian airstrikes destroyed "The Pearl of Red Sea" in 1990
There is a significant dip in the temperature on your way until you are in proximity to Massawa. You pass through a bridge on the sea to enter Massawa port city, which was recently built after the old city was destroyed during an Ethiopian airstrike.
The ruins of former bank "Banca d'Italia". It took 29 years of struggle for this building to stand up
The ruins of Hotel Torino, built in 1938 with Venetian influence
I do recommend taking a walk along the ruined alleyways of the old city where people still live and operate their small shops, bars and restaurants. It is heart wrenching to hear the story of the airstrike from the locals. The dilapidated buildings in the ruined city explain the richness and history of Ottoman Empire. The locals told me that authority in Eritrea wants to preserve the ruined city for people remember what Eritrea has suffered for 20 years.
A bar and night club inside the ruined city of Massawa
Massawa is also the gateway to explore Dahlak Archipelago, which is a group of islands. Local tribes, who have been living there for a very long time, permanently inhabit four of these islands. The islands are home to diverse marine life and are ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. This is a 'must do' activity when you visit Massawa.
After a 2-day stay in Massawa, we returned to Asmara and then headed to the charming city of Keren, Eritrea. It is approximately a 3-hour drive from Asmara through splendid mountains en route to Keren. The landscape on this drive was a complete contrast to that of Massawa. A large section of the drive was through the desert where we saw the 'Tukul', which is a type of unique rounded house.
Beautiful landscape of Eritrean Mountains and Deserts
They are specially designed to prevent heat during the summer. Owing to the landscape, many houses are built on the hills. Hence, the most common modes of transport are donkeys and camels, which outnumber vehicles. So much for reducing pollution!
Domesticated camels are the primary mode of transport in Eritrean deserts
Keren is a historic market town and is the second largest city of Eritrea. It is also called the cultural capital of Eritrea. The colorful Monday market and weekly camel (livestock) market are the main attractions and keeps the tradition of this city alive. While planning your trip, ensure that you visit Keren on Monday. The market sells everything ranging from spices to vegetables and poultry products, as well as clothes. It is a good place to buy some local souvenirs and hand-made crockeries.
San Antonios Church with Egyptian architecture in Keren city
All in all, it is a huge attraction for tourists to enjoy the local sights and sounds. Agriculture is the main business in this city and there is a huge vegetable and fruit market in Keren. There are few local restaurants, which serve exquisite local cuisine.
Drive through the ancient city of Keren to experience Egyptian influence and the old-fashioned market
Nefasit in Eritrea is a quaint and picturesque town just 25 kms from Asmara and en route to Massawa. The old railway line built by Italians passes through Nefasit and the current charter train terminates here. The drive from Asmara to Nefasit is the most beautiful in Eritrea and the town itself is scenic with panoramic views. The entire town is covered with thick clouds during the evening and this makes for a breathtaking view.
Smooth, winding tarmac that takes you from Asmara to Nefasit.
Are you ready for this drive?
Nefasit is situated at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. Above Nefasit is Mt. Bizen, the highest mountain in Eritrea. There is the best-known Christian monastery of Eritrea called Debre Bizen located atop the mountain. According to the Ministry of Tourism Information Centre, visitors were prohibited to enter the monastery. But to our pleasant surprise we could visit the monastery. Debre Bizen was built during the 14th century where about 50 monks live an austere life. Debre Bizen is located at about 11,500 feet altitude and is the highest point of Eritrea. On a clear day, one can view the Red Sea, which is about 70 kms away, as well as other cities of Eritrea.
The spectacular sunset dipping into thick clouds below at 11,500 feet at Debre Bizen monastery. A Zen moment!
Fortunately, we met some disciples and students of the monastery on our way up who took us along with them to the monastery. Their company made it convenient as they were well versed with the climb. We took almost five hours to reach the monastery owing to the rough terrain. The view of the meandering road on the opposite mountain becomes increasingly spectacular with increasing altitude.
Here's Aaron with Chirag (my friend) and me. Probably, we would not have made it to Debre Bizen without Aaron; he was the sole motivating factor for us.
Returning to Asmara on the same day was not possible since the last bus to Asmara leaves Nefasit at 7 pm. In the monastery, the monks extended their hospitality and we enjoyed good local food and a comfortable warm night's rest. It was a two-hour long descent the next morning, as we had to tread with caution to avoid any injury to the ankle due to the small stones under our feet.
Take the opposite path than indicated by an arrow for the climb, a tad longer but less tough and less stressful
On returning to Asmara, we packed up and headed to the airport. We boarded the flight back home with a sense of fulfillment and in awe of Eritrea - the land with a unique blend of nature and culture. We realized that a digital detox of 8 days was indeed the need of the hour.
Is Asmara safe?
Having traveled extensively in Africa, I consider Asmara in Eritrea quite safe. The laws are very strict and people are law abiding. This allows for tourists to travel freely and enjoy the natural beauty. People are simple, friendly and very hospitable.
What is Asmara known for?
Asmara was once an Italian colony and played a vital role in World War II. The city is built with Italian architecture and still has a huge Italian influence in their food habits.
What kind of food do they eat in Eritrea?
The traditional food in Eritrea is Injera (a flatbread made out of teff, wheat and sorghum) and Tsebhi (the stew or curry made out of vegetables and meat). Eritrean coffee is quite famous and you would want to indulge in the Eritrean Coffee Ceremony.
What language do they speak in Eritrea?
People in Eritrea speak about nine different languages. Tigrinya is the main language spoken by about 7 million people in Eritrea. Many people in Asmara can also speak English and Arabic.