As a frequent flyer of Ethiopian airlines, my account had miles that were soon expiring and I definitely did not want to lose the benefit. 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 can 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. I contacted the Embassy of Eritrea in New Delhi, figured out the process and got the visa stamped in the passport in about 4 weeks.
We gauged that December January would be a good time to visit keeping in mind that this was an abstruse city and will not be teeming with tourists and guess what, we were right! After some exploration on options for accommodation, we decided to do an Airbnb and fortunately we discovered an Airbnb host who is Eritrean, but lives in Europe. Her exquisite house was in the outskirts of Asmara. The host was extremely helpful with guidance and support.
Our flight was landing in Asmara late evening, so the host organized one of her local relatives to receive us at the airport. The gentleman helped us change some money, buy some groceries and drove us to the house and charged reasonably for his service, which on our own would have been a nightmare. The other challenge is that mobile phones do not work in Eritrea on international roaming, as the only telecom operator of Eritrea does not support it and they do not issue SIM cards to the tourists. The concept of public Internet does not exist. Access to extremely slow dial-up Internet for residential use requires a license hence this is also not available. While Eritrea has a well-organized public bus transportation service and they do operate a line at the airport, it is convenient to arrange for a car pick-up from the airport.
My travel to Asmara has given me complete clarity about permits and visas to this country. Initially, while we were googling, we understood that we need separate permits to visit places outside Asmara. To confirm, after receiving the visa, we contacted the Eritrean Embassy in New Delhi, where we were informed that the visa issued to us was for Eritrea, the county and not just for Asmara, hence we could travel anywhere within the country for the period of validity of the visa.
Being cautious travelers, we decided to check the scope of our visa with the immigration officer on landing in Asmara. Surprisingly, he was clueless about this and after internal discussion informed us that we can travel anywhere in Eritrea with this visa. BUT, he also emphasized that we should pay a visit to the Ministry of Tourism Information Center in Asmara to validate the information he shared. This confused us further. We then decided that we would visit the Ministry of Tourism Information Center first thing in the morning, better to be safe than sorry on unchartered territory.
Our host drove us to the Information Center, which is located on Harnet Avenue and voila! The information on the Internet was right about requiring permits for each place that we want visit and surprisingly contrary to what was told to us by the Eritrean Embassy in India and the immigration department in Asmara.
The Information Center is in the heart of the city with umpteen restaurants and cyber cafes and of course the famous Cathedral to optimally use your time while waiting for the permits. With the paperwork sorted, its now time to enjoy the city!
Military Tank graveyard wreckage of World War II and Ethiopian war. A symbol of pride and victory over Ethiopia
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 provided you are geared up to deal with a jam-packed bus ride. There are also yellow cabs, which can be used for the less adventurous. Personally, my style of travel is off the beaten path. I enjoy driving around the city at my pace and halting at several points to capture the spirit of the city on my camera. Hence, we preferred to hire 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.
Asmara to Massawa via Nefasit
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. 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 roads and driving sense of Eritreans. We halted at multiple places on our way to absorb the breathtaking views of mountains and varying landscapes and capture these on camera, one of the advantages of hiring a private car instead of public transport.
A beautiful landscape with cloud covered mountains on a scenic drive from Asmara to Nefasit
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 Eritrean 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 port city on the Red Sea and an important destination when Eritrea was an Italian colony during World War II. It 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 (Massawa) 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 Ethiopian airstrike. 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. Many of them recall the fiasco like it happened just yesterday. We enjoyed a delicious local breakfast at one of the restaurants in the old city.
The ruins of former bank Banca d'Italia. It took 30 years of struggle for this building to stand up
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 a diverse marine life and are an ideal place for snorkeling and scuba diving. Unfortunately, the boats were unavailable during our visit as all the boats were booked out for a week. I have no idea if there is a facility to book in advance, as there is not much information available on the Internet. This is worth reviewing since this is a must do activity when you visit Massawa. You definitely need a permit to visit Dahlak Archipelago so please ensure you mention this to the Ministry of Tourist Information Center.
Asmara to Keren
After a 2-day stay in Massawa, we returned to Asmara and then headed to the charming city of Keren. 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. 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 and mountains
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. 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 to Debre Bizen
Nefasit 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 7,000 feet. Above Nefasit, atop Mt. Bizen, there is the best-known Christian monastery of Eritrea called Debre Bizen. According to the Ministry of Tourism Information Center, 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. 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.