Nestled in the Horn of Africa is Eritrea. This small country of roughly six million people is bordered by Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, and the Red Sea. Despite a slew of challenges like a poor economy and political repression, and despite difficulties in travelling there (a permit is required if you want to leave the capital), Eritrea is still one of the most awe-inspiring countries in the Horn.
You’ll find a multi-ethnic country, with nine distinct groups and influences from Abyssinia, Mediterranean, and Arab cultures. Basically untouched by development and tourism, this country offers beaches, reefs, archipelagos, culture, religion, archaeology, and natural beauty. The name Eritrea comes from a Greek word meaning ‘Red Sea,’ and visitors here will love unlocking the country’s many secret places.
There are two sides to this capital city. The first things you’ll notice are the lovely walking neighbourhoods, street cafes with delicious Italian coffee, dozens of pastry shops, and a slow pace about town.
In short, you’ll feel like you’ve just arrived at a small village somewhere in Italy. But the flip side of this beauty includes some harsh economic conditions like power cuts, deserted streets, and slow business. Despite the two extremes, Asmara is one of the most congenial cities that you’re likely to visit in Africa.
You’ll also find the most concentrated collection of Modernist architecture in the world. ost of the historic area has remained untouched since its conception in the 1930’s when Mussolini had his eye on Ethiopia.
Combine the history, architecture, friendly locals, and eight months of sunshine each year, and you’ll come to love Asmara easily.
Massawa, about 100 kilometres from Asmara, couldn’t be any more different from the capital if it tried.
It’s so much fun to stroll through the streets and alleys, discovering all the small porticoes, arcades, and whitewashed buildings tucked here and there.
Much of the city was destroyed in the war for independence, and restoration is a slow process.
The town sits right on the coast and the overall vibe here is rather relaxed.
Don’t miss the houses made out of coral or the Ottoman bazaar.
3. The Imperial Palace
Overlooking the harbour in Massawa is the Imperial Palace.
The original building dated back to the 16th century and was built by a Turk named Osdemir Pasha.
The current building was built in the 19th century by Werner Munzinger and was used by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
It was badly damaged during the Struggle for Independence and in its current condition you can still see a reflection of what Massawa looked like just after the war.
4. St Mariam Cathedral
St Mariam Cathedral is an orthodox church in Massawa.
This beautiful building includes a lovely mural on the outside of the building that most find incredibly welcoming.
Unique to St Mariam is the monument that sits across the street.
Dedicated to the Eritrean Struggle for Independence, the monument is made of three large tanks sitting in the exact spot they stopped in the last battle on Massawa in 1990. Now sitting on a sleek black marble slab, members of the church community clean it each morning in loving memory of those who died.
In the south of Eritrea, just on the edge of the highlands, is Senafe.
Inhabited primarily by the Tigrinya and Saho people the town is most well-known for the Metera (or Balaw Kalaw) ruins.
The site is about ten hectares and has a number of ruins including a 3rd century obelisk.
Other popular sites in town include Enda-Tradqan, a monolithic church and the huge stone outcropping found to the south of town.
If you’re feeling adventurous you can ask a local to show you how to climb to the top of the rocks.
You’ll be rewarded with a stunning view!
6. Dahlak Marine National Park
Surrounded by water and located in the Dahlak Archipelago is the Dahlak Marine National Park.
This is a dense eco-system largely undisturbed by man.
You’ll find turtles, dolphins, manta rays and over 300 species of fish.
If you’re a diver, this is your Eritrea destination.
Underwater volcanoes have made incredible pumice stone formations and the many shipwrecks around the islands make for one of the most incredible diving experiences you’re like to have.
Be on the lookout for Dugon dugon – the unique marine mammals believed to be the origin of the mermaid myth.
Between Asmara and Senafe is Qohaito, one of the most famous archaeological sites in Eritrea.
Here you’ll find the ruins of the Safra’s Dam and King Saba’s palace – dating to the Axumite and pre-Axumite periods.
The site was first discovered in the 19th century and excavation began in the 1960’s.
Rock art in this area shows us that the area has been inhabited since the 5th century.
Close by is Emba Soira, the country’s highest peak.
It’s wonderfully inspiring to consider what life was like that long ago as you explore the ruins.
Here you’ll find what remains of Eritrea’s tropical forest.
This once abundant ‘Green Belt’ is home to a lovely variety of mammals and bird species.
It’s surprising to come upon this green area in the middle of an otherwise dry landscape.
It’s able to thrive from the escarpment linking the lowlands and highlands.
The town of Filfil is a land of plantations and together, the town and forest are a protected national forest.
It’s one of the most beautiful areas of the country and a must see during your visit.
The portion of Dankalia located within Eritrea runs along the coast of the Red Sea for about 500 kilometres.
Inland, the area is known as the Danakil depression and is considered to be the hottest place on Earth.
It’s also one of the lowest points on Earth’s surface, having sunk over the years to about 400 feet below sea level.
The surface is so thin here that lava oozes upward, constantly changing the landscape.
The area is dotted with volcanic cones, isolated mountain groups, and deep valleys.
The Afar tribe populates this region and part of their subsistence is from salt mining the large flats in the area.
This is not an area for the faint of heart.
For those adventurers who dare to go, the landscape is fascinating and once in a lifetime.
The third largest city is Keren, capital of the Anseba province.
This is a pretty town that’s famous for being a quiet and laid back place.
You’ll find colourful markets and plenty of ethnic diversity here.
It’s located in a valley formed by some of Eritrea’s highest peaks, including Amba, Itaber, Lalamba, and Ziban Mountains.
Be sure to check out the Tigu Egyptian fort, dating to the 19th century, the railway station, Sayed Bakri Mausoleum, the 6th century Debre Sina Monastery famous for the cave dwellings there, and St Maryam Deari Chapel.
For total relaxation, take a nap in one of the many baobab trees like the locals do.
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