Eritrea’s location, between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, has fostered political ties to all four corners of the world, and the ancient topography of the country makes for fertile soil that’s hospitable to abundant and diverse flora and fauna. Eritrea faces some political and environmental challenges; since its emancipation from Ethiopia in 1993, it is Africa’s youngest country.
Eritrea is also one of the safest countries in Africa, and many of its recent initiatives make it an emerging eco-friendly destination. In 2006, President Isaias Afwerki announced that Eritrea would be the first country in the world to place its entire coastline under environmental protection. The nation is also famous for its annual Tour of Eritrea, a multiday bicycle race held throughout country. Almost 80 percent of the population participates in subsistence agriculture, as the national economy is largely based on farming and herding.
Today the government is investing heavily in the Wefri Warsay Yika’alo program, an ambitious series of undertakings aimed at postwar recovery after a 30-year battle with Ethiopia that led to Eritrea’s emancipation in 1993. Its projects include improving ports, paving roads, and repairing educational, health, and economic infrastructures damaged during the war.
1. Harnet Avenue: Central to Italy’s colonization of the area in the 1900s, Harnet Avenue is the most famous street in Asmara. It is a long, wide avenue lined with palm trees and bordered with buildings in perfect condition. We recommend taking a walking tour of this street’s amazing architecture, featuring Art Déco, rationalist, cubist, expressionist, futurist, and neoclassical styles from the Italian era, often all on the same block. Stops should include the governor’s palace, the opera house, and the Catholic cathedral, with its iconic bell tower.
2. Filfil: Sixty-one kilometers north of Asmara is Filfil, Eritrea’s last tropical forest, featuring plantations of coffee and fruit trees. This lush, green area is best seen from October to February after the rainy season, when you can catch glimpses of monkeys, baboons, gazelles, and leopards. At times the area is off-limits to travelers, so make sure to check with the Ministry of Tourism in Asmara before you head out.
3. Debre Bizen Monastery: Located in Nefast, east of Asmara, this site was founded in 1368 and contains more than a thousand manuscripts and relics. Mesmerizing views of the Dahlak Islands and Red Sea can be had from the monastery’s walls, and although it adheres strictly to the Orthodox custom of non-admittance for any females—including women, hens, and even donkeys—it is still worth a trip just for the views.
4. Keren: North of the capital is the third-largest Eritrean town, Keren, where camels outnumber humans and locals may rest in the shade of ancient baobab and acacia trees. A highlight of this otherwise quiet town is the central market, often called the most interesting market in the country. Here you can find traditional silversmiths near the centralized covered area, where daily items like fruits, vegetables, and household goods are sold. Back alleyways lead to cloth merchants, and farther past the well-maintained Italian cemetery is the grain market. On Mondays the riverbed is home to a scenic wood and camel market, providing an opportunity to experience the camels up close. At press time, northern Eritrea was closed to travelers, but check with the Ministry of Tourism because rules can change at a moment’s notice.
5. Qohaito: The archaeological ruins of Qohaito serve as reminders of Eritrea’s ancient commercial history. Home to remnants from a trade city between ports in the north and the former capital, Aksum, in the south, this site remains as much as 90 percent unexcavated. Among its current highlights are the Great Canyon, the Temple of Mariam Wakiro, an Egyptian tomb, the Saphira Dam, and the Adi Alauti cave and gorge, which contain ancient cave paintings. The walk to the cave features a great view of Mount Ambasoira, Eritrea’s highest peak.
6. Debre Libanos: One of our do-not-miss recommendations for Eritrea is Debre Libanos, often referred to as Debre Hawariyat. Dating to the sixth century A.D., this monastery, carved into the side of a dramatic cliff, is accessible only from the isolated village of Hamm. A two-hour hike by foot from nearby Haaz involves a steep and challenging descent into this must-see site, worth the hassle for its breathtaking view. As is customary, this monastery strictly enforces the Orthodox rule that forbids women to enter the site, so plan accordingly.
7. Massawa: For centuries this city has been home to one of the world’s most important ports. Today the “Pearl of the Red Sea” has Massawa Island, where you might grab a coffee and lose yourself in the alleys and side streets, which feature whitewashed palazzi and a 17th-century coral block house.
8. Dahlak Islands: Scuba-diving trips to the Dahlak Islands of the Red Sea offer an alternative to the kind of overpriced, pampered excursions found elsewhere, and they appeal specifically to those with an adventurous bent. The reefs around the islands are nearly untouched by tourists, and nearby diving offers glimpses into history, with World War II Italian warships, Russian tankers, and Ethiopian cargo boats. This area is best known for its huge populations of fish species.
9. Birding: Bird watching is a popular tourist activity all over Eritrea. Migration patterns increase the species count on the coast from February to April and September to November, and visiting twitchers can often return home having sighted more than 250 species.
10. Passeggiata: A trip to Eritrea is not complete without a cappuccino in Asmara and a viewing of the daily ritual of passeggiata, from about five to six-thirty in the evening. A well-positioned seat at a sidewalk café grants the sight of locals slowly walking up and down the streets, chatting, catching up, window shopping, and gossiping. The women in Asmara take pride in looking their best for this daily activity, and the men don’t disappoint, either, in their bespoke suits and Borsalino hats. This easygoing exchange is a throwback to the times of Italian colonialism and makes a great way to end a day in the capital city.
The hottest month of the year is May, although regional temperatures vary widely. The capital city of Asmara, located on the highest landmass of the African continent, has an average temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit, while the port city of Massawa, on the Red Sea, can reach as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celcius.) The Denakil Depression, on the coast, is the country’s lowest point, at 426.5 feet (130 meters) below sea level, and is considered one of the hottest places on Earth. Try to avoid the two rainy seasons: the first is marked with scattered storms from March through April. The second, wetter rainy season begins in June and extends to September.
Visas: Make sure you have a passport and a valid visa prior to your arrival, as visas are not available in the airport. If you travel to the country using a foreign passport, you do not need an exit visa, provided you will be leaving before the expiration date on your entrance visa. Please note: If you stay beyond the expiration date, you may be fined or imprisoned, and you may be required to stay in Eritrea while your court case is being reviewed. There is a $20 airport departure tax.
If you are interested in traveling outside of the capital city Asmara, you must obtain a travel permit. Applications are available at the Ministry of Tourism (located on Harnet Avenue in Asmara); or, if you are applying before you leave your home, contact the Department of Protocol of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Permission often takes more than a day, and there is no guarantee that your request will be approved.
Currency: Upon entry into and exit from the country, all visitors must declare foreign currency. Visitors must save all receipts for foreign exchange and present them upon their departure to account for all foreign currency spent in Eritrea. Failure to do so will often lead to both a fine and imprisonment.
Transportation: In and Out of Eritrea: Eritrea’s transportation network was severely damaged during the border conflict with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, and despite investments in the Wefri Warsay Yika’alo program, transportation within the country at this time is rudimentary at best. The roads between major cities, like Asmara, Massawa, and Barentu, are paved and in usable condition, but streets and rural roads are usually unpaved and in poor condition. All roads leading to Ethiopia have been closed since the border dispute beginning in 1998. At times, border demarcation is either missing or misleading, so use your best judgment when traveling in these areas.
Personal vehicles are rare in Eritrea, so many locals use buses and taxis to get around. Buses, while inexpensive, are sometimes overcrowded, so we recommend taking a taxi whenever possible, especially in Asmara, where they are plentiful. Taxis usually travel along a predefined route and will pick up additional passengers. You may also request a “contract” taxi; these run at higher prices. There are two airports in Eritrea with permanent runways, one in Asmara and the other in Assab. Eritrean Airways, though non-operational during the Ethiopian conflict of 1998–2000, is once again functional and includes destinations like Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Rome.
All foreign visitors are strongly advised not to travel near the Ethiopian border, owing to previous conflicts. Since 2008, Eritreans have increased a military presence on the border to Djibouti, so you may want to avoid the port of Assab. During the 30-year war with Ethiopia, land mines were ever present, and it is not guaranteed that all land mines near the borders have been removed. If you are near those border areas, you should not walk alone or hike in riverbeds.
Although Sudan is technically on friendly diplomatic terms with Eritrea, the border with that region has been the target of intensified banditry and bombing. Crime within Asmara, the capital city, has increased lately because of drought, food shortages, and the current economic situation. Check the U.S. Department of State’s website on Eritrea for more information.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Eritrea or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
The borders of modern-day Eritrea were developed during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, which began in the late 1800s. Before that, the region’s residents, of Tigrayan descent, had been under Ethiopian rule.
During Fascist Italian rule, beginning in about 1922, Mussolini’s administration instituted segregation laws in Eritrea, emphasizing the racial and ethnic superiority of the Italian occupiers. After Italy attempted to expand its territory in 1941, however, neighboring British colonies defeated Italian forces in the battle of Keren, and the Eritrean colony was kept under British military rule until the Allied forces of World War II could determine its form of governance.
In 1950 a United Nations resolution created a federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia, in a kind of arranged marriage that left both sides unsatisfied. Eritrea’s first act of armed resistance against Ethiopia occurred in 1961 and formed the basis for Ethiopia’s later forcible annexation of Eritrea.
Over the next three decades, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front united a diverse population of Eritreans in their armed quest for liberty. In 1990, EPLF forces captured the port of Massawa, and in 1991 the group began attacking the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. On April 25, 1993, the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in a referendum to liberate their country officially.
1. Located in the Horn of Africa with Sudan to the north, Ethiopia to the south, and Djibouti to the southeast, Eritrea is a country approximately the size of England, with over 714.5 miles (1,150 km) of coast along the Red Sea and more than 350 islands.
2. English is widely taught and understood and is one of the official languages, along with Tigrinya and Arabic. Italian, a remnant from Italy’s colonization of the area in the early 20th century, is also spoken in commercial and public business.
3. Although official numbers aren’t available, it is estimated that 40 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 40 percent Orthodox Christians. Two percent of the country practices indigenous religions. The remainder of the population belongs to other Christian denominations.
4. Eritrea has six provinces, or zobas: Dubub (which borders the Tigray in northern Ethiopia), Central (housing the country’s capital,Asmara), Southern Red Sea, Northern Red Sea, Gash Barka, and Anseba.
5. The local currency is the Eritrean Nafka, or ERN, introduced in 1997. In 2005 the government set the exchange rate at 15 ERN to one American dollar and mandated that all financial transactions be conducted using this local currency.