Eritrea tourism; Everything You Need To Know When Visiting Eritrea, including How To Get There!
Eritrea travel will offer you a rare opportunity. It’s untouched by tourism so it’s as ‘rmeal’ as experience as you’ll find anywhere. Eritrea is the sort of country most people have never even heard of, let alone can put it on a map. It’s a small country in East Africa, wedged between Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Red Sea (check out the google map below). It is indeed one of the 197 countries in the world. And also one of the 54 countries in Africa.
For me personally, when I experienced that wonderful Eritrea tourism, it was my 183rd country I had visited. The visa is super tricky (be warned!) so I only got to spend 3 days in and around the Capital, Asmara.
Eritrea; A quick history
Eritrea is a former colony of Italy. Italy ran the show fro 1890 unit the Second World War, which means today you can see Italian architecture and a handful of Gelato shops in Asmara, the capital (yup, really!). Ethiopia then had control of Eritrea which gave birth to a 30-year war. Finally in 1991 Eritrea prevailed and declared independence. Creating the independent nation we know today. Ethiopia, to this day, disagrees with the outcome of the war, and the border is still a tense place. Skirmishes, and often deaths, occur regularly in the border areas and are therefore off-limits for anyone visiting the country.
Politically there are issues. There has never been a democratic election, and just one-power has held office since independence. All media is state-owned and their human rights record is one of the worst on the planet. It’s often likened to North Korea and Turkmenistan in how it is governed.
HOW TO VISIT ERITREA
Eritrea, infamously, is one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit. The visa is notoriously difficult and can take months of months of waiting in your home country, only to be rejected anyway. On my journey to every country in the world, I was well aware that this could prove tricky. And then I had a breakthrough.
My buddy Gareth, of the North Korean tour company Young Pioneer Tours, has a friend who runs tours in Eritrea. Tekeste, an older local man born and bred in Eritrea’s charming capital, Asmara, can organise visas and trips super easily. I was sceptical, but a couple of emails later, a few days and not even a visit to an embassy, he had organised my visa. All I had to do was fly to the country with a printer piece of paper, pay $30 at the airport and boom. Suddenly one of the hardest countries in the world to visit became as easy as visiting Thailand.
How to reach Ethiopia
You can only reach Eritrea by air. Flights are available only from from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dubai or Cairo, Egypt. You can’t cross the border by land.
How to get an Eritrean Visa
Eritrean officials are sticklers for details.
Everyone needs to get an Eritrea visa to enter. And officially you can only get your Eritrean Visa from the country in which you come from, or you officially live and work. That’s a tough one! You also need a pre-booked flight before your visa is granted, and your accommodation and stuff prebooked.
SOME AGENCIES CAN BYPASS THE VISA! My guide, Tekeste’s, can help you with visa stuff. I recommend you contact him first.
Tour Company: Asmara Grande
As well as an Eritrean visa, you also need permits to travel outside the Capital, Asmara. Your guide can normally arrange that on your behalf. Or if you’re traveling here independently you can do it yourself in Asmara at the Ministry of Tourism’s office (just ask, everyone knows). Permits are only $3, and normally take a few hours to process. Go on day 1 to make sure you have enough time (closed on Sundays).
Where is Eritrea?
It’s in East Africa, on the border with Ethiopia.
Things to do in Eritrea
Eritrea gets VERY little tourism. Which means you’re in for a real authentic experience. Most people just visit Asmara, with a few others venturing on to Massawa and a couple of towns in between that I’ll list below.
Asmara is the highlight of all Eritrean tourism.
Eritrea is a former colony of Italy, so all the existing architecture echoes that of Italy from the early twentieth century. Not only that, there are gelato and pizzerias are found on many street corners, old school Italian movie halls with traditional east African espressos on offer. The high society goes to congregate at lunchtimes, so it’s a great experience to join them and mingle over a $0.50 coffee!
Within Asmara then there are enough things to see and do to fill a full day or 2 lazy days (my preference!). Walking down the mile or so of ‘Independence Avenue’ is a gorgeous way to spend an hour or two, stopping off for yet more ice cream and another deliciously cheap espresso! The local markets are really interesting, but my favourite thing to do in Asmara was to climb the hill to the local Mosque and see the views of the whole city.
Due to the ongoing wars with Ethiopia, Eritrea has managed to horde quite a lot of artillery. With that in mind then I stumbled across something pretty cool, if a little morbid, as I drove around Asmara. It’s not in any guidebooks or tourist schedules but make sure you head over to the ‘Tank graveyard’ when you’re in town, I’ve never seen anything quite like it!
After a couple of days in Asmara, Tekeste and I ventured out of the city to see some of the spectacular views. Within 2 hours of Asmara, you’re free to travel around without any additional permits, but if you want to go any further you need to pre-register and it turns into quite a bureaucratic nightmare.
Trekking in Eritrea
If you want to go trekking in Eritrea, it is possible just outside Asmara without permits
Take the Train from Asmara to Massawa
The train no longer functions normally. However, they’ll boot it up for you for $500. Only really possible with a group to be honest. Or a super rich tourist!
The second main spot of Eritrea tourism is Massawa. And just 110km from Asmara, but only possible if you get the permits in advance! The Italian bank, now in ruins, has become a kind of depressing icon of the city along with Halie Selassie’s ruined Imperial Palace. The city itself is full of Ottoman-era buildings, and the bustling markets are great too.
The 3rd and final main spot within Eritrean tourism is Keren Keren. Keren is a small town in the highlands of Eritrea. Famous for the old Imperial palace. It’s exceptionally traditional. Frozen in time. More donkeys than cars!
Best time to visit Eritrea
Eritrea is in East Africa and on the Red Sea, so it has a similar climate to Ethiopia. It’s hot and dry all year long. The winter is the best time to visit Eritrea (November and to February). I’d recommend not planning to come from May to September when it’s super hot. Occasionally up to 45°C.
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Final thoughts on Visiting Eritrea
Eritrea is clearly a beautiful country, but with land borders to two of it’s 3 neighbouring countries closed, a refugee crisis and a one-party state, it’s not without its serious problems. For foreigners, it’s SUPER safe. So there’s nothing to worry about there. I’d encourage everyone to go and visit a country where only a handful of people visit each year. The country is gripped by genuine poverty, so, by all means, please come, support the local business. Try to use local tour companies and see some of the warmest smiles and spectacular scenery all without the visa hassles that I had heard so much about.
Should You Book A Tour To Eritrea?
It’s not 100% necessary. You need the tour company to get your visa. Unless you want to fight with an embassy to get it yourself (not recommended!). From there you can fly to Asmara, and then sort out permits for yourself, and take a bus to Massawa etc.
Personally, with tricky countries like Eritrea (or Socotra, Yemen), it’s easier, and perhaps better, just to book a tour. Permits are sorted, the visa is sorted, itinerary and transport all sorted. Save the independent travel for Ethiopia next door!
‘Countries’ like Abkhazia, Transnistria, Faroe Islands, Greenland etc have more established tourism infrastructure, so you can do those independently a little easier. Eritrea, I found it easier with Tekeste, my guide.
Is it safe to travel to Eritrea?
Yes. So safe. So much safer than pretty much every other African country I’ve been too. And exceptionally safer than the more popular Ethiopia next door (but there are so many amazing things to do in Ethiopia, it’s understandable why it’s so popular).
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