Visiting the 'North Korea of Africa' - Eritrea
When you stop looking at travel as “holidays”, the possibilities for REAL stories & experiences are endless. Below you will find my guide to this African country many people may not have heard of or considered heading to… but if you are reading this, then I hope you consider going. From incredible diving sites to mountainous scenery and the beautiful people, this was yet another amazing adventure we have had this year.
Be warned that is probably not the easiest place to visit. You need to have a yearning for unfiltered adventures, and be ok without hot water or internet for days. This will be an amazing trip but also a total paradox. The Italian-Turkish architecture shines in its faded glory, the vegetarian options are sublime and the coffee is exceptional… but by the end of it, some level of sadness tinged our trip. Amidst the ruins, we discovered warmth, beauty and adventure in abundance.
Day wise itinerary:
Day 1: Asmara, coffee and old town vibes
Day 2: Drive to Massawa, explore city at night
Day 3: Explore Massawa and island hop for sunset
Day 4: back to Asmara city, tank graveyard and Italian vibes
At the time of writing this, there are no PCR protocols in place. You will be asked for a vaccine certificate.
Flights, Visa and Immigration (if traveling with an Indian passport from Dubai)
You will need to apply for a visa in person at the consulate, wherever you are. You can call ahead and ask for the documents required. We took the usual set of no Objection certificate, our passports, and residence visa as well cash. The visa took about 3 days to process.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel Insurance is highly recommended - we have our own, but if you are looking for one try World Nomad. Carry local currency for small purchases and tipping.
How long to spend here?
If you are interested in diving, you should spend a week. If not, 4-5 days is a great start.
Where to stay
In Asmara, we stayed at the Asmara Palace Hotel. Nice comfortable rooms. One of the best in town. It was neat, good service and friendly staff.
In Massawa, there are not a lot of options - one of the fully functioning ones is Dahlak Hotel. A decent room with a working AC and bathroom and ok service. Best you can hope for. Take it and run.
Yes, this is one of the few countries in the world with little to internet anywhere. Even in the capital city there was no connection, even with the VPN. Be prepared for this.
Guide and costs
Your star hotel will be more than happy to send you in the right direction - there are only a handful of reputable guides around. This trip could cost about $400 per person.
The food had a lot of Italian influence, but the local food was actually very veggie-friendly too. We loved the options.
There is little information on traveling to Eritrea, that is the allure of going to places like this - they are still shrouded in mystery. When the world’s attention is focused on places like Syria, Palestine or N Korea, we often forget that the situation of Eritreans isn’t very different. The lack of information was intriguing to me and it was one of the reasons I chose to go here. It’s so easy to sugar-coat our experiences as travelers. Let me tell you that it’s not all fine & dandy. There IS struggle. What futures do the youngsters of such countries have, I wonder. In spite of all this, the people were incredibly welcoming.
We spent day 1 just soaking up the old school vibes of the city. I was thoroughly surprised by how clean and organized everything was. None of the usual chaos you find in most African cities.
There were a lot of Italian influences from the huge gardens in the middle of the city to the façade. We saw old opera houses, churches, an abandoned theater..
We met the beautiful women at a local church, adorned in local attire. They were curious to hear our story too. Connections with complete strangers & the wild animals defines our ongoing journey through this continent.
Apart from the capital city of Asmara, our trip involved a mountainous drive to the city of Massawa. The biggest battle between Ethiopia and Eritrea took place here, 30 years on, the evidence of war lingers on in the ruins.
Today it’s an eerie ghost town. The buildings are a mix of Italian and Ottoman. The town’s appearance are in parts reminiscent of Stone town, Zanzibar.
Day or night, impromptu walks is the best way to slow down and mingle with the locals. Yes, it’s super safe. It was so strange to walk these empty streets.. never experienced that in all these years of travels.
Go for a drink or grab a coffee at the local joint, chances are you will be the only one around. Massawa is beautiful, and a genuine, authentic experience of a bygone era.
One our second day there, we had a slow start and went around the town and visited the local museum.
One of the best things to do when in Massawa is to hop on a boat to an island bank.. snorkel or swim in the crystal clear waters or chase that brilliant sunset.
This is slow living at it's finest... we were so thrilled, not another soul around. Just us two happy birds.
On our last full day, we decided to stop at a local village to meet the sweet villagers who were quick to welcome us home and offer us ginger coffee. We wanted to talk to the chief villager about how we can donate for the kids' education there. If you can, please support the locals in a meaningful way.
After arriving back in Asmara late afternoon, we had a whole lot of time to walk around aimlessly. A fun surprise was bumping into the Italian Ambassador, who was there walking his dog with his family. In a country so closed off to the rest of the world, paradoxically, Asmara, the capital of Eritrea has a fantastic vibe.
It is peaceful, supremely safe, free of chaos, and clean. It hits the perfect balance between European and African. Stroll the streets, go bowling at the oldest joint in town, drink tons of macchiato, enjoy incredible food, drool all over the pristine colonial streets. Seriously, not even Italy is this clean!
One of the quirkiest places we went to during our trip to Asmara, Eritrea. This is a tank graveyard, and it’s reminder of the Eritrean struggle for freedom. You can easily walk around and carefully climb over the tanks.
Why would anyone save rusted military equipment? It is a reminder about the sacrifices made by Eritreans during the war to free their country. As we walked around, we found thousands of stacked tanks, buses, rusting old trucks.. but we also found hundreds of cacti sprout out of the steel maze.
As much as it is a sad reminder of the war that changed their lives, with things finally at peace between the neighboring countries, maybe people now have another chance at life. What could easily been nothing more than scrap metal, has now turned into something with deeper meaning. I enjoyed the symbolism - one of hope!
“Why on earth would you go to Eritrea?” “What is there to see?” “Is it safe?” These were the questions we were asked when we told people we were heading here. This beautiful country in the horn of Africa is notorious for being closed off to foreigners or travelers. After a 30 year war with Ethiopia, they had their independence in 1991.
There is some tension in the region but this country is very safe. It almost felt like we were strolling up an alley in Europe. If you like to go places to tick things off, this may not be the journey for you. Go if you enjoy off the beaten track rustic raw experiences and human connections.
In spite of the arduous visa process, Eritrea can be an enlightening journey. Back story of the picture: we met these beautiful kids in a junk yard - I had thorn stuck in my pants, no one noticed but these kids did - all they said was “sister, thorn” and started plucking them out. I don’t usually post pictures with people we meet but this was just a PRECIOUS moment from our trip there. Privileged to meet kind-hearted strangers everywhere.
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