Eritrea, situated in the northeast of Africa, is a captivating country characterized by its natural wonders, historical landmarks, and vibrant cultural traditions. Despite a recent history of civil war, Eritrea welcomes visitors with open arms and offers a unique experience for those exploring its diverse landscapes.
Eritrea on the Map
Geographically, the Republic of Eritrea is positioned along the coast of the Red Sea, encompassing an area of 117 thousand square kilometers. The country boasts a lengthy coastline stretching for 1300 kilometers, featuring over 350 small islands, with the Dahlak archipelago, consisting of two large islands and 124 smaller ones, being the largest.
Eritrea shares its land borders with Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Sudan. Geographically diverse, Eritrea comprises three main regions. The southeastern part is arid desert terrain with a hot climate. The central region extends across the Ethiopian highlands, while the Afar triangle serves as the convergence point for three continental plates.
Approximately one-third of the country is covered by mountains, with Mount Amba Mossino being the highest peak at 3018 meters. Eritrea also features lowlands, including Lake Kulul within the Afar Depression, situated 75 meters below sea level.
Although water resources are limited, with most rivers being seasonal and drying up during droughts, Eritrea’s nature is rich and diverse. The country is home to various wildlife, including elephants, hippos, crocodiles, antelopes, and lions, contributing to its ecological diversity.
Safety for Tourists
Eritrea, placed 138th in the global index of peacefulness between the Philippines and Ethiopia, is a country that, despite its historical conflict with Ethiopia, offers a unique experience for travelers. The aftermath of the protracted conflict still affects the country’s tourism landscape. Free movement outside the capital region requires tourists to obtain special permits, a process that typically takes a short period, ranging from a few hours to a day.
The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is yet to be officially harmonized, resulting in numerous checkpoints with armed soldiers. While intelligence agents enhance security, they also monitor newcomers. Despite these post-war challenges, Eritrea boasts a low crime rate and minimal road traffic, with most roads remaining unpaved.
Natural hazards include the intense sun, potentially causing heatstroke, and sea-related risks such as sharp coral edges, poisonous fish, and other creatures, although shark sightings near the shores are rare. On land, predators like lions, leopards, and crocodiles, as well as venomous insects and snakes, pose threats.
The sanitary and hygienic conditions in Eritrea can be challenging. Travelers are advised to consume only bottled water, and fruits should be thoroughly washed. Malaria, Dengue fever, and hepatitis are health risks in the country.
Despite these challenges, Eritrea is generally considered a friendly destination, though it requires adherence to basic safety precautions. Visitors can enjoy their time without significant concerns for their belongings, health, or safety by observing these fundamental rules.
In Eritrea, despite economic challenges, the local residents are known for their lively and cheerful spirit, cherishing a deep appreciation for celebrations and holidays.
The official public holidays in the country are categorized into secular and religious events. Secular holidays often commemorate significant historical moments, particularly those related to the struggle for independence. Notable occasions include the Day of Independence from Ethiopia on May 24, Martyrs’ Day, Revolution Day, and Fenkil Day. Additionally, Eritreans enthusiastically observe New Year, May Day, and Women’s Day.
Religious celebrations hold great importance, with Christmas, Easter, Epiphany, Eid al-Fitr, and the Prophet’s Birthday standing out as key events in the Eritrean calendar. These holidays reflect the rich cultural and religious diversity that contributes to the festive atmosphere in the country.
Fun and Adventure in Eritrea
In recent years, Eritrea’s authorities have shown an increased interest in developing the tourism industry, although it remains in its early stages. Traveling to Eritrea often involves a degree of adventure and self-reliance, as the country’s tourism infrastructure is limited, with few hotels and minimal transportation options. Presently, Eritrea primarily attracts adventurous and intrepid tourists, especially those seeking unique and unconventional experiences.
Here are the top 10 attractions that make Eritreaa a must-visit destination:
- Beach Vacation: The Dahlak Archipelago boasts popular beaches with stunning views and warm sands. While the beaches of Massawa are considered beautiful, cleanliness can be an issue.
- Diving: The Dahlak Archipelago is a haven for diving enthusiasts, featuring picturesque coral reefs, underwater grottoes, caves, and shipwrecks. The archipelago is home to one of the country’s few certified diving clubs.
- Ethno-tourism: Eritrea is home to diverse ethnic groups, each with its own unique traditions. Visitors can explore local aboriginal settlements, particularly in the Dahlak Archipelago and along the coast.
- Cairene: A picturesque town surrounded by desert, Cairene offers opportunities to explore interesting churches, visit a chapel within a baobab tree, and tour military cemeteries.
- Asmara: The capital of Eritrea, Asmara, showcases well-preserved architecture and cultural sites. It features numerous churches and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Rail Travel: Eritrea boasts a distinctive railroad passing through scenic landscapes, including mountains and deserts, featuring stone bridges reminiscent of Roman aqueducts. The country still utilizes ancient steam locomotives for its railway system.
- Debre Sina Monastery: Situated near Cairn, this rock monastery allows visitors to explore the cells carved into steep slopes where monks reside.
- Trekking to Mount Amba: The highest mountain in the country offers an accessible route for moderately prepared tourists. Nearby, the ruins of the ancient city of Kohaito add historical interest.
- Danakil Desert: Known for its otherworldly landscapes resembling planets beyond Earth, the Danakil Desert is the hottest place in Africa. Although reaching it can be challenging due to the disputed border with Ethiopia, the experience is highly rewarding.
- Semenawi Bahri: Eritrea’s sole national park features an asphalted road, recreational areas, and rich flora and fauna, providing opportunities for nature enthusiasts.
Important Information about Eritrea for Visitors
If you are planning a visit to Eritrea, here are some crucial details to be aware of:
There is no official language, and the constitution promotes the equality of all spoken languages in the country.
Tigrinya is the most widely spoken language, with Arabic, English, and Italian also understood by many.
Eritrea has a population of just over 6 million people, with approximately 40% residing in urban areas.
The country is ethnically diverse, comprising nine ethnic groups. The largest groups are Tigrinya (55%) and Tigre (32%).
The national currency is the nakfa, which is subdivided into 100 cents.
Banknotes in circulation include 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 nakfa, along with coins in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 cents.
Tourists are advised to carry U.S. dollars, as there are no ATMs in the country. Dollar to nakfa exchanges can be done in banks and major hotels in the capital. Street currency exchange is prohibited and strictly penalized.
International payment system cards are not accepted in Eritrea.
The approximate exchange rate is 1 U.S. dollar to 15 nakfa.
The majority of the population (63%) adheres to Christianity, with nearly 57% being Orthodox Christians.
Islam is also prevalent, with Muslims constituting about 32% of the population.
The country officially recognizes only four permitted religious denominations—three Christian and one Muslim. Other religious practices may face discrimination and persecution from the authorities.
Eritrea experiences a predominantly arid tropical climate across its territory, particularly prevalent along the entire coastline. In mountainous areas, the climate varies from subequatorial to temperate depending on the altitude.
The country does not exhibit distinct seasons, maintaining hot and dry conditions throughout the year. Although July-August is considered the rainiest period, precipitation remains minimal. Average temperatures in both winter and summer do not show significant differences. For instance, in the capital Asmara, summer temperatures hover around +22-25 degrees, while in winter, they remain at +21-22 degrees.
In the city of Assaba in the southeast, scorching heat prevails during summer, reaching +32-34 degrees, with a recorded maximum temperature of +48 degrees.
Sea Water Temperature
The sea water off the coast of Eritrea maintains a consistently suitable temperature for swimming throughout the year, making it an inviting destination for tourists. Even during the local winter, the sea remains pleasantly warm, attracting a significant influx of visitors. The peak season is considered to be from November to January.
- Water temperature in winter, December-January: ranges from +24 to +25 degrees.
- Water temperature in spring, March-May: varies from +26 to +29 degrees.
- Water temperature in summer, June-July: ranges from +30 to +32 degrees.
- Water temperature in autumn, September-November: starts at +32 degrees in early fall and gradually decreases to +28 degrees.
Eritrea is relatively safe from the threat of natural disasters. Positioned in the East African rift zone, the country experiences earthquakes infrequently. The last significant tremors occurred a century ago in 1915, with a magnitude of 6.2. Although earthquakes are rare, the potential for tsunamis resulting from them exists. The country’s history recounts the 1884 tsunami, causing substantial casualties.
Eritrea is home to seven volcanoes, with Nabro being considered the only truly active one. Its last eruption was in 2011, accompanied by ash emissions and resulting in seven fatalities.
Droughts pose a significant challenge to the country’s agriculture, occurring nearly every year. The most severe drought was recorded in 2000.
While floods are uncommon in Eritrea, they do occur sporadically. Hailstorms have become more frequent in recent years.
Locust infestations represent another concern for the country, with a notable outbreak in 2022 causing significant economic damage.
Eritrea functions as a presidential republic with a unicameral National Assembly holding legislative power and a president serving as the executive head. Presidential elections, which should occur every 5 years, have not been conducted since 1993. The country currently has a single authorized party, with the president also leading this political entity. Eritrea is administratively divided into 6 provinces, and Asmara serves as the capital.
Major Cities and Resorts
Asmara: Asmara, the capital and most populous city, boasts a rich history dating to the 12th century. Home to nearly 1 million people, the city is renowned for its distinctive architecture, featuring beautiful churches and cathedrals. Visitors can explore museums and enjoy Italian-style coffee shops offering pizza and ice cream.
Massawa: Once the capital of Italian Eritrea, Massawa is a prominent tourist center with a population of 50,000. Serving as a gateway to the beaches of the Dahlak Archipelago, Massawa is connected to the capital by the country’s sole railroad.
Caren: Caren, with a population of 80,000, is recognized for its Egyptian fortress, a unique chapel nestled in the trunk of a baobab tree, and monks’ cells intricately carved into the rocks.
Symbols of Eritrea
Camel: The camel stands as the national animal, widely utilized for transportation across various regions of the country.
Olive Tree: Symbolizing both the republic’s agricultural significance and the pursuit of peace, the olive tree holds cultural and national importance.
Coffee: Coffee, the favored beverage of the locals, represents a cultural hallmark. The coffee ceremony, an integral part of Eritrea’s heritage, reflects the social and communal aspects associated with this beloved drink.
How to Get to Eritrea
For tourists from Europe, Asia, the Americas, or Australia, access to Eritrea is primarily facilitated through air travel. Asmara, the capital, hosts the country’s sole operational international airport, while Massawa, the main tourist center, currently caters exclusively to private planes.
Serving as the main international gateway, Asmara Airport features a modest terminal and accommodates flights from key locations such as Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul, and Nairobi. Primarily utilized for connecting flights, the airport handles an annual passenger capacity of up to 200 thousand.
Cost of Vacation in Eritrea
The expenses for a vacation in Eritrea can vary based on whether you opt for independent travel or utilize the services of a travel company with trusted guides.
Tourists from the EU benefit from relatively inexpensive flights to Eritrea, with a round-trip ticket from Paris to Asmara, including a connection in Cairo, costing a maximum of 600 euros.
Inexpensive tours to Eritrea start from 1500 to 2500 dollars for a 7-day duration, excluding the flight. This higher cost is justified by inclusive excursions and the limited availability of tours, considering Eritrea’s exotic appeal.
Food: Dining costs are lower than in Europe but higher than neighboring African countries. An average restaurant lunch for two can range from 25-40 dollars, while local snack bars offer more affordable options, such as a cheeseburger for 80 cents or a cup of cappuccino for about 1 dollar.
Accommodation: Three-star hotel double rooms average around 80 dollars, as hostels are not common. More comfortable hotels may offer rooms starting from 155 dollars.
Sightseeing: Beaches and some historical monuments are free to visit. Additional beach services like sunbeds and diving equipment come at an extra cost, and thematic tours are relatively rare.
Souvenirs: Local souvenirs such as gourd kalebasa, leather goods, ritual masks, and carpets can be purchased at markets. The cost varies based on individual preferences.
Transportation: Public transport, mainly buses, costs around 20 cents per ticket, but services are infrequent. Taxis have a boarding cost of 0.7 dollars and an average of 70 cents per kilometer, with prices subject to negotiation.
Estimated Total Cost: Considering unforeseen expenses, a 7-day vacation for two in Eritrea, including the flight, ranges from 2000 to 3000 dollars. The total cost can be higher based on individual choices and preferences.
I haven’t visited Eritrea, but if you have any questions or need information about the country, feel free to ask, and I’ll do my best to help!