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Letter From Ethiopia

Ethiopia And Eritrea

Wonders of the Horn

The horn refers to the spear in Northeast Africa that includes Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Somalia remains a country in chaos and no place for the traveler. Djibouti has little to offer except abominable heat and humidity much of the year and exorbitant prices year round. Ethiopia and Eritrea, however, are safe (with some precautions), untraveled, inexpensive, and filled with wonders.

The most important thing is to come with realistic expectations. Unlike their well-traveled neighbors, Kenya and Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea lack international hotels, easy ground transportation, and great cuisine. While many travel agencies in Addis Ababa can arrange engaging tours, renting a Landcruiser and driver increases the cost of a trip significantly. Independently, all of the sights outlined below can be easily visited on a budget of $15-$30 a day at the time of this writing.

The Going Between

A visit usually begins with an international flight into Addis Ababa or Asmara, the capitals of Ethiopia and Eritrea. If you plan to visit both countries, it’s easiest to arrive in one capital and leave from the other, although this may cost a bit more in airfare. I recommend starting in Addis for two reasons: the relative ease of organizing the logistics of travel in Ethiopia and the pleasure of saving the hassle-free city of Asmara for when you need the relaxing break.

Unlike most other African countries, Ethiopia has safe, cheap air service to its major towns. This is particularly important in a country twice the size of the state of Texas, with the greatest concentration of mountains on the continent. Land travel is often tedious and always time-consuming, but the rewards are truly breathtaking scenery and nail-biting bus rides. The following north-south-clockwise itinerary mixes the two forms of travel and can be easily modified.

Addis to Axum

From Addis fly north to Bahir Dar (two days by bus) and continue from there by plane to Gondar. The views from the airplane of Ethiopia’s heartland, the Blue Nile gorge and waterfalls, as well as Lake Tana, are superb. Between Gondar and Axum lies one of the most spectacular mountain roads in Africa (surpassed in drama only by the Mekele-Dessie road in northeastern Ethiopia). I highly recommend this 2-day rollercoaster of vistas. Vertigo-prone, weak-stomached travelers ought to fly.

Axum to Lalibela

Axum to Asmara is another day’s bus ride in which you cross the Ethiopian/Eritrean border. Transportation between Asmara and Massawa is by minivans. Vans leave either city in the morning and take about four hours to navigate the amazing 7,000-foot escarpment. Finally, you can fly to Lalibela from most major towns in Ethiopia. Taking a bus is debilitating.

Lalibela to Harar

The walled city of Harar lies at the spiritual heart of Ethiopia’s Muslim community and retains a medieval atmosphere of intrigue. Wandering its labyrinth of inner-city alleyways is rewarding, although a guide is very useful for showing you life behind the walled homes and the historical sights. Ask at your hotel for a guide. Harar Brewery offers free tours on Fridays. If you’re in the shopping mood, Harar silver and baskets are famed. Overland travel south to Jijiga and beyond is not recommended at this time because of recent banditry and kidnappings.

Harar to Tis Abay

Bahir Dar is a lovely lakeside town with access to interesting Christian Orthodox island monasteries and the famous Tis Abay (Blue Nile) falls. Ask at the Ghion Hotel about hiring a boat for the day to visit monasteries and see the hippos. Prices depend upon the number of people. It’s worth going the distance to Zege Peninsula to visit Bertra Mariam monastery. The Blue Nile falls are an hour and half from Bahir Dar. Buses to the village of Tis Abay leave most mornings between 6 and 10 a.m. The last bus returns around 3 p.m. The park office in Tis Abay sells tickets and a map of where to walk. Ask at the office about taking a papyrus boat upstream and walking back (at least two hours).

Tis Abay to Axum

Gondar is a 17th century city of castles that was Ethiopia’s capital for 250 years. The Royal Enclosure, located in the town center, is the main attraction. The most impressive castle was built by Emperor Fasil in 1640 and is linked to four others by connecting tunnels and walkways. It is a fascinating place worth the price of entry. Your ticket is valid for two days and includes entry to Fasil’s Pool or the bathing palace (two miles on the road to Bahir Dar). Also worth seeing is Debre Birhan Selassie church with its magnificent paintings. It’s easiest to take a taxi there and walk back.

Axum to Asmara

The dusty city of Axum not only claims to be the final resting place of the Lost Arc of the Covenant but was once the capital of the Axumite Empire that dates to the first century. Today, the mysterious field of stelae or obelisks are the most striking attraction; however, some underground stone tombs and several palace ruins are also notable. A guide is worthwhile and a single ticket, purchased near the stelae field, provides entry to all sites except the Church of Saint Mary of Zion. Saint Mary’s church can be visited, but its much older sister houses the Arc, and no one but the Arc’s guardian is permitted access to one of history’s greatest mysteries.

Asmara to Massawa

Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia spared the city of Asmara, and today it is a relaxed, hassle-free capital with enough Italian colonial charm to make it a rewarding respite for the weary traveler. There is little to actually do besides enjoy the sidewalk cafes and good Italian restaurants and stroll along the tree-lined boulevards. Visits to the market, the grand cathedral (be sure to climb the bell tower), and the tank cemetery are all worthwhile.

The 60-mile tarmac road between Asmara and Massawa is one of the greatest marvels of road engineering in Africa. A strategic deep-water port, Massawa was pummeled during the war and remains a bombed-out shell and a bizarre attraction. A half-day exploration of the town’s Moorish/Islamic back streets is plenty. The real attraction of Massawa is its lovely beaches and sublime Red Sea waters. The Gurgusum Beach Hotel, 20 minutes outside of Massawa by taxi, is the best place to stay.

Massawa to the Dahlak Islands

Snorkelers and scuba divers will want to visit some of the 210 Dahlak Islands. Any Red Sea excursions costs $20 per person, paid to the Ministry of Tourism and valid for three days. Daily rates for motorboats are about $30 per person, depending on the number of people.

Another option is to stay on Dahlak Island and take boat trips from there. Contact the Dive Shop at the Gurgusum for details. The third possibility is to rent one of the beautiful Italian schooners moored beside the Dahlak Hotel in Massawa. Again, price depends on numbers, but plan on spending at least $150 (plus the tourism fee) per person for three days sailing, sailboat bunk, and most meals. Consult the Dahlak Hotel reception for details. Snorkeling and scuba gear is available to rent.

Finally, any tour of the Horn must include a visit to Lalibela in Ethiopia. Although it appears to be little more than an isolated, somewhat decrepit village, it conceals a group of Christian Orthodox churches hewn from solid rock 800 years ago in a superhuman effort of great craftsmanship and amazing scale. A ticket provides admission to all of the churches. A guide is necessary (without one you will get lost in the labyrinth of passageways or fall into a dark crypt). A private guide shouldn’t cost more than $5 per person. Besides touring the churches, take a hike or mule ride up Mt. Abune Yosef (13,776 ft.), which dwarfs Lalibela, for the spectacular views.

These are the highlights for a first trip to Ethiopia and Eritrea. The host of national parks and off-the-beaten-track excursions for adventurous seekers rivals anything on the continent.

Read "Letter from Ethiopia" for more from the editor and publisher of Transitions Abroad.

CHRIS SHINN was born in Kenya and has lived more than ten years in Africa. In 1994 he completed an 18,000-mile solo overland expedition from Tunisia to Tanzania, and recently spent eight months traveling around the Horn of Africa.

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