There isn’t an award for the hardest visa to acquire. It’s a subjective call that people are going to rank differently. But any list of difficult countries to visit would be incomplete without including Eritrea. Referred to by some as the “North Korea of Africa”, Eritrea has strict rules about who can visit and where, lots of police presence, and a dense bureaucracy that covers many facets of life. We were concerned enough about the difficulty of getting a visa here that we applied for second passports and used backup passports in case they weren’t returned, even with several months of lead time. Getting the visa felt like an accomplishment in itself, without even having set foot in the place. As it turns out though, pretty much everyone in the group had exactly the wrong preconceived ideas about the place.
Before this trip, all of us figured that slumming around Addis Ababa would be relaxed, safe, and low stress. The only descriptor we really had for Eritrea was “police state”, which had us thinking the place might be something like Turkmenistan. We thought Addis would be easy, and Asmara would be very difficult. We expected an oppressive, unwelcoming place with lousy amenities and terrible food. But Eritrea was really none of those things. Sure, actually getting past customs and immigration took a bit of time, but everyone was polite and friendly. None of the angry glares and confusing steps, like in Turkmenistan. No private interrogation like we had in Iran. Once we got out of the airport, we were welcomed by palm-tree-lined streets in decent repair with sidewalks and functioning streetlights. No litter. The Asmara Palace Hotel was actually pretty nice. Clean and in good repair, much better than I would expect in the region. It wasn’t very long after our arrival, snacking on a light lunch on the hotel’s veranda, overlooking the pool and the sun-drenched desert on a beautiful day, that we realized we had prejudged this place all wrong.
Our first day was a city tour around Asmara, primarily focused on the many Italian colonial Art-deco styled buildings. I knew this was a feature in Asmara, but had no idea just how incredibly charming the totality of all of it might be. Mussolini planned on Asmara being the Italian capital in Africa. Lots of money was poured into the place…. Cafes, theaters, beautiful squares and thoughtfully designed administrative buildings. Much of it remains unaltered. Eritreans clearly appreciate the value of these things, and have integrated them into their culture, at least for those living in the city. You can still enjoy a nice macchiato, gelatos, and some pretty decent Italian dining. Maybe Asmara is what Mogadishu would look like if not for decades of famine, civil war, and terrorism. Looking at black and white postcards of Mogadishu from the colonial period, those tree-lined promenades and stylish buildings look a lot like Asmara today.
For our second day in Eritrea, we took a day trip out of Asmara to Kohaito. Now, I bore the full responsibility for booking this trip, and it’s been a few months. I had a vague recollection of something archeologically-themed… some ruins or something. As it was, none of us actually knew what we were going to see. All we knew was that we were driving 3 1/2 hours, each way, into the desert, through endless switchbacks over perilous mountain roads, to see…. something. We hoped it would be good. As we approached the destination, we stopped at a few tiny village outposts. People gathering water and bringing it home by camel or donkey. Small mud-roof huts that blend into the landscape. The presence of children running around in what looks like a barren wasteland, betraying the population of people that reside this far off the grid.
Our first real stop was at a sheer cliff, overlooking an absolutely stunning vista of mountains layered off into eternity. We had picked up a local guide out there and he showed us around to a few other places close by. We climbed into a 3000 year-old Egyptian tomb. It did not appear to have been fully excavated. There were also the foundations to a couple of ancient temples. Just the stone columns and rubble remain plainly visible. But, at one of these temples, if you took a large stone and threw it onto the ground, you could hear a deep, low-pitched echo below your feet as the ground vibrated. The temple apparently has a large underground section that has never been excavated. We were ready to just break out some picks and shovels right then and there. Alas, our guide hurried us along because there was something else, harder to get to, that we needed to see. We drove for a bit to the edge of another cliff and actually got out to start hiking down the side of it. Not too brisk of hiking, but we’re at a bit of altitude and between the nausea from hours in a bouncy van and the altitude, it was difficult to keep up on fluids while roasting in the dry desert sun. We did ok though. The view was gorgeous. The canyons were too large to allow for an echo, so on the windless day everything seemed incredibly quiet. Occasionally the silence would be broken by animals in the distance. We spied on a troop of monkeys hundreds of feet below us with a zoom lens. Birds of prey circled above. Maybe a 30-45 minute hike down and around the cliff brought us to what he called the “goat cave”, which had sequences of 4000 year old cave paintings. Motifs of different animals as well as humans hunting could be roughly made out. Combined with the amazing view of the place, it was clear why we drove so far to see this. We clowned around there a bit longer before starting to head back and we all agreed it had been worth the drive. The night before, we had dined at a nice place and ordered a huge spread of traditional Eritrean food. Similar to Ethiopian, but maybe a bit spicier. This last night we changed it up and went to an Italian restaurant and were not disappointed. Our flight out the next day was late in the morning, so for once we were able to sleep in. This really felt like a rest stop after Addis Ababa.
I must admit that we booked a really short time in Eritrea partly because we assumed it wouldn’t be all that great and we just wanted to check off a visit there, completing all the countries in this region. We could’ve spent plenty more time in this place though. The food was great, the city is clean, the people are nice… Importantly, it’s SAFE. Really, you’re not going to get robbed or pickpocketed in Eritrea. You’re still a bit of a spectacle at times, visiting as a Westerner, but we didn’t encounter anyone giving us any trouble at any point. The visa is a pain, but if you want to see something well off the tourist path without sacrificing comfort or putting yourself in danger, Eritrea is well worth a visit.
Our next stop: Somalia.