Eritrea is known as one of the hardest countries in the world to visit but with right contacts, you can get the visa very easily. I traveled to Eritrea last year after my Cape Town to Cairo trip, and it remains as one of my highlights in Africa.
When I tell people that I’ve been there the first question they ask is “Isn’t it really dangerous there?”. The people who actually are travelers themselves and know that it’s a very safe country to visit will ask how did I get the visa. I will get to the visa part later but to clear this up first – visiting Eritrea is NOT dangerous. In fact, I’ve never felt safer in Africa. Yes, the country still has its own problems and some local people are leaving the country, but for foreign travelers, Eritrea is very safe. I also have to add that after dealing with horrible street harassment in Egypt, getting to Eritrea was a huge relief because there I didn’t need to deal with any harassment or hassle. Eritrea is great for solo female travelers!
But as always when traveling, good travel insurance is necessary. I highly recommend WorldNomads because it’s great for long-term travelers. You can buy the insurance when you’re already traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world.
How to Get the Visa
Eritrea is relatively closed country, and the border crossings are closed for foreign people. You also can’t just walk to their embassy and apply for the visa – the chances of getting it are very low.
When I heard of a tour company called Asmara Grande and a man named Tekeste who might be willing to help me with the visa, I emailed him immediately. I was happy to hear that all I needed to do was to send him a copy of my email, address, phone number and my profession. A week later I received a visa approval letter via email and I simply just printed it and showed it to the immigration officers at the airport in Asmara. I also needed to pay $70 in cash for the visa.
If you want to visit Eritrea too, you can email Tekeste: tekeste.tekeste.azere[at]gmail.com
Update: It may not be possible to get the visa on arrival anymore, but instead, you have to apply at the nearest Eritrean embassy. I can’t tell if it’s any easier to get the visa than it used to be, but it seems like Eritrea is opening more to the outside world. Ethiopian Airlines started to fly to Asmara again in July 2018 after 20 years.
Note that, you can only fly in and out of Eritrea and the visa is not for border crossings. There are flights almost daily from Dubai, Cairo, Istanbul, Khartoum and Jeddah. The easiest options are the flights from Cairo (on EgyptAir), Istanbul (on Turkish Airlines) and Dubai (on flyDubai) and you book these flights online.
Update: In July 2018, Ethiopian Airlines started flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara. In August 2018, Eritrean Airlines also started flying the same route.
The currency in Eritrea is Eritrean Nakfa. The fixed exchange rate is USD$1 = 15 Nakfa, but black market rates are better. There are no ATMs in Eritrea that take foreign cards, and you also can’t get any Nakfas outside of the country. You need to bring all cash you need in US dollars and exchange when you get to Asmara.
Exploring Asmara – The Capital City of Eritrea
Eritrea is a former colony of Italy, and you can notice this when exploring the capital city Asmara. Not only you can see the old Italian architecture everywhere in the city, but you can also eat pasta, gelato and pizza, and enjoy a cappuccino at one of the old-school cafes. The best way to experience Asmara is just walking around and immersing yourself in the culture. The city is very peaceful and quiet compared to other big African cities and walking is a pleasure because there’s no hassle and you can walk around without getting unwanted attention. Local people are very friendly and warm, and also curious about your presence because there are hardly any tourists.
It’s difficult to explain how Asmara is – you have to travel there yourself and experience the city. I could spend hours and hours just wandering around there and feeling the city. It’s a very unique city with its old Italian colonial buildings and a tranquil, peaceful atmosphere. It’s so different compared to other African cities, and sometimes I felt like I was in Europe – just in another era. It’s a city stuck in time. There are no big international brands, no new technology and hardly any internet at all. The only way to try to connect to the internet is going to specific internet cafes where you can get wifi so slow that opening one website will take you half an hour. Not worth it, so save your money and take a digital detox! This is actually one thing that adds charm to the place because people aren’t looking at their screens but instead having real human connections.
Asmara lies at an elevation of 2,325 meters above sea level making the temperature pleasant all year. After spending so much time in hot parts of Africa, I was kind of cold in Asmara, especially on the days it was raining. So prepare to get your jeans and jackets out!
Where to Stay in Asmara
Eritrea is one of those African countries where most of the hotels are not online. I stayed at Sheghey Hotel where I had a basic room with everything I needed. The only thing that bothered me with this place was the fact that my room was above a bar and they played loud music at night. Another hotel option is The Ambassador Hotel that is a popular choice among travelers.
There are a few hotels you can book online on Booking.com:
Hotel Asmara Palace – Five-star hotel featuring a swimming pool, tennis court, fitness center, free wifi, spa & wellness center.
Sunshine Hotel – Old style hotel with a nice terrace and views of the garden. The facilities include free wifi restaurant and bar.
Crystal Hotel – Three-star property with a terrace, free wifi, restaurant and the breakfast is included.
The Beautiful Views Outside of Asmara
Even if you’re only staying in Asmara, it’s worth getting a little bit outside of the city center to get some spectacular views. You don’t need to travel far, but if you follow the road leading from Asmara to Massawa, you’ll soon witness amazing views.
Trip to Massawa
I really wanted to see one other place in Eritrea too, so I decided to make a trip to Massawa. If you’re going to travel to other places in Eritrea, you need to get travel permits for every town you visit. This is a relatively simple process, and you can get the permits from a Tourism Permit Center that is located close to Sweet Asmara Cafe. You need a copy of your passport and visa before you go there and you should be able to get the permits in a few hours.
I took a local bus to Massawa, and the trip took a few hours. Buses are very cheap and run regularly. I read in another travel blog that tourists can’t take local transportation. This is not true! I had no problems taking local transportation, and no one even wanted to see my travel permits.
It’s been said that in Eritrea you can experience three seasons in two hours and you can really notice this when you travel from Asmara to Massawa. I left rainy and somewhat cold Asmara wearing jeans and a jacket, but the temperature rises gradually. When I got to Massawa, I was melting in the hot and humid weather.
It’s possible to visit Massawa as a day trip like I did, but if you want to visit the beaches and islands, for example, you would need to stay there overnight because you need to take another bus/taxi/boat to get there. I just walked around the old town, and while some of the parts are only ruins, I still found the architecture to be fascinating. Massawa is very different compared to Asmara and has more Arabic feel to it.
Eritrean Coffee Ceremony
On my last in Eritrea, Tekeste invited me to their home for a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony. If you’ve been to Ethiopia, the ceremony is very similar. It was such an honor to get to experience this!
Huge thanks to Tekeste for all of his help and making my trip to Eritrea possible!
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