Africa Ethiopia

The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Lalibela had been on my bucket list for a long time. I don’t even remember where I first came across it, but I saw a picture of the beautiful stone-hewn churches and I thought they looked SO cool. Since I had to fly to and from Addis as part of the Eritrea and Djibouti trip, I knew I had to make the trip to see them!

Let’s talk about safety. Ethiopia has been fairly volatile lately – while I am certainly not an expert, my understanding is that this is a ripple effect from the peace agreement with Eritrea. The northern region, the Tigray, was not pleased with how conciliatory the agreement was toward Eritrea after they had spent so many of their resources in that fight, and it erupted into civil war. The US State Department had this area as a Level 4 while I was there, and while I felt completely safe in Lalibela, I was also conscious that the fighting was not far from where we were. It’s definitely worth doing your research before planning anything in Northern Ethiopia at the moment.

The churches of Lalibela were built between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Ethiopia is orthodox Christian, and part of that historically involved going to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage. In one of the changes of power, it became unsafe for the Ethiopians to go to Jerusalem, so they responded by building this site to be their own version of Jerusalem in Africa.

One of the coolest aspects of this site is that it is still actively used as a site of worship! While we were there, we saw plenty of locals coming to pray, and outside of one group of Russian tourists, we were the only foreigners for pretty much our entire tour. Our hotel had set up a tour guide to take us around, which was a great way to get a little more context.

The architecture is amazing. Pictured below is the most famous of the churches – this is the Church of Saint George, which is the one I had always seen in pictures. This one is the only one that doesn’t have the roof covered, so it’s easier to see the unique shape of the building.

We had two nights and one full day in Lalibela before we headed back to Addis for another stopover. Fun fact, I’ve spent so much time flying around this region of Africa on this trip that my flight tracking app is convinced that Addis Ababa is my home airport. As of the time of writing, I’ve been on 26 flights in 2024, and ADD was involved in 10 of those flights!

We booked a driver and tour guide for our third stopover, which was a nice way to see some of the parts of the city that were a bit farther out from the center. They took us up to Entoto Park, which had great views of the city and seemed to be a pretty cool recent development project. It reminded me of an Ethiopian take on N Seoul Tower, with restaurants and bars and walking trails for people to come spend time. Towards the end of our visit there, it started raining, so we ended up taking a driving tour through the main market before we headed back to the airport for our next flight.

All in all, Ethiopia was fascinating. It wasn’t always the easiest place to travel in – when you’re the only tourists around, it means there’s always a sense of being under observation – but it has some of the most amazing sites out there. This region, along with Eritrea and Djibouti, was such a good introduction to Africa, and I can’t wait to explore more of the continent in the future!

Africa Ethiopia

Camping at the Danakil Depression

After a week in Eritrea and Djibouti, Lucy and I headed to Ethiopia! We had figured since all our flights went through Addis Ababa, we might as well use that as a launch point to see a little of Ethiopia before we returned to our respective countries. We had about a half a day in the city before we returned to the airport for a domestic flight out to the Afar region.

Our first stop was the National Museum, which houses the famous skeleton Lucy! We made a lot of jokes about Lucy needing to go see her bones, but it was super cool to see such a significant piece of human history. Ethiopia’s history as the cradle of civilization makes it such an interesting visit.

From there, we took a walk through the city. First impressions: Addis Ababa felt very cosmopolitan in some areas, especially compared to the frozen-in-time experience of Eritrea and the chaotic Djibouti City. There were plenty of skyscrapers and beautiful parks. We saw advertisements indicating that Addis was hosting some sort of event for the African Union. But we also found ourselves walking through some fairly poor areas, and it’s the first city I’ve ever been where multiple locals stopped us to tell us to put our phones away and not hold anything valuable in our hands. That was a strange experience.

The next morning, we boarded our flight to Semera. This is where we were joining our Danakil Depression tour! We had seen part of the continental rift in Djibouti, but the majority of it lies within Ethiopia. It is at the divergence of three continental plates, which makes for some spectacular landscapes. We had booked a three day tour, which would take us to some extremely remote corners in the Afar region.

Nothing really prepared me for when we got off the airplane. We walked out of the Semera airport, which is tiny, and we had figured we would see signs from tour companies as they picked up their clients. Instead, we walked out to UN cars. As it turns out, there are some refugee camps in the Afar region and a number of programs providing international aid, like the UN and the World Food Programme, but it was a little jarring to find that when we were showing up as tourists. We did end up finding our tour company, though!

Our first day was a long one. We headed through volcanic landscapes and made our way toward Erta Ale, which is Ethiopia’s most active volcano. We got there as the sun was starting to set and began a hike up to go see the volcano, which was a little treacherous because so much of the lava flow was brand new.

Fun fact, new lava flow feels a bit like stepping on a macaron, with a delicate crunch that makes you worry it might crumble underneath you. Also, this is where the Ethiopian calendar came up during the trip – I asked when the most recent lava flow had occurred, and they told me a date in 2016. I said that was surprising, because it seemed a lot fresher than that, and the guides laughed and said that was three weeks ago. Once we got near the volcano, I could feel the warmth of the Earth beneath my feet, hot enough that it started to get uncomfortable after a while.

This was the first night I’d ever spent camping under the stars! Which, the stars were pretty spectacular. The camping was a little rough because it was incredibly windy where we were, so it wasn’t the best sleep I’ve ever gotten. Still, windy conditions are temporary, and standing next to an active volcano is something I will remember for the rest of my life, so absolutely worth it. We headed out for our next day of driving. The landscape changed from volcanic to an area that looked more like the savannah, where the guides said we might see an ostrich if we were lucky. We didn’t, but we did see the cool bird pictured above that a friend of mine later identified as an Arabian Bustard.

From there, the landscape changed again, and we ended up in one of the most hostile yet gorgeous landscapes I’ve ever seen. The highlight of any Danakil Depression tour is Dallol, which is a hydrothermal system that’s part of this particular continental rift. It smells strongly of sulphur, so most of us brought masks to cut the scent a bit. Everything I was wearing went in the wash so fast after this tour.

It didn’t seem possible that the Earth could produce such color. The closest thing I’ve ever seen is Yellowstone, and even then, they aren’t quite as vibrant as the ones in Dallol. One of the other strange things is being able to walk so close to the geothermal formations – it certainly couldn’t handle the level of tourism as Yellowstone gets, but it was pretty amazing to be able to see everything up close without boardwalks or anything being roped off.

After we had spent our time at Dallol, we headed out to a few other saltwater lakes, salt flats, and salt pillars. As the sun began to set, we started to see these huge trucks transporting workers across the salt flats. We had a chance to meet some of them and learn more about their work, which was breaking up sections of the salt flats to harvest the salt. It sounds like a very difficult job. They’re dropped off at sunset and they work through the night, then the trucks pick them up at dawn. Working during the day would be too hot.

After one more night in the desert, we drove back across the Afar region to the airport and headed back to Addis for a late afternoon flight! I have the utmost respect for anyone who is living out in this region of Ethiopia – between the hostile environment and the lack of access to goods and services, I think it would be a very difficult place to live. After a few days, I was happy to head back to the city for a hot shower, plentiful electrical outlets, and running water, but for the people out there, even getting access to food and safe water can be a huge challenge. I’m very grateful for my chance to visit such a remote and largely unexplored region, and I had an incredible experience.

Africa Djibouti

Whale Sharks in Djibouti

After wrapping up our time in Eritrea, it was on to Djibouti! It’s a very small country, so we were staying in the very creatively named Djibouti City, which is their capital. Djibouti is an interesting place – it isn’t particularly touristy, but there are a ton of foreigners around because of the military bases. It’s positioned right in the middle of a bunch of regions that frequently have conflict, and it seems like just about every military in the world looked at it on a map and went, “yep, let’s build a base there.”

As you can see, our flight was not particularly busy!

I don’t have a lot of pictures of Djibouti City itself. We did spend a lot of time walking around there, but Alvaro had warned us that locals didn’t like people taking pictures. Which I can confirm, because I wanted to take a picture in the market and got yelled at. And honestly, it’s not that scenic of a city. But the markets were cool to walk around in, our hotel was great, and we had some good dinners while we were there, so I can’t complain. Our last meal of Yemeni food was my favorite. It was also fun to break out my rusty French to help translated when we ordered food.

This mistranslation cracked me up

The first full day, we did the activity I was most excited about on this whole trip, which was snorkeling with whale sharks! I love whale sharks. I’ve seen them in aquariums twice (Osaka and Atlanta) and have been amazed by their size and how beautiful they are. Snorkeling with them in Djibouti was one of my top travel experiences ever. They come up to the shallow waters to feed. We had taken a larger boat to get out to the right area, but we switched to smaller boats to get closer to them. Our guide would point to them in the water and we would all have to jump out of the boat as quickly as possible in our snorkel gear to try to find them before they dove back deep under water. If you were careful and didn’t spook them, you could swim alongside them for minutes at a time. It was magical.

The rest of the day, we had lunch and relaxed on our larger boat. It was such an incredible day and one of my favorite animal encounters.

Our next day, we headed to Lake Assal! This is the lowest point in Africa, at -509 feet. I know myself well enough to know that I am not going to reach the highest point of the various continents but the lowest points feel more achievable. The lake itself reminded me a lot of Salt Lake and the surrounding salt flats – there were mountains nearby as well, so it felt like very familiar landscapes.

We also headed to a volcanic area, which included a spot where you could stand across the rift between the African and Arabic continental plates! Lucy and I saw more of this area on the other side of the border in Ethiopia later in our trip, which was much more scenic than the version in Djibouti, but I still think it’s cool to be on the borders of continents in that way. This is the second continental plate border that I’ve been to – the first one was the Silfra rift in Iceland, and neither has disappointed.

All in all, Djibouti might not be the next tourism hotspot, but it does have some interesting sites and is worth a few days if you’re in the region. Swimming with the whale sharks was absolutely incredible!

Africa Eritrea

Stepping Back in Time in Eritrea

When I went to Papua New Guinea with Wander Expeditions, it didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted to go on another trip with them. We had spent a night with one of the tribes playing Werewolf around the fire and dancing in the rain, and I wanted to capture that energy again. So I looked on their website and looked at the upcoming trip options, and I picked one that went to Eritrea and Djibouti. Was I familiar with either of those countries before I picked it? Barely. But I am so glad that I picked this trip.

Eritrea is a very unusual place. It’s sometimes described as the North Korea of Africa, which I think is an incorrect characterization. It is known for being very isolated, with a visa that’s difficult to get and restrictive rules on where you can go as a foreigner once you’re there. It ranks quite low in a number of human rights indexes and has been one of the bottom countries in the Press Freedom Index as well. When I was doing my research on it, it seemed like a lot of what impacted its human rights score was related to (1) the war, which I’ll get to in a minute, and (2) the military requirement, which, according to what I read, could have somewhat arbitrary rules and could lead to vastly different lengths of assignment and situations among its citizens.

A summarized version of the history is basically that, like its neighbor Ethiopia, Eritrea was one of the cradles of human civilization and had a long period of successful empires and dynasties. Then, when Europe got involved in Africa, they were colonized by Italy and were strategically important for their proximity to the Suez Canal. After WW2, the British took over from the Italians and made them pseudo-independent in the early 1950s. One problem with this – Ethiopia thought that Eritrea should belong to them. This led to the Eritrean War of Independence, which went on for 30 years and which Eritrea ultimately won in 1993. Things were still tense for quite a long time between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Locals in both countries still reference the war, but you can tell that tensions have cooled a bit because you can fly directly between the two countries now! This is recent – I got the Lonely Planet Guide for Ethiopia & Djibouti, which was last updated in 2017, and it said that there were no air links with Eritrea at all.

I loved Eritrea. I think, of places I’ve been to, it felt closest to an Italian Cuba. Despite reading about its dictatorship and place on the human rights indexes, I didn’t feel that as strongly as other places I’ve visited in similar situations. I didn’t feel as though people were measuring their words around us or monitoring what we were doing or anything like that – I found the Eritreans to be very warm and very welcoming to outsiders. It was a bit odd being, perhaps, the only tourists in the country for the first few days we were there. The last day, we did see a few Italians checking into our hotel as we were leaving, but otherwise my group appeared to be the only foreigners everywhere we went.

We spent most of our time in Asmara, which is the capital and has this beautiful old Art Deco Italian architecture. We saw their most famous buildings, like the Fiat Tagliero building, the old cinema, and a lot of beautiful old churches.

Kinda obsessed with this aqua-phobic demon

Eritrea is primarily an orthodox Christian nation. We went in a few churches and we got to see a religious ceremony happening later in the trip in Massawa.

We also crashed a wedding! It was pretty special to get to go and observe and see the amazing dancing that they put on. I can’t even imagine how my family would react if a group of strangers wandered into a family wedding, but this family was so happy to have us. They made up a plate of food for us to split and poured us all drinks. When we tried to leave, they actually called us back to make sure we saw the next dance, where a group of men danced with bottles on their heads. Definitely impressive!

We went to a very beautiful old post office, and around that time, I also visited my very first internet café. Eritrea does not allow foreigners to get esims or use international data plans, so in theory, the internet cafés are the only way to connect to the internet. In practice, I would say even this glimmer of internet proved elusive. Not that it stopped the people in my group from trying, but there was very little internet connection to be had the entire time we were in Eritrea.

Our next stop was one of the coolest markets I have ever seen, full stop. As a newer and more isolated country, I imagine their trade options are a bit more limited. As such, there’s a big focus on being able to re-use and recycle the materials that they have available to them. Which is another similarity with Cuba, actually. We just got to walk around and watch them at work as they were welding and hammering and riveting metals. It was SO interesting to watch. No labor laws, obviously, with the children working just as hard as the adults and no safety measures to speak of. I saw men welding using what looked like cardboard eclipse glasses as their eye protection. Even the man in the picture above is just wearing normal sunglasses.

From there, we headed out of Asmara! Fun fact, as a foreigner, you have to fill out permits to do anything outside of Asmara. These get pretty granular as well – we got asked to check a box if we were planning to snorkel or swim when we got to Dissei Island. Still, even with the bureaucracy, it was worth it to see a bit more of the country. The drive from Asmara to Massawa is absolutely stunning. Asmara is at 7,600 feet in elevation, so the landscape changes substantially going down to sea level. We also saw some baboons out the car window, which was good because every coworker asked me if I was going on safari while I was in Africa and at least this way I could report seeing at least one cool type of animal.

Massawa had sustained some damage in the war, but it was still quite lively and the buildings were beautiful. I could see the vision the Italians had for the oceanside city, with lots of patios where people could sit and drink and talk. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the various cafés and another internet café that didn’t let anyone connect to the internet. I also got eaten alive by bugs.

The next morning, we got to see a religious ceremony at the local orthodox church! I don’t know much about it, and there were a ton of people so it was a bit overwhelming and hot to stand amongst the crowd, but it was cool to get a chance to attend.

After that, we headed off to Dissei Island. It was fully uninhabited. There were a few structures from when they had tried to build a resort on the island, which would have been a good idea if they had, you know, any tourists. We went snorkeling for a bit and saw some sharks and fish and rays, and then it started raining so we mostly hung around the fire and ate spaghetti and talked. It’s never ideal when it rains when you’re camping (I say, as if this wasn’t my second time camping in a tent in my entire life) but we still had a nice time.

On the way back, we stopped at the Tank Graveyard! This is basically where Eritrea put all the tanks and military equipment from Ethiopia that they destroyed in their war for independence. I have to say, given the area and population of Eritrea vs. Ethiopia, it seems like they really punched above their weight in a military capacity. The Tank Graveyard is a surreal experience, and we wandered around and took lots of photos of the destroyed tanks (and even climbed a few).

After that, we went bowling. This was one of my highlights of Eritrea – this bowling alley was SO cool. It’s all manual, so there are actually people behind the pins putting them back, and they have kids recording the scores and keeping track of who’s winning. We had a lot of fun, especially once we got the hang of which lanes leaned which direction.

All in all, Eritrea was fascinating. I loved the chance to explore a country that not many people get the chance to go to. Also, I know it’s an unusual choice for first country in Africa, but I was really happy to get to my sixth continent. The logistics are a bit complicated for foreigners, but I would highly recommend it as an off-the-beaten path destination!