a VirtualTourist member from London
My partner and I are thinking of going to Eritrea on a 2 week holiday at the end of November. What is the situation for tourists at the moment?
Is there enough to see in two weeks? We like to see cities, ruins, trekking, snorkelling, remote villages etc. Any recommendations?
We see the FCO website says tourists need a permit to leave Asmara, and this is sometimes refused. Does anyone has any experience with trying to do this? How likely is it that we would be refused? And if we were, is it easy to take a flight to a nearby country, eg. Egypt? Also, how much is there to do in Asmara itself?
How much money would we be likely to spend, i.e. accommodation, transport, sightseeing etc?
Any other advice would be very gratefully received.
hi, It is very safe tot travel. If you reqire details feel free to contact @ [email]
Given the dearth of information about Eritrea, we thought it would be useful to tell you about our experiences when we visited for 2 weeks in December 2008.
Visas - As is well documented, the visa you obtain to visit Eritrea only lets you travel to Asmara. You need to visit the Tourist Office on Harnet Avenue and apply for a tourist travel permit for the other places you'd like to visit. This costs 20 Nakfa. When writing where you'd like to visit, be as extensive as possible (make a list before going in). They scored a few places off our list (Lake Badda and surrounds) due to security issues, but happily approved the others. To get a permit you need a photocopy of your passport and Eritrean visa (ideally bring with you, but there are stationary shops in Asmara where you can get copies). Once you have your travel permit, photocopy it a few times - you are asked to show it at large numbers of checkpoints throughout the country and some, eg. Filfil, demand a copy or they won't let you through (though don't have photocopy facilities themselves). The checkpoints otherwise seem to be just a formality, but make sure you do always have your travel permit to show, as they are diligent at checking.
Money - You can't take Nakfa into the country, and there are no ATMs, so the only way of getting more money once in Eritrea is by Western Union transfer. You have to declare ALL currency and travellers' cheques on arrival at the airport. This is written on a piece of paper and stamped. Every time you change money, you must produce this piece of paper which is again stamped, at the approved Himbol exchange agents. At the end of your stay, before you go through customs at the airport, you have to show the paper at a kiosk and have it sanctioned. If there is disparity between the money you declared, the money you changed, and the money you now have, this can cause problems. There are rumours of people who lose the piece of paper getting into trouble and missing their flights.
The beer mystery - You may see Asmara Beer in guidebooks and on menus, but ask for it and the waiters laugh. It hasn't been available for over a year, since the brewery ran out of ingredients and closed. Now the only beer you can find is Heineken or Chinese beer (sometimes) at an eye watering cost of 80-100 Nakfas a can ($7). The only local beer, which we found tasted of petrol, was found, after much hunting and asking of locals, at the Khartoum Hotel bar. Eritrean wine and imported wine are available at most restaurants - at a cost. Locals seem to drink Asmara gin neat... or sparkling water served tantalisingly in old beer bottles, or a cup of tea...
Where to stay
In Asmara, we spent most of our time in the lovely Africa Pension, a villa set in a pretty garden 5 minutes from Harnet Avenue (the main drag). Rooms are large, bright and clean, with comfortable beds. Bathrooms are shared but clean, and the staff are very friendly and obliging. Be sure to book in advance, as we found it full on one occasion. On that night, we looked at the Bristol Pension, which seemed a bit dingy, and the Sheghay Hotel, which seemed overpriced with small rooms and showers that only supplied water several hours after a request was made, before settling on the Khartoum Hotel, which was very centrally located and quite comfortable, though the atmosphere was less friendly than the Africa Pension. The bathrooms are shared but the showers were the best we found in Eritrea. Other tourists we met were staying at the Concorde Pension which they seemed very satisfied with. If you're looking for upmarket grandeur, the Albergo Italia is nicely located and suitable plush. The Intercontinental has opened again under a new name, but is a few kilometres from town, out near the airport.
Where to Eat
We loved the Spaghetti House on Harnet Avenue, which did the best pizzas and crepes in Eritrea, though they're a bit expensive. For Eritrean food we loved the Asmara Restaurant next to the post office at lunchtime, and the Blue Bird in the evening, though both do lack atmosphere. The Albergo Italia is a dining option for a bit more grandeur and romance, and we enjoyed our food there. During the day, the Casa degli Italiani, opposite the Travel House, has a beautiful sunny courtyard and serves nice Italian food. There is a great selection of coffeeshops for morning coffee and brioches. Bar Vittoria was one of the best. Order coffee and you'll end up with a very, very milky drink. For an ordinary cappuccino, ask specifically for a black cappuccino. Or ask for tea, which is served black with sugar and lime.
Where to drink
We tended to drink mostly in restaurants, ordering wine or beer with our meal. However we were very impressed by Zara cocktail bar next to Blue Bird restaurant - great cocktails and an impressive selection of drinks. Almost feels like a London cocktail bar! If you want to try the only local beer, the Khartoum Hotel bar will oblige, but be warned - it tastes of petrol!
Where to stay
In Massawa we stayed at the Red Sea Hotel. This felt overpriced, had no atmosphere (a bit like a Travelodge), had cold showers only, and was quite a trek from Massawa's restaurants and shops (25 minute walk). On the plus side, it was perfectly pleasant, but somewhere nearer the port would be more convenient. The Dahlak Hotel is still being refurbished but will probably end up being the best option. Nothing seems to happen on Taulud Island, so being in a good position to spend the evening on Massawa Island is a good idea.
Where to eat
Options are quite limited, and most people suggest eating at the hotels (the "cheap option" being Luna, and the "expensive option" being Red Sea, but neither are especially cheap). The cuisine is nothing to write home about, but our favourite place to eat was the Massawa Hotel on Massawa Island, in the main square. Sit outside and watch the nightlife warming up as you eat.
Where to drink
Massawa seems to have the best bar life in Eritrea - there are an array of little bars scattered around the main square on Massawa Island and the atmosphere is nice.
Where to stay
In Keren we stayed at the Albergo Sicilia which was in a great location set around a courtyard, and had a large selection of rooms of varying prices. We opted for the most expensive (still extremely good value compared to Asmara) with double bed with mosquito net (not very comfortable, but acceptable), chairs and tables, and private bathroom. Though the hot water was very sporadic it was lovely to have a private bathroom. Again, this hotel was clean and though the receptionists did not speak much English, they were friendly. The courtyard could be quite loud at times, so in retrospect taking a room around the far corner of the courtyard might have been nice.
Where to eat
Options are very limited. On the Giro Fiori roundabout, there is a sweet little restaurant called Peace and Love, with Eritrea and Italian food. Otherwise the best options are the Keren Hotel and the Senhit Hotel. We found the other restaurants a bit intimidating, though if you like fish, Mackerel looked promising.
Where to drink
The best option is the Red Sea Hotel on the Giro Fiori roundabout. We bought a bottle of Asmara Spumante. The staff looked incredulous. It wasn't great... As per everywhere else in Eritrea, the only beer available cost about7.
There's one bus a day from Asmara to Filfil (7am). There's a hotel 7km from Filfil itself (Mendip Hotel) but if you can afford the taxi it's probably better as a day trip, or a stop en route between Massawa and Asmara (though Mendip Hotel is a good stop for lunch). You specifically have to mention Filfil on your list of places on your travel permit, and you MUST take a photocopy to give the guards or you may be obliged to turn back. And since it's in a remote place, that'd be rather annoying. Note there is a charge of a few dollars to enter Filfil, not mentioned in the guidebooks.
You must get a special travel permit from the National Museum in Asmara before you go, and this is probably tricky by public transport - we hired a car. But the canyon is amazing - really huge and beautiful, and you can hike down it to see prehistoric cave paintings. A man called Ibrahim in the nearby village seems to be responsible for guiding you. The nearby town of Adi Keh has a nice market.
These are beautiful and the snorkelling is better than some guidebooks would have you believe. It's extremely expensive to get there. Ask at the Travel House in Asmara if a group is going that you could join. Otherwise go to the Italian school in Asmara: their teachers go once a fortnight and are happy to share the cost with some tourists.