Eritrea

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Introduction to Eritrea

Up until recently the name 'Eritrea' was a synonym for 'war' and an antonym for 'relaxing with a gin by the seaside', but remarkably the definitions are starting to be reversed. It now has a peace agreement with Ethiopia under its belt and a chance to show off its vibrant and friendly inhabitants.

More of Eritrea's fascinating archaeological ruins are being unearthed around the country (as opposed to more being bombed out of existence) and the waters of the Red Sea are beckoning divers with flourishing stocks of marine life. Flak jackets are out - wet suits are in.

Eritrea is battle-scarred from 30 years of fighting for independence and, more recently, from a border dispute with Ethiopia. But its people are pursuing peacetime as vigorously as they pursued conflict, with swathes of the major cities and towns being rebuilt and large amounts of Asmara gin being downed to fuel the favoured pastime of dancing.

Caution

Landmines are a major problem, particularly the areas west, south and southeast of Barentu. Avoid walking alone, in riverbeds and in areas officially deemed unsafe. An extremist Islamic group operates in the west. Avoid travel along the Agordat-Hawashayt road and north of Afabet.

Famine is again of major concern in Eritrea in 2005, with a heavy reliance on international food aid. The World Food Programme believes that up to half of Eritrea's four million people are chronically malnourished.

The border with Ethiopia is permanently closed, and passage between the countries is not possible. The area is patrolled by UN peacekeepers and seems stable, but it's a fragile peace. The border with Sudan is often closed, and the passage between the countries is insecure.

Full country name: Eritrea

Area: 124,320 sq km

Population: 4.4 million

Capital City: Asmara

People: Tigrinya (50%), Tigre; (30%), Saho and Afar (10%), Hedareb and Bilen (4.5%), Kunama, Nara and Rashaida (4%)

Language: Tigrinya, Arabic, English, Tigre, Afar

Religion: Christian (50%), Muslim (50%)

Government: nominal constitutional democracy

GDP: US$3.3 billion

GDP per capita: US$740

Annual Growth: 3%

Inflation: 15%

Major Industries: food processing, beverages, clothing, textiles

Major Trading Partners: Ethiopia, Sudan, Italy

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Traveler Facts

Visas: All foreign nationals need a visa to visit Eritrea and these should be obtained from one of the country's embassies or consulates before you leave your home turf. Tourist visas are single-entry only and valid for a month - to get one, you'll need a passport valid for at least three months and one passport photo. Visitors must hold a return/onward ticket.

Health risks: malaria (Being by the Red Sea and anywhere else that's less than 2000m (6500ft) above sea level means being exposed to the risk of malaria, so stock up on the requisite drugs), dengue fever (Dengue fever is endemic so anti-mosquito precautions are a must), diarrhoea, Giardiasis, dehydration, intestinal worms

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3

Dialling Code: 291

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The biggest and most colourful religious festivals are centred around Christian Orthodox holidays. Picks of the bunch are Timkat (Epiphany) on 19 January and Meskel ((Finding of the True Cross) on 27 September; others include Kiddus Yohannes (Orthodox New Year) on 11 September and Leddet (Christmas) on 7 January. National holidays include Workers' Day (1 May), Martyr's Day (20 June) and Start of the Armed Struggle (1 September).

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Best time to Visit

In terms of climate, the worst time to visit Eritrea is June to August, when the rainfall is at its highest in the highlands and the west, and when the eastern lowlands are sun-baked to within an inch of their geographical existence; the best times are from March to April and September to October. You might also want to time your visit to coincide with one or more of the region's prime religious festivals, such as Timkat (19 January) or Meskel (27 September).



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Eritrean Nakfa

Meals

Budget: US$1-2

Mid-range: US$3-4

High: US$5-15

Deluxe: US$15+

Lodging

Budget: US$6-15

Mid-range: US$15-60

High: US$60-210

Deluxe: US$210+

There wasn't a great deal of tourist infrastructure before the most recent war with Ethiopia and in the aftermath of the conflict there's even less, but what the existing tourist services lack in their extensiveness they make up for in their affordability - Eritrea is generally a pretty cheap place to visit. In terms of accommodation, budget rooms (without bathroom) cost around USD2-5, while mid-range rooms are priced from USD12-20. Food and drink costs more in the country than it does in the towns due to transport costs - an average meal (without alcohol) in rural areas is about USD3, while in towns it's USD1.50; a beer is USD0.50. The most expensive parts of a trip to Eritrea will prove to be car hire, organised tours and trips out to the Dahlak Archipelago.

Carry US dollars in cash or travellers cheques as many transactions (eg government hotels, visa extensions, permits for the islands) require them. If you need to change money, the banks or larger hotels in the capital are your best bet - don't bother with unofficial moneychangers as they're illegal and it's unlikely you'll end up with a rate that's worth the risk.

Tipping is not expected in the hospitable Eritrean countryside, but it is expected in the towns, particularly where the large hotels and restaurants who are used to dealing with tourists are concerned. As a general rule of thumb, tips are usually 10% of the bill in a main restaurant and US$0.50-1 in the main hotels. In the smaller restaurants in towns, do as the Eritreans do and only tip if the service deserves it - about USD0.20-0.50 is fine. Haggling of the light-hearted and polite kind, as opposed to haggling of the abrasive and aggressive kind, will generally get you good deals in local markets and shops, where prices are rarely displayed. Haggling in places other than local shops and markets can offend Eritreans.

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Attractions

Asmara

Perched on the eastern edge of Eritrea's highland plateau, Asmara enjoys a great climate, clean and architecturally striking streets, and a reputation as one of the safest capital cities in Africa. The city began life as four villages founded by shepherds pleased with the local abundance of water.

Travellers used the place as a stopover on their way between the sea and mountains and it eventually became a key trading post. In the late 19th century, the all-colonising Italians proceeded to lavish the town they decided would be their east-African jewel with their own cultural trimmings.

Keren

Keren tries very hard to beat the laidback ambience of Asmara. The third-largest town in Eritrea has a nice location to the north of the capital, on a small plateau surrounded by mountains, and has retained a comfortably low-profile, small-town status despite being a significant commercial hub.

The inhabitants of Keren haven't always tripped lightly through beds of roses however - during WWII the town was witness to armed brawls between the Italians and the British, and for over 20 years of The Struggle it was the scene of fierce fighting between independence forces and Ethiopian troops.

Massawa

The Red Sea harbour port of Massawa, to the northeast of Asmara, has long been used by various foreign traders and invaders all of whom left their own individually exotic architectural legacies. Though no longer the 'Pearl of the Red Sea', Massawa is still an engaging and hassle-free place to visit.

Massawa was bombed into the dust by Ethiopian forces during Eritrea's struggle for independence, but the town was rebuilt during peaceful pauses throughout the 1990s and much time has been spent trying to replicate the original feel of the town as much as possible.

Qohaito

Historians debate whether or not the ruins of Qohaito were once the inhabited walls of the ancient town of Koloe, a commercially important place during the good times of the great Aksumite kingdom. Even if it wasn't, the city's impressively large remains - covering an area of 2.5km (1.5mi) by 15km (9mi) - are testament to its once-great stature.

Though only about 20% of the ruins have been excavated, it'll still take you most of a day to pick your way through the digging's main sights. The four columns and assorted rubble of the Temple of Mariam Wakiro are thought to have begun life intact as an early Christian church and are surrounded by the dusty remains of a half-dozen other temples. To the north of here is an underground, sandstone-hewn Egyptian Tomb, so named not because its Egyptian origin has been conclusively proven but because of the tomb's impressive dimensions. The biggest thing in Qohaito, in terms of its historical significance as well as its size, is the beautifully dressed masonry of Saphira Dam; the dam is over 60m (197ft) long and is believed to date back 1000 years. Near Qohaito are several rock-art sites, including the cave of Adi Alauti and another shelter with over 100 painted figures.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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