Backpacking in Eritrea

  • Population: 4.4 million (UN, 2005)
  • Capital: Asmara
  • Area: 117,400 sq km (45,300 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Tigrinya, Tigre, Arabic, English
  • Major religions: Islam, Christianity
  • Life expectancy: 51 years (men), 55 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 Nakfa = 100 cents


Backpacking in Eritrea

State of Eritrea elicits a magic and mystique that resounds from the letters of her name. Playing by ear, Eritrea seems like a land lost in time, a country in her own world, and so she is. She is an old country, but a young nation that still has a lot of growing up to do. Having only gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the hope of progress and development that comes with youth shines adamantly. Take it, she is nothing like Ethiopia. At the present, Eritrea captures hearts of travelers who have set foot in its exquisite soils with its mishmash of architecture styles and influences from Italian cosmopolitan to Arabesque flair with an silent but honest authenticity.

This is a country after Mussolini’s expression, design, and preference. It’s love at first sight, to add, Eritrea is an easy destination. And she’s beautiful just the way she is, people and all. But there is plenty more to be done. Her youth will be shared by the Red Sea, nonetheless which she holds at her fingertips. The Red Sea is one of the youngest and warmest oceans in the world and truly a uniquely special dive site because its marine life holds what marine biologists call “a secret” that may save thousands others. A land that is virtually unexplored, Eritrea is the independent traveller’s Secret Paradise.


Backpacking in Eritrea

Eritrea (15 00 N, 39 00 E) is a 117,600 km2 area of vertically bisected land, credits to one of the world’s longest north-south mountain ranges. Fertile lowlands govern the West, and dry descending coastal desert plains to the East. The highest point is the Embra Soira, 3,018 m above sea level, located right at the heart of Eritrea. The Dahlak Archipelago of some 300 islands is part of Eritrea’s landmass. However, Eritrea has no year-round rivers due to its climate.


The climate is dry desert, meaning hot and dry year-round, except for the central and southern highlands where the weather is temperate, and therefore, cooler and drier.


To date, there are 5,792,984 Eritreans, 50% of which are from the ethnic group Tigrinya. The population has actually 9 ethno-linguistic groups of Semitic and Cushitic origins.  Tigres is another major group that makes up 31.4% of the population, while the Saho (5%), Afar (5%), Beja (2.5%), Bilen (2.1%), Kunama (2%), Nara (1.5%), and Rashaida (0.5%) are minority groups.


The Tigrinya and Tigre form the lot of the country’s Semitic-speaking population whose languages are different but mutually intelligible to one another. TIGRINYA is the traditional and official language of the country used for commercial and official affairs, just as ARABIC is utilized.  Eritreans over 50 years-old may be able to speak ARABIC, AMHARIC, and ITALIAN as they lived through the Italian occupation. ENGLISH is now being taught in schools and widely-used for secondary and university, so the demographic under the age of 50 is able to speak good English.


Eritrea has two dominant religions. Christianity leads the religion race by a hair strand with 50% of the population of mostly Orthodox following with factions of Catholic and Protestant, versus Islam with 48% of the population as adherents. The remainder of 2% abide by indigenous belief and practices. Religion has become a predetermining factor to territory with Christians dwelling in the highlands, whereas Muslims in lowlands.


What’s not to love about Eritrea? Genuineness and ingenuity emanates even from its run-down structures that despite its morose decay, beauty lies. Tradition and heritage, these are what the capital Asmara beholds. Asmara is a fascinating place where the Italians introduced a fascinating range of architectural styles from austere classicism, neoclassicism to modernism, Mussolini’s preferred. Right at the city’s Old Town Square, this medley is ready for viewing, but if the traveller begrudges for something more extraordinary, Massawa is a spectacular location.

Massawa Island is most pleasantly unique and special and quite unlike the mainland. No fancy-schmancy architecture. There’s just down to earth, essence-of-humanity architecture that’s 100% Eritrean-owned. The island has a decent beach up the coast with an awesome diving site that hits the spot. A fascinating view of the bioluminescent Red Sea Corals is within close reach from here. Fact is, the Red Sea is among the world’s youngest oceans and the warmest waters too, giving way to an extremely rare and abounding diverse marine life, such as its corals. The corals off the shore of Eritrea are able to survive the hot waters that to some coral species causes bleaching and, eventually, death.

While the Red Sea is one of the most famous dive sites in the world, its shoreline along Eritrea remain virtually untouched, unexplored. The scenic landscape on land and under the sea is like paradise on earth. The surrounding radiates so much inspiration and purpose. Still, the best bits are cheap Asmara Extra Stout beer, free laughter from the lovely Eritreans, and absolute tranquil, definitely not a hertz of noise to disturb within a km-radius. Eritrea could easily be a traveller’s much-loved destination in Sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s no baloney.


Without balderdash, Eritreans are amazingly curious, happy and generous people, the lattermost would be apparent with a sure invitation for a meal, any time of the day. Eritreans are hot and savvy eaters, most go with berbera, a blend of chilli powder and spices thinking “the hotter the better.” Injera or sour pancakes and kitcha, which is a thin unleavened wheat bread, are the two staples, eaten with hilbet or a bean paste of legumes and fava, and stews of any of beef, chicken, mutton, or vegetables, like in Ethiopia given the shared history.  For the meat-lovers, Tsebhi is a meat sauté of lamb or beef with fresh tomatoes and hot pepper, and for the vegetarians, a steamy bowl of Alicha Birsen or lentil curry which are both charming and palatable in their own right, and ready and steady favourites of travellers.

It may be tempting to lick your fingers but contact between fingers and lips is considered disgraceful (sorry Colonel Sanders). In the morning, to add to a savoury meat and potato stew or zigni,general for stews, served with layers of injera, fresh home-made coffee brew is first pound and ground by the expert of the house – the Eritrean mom. When served coffee, this means you’re an honoured guest, therefore it’s impolite for you to leave. Owing to its colonial history, Italian dishes like pasta are also copious in the cuisine, as well as grilled fish and steak. Surprisingly, world cuisines have made it to this modest nation, but what country ever survived without Chinese food? An even greater surprise is Eritrean restaurants have sprouted across the Americas, but you can’t ever beat Eritrean home cooking. 


Backpacking in Eritrea

Backpacking Addictz looks at Backpacking in Eritrea.

Joshua Boorman

Joshua Boorman

Founder & Editor in Chief at Backpacking Addictz
Come with me on a journey with me to various destinations throughout the world. We discuss all things Backpacking, Lifestyle Design & Online Business to help you achieve new found freedom and create a life of meaningful fulfillment.
Joshua Boorman

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