Inside Isolated Eritrea


Eritrea is one of a handful of countries, outside of the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia, to have achieved its independence within the last 25 years.


In its initial years of  independence from Ethiopia, recognized internationally in 1993, it was widely admired for being progressive, egalitarian and a model of self-reliant development. That changed in the late 1990s, the key factor being a war over a border dispute with Ethiopia.


Over the last fifteen years it has become increasingly repressive, isolated, and has earned to sobriquet as the “North Korea of Africa”. Reporters Without Borders now places it dead last on the Press Freedom Index, below North Korea. Like Belarus, it has become one of the handful of less well know “pariah states” of the international community. NGOs have been expelled, UN peacekeepers were ordered out of the country, and diplomats movements outside Asmara restricted, even in access to consular cases, flouting international law.


Travel to the country, relatively open and unrestricted in the 1990s, has become increasingly difficult and bureaucratic. I failed on my first two attempts to obtain a visa, only succeeding on my third time. This was the most protracted and difficult process for any country I have ever visited. Once inside, additional permits are needed to travel anywhere outside Asmara. More than  80 percent of the country remains completely off limits. Air links to the rest of the world have dwindled. The only land frontier open  is with Sudan, itself hardly a welcoming destination for prospective visitors. There were only a small handful of other travelers I saw in the country and only two outside Asmara…..but yet…..


Once inside it remains an immensely friendly, charming and attractive country, although infrastructure has frayed around the edges.


Asmara at 2300 metres above sea level, is a very pleasant “time warp” jewel with a spring-like climate. It is among the most appealing cities anywhere in Africa, and an absolute delight for those who manage to jump the hurdles to get there. The closest, albeit imperfect parallel I can think of…organized, quiet, light traffic, threadbare faded colonial elegance, clean air, tidy streets, pleasant low-key interpersonal interactions…might be to a mid-sized city in Cuba. Despite its isolation and an economy in tatters, visitors are treated well. Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1892 to 1941 and the residue of this period still predominates. This is a city of art deco architecture, macchiatos, pasta and pizza. The city is filled with atmospheric cafes, particularly along the main drag of Harnet Avenue.


In our time, we managed to get to almost all of the limited areas that are open to foreign visitors.


Keren was about 90 kilometres away and a two hour drive away. Its atmosphere is very different from Asmara and the town shows influence from neighbouring Sudan. Visiting the camel market is a significant highlight. A major battle was fought here during the Second World War between the Allied forces led by Britain, and the Italians between January and March 1941, marking the most important battle that saw Britain take over control of Eritrea and Ethiopia. There is an Italian war grave cemetery along with a Commonwealth War Grave, in separate locations, commemorating the soldiers who lost their lives during the conflict.

The drop from the highland to the Red Sea coast is dramatic. There are now two roads. One was constructed in the last decade about thirty kilometres to the west of the old road and is in very good condition. However, it is practically unused. Why it was constructed at all is a mystery to me as it passes through no population centres, and the existing main road between Asmara and Massawa is in good condition and is hardly over utilized.


The port town of Massawa in recent years has slid into a slightly surreal semi-ghost town. In 1990, near the end of the conflict, the Ethiopians bombed the port, destroying about one-third of the buildings of the old town, none of which have been restored.  Even more dramatic has been the gradual abandonment of the city over the last decade.  It is a bit like stumbling upon a “down at the heels” Zanzibar-like port town along America’s Route 66, with a few bars and small hotels remaining amidst the general abandonment. We stayed at the Grand Dahlak, a grandiose and impressive hotel  (the best I saw in Eritrea) maintaining its elegant facade as the rest of the town slides ever more into a ghost town. Some sixty kilometres away are the Axumite ruins of Adulis,  with some excavated ruins of a “port” that is now seven kilometres away from the sea.


Our last destination was to Adi Keyh and Qohaito. These are the highest villages in Eritrea at around  2450 metres and 2700 metres respectively. Qohaito is situated on a high plateau and has a few excavated ruins dating back some 1500 to 2000 years…..  This high plateau ends abruptly in a gigantic canyon cascading down dramatically towards the Red Sea. It is a jaw-dropping vista and  is easily the peer of the better known topography of the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. There is also prehistoric rock art accessible by hiking a mule track along the edge of the gorge to an overhanging cave where drawn images of animals, including lions and camels, painted red are  carved into the stone. The steep trail hugging the edge of the precipice into the canyon is not for the faint of heart.


It marked a fitting end to this fascinating, if isolated country.

Nicaragua Today

I recently returned to Nicaragua. My only previous visit was towards the end of the Long Trip in June-July 1980. Then, the left-wing Sandinistas had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship less than one year previously. Damage from the war was still widely visible in the country, as was evidence of the devastating earthquake that destroyed Managua in December 1972.

My most vivid recollection of that time was that most of the Sandinistas on the streets and at checkpoints, dressed in green fatigues and carrying weapons, were teenagers. In Managua there were also a fair number of other backpackers and international visitors, later dubbed the “Sandalistas”. Having missed the Cuban Revolution, here was a chance to see another leftist revolution unfold, and either observe it firsthand or give some support. In retrospect, it may have been the last extension of the leftist/Marxist philosophy during the Cold War before it all started unraveling.

From an outsiders perspective, at least in my case in my mid-20s and moderately sympathetic, the Sandinista revolution all seemed sincere enough. A few of us went to see a movie “Commandante Che: Amigo”. The most obvious sign of change was a major push for extending literacy. Signs throughout the country would read “Si tu eres Cristiano, alfabetisar su hermano” (If you are Christian, teach your brother how to read). A young man with glasses and a moustache, Daniel Ortega, was the new face and leader of the revolution. Back then, I stopped only in Granada, spent about ten days in Managua, and then stopped briefly in Leon, before continuing up to Honduras.

Coming back to Nicaragua now made me think of what it might have been like to visit Western Europe in, say, the late 1950s. Visible damage from the civil war years, (which continued for another decade throughout the 1980s as the USA, under Ronald Reagan, supported and funded the Contra rebels), is now gone. The country is relatively poor and inexpensive, and at least to my initial surprise, has become very popular with visitors.

Perhaps its popularity should not have come as a surprise. Nicaragua is significantly less expensive than the Central America countries to the south, but is not plagued with the extent of crime and security problems found in the countries further north. I met many other travelers who had made the same calculation. Infrastructure is improving, particularly in the southwest corner of the country which is the most popular area for visitors. Boutique hotels are being opened, “voluntourism” is encouraged, and options for fair trade, eco-friendly, small scale visits to coffee plantations etc. are becoming increasingly common.

On this trip I spent some time in the colonial city of Granada, less than an hour away from the international airport.  Other than enjoying the colonial ambience, I also went out to Las Isletas, a string of small islands in the lake not far from Granada and walked around the active volcano of Masaya. I stayed at the charming Mombacho Ecolodge, not far from Granada  half way up Volcan Mombacho which dominates the skyline from Granada. I later went to Isla de Ometepe, a dramatic and charming twin-peaked island in Lago Colciboca (I still prefer Lago Nicaragua), the largest lake in the western hemisphere between the Great Lakes and Lake Titicaca. The Pacific Coast is also becoming more popular with its touristic apex around the town of San Juan del Sur. I opted to stay further north at the superb beach of Playa Popoyo. Most famous among international surfers, it remains a quiet little paradise, with wide beaches extending for kilometres in either direction.

The Corn Islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) are a typical but very low-key Caribbean paradise, very different from the rest of Nicaragua and predominantly English speaking with that classic Caribbean lilt “dat inspired de name of dis website”. They are located about 65 kilometres off the Atlantic coast from the port city of Bluefields. The flight lands at Big Corn Island. To arrive at Little Corn Island, it is pain before pleasure. The “panga” ride in an open boast last about forty bone-shaking  minutes over 16 kilometers of often rough water. Near the front you get a more violent bashing, near the back more of a soaking, though most of the passengers managed to take cover under a green tarpaulin. Little Corn is the more popular island for visitors. It has no roads, no vehicles and is only three square kilometres in size. Although it is somewhat more expensive than the mainland, by Caribbean island standards the costs are  very reasonable. The diving was excellent.

Finally I went up to the mountainous coffee country around Matagalpa and Jinotega, driving north from Managua. This was the area from which the Sandinista revolution was launched and in which the battle between the Contra rebels and the Sandinistas continued for more than a decade after I left. Now, more than two decades later, nearly all signs of that are are gone and the area prides itself as the coffee heart of the country.

I met more than a few Canadians on this trip, escaping part of a particularly tough winter back home, in this charming country. The one real reminder of my journey to Nicaragua 34 years ago, were the political posters that I saw  throughout the country of Daniel Ortega, back to being President of the country since 2006. He is now flatteringly portrayed as somewhat older and fuller in face. It was an interesting connection to a bygone revolutionary age.