Lalibela is a must-see on any first visit to Ethiopia, and that’s where we headed on the second day of our tour. About an hour’s flight from Addis Ababa (if you book the direct flight and twice that with stops), it’s a town of approximately 25,000 people who live perched on gorges, bluffs and steep hills in a mountainous and arid region northeast of the capital city.
The main reason to visit are the impressive rock-hewn churches, carved out of stone below ground level in the 12th century. For me, these churches (especially Bet Giyorgis) are spectacular, especially when one considers how and why they were built; the answers to which are clouded in legend as are so many things in Ethiopia. The churches are connected by a series of tunnels, bridges and bumpy paths, which can pose issues for those who are less mobile. The churches are hosted and guarded by priests who dutifully pose for pictures holding their impressive ceremonial crosses -replicas of which are available in a variety of materials and prices in the town’s numerous curio shops.
Other fun excursions include seeing a traditional coffee ceremony and navigating the bustling Saturday market. The market appeared to draw every single resident, young and old, from a 30-mile radius. My favorite expedition was a trek up Asheton Maryam, a stunning 3,600-meter peak above Lalibela. The trek can be done on foot, but using mules speeds up the trip and adds a lot of flavor, especially when novice riders are involved. Note – mule riders still have to walk up and down the steep parts! There are some very steep and slippery segments, so it’s not for everyone.
Lalibela is a poor town in an isolated region, so infrastructure is basic but improving. The best hotels are the Mountain View and Tukul, followed by LAL, Jerusalem and the rather tired Roha. All are simple but clean with good service and decent food.
Next stop; Bahar Dar, Lake Tana and the Blue Nile.
Photos courtesy Kent Redding