Leaving Axum behind we boarded our free shuttle (courtesy of Africa Hotel) and headed to the airport. With Ethiopian Airlines the only operator the small terminal and check in process was easy to navigate before we took a seat to observe the traditional coffee shop setup on the terminal floor complete with smoky burning incense of course. Boarding the plane we were told we couldn’t take our camera tripod as carry on (local people are not permitted to take their wooden sticks so we guess it’s only fair) and the staff were friendly enough to run across the tarmac to put it in the hold for us at the last minute. A power cut shuts down the single security gate for about 20 minutes though eventually we take our seats (with plenty of legroom), counting a total of 12 people on the flight.
Forty five minutes later, the hot air hostess lets us off in Lalibela, a member of staff delivers our tripod unharmed and we contemplate our options among the numerous hotel/hostel desks confronting us. Opting instead for the minibus (70 birr) to a cheaper hostel we’d heard about, we made our way along a rough, windy 23km road through beautiful countryside with great mountain views. The driver entertained us with stories that the Lord of the Rings took the names for Gondor and Rohan from Ethiopia’s ancient cities of Gonder and Roha (research since has proven this is probably false, but hey, it’s easy to believe when you’re here).
He also told us a sad tale of goats, dogs and donkey’s. Apparently Chinese workers brought in to build roads and other infrastructure don’t take too well to the lack of meat and number of fasting days in Ethiopian culture. So they’re ‘accidentally’ killing the locals much prized animals, apologising half-heartedly, cooking them up for dinner then paying compensation which doesn’t come close to making up for the loss of transport, food or protection that these animals offer. Arriving in town we were dropped at the gated Asheton Hotel (350 birr) saving us a massive uphill walk from the bus station. Nicely styled whitewashed rooms are set along a courtyard with carved wooden doors and the usual sub-standard Wi-Fi, comfortable beds and huge rock hard pillows. Unfortunately there was no running water during our stay but this was throughout the hotel of Lalibela, which regularly suffers from water shortages, even in the rainy season. There’s also a restaurant on site though don’t order the pizza…there’s no cheese here, it’s basically cardboard and tomato sauce.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook had so far failed us in hunting out decent cheap local restaurants, most of them now either moved or closed down, so when we read the raving reviews for Unique Restaurant right across the road we just had to check it out. Authentic interior – check. Friendly customer service – check. Food quality – fail. Thin and very dry around the edges yet thick and soggy in the middle it left us unsatisfied (yes after two weeks in Ethiopia we’ve become injera snobs). So we headed for second lunch at Zewditu’s. Both Zewditu and her friend previously worked at other restaurants before starting up on their own.
A wood and bamboo outdoor dining area with thatch roof has white fabric curtains blowing in the breeze, and we took a seat on a couple of goat skins and went straight for our favourite, the shiro (chickpea puree) and a couple of cups of coffee. What a great choice. The injera was huge, the best we’ve had to date and Zewditu brought the clay coffee pot and incense to our table, sitting with us until we’d drunk our fill and comparing our tattoos with her lovely traditional design along her chin line. She then invited us into the kitchen to see the injera being made, though not just content with that she then invited Sarah to give it a go. With everybody in the vicinity coming to watch the faranji (foreigner) make injera, we had quite an audience and yes, she managed to f*&k it up with one side way thicker than the other.
But Lalibela’s pièce de résistance is not the food, it’s the 11 unique rock hewn churches dating from the 13th century. Sometimes named the ‘New Jerusalem’ these monoliths were reportedly built by King Lalibela as Muslim conquests had made it unviable for pilgrimages to the Holy Land to continue safely. The beauty and uniqueness of these churches are best told with pictures.
The churches are split into two groups, the closer Northern Group and the Southern/Eastern Group, which we covered on day two. If you’re fit all sites can easily be covered on foot from town (see tips below). At 2:30pm people were worshipping at the huge columned Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) church with their white robes make for a good contrast. Measures 33.5m by 23.5m and over 11.5m high, it’s said the be the largest rock-hewn church in the world. From here we walked through a small tunnel to Bet Maryam (House of Mary), Bet Golgotha and Beit Mikael.
Bet Maryam, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Ethiopia’s favourite, is the most popular of all the churches, and seeing the people try to cram inside this tiny chapel to pray was mesmerising. There’s a story behind the different windows represented which you can read about here.
Our second day was spent at the Southern Group, where a long tunnel connects to the Northern Group. Exploring and getting lost in the multitude of dark rocky tunnels was half the fun of this place, as you make your way between the four churches that make up this group. Don’t expect a high level of service for your tourist dollars. When visiting Bet Abba Libanos in the Southern Group, the priest reluctantly opened the front door for us and a French couple before closing it behind us without a word, forcing us to exit the long way via the back door. Both the Bet Babriel-Rufael and Bet Merkorios churches were closed for repair works, something we weren’t told when we purchased our tickets, and another was still not open at 3pm when closing time is noted as 12pm-2:30pm…for USD$100 we expect punctuality!
Further along is the clincher, the most well known church of the lot, Bet Giyorgis (Church of Saint George). The trench measures 25m x 25m x 30m and the cross design and lack of protective roof means this is one of the best sites of the lot, and with the morning mass over we had the place almost to ourselves. Leaving the churches we were joined by three friendly teenage locals, who were just interested in practicing their English.
With the sites checked off we headed over to visit the local weekend market which was well underway. Filled with animals, blankets, kitchenware, fabric, grains, vegetables, rope and anything else the locals could possibly need, it’s interesting to wander through though keep in mind this is a local market and there’s not much on offer souvenir wise.
Locals flocking to market day
Needing to buy bus tickets for the following day though with time to waste until the office was open, just before the station on the left overlooking the road and surrounding valleys, Traditional House restaurant offers cheap draft beer and an Aramaic only menu (though prices are easy to read so just ask staff what’s what). Take your pick of several small booths fashioned from mud, brick and wood, with mud and straw bench seating topped with old vinyl St George beer banners held in place by nails hammered through bottle tops. Like most ‘rustic’ bars in Ethiopia, the dirt floor is an accidental mosaic of colourful beer and soft drink caps embedded into the earth. The food won’t blow you away and the strong coffee took a while to come out, but it’s good traditional fare (the shiro with injera is a safe bet) in a bare bones traditional setting.
Tickets secured we took a stroll to the fantastically situated Ben Abeba Restaurant. Jutting out from a small ridge, this place has phenomenal views and spectacular dry season sunsets. Owned by Scottish expat Susan, the place was ingeniously designed by two young architects from Addis Ababa, and consists of numerous levels, ramps, porches and rooms. As the only people there at 3pm, we were able to have all of Susan’s attention and quite a bit of her time to chat about all things Ethiopian, Australian and Scottish. A huge storm quickly blew in and proceeded to dump hail stones from all directions before blowing off two of Susan’s metal tables from the top patio, something which hadn’t happened in the 4 years they’d been open. Employing 45 young locals, the food was great and during high season you might be lucky enough to catch the sounds of a musical duet as the sun sets on one side and the moon rises on the other.
You can’t leave Ethiopia without giving the famous honey wine or tej a shot, and there’s no better place to get your first taste than the tremendously touristy Torpido Tej bar. Dropping in on our way home, we were again the only people here so early in the day, so took our pick of garishly decorated tables, posed on some saddle shaped stools and enjoyed a couple of flasks of the surprisingly yellow liquid. Starting with the strong, which we found a little harsh and slightly smoky, we moved onto the medium which we thoroughly enjoyed. Holding the stem as you’d hold a wine glass, you swig straight from the flask, feeling a little like Professor Snape as potions master.
One recommendation we’d had for Lalibela was to try breakfast at John’s Café. For 65 birr (USD$2.50) each we shared french toast, coffee, mixed juice and an omelet, and a plate of scrambled eggs, all served with bread. A safe bet if you’re looking for a Western breakfast.
Whilst the churches of Lalibela are amazing, the USD$50 pp entrance fee is the highest entrance fee we’ve paid anywhere…ever….and you don’t see any signs of church funded community projects around town. No orphanages, schools or shelters for vulnerable elderly or disabled people, and the roads and pavements being constructed around the churches are being funded by UNESCO, not the churches. Even the large metal roofs installed to protect the churhces from the elements were provided by the European Union, which begs the question, where does all that money go? While some people claim the money is being used for such projects, nobody is 100% sure and we were shown no proof whatsoever. We spotted not less than 10 other tourists the day we visited (in the low season) which already adds up to $600. Times that by 365 days and they’ve already made $219,000, keeping in mind the place is totally swamped during high season so this figure would swell. Many people have stopped coming to the site due to increased ticket price, though it shouldn’t deter you, this place is magical. Perhaps just ask politely where the money goes.
Tips for Lalibela
- Some of the hotel desks at the airport offer free transport though you should always bargain and ask for a discount as prices are often inflated (one desk dropped the price from 600 to 400 birr straight away). Also bear in mind that a minibus to town costs 70 birr p/p and takes 30 minutes so the free transport may not be worth.
- You will be hassled aggressively to take a guide at the church complex. At USD$50 entry per person, we felt this should really be included in the price, so politely declined and walked the site on our own.
- Download the Maps.me app, it allows you to download maps with walking routes for all countries, which you can then delete when you’re finished. We found it invaluable for Ethiopia and Lalibela in particular. With it mountainous winding roads and pathways, all of the churches are marked, making it quite easy to find your way around all of them. The LP guide provides some insight also.
- You’ll most likely be offered a private van direct to Addis in one day, we were quoted 950 birr each. If you want to take this optino bargain HARD as you can fly for the same price.
- When buying tickets at the bus station you DO NOT have to pay extra for baggage. As with all buses in Ethiopia, you pay a small fee/tip to the man who handles your baggage on the day.