Bordering Ethiopia, there are north-south trending highlands, descending on the east to a coastal desert plain, on the northwest to hilly terrain and on the southwest to rolling plains. Eritrea retained the entire coastline of Ethiopia along the Red Sea upon declaring independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Eritrea is a relatively small country by African standards, about the same size as Pennsylvania or England, but it has a varied and contrasting landscape due to the diverse topography of the Great Rift Valley, which traverses all of East Africa, the Red Sea and the Middle East.
The country's most interesting destinations are its natural attractions. There are six main topographical features in the country. The highlands in the center and south of Eritrea, the western lowlands, the Sahel in the north, the subtropical eastern escarpments, the northern coast and archipelago and the southern coast.
The highlands, where the capital Asmara is situated, lie between 1500 and 3500 meters above sea level and are blessed with a temperate, Mediterranean and dry climate, with little seasonal variation in temperature. There, the rainy season comes between May and September and the dry season lasts from December to April. There is however considerable variation in temperature between different altitudes in the highlands. The landscape essentially consists of valleys, hills and vast expanses of plateaus interrupted by dramatic chasms and gorges. The dry season from December to April is distinguished by the red-brown, rusty, beige or black stone and rubble-colored landscape, resembling photos from Mars. The vegetation consists largely of shrubbery, eucalyptus, aloes, cacti and the odd explosively colorful specs of bougainvillea, jacaranda or other ornamental plants in the villages and towns. The rainy season brings torrents of rain and nourishment to the land, which transforms into a verdant, emerald and grassy landscape in the post-rain months from August to October.
Rural highlanders live a lifestyle, which resembles Biblical times: villages with stone houses, small plots, ancient temples both Christian and Muslim, people farming and herding with traditional means using little technology, and transporting their goods as well as themselves with mules and camels. A good place to explore the highland landscape is in the outskirts of Asmara, the capital. Near the village of Tselot is the Martyrs National Park, inaugurated in 2000. It is a mountainous forest and wildlife preserve at the ridge of the highland plateau where the capital was built.
The western lowlands lie between 1500 and 100 meters above sea level, the climate is tropical with high humidity and heat throughout the day during the rainy season which comes at the same time as in the Highlands i.e. from May to September and dry hot days with cold nights during the dry season. The landscape consists largely of plains, which are grassy, muddy and green during the rainy season and dry, dusty and sparsely covered with shrubbery during the dry season.
The plains are interrupted by the odd hills and mounts as well as three seasonal rivers originating in the Eritrean highlands and one perennial river, which forms part of the Ethiopian border and originates in the Ethiopian highlands the Setit, also known as Tekeze in Ethiopia and Atbara in Sudan. All major towns in the lowlands are situated on or near these rivers. The southern half of the lowlands consists of typical African Savannah and hosts the odd flocks of wild African elephants and other typically Savannah-type flora and fauna. The northern half of the lowlands is considered part of the Sahara desert and consists of vast expanses of sand dunes and rocks with a few sparsely populated oases. The best place to explore both aspects of the lowlands is the market town Tessenei by the Sudanese border and its surroundings, as it lies right between the dry and green parts of the lowlands. Tessenei is also a place of trade for the nomadic peoples of the desert as well as the sedentary farming communities of the Savannah. Tessenei affords some of the most basic amenities for visitors such as hotels with showers and flush toilets, shops including photo shops to buy film and bottled drinks and restaurants serving well-cooked meals. It is accessible by asphalt road from the capital Asmara via Keren and the towns of Agordat and Barentu, which takes about 10 hours. Buses run daily from Asmara. It can also be reached by dirt track from the Sudanese city of Kassala only 40 km 25 mi away. Considering the border bureaucracy, this short distance could however prove to be a whole day's endeavor.
The Sahel in northern Eritrea lies at the eastern fringes of the great Sahara desert and is distinguished by its sharp contrast with the sandy deserts of the western lowlands and those of the eastern coast. The Sahel consists of a towering narrow chain of mountains ranging from 1000 to 2500 meters 3280-8200 ft high and continue all the way North to Sudan and Egypt a feature of the Great Rift Valley. The slopes to the east and west are sparsely populated by herding nomads. The rainy season in the western slopes comes at the same time as in the Highlands and western lowlands, whereas the eastern slopes resembles the Red Sea's climate of erratic precipitation between December and March. The rainfall in this region is much less than in most other inhabited parts of the country. The climate is desert-like with little humidity, dry hot days and cold nights with little seasonal variation in temperatures. Variations in temperature are seen however, between different altitudes. Heavy erosion due to war and previous overgrazing has also seriously impeded the benefits of the rainy seasons. The landscape is therefore very arid and fit for only the most tenacious of nomadic herding communities. The central and northern core consists of impenetrable and hair-raising mountain passes, gorges and valleys. This was the main base for the Eritrean rebels who now make up the country's government when they fought against Ethiopia for Eritrea's independence. One seasonal river, Anseba, originating in the highlands, bisects the mountain range and drains in a delta on the Red Sea coast of Sudan just north of the Eritrean border. The best place to explore the Sahel is the town of Nakfa, which was the main base of the Eritrean resistance and gave the national currency its name. Nakfa also has a war-museum commemorating the liberation struggle and a comfortable, yet modest government-run hotel with a restaurant and satellite TV. It is accessible from Asmara via Keren on asphalt road and from Keren via the town of Afabet on a dirt road. This takes 10 to 12 hours as the road between Keren and Nakfa is aweful. Buses run to Nakfa from Keren starting early in the morning so a trip from Asmara would entail an overnight stay in Keren which is served many times daily from Asmara. Afabet is also accessible by asphalt road from the port of Massawa via the town of She'eb. The Massawa-Nakfa trip would still take about 10 hours as the unavoidable Afabet-Nakfa leg of the journey is the most taxing. Buses run once weekly from Massawa to Nakfa.
The subtropical eastern escarpment, consists of the eastern seaward slopes of the highland region. Unique for this thin sliver of landscape is that it hosts the country's only subtropical rainforest and one of the world's largest selection of bird species, both seasonal winter-migrants and endemic tropical. Being so mountainous, it has never been heavily settled luckily as it is very hard to farm. Nevertheless, there are some small coffee and spice plantations in its central, higher altitude areas as well as tropical fruit plantations in the lower areas. The Solomouna National Park is the best place to explore this area and is accessible by asphalt road from the capital Asmara as well as the port of Massawa. The only way to the national park is by guided tour with one of Eritrea's tour agencies, which all operate out of Asmara. Traveling to coastal Massawa from highland Asmara, one also passes through this region. The flavor of this region is represented by the towns and villages between Nefasit 25 km from Asmara and Dongollo Alto 50 km from Asmara.
The northern coast and archipelago consists largely of a sandy red-brown and beige semi-desert with some shrubbery and volcanic basalt-rock along the mainland coast. The elevation is between 0 and 500 meters 1640 ft above sea level and the climate is always tropical and humid, reaching uncomfortable highs of 37 to 50 degrees C 99-122 F in the summer months from May to September before cooling to breezy and warm "low's" of 25 to 35 degrees 77-95 F between October and March. The rainy season is an insignificant concept on the coast as it seldom rains at all, save for the freak storm that occurs on the odd year. Some minimal precipitation and cloudiness may occur in the months of November to March, but the coast relies mainly on the runoff from the highlands and eastern escarpments for its water supply from aquifers and table water. The few attractions inland are the hot springs resort about 35 km 22 mi from the port city of Massawa, where hot mineral water baths are available and the water is also bottled as one of the country's most popular mineral water sources and brands Dongollo, sold in brown glass bottles.
The coast and archipelago host some of the Red Sea's most pristine coral reefs, rife with marine wildlife ranging from dugongs and mantas to big schools of tigerfish, dolphins and of course sharks. Eritrea's coast offers some of the best diving in the world but some of the most limited diving and tourist facilities, all of which are based in the port city of Massawa and are extremely expensive. The beaches in and immediately surrounding the port city of Massawa as well as to the north are of modest to poor quality due to pollution as well as flooding and erosion from the nearby highlands. Parts of the northern coast also consists of large mangrove swamps, great for fishing and bird watching but not for beach life.
The beaches on the Dahlak islands, on the other hand, are clean, white and pristine, with lagoons of clear turquoise water. The only way to get to the Dahlak islands is to charter a boat from a licensed company in Massawa. The biggest island Dahlak Kebir, which features one modest resort-hotel is only 90 km 56 mi away as are some other smaller uninhabited islands like Dissei, which can make for affordable day-trips from Massawa. Beyond Dissei, the archipelago extends much farther and offers much greater attractions. With Eritrea's limited facilities, the possibility of going on longer cruises and exploring more of the attractions is prohibitively expensive and only available through a few European-run companies based in Massawa. With the country's heightened sense of security, doing such travel independently on one's own boat or a chartered one is impossible. The best place to explore the northern coast and archipelago is obviously the port city of Massawa.
The southern coast is perhaps Eritrea's most dramatic yet most inhospitable landscape because of its volcanoes, quicksand, bubbling sulphuric mud pools, salt lakes, coastal cliffs and inland depressions. The elevation ranges between peaks of over 2000 meters 6,560 ft above sea level and depressions of more than 100 meters 330 ft below sea level with fields of salt pans and strangely shaped rocks where temperatures reach the highest on our planet. The southern coast has the highest recorded temperatures in Eritrea which regularly reaches 55Â°C 131 F. Humidity keeps the temperatures high all throughout the day and seasonal variations are the same as on the northern coast. The northern inland areas of the southern coast offer a dramatic landscape of contrast between the backdrop of the towering mountains of the highlands to the west and the vast expanses of coastal desert to the east. It is the only area of considerable vegetation in the whole region, thanks to the highland rainfall and runoff. The area also hosts an interesting array of wildlife such as mountain goats and ostriches. The region is situated between the port cities of Massawa and Assab, which are about 500 km 310 mi apart. The region is ideally visited on a journey between the two cities, but a journey could also consist of excursions from Massawa and/or Assab individually, especially for trips geared towards viewing inland landscapes. Any journey without guides to this region is off-limits due to the extreme climate as well as political volatility near the Ethiopian border. The only public transportation in the area consist of buses between Massawa and Assab, which run a few times weekly. Assab is also served by Nasair from Asmara twice weekly.
Eritrea was conquered in 1890 by Italy, who hung onto it until World War II, when they were expelled by the British. Eritrea was awarded to Ethiopia in 1952 as part of a federation. Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea as a province ten years later sparked a 30-year struggle for independence, which ended in 1991 with Eritrean rebels defeating Ethiopian and Ethiopian-backed forces. Independence was overwhelmingly approved in a 1993 referendum, administered by the UN.
Hopes were high when the new state was born but a new border war with Ethiopia erupted again in 1998 and ended only under UN auspices in December 2000. Eritrea briefly hosted a UN peacekeeping operation that monitored a 25 km-wide Temporary Security Zone on the border with Ethiopia. An international commission, organized to resolve the border dispute, posted its findings in 2002. However, final demarcation is on hold due to Ethiopian objections, and the border remains very tense to this day. Eritrea has since expelled the peacekeepers due to lack of support from the UN in having the border ruling enforced.
Using the war as an excuse, Eritrea's government has devolved into one of the worst police states in the world. No national elections have ever been held, the misleadingly named People's Front for Democracy and Justice is the only allowed party, dissidents disappear into jails and the country comes in dead last in the Press Freedom Index. Obligatory military service has been extended to eight years for men and women, border guards shoot on sight at people trying to escape, and the lucky few Eritreans outside the country have to pay taxes to keep their passports. The country is desperately poor, with half the population subsisting on under a dollar a day. Growth has been crippled by the war and the termination of trade with Ethiopia.