Hawzen, Ethiopia, September 2017
The Tigray region of Ethiopia, located in the North, is famous with the locals and tourists for its churches. There are over 130 churches that are monolithic (located in the rock) , semi-monolithic (part of the church is located in the rock, and part on the ground) and rock-hewn (carved out completely from the rock).
We’re not really religious and definitely not church-goers, but the adventure side of things, as well as the beautiful history attracted us to Tigray and its famous Abuna Yemata and Abreha We Atsbeha. You may wonder: adventure side of things whilst visiting churches? Well, once you find out what you have to do to get to the churches, you’ll understand!
Below we answer some questions that we ourselves were wondering about, before we headed to Tigray. Hopefully you'll find them useful and you'll love the Tigray Churches as much as we did!
Which Tigray Churches to see?
With over 130 churches to choose from, it might be a difficult choice! Our time was limited, we only had one full day and a half-day to sightsee. There are different types of beautiful buildings to see, depending on your taste and possibilities. You can either drive and walk for 5 minutes to the gates (Abreha We Atsbeha) , or you can walk for an hour and then climb a steep 300m free standing rock (Abuna Yemata)! There are also other options, where you can walk for 2 hours on a medium difficulty path, to get to Maryam Korkor and Daniel Koror, where the views are said to be stunning.
Since we’re not really into trekking extensively and we would rather take a steep path for an hour, rather than gradually walk up for 3 hours, our first choice was Abuna Yemata, famous for its difficult reach. We didn’t want to have a rushed day, so the second choice was more easy going and didn’t demand walking for too long - Abreha We Atsbeha. To decide exactly what you want to see, you should pop over to Gheralta Lodge. If you can’t stay there, have a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner, and check their library (and Tigray Churches guide) for extensive information about Gheralta Mountains (where Abuna Yemata is located), and Tigray Churches. You’ll find an answer to every question and you’ll be able to chat to the staff, who will be able to help you come up with a perfect itinerary, if you’re travelling independently.
How to get to Abuna Yemata?
To get to Abuna Yemata, it’s best to leave from Gheralta Lodge (it’s the closest, 15 min drive), Hawzen (the little town nearby, 25min drive) or Mek’ele (be prepared for a longer drive, 2-3 hours). If you reach Gheralta Lodge independently, you can find a driver there and they can recommend you a guide, which then you can pick up on the way to Abuna Yemata, from the village named Megab.
From there you’ll drive about 10 minutes to the foot of Gheralta Mountains’ eastern side. After that, be prepared for 45-60 mins trek up the steep mountain. The trek is not extremely difficult - you go up via stone path/naturally stepped out stairs, and you can stop and rest quite a lot on the way, because the altitude rises up pretty quickly so your breathing might become faster and deeper. We quite enjoyed the views on the way, stopping often and taking shots of the beautiful landscape in front of us.
Once you reach one of the actual Gheralta Mountains’ rock, you’ll be faced with a choice - climb with or without the rope. We just laughed when we were offered the choice - how would we even climb this vertical rocky wall without any rope, if even the smallest mistake would mean we would roll down the cliff behind our backs?!
So yes - we opted for the harness and rope, although the local scouts who voluntarily walked with us jumped up the rock without much difficulty! Their presence was actually really helpful because they were directing us where exactly we should place our feet and hands. The climb up was pretty scary (although it turned out later on that the climb down was worse!) because if you let go off the rock, nonetheless the harness and ropes, you’d be hurt pretty badly bouncing off the rock that you’re facing! Besides climbing, there is a few more minutes of walking steeply up involved, and more climbing without the ropes. But in the end - once you get to the top and your heart stops thumping from fear, you’re there - in the middle of a 300m free standing rock!
Now you just have to walk on the cliff shelf, which in comparison to the previous climb, is not that scary, and you can enter Abuna Yemata! You’ll be one of the few tourists that managed to get there.
If you’re a girl, and fellow male travellers told you you may be not allowed inside, don’t even listen to them…you’re perfectly fine - you’re more than welcome inside and if you brought a scarf with yourself, cover up your knees and arms, but it’s not the end of the world if you don't.
How to get to Abreha We Atsbeha?
Getting to Abreha We Atsbeha is pretty straightforward, as every guide and driver knows this church because it is named after the famous kings of Axum. You will drive for about 30 minutes through some pretty idyllic scenes of farm and village life, with the mountains in the background, and you’ll stop right in front of the gates. Then, it’s an easy, 2 minute walk, up the stairs to the church. Because of it’s easy reach, this church is very popular with pilgrimages of local and foreign tourists.
Do you need a guide to see Tigray churches?
Unfortunately, yes! Why unfortunately? For us it’s unfortunate because we really love independent travel and we’re very slow - we like sitting for half an hour and starring at the beautiful landscapes, we take a lot of photographs and film and this all takes time, whilst guides are usually quite on point when it comes to showing you places. Nonetheless, if you’re staying in Gheralta Lodge, ask them about recommending you a guide - say how you like visiting places, whether you’re fast or slow, physically strong or you need more time to get up the hill, and of course discuss the budget. Otherwise, you can pick up a guide from Megab, but be prepared to haggle and deal with shouting (there are a lot of guides waiting by the road and each of them wants to be the chosen one!).
You need a guide for a couple of reasons - you don’t know the way to the churches and you don’t have ropes to climb to Abuna Yemata.
Where to stay when visiting Tigray churches?
Your best choice would be Gheralta Lodge. We simply loved that place and would stay there for a week if we had time! It’s the closest you can stay to the famous churches located in Gheralta Mountains, and it’s a one of a kind place! Not only are they an oasis of peace, but their design, as well as grounds are stunning. Their rooms are placed in low free standing stone buildings, based on the original Tigray farmer house look. They blend in wonderfully with the environment and have all the amenities that you may need. They’ll fulfil all the needs whether you’re a practicality-focused geek or a design lover. Even the buttons on their bedsheets have their beautiful logo ‘Gheralta Lodge’ carved on to them!
The influence of Gheralta Lodge’s Italian owner, Silvio, is clearly visible - they boast a beautifully maintained herb and vegetable garden and the menu offers delicious pastas. Whether you’re a single traveller, a couple or a group of 6 or more friends, you’ll find a perfect room - single, double or a villa with two rooms connected with a shared inside patio.
And if you love sunrises and sunsets, you don’t need to go far - there is a viewpoint 1 minute walk from your room, which is easy to climb, and gives you a wonderful panoramic view of the surrounding areas and Gheralta Mountains - with the right weather (like the one we were lucky to get!) you may feel like you’re in heaven!
The best thing about Gheralta Lodge is that they’re affordable - they cater for a variety of tastes and that’s why we love it!
If Gheralta Lodge is fully booked (and that happens often, so book early), you’re other choice is in Hawzen - Vision Hotel. Given its name, you’d think it’s a hotel, but it’s actually more of a guest house or hostel. It has several ground floor rooms, which are very basic and quite clean.
Otherwise, you can stay in Mek’ele, but it’s about 2-3 hours drive to Gheralta Mountains.
Check out our photos from Gheralta Lodge below:
How much does it cost to see the Tigray Churches?
This is a bit tricky because the tickets to, e.g. Abuna Yemata cost 150 birr per person, but the scouts who accompany you whether you want it or not, will expect a tip. It’s true that they helped us hugely with where to put our feet and hands on the rocks, and they were pretty close by to catch us in case something happened, but we didn’t like the fact that when we handed them over 100 birr to share between four of them, they booed us and showed us their high discontent. We felt stupid so we gave them another 100 birr and suddenly they were all smiles.
Same goes in terms of taking photos in the church and of the priest - you sort of can’t not take a photo of the priest because he is there, holding the bible to show you and he will surely be in one of your photos, whether you do it on purpose or by accident. We asked our guide how much should we tip the priest - would 10 or 20 birr be enough? He sort of laughed and said that the priest will expect at least 200 to 300 birr for payment….
When we visited Abreha we Atsbeha, we forgot to ask about the price - we visited the church and then ‘the museum’ that’s next to it. The museum is really a one small room with some beautiful things inside the broken and dusty cabinets. This time we made sure not to photograph the priest, unless he walked into the photograph himself. Well…it didn’t help. At the end we were told to pay 500 birr! Apparently the ticket again was 150 birr but ‘other fees’ were 100 birr each - not sure whether it was about photographing or about visiting the museum, but we didn’t get any receipt like previously in Abuna Yemata.
When we were passing by Wukro Church on our way back to Mek'ele, we looked at it from the outside and asked about the entrance fee - 150 birr per person.
How much is accommodation, car and a guide?
The car may cost about 80 USD if you rent it from Gheralta Lodge so it’s best to share it with friends or other travellers.
The guide can be arranged by Gheralta Lodge or picked up from Megab and the price hugely varies - if you opt for an assistant guide who may not have as much experience as a guide, the cost is about 300-400 birr a day. If you’re aiming for a good guide, be ready to pay up to 1000 birr a day.
A night and breakfast in Gheralta Lodge in June and July will cost you 50 USD for a double room, in August and September 70 USD and from October to May - 100 USD.
Vision Hotel will cost you 15-19 USD.
If you want to skip the whole hassle of haggling with the scouts and finding a guide, you can also see Tigray Churches with ETT, their two day trip not only takes you to Abuna Yemata, but also Daniel and Maryam Korkor and to Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is located.
- If you're after comfortable and beautiful accommodation, stay at Gheralta Lodge for one night between June - September and spend one day seeing the churches, OR
- If you're simply after seeing the churches, stay at Vision Hotel for two nights and spend one or two days seeing the churches,
- Choose an assistant guide if you want to save money (300 birr instead of up to 1000 birr) and make sure that hiring the harness and the ropes is included in the price,
- Share the car with friends or with newly-met tourists,
- Ask about the ticket price before entering the church and tell scouts at Abuna Yemata the beginning that you will not pay them unless you yourself will ask for help from them.