Perched at an altitude of 2630m, among the wild craggy mountains of Lasta and vast rocky escarpments, there is a stark cathedral-like grandeur to Lalibela, a strange, isolated town famed for its rock-hewn churches.
Lalibela is arguably the one place in Ethiopia that no tourist should miss. Were it virtually anywhere but in Ethiopia, Lalibela would rightly be celebrated as one of the wonders of the world.
Roha, as the town was known at the time, was the capital of the Zagwe Dynasty which ruled over Ethiopia from the 10th century to the mid-13th century. Its modern name, Lalibela, derives from the most famous of the Zagwe rulers, the 12th-century King Lalibela.
How to get there
There are now daily flights to Lalibela from Addis Ababa, Gondar, Bahar Dar and Axum throughout the year.
By road there are three approaches to Lalibela, the most popular and easiest of which is the rough 120 km road from Woldia, a trip that can take between four to six hours. This road is covered by daily buses and land cruisers.
The second route is from the west, branching from the main road between Bahar Dar and Gondar at a place called Werota. From Bahar Dar and Gondar you can reach Debre Tabor in a day, then the next day catch a bus to Dilb, and the following day join a vehicle heading from Woldia to Lalibela.
The third route approaches from the north along the road that connects Axum to Lalibela via Adwa, Abi Aday and Sekota. Without a private vehicle you may find it difficult to complete the 130km strtch between Sekota and Laibela.
Where to stay
The most upmarket hotel in Lalibela is the Roha Hotel, part of the government Ghion chain and excellent in almost every respect, with the sole reservation that it’s about 2 km out of town and thus 2 km from the churches. Much cheaper than the Roha is the New Jerusalem Guesthouse which has self-contained rooms with hot water for $US 20/30 single/double.
A popular budget hotel in Lalibela is the ‘private’ (as opposed to government) Roha Hotel, where rooms cost around Birr 25/40 single/double. The Asheton Hotel is also worth a look.
There are a few places charging around US$ 2 for a basic single. The Kedemt Hotel is by some way the best of these places, with a friendly owner and clean communal showers.
Where to eat
Without doubt, the best place to eat is the Blue Lal Restaurant, run by an Ethiopian woman who lived in France for a decade. Excellent local dishes cost slightly more than US$1 and western dishes can be arranged in advance. The restaurant at the Lal Hotel is good and does Western food. If you want to try the ‘heavenly’ tej (honey wine) for which Lalibela is justly famed, try the Helen Hotel which also serves good local food and sometimes has live music.
For coffee and possibly a pastry or two try Shalom Snack.
What to see and do
People visit Lalibela for the churches. And, no matter if you have visited other rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, nothing will prepare you for these. The Lalibela churches are big – several are in excess of 10m high – and, because they are carved below ground level, they are ringed by trenches and courtyards, the sides of which are carved into with stone graves and hermit cells, and connected to each other by a tangled maze of tunnels and passages. In size and scope, the church complex feels like a subterranean village. Yet each individual church is unique in shape and size, precisely carved and minutely decorated. Lalibela is, in a word, awesome.
It is in the church Bet Medhane Alem, in the northwestern cluster of churches, that you will find the 800 year old Lalibela Cross, which is made of solid gold and reportedly weighs around 7kg. It is said to have been the personal property of King Lalibela, and is perhaps the most treasured artefact of the Ethiopian church, more holy than anything in Jerusalem or Rome.
It is advisable to get a guide to show you around. The official ones are generally very knowledgeable and informative and as they know all the priests so you’ll be spared the hassle of having to raise the priest who keeps the key for each church. But negotiate a fair rate in advance.
Please note that there are no internet or reliable foreign currency exchange opportunities in Lalibela. It’s best to bring as much local currency as you’re likely to need.
Where to go from there
There are several rock-hewn churches within hiking distance of Lalibela. The easiest to get to is Nakuta La’ab, 8km away from Lalibela. One advantage over the other churches in town is that the treasures are brought out into the open where they can be examined in decent light. You can get a taxi there, organise a mule or enjoy the walk.
There is not a huge amount to see in the other main towns in the Wolo province including Dessie, Woldia, Kombolcha. Dessie, however, is the obvious base from which to explore Hayk and Makdala Mountain. Ringed by hills and fringed by large papyrus beds, Lake Hayk’s deep blue waters are very attractive. The surrounding area is good for birds but the greatest point of interest in the area is Hayk Istafanos, a small male only monastery steeped in history. The scenery along the ascent to the 3000m peak of Makdala Mountain is wonderful, and the fortifications erected by Tewodros are still in place.
Note that Ethiopian Airlines does not fly between Dessie and Lalibela.
If you wish to travel further afield then you can take flights out from Lalibela to Addis, Axum, Bahar Dar and Gondar.
Source: Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide – third edition by Philip Briggs http://www.bradt-travelguides.com