What to do in Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia - Understand
Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its churches carved into solid underground (or level ground) rock. The churches have been beautifully restored and since they are now famous, the entrance fee (valid for four days) is an extremely high $50.
The shantytown that sprung up around there caters to the tourists visiting the churches. However, this also means a huge amount of touts who won't leave you alone for a second, unless you're in a church or restaurant. It's rare for me to feel as much 'dollar on legs' as I did in Lalibela.
The town has wonderful views across the adjacent valleys. About 100 to 200 visitors come here every day, which does not sound much, but given the creaky infrastructure it's more than the town can easily handle.
Plan 1 to 3 days here to see all the churches. The main churches in town can be seen in 2 to 4 hours and are open 6AM to noon and then 2PM to 5PM.
What to do in Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia - Safety
As in other Ethiopian cities, it's safe and violent crime is almost unheard of. Nevertheless, the second you leave your hotel you will be surrounded by dozens of youngsters trying every scam on earth on you. They won't leave you alone and appear at random places across town just to 'guide you' - if that sounds creepy, it really was for me. However, they won't follow you into private businesses.
What to do in Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia - Get Around
The airport (another Ethiopian Airlines monopoly aerodrome) is about 20 miles outside the city on a steep dirt road.
Your hotel will likely organize a free pickup and drop-off. In town, distances between sights are small but the enormous amount of touts will happily make you pay for tuk-tuks, though they are cheap.
What to do in Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia - Sights
The churches in town and outside the city are what you are here for. The sheer amount of energy needed to carve those religious sites into the rock is amazing. There are three complexes that decrease in uniqueness when entering from the ticket office. The ticket office does not accept credit cards, so take cash in USD or Birr. Ethiopian passport holders can enter without paying a fee.
An annoying aspect is the number of checkpoints where you have to show your ticket. Expect to show it at a dozen times (maybe laminate it and carry it around your neck). You will also have to take off your shoes for each church, so flip flops are a good idea, but be sure you are comfortable with them as there's a number of steep climbs.
The main sights have security where the locals will give you a few minutes of freedom, but they will otherwise approach you relentlessly. The area has no fences and intersects with the village. It has bad signage and it's tricky to find your way around, so it might be a good idea to hire a guide for $20 (though I did not).
What to do in Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia - Eat & Drink
There's a bunch of typical Ethiopian coffee stalls around, but none stood out too much to me.
We had lunch at the Seven Olives Hotel Restaurant
, which makes good Ethiopian and western dishes.
The time before sunset should be reserved for Ben Ababa
- a wonderful structure on top of a hill with majestic views across the valley. The food and drinks are very reasonable and the service is very good. Dinner here after a day of exploration does not get much better than this! This was likely the best part of the stay.
What to do in Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia - Where to Stay
We got a room at the Panoramic View Hotel
, which has basic rooms but friendly staff, good showers and incredible views from all rooms. The WiFi was slow and the beds were a few generations old, but oh well. The airport transfer and (basic) breakfast was included, so for $58 this was a steal!