Lalibela is one of those places that I never knew existed until I arrived in the country and then wondered how that was ever possible. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering to see these huge churches carved from the roof down into the red stone, make sure you time your visit to coincide with one of the saint’s days so you can see a festival in full swing!
You can take a Salem bus from Addis to Lalibela, book a tour, or fly. I chose to fly because I was short on time and the bus is not always the safest option. Flights can be cheap if you book far ahead in advance and if you flew into the country with Ethiopian you’ll get a hefty discount. Even if you didn’t, you can apparently get away with lying on the online booking form, but don’t quote me on that.
The town itself is half an hour drive from the airport and transport is expensive. The hotels and tour guides will charge you a flat rate of 500 birrs ($20) one way, this seems to be unavoidable unless you wait for a shared taxi which will make it much cheaper.
Where to eat and sleep
There are plenty of options for accommodation from basic $10 rooms to more luxurious (but still cheap) hotels like the Honey Land Hotel, it cost $25 a night for a great ensuite room with the perfect view. You can book online but if you haven’t it’s small enough to get around on foot and check out your options.
Most hotels have their own restaurants that serve a mix of local and western food and there are a few local choices throughout the town itself. One place you absolutely must visit is the strange but wonderful Ben Abeba, a 10-15 minute walk north-west out of town, perched high above the valleys below. The food is good, the beer is cold and the views are to die for.
Having a guide here is not essential, but I highly recommend it, at least for one day. They will help you find your way around, stop you getting hassled constantly and can tell you a lot about each building and the surrounding landscape. My guide was a local man called Tefera and it cost 500 birrs ($20) per day, although you may be able to barter for a cheaper price. The entrance fee is $50, but your ticket is valid for four days. Keep in mind that the churches close for mass between 12pm and 2pm every day.
You’ll start your day at the symmetrical and well laid out north-western cluster, your first church is the impressive Bet Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world. Nearby Bet Maryam is the oldest church in Lalibela, and you’ll find the tiny Bet Maskal and Bet Danaghel either side of the surrounding courtyard.
The semi-monolithic twin churches of Bet Mikael and Bet Golgota are the most atmospheric. Here you’ll find the grave of Lalibela himself, and the Selassie Chapel is considered the holiest place in Lalibela. Women are not permitted to enter Bet Golgata but your guide can enter and take a photo for you. The Tomb of Adam is the original main entrance to the complex.
The south-eastern cluster is more of a random complex of differently styled churches, but no less spectacular. Bet Amanuel is the only monolithic church in this cluster, and it’s easily one of the most beautiful and intricately carved. Bet Gabriel-Rufael is a strange church, thought to have been originally built as the residence of King Lalibela, it’s height greatly exaggerated by the 5m deep trench.
Follow winding passageways to see the crumbling curved façade of Bet Lehem, currently held up by wooden scaffolding. You’ll need a torch for the 50m tunnel that connects it to the next church, but they say walking it in the dark gives you a taste of hell. Bet Mercurious is a lovely cave church that partially collapsed but was rebuilt in the 80s, surrounded by smaller cave rooms and more winding passageways.
My favourite church is the pink-tinged Bet Abba Libanos, carved into the cliff face and still connected by the roof but separated from the walls by narrow tunnels. Legend suggests it was built by Lalibela’s wife in a night, assisted by a group of angels. From here you can start the long walk back to town or head to the main road and catch a tuk-tuk for 50 birrs ($2).
My second day in Lalibela started early and I was rewarded with a wonderful experience. It was St George’s Day and we spent a few hours at Bet Giyorgis, the only church not covered by a modern shelter, watching the morning mass. Hundreds of men, women and children shrouded in white shawls praying in unison with the loudspeaker. We descended into the church itself where people prayed, got splashed with holy water and received blessings from the priest. It was incredible to witness, try and plan your visit around one of the Saint’s days!
Lalibela is a wonderful place to spend a few days. If you have the time you can venture into the mountains where you’ll find even more churches and maybe even a few Ethiopian wolves. It may be pricey but a guide is well worth it, and don’t forget to enjoy a romantic sunset dinner at Ben Abeba!
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