While mostly overshadowed by Ethiopia, troubled Somalia, and tourist mecca Kenya to the south, the Horn of Africa is woefully under visited. The area contains three of the most interesting countries and regions in Africa — Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland. We’re not quite sure why not many people go, because they all offer big adventures, incredible landscapes, and friendly people. Ancient rock art, world class diving, lunar like salt lakes, and vestiges of colonial empires await those who make the journey. So read on and discover the 15 best reasons to visit the Horn of Africa.
1) No tourists
So you’ve been waiting months or even years for your once-in-a-lifetime vacation, only to get there and find out that it’s completely overrun by tourists. While this can be a downer and spoil the picture-perfect images you had in your head, you won’t run into this problem in the Horn. One tiny country, one that’s difficult to get into, and one that’s not internationally recognized — only the truly adventurous will make it to Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland and be uniquely rewarded.
2) Lake Assal
At 150 meters (500 feet) below sea level, Lake Assal is the third lowest place on Earth. With 10 times the salinity of the Dead Sea, it’s one of the saltiest places in the world. Wildlife still abounds however, as antelopes, birds, camels and other fauna live along its banks. Hire a car in Djibouti City to take you out for the day.
Originally the capital of Italy’s colony until 1897, Massawa is one of the few places tourists are allowed to visit freely in Eritrea. If you go, you’ll find a beautiful seaside town with traditional East African architecture in addition to colonial Italian, a rarity since they only had one other African colony (Libya). A few resorts and great seafood make Massawa the place to relax should you decide to go.
Hargeisa is the capital of Somaliland, an unrecognized state that declared independence from Somalia proper in 1991 and has maintained its own army, money, government, and stability ever since. While it lacks the traditional sites for tourists, it has a captured Mig 17 jet from Somalia in Freedom Square as a commemoration to its brief war for independence. Good facilities, friendly locals, and a chance to soak up the culture are the main reasons for a visit. At one point, foreigners could even get a Somaliland passport.
5) Amazing locals
As one of the least visited places in Africa, the indigenous people of Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland will go out of their way to welcome you. With so few visitors, you’re bound to receive inquisitive looks and the occasional uncomfortable stare, but most are just curious. You’ll likely receive just as many offers for tea and conversation which we encourage you to accept. What better way to learn about where you are?
6) Maskali Islands
Moucha and Maskali Island are two small islands in the Gulf of Tadjoura several miles from Djibouti City. With an abundance of coral reefs and marine life, scuba diving and snorkeling is excellent here, as the perpetually warm waters of the Red Sea keep marine life healthy.
7) Laas Geel
The highlight of Somaliland, hire a guide, driver, and obligatory armed guard and set out through the desert for Laas Geel, a series of caves housing the oldest rock art in East Africa. Depictions of cattle, humans, and other wild animals date back to between 9,000–3,000 years BCE. Besides being the only tourist, maybe your guard will let you shoot off a few rounds from his AK-47 if you ask nicely. Many larger hotels can arrange a visit to the incredible caves.
The largest city and capital of Eritrea, Asmara is unlike any other city in Africa. It almost feels as if you stepped back in time to a 1930s Italian film set because of the well-preserved colonial Art Deco buildings. Sip cappuccinos and wander its wide tree-lined boulevards as the architecture and lifestyle are the main draws here. There are a few museums and preserved cathedrals as well as some real nice hotels. Come discover the food, culture, and history in one of Africa’s least visited places.
9) Incredible adventures
No matter which country you decide to visit, it will undoubtedly be an adventure. Try reaching Hargeisa from Djibouti City via a harrowing 20 hour shared taxi ride. Check out Djibouti’s incredible landscape or get a permit to visit Eritrea’s Dahlak Archipelago. No matter what you do in these places, the journey will be part of the destination as it takes some determination to visit any of them. You’ll have stories, photos, and memories to last a lifetime as well as a new found sense of accomplishment.
10) Lake Abbe
The meeting place of three tectonic plates, Lake Abbe in Djibouti is another incredible place to visit. The depository for the Awash River, the area features a volcano, salt flats, and limestone chimneys that rise to over 50 meters (150 feet) high! Venting steam from the chimneys adds to the desolation of this lunar like landscape. Although, the flamingos that flock to the lake and Afar people with their camels make it feel truly surreal.
11) Dahlak Archipelago
If you can get a permit from the government, the Dahlak Archipelago is one of Eritrea’s few and unmissable sites. With 124 islands of varying islands set off the coast, white sand beaches and azure waters await those who arrive. The national marine park features an incredible diversity of bird and marine life, and much like the rest of the nations along the Red Sea, the scuba diving and snorkeling are some of the best in the world.
Travel through the desert and across the country to reach the port of Berbera, Somaliland with miles and miles of deserted beaches. Also home to a disused NASA runway for an abandoned space program, the pace of life here is sleepy and laid back. You’ll likely be the only one on the beach, unless you count the wandering packs of camels.
13) Cheap prices
Compared to Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Kenya, and the other more visited countries, your wallet will definitely appreciate the Horn of Africa. While the standards can’t really compare to some of the more touristed areas, your money can really stretch here. Yes, getting to these places may cost a bit more, but you’ll live like royalty.
14) Goda Mountains
Rising to 1,750 meters (5,750 feet) above sea level, the Goda Mountains are Djibouti’s most forested area. Part of the range is protected by Day Forest National Park (Djibouti’s only) where small warthog populations still exist, but sadly, no leopards have been spotted since the 1980s. Once nomadic, small settlements of Afar people now inhabit the area with their flocks of cattle.
Stretching the southern half of Eritrea for 500 km (300 miles), Dankalia is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Mostly consisting of the rocky Danakil Desert, if you can get a permit from the government to visit, hire a guide and feel secure that you will be the only non-native in the area for hundreds of miles. A few towns and tribes of people live in this desolate area, along with lots of camels of course.