Dahlak Kebir, Eritrea

Photo: Explore-Eritrea
Photo: Explore-Eritrea

Eritrea keeps falling lower and lower on your travel wish list. Make that everyone’s travel wish list. The small Eastern Africa country may be called the Pearl of the Red Sea, but it certainly isn’t acting like a gem. Tensions are rising again along the southern border with Ethiopia. Severe drought continues to weaken an economy that’s based largely on agriculture. While hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country’s dreadful human right’s situation.

It’s too bad, since Eritrea—yes, Eritreais home to one of the most stunning and pristine spots in the Red Sea. The Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Massawa, is home to diverse marine life, unusual seabirds, and a marine national park. The nearly 200 islands first gained recognition for their pearl fisheries during Roman times. But since they’re so isolated, the islands remained largely untouched, even as they were conquered by the Yemenis and the Ottoman Turks, the Italians and the Ethiopians.

Today the islands are home to about 2,500 people, who fish, collect sea cucumbers, and shepherd goats for a living. Ancient cisterns and a necropolis are surrounded by grazing camels on Dahlak Kebir, the largest island. Mangroves, salt bushes, and white-sand beaches line the shore, where herds of gazelles cool off. Coral reefs and Italian shipwrecks are submerged just beneath the clear turquoise water. Manta rays weave between them. Pods of dolphins swim alongside visiting boats. While slow-moving dugongs munch on seagrass along the ocean floor.

This is the Eritrea you wish you could visit. You want to cruise between the islands, scuba dive in an untouched national park, and have a historic site all to yourself. If only the president of Eritrea envisioned this for his country as well.

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