Reasons to go
The exact origins of the churches and their construction are still disputed, which is part of their attraction. What is certain is that Lalibela is no dusty relic visited by school groups and academics. Those 13 churches form the living, beating heart of spiritual Ethiopia, hosting the most famous celebrations of the festivals of Genna, Timkat and Meskel.
Although much of your time will be spent in subterranean shadows exploring the underground churches, when you do look up to the skies, you will not be disappointed by the endless blue, the shafts of sunlight cutting through piled storm clouds or the star-bright night.
Market days here are among the most exciting anywhere in Ethiopia. Enormous crowds gather to exchange goods and commodities and the experience offers an insight into the inner workings of Lalibela's economy.
Inch your way across smooth rook paths to churches cut from white cliffs. Stagger onto alpine plateaus where the view and altitude will combine to take your breath away.
Popular Tours Including Lalibela
When King Lalibela decided to re-create Jerusalem in Ethiopia in the 12th century, he did things a little differently. Where others built their churches tall as a bridge to the Heavens, Lalibela carved his from the volcanic rock beneath his feet, perhaps eager for God to join him. And he didn’t just carve one, today 11 stand waiting to be explored.
Occupying a roughly triangular 15 hectare site either side of a rock-cut stream known locally as the Jordan River, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are are found in two clusters, with the magnificent Bet Giyorgis standing alone about 300 metres from the other churches.
Churches of Lalibela
The smoke from burning incense is forever in the air. The crackle of small speakers amplifies the chants of morning service and the rock against which you are resting, observing the scene, is smooth to the touch. There are not many places where a hermit’s cell, red cloth drawn to denote occupancy, is set next to another in which old bones can still clearly be seen.
Beyond The Town
Beyond the rock-hewn churches in the centre of town, the surrounding highlands offer some extraordinary experiences. Some can be enjoyed in an afternoon drive from the centre, while others involve a couple of nights trekking through the mountains.
Churches and Monasteries
The monasteries of Yemrehane Kristos, Asheton Maryna, and Nakuta La'ab are an afternoon drive away from central Lalibela.
Sitting at 4,260m above sea level, Abuna Yoseph is the 6th highest peak in Ethiopia, and the 19th highest in Africa. It's a challenging but rewarding hike that offers stunning views of the Northern highlands and Goha Mountains.
Locally run, Hudad Lodge is perched on the edge of an escarpment outside Lalibela. A short drive takes you to the trailhead, and moderate hike of 2-3 hours brings you to the lodge. The views on the trail and at the lodge are staggering, and it's the perfect way to spend a final night in Lalibela before continuing your onward journey.
Our fantastic community trekking is among our favourite experiences on offer in Ethiopia. The community trekking sites just outside of Lalibela were first set up in 2004, and their meditative walks and jaw-dropping views have been delighting travellers ever since.
Hikes and Sites Around Lalibela
Churches and Monasteries
Close to the small town of Bilbilla, 30km from Lalibela, you will find a cluster of churches, the most impressive of which is Yemrehanna Kristos. The main, built-up, church is the best example of Axumite architecture in the area, built using layers of wood and granite layered with gypsum. It is said to have been built on olive wood poles above a fresh-water lake, but the inspection hatch makes this difficult to verify.
Although academically interesting, it is the atmosphere of the place that lingers in the memory. Priests appear as silhouettes in the gloom, partially obscured by the smoke from burning incense and the bones of 10,740 pilgrims wait, exposed, to be discovered afresh by each visitor.
The monastery of Asheton Maryam is carved out of a cleft in the cliff face on the western slopes of Mount Abune Yoseph.
Thought to have been founded by King Nakuta La’ab, the construction is relatively rough compared to the churches in town, but there are some interesting wall paintings and relics to be seen.
Asheton Maryam can be visited as the focus of a day hike from Lalibela, which takes five to six hours. Alternatively, you can be driven on the new road much closer making the hike 10 minutes, but enabling you to include a visit as part of a longer trek up onto the escarpment to stay at Hudad Lodge.
Nakuta La’ab Monastery
Named after Lalibela’s nephew (the details of whose reign are also disputed), Na’akuto La’ab Monastery, is located just 7km from Lalibela. It is a relatively simple church built around a cave which in turn holds several spring-fed holy pools. Treasures, including paintings, crosses and illuminated bibles are available to see, the latter reputedly owned by Nakuta La’ab. We recommend visiting this site in the afternoon as it is one of the best sites from which to witness the sunset.
Hiking the Escarpments
Once experienced, never forgotten. Hudad is run as a community guesthouse and so is deliberately simple. Therein lies the joy. Built on the rim of the escarpment, 3,300 metres above sea level, four circular stone and thatch tukuls can take up to four guests.
Each tukul an external stone and thatch earth closet toilet. Water is provided for simple washing, but is not on-tap. The food is wholesome, tasty and traditional, served either to take advantage of the spectacular views or snug against the mountain winds.
Community trekking in Ethiopia began in Lalibela, with the first community guesthouse established at Wollo, just outside Lalibela, in 2004.
The trekking represents one of our personal favourite experiences in the country. Medidative walks through rural Ethiopia conclude at the simple stone and thatch guesthouses perched on the escarpment edge.
The cost of each community trek is broken down into three parts: 25% administration costs, 25% guiding costs and 55% to the local host communities.
The easiest way to get a taste of the highlands on foot is to trek either from Lalibela, or from Asheton Maryam to Hudad Lodge. You can base yourself there for a night or two, walking out towards Mount Abuna Yoseph, at 4,284 metres a substantial challenge, or traverse the escarpment on a 35km trek to Yimrehanna Kristos. If you would love to experience the view, but don’t want to walk, this is also possible. Most of the way is now accessible by vehicle, but the last 30 minutes or so must be on foot (or by mule).
Worth a Visit
If you are coming to the end of your trip - or don’t mind adding to your luggage - Lalibela is a great place to buy local handicrafts. The stalls are mainly found on the town square and along the road between the Lal and Roha Hotels. These are also good places to buy a few snacks if you are heading up into the mountains and need fuel.
The main community market day is Saturday. Forget about souvenirs, instead, just take in the spectacle: the colours, noise and movement of the second most important day of the week.
Lalibela Cultural Museum
Ethiopia is a place of stories and a story is much more than just facts, but sometimes it is nice to see an information board - or to cross check your guide’s account. In which case, visit the cultural museum with its beautifully presented displays about Lalibela’s past and present.
The exhibits range from cultural artefacts to ancient manuscripts and other archaeological finds from Lalibela's sites. A museum guide is included in your entry fee.
When to visit
Lalibela is at its busiest in the festivals of December, January and September. The town’s position in the central highlands of Ethiopia means that it receives it greatest rainfall from June to early October, but it is possible to visit all year round. Indeed, there is a lot to be said for the thrill of being one of very few observers of a morning service, or being the only occupant of a silent, dark, tunnel.
Arguably, Lalibela has survived in its current form because it was historically very difficult to access. That has now changed and although still not connected by any other town by a sealed road, Ethiopia's fantastic domestic flight network means the airport runs a daily schedule of flights to destinations across Ethiopia all year round. The airport is 25km away from the centre of town, reached by a good quality tar road.
Although set just apart from the rest of the ‘Northern Circuit’ towns, it is still possible to drive to Lalibela. It is not advisable to drive from Addis because it takes two days, but you can make the journey from both Axum and Mekele in a long day and Bahir Dar or Gondar in about five to six hours.
Places to Stay
Lalibela’s constant and growing popularity has resulted in development of a number of hotels over recent years. Hoteliers have recognised the preferences and budgets of visitors and have happily responded by creating a range of properties to suit. Brilliant uses a number of hotels chosen for their location, reliability, attention to detail and hospitality.
Eating and Drinking
The quality of the food available at Ethiopian hotels has improved massively over the last few years and so all the quality hotels in Lalibela serve good food and normally provide both international and Ethiopian menus. But, as good they are, sometimes it is nice to leave your hotel and see what the town has to offer. Happily, Lalibela won’t let you down.