A seldom-visited but very rewarding cluster with plenty of public transport between Wukro and Atsbi (Birr18, one hour) town. Market day is Saturday. If you're looking for a guide to this cluster from Wukro, try Mearg Abay.
The Gheralta cluster is home to the most famous, most visited and simply the most (about 30) rock-hewn churches. It’s the gloriously high and remote locations as much as the churches themselves that provide the attraction, and visitors must be properly fit to reach many of them. Since it gets by far the most visitors, there are more reports of hassles, but in our experience it's rarely enough to ruin the experience.
There’s no public transport, and little traffic at all, between Wukro and Megab, where most of the churches lie. The exception is on Wednesday – market day – when two buses leave Wukro for Hawzien (Birr32, two hours) in the morning and return (completely full, so you can’t rely on them stopping to pick you up) in the afternoon. If you need a vehicle to get around, ask at your hotel or the guide office.
With four churches in easy walking distance of each other just 2km off the highway, Takatisfi is the perfect cluster for independent travellers. As an added bonus, the priests are, most often, easily found. The best approach is from the village of Dinglet (a minibus from Wukro is Birr15, 30 minutes), which is just 2.2km from Petros We Paulos. From there, head south to the other two churches and then take the southwest-running road back to the highway south of Teka Tesfai, 5km south of Dinglet. If you’re travelling by vehicle, it needs to be 4WD. You can drive to within a 10-minute-or-less walk of all the churches. Mikael Meka’e is a minor, rarely visited church 15 minutes’ walk north of Petros We Paulos.
Isolated from the other clusters, Tembien receives so few visitors that on our last visit no children asked us for anything… Abi Adi, the nearest town, sits gorgeously in a half-ring of mountains. It’s best approached from Adwa or Mekele. The direct road from Hawzien is often impassable, requiring a 135km drive through Nebelet. Market day is Saturday.
Finding the Priest
Patience and a positive attitude are essential for your enjoyment as it can take up to an hour to locate some priests. Also remember that when a local person tells you they know where the priest is, they only really know where the priest last was or is supposed to be, so if someone takes you up a mountain with a promise that the priest is there but he isn’t, the person was probably not lying. But always make it clear that payment to a guide is dependent on getting inside the church: no entry, no money.
Church Visits - Some Practicalities
Before setting out in the morning, remember the following and plan accordingly:
- Good walking shoes are essential.
- Bring a torch, but don’t take it out too fast; letting the priests show you around by candlelight can be wonderful.
- Bring lots of small notes (priests never have change).
- Carry more water than you think you'll need for the day.
Church Visits - Costs
Visiting the Tigrayan rock-hewn churches and monasteries doesn't come cheap, and the following is a rough guide to how much you can expect to pay.
Most churches cost Birr150 per person to enter. The only exception is Abraha We Atsbeha, which costs Birr250.
In addition to the church admission fee, you'll be expected to pay:
- Guide – Birr385 per group of one to three people; Birr600 for four to six people.
- The man with the key who opens the church (usually the priest) – Birr50.
- Scouts who attach themselves to climbing parties and help them up/down the tricky bits – Birr100.
- Rope if required (for Abuna Yemata Guh, for example) – Birr150 per group.
- If you arrive without a vehicle, you can rent a minibus (ask at the Guide Association in Magab) – Birr1300 per day.
If you’re in Hawzien on a Wednesday, take time for a stroll through the market. It’s one of Tigray’s most important and between mid-October and May it sometimes receives camel caravans bringing salt from the Danakil.
You may also want to look at the patch of ruined houses and bomb craters at the west end of town that remain from an attack by the Derg in 1988 that killed 2500 people. An obelisk-style monument to the victims sits in the middle of the roundabout in the centre of town.
Around 8km southeast of Megab, the village of Cheila is well worth a visit. The small collection of houses represent some of the best examples of stone-built Tigrayan architecture you'll find anywhere. Locals here take a real pride in keeping their village tidy, and there's usually someone around (especially if you come with a local guide) willing to show you their stone-built houses with rooms arrayed around an internal courtyard. It's also a terrific way to meet local people and provides an alternative to visiting the rock-hewn churches.