Your palms are sweaty, knees weak and breathe is heavy,
You’ve scaled a mountain already
And the final few steps are a little unsteady…
Heart racing and adrenaline pumping, you peer down the never-ending valley hundreds of metres below. Glancing back up at the narrow walkway in front of you, you’re silently freaking out… “please tell me, I don’t have to walk across that.”
You are trekking in the ancient Gheralta Mountains. Following the centuries old sandstone walkway that pilgrims have trod so many times before. You see the footprints of those that have come before you and gazing around you search for the hidden Ethiopian cave churches you’ve come to find.
Crossing the last narrow walkway to heaven, you stoop to enter a small wooden doorway and freeze… never have your eyes seen something so mesmerizing. Something so beautiful and untouched, like it’s been there forever and yet it hasn’t aged a day.
Hiking in the Gheralta Mountains is a once in a life-time experience. These mountains are home to some of Ethiopia’s most breathtaking views. Deep sun-soaked valleys, high towering cliffs and beautiful dusty landscapes are just some of the stunning sights you can expect to find.
This region is also home to more than 120 ancient cave churches. Local legend claims that these churches date back to as early as the 4th Century, although historians believe they were more accurately built between the 9th and 12th Centuries.
Positioning these churches in such secluded, private locations served two purposes:
Once inside, you’ll be dazzled by large rock pillars, high archways and beautiful religious imagery made from natural dyes. These paintings helped Ethiopian Orthodox monks and priests to learn Bible stories through the visual murals – as many had limited literacy. Many of the paintings are originals, believed to have survived unscathed because the churches were abandoned for many years, meaning the paintings were not exposed to light or heat. Dimly lit by candles and to the beat of a local drum, the high priest shares the eerie tales behind these murals, it’s almost like you’re reliving the past.
These treks are for travellers who love adrenaline and “the unknown”. Those who are curious explorers, determined to find ancient wonders and get off-the-beaten-track. These challenging but scenic treks are accompanied by feelings of spiritual awakening as inquisitive explorers and devoted pilgrims alike trod the steep stairways to heaven, all in search of these hidden stone-engraved churches. Even for those who aren’t religious, visiting these churches will offer you a surprisingly spiritual and peaceful experience.
What is the best time to visit the Gheralta Mountains?
It is best to visit between November to April when temperatures are 25C and it is no longer rainy season.
How to get to the Gheralta Mountains?
Travellers should use Ethiopian Airlines to arrive in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. From Addis Ababa, daily flights are available to Mekele which is a two-hour drive from Wukro where many tours depart.
A helpful tip: Whilst many airlines fly to Ethiopia, you should try to arrive on an Ethiopian Airlines flight. This will give you access to significantly cheaper domestic flights (i.e. half price or less). It is also often cheaper to book your domestic flights in Ethiopia. Just bear in mind that there are usually only a few flights each day so you don’t want to miss out.
Where to stay in the Gheralta Mountains?
We highly recommend staying at Wukro Eco Lodge. Admittedly, they can be a little hard to communicate with (and their website is currently down – probably due to the COVID-19 Pandemic) but the eco lodge is absolutely amazing. Staying here feels a little like you are staying inside Camelot and the lodge is well priced and offers private, stylishly decorated luxury rock huts.
The Gheralta Lodge is also an amazing place to stay.
A helpful tip: Ethiopia can be a hard destination to book online. Many hotels and tour providers don’t allow for online bookings, the internet is frequently down and how can you be sure the company exists and is reliable. It is also under-developed with limited transport and accommodation options. If you prefer hassle-free holidays, talk to one of our African adventure experts who can plan and book your ideal Ethiopian adventure today.
Do I need a tour guide to travel in the Gheralta Mountains?
It is recommended to hire a local guide. Many of the churches in this region are very well hidden and you will not find them by yourself. Most people also don’t speak English so you will need a guide to translate. Many of the treks involve a rock scramble and some even require harnesses and ropes. If you book through Adventure Out Loud, we’ll take care of all of these arrangements for you.
A helpful tip: When you visit the more popular churches, there may be a number of local youth guides waiting (in addition to the guide you have employed). If there aren’t any other tourists, which is often the case, you may end up with multiple guides. Although this will be great fun and they will be very helful, all of them will expect a tip at the end. If you do not want to pay them all, it is important to clearly communicate that you do not need more than 1 – 2 guides before you start your trek. It is a good idea to hire at least one local guide though, and it is a great way to support the local communities.
Are the Gheralta Mountains churches better than Lalibela?
Personally, we think the Gheralta Mountain cave churches are better that Lalibela. They are more remote, have very few tourists visiting, are cheaper and offer a more authentic and adventurous experience. Don’t get us wrong, Lalibela is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it is Ethiopia’s number 1 attraction and you can expect hundreds of tourists (or more) each day. In the Gheralta Mountains, you may be the only tourists who visits that day which allows you to immerse in the experience on a more intimate level.
The Gheralta Mountains allow tourists a chance to truly immerse in ancient history, culture and tradition. Many of the treks in this region will pass through remote farming villages where you’ll have the opportunity to immerse in a local community. Overnight homestays are also available and tours to the world-famous Danakil Depression, Dallol and Erta Ale volcano are available in this region.
With more than 120 remote rock churches in the Gheralta Mountains, and many more still being discovered each year, you must add Ethiopia and the Gheralta Mountains to your bucket list for 2022.