Comprising eleven churches and two chapels, Ethiopia’s labyrinthine ‘New Jerusalem’, excavated by King Lalibela in the 12th century and still in active use today, has been dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Hand-carved into the rock flake by painstaking flake, a process that would have required around 40,000 man-years to complete, Lalibela represents the apex of an Ethiopian church-excavating tradition that dates to the arrival of Christianity circa 350 AD.
Lalibela lies 170km from Weldiya, 300km from Bahir Dar, 360km from Gondar, and 390km from Aksum by road. All routes are mostly surfaced but involve some travel on gravel. The shortest road distance between Addis Ababa and Lalibela is 680km via Dessie and Weldiya. Lalibela Airport, 25km from the town center along a surfaced road, is serviced by daily Ethiopian Airlines flights from Addis Ababa, Gondar, Bahir Dar and Aksum (www.ethiopianairlines.com). All flights are met by private operators offering transfers into town.
The complex of 11 churches in Lalibela town can only be explored on foot. A guide is strongly recommended and can be obtained at the ticket office outside the Northern church cluster. Transport and logistics for visiting other churches further afield can be handled by most hotels and guides, local tour operators or the Community Tourism Guiding Enterprise.
The town of Lalibela has a large selection of hotels such as Sora Lodge, Maribela Hotel, Seven Olives Hotel, Mountain View Hotel, Honeyland Hotel, Panoramic View Hotel, Top Twelve Hotel, Lal Hotel, Degosach Eco Lodge, Fikir and Ray Lodge, Tabor Hotel and others catering to all tastes and budgets. Out-of-town options include a network of 11 community-managed lodges linked by hiking trails and a similar hut in the Mount Abuna Yoseph Community Conservation Area.
Ethiopia’s Christian holidays are all celebrated vigorously, particularly Meskel and Timkat, which attract pilgrims from all around the country to Lalibela, and are also very popular with tourists. Key holidays are Ethiopian New Year (11 September), Meskel (Finding of the True Cross; 27 September), Gena (Ethiopian Christmas; 7 January) and Timkat (Epiphany; 19 January). Holidays fall one day later in leap years.
Lalibela is a good place to purchase Ethiopian handicrafts. Craft stalls are clustered on the main square and along the main road south of the churches.