Everything You Need To Know About Yemen Travel
Updated April 2020, Everything You Need To Know About Yemen Travel was originally written in December 2019
I’m just going to preface this with: Yemen isn’t a safe destination to visit. This guide isn’t intended for travelers that want to waltz on in on their own and don’t understand the risks involved, it’s purpose is more to inform. Yemen is a truly beautiful country, however travel in Yemen is no small task, and those in the country are struggling.
What You Need To Know About The War In Yemen
Yemen’s forgotten war is confusing, to say the least, for most outsiders trying to wrap their minds around it. It’s not simply a ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’, that foreign media likes to portray. We’re talking multiple belligerents, several other countries, known terrorist factions and regional warlords vying for power. Yemen’s situation if you were to label it is: fractured. But Yemen has been fractured long before the start of the war in 2015, this goes back decades. Yemen has seen civil war several times in its history. The country was colonized by the British in the past. From 1967-1990 the country was divided into North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen). Even after the reunification of the two Yemens, the country saw yet another civil war in the 90s, as well as turbulent ups and downs until the beginning of the present war.
The battle is often called a proxy war owing to the two main belligerents being the coalition, which is backed by the Saudis and the UAE and funded by the USA, and the Houthi, a Zaidi sect, hailing from northern Yemen’s Sa’da, and speculated to be backed by Iran. Of course, the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have joined the chaos, in addition to other terrorist organizations. And this is an extremely simplified and condensed run down of the details. The reality is that the situation is far more complicated and convoluted than I am writing here.
Destinations To Visit In Yemen
Al Mahrah is Yemen’s easternmost governorate. Much of the drive across from the Omani border passing by the Surfeet protected area is characterized by a rugged coastline backed by stark, craggy mountains. The largest town within al Mahrah is al Ghaydeh, which is reached after roughly two hours of driving from the border. Destinations possible to visit in the al Mahrah Governorate are Surfeet, Hawf, al Ghaydeh, and the Yemeni Empty Quarter.
Al Ghaydeh is a coastal town, a scenic drive away from the Surfeet border crossing with Oman. Al Ghaydeh’s main industry of course, is fishing. Al Ghaydeh is a good place to spend your first night if coming from Oman, and to grab any necessary items at the souk from.
Rub al Khali
Yemen’s Rub al Khali, or better known as the Empty Quarter is a deserted region, dotted seldomly by villages and an endless sea of dunes. The Rub al Khali is dived amongst Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This unforgiving area sees some of Earth’s highest temperatures and most harsh living conditions. The Empty Quarter is known for its general lawlessness.
See what it was like to spend the night in the Yemeni Empty Quarter
Where mud-brick villages rise up from the depths of a lush and green canyon that slashes the arid earth that bounds its either side. Wadi Hadhramaut is something of legend– where giants once roamed the earth called Adites, that enjoyed life a little too much. So much so that God sent down a plague of massive ants who ate the Adites alive, ripping them apart limb by limb while violent winds whipped their flesh with sand. Wadi Hadhramaut is most famous for producing liquid gold– the world’s finest honey, and of course Arabia’s Manhattan in Shibam. Wadi Daw’an, a canyon wonderland within the Hadhramaut is probably the most magical and mysterious location within the Yemeni desert, dotted with mud-brick villages that seemingly rise from the depth of earth, some of the most notable being Al Hajarayn, Haid al Jazil, Sif, Qarn Majid, and Al Khurayba. Shibam is a 2,500-year-old city, known for its 7-8 story mud-brick skyscrapers, the first of their kind. Tarim, Al Mukalla, Shibam, and Seiyun are other destinations within the region.
Learn more about Wadi Hadhramaut here
Seiyun is a regional capital of the Hadhramaut and has been so since the 15th century. Al Habshi Tomb, the Sultan’s Palace, and Al Haddad Mosque are just some of the reasons travelers come to Seiyun.
Shibam is a city with over 2,500 years of history, located in the Wadi Hadromaut and most well known as the ‘Manhattan of Arabia. Other sites in the city include the Sultan’s Palace, Sheik ar Rashid Mosque, the souq, and the Minbar Museum.
Read more about historic Shibam
Tarim is a Sufi center in Yemen and served as the Hadhramaut’s capital before Saiyun rose to the occasion. The ramshackle Tarim Souq and the beautiful al Muhdhar Mosque are more than worthy a visit.
Check out why the ancient Sufi center of Tarim is a must-visit on any Yemen itinerary
Wadi Daw’an is arguably the most impressive area in all of Yemen. Think villages perched impossibly on cliffsides, date groves, beautiful Hadhrami style palaces and homes, and even the village that Mohammed bin Laden hails from.
Check out more on Wadi Daw’an here
Home to the Sabean Kingdom, who ruled the land for over 1,500 years and the alleged home (but not according to the Ethiopians) Bilqis, or known in the west as ‘the Queen of Sheba’. Built on taxes from the passing by incense trade Ma’rib was once an important seat of power in the Middle East, and is one of the oldest cities on Earth. Nowadays it looks more like a dusty town, but there are a handful of sights to behold. The Ma’rib Dam is probably the most well known, though much of the dam built in the 8th century BC has been dismantled over the years to build the new town.
Old Ma’rib is a sight to see, rising from the landscape surrounding it, with a history stretching back to around 1,500 years before the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Sadly the last family has left the old city and Ols Ma’rib now sits uninhabited. Mahram Bilqis is a must see Sabean temple in Ma’rib with 12 meter high columns dedicated to the god of the sun. The Arsh of Bilqis is another sight to behold in Ma’rib, oft believed to be associated with the legend of the Queen of Sheba, the temple is estimated to predate Bilqis, being nearly 4,000 years old. Archaeologists believe the temple is dedicated to the moon.
Offshore and out of this world, little Socotra sits smack in the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia. Largely regarded as the only safe place to visit in Yemen due to the fact that the Yemeni Civil War has never reached Socotra’s shores. Socotra is home to some of the highest numbers of endemics in the world, putting it the ranks of the Galapagos Islands and New Caledonia– the most famous of its endemics being the Dragon Blood Tree or Dracaena cinnabari. After being nearly cut off entirely from the outside world for several years, Socotra is slowly again opening to tourism, though infrastructure on the island is very limited, making it more common among the more extreme and intrepid group of travelers. I’ve visited Socotra a couple of times now, and you can read more about traveling to Socotra here.
Everything you need to know: The Socotra Travel Guide
The following destinations are extremely dangerous to access due to fighting, but I have included them as they are places that were accessible a few years back
Founded by Shem, the son of Noah, Sana’a is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Of the few travelers that make it to Yemen these days, most don’t get to see the grandeur of Sana’a due to the danger associated with reaching the city. Old Sana’a is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen and with a history that dates back over 2,500 years, one of the most fascinating places you’ll ever visit. One of my favorite memories in all my travels was waking up to the song of the Call to Prayer penetrating the air and the golden light shining through the Qamariya windows of my 6th story room, making colorful geometric patterns on the carpet. Unfortunately, the city including Old Sana’a has suffered some damages from fighting and near-daily airstrikes.
The Bab al Yemen, or gates to the city is best viewed in the late afternoon to get a taste of the frenetic energy of Old Sana’a, with the bustling Souq al Milh, selling nearly everything under the sun nearby. Sana’a is home to countless mosques, but two of the most famed within the Old City is Great Mosque and Qubbat al Bakiriyah Mosque. Outside the walls of Old Sana’a is the impressive, though controversial al Saleh Mosque. Sana’a is currently under control of the Houthi.
Read more about my time in Sana’a and more in depth details about the city here.
What it was like to visit Sana’a, Yemen
Wadi Dhahr & Dar al Hajar
Wadi Dhahr and Dar al Hajar are the most popular day trip to take from Sana’a. As you climb out of the city the road skirts the edge of the massive canyon where you’ll have sweeping views to the green oases below. The most prominent feature of Wadi Dhahr is the summer ‘Rock Palace’ of Dar al Hajar. Constricted in 1920 by Imam Yahya as a summer palace the multi-story sandcastle is built atop a protruding rock and even carved down into it.
Built atop Jebel Kawkaban, this citadel sits perched above the village of Shibam (no, not the one famous for its mud-brick skyscrapers), at an elevation of 2,800 meters. Most who visited Kawakaban and Shibam in the past came for trekking.
Al Tawila sits northwest of Sana’a, past Kawakaban and Shiam. The main attraction here is the beautifully terraced fields that tumble down the mountainside from the village.
Al Mawit is just a little further west of Al Tawila and is a large mountain town and is the epicenter of Yemen’s fertile valleys. Al Mahwit is known for its coffee, qat and tobacco crops.
Al Hajarah is a gorgeous mountain village sitting on a mountain edge, built in the 11th century. Al Hajarah is located about 5 km west of Manakhah which was once known as the Yemeni center of trekking.
is one of the most beautiful villages in all of Yemen, teetering impossibly on a mountain top near the terminus of the Haraz Mountains before they drop off seemingly into the Red Sea.
Ibb makes for a good stopover between Sana’a and Ta’izz. Ibb and its surrounding province receive the most rainfall in all of Yemen, making it one of the greenest regions of the country. The main attraction in Ibb is the market set at the foothills of the Ba’aden Mountains.
Many in Ta’izz have now fled the city due to intense fighting. The Bab al Kabi, serving as the main entrance to Old Ta’izz, as well as the Bab al Musa, are interesting sites, though it’s worth noting that not all of the original wall remains.
Legends point to the Aden being the site of the construction of Noah’s Ark. Aden is another one of the world’s oldest cities, estimated at least to the 10th century BC, serving as an ancient trading center. Sites to see in Aden include the National Museum of Antiquities, Sirah Fortress, and the Fish Market.
How To Get To Yemen
Getting to Yemen is a feat all in itself these days. On my first visit, it was as simple as contacting and arranging a trip with a local operator, securing a visa through them and booking a flight to Sana’a. Now, not so much. You will still need to contact and arrange your travel to Yemen through an operator, have them secure the visa for you and once in, know that you’re very limited in where you can visit on the ground (except for in Socotra). As of right now, the only access points into Yemen are via the once per week flight from Cairo to Hadiboh (making a short stop in Seiyun, though they will not allow you to leave the airport as a foreigner) and the Omani border post at Sarfeet/Hawf. If you want to visit the island of Socotra, read this post here to learn how to get there.
Obtaining a Yemeni Visa
***Issuance of tourist visas have been suspended indefinitely as of March 2020 due to the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We hope that they will resume in fall 2020, or at once the pandemic has settled down***
This will need to be taken care of through a local operator as consulates and embassies will not issue visas to tourists wanting to travel to Yemen. If you want to read up on the process of getting a Yemeni visa, click here.
Safety In Yemen
All foreign governments emphatically warn against all travel to Yemen, which is justified. The country is still actively at war in many areas. For those that still want to visit despite this, there are ways to do it and mitigate risk by the use of expert fixers and on-the-ground experts. Bombings, kidnappings, bombings, and airstrikes are pretty common occurrences in the country, in addition to active terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and IS. Read up on the US and UK advisories for travel in Yemen here and here.
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