Missing this town would be like going to Egypt and not seeing a pyramid. Lalibela's 11 Orthodox churches are some of the world's greatest architectural marvels, and the town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Each church was carved out of a solid piece of red volcanic rock in the 1100s. The largest, Medhane Alem, measures an incredible 100 ft/30 m long, 77 ft/24 m wide and 37 ft /11 m high. Beta Giorgis (the Church of St. George) is shaped like a cross and surrounded by a 40-ft-/12-m-deep trench. Historians say that the churches were commissioned by King Lalibela, who claimed to have been instructed by God in a dream to build the most beautiful places of worship on Earth. Legend says that the churches were completed in 24 years with the help of angels. The churches have beautifully painted facades, tunnels and a cloth (in the Pillar of Light Church) upon which Christ was said to have leaned when appearing to King Lalibela in a dream. The churches are accessible through carved ravines and eerie subterranean passageways lined with grottoes containing the bones of past clergy.

Built as the king's own "New Jerusalem" 210 mi/340 km north of Addis Ababa, Lalibela strikes many visitors as one of the most sacred, strangely mystical places on Earth, particularly during religious festivals, when pilgrims arrive from around the country. Bet Maryam (the Church of St. Mary), is especially festive on Christmas Eve. Most of the churches still hold weekly services. Our favorite nonreligious experience in Lalibela is the Saturday market, a good place to see Ethiopian villagers trading goats, cows, cloth and vegetables.

Outside Lalibela, a local charity called TESFA works with local communities to offer simple facilities catering to tourists who wish to get off the beaten trail, trek in breathtaking scenery and see the real culture of the highlanders. Centered on Meket Woreda, the local communities manage the enterprises and retain the proceeds from it.

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