International Adventure Guide 2013: Ethiopia: Addis Ababa And The Northern Circuit

Ethiopia

Ethiopia
is the rising star of the adventure travel scene. The country has a great deal to offer those who want to visit Africa beyond the usual favorites. Want to see ancient ruins? North Africa is dodgy at the moment and Europe is expensive. Want to go on a safari? You can see stunning vistas and isolated tribes you won’t find in Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana. Ethiopia is one of the safer African countries and has monuments unique to Ethiopian civilization such as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, carved out of bedrock.

What makes the country distinct is that it’s been a nation for more than a thousand years and has produced several major archaeological sites that are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The rock-hewn churches are justly famous and can be found in several spots throughout the country. In the far north, Axum’s great monoliths tell of an earlier civilization. You can also visit Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries perched atop steep cliffs, or hidden on green little islands in the middle of a giant lake.

The best part of any trip to the country, though, is the people. Ethiopians are warm and open and you will have no trouble meeting people who can carry on a conversation in English. As you make a circuit through the country, you’ll pass through many different cultures such as the Oromo, Amhara and Tigrinya. Each has its own language, history, and customs.

Ethiopia is shedding its 1980s reputation of famine and civil war and developing economically and culturally. Paved roads are being laid everywhere and the infrastructure is slowly improving, although Internet service is still agonizingly slow.

This guide focuses on the capital, Addis Ababa, and a popular circuit often called the Northern Historic Loop.

Adventure Activities

Strolling the city
Visitors can get a good grounding of Ethiopia’s past at the National Museum and the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. The latter is on the verdant grounds of Addis Ababa University in one of Haile Selassie’s old palaces. The Merkato open-air market, said to be the largest in Africa, is a sight to see as well, just beware of pickpockets. Take some time to relax in one of Addis’ many fine cafes to enjoy some Ethiopian coffee. Coffee was first brewed in Ethiopia so it’s no surprise they have the best in the world.

Addis is a big city and the most interesting neighborhoods tend to be separated by less interesting residential areas. Walking tours are best done by exploring one neighborhood and then taking a minibus or taxi to the next one. The Piazza neighborhood, for example, has a variety of shops tucked into the ground floors of old Italian Art Deco buildings. Go to Menelik Square and pay 30 cents for a minibus to Siddist Kilo Square, where you can visit Addis Ababa University. The network of minibuses can take you anywhere. It’s a bit complicated to figure out but locals will be happy to help.

Entonto Hills
Want a cool, green getaway from the big city? Lush hills are only a minibus ride away from all the main neighborhoods. Here you can hike through eucalyptus forests and visit the Asni Gallery, an artists’ co-op housed in a historic home. Some 13,000 hectares are preserved as Entonto Natural Park. You’ll find native plants and animals, great spots for bird watching, and fine vistas from altitudes of up to 3,200 meters.

Day Trips
Several natural and historic attractions are within a day’s drive of the capital, including the Akaki River Wetlands, the hot springs resort at Sodore, the stunning Durba waterfall with its population of gelada baboons, and the monastery of Debre Libanos. You can do some of these via public transport, but hiring a taxi for about $30 for the day is much more convenient and ensures you’ll have time to enjoy the sights. With all taxis in Ethiopia, a bit of haggling will get the price down. Make sure gas is included and pay when the trip is done.

For more details on Addis Ababa, check out this post.

Hotspots on the Northern Loop

Lake Tana
Take a boat past bathing hippos to visit isolated monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana. Monks live a simple life here, guarding libraries of medieval manuscripts and worshiping in brilliantly painted churches. The lake and islands are beautiful and relaxing. Some monasteries don’t allow female visitors; luckily there are some nunneries too. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Lake Tana.

Gondar
In a green valley surrounded by mountains stands Ethiopia’s Camelot, complete with castles. It was once the seat of power for the Ethiopian kings. This is one of the more relaxing places in Ethiopia, with its cool mountain air and laid-back atmosphere. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Gondar.

Axum
As you head north you leave the verdant hills of central Ethiopia behind and enter a dry, rocky terrain of rugged beauty. It’s hard to imagine that more than 2,000 years ago this was the home of one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. At Axum you can see several important archaeological sites including palaces, tombs, towering monoliths, and the Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Axum.

Debre Damo
Fancy an adrenaline rush? How about climbing a dubious-looking leather rope up a sheer cliff to a 1,500 year-old monastery? Your climb is rewarded by getting to see a community straight out of the pages of early church history in a landscape that looks like the Holy Land. Only men are allowed up to the monastery. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Debre Damo.

Lalibela
If you’ve heard about one place in Northern Ethiopia, it’s probably Lalibela. Starting in the 12th century, thirteen churches were hewn out of the bedrock here. To visit them you walk along a plain of bare stone that suddenly opens up, and you’re looking down at the churches. Some are decorated with carvings and medieval frescoes and you’ll get a chance to meet priests and religious students from all over the country. The entry price has recently been jacked up to an astonishing $50. There is no other place like this in the world though, so suck it up, pay, and make your feelings about extortion known to the curators. When in town try the tej, an Ethiopian honey wine that’s especially good here. For more on this site, see Gadling’s illustrated article on Lalibela.

Where to stay

Itegue Taitu
Ethiopia’s first hotel was built in 1898 and for a while it was beginning to show its age. Now it’s been renovated and is much nicer. Pleasant staff, an excellent kitchen that offers an all-you-can-eat vegan buffet, and a relaxing garden make this one of the most popular places to stay. Rooms in the historic wooden main building are getting pricey, but the concrete building out back has budget options. From $10. Dej. Jote Street. http://taituhotel.com/

Cozy Place
One of the newer hotels in town, this German-run business gets high marks for cleanliness and efficiency. It caters to the budget backpacker crowd so you’ll have to deal with shared bathrooms and a rather noisy bar/restaurant. On the other hand, the rooms are in little buildings tucked away in a lush garden, adding a rural flavor to an often-overbearing city. From $13. Mike Leyland Street. http://www.bds-ethiopia.net/cozy-place/

Ras Hotel
Functional rooms in a classic old deco building. The patio restaurant/bar is a nice place to unwind. Budget rooms are on the ground floor, with renovated rooms at a higher price upstairs. It’s centrally located close to the national theater and bus station. A buffet breakfast is included in the price and the staff is quite friendly. From $17. Churchill Avenue. http://www.ras-hotels.com/

Logistics

Getting around
Intercity buses are cheap, but are slow, crowded, and suffer from occasional breakdowns or fuel shortages. Some popular routes have luxury buses run by companies such as Selam Bus and Sky Bus. These are quite comfortable at a much higher price. Bus journeys of all types are often subject to last-minute cancellation. Luckily most of the roads on the Northern Loop are now paved, although construction is continuing and mudslides occasionally take out sections.

If money isn’t an issue, Ethiopian Airlines offers flights between cities. This can get you around the country quickly and you’ll get some great views out your window. On the other hand, you’ll miss all the experiences in between the sights. Flights aren’t cheap; hopping around the Northern Loop will put you back $700 or more.

In my experience, the best way to see Ethiopia is to hire a private 4×4 from a tourism company. These generally go for around $150 a day or a bit more and include all expenses and a driver/translator/fixer. While the price is steep and has been rising steadily thanks to rising gas prices, if you split it between two or three people it isn’t so bad. You’ll also get to make your own schedule, stop when and where you want, and gain a wealth of cultural insights from your driver. Make sure to talk with the driver in detail beforehand about your itinerary and interests.

Seasonality

Ethiopia’s rainy season lasts from June through September, with a shorter rainy period in October. The central uplands get quite a bit of rain on good years and this can hamper activities such as hiking and visiting outdoor sights. Since so many roads are unpaved, it can also slow down or completely stop transportation. The South Omo region gets hit especially hard. Rains in the south are more variable and thus it’s best not to visit from March through June or in October.

October through January sees Ethiopia at its greenest and you have the added advantage of being there during the height of Ethiopia’s festival season, with events such as New Year’s, Christmas, Timkat, and Meskal. Spring is a good time to visit too. The mountains aren’t as cold as in the winter and it’s before the rainy season. Conditions can be dry, though, with a haze that irritates the eyes and deadens photos.

Safety

Ethiopia is generally safe. That said, rural border areas such as the Afar and Somali regions have small rebel and bandit groups. Last year five tourists were killed by one such group in Afar.

Such violent attacks on foreigners are rare. More common is theft. Pickpockets are rife in Addis Ababa, and young guys hang around areas where tourists congregate hoping to scam them. One common scam is to invite you to a “party”, which ends with you footing a massively overpriced bill. Others will tag along trying to give you a tour and then insist on being paid. Keep your wits about you and learn how to politely say “no” and you can fend off these guys with no problem. They tend to be more annoying than aggressive.

Some of these hucksters can prove amenable. On more than one occasion I’ve hired one for a few bucks a day to show me around and keep the other hucksters away. You have to be a good judge of character to find the right one, though.

Women travelers generally have few problems in Ethiopia, although I have heard reports of solo women travelers being harassed. Also, most local women you see in all but the swankiest bars are prostitutes, so a Western woman showing up in one is not going to be treated with respect. Sorry ladies, but you’re going to have to do your drinking in your hotel or at a restaurant. Western guys showing up in bars will attract a flock of admiring temporary girlfriends. Guys, you might be tempted. Ethiopian women are gorgeous. Just remember that Africa’s rate of STDs, especially AIDS, is sky high. Besides, sex tourists are evil. Don’t be one of them.

For general health issues, check out this thorough website.

Tour Providers

There are numerous tour operators in Ethiopia. Most are based in Addis and offer tours throughout the country. A local guide can be hired at an extra cost at each of the sites, although this is generally not necessary. Below are three tour companies that I, along with trusted fellow travelers, have had good experiences with.

Amazing Ethiopia Tours
One of the larger tour companies, Amazing Ethiopia Tours offers packages around the country, including places such as Western Ethiopia that many other companies don’t serve. For those pressed for time, they offer an abbreviated 8-night/9-day tour of the historic route that involves some flying. They also provide hiking tours and support for individual hikers. http://www.amazingethiopia.com/

Ethio Renaissance
Another large and experienced company, they offer everything from one-day Addis tours to long road trips that take you into the neighboring countries of Kenya, Sudan, and Djibouti. Like Amazing Ethiopia, they offer full driving tours of the Northern route as well as shorter driving/flying trips. http://www.ethiorenaissance.com

Riki Tiki Tavi
Make your vacation make a difference with some voluntourism. This Spanish tourism company offers tailor-made volunteer opportunities depending on what you want to do and experience. They focus on local people and cultures, and helping communities with existing local projects. By staying in a community you share their way of living and get a real insight into the culture while making a positive change. www.rikitikitavi.es

Equus Ethiopia
There’s no better way to see the country than on top of a good horse. This company offers a range of rides from short jaunts to long treks. They also have day rides from Addis. www.equus-ethiopia.com

Conclusion

This article only offers a taste of what Ethiopia has to offer. In the south you can go on safari and see animals such as elephants and bushback. While you’re down there you can meet numerous distinct tribes such as the Mursi, famous for their giant lip plugs. In the east you can visit the medieval walled city of Harar and venture into the Somali region.

To learn more, check out our extensive coverage of Ethiopia, including my series on a road trip around the historic north and living in Harar. Also consider reading the Bradt guide to Ethiopia. It’s one of the best guidebooks for any destination I’ve ever used.

[Photo Credit: Sean McLachlan]

Queen of Sheba’s gold mine discovered in Ethiopia

Queen of Sheba
The gold mine of the Queen of Sheba has been discovered in Ethiopia, the Guardian reports.

A local prospector led British archaeologist Dr. Louise Schofield to a mysterious mine in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Schofield believes that this was the source of the Queen of Sheba’s fabulous gold, a large pile of which she gave to King Solomon when she visited the Holy Land, as is reported in the Old Testament, the Koran, and the Kebra Nagast, one of the holy books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Sheba was probably the Sabaean Kingdom, a wealthy kingdom that included what is now northern Ethiopia and Yemen. It rose to power 3,000 years ago and controlled trade along the Red Sea, especially the profitable spice trade.

Inside the extensive mine, Schofeld found an inscription in Sabaean and a stele bearing a carved sun and crescent moon, the symbol of the Sabaean Kingdom. The remains of a temple and battlefield were found nearby. Schofield is planning to start a major excavation at the site.

This can only be good news for Ethiopia’s growing tourist industry. During a road trip around Ethiopia two years ago, I was stunned by the desolate grandeur of Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The main attractions are Axum, the ancient capital of a kingdom dating from 100–940 AD and considered by many to be a successor state to the Sabaean Kingdom, and Debre Damo, an amazing clifftop monastery that I had to climb up a leather rope to visit.

When I returned to Ethiopia a year later to live in Harar, I found that tourism had increased. Most of the visitors I spoke with said that Ethiopia’s history was one of the main reasons they came to visit, and the Queen of Sheba was often mentioned. While Ethiopia can be dangerous just like any other adventure travel destination, most regions are safe and I’ve had no trouble in the more than four months I’ve spent in the country. Going back is my number one travel priority this year.

Hopefully this latest discovery will help inspire more people to discover Ethiopia’s long history, friendly people, great food, and of course the world’s best coffee.

Photo of an Ethiopian painting of the Queen of Sheba on her way to meet King Solomon courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Top five sights of Ethiopia: traditional tribes, rock-hewn churches, and medieval castles

Ethiopia, ethiopia
As I mentioned on Monday, I’m moving to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months to explore the ancient and unique culture in that medieval walled city. Before settling in, I thought I’d share some of the most popular places to visit in the country. Many of them were covered in my travel series about Ethiopia during my visit last year. All but the Southern Tribes are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Southern Tribes
Perhaps the best known images of Ethiopia come from its sparsely populated southern region. Here there are tribes living much the way they always have, herding and hunting animals and living off the lush hills and open savannah. The most famous tribe is the Mursi, known for their giant lip plugs like you see here in this photo by user MauritsV courtesy Wikimedia Commons. There are many more tribes, and each day will introduce you to a very different culture and set of traditions. The drive is hard going but everyone says it’s worth it.

Lalibela
Lalibela is another famous spot in Ethiopia. Starting in the 12th century the people dug out a series of churches from the bedrock, making fantastic buildings that will keep your jaw dropped for your entire visit. Not only are the stone structures impressive in their construction (or should I say, excavation) but there are rich frescoes and carvings in the interiors. The priests will show you gold and silver crosses dating back hundreds of years. If you’re lucky, you can witness an religious ceremony in which white-robed worshipers chant verses from the Bible and Kebre Negast, a holy book of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

%Gallery-90277%Gondar
Often called Ethiopia’s Camelot, the medieval capital of Gondar offers some of the country’s best architecture. It’s also on some of the best land, a high valley that’s green and soothing, completely the opposite of the parched desert many people imagine Ethiopia to be. Several palace/castles stand here, looking vaguely familiar thanks to the influence of Portuguese mercenaries hired to help the Ethiopians fight off the Somali conqueror Gragn The Left-Handed. I’ll be searching for his capital later in this series. Nobody is exactly sure where that is, so it should be a bit of an adventure.

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Axum
In the dry uplands of the northern Tigray province stand the remains of Axum, one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world and Ethiopia’s oldest city. In the fourth century BC a civilization sprang up here that even the ancient Greeks admired. It reached across the entire region and colonized what is now Yemen. It traded as far as India and China and probably Europe too. It also converted Ethiopia to Christianity in the fourth century AD, making it the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. While the civilization is long gone, you can still admire its huge palaces and lofty obelisks.

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Lake Tana
For several different but amazing experiences all in one day, head to Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. A boat takes you out to where the Blue Nile flows into the lake and you can see hippos wallowing in the water as locals in traditional reed boats steer carefully around them. On several islands are monasteries where monks have lived and prayed for centuries. They’ll show you illuminated manuscripts colorfully illustrated with holy scenes. After a long overland trip, there’s nothing better than sitting on one of these islands, free of electricity and cars, and gazing out at the placid waters of the lake.

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For more on Ethiopia, check out this video below. I know nothing about the tour company that sponsored it and this isn’t an endorsement. They do make informative travel videos, though.

And don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Returning to Harar, Ethiopia’s medieval city!

Ethiopia’s northern borderlands: Tigray and its ancient civilization

Driving north out of Ethiopia’s Amhara region into the borderland province of Tigray, the landscape becomes rockier and drier. The mountains rise higher and are more frequent, and at times sheer cliffs loom above the road. This is a harsh land with a harsh history. The bloody Ethiopian civil war and the war with neighboring Eritrea destroyed villages and crops and killed hundreds of thousands. Burnt-out tanks sit rusting by the side of the highway and huge refugee camps, cities really, house entire populations that have fled hunger and oppression in Eritrea for a better life in Ethiopia.

But there’s another side to Tigray. There’s peace in the land now and the children are just as friendly as in the rest of Ethiopia. The adults are friendly and hospitable too. And there’s a proud history to this region. It was here, in the fourth century BC, that the great civilization of Axum was founded. Its reach extended across what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea and even to the other shore of the Red Sea in what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It brought Christianity to east Africa in 325 AD, making Ethiopia the second oldest Christian nation in the world after Armenia, which converted in 301. An important trading center controlling the Red Sea and exporting African goods to the rest of the world, the ancient Greeks recognized Axum as one of the great civilizations of the world. Axumite coins have been found as far away as China.

The remains of Axum are as imposing as the land itself. There are several important archaeological sites in the area and a proper visit will take at least a couple of days. The Dongar palace, reputed home of the Queen of Sheba of Biblical fame, has large central rooms, a complicated system for moving water, and a warren of smaller quarters for servants and supplies. Nearby is a desolate field with hundreds of standing stones, the graves of royalty. Some are small and have fallen over after centuries of weathering, while others tower overhead, monuments to great kings and queens who are now forgotten.

%Gallery-90136%Another impressive palace is that of Ezana, the first Christian king of Axum. Beneath its floors lies the tomb of Basen, known in the West at Balthazar, the wise man from Africa who came Bethlehem to honor the infant Jesus. Nearby is an equally evocative sight, a simple slab of stone covered in writing. A closer look reveals there are three different languages on it: Sabaean, an ancient Yemeni script; Ge’ez, the traditional language of Ethiopia that still survives in the Christian liturgy; and Greek. This Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia was discovered by two local farmers just a few years ago.

By far the most impressive and famous part of Axum is the main field of stelae. One is that of King Ezana, rising 23 meters into the clear blue sky. On the day we went the crescent moon hovered just above it. An even larger stela lies shattered where it fell nearby. Another stela, measuring 26 meters, was stolen by the Italians when they briefly occupied Ethiopia from 1936-41. Mussolini set it up in Rome as a monument to his power, but within a few years Communist partisans had shot him and hung him up by a meat hook as an object of public scorn. Fascism in Italy was destroyed, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the stela finally returned to its rightful place.

These stelae are carved with depictions of windows and doors like houses. Clambering around these monumental remains I wondered about the symbolism. Did it represent palaces built by the kings when they were alive, or a house of the spirit like in Egyptian tombs? Perhaps it had a different meaning now lost to time. There’s also the mystery of how these monuments were erected in the first place, and why this incredible civilization declined and was eventually overcome by its enemies. I’ve been to some of the greatest archaeological ruins in the world and they all have one thing in common–they’re all ruins now. We shouldn’t assume our own civilization is eternal. If we do, we’ll be making the same mistake as the Incas, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Axumites, and dozens of others.

Not far from Axum is the pagan temple of Yeha, dating to about the 8th century BC, although nobody is really sure. The temple, which still stands 12 meters high, is related to the Sabaean culture, which once dominated the southern Saudi peninsula, and it looks like its cousins in Yemen. The place later became a church and monastery, and a cross-shaped window casts a bright yellow light on the interior.

Heading out of Axum, we skirt close to the Eritrean border, still technically a war zone because the two countries haven’t signed a peace agreement since the cease fire took effect in 2000. A pair of soldiers, country kids who couldn’t be more than eighteen, hitch a ride and tell us how bored they are and how much they miss home. One of them eases an arm around my wife’s seat back and gives his friend a proud grin. I look at him to show I’ve noticed, and he blushes and pulls his arm away. We get to their stop, a bare stretch of road, and they shoulder their Kalashnikovs, waving goodbye and wishing us a pleasant journey.

Next time: climbing to a clifftop monastery and exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.

Archeological adventures in East Africa

Ethiopian Airlines has teamed up with the Tanzanian Tourist Board to offer a unique travel experience to East Africa, in which travelers will go on an archeological adventure that will send them in search of the Lost Ark and to the depths of the Olduvai Gorge, believed to be the “Cradle of Mankind”.

The eleven-day journey begins in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, and quickly moves to the ancient city of Axum, rumored to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Legend has it that the holy relic was brought there by the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon thousands of years ago, and that it remains in an isolated chapel to this day. While in Ethiopia, travelers will also visit Lalibela, the site of 12 churches craved out of the very rock itself.

After exploring the mysteries of Ethiopia, the adventure will continue in Tanzania, with a visit to the Ngorongoro Crater and the Olduvai Gorge, home to the first humans and the very spot where the first humanoid skull was found 50 years ago. The journey will finish up with a Serengeti safari before travelers return home.

To find out more about this amazing trip, visit www.seeyouinethiopia.com/archeology. This special tour, which includes all transporation and accomodations, is offered for a limited time only.