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]

The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

travel, travel companion, HararThis week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.travel companion, travel, HararHere he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Amazing 3-D Laser Scan Of Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches In Ethiopia


Of all the incredible monuments in Ethiopia, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are by far the most impressive. Starting in the 12th century A.D., Ethiopian rulers dug a series of churches out of the solid bedrock.

This architecture-in-reverse creates a bizarre and otherworldly scene. As you walk along the exposed rock, you come across giant holes in the stone filled with churches. Narrow steps take you down into the pits, where you’ll find some welcome shade from the powerful African sun. Enter the churches and you’ll come upon pilgrims and priests studying the Kebra Nagast and Bible by the dim light steaming in through stone grills high in the walls. Further in the gloom, you’ll spot the gleam of elaborate gold and silver crosses as incense wafts through the air.

Now the churches have been scanned using 3-D laser technology. The World Monuments Fund sponsored the scan along with University of Cape Town in order to better understand the layout and look for any potential problems in its preservation.

Interested in reading more about Ethiopia? It makes a great adventure travel destination. Check out my series on my Ethiopian road trip and my two months living in Harar.

Skype Banned In Ethiopia, Punishable By 15 Years In Prison

Skype, EthiopiaA new law passed in Ethiopia has banned Voice Over Internet Protocol services such as Skype, Al Jazeera reports. Use of such services is punishable by large fines and up to 15 years in prison. The law was passed with little fanfare on May 24 but has only just become noticed by international media.

The government-owned Ethio Telecom has a monopoly on telecommunications but the country is filled with cybercafes where people can make low-cost phone calls over the Internet. Ethiopians complain that Ethio Telecom’s international calling rates are unaffordable and Internet calls are their only option. This move blocks such competition.

Another probable reason for the move is to quash internal dissent. Several ethnic groups such as the Oromo and Somalis have armed independence groups inside Ethiopia. These groups get support from abroad and so the government may be trying to cut their lines of communication and funding.

Use of the Tor Project online anonymity provider has also been banned.

Having spent several months in Ethiopia in 2010 and 2011, and being in regular contact with people in the country since, I can attest to the difficulty in using the Internet there. Service is slow, and sometimes gets cut off entirely when there’s a skirmish with one of the rebel groups or a meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. These cutoffs are invariably called “equipment malfunctions.”

Emails from abroad often don’t make it to people in Ethiopia. Those with business licenses always seem to get their email, but private citizens often don’t. Ethiopians have told me this is because of government security fears. Many people use Facebook for email because the government can’t block direct messages on the site. I myself have resorted to using Facebook for most of my communication with Ethiopian friends and colleagues.

And in case you’re wondering, our emails have nothing that could possibly be construed as a security risk. Emails about archaeology, historic preservation and simple hellos have gone missing. This is a shame because Ethiopia has a growing educated class that has a lot to say and is thirsty for contact and information from the outside world. Opening up the lines of communications could very well bring on an Ethiopian renaissance from which we’d all benefit.

Ethiopia’s government bills itself as a bastion of democratic stability in an unstable region and as an ally in the War on Terror, but laws such as this show that the current regime is anything but democratic.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

How To Put On A Travel Photography Exhibition

travel photography
You got back from an amazing adventure travel vacation a few weeks ago. Your friends and family have heard all your stories and seen all your photos. Now what? Instead of tucking your photos away in an album or hard drive, why not show off your travel photography to a wider audience?

I’ve run two photography exhibitions and been in several more. My first exhibition was on the painted caves of Laas Geel in Somaliland. Right now my wife and I have an exhibition up about Ethiopia. We are by no means experts but we have learned a few things from the experience. The main thing is that putting on a successful photography exhibition isn’t as hard as you might think, although it does take a fair amount of organization. Here are some things to keep in mind.

You don’t need to be a pro
Here’s the secret to getting good photos: take lots of pictures of interesting subjects and some will turn out well. Look through your collection with a critical eye and have someone who hasn’t been to these places look with you. They’ll be looking at the shots with fresh eyes like your audience will. Take your photos at the highest resolution possible, 300dpi minimum, so they will be publication quality. A good photo shop will be able to turn your hi-resolution photos into lovely prints. This won’t cost much and you can get decent frames cheaply too.

Decide on a theme and purpose
It helps to have a coherent theme: wildlife, a certain historic site, etc. We’ve focused on Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and children, Ethiopia’s past and future. Our show benefits A Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working on rural education. Having a coherent theme helps people grasp your subject better and a charity benefit tends to attract more attention.

Pick an appropriate venue
Not being superstar photographers, we picked a local bar here in Santander, Spain, that’s a popular hangout for artists, musicians and generally liberal-minded people who would be interested in photography about Africa. Our themes fit in with the general vibe. Bar Rubicón is a Santander institution and word gets around when they host an event. Putting your prize photos up in a bar may not seem very glamorous, but over a month-long exhibition they’ll get seen by lots of people.Think out size and spacing
How many photos do you want to exhibit? What’s the lighting like in your venue? Which are the most visible walls? Think all these things through ahead of time. It helps to bring a print in the size you want to display and take a look at it within the space. In my first exhibition, I made the mistake of printing the photos too small and they looked a bit lonely hanging on a big wall.

Make a snappy poster
I’m lucky that my brother-in-law, Andrès Alonso-Herrero, is an artist. He whipped up this poster in no time. Even if you don’t have access to someone with talent, it’s not too hard to make a poster with Photoshop or PowerPoint that highlights one of your photos and gives all the necessary information.

Send out a press release
Having worked for two small newspapers, I can tell you that editors are starved for interesting local content. The regional paper El Diario Montañés gave us a nice write-up and we made it onto several “What’s On” style websites as well. Be sure to write a clear press release with all the information and attach a couple of high-resolution photos they can publish. Try to write the press release like a newspaper article. Journalists are overworked, underpaid, and many of them are quite lazy. You’ll find that much of their coverage will be simply cut and pasted from your press release. Sad to say, much of the news you read is written this way. If governments and corporations benefit from it, why shouldn’t you?

Tell everyone
Email your friends, hang up posters, do a social media blitz. Get your friends to spread the word too. Don’t be shy; you want people to see your work!

While you have their attention …
You might as well mention any other projects you have going. In the press release I mentioned I had just come out with a novel and that made it into the newspaper coverage.

Host an opening party
On opening night, be there to meet and greet. It helps to have some sort of presentation. Since people will be coming and going it’s best not to have a formal speech at a set time. I’ve found that a slideshow running on a TV hooked to your photo archive works well. It goes on a continuous loop and shows everyone the photos that didn’t make it into the exhibition.
On our opening night, many people gathered around the slideshow and I gave them a running commentary of the places shown in the pictures. It also helps to have some music. There’s no local Ethiopian band that I know of (although there’s a West African band in Santander) so the bartender compensated by putting Ethiopian music on the sound system.

Don’t expect to make much money
Unless you’re a pro showing your photos at a major gallery, you’re not going to make much. If you break even you’re doing well. The point of showing off your photos isn’t the cash but the exposure. You’ll meet plenty of cool people and have the satisfaction of knowing your photos are hanging in people’s homes. Being relative newcomers in northern Spain, our opening night made us lots of new, interesting acquaintances. We’ll take any photos left over at the end of the month and give them away as gifts or hang them in our own apartment.

Most important of all … have fun!!!