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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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/
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/
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/
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.
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.
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.
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/
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
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
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]