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]

5 Destinations For Excellent Coffee Culture

Cafes are often a travelers hub, not just because you can kill your jetlag with a cup of espresso, but because they are inevitably the place where you go to sit and do some people watching and, while you’re at it, take a moment to get immersed in the local coffee culture.

If you’re a coffee drinker, finding the best cup in town is often an adventure in and of itself, sometimes leading to a city’s most off-the-beaten-path destinations. Remember: they may speak English, and you know what that grande latte is going to taste like, but it’s not at Starbucks that you’ll find your bliss.

Love coffee enough to travel for it? Put these 5 cities on your list of next destinations.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Strong Vietnamese coffee is made with a filter that sits atop your cup. It’s most often served with sweetened condensed milk. In Hanoi, you’ll find a variety of coffee shops, from the back alleyway hole-in-the-walls, to the more luxurious places where you can sit all day and use the Wi-Fi. Check out Hang Hanh (Coffee Street) in the Old Quarter, which is home to many cafes. And while you’re at it, get an iced coffee at least once (cà phê sữa đá if you’re working on your Vietnamese). You’ll need it in the Vietnamese heat.

Portland, Oregon

Every Portlander has their local craft roast of choice, and you’ll quickly learn that although Stumptown is good, it’s not the only excellent coffee in town. If you like your coffee made with care – and we’re talking about both the beans and the end drink – break out of the box and check out places like Coava, Water Avenue, Ristretto and Heart. Just don’t order anything ridiculous like a double skim vanilla latte or you’ll be shamed out of the coffee shop quicker than you can say Portlandia.

Vienna, Austria

While many cities may claim that they love coffee, only Vienna has a UNESCO status going for it. Going back to the 17th century, Viennese kaffehauskultur – coffee house culture – has the ultimate in recognition as part of Austria’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, honoring the city’s distinct atmosphere that can be found in its many coffee hubs.

Istanbul, Turkey

As the Turkish proverb goes, coffee should be “as black as hell, as strong as death and as sweet as love.” Türk Kahvesi, or Turkish coffee, is certainly known as being such, and you’ll find it served in the numerous coffee shops around Istanbul. This kind of coffee is made by boiling finely ground coffee beans in a pot, and then serving the coffee in a cup where the grounds are given time to settle. If you like your coffee strong, this is the way to do it.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

In the top ten of coffee exporting countries, Ethiopia has a coffee culture that goes all the way back to the 10th century. In the home, coffee ceremonies are a common thing and can often be quite elaborate. In Addis Ababa you will find a burgeoning cafe culture that offers both opportunities for more Italian-like drinks as well as true Ethiopian style.

[Photo Credits: osamukaneko, toehk, OKVidyo, dorena-wm, John Picken, myeralan]

The Kimchi-ite: 10 More Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World

In the U.S., there is the art of tipping. In Finland, there is no such thing as college tuition; it’s almost completely subsidized by tax Euros. And in Ethiopia, food is eaten only with the bare right hand. Given South Korea‘s unique history and culture within Asia, there is no shortage of comparisons that can be made between it and the rest of the world. Even though I already reported on “10 Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World,” more and more unique cultural curiosities are revealed to me everyday – things I couldn’t have possibly conceived of back in Florida.

1. Fan Death
Possibly the most internationally notorious Korean cultural quirk is the belief that if you fall asleep in a closed room with a fan on you will die. Theories include the fans causing hypothermia or even that the fan is removing all the oxygen from the room. Today, the myth is largely dying out with the new generation, none of my Korean friends believe it whatsoever, but they mention that they heard about it all the time when they were younger.

2. Koreans work more
On average, Koreans work 2,057 hours per year, 14% more than Americans, who on average work 1,797 hours per year. That’s an additional six workweeks per year. But that doesn’t really show the whole story and is probably only the officially reported and paid hours. It isn’t entirely uncommon for people to work 6 days a week, clocking in over 10 hours each day for a typical office job, with little or no overtime pay.3. Conscription
All South Korean males between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve in the military for between 21 and 24 months. This two-year commitment is a matter of much pride, controversy and angst amongst Korean men.

4. Don’t whistle after dark
Whistling at night is considered bad luck; it’s thought that it will beckon snakes and spirits.

5. Free and amazing delivery
Delivery is gold is Seoul. You can order virtually anything, at anytime, anywhere you are. Usually there are no delivery fees and you will often get full-blown, non-disposable plates and metal utensils. All you have to do, is leave it all out front of your apartment and the delivery guy will come by and pick it up later. Many restaurants that are not known for delivering in the U.S. have fleets of delivery scooters in Seoul – even McDonald’s.

6. Please eat. Don’t let it get cold
If you eat dinner at a restaurant with others, you will almost definitely not receive your food at the same time as each other. Your food just comes as it is finished in the kitchen.

7. No falling or springing
When my Facebook feed was recently flooded with status updates from my American friends groaning over an hour of lost sleep due to daylight savings time, I just laughed and savored the fact that my sleep schedule was not affected. Like most of the rest of the Eastern world, Korea does not observe daylight savings time. I personally love it. It allows me to get a better feel on the passage of time over each year.

8. Rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Within Korean cuisine, there is no such thing as breakfast food or even specific lunch or dinner food. Most meals can be had during any time of the day, and all meals are accompanied by a helping of kimchi. McDonald’s does serve a typical Western breakfast menu, but the Korean restaurant next door does not.

9. No waiting on hold
Customer service is seen as essential, and business hotline wait times are kept to an extreme minimum, with people getting angry if they are left on hold for more than three or four minutes. When I tell people that it isn’t uncommon in the States for you to be on hold for an hour or more when calling the cable company on the weekend, they simply cannot believe it. One Korean friend who used to live in New York City once called the Metro Transit Authority and hung up after being on hold for 20 minutes, thinking that it was impossible to be left unattended to for so long and so her phone must be broken.

10. Limited travel patience
Earlier today, my Korean girlfriend asked me how far Disney World is from where I grew up in Miami. I replied, “Oh, not that far … less than a four-hour drive.” She simply could not believe that I would call four hours away “not that far.” South Korea is a relatively small country, about the size of Indiana. Driving from one extreme end of the country to the other takes five hours. Even then, there’s still the option of high-speed rail, which will cut down your travel time to just three hours.

Be sure to check out the first list of Korean eccentricities here. As always, you can find more on Korean culture, food and eccentricities from previous Kimchi-ite posts here.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

The ‘Christopher Columbus Of China’ May Have Visited Kenya, A New Find Reveals

Kenya
An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.

A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.

The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.

Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.”

Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.

Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.

While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.

In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.

[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]

Happy International Pretty Brown Girl Day!

International Pretty Brown Girl Day
Today is International Pretty Brown Girl Day, a movement launched a few years ago that seeks to “address the harmful messages about skin tone and beauty in media” and is “for little girls of all ethnicities to send the message that brown skin is indeed beautiful.”

Knowing a couple of pretty brown girls who are facing racism here in Spain, I understand the reasoning behind this, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Instead of merely aspiring to be pretty, girls are better off aspiring to kick ass, so by the power invested in me by myself, I hereby declare today to be International Kickass Brown Girl Day.

This is inspired by a little Nepali girl I met many years ago. I had just come back to Pokhara from trekking the Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp and needed to return some gear to a rental shop. As I entered I saw the proprietor was gone and had left his daughter, who could have been no more than 10, in charge.

Two burly young Israeli guys were there arguing with her. They were returning some gear and didn’t want to pay for that day, even though it was early evening. The girl insisted that they pay an extra 100 rupees (a little more than a dollar) because the shop was about to close and there was no way she’d rent that gear that day.

The Israelis didn’t see it that way.

“No, we don’t have to pay!” they shouted, towering over her and acting aggressive. They actually puffed out their chests and clenched their fists… at a little girl.

Shit, I thought. I’m going to have to jump in and protect this kid and there’s no way I can take both these guys. Hopefully the neighbors will come in time to help.

Turns out she didn’t need me. She furrowed her little brow, stuck out her slim little hand with the palm up and said in the most forceful voice imaginable, “NO! You pay me 100 rupee!”

They backed down.

It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in 25 years and 36 countries of travel.

Little brown girls have it tough. Disproportionately poor and discriminated against, many still play sports, go to school in underdeveloped areas, and kick ass in various other ways. So check out the gallery for some inspiring images, and be sure to celebrate International Kickass Brown Girl Day …

… because girls who kick ass are automatically pretty.

This photo shows girls in a rural school in Ethiopia. Most don’t have electricity or running water at home and have to walk several miles to get an education. Photo courtesy Almudena Alonso-Herrero, a kickass pretty brown woman who used to be a kickass pretty brown girl.

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