Ethiopia Travel Guide
Once the icon of misery, and butt end of mean poverty jokes, Ethiopia is the cradle of mankind and the only African country never to have been colonized. Home to some of the continent’s highest and lowest spots, it is a melting pot of more than 80 languages and cultures that warmly welcome the few visitors who venture to explore its treasures. Oh yes, and it’s Emperor Haile Selassie was nominated spiritual head of the Rastafarian faith, but it all went wrong when he was overthrown in the late seventies.
Why You Should Go
What’s Cool: Lunar-like landscapes, birthplace of the Blue Nile, volcanic lakes, 13 months in its calendar, wild hyenas feeding, wildlife safaris, pony trekking, white-water rafting, natural healing springs, seven lakes of the Rift Valley, rock-hewn churches, birthplace of Lucy.
What’s Not: Mussolini once ruled here, gun culture, pesky fleas, lots of beggars, butcher ‘shops’, homosexuality is illegal, poor health facilities, hungry kids, some areas off-limits, tsetse flies.
When to Go
Thirteen months of sunshine, anyone? Ethiopia is the place for you! Even though the famous historical loop and the rest of the highlands get rain between mid-March and September, this period still sees plenty of sunshine most days.
The highlands in the north and far east see even more sun, with considerable rain falling in July and August. Temperatures rarely rise above 86°F during the day and sometimes drop to almost freezing at night.
Getting There & Away
Addis Ababa is the main air hub and the domestic flight network is extensive and prices reasonable. There’s also a fine network of cheap but slow buses along all key roads. The only working railway line runs between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. Taxis are available in the capital and these include blue-and-white mini buses, which sometimes run on a shared basis and are inexpensive.
Health & Safety
You’re more likely to be bitten by a tsetse fly than by a bullet, but stay clear of border areas and eastern Ethiopia beyond Harar. When encountering devotees of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church or Islamic religions, it’s better to keep quiet then embroil yourself in a religious discussion. Stick to bottled water, be careful of what you eat and keep out of the sun. Health facilities are very limited in Addis Ababa and insufficient outside the capital.
Food & Hospitality
Fine hotels offer international food and Addis Ababa also has several good Chinese, Italian and Indian restaurants. Traditional Ethiopian feasts are served in a grand manner at restaurants in larger cities. Joining a coffee ceremony won’t let you get away with less than three cups and the obligatory popcorn. Addis Ababa and other main centers have decent hotels, though accommodation tends to be better in the north than in the south. Eating off the streets can be a critical mistake!
One week is the least you can get away with to enjoy some of the highlights.
Two or three days to see the capital’s attractions including palaces and fine museums.
Two days in Aksum, the ancient royal capital, famous for its multi-storey antique carved granite obelisks, its archaeological remnants and its church, which lays claim to housing the Lost Ark of the Covenant.
Two or three days to see the Blue Nile Falls, one of the most impressive waterfalls in Northern Africa.
A day or two to immerse yourself in the mystifying ambience of Gondar, the former capital of Ethiopia and home to many ruined castles.
Two or three days in Lalibela, featuring fine 12th century, rock-hewn churches. Bete Medhane Alem is thought to be the world’s largest monolithic church.
Two or three days in Harar, where local men lure wild hyenas to the city at dusk to feed them. The town is also a famous Muslim walled city boasting 99 mosques and is the trading hub for coffee.
National Museum: in Addis Ababa contains the remnants of 3.5 million year old Lucy, possibly mankind’s earliest ancestor. The Ethnographic Museum is a perfect place to learn about Ethiopia’s rich cultural diversity.
Rift Valley lakes: are one of the top spots for bird watching. There are seven lakes including one blue, one silver and one brown.
Lalibela: is a very isolated place and a center of pilgrimage. Spending a few days here will give the impression you’ve landed in a kingdom no less than seven centuries back in time.
Simien Mountains National Park: is easily accessible and offers great trekking, inspiring views and a huge variety of wildlife.
Sof Omar Caves: are one of the most spectacular and extensive cave systems in the world. Formed by the Web River through the limestone rock, the caves are an astonishing natural phenomenon and a place of awe-inspiring beauty.
Wildlife safaris: in one of Ethiopia’s 14 main wildlife sanctuaries are usually done in four-wheel drive vehicles, but walking safaris or riding on mules is also possible.
Hiking: through wild landscapes in Simien Mountains National Park, the moorlands of the Bale Plateau and the countryside surrounding Lalibela.
Shopping: in the Mercato, one of Africa’s largest markets, located in the western sector of Addis Ababa.
Swimming: in the Rift Valley, particularly in Lake Langano which offers windsurfing and waterskiing. Natural springs in the Awash National Park and at Sodere Filwoha form pools that are highly cherished for their healing benefits.
Fishing: in the rivers and streams of the Bale Mountains and the numerous lakes in the Rift Valley. Boat trips can be arranged with local fishermen.
Festivals & Events
Celebrations in Ethiopia are huge and colorful affairs, mostly religious, and are often held over several days.
January: Timkat Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ. A Mass at 02:00 is accompanied by picnics with oil lamps.
April: Patriots’ Day celebrates the end of Italian occupation in 1941.
August: Buhe 21 sees groups of small boys calling at each house, singing and hustling until they are given some fresh dough, as in money.
September: Enkutatash New Year also celebrates the Feast of John the Baptist with children dancing through the villages dressed in new clothes.
December: Kullubi Feast of St Gabriel sees a huge pilgrimage to St Gabriel’s Church on Kulubi hill, eastwards from the capital.