Say the word Ethiopia and what comes to most peoples’ minds is civil wars, droughts, famines, and danger. Still off the beaten track, Ethiopia is quietly in the midst of a tourism revolution and becoming a place more tourists wish to experience. Last year the country had over one million visitors, and U.S. citizens made up around one-sixth of them. Ethiopia is an up-and-coming destination with a lot to offer, and it’s definitely one well worth checking out before the crowds discover it.
Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, is a rugged, landlocked country split by the Great Rift Valley. With archaeological finds dating back more than three million years, a unique calendar (seven to eight years “behind” the rest of the world, with 13 months per year, and New Year’s Day on September 11), an antiquated alphabet (Ge`ez, a Semitic language dating back to the 5th century B.C.) and a unique numerical system, this is a place of ancient culture.
Ethiopia is one of my favorite destinations. I have guided trekking groups in the Simien and Bale Mountains, immersed myself in its incredible history and architecture, and experienced a culture that is like no other on the continent.
1. First Stop: Addis Ababa
The vibrant capital city, Addis Ababa, is the first stop for most travelers to Ethiopia, and it’s an excellent introduction to the country. If you’re expecting a neat, tidy, cosmopolitan city with fancy restaurants and great hotels, you are in for a surprise. Addis is raw, disorganized, busy, booming, and developing faster than any other city in Africa. There are a number of museums and cathedrals worth checking out, including the National Museum (housing the remains of some of mankind’s earliest relatives), and the Museum of Ethnology. Famous cathedrals include St. George’s, The Holy Trinity, and Bale Medhane Alem, all of which are impressive. It can be hard to explore the city on your own, so I’d recommend using a local guide or a knowledgeable taxi driver, both of which can usually be arranged by your hotel.
2. Visit The Medieval Churches Of Lalibela
Carved into the rugged mountains of northern Ethiopia, Lalibela’s eleven medieval churches have, for centuries, been some of the most stunning sights a traveler can see. All over 800 years old, and hand-hewn out of solid rock with, according to myth, the help of angels, these churches represent some of the greatest displays of the devotion of Ethiopia's Orthodox Christian church, which is one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world.
Emperor Lalibela started construction of these churches after a dream told him to recreate the splendors of Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Centuries later, Lalibela has lost none of its power to awe, and incredibly, despite their age, these churches are still tended by white-robed Ge`ez speaking priests, hermits still live in tiny caves in the walls of the church’s courtyards, and people still pray in these churches every day.
After visiting the churches, and doing negligible research, my husband and I decided to hike to the 12th-century Asheten Maryam monastery towering 3,500 feet above the city. Halfway up I noticed a road that appeared to be heading the same direction as us. Asking the guide where it led, I was informed, "to the monastery." My husband spent the rest of the climb muttering under his breath, questioning why on earth we were hiking when there was apparently a perfectly good road! Climbing through local villages, we were greeted with calls of Selamta (“Welcome”) and, for a while, were accompanied by an old man, herding his donkey up the mountain.
The old man derived great enjoyment from my husband’s red-faced huffing and puffing, sporadically placing an arm on his shoulder and chuckling with delight at some private joke. Nearing the end of our climb, we saw a small spot for vehicles to park, a 15 minute, precarious scramble from the Monastery. The views over Lalibela town and the countryside were beautiful. About 10 or 20 tourists a day come by bus and climb the last stretch to the monastery, and occasionally one or two people, like us, brave the five-hour round trip! It took two beers and some lunch to restore my husband's spirits!
3. Marvel The Relics Of Axum
To millions of Ethiopians, Axum is the holiest city of the Orthodox Ethiopian Church. Axum’s Our Lady Mary of Zion church is fabled to be the final resting place of Ethiopia's most precious religious object, the Ark of the Covenant (the sacred chest of the Hebrews, believed to contain the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments).
The other major attractions in Axum are its impressive stone obelisks, dating back to the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. These huge, intricately carved stelae are elaborate tombstones. The largest, Remhai's stelae, is an incredible feat of ancient engineering, and would once have stood 108 feet high and weighed 520 tons!
4. See Bahir Dar, Lake Tana, And The Blue Nile Falls
Bahir Dar, one of the biggest cities in Ethiopia, is the gateway to Lake Tana and the impressive Blue Nile Falls.
The Blue Nile is one of the two sources of the River Nile, and the Blue Nile Falls are located about 18 miles south of Bahir Dar. The river itself starts its journey from Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, and flows ultimately to the Mediterranean. The Blue Nile Falls are known as Tis Abay in Amharic, which means “great smoke.”
A boat trip on Lake Tana can take you, if you have the time and inclination, to as many as 20 monastic churches, many dating back to the 14th century. We visited the monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret. It’s an uninspiring building from outside, but upon crossing the threshold we were blown away by the 700-year-old paintings covering every inch of the interior walls. The paintings are a spectacular depiction of biblical scenes and Ethiopian mythology.
Be aware that some island monasteries are for either males or females only.
5. Explore Gondar
Even more spectacular than the monasteries and churches of Lake Tana are the ruins at Gondar, 100 miles from Bahir Dar. Nestled in the foothills of the Simien Mountains, Gondar was the ancient capital of Ethiopia and boasts a wealth of medieval architecture. Sometimes referred to as the Camelot of Africa, the city has an impressive royal enclosure dating back to the 1600s.
Gondar Castle is in fact a complex of castles and palaces. The most impressive and the oldest being Emperor Fasilidas’ palace. There are a number of fine churches in Gondar, our favorite being Debre Birhan Selassie, its walls decorated with paintings of biblical scenes, and its ceiling painted with beautiful winged angels.
Gondar is a perfect jumping-off point for visiting Simien Mountains National Park.
6. Trek In Simien Mountains National Park
In the earth’s long history of dramatic geographical changes, the most recent volcanic upheavals took place in East Africa. Torrential rains created gushing rivers and waterfalls, which eroded away much of the volcanic mountain massifs, leaving behind a broad plateau divided by gorges thousands of feet deep.
Simien Mountains National Park contains Africa’s fourth highest mountain, Ras Dashen (14,900 feet), and is home to some extremely rare animals such as the Gelada baboon, the Simien fox, and the Walia ibex (a goat found nowhere else in the world). The endangered Lammergeyer, a vulture with a wingspan of over 6 feet and a diet specializing in bone marrow, roams the skies above. Listed as a World Heritage Site, the Simien Mountains are some of the most breath-taking scenery I’ve ever seen.
On average, 20,000 visitors annually venture to the Simien Mountains, with approximately half of them trekking into the park. We chose a five-day, 40-mile trek that culminated in a climb up Bwahit, Ethiopia's second-highest mountain. At an altitude of 14,560 feet, Bwahit was a five-hour hike, and a steep, almost vertical ascent above our final campsite. On the summit, we had stunning views of the route we had hiked the previous days.
You don’t have to trek to experience the Simien Mountains. Day trips from Gondar, and a select number of nearby lodges, are available.
7. Camp Out In The Bale Mountains
The Bale Mountains in southeastern Ethiopia are a landscape created by volcanic fires and shaped by glacial ice, almost always shrouded in clouds, mist, rain, or sleet. Giant lobelia plants guard the undulating plateau, with its numerous glacial lakes and swamps.
Bale is one of those rare places where many of the living things are found nowhere else. There are more animals and birds unique to these mountains than just about anywhere else on the planet. The star of the show is the rare and endangered Ethiopian wolf. There are only about 400 Ethiopian wolves left in the wild and the Bale Mountains are home to about half of these.
The endemic and elusive Mountain Nyala is also found here. First recorded by scientists in 1908, there are now only around 2,000 Mountain Nyala left in the wild, and approximately 500 of these live in the Bale Mountains. The area is also home to more than 300 species of birds, around a dozen of which are endemic.
We decided to spend a week hiking here. About 150 people a year trek in the Bale Mountains, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. A week was barely long enough to do justice to this beautiful place. We trekked across approximately one-third of the park. It was a rustic-style trip, food was extremely basic, our cook’s repertoire consisted solely of rice with cabbage, or pasta with tomato sauce, and we ate these dishes with regular monotony. Accommodation was a tiny but snug tent. Several mornings we woke to find our tent covered in a layer of ice. This was an amazing opportunity to visit Ethiopia’s most important biodiversity hotspot and to see some of the rarest creatures in the world.
8. Discover The Desert At The Danakil Depression
The northeastern part of Ethiopia is home to the hottest place on Earth, where daytime temperatures can soar to a sweltering 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on earth as far as year-round average temperatures go, and one of the lowest points on Earth (325 feet below sea level).
In the heart of the depression you will find hot springs, salt mines, and an indescribable multi-colored landscape. The area is also home to one of the world’s oldest active volcanoes, Erta Ale. After looking at the bubbling lava from the volcano and experiencing the almost unbearable heat, you can see why the local Afar people call this place “the gateway to hell.”
Most travelers join a three- to four-day tour of the area, visiting Dallol, Lake Giulietti, and Erta Ale Volcano, and camping in the Danakil Depression. It’s a tough trip, with extreme temperatures, no showers, no running water, and incredibly basic facilities, but definitely worth it for those willing to rough it. It is possible to visit the Danakil Depression on a day tour, leaving the town of Mekele in the very early hours of the morning and returning late at night, and this does save you from having to camp in the desert.
The Danakil Depression is considered the cradle of civilization, as this is where “Lucy,” the oldest known hominid fossil, was found, dating back 3.2 million years. Lucy is on display at the National Museum in Addis Ababa.
9. Get To Know Ethiopian Food
Ethiopia’s cuisine is diverse, flavorful, and definitely something you should experience. Meals are usually served on a common platter to encourage dining together. Injera, a giant grey spongy pancake-like bread, is the country’s staple food, and upon its slightly rubbery surface is served an array of foods, from mounds of spicy stew (wat) to vegetable curries. People eat with their right hands, using the injera to scoop up food served alongside it. I enjoy injera; my husband, on the other hand, says it has the consistency of eating a soggy bath mat! As a former Italian colony, pasta is another popular food for those not keen to sample the injera.
10. Indulge In Coffee Where It Originated
Ethiopia is where Coffea arabica, the coffee plant, originates, and a traditional coffee ceremony is worth attending. During the ceremony, a woman will roast the coffee beans in front of the guests. Then she’ll grind the beans and brew them in a clay coffee pot (jebena). The coffee is served in tiny cups (si’ni) and diners have their choice of sugar or, rather interestingly, salt. Guests are traditionally offered three cupfuls, using the same grounds each time, so each consecutive cup is a little weaker.
Ethiopia is an experience like no other. Stunning scenery, incredibly rare wildlife, amazing people, history, and an ancient culture. While it’s not a destination that will appeal to all, it’s one that’s bound to inspire and excite an intrepid traveler!
We flew on Ethiopian Airlines, and it is worth noting that if you arrive in Ethiopia on an Ethiopian Airlines international flight, you are eligible for up to 40 percent discounts on domestic flights with Ethiopian Airlines.
Ethiopia has an electronic visa program which makes obtaining a permit to enter the country quick and easy for international travelers.