I visited Ethiopia 3 times over the last 5 years and spent approx. 2 months there:
• In December 2010, I spent 2 weeks in the Lower Omo Valley & the Danakil Depression
• Over Easter 2011, I took 12 days and focused on the Northern Historical Route
• In November 2015, I took a whole month to re-discover the Northern Historical Route (including Harar and the Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray & the Danakil Depression.
In 2010 - 2011, I discovered a country where tourism was still in a very early phase, but already showing signs of a quick take off. What a surprise when I came back in 2015 and discovered a country that had undergone a tremendous development in many aspects, over a period of only five years!
If you want more information, you can check my blog (including a detailed budget with breakdown of expenditures & a selection of my best pictures:
Why Travel To Ethiopia?
Though more and more on the radar of travelers (mostly Europeans), Ethiopia is still a country widely unknown to the vast majority, still suffering from the images of the terrible famine that struck a country at war with its neighbor Eritrea in the mid of the 1980s.
Nonetheless, Ethiopia is a stunning country. Did you know that it is the only African country that defeated a European army (the Italians) and that has never been durably colonized? Ethiopia also offers the largest Cultural Heritage of Sub-Saharan Africa, built over centuries by some of the oldest Jewish, Christian (Orthodox) and Muslim communities on earth, and by Empires which influence spread much further than African boundaries…
That said, Ethiopia also offers a huge diversity of experiences, and the experience you will have in this country mainly depends on the area you focuses on… And you will have to focus on specific aspects and areas, as you will not be able to discover all parts of this country, except if you have at least 8 weeks at hand:
• The Northern Historical Route (Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela, Aksum, Tigray - http://grandescapades.net/grand-escapades-travel-guide-to-ethiopia/), in the highlands of Ethiopia, takes the visitors through the grandeurs of Ethiopian Christian Orthodox culture, with stunning Rock-Hewn Churches and Monasteries, but also through the vestiges of the various Ethiopian Empires, starting with the legendary Queen of Sheba and ending in the 20th Century.
• The area of Harar shows a completely different aspect of the country: the Muslim part of Ethiopia reminds much more of Northern African / Saharan cultures, and Harar is a jewel of a city that deserves several days of attention to soak in the unique atmosphere of this maze of narrow streets.
• Experienced Trekkers will find excellent opportunities for treks ranging from 2 days to more than one week… The most popular one is definitely the Simien Mountains National Park, offering stunning sights of the high range of the Simien Mountains, home to many endemic species like the “Cliffhanger” Gelada Monkeys. Lesser known (I haven’t visited it myself) is the Bale Mountains National Park, which shall offer unique and more Off The Beaten Track trekking possibilities…
• The Danakil Depression (http://grandescapades.net/expeditions-to-the-the-danakil-depression/#more-9794) is an expedition to the hottest place on earth (no marketing slogan, but a desert with an average temperature of 34.4 degrees Celsius - 94 Fahrenheit - and peaks approaching 70 degrees Celsius), to discover Salt Mines, Salt Caravans, Sulfure Rock Formations and last but not least one of the few volcanoes with a permanent lava lake, Erta Ale.
• The Lower Omo Valley (http://grandescapades.net/8-days-in-the-omo-valley/) is a unique yet disturbing place… There are not many places like this on this planet! Where do you find so many different cultures and ethnic groups in a relatively small area who still cling to their traditional way of life? This is absolutely unique, even the “Birr for Photo” business (http://grandescapades.net/one-photo-two-birr/).
Challenges Organizing The Trip - What Would We Have Wished To Know?
Ethiopia is a country that is extremely easy to discover, and could be considered as “Africa for Beginners”. Red Tape is straightforward (Visa On Arrival works perfectly fine for many countries), security is good, the infrastructure is booming, and you can easily discover most parts independently, on a relatively low budget, at least for African standards (except the Danakil Depression & the Lower Omo Valley, where you need an agency).
• The most difficult part when planning a trip to Ethiopia is choosing your itinerary, as you most probably won’t be able to see it all… First, consider the period of your trip, as some parts cannot be visited at some times of the year. Then consider the time you have at hand. You will need 5+ days for the Danakil Depression, 8+ days for the Lower Omo Valley (no matter which side of the river you want to discover), 4+ days for the Simien Mountains or 6+ for the Bale Mountains, and at least 2 weeks (more if you add Harar & the Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray) for the Northern Historical Route (Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar & Lake Tana, Gonder, Lalibela, Aksum).
• If you plan to fly within Ethiopia, beware that domestic plane tickets are outrageously expensive except if you have used Ethiopian Airlines as an international carrier. So book an international plane ticket on Ethiopian Airlines (they now fly directly to Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna…) if you plan to fly within Ethiopia!
• Book in advance only if you plan to discover Lalibela uring Orthodox Easter (a really special moment) or if you want to enjoy the Gheralta Lodge to discover the Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray.
• If you plan to go to the Danakil Depression, then your window of opportunity is relatively small: November to February! You will need an agency, and consider carefully what your targets and your budget are, as you have several options that will give you a different approach from this unique place.
Highlights Of The Trip
Ethiopia is full of highlights and every single one of them would justify the trip… This is maybe the most difficult part about a trip to Ethiopia: choosing which part you will cover and which part you won’t! I will not list here any single place I have visited, but only the ones that were truly special to me!
• Erta Ale, one of the few volcanoes with a permanent lava lake - Once at the edge of the crater, we held our breath - we looked into the red, orange and even whitish lava boiling away about 20 meters away. Welcome to the Door To Hell!
• Camel Caravans & the Salt Mines of Lake Asale - These endless caravans of camels carrying up to 240 kg of salt freshly extracted from Lake Asale by young Afar & Tigrian workers, walking in total quietness through the immensity of the Danakil Depression, at sunset and at sunrise, are a unique, fairy-tale sight!
• The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela during Easter - For us this was an unforgettable image: standing in this huge ditch in front of an ancient church in the middle of the night, with flickering candles as only light, listening to the monotonous praying…
• The Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray - The most memorable visit was to “Abuna Yemata Guh”! Vertiginous… Breathtaking… Downright Scary… I am not sure which adjective suits best for the climb to this well-hidden church, but one thing is for sure: if I had somehow imagined how difficult, dangerous & scary the climb up this small church was, I most probably wouldn’t have gone… Yet I do not regret it any second!
• Bull-Jumping Ceremony in the Lower Omo Valley - A ritual of another age, when a boy must run over a group of bulls aligned to be accepted as a man…
• Harar - In the lowlands and the desert East of the country, this city is a place apart in Ethiopia. This is probably the only city that you can fully discover on foot and that will invite you for long strolls. Just get lost in this maze of small streets…
• Various Markets - Looking for some vivid, colorful African markets that will assault all your senses? Especially the ones in and around Harar (including Dire Dawa & Awaday Khat Market), but also those in Aksum or in Lalibela are unique.
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
Check my website for more information: http://grandescapades.net/travel-guide-to-ethiopia/
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I visited Ethiopia 3 times over the last 5 years and spent approx. 2 months there: