The Most Diverse African Experience?
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
I visited Ethiopia 3 times over the last 5 years and spent approx. 2 months there. Nonetheless, I still have the impression that I haven’t seen it all:
- 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!
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), 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
- 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 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 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.
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 (See bellow: Best Time To Visit Ethiopia). 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 during 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?
The major highlights of the Northern Historical Route are now overrun by larger number of visitors, mostly large groups of elderly Europeans. This can turn quite unpleasant, especially in Lalibela, where everyone congregates to a small number of Rock-Hewn Churches at the same time…
But since individual tourism in Ethiopia is still a limited phenomenon (the vast majority of visitors come on organized tours), you can still enjoy areas of the country void or almost void of tourists:
- If Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela & now even Aksum are awfully popular, the whole Tigray area and Harar are far less visited.
- The Danakil Depression, though much more popular now than 5 years ago, still offers an experience truly Off The Beaten Track.
- Instead of heading to the Simien Mountains National Park like the vast majority, head for the Bale Mountains National Park.
- If you wan to discover the Lower Omo Valley, go on the “other side of the river”, that still receives far less visitors…
- And of course, all places not mentioned above are completely off the radar!
What Will We Especially Remember?
- An incredible concentrations of brand new, luxury SUVs, either owned by travel agencies or by government officials.
- A huge contrast between highly modern cities where brand new buildings (mostly luxury hotels to cater for the tour groups) pop-up like mushrooms and remote villages that still live like in the Middle Ages… The quick economic development of the last few years only concerns a very small minority of Ethiopians!
- Brand new roads, throughout the whole country, even in the most remote places – All built by the Chinese, except the one going down to the Danakil Depression, built by the Ethiopian Army.
- Excellent Ethiopian Food… Check the excellent article written by my fellow Travel Bloggers Audrey & Dan from Uncornered Market. Note that in very remote places, the food is somewhat less diverse and can be slightly monotonous…
- People walking along the roads for hours, either accompanying their cattle (men) or carrying heavy loads (women), or just walking to… I don’t know (men).
- An incredible religious fervor, clearly noticeable in all monasteries & churches in Ethiopia… Seldom had I witnessed such a powerful faith so clearly expressed…
What Would We Do Differently?
- Plan enough time in each place, and do not rush through the country. This sounds trivial, but with so many things to see, you will tend to do this. Each popular city has much more to offer than “only the highlights”!
- Organize your itinerary in such a way that you reach cities on Market Day (these change, so check! In November 2015 it was Saturday both in Aksum and in Lalibela). As written above, those markets can be as vivid and as colorful as it get!
- When visiting Harar, stay in one of those traditional Harari Houses turned into a guesthouse, and do not waste time with Dire Dawa, except for its market.
- When visiting the Danakil Depression: start the climb of Erta Ale as early as possible. The Afar guides will do all they can to prevent this, but negotiate it very clearly with your Agency! I would recommend starting at 14:30 or 15:00 latest… True, at that time it will be hot, and there is no shade to hide from the scorching sun! But reaching the crater at the “Blue Hours” (when the sun is setting) is your only opportunity to take really good pictures: at night, the contrast between darkness and lava is far too high, and having clear & focused pictures is close to impossible…
- When visiting the Lower Omo Valley, go on “the other side of the river”, where most tours do not go! The classical route is now completely overrun. And in villages, try to negotiate a “flat rate” for the pictures. At this point, I want to insist and repeat that I was truly concerned by my footprint in the Lower Omo Valley…
- Last but not least, do neither waste time with the Blue Nile Falls near Bahir Dar, absolutely unimpressive as most of the water goes to a power plant nor with the Falasha Village near Gonder, where you only find a few tourist shops…
Is It Safe To Travel To Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is a very safe country to travel, and security should not be a concern, with maybe the exception of the Danakil Depression where safety was still a major issue until 2012, when the Ethiopian Army set up a camp not only in Ahmed Ale but also in Erta Ale. No major incident has been reported ever since.
Best Time To Visit Ethiopia
The weather conditions depend on the area of the country you are visiting, it is therefore impossible to give an overall answer to this matter:
- The Northern Historical Route can mainly be visited in the dry season, between September & April. Especially October and November are perfect moments, when the country is still green and harvest is underway.
- The Danakil Depression is only accessible in the “cold season” (expect about 42 degrees Celsius / 108 degrees Fahrenheit during the day) between November & February. Afterwards, temperatures go through the roof and travel is strictly impossible.
- The Lower Omo Valley is only accessible during the dry season, from August to February, as most roads in the rainy season are still impassible.
- Trekking in the Simien Mountains National Park or the Bale Mountains National Park is possible at the same time as visiting the Northern Historical Route. Beware that it can be really cold in the mountains (down to the freezing point).
Communication (Language Barrier?)
As long as you stay on the main touristic roads, English is widely spoken and communication is quite easy. In other parts of Ethiopia, communication can still be an issue if you are on your own, as English is hardly spoken.
Getting Around In Ethiopia
Things have tremendously changed in Ethiopia! Almost all major roads are excellent tarred road (all Chinese build), and there is even a modern highway for the first 130 km from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. Therefore, travel time is now much shorter than it used to be as recently as 5 years ago…
If you have a limited amount of time at hand, flying will save you a lot of travel time, as distances are great and roads crosses mountain ranges on the Northern Historical Route. Remember that if you plan to fly within Ethiopia, domestic 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!
The time indicated bellow is in a private Jeep, so travel time by bus will be higher, but not necessarily much higher, depending on the type of transport you find (large buses that drive long distances through or minibuses that tend to stop about anywhere)…
Red Tape is straightforward and Visas On Arrival are available at the airport, payable in 7 or 8 different currencies (Euro, USD…) for one month (single entry) or 3 months (double entry). For European citizens, the one month / single entry Visa cost 50 USD in November 2015.
Photography – Ethiopia: A Photographers’ Dream
With such a diversity of highlights, and such unique experiences and sites, Ethiopia is a photographers’ dream! It is maybe not surprising that Ethiopia is the country from which I have sold the most pictures both through my agency ImageBroker and directly at Exhibitions.
- Key Factors For Taking Great Pictures?
With so many different types of opportunities, it is difficult to summarize what are the key factors: you will have too much light and not enough light. You will be too close or too far away. You will be alone or in the middle of a thick crowd. You will have plenty of time to get ready or will have to react in a split second…
Take all your equipment, as you will use wide angles, standard lenses and tele-lenses; polarizing filters and tripods; …
- Best Opportunities For Great Pictures
- Beautiful people – Yes, Ethiopians are strikingly handsome people, both men and women. Be polite, smile, and be amazed to see that many will simply pose for the picture! Especially the area of Harar offered me unique photography opportunities…
- Vivid & colorful markets, throughout Ethiopia! Check that you are there early, and that you arrive in cities on Market day (Saturday both in Lalibela & Aksum in November 2015, but beware: the day changes!)
- The Danakil Depression, with so many unique highlights: of course the bubbling crater of Erta Ale (be there before dark, if you can!), the endless Camel Caravans, the Salt Mines on Lake Asale, the Sulfure Rock Formations of Dallol…
- The Lower Omo Valley – Yes, this is a fascinating yet truly disturbing experience. Here is what we wrote upon return: “Mostly very wealthy, middle-aged to elderly people come for a week and point their expensive cameras towards people who still live like in prehistoric times. It seems all they want from each other is a photo in exchange for 2 Birr / 10 cents. This has led to an unparalleled nuisance: the omnipresent “Birr for Photo” business. Never before were we so concerned about the footprint we leave in a region”.
- The stunning Rock-Hewn Churches, especially in Lalibela, but also in Tigray; the monasteries around Lake Tana in Bahir Dar; the vestiges of former Empires in Aksum & Gonder; …
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Ethiopia
Conclusion About Ethiopia…
Ethiopia is the country in Sub-Saharan Africa that offers the largest Cultural Heritage and of all countries in Africa I have visited the most diverse type of experiences. This is why your major challenge there will be to choose your itinerary, as you will most likely not be able to see it all!
Ethiopia is changing quickly, though: on the one hand, Ethiopia is (deservedly) becoming more and more popular, and the surge of tourists, mostly in large organized tours, is significant; on the other hand, the country is undergoing a major economic change, a very fast modernization of the infrastructures is underway, and some areas, very remote and untouched until recently, will make a move from the Middle Age to the 21st Century in only a few years…
So if you want to discover Ethiopia, and especially the more remote parts of the country, GO NOW!