If you visit Ethiopia it will definitely surprise you. It is not all desert as some people believe, a lot of the country is in fact high up, green and cool. From the capital Addis Ababa to having the lowest and hottest point on the African continent to a high point of 4550mtrs (15,000ft), birthplace of Rastafarian (and its King Haile Selaisse) and the Queen of Sheba, to the start of the Blue Nile there is plenty of adventure to be had.
Immediately you are struck by how relaxed the place is. No throngs of people wanting to put you in their taxi for a ‘special price’, no hoards wanting you to stay in their hostel. Its all just easy going. And you will find out that is the way the country is, very relaxed with some of the friendliest people in the world.
Time to Do: Spending 1-2 days in Addis then to bus to Bahir Dahr and onto Gondar seeing what there is to see in each town takes about 5 days. It takes about 1 day each to see the immidiate sights in Bahir Dahr and Gondar.
For tourists in Ethiopia the country has two distinct sections (for the most part). In the north half of the country (north of Addis Ababa) is where most tourist go and is well services by buses (although the roads can still be shocking) and tours to the sights in all the towns. Places like the Simien Mountains, Lake Tana, Axum (Aksum), Gondar etc. The southern half (south of Addis Ababa) where some of the famous tribes such as the Mursi live in the Omo Valley is more difficult to get around, progress is a lot slower and more time is needed.
A point to note is that the only fully paved road in the country, or will be fully paved, is the Addis Ababa to Gondar via Bahir Dar road being constructed by the Chinese. Most other roads do not have this luxury and so keep this in mind when planning your itinerary as 300km may take 10hrs and not the 4hrs that you are used to. This is a lesson I learned in the country despite having a decent amount of experience in these sort of countries. I will mention below the estimated travel times.
Addis is one of the strangest cities I have been in. There is no centre, no hub in the city so there is no central place that you should be and see. The city is full of hills and has several mini centres with nothing much in any of them which gives the visitor a feeling of missing out on the action. More than likely you will be staying in the Piazza area which is as close to the centre as it gets and has a decent amount of reasonable accommodation.
Ethiopia is a third world country and Addis reflects this with people having their ‘home’ on the grass inbetwen the roads and people begging on the streets. They are not begging from tourists, in fact they shy away from it but just begging from the local population. Despite this Addis and Ethiopia is very safe and also for single women travellers taking the normal precautions. The little blue and white minibuses zip around the town with rally driver skill with people packed in the back for approximately 5cent per kilometre. You need to listen very careful to their wailing to catch where they are going. In Addis you will get your first taste of what will you will be able to get for everymeal in injera. This large sour pancake is an acquired taste and wont be nice on your first taste but some people get into the spirit and get used to it but I wasnt one of them. Even if you are not a fan you should head into one of the many cafes in Addis or in any town in Ethiopia and soak up the goings on in the birth place of coffee.
The things to see in Addis Ababa before you head off to the real adventures are:
- Ethiopian National Museum: Home of Lucy, your long lost relative, the world’s oldest skeleton at 3.5million years old. Open Mon–Fri, 8:30am–12:30pm, 1:30–6:30pm; Sat-Sun 8:3 am–12:30pm.
- St.Georges Cathedral: Built in the 1890’s to celebrate the victory over the Italians and full of historic artifacts.
- The National Palace: Home of the president and its park has some unique indigenous wildlife.
- Merkato: This market full of tin shacks and vendors is nerve racking and exhilarating at the same time. It claims to be the biggest market in Africa but that is debateable.
- Monuments: Lion of Judah, Victory Monument, Abune Petros Memorial
Need to Know
Very crazy and Important: This may seem bizarre to anybody that hasn’t ventured to Ethiopia but they have two times. Normal time and Ethiopian time. Normal time is GMT +3hrs and what most of the world works off BUT they also have a different time called Ethiopian time which is on the same zone as New York! The first time you hear this it is ridiculous but when explained it makes more sense than the ‘normal time’ except for the fact that they use both interchangeably and not just one which leaves everybody confused.
How it works is like so: Day means daylight and is 12hrs long and starts when it gets bright around 6am (so 7am is 1 o’clock in the day Ethiopian time) and night means darkness and is 12hrs long and starts when it gets dark around 6pm (so 7 pm is 1 o’clock at night). As they are close to the equator the daylight is fairly constant all year round. So when they tell you the bus is at 11 o’clock tonight what they mean is that it is at the second last hour of darkness which is probably around 5am GMT time!
The easiest way to find out what time they are talking about if their English isn’t great is to ask them what time it is now. That way at least you know which time they are referring to!
ATM’s in Addis are few and far between if you have mastercard or AmEx as nearly everything is visa and over holidays, especially Easter (March/April time) can run out of money. A bank machine that nearly always has money is the Hilton Hotel and it takes mastercard so if you are not staying there you can check out the gigantic contrast between people in the hotel and outside it! The hotel is a tall building and overlooks the slums of the city.
The main bus station is the chaotic Terra bus station (for long distance) near the equally chaotic Merkato area and a lot of minibuses go by. The journey times by bus are: Bahir Dar (65Birr, 12hrs), Gonder (92Birr, 2days), Mekele (100Birr, 2days), Shashemene (31Birr, 5hrs), Lalibela (95Birr, 2days). These leave around 6am or earlier in the morning and you should be there at least an hour beforehand to get a ticket.
Addis Ababa can be seen in a full day if you are quick or if you want to browse the museums or soak in the cafe culture or enjoy the nightlife then more can be added. Compared to the riches in the rest of the country Addis is the poor relation.
Bahir Dar (Lake Tana, Blue Nile Falls, Start of Blue Nile, Monasteries)
More than likely this sleepy town lined with palm trees and cafe’s will be the first town outside Addis Ababa you will arrive in after a long journey. There are not that many places to stay in Bahir Dar but although on the expensive side of reasonable the Ghion Hotel has a wonderful location situated on the south side of Lake Tana and it is possible to be lazy and get a tour to all sights from here.
Blue Nile Falls (Tis Isat): After a 30minute hilly walk over Portuguese Bridge, the might of the Nile is there for all to see. If you see these beautiful 45mtr (140ft) falls during wet season (June-Sept) but if you see them during dry season you can only imagine the sight as the water flow decreases dramatically and the 600mtr wide falls reduce to around 100mtrs. Although when you stand at the base of the falls the wind is nearly enough to blow you off your feet.
The entrance fee to the Falls is 30Birr and 10Birr for the boatman to bring you across the river. If you are not on a tour the last bus back is after 5pm and no matter what the locals say about it being full, the driver will always find a seat for you. Ghion Hotel run two tours a day (8am and 3pm) for 100Birr per person when at least 4.
Lake Tana, start of Blue Nile and the Monasteries:
The biggest lake in Ethiopia is dotted with islands full of historic orthodox monasteries, which are some of the oldest in the world. Tours can range from 2hrs to 12hrs but a normal length is a half day (4-5hrs). To note that a small few of the monasteries are closed to women (Dega Estefanos, Tana Cherkos). The time on the water depends on how much you have paid and how much horsepower the outboard motor is. The cheaper ones are 30hp and slow compared to some of the bigger 60hp engines. The monasteries are nice but 3 is enough and most of the ‘museums’ are only one room huts. Having said this one monk showed us some books (which only monks can open) that were over 500years old and was still in pristine condition and must have weighed over 10kg. If you are a Christian you will find that the Ethiopians have all the normal books such as the bible etc but they also have other books which has an Ethiopian slant on the history. For example one of the wise men came from Ethiopia not from the established east, Mary when fleeing persecution to Egypt with Jesus took a 7000km detour via Ethiopia etc.
Ensure the same boat brings you via the start of the Blue Nile on the way home as it starts its 5200km journey to the Mediterranean. For such a large and famous river there is barely a ripple as the river leaves the lake which was far from the fireworks I was expecting! There is plenty of wildlife at this inauspicious start such as hippo’s and birdlife to view.
A half day tour costs about 200Birr and takes you to 3-4 monasteries. Each monastery charges separately to enter (from 30-100Birr). If you go to the harbour you can haggle with the drivers for a better price.
The Camelot of Africa was once home to the emperors and royalty of Ethiopia which have left behind a wonderful castle or Royal Enclosure(Unesco World Heritage Site), or series of castles in the town which started in the 12th century. The walls of some of these are very well kept and include baths, kitchens, banquet hall and a lion enclosure. The castle costs 50Birr to enter. (8.30-12.30, 1.30-6pm).
Other sites around Gondar are Fasilada’s Bath 2km north (8.30-12.30, 1.30-5.30pm), Debre Berhan Selaisse Church (6.00-12.30, 1.30-6pm, 25Birr), Empress Mentewab’s Kuskuam Complex (8am-6.30pm, 25Birr)
Gondar for most people is a stop on the way to the beautiful Simien Mountains which is home to many indigenous animals and Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dashan. The town is full of tour offices which are delighted to offer you a tour. You can go for any length you want but the usual is 4days and 3nights. I would highly recommend not to go on a day trip as you do not see the best parts of the park and the journey time just to get there is about 3hrs. For further info on Simien Mountains please click here as I go into more detail.
Practicalities – About Ethiopia
€1 = 24Birr, $1 = 18.5Birr
Language = Amharic. English is widely spoken in tourist areas.
Flights – Can fly with Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Air, Emirates from outside the African continent
Internal flights are common and frequent with Ethiopian Airlines (http://www.ethiopianairlines.com) and are a reasonable price. Addis Ababa is the hub but journeys only cost approximately 2000Birr one way at a weeks notice. For example at one weeks notice it is possible to get Axum return for 3600Birr. This is a great way to get around if stuck for time. Ethiopian Airlines has an office in all the major cities.
Accomodation – 380Birr per night for a reasonable double room (Addis Ababa)
Population – 84.7million
Visas – You can recieve a visa on arrival for $20 and 2 x passport photos when you arrive if you are from the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea Republic, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States. If you are not then you need to apply in advance. Please check before going as the situation changes on http://www.ethiopianembassy.org/ConsularServices/ConsularService.php?Page=VisaRequirement.htm#1
Map of Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - National Museum|
National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - St. Georges Cathedral|
Abune Petros Memorial, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - National Palace|
Ghion Hotel (Addis Ababa), Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - Merkato (Open Market)|
Tekle Haimanot, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
|Addis Ababa - Terra Bus Station|
Tekle Haimanot, Addis Ababa, Oromia, Ethiopia
Bahir Dar, Amhara, Ethiopia
Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia
Debark, Amhara, Ethiopia
|Simien Mnts - Sanbakar Camp|
Sankabar, Amhara, Ethiopia
|Simien Mnts - Geech Camp|
Geech, North Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia
|Simien Mnts - Chenek Camp|
Chenek, North Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia
Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia
|Hamad Ale - Dallol|
Dallol, Afar Zone 2, Afar, Ethiopia
|Erta Ale Volcano|
Erta Ale, Afar Zone 2, Afar, Ethiopia
Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia
Lalibela, Amhara, Ethiopia