Ethiopia is a fascinating country, a nation that hides many cultural treasures and a variety of landscapes, fauna, and flora. Remote territories inhabited by tribes with different and unchanged cultures since the Neolithic. It has the largest number of monuments declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, has also a unique calendar, a unique time system and can boast of being the only nation in Africa that has never been colonized by a foreign power. To make your trip easier, I have prepared this complete itinerary and guide dedicated to Ethiopia.
INTRODUCTION TO ETHIOPIA
We were a group of 7 friends traveling for 29 days from mid-July to mid-August, during the rainy season. The northern landscape surprised us with its intense green and a multitude of crops of all kinds; mangoes, strawberries, onions, teff, wheat, barley, etc, in large blocks of land. Along the road, we saw animals everywhere: donkeys, cows, goats, sheep; you name it. It doesn’t seem possible for people to starve to death with these resources (about the famines we have seen on TV in 2011 or 2016).
In addition, we found the south super dry and without infrastructure to have water, so people (women and children) have to walk miles to bring water to their homes.
Ethiopia is not a very touristic country, the two areas attracting most visitors are in the north, Lalibela, because of its carved rock churches and in the south the OMO Valley tribes, because of their ancestral cultures.
ROUTE THROUGH ETHIOPIA
Our tour started and ended in Addis Ababa. From Addis Ababa we first headed north, ending up in Lalibela, where the carved stone rock churches are, and witnessed the religious devotion of its inhabitants, mostly Orthodox Catholics. Its endless landscapes of intense green, endemic fauna and flora also surprised us.
From Lalibela, we flew to Addis Abeba (the only flight we took on the entire trip) where our drivers were waiting for us to head southern to the Omo Valley and explore the Konso and Arbaminch territories, border with Kenya. The OMO River Valley is the habitat of ancestral tribes as original as the Dorze, Mursi or the Hamer.
Here the scene changes to a dreary one, but equally its native fauna and flora didn’t cease to amaze us.
And the third part of the trip took place from Konso to Yabelo, where we descended to the crater of the Chew or El Sod volcano. Here, the main source of sustenance is extracting the salt from the volcano, in harsh conditions; and last but not least, we explored the lush nature of Bale and Awash National Park, and reached the walled city of Harar, known for its unique spectacle: The “Hyena Man” feeding every night the hyenas that show up to one of the wall’s gate.
To tell you the truth, the only part of the itinerary we think it’s a little be exhausting is the journey from Konso to Yabelo to visit the Chew volcano, since it’s a whipping. From Yabelo to Awasa there are 380 miles by a terrible road, so you spend the entire day to get there. In our opinion we have been better off going straight from Konso to Awassa.
After spending 29 days (28 nights) in Ethiopia, enjoying a wonderful and enriching experience, I highly recommend visiting this stunning country.
For your reference, here you can find our itinerary broken down by days and with the hotels in which we stayed.
- Day 1 – Addis Ababa. Arrival and visit to the city
- Días 2 y 3 – Bahir Dar. Debra Lebanos Monastery / the Blue Nile Falls, Tana Lake
- Día 4 – Gondar. Gondar / Debre Birhan Selassie Church (Light of Trinity)
- Días 5 y 6 – Gondar – Axum. Semien National Park / Axum
- Día 7 – Mekele. Adigrat Adwa Mountain Yeha / Wukros
- Días 8 – 10 Mekele – Lalibela. Rockhewn churches / Asheton Maryam church
Tukulu Village hotel Lalibela
- Día 11 – Flight to Addis Ababa and drive to Langano Lake
Sabana Beach Resort
- Días 12 y 13 – Arbaminch. Alaba Villages / Dorzae Tribe, Cocodrilo Market (Chamo Lake)
Paradise lodge Arbaminch
- Día 14 – Arbaminch. Turmi, Tsemay and Erborae Tribes, Hamer tribe
Buska lodge Turmi
- Día 15 – Turmi – Omorate. Dasanech Tribe, Turmi Market, Jumping Bull
Buska lodge Turmi
- Día 16 – Turmi – Jinka. Dimeka Market, Banna tribe
- Día 17 – Jinka. Mago National Park, Mursi tribe, Jinka Ethnographic museum
- Día 18 – Jinka – Konso. Ari tribe, Key Afer market, Konso villages
- Día 19 – Konso – Yabelo. Borena tribe, Chew volcano
- Día 20 – Yabelo – Awassa.
Lake View hotel
- Días 21 y 22 – Awassa – Bale Mountains. National Park (endemic mammals and birds)
- Día 23 – Bale Mountains – Nazareth. Goba
Rift Valley hotel
- Día 24 – Nazareth – Awash. Awash National Park, Awash Hot springs
Awash Fall lodge
- Días 25 y 26 – Awash – Harar. Awash Park (Awash River Falls, mammals, birdlife) / Harar
- Día 27 – Harar – Debrezit. Drive through the rift Valley Lakes
- Día 28 – Debrezit – Addis Abeba. Farewell Dinner at traditional restaurant with dances program
HOW TO TRAVEL TO ETHIOPIA
As I mentioned before, we were a group of 7 people, and opted for an agency. We were considering several options, and after some deliberation, decided on Taitu Tour. We booked the tour online, from Spain and without intermediary agencies.
The experienced tour operator, Habtamu, customized an itinerary focused on our interests and assigned us a Spanish-speaking guide, Wende, who gave us a lot of information about Ethiopia and was efficient and friendly. We can say that was the best guide we have had so far.
We also had two exceptional drivers, Dani and Eskinder, which made it easier for us to get to the spots, as the roads are terrible and after the rains, and on several occasions get muddy, and they had to track down alternative paths.
We flew from Madrid on a direct flight with Ethiopian Airlines. The airline offers a 50% off on domestic flights. So, the trip from Lalibela to Addis Ababa was half the price.
I usually use Skyscanner.com to compare and buy the flights.
PASSPORT AND VISA
Our agency, Taitu Tour, advised us to apply for the e-visa from Spain, and thus avoid queues at the airport on our arrival and passing through immigration control.
The passport must be valid for 6 months from the last day of the trip.
The tourist visa is valid for 1 month and costs $20. You can apply for the e-visa at this link.
The official currency is the Ethiopian Birr (ETB).
You can pay by credit card in Addis Ababa in the main hotels. Otherwise you need cash and preferably small notes, because in the villages they don’t have change for 100 Birr bills.
It’s possible to change money (euros or dollars, both without problems) at the airport in Addis Ababa and at the banks.
VACCINES AND TRAVEL INSURANCE
As for vaccines, there is no mandatory vaccination, only yellow fever for travelers from countries at risk of transmission.
The recommended vaccines are Hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, and Typhoid.
They also recommend prophylaxis against malaria, in areas below 2500 meters of altitude.
Regarding travel insurance, because the health conditions are not the best, and you never know what might happen, you’d better hire a good trip insurance. I relay on Iati Seguros as it has always worked great for me.
As a reader of the blog My Lifetime Journey you have a 5% discount if you get your Iati insurance through this link.
In most of the country the rainy season is from June to September, in the south it’s different, the wet season is from March to June.
PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR ETHIOPIA
To travel as comfortably as possible, since the road trip involves moving around, the lighter the luggage, the better, so here is the list of things you will need:
As in the rainy months showers are short, it is advisable to bring a raincoat.
In the higher areas, keep in mind that it’s cold, so a warm jacket and a sweater.
In the south, temperatures are high, and to avoid insect bites, long trousers and long-sleeved shirt in light colors are essential.
– Trekking boots as path ways around historic sites are usually uneven and stony.
– Sandals, so you can easily take them off. It’s mandatory to take off your shoes to enter the churches, the sandals make it easier.
– Socks, also to avoid the flea bites. Churches floors are covered with carpets, the habitat of fleas.
– Sunscreen factor SPF 50+
– Insect repellent
– Headlamp, at night it’s common the electricity goes out in the villages
– Plug adapter. The type of plugs is mostly C / F (as in Spain), but in some villages are 3-pin
– Sleeping bag
– Travel towel
In our case we use two 4 x 4 jeeps with a driver and guide. The roads are in poor condition, after the showers they get muddy and also animals are constantly going through them. It’s more usual to drive behind herds of cows, goats, donkeys, etc. The traffic therefore becomes slow.
WHERE TO STAY IN ETHIOPIA
You can find hotels for all budgets, but bear in mind that they’re not used to tourism, so the quality differs from the European standard; in the capitals you can find splendid hotels.
As a reference, I have written the hotels where we stayed, all of them highly recommended.
According to religious practice, Christians (Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic) represent 63% of the country’s population, Muslims 34% and indigenous beliefs 3%. Christians and Muslims live together in complete harmony.
As for the Orthodox Christian religion, its holy book is the Bible. Within it, the Old Testament is very important, as it’s the origin of the precepts and rules of the Ethiopian Church.
Ethiopians are deeply religious and devoted. It’s very common they ask you out of curiosity what your religion is, assuming you have one. In the country’s north, on Sundays people dress up in their best clothes and go to mass.
The duration of the mass is 3 hours length, it starts at 7 in the morning and if they haven’t arrived early to take a place inside the church; they stay at the door, standing until it ends.
As far as the language is concerned, the Amharic is the official one spoken in northern and central Ethiopia which the entire Ethiopian School population is proficient in.
This language descends from the ancient Ge’ez dialect.
Amharic is written from left to right using an alphabetical syllabify derived from the Ge’ez script.
What can you expect to eat in Ethiopia? Basically, very spicy vegetable and meat dishes (wat), displayed on injera, a flat crepe made of fermented teff flour.
Stewed meats can be chicken, beef, lamb; the pork is banned all over the country.
And meat lovers would like to know that is possible to find quality restaurants where enjoy a good hunk of raw meat.
In the Lake Langano area, fish, usually tilapia, with sweet sauce.
As for drinks, tej, a wine made from wine and honey, very sweet and popular among the population, the tella, a homemade beer made from teff or sorghum, and the famous buna or coffee that involves a fascinating ritual in terms of preparation and tasting.
To begin with, Ethiopia, besides being the cradle of coffee, is one of the major producers and exporters of it, its production accounts for 60% of the economic income that the nation receives. The huge extension of the country together with its unique terrain allows them to grow different varieties of coffee, according to each region.
Coffee is an ancestral rite and the essence of Ethiopian culture. It’s usually a woman who prepares for the ceremony.
First, she burns incense to give solemnity to the act.
The coffee pot, “yebena”, made of black ceramic, is where the water boils.
The ritual sets up with the washing of the green coffee beans, then she roasts them on a frying pan that places on the coals. Once roasted, the coffee is ground by hand and added to the “yebena” when the water boils.
While roasting the grains, she fans the coffee, so that people can enjoy the smell. Then, it served the drink in small handless cups usually accompanied by popcorn.
Three cups are taken. The first one is known as “abol”, the strongest one. The second “zani”, softer; and the third, “berekka”, less intense.
They say that the first cup is drunk for health, the second for love and the third for money.
Ethiopia still has the Julian calendar, in which they divide the year into 12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month of 5 or 6 days, depending on whether the year is a leap year.
The Ethiopian calendar is 8 years behind the Gregorian calendar between the months of January to September and 7 years behind between 11 September and 8 January.
They celebrate the New Year in Ethiopia on September 11.
Timetables differ from ours; the explanation is that being a country near the equator almost all year round has 12 hours of daylight and 12 of nighttime.
Its time of departure is when the sun arises at 00:00, which for us is equivalent to 6:00.
So, when we have already spent 1 hour of light, it’s 7 a.m.; and for them it’s 1 a.m.
We visited Addis Ababa 2 days, on the day of arrival and the one on departure. The city is chaotic, streets packed with cars and people, with no historical center, in my opinion is pretty ugly , all things considered.
The present capital, Addis Ababa, founded in 1886 by Menelik II, on the slope of Mount Entoto, is the third highest capital in the world at 2438 meters above sea level.
What to see in Addis Ababa
This museum houses very important archaeological findings, including the fossil remains of the first hominids, the most famous being Lucy, the partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, 3.2 to 3.5 million years old found in Ethiopia.
The exhibition displays a copy of Lucy’s skeleton, the original is in the laboratory in the building next to the museum.
Lucy’s name comes from the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which researchers were listening to on the radio at the time of her discovery in 1974.
In addition, the centre shows collections of a wide variety of objects: historical, archaeological, ethnographic, old stone tools and modern art.
One of the two major highlights of the city is this amazing museum, in which it explained the origin and cultures of the different ethnic groups in the country.
It provides a complete cultural and folkloric collection of each region or ethnic group, agricultural tools, handicraft techniques, musical instruments, traditional costumes or household utensils.
HOLY TRINITY CATHEDRAL
This is the other highlight of the city, the church of the Holy Trinity, Ethiopia’s main Orthodox cathedral, built to commemorate the liberation of the nation from Italian occupation. It’s a very interesting place, home of the remains of the last emperor Haile Selassie I, and members of the Ethiopian royal family.
Makonnen, better known as Haile Selassie I, was the last monarch to occupy the throne, he came to it in 1930, in 1936 he went into exile in Bath as Italian troops ordered by Mussolini invaded the city, and finally died in 1975.
It’s the largest open-air market in Africa, totally chaotic, but on closer inspection the market shows an order within chaos with sections for each product. There’s a section for just about anything you can imagine, clothes, electronics, fruit, silver jewelry, drums…
The opening hours from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 to 18:00. The city bus station is in Mercato as well.
Our guide thought we had better saw the market from the car as it could be dangerous for us. So, we could appreciate the goods and the atmosphere from inside the vehicle.
In the next entries I show you the guides dedicated to the north, south, mountains Bale and Harar, the way we visited which I hope will help you when traveling to Ethiopia.
1 thought on “Ethiopia. Itinerary and a Complete Travel Guide”
Books The Chains of Heaven, an Ethiopian Romance, Philip Marsden’s account of his walk from Lalibela to Axum, is a good romp through those northern hills and through the author’s exposition of Ethiopian history and culture. Ethiopia: the Bradt Guide by Philip Briggs is the only proper backpacking guidebook to the country, with good chapters on history and birdlife.