Ethiopia has emerged as a safe but adventurous destination for those seeking a unique travel experience. Part of its appeal is that although it has much to tempt intrepid travelers, few people go there. It is also one of the cheapest countries in the world, making travel there an even more attractive proposition.
Known as the cradle of mankind, it is thought that humanity originated in the Rift Valley, where some of the world's oldest humanoid fossils are found. Rich in culture, Ethiopia is home to indigenous tribes barely touched by the outside world. It is also one of the world's oldest Christian countries and is believed to be the promised land by Rastafarians.
From deserts and volcanic plains to lush rainforests and waterfalls, the landscapes of Ethiopia are surprisingly diverse. With nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the underground rock churches of Lalibela and an abundance of monasteries, temples, and castles, there are no shortage of historical sights to explore.
Ethiopia is a fascinating destination for history lovers, and fortunately, many tour providers concentrate on the historical perspective of the country. From Lucy, the oldest humanoid in the world, to the architectural wonders of the ancient rock churches of Lalibela and Gondar's 17th-century castles, there is an abundance of incredible sights see. Other places of interest that many tours include on their itinerary are Axum's obelisks and the ancient island monasteries of Lake Tana.
Local-led tours exploring the southern Omo region of Ethiopia offer an opportunity for visitors to meet the indigenous people of Omo Valley. Because Malarone, they are sensitive to needs of the tribes and ensure that they are not exploited by tourism. Visitors are able to learn about the tribal cultures and customs and witness ceremonial events.
Ethiopia's landscape of forests, pinnacles, gorges, and canyons form world-class and hugely under-explored trekking territory. From the Simien Mountain Range in the north to the Bale Mountains in the south, there is no shortage of remote and rugged terrain to explore. There are a number of tour companies with expert guides who provide wilderness trekking experiences throughout the country.
There are several companies specializing in wildlife and birdwatching tours of Ethiopia. With 900 species of birds, the country is an ornithologist's paradise. There are opportunities to spot Ethiopian wolves and Walia ibex, but the stars of the show are the Gelada Baboons. It's possible to sit amongst them and observe the baboons at close quarters. Ethiopia is also an up-and-coming safari destination, so look for safari offerings from reputable providers.
Best Time to Visit Ethiopia
The best time to visit Ethiopia is during the dry season when it is usually warm and sunny. Incentives to travel during the rainy season include cheaper prices and the fact that some of the major festivals take place during that time. June and July are the wettest months, especially n the highlands, but the scenery is lush and storms are often short and sharp rather than lasting all day.
What to Look for in a Tour to Ethiopia
Most first-time visitors to Ethiopia will be looking to sign up for a tour that includes all of the major highlights the country has to offer -- but remember that Ethiopia is a large country and you may want to concentrate on one particular area.
There are tours catering to all budgets, from backpackers to high-end travelers. Make sure that the group size, accommodation style, and the cost is right for you, and check what is included as well as any extras you will have to cover. You may wish to establish that the company promotes responsible travel and it makes sense to read a few reviews from previous customers.
Typical Tour Cost
Overland companies offer tours for approximately $1,200 for 15 days or $1,500 for 21 days. Flights are not included.
When traveling in Ethiopia, wet weather gear (if traveling in the rainy season), hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and toilet paper are all extremely useful items to include on your packing list. Pack lightweight clothing that covers your arms and legs. Although things are changing, especially in Addis Ababa, most Ethiopians still dress conservatively. It is best for visitors to follow suit and dress modestly. By respecting local customs, you will attract less attention.
Other Tips for Travel in Ethiopia
Don't drink the water! Bottled water is sold everywhere or alternatively, you could purchase a LifeStraw, which is not only eco-friendly but takes up very little space in your backpack.
Cutlery is not generally used. A flatbread called injera is the main staple of the Ethiopian diet and is eaten morning, noon, and night. Before you start thinking that you are going to get bored with the cuisine, don't worry -- there are lots of different toppings. Simply wrap the injera around whatever tasty topping you have chosen and take a huge bite!
There are 87 indigenous languages spoken in Ethiopia and the official language is Amharic. English is the most widely-spoken foreign language.
ATM's may not always recognize foreign debit and credit cards in Ethiopia, so make sure you have U.S. dollars or Euros on you just in case -- and bring plenty of Ethiopian birr with you from the capital.
All nationalities entering Ethiopia (except for Kenyans) need a visa. Single-entry one to three-month tourists visas are issued on arrival at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. You will also need two passport-sized photographs, and sometimes proof of onward travel is requested. Contact your nearest Ethiopian Embassy prior to traveling for any updates or changes.
Typhoid, hepatitis A, diphtheria, and meningococcal vaccinations are all recommended if you are heading to Ethiopia. It is also important to ensure that your polio and tetanus shots are up-to-date. A yellow fever certificate is only required if you have been to a country where it is present.
Much of Ethiopia is at high altitude, so it may not be necessary to take malaria prophylaxis depending on where you are planning to go. Lariam, Malarone, or doxycycline are recommended for all areas except Addis Ababa and any destinations above 6,500 feet in altitude. Make sure that you cover up and use bug spray as dengue fever is also a threat in Ethiopia.
The only lake in Ethiopia where you can swim or paddle in safely is Lake Langano, a popular destination due to the fact that it is the only bilharzia-free zone of water in the country.
Ethiopia is generally a safe country to travel in as long as you avoid certain areas. Pickpocketing is the most common problem for tourists, especially in Addis Ababa. Be particularly wary around Meskal Square where the buses arrive and depart. Watch out for kids who surround you selling tissues and candles as it is often a decoy. Don't wear expensive jewelry and try not to carry too much cash.
Avoid the border with Somalia, as this is where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab are based. The border with Kenya can also be a politically volatile spot.
Try not to travel at night time -- the roads are hazardous due to potholes and wandering cattle. Last but not least, make sure you buy travel insurance.