Ultimate Guide to Travelling in Northern Ethiopia

I have visited Africa loads and each time it becomes tougher to leave. My recent trip to Ethiopia was no exception. Sure, I had carried out loads of research prior to arriving in Addis Ababa but what I experienced during my three weeks surpassed all my expectations and resulted in Ethiopia becoming one of my absolute favourites.

Why Ethiopia?

So what was it that made me fall in love with this country which has through history lost control of its borders, been plagued by civil war and famine? Well, the food, coffee, kindness of strangers, rock churches, earthy African smells, hiking at altitude in the Simien mountains and venturing below sea level in the Danakil Depression. Each day effortlessly over-delivered on what was promised in my research, no easy feat when I had been looking forward to Ethiopia so much that I even roped in three friends to join me on the trip.

HOW TO GET THERE
My main reason for flying with Ethiopian Airlines was that the cost of internal flights is half price when purchased locally. In hindsight Ethiopian Airlines is an excellent operator and I could not have been happier. I’m pretty tall and leg space was good, meals were fine plus they fly directly from London.

ARRANGING YOUR TRAVEL PLANS
I’ve been travelling for 20 years and have learnt some valuable lessons. These days I don’t want fritter away any of my precious holiday time checking bus timetables, bartering for cheaper hotels, reading out of date information from a guide book, or learning the ‘ins and outs’ of the country the hard way. I want it easy, but that doesn’t make me less of a ‘worldly traveller’ than someone who has survived on US$15 per day and looks like they’ve escaped from a Thai prison. That’s why I arranged our travel services through a local operator called Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT).

We wanted all our accommodation, tours, transfers, local guides and entrance fees included so we could cut out the bartering and focus on enjoying the experience as much as humanly possible. How was ETT? The short answer is they were decent and although a few things could have been improved, we accepted this was Africa and got over it quickly. The long answer is one guide tried to swap our hotel to a less expensive one so he could pocket the cash, our driver forgot to pick us up a couple of times and one of the drivers took money from my friends bag left in the car when we visited a church (opportunistic crime). Having said this, we are pretty easy going travellers so expected these few hiccups. I wouldn’t hesitate to use ETT again.

If you’re travelling by taxi or tuk tuk anywhere in Ethiopia, be sure to barter hard before you get in. A good tip is to ask a local what they would pay, then add a few Birr so you know ball park when you’re being taken for a ride (no pun intended).

CURRENCY
The currency is Birr and it is very dirty money indeed. My advice is to change only enough money at the airport to transfer to your hotel. By arriving into Addis at a sensible time, you can change money at any one of the banks (seriously Ethiopia has more banks than anywhere I’ve encountered) as they have one set rate but you’ll need your passport. The black market rate will be better but I work on the principle that I’d rather have a lower rate and legal tender currency, than a huge wad of counterfeit money — your choice.

Typically US$ is easier to change over and the rate I got was 23 Birr to US$1. My friends who arrived the following day changed money with the agency (ETT) and got a rate of 25 Birr. The way it works is banks offer a flat rate but there are private businesses that aim to make money on currency fluctuations. As standard, it’s good to keep low denomination notes but any bank will change money for you. Also, DON’T change too many USD over to Birr as it’s much harder to change it back to USD afterwards, plus you’ll receive a terrible rate. There are banks everywhere so you won’t be stuck for choice.

ACCOMMODATION IN ETHIOPIA

When we weren’t camping then we stayed in 3 star hotels which I was fairly happy with, the exception being the showers. If the water was hot, the power was rubbish and most nights I just gave up trying to wash under a trickle of water but I found this a commonality in Ethiopia. Most hotels have Wi-Fi which caused more frustration than joy from connecting to the outside world, but they were clean which is all you can ask right! Hotels will change money but you’re better off with the bank rate in my experience. The campsites we used in the Simien mountains were basic (no showers and long drop toilets) but had views which more than made up for any decrease in standard, and the Danakil Depression campsites were obviously basic in nature with no toilets or showers. Here is a list of the hotels we stayed in:

Caravan Hotel – Addis Ababa (10 minute drive from the airport)
Grand Resort and Spa – Bahia Dar (fabulously over the top with bathrooms designed by a blind man I’m sure)
Florida International Hotel – Gondar (15 minutes’ drive from town, you could swap to a more central hotel)
– Simien Mountains – free camping (camping by a spitting volcano is a rare experience)
Brana Hotel – Aksum (Great hotel, no complaints)
– Vision Hotel – Hawzen (nice homely place with almost non-existent showers)
Yordanos Hotel – Mekele (nice enough hotel — launching pad for the Danakil Depression and Afar region)
– Danakil Depression – free camping
Lalibela Hotel – Lalibela (Nothing fancy but a lovely hotel, very homely)

ETHIOPIA ITINERARY


If you look at a map of Africa and then the size of Ethiopia you will see it is massive. I wanted to see the tribes in the south but with 19 days we just couldn’t see it all so instead focussed on the north. This itinerary packed in as much as we could without rushing, but kept us busy the entire trip. We included two internal flights to cover more ground so I would be cautious about packing too much more in. On days highlighted below there’s a blog post linked so feel free to click through to read more detail.

Day 1 – Addis Ababa arrival
Day 2 – Full day city tour of Addis Ababa
Day 3 – Early morning flight to Bahir Dar (Blue Nile Falls half-day road trip/boat trip on Lake Tana)
Day 4 – Drive to Gondar (Visit castles and Church of Debre Birhane)
Day 5-6 – Drive to Simien Mountains National Park (Trekking)
Day 7 – Half day trekking / drive to Aksum and arrive late evening
Day 8 – Full day tour of Stele Park, Monuments of Queen Sheba and Ark of the Covenant
Day 9 – Drive to Hawzen (Visit 800 BC Pagan Temple of Yeha en route
Day 10 – Hawzen (Visit cliff edge churches in Tigray)
Day 11 – Drive to Mekele (Visit War Memorial Museum)
Day 12-15 Danakil Depression and Afar RegionDay 16 – Drive to Lalibela
Day 17 – Lalibela (Full day visit to Rock Churches)
Day 18 – Flight back to Addis Ababa
Day 19 – Fly home after free day

FOOD / CUISINE
Firstly, contrary to what a large proportion of people think, the food in Ethiopia is incredible. The local gluten-free sourdough bread is called injera; you will eat a lot of this so learn to love it and things will be smoother for you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hardened carnivore or a purist vegetarian, you’ll be well catered for and the options are endless. If you’re a meat eater, Ethiopia is not the place to become a three-week vegetarian. Let yourself go and order meat every night because it’s awesome, none of us got sick and we ate everything and everywhere. Food is cheap and eating in Ethiopia is a process to be enjoyed with fingers.

Top tip: Be sure to try the fresh fruit juice, especially the mango juice but make sure they use bottled water instead of tap water, no point tempting fate right!

THE COFFEE CEREMONY
One thing you can never accuse an Ethiopian of is making a terrible cup of coffee. Forget nipping into Starbucks for a quick cardboard cup that you drink on the bus. The coffee in Ethiopia is a process and ceremony which is steeped in tradition and takes as long as it needs to reach that perfect taste. The beans were roasted on hot coals literally every time we ordered a cup. It is strong and costs roughly about 20 cents per cup. Seriously, I was having about 6 or 7 cups a day. A word of warning — once you try coffee made locally in Ethiopia, it ruins you for all future coffee endeavours, the same way upgrading to business class on a plane does before downgrading back to economy. Have a read of my blog post about how Ethiopia teaches Starbucks how to make a REAL cup of coffee! Click here.

TIPPING
When I first thought of Ethiopia I didn’t consider that I would end up tipping as much as we did. In hindsight I think we ended up tipping too much which can be even more detrimental to sustainable tourism than not tipping at all, but we weren’t to know. Use your common sense and what you feel is right. If I had to recommend an amount (for a group of four) it would as follows:
– Dinner out — 25birr (in total)
– Full day private guide — 100birr (in total)
– Full day private 75birr — (in total)
At the end of the day we tipped what we felt was right and you can’t be more fair than that.

KEEPING IN CONTACT / WI-FI
The Wi-Fi in Ethiopia is not great so if you expect the worst, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. If you expect a decent connection then you’re in for a rough ride. You can buy a SIM card from any one of the street-side phone vendors as well as a 100 Birr top up card for data. You’ll more than likely need to make calls at some stage or at the very least let the folks back home you haven’t been sold into slavery.

CLOTHING
When you think of Ethiopia, do you think of deserts? Addis Ababa is one of the highest (altitude wise at over 2000m) capital cities in the world and it can get pretty chilly at night. Just in Northern Ethiopia we travelled from -5 temperatures in the Simien Mountains where a four season sleeping bag was an essential item, across to one of the hottest places on earth in the Danakil Depression. In cities it was hot during the day but cold at night so don’t make the rookie mistake of just packing warm clothes. I wore shorts and a t-shirt everywhere and my female friends wore shorts and a singlet top. Never did we feel underdressed or did this cause any issue, especially as Ethiopia is primarily a Christian country.

SAFETY
I read an endless sea of blogs regarding safety and pick pockets before I landed in Ethiopia and as usual, many were from overcautious travellers. There is very little dangerous crime in Ethiopia but there is opportunistic crime which you’ll find anywhere. If you flash wads of cash in public, you’ll let people know you have it. If you leave your bag lying around which has more money than people earn in a year, it’s tough for those on the breadline to resist. Never did I feel unsafe but I was always aware of what was happening around me. If I’m being totally honest, I found that every action was a transaction but never did I feel out of my depth. Ethiopian people are simply very nice folk.

BEING UNDERSTOOD
Lots of you have asked me if it’s easy to get by in English. The simple answer is yes, many of the locals I met had an excellent (and I mean excellent) grasp of the English language. Sure, there will be times when you just need people to understand you but that’s travelling and I was more shocked at how they spoke English better than most British teenagers.

Wildlife on Lake Tana

MY TRIP HIGHLIGHTS
The entire trip to Ethiopia was a highlight for me and I’m not just saying that to make my blog seem sexier. The country surpassed all my expectations with each day revealing a different side to the country. If you put a gun to my head and made me choose one favourite I would advise you to pull the trigger because it’s impossible. If you gave me two options I’d say trekking in the Simien Mountains and exploring the Danakil Depression. They named the Simien Mountains ‘The Roof of Africa’ and when I was standing on the edge looking out across views that bled into the horizon; it is easy to see why it has been awarded this illustrious title. Mountain ranges swallowed the earth whole and the altitude took my breath away to make me work for my supper. This was definitely the underdog of my trip.

The Danakil Depression was what I had most be looking to and encapsulated more than I thought possible. We stood literally two meters away from a spitting lava lake, travelled some of the worst roads on earth, watched as camel caravans snaked through the salt desert and saw geothermal colour explosions engulf the earth below sea level. Honestly, the trip for me could not have been any better and I was thankful for every different aspect.

WHAT WOULD I DO DIFFERENTLY?
Honestly there is very little I would change about my time in Ethiopia. I may spend less time in Hawzen and if I was pushed to save a day I would cut out the homestay from the Danakil Depression tour. I would also take a box of pens right the children. Now i’ve always maintained that giving pens to people in poor countries only promotes begging, it is for this reason I prefer to give to local grass-routes charities. My trip in Ethiopia made me question what the harm was in handing out pens to children for school work. If people are this poor or don’t have access to towns to buy pens for school, the next why should I be the one to dictate if it’s causing damage?

Ethiopia might not be on everybody’s list but it offers the visitor a real experience. Often the sign of a great holiday is when the time goes too fast and it’s hard to leave, and that’s exactly what happened on this trip. The days of civil war and famine are a long time behind Ethiopia and the country has once again been restored to being the ‘Cradle of Humanity’.

I’ll leave you with a video summary of my trip in Ethiopia, please like and share.

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