Notes from several trips in 2014, 2015 and 2016
For many people of my generation, the first thing that comes to mind when Ethiopia is mentioned is the horrible famine that ravaged the country in the 1980s, the worldwide relief effort, “Live Aid” and “We are the World”. While Ethiopia today is still very poor, it’s developing fast and is a much more prosperous place, than these stereotypes would have one believe. Furthermore, the country is wonderfully diverse and incredibly rich in history and culture, with some sites that truly are wonders of the world. But it’s greatest asset are the gentle and hospitable people who live here and make all visitors feel welcome and at home. When I first visited in summer of 2014, I immediately fell in love with the country and came back for a longer trip in 2015 with friends, and then again in 2016 for a photography workshop. I am sure I will keep coming back and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all travelers who value excitement and beauty over comfort.
In our combined trips to Ethiopia my friends and I have done the following:
- Explored the lively modern capital of Addis Ababa and visited our common ancestor Lucy in the National Museum
- Pretended we were Indiana Jones and took in the ancient obelisks and ruins, as well as learned about the Ethiopian traditions of the Ark of the Covenant in Axum
- Fed hyenas outside the walled city of Harar
- Visited the spectacular rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and further afield in Tigray.
- Hiked to the Erta Alle volcano and Dalol in the hottest place on Earth, the Danakil Depression
- Walked the palace complex of 18th century Gondar, Ethiopia’s version of Camelot
- Cruised Lake Tana and saw the Blue Nile Falls at Bahir Dar
- Witnessed a Hamer bull jumping ceremony and spent time with the Hamer, Mursi, Dassanech and other Omo Valley tribes
Getting there: Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa is the natural starting point for most people going to Ethiopia. In addition to Ethiopian Airlines, the national carrier, several international airlines fly into Bole including Emirates, Lufthansa, Kenya airways, Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways to name a few.
My recommendation would be to fly Ethiopian for several reasons. The first is that it’s actually a world-class airline with a modern fleet. I have flown them for work across the Atlantic several times and most of those trips were on brand new Boeing Dreamliner jets. It would be an overstatement to say that it’s a luxurious flight, but it was certainly no less comfortable than many North American airlines. And if you want to support the local economy, keep in mind that the airline is a major source of hard currency earnings for the country. The bigger reason to go with Ethiopian is the discount program they offer on domestic fares if you come into the country on an Ethiopian airlines international flight. To take advantage of the discount, you just need to provide your international ticket number when booking domestic travel to the travel agent or ticket agent you book your domestic flights. I have taken approximately 10 flights within the country and they were almost always on time and very comfortable.
Visas. Visas on arrival can be obtained at Bole international airport for nationals and residents of the 40 countries listed here, other nationalities have to obtain a visa at an embassy or consulate. Visa free transit is also allowed if you need to overnight in the country.
Tour guide. I am certain that you don’t really NEED to enlist the services of a tour guide for some parts of Ethiopia, like the historical Northern circuit of Axum-Lalibela-Gondar-Bahir Dar or even Harar, however, a guide is required in the more remote parts of Tigray or the Danakil depression. Having a good guide is even more important for getting the most of out of your visit to the tribes of the Omo Valley. We used Getts Ethiopia for the majority of two trips and found them top-notch, although if I was to make one complaint, it’s that they can be slow to respond to initial correspondence and questions. I was glad I stuck with them, because all of the driver/guides that took us around the country were nothing, but professional and we doubtlessly had the best setup of everyone in the Danakil. For the Omo Valley, we used the services of Emmanuel Cheneke, a private guide who comes from the area and who made our trip truly special.
Local time. One source of potential confusion is that Ethiopians actually have two ways of keeping time – the worldwide standard and a traditional local way of keeping time of two 12-hour cycles from dawn to dusk and vice versa. In practice that means a six-hour difference with the world clock. For example, if your watch says local time is 1 PM, then the Ethiopian version of that is 7 o’clock, or 7 hours from dawn, It works, because there the country is close enough to the equator for there to be very little difference in daylight hours between seasons. Here is a great article explaining this.
Food. Traditional Ethiopian cuisine is another reason to come. The main staple of the Ethiopian diet is injera – a sourdough flatbread, which serves as a plate and utensil for meat, vegetables and other food. Injera is made from teff, an iron-rich grain that grows here and comes in several varieties. Ethiopians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, in addition to other fasting periods throughout the year, which means that restaurants have vegan or “fasting” options on their menus. To be honest, despite my love of meat, I found that in some remote places it was better to take advantage of the fasting option. A great article on Ethiopian cuisine can be found here.
Ethiopia is also the birthplace of coffee and is a true paradise for coffee lovers. A good article on the history of coffee in the country can be found here. Traditionally coffee is spiced with cardamom and served with burning frankincense in small cups. Sometimes other herbs are added for flavor. Often the coffee is paired with popcorn. I have to admit, that as much as I enjoyed the coffee in Ethiopia, I could never replicate the taste with the beans brought back to Canada, or even come anywhere close. Maybe someday I will be able to come back and learn the recipe.
Security. I have traveled all over Ethiopia and have never felt that least bit threatened. Crime rates are low, the people are very friendly and the worst thing that has happened to me were some cases of “faranji” fever – being followed by kids asking for treats. Having said that, there was a well publicized case of European tourists being killed and kidnapped in 2012 in the Danakil area, which the government blamed on Eritreans. Tours around the Danakil are now escorted by armed soldiers, so the only danger I think would be from a tourist posing with a soldier’s rifle and setting it off accidentally.