When I told my mom that I’d be going to Ethiopian, she asked me with her eyes wide open, “Where is Ethiopia?”After being pointed out its location in Eastern Africa and bordered with Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, etc., her concerns now shifted to safety and what is there to see. Let me first say, Ethiopia is an amaaazing country with a long list of things to offer. That said, you can still make your short visit an epic one!
Here’s a relatively short guide for first-timers with limited time, I hope to do this country justice. My goal is not to tell you everything about Ethiopia but to help make your planning process a bit easier. This post breaks down to four main parts: The logistics, places, food and some random observations and things I learned.
*** I need to give my wonderful travel buddy (aka, the partner) a shoutout as he did most of the research, including reading all the blogs and guidebook about Ethiopia in English and Spanish.***
UNO – THE LOGISTICS
No accommodation or transportation reservation was made prior to our arrival to the country. Tour prices can vary so you may want to prioritize organizing that, although we also played by ear on booking tours and it turned out fine.
Flying to Ethiopia:
I have to admit we decided on Ethiopia because there was a flight deal from Madrid to Addis Ababa via Roma at 250EUR round trip with Ethiopian Airlines. Flying with EA also gave us the 50% discount for all national flights. I originally thought we would get around 100% in car / bus but flying was really easy and saved us a lot of time. Needless to say, it was also more pleasant flying than spending a full day on bumpy and curvy roads. You can get domestic flights when you’re there, no need for pre-planning everything. Anyway, international fight booked! That was also when I really started looking into what this country has to offer. And wow, the 9 days we budgeted for this trip turned out to be too limited. We barely covered the places, the people, and the cultures there are.
Visa going to Ethiopia:
Visa on arrival applies to most (north) American, European, Australia nationalities and generally travelers of “strong” passports. You’ll need to filled out a form here and pay US$52; the confirmation comes within 2 days or so. There are more service websites, make sure the one you pick is authorized by the Ethiopian government (aka, .gov.et at the end). You must travel via Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in order to use your e-visa/VOA. Getting a visa from an embassy / consulate is possible and costs even less. However, I would rather pay a bit more in order to save time and the trouble of handling paperwork.
Vietnamese like myself and generally weak passport travelers will need a visa to enter Ethiopia.Vietnamese who have residency in US and Europe (and more, please check on official website) are qualified to apply for visa on arrival. I know there’s info saying you have to possess “permanent residence” of those rich countries, but trust me, I had a temporary Spanish residence (of 5 years) and I was fine! For those going from Vietnam it could be a bit tricky, please contact the Ethiopian Embassy in China, or the Ethiopian Consulates in Thailand and Malaysia.
Packing for Ethiopia:
The essentials are sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, hand-sanitizer, wipes, toilet paper, bug spray, aloe vera for aftersun care, hiking shoes, walking sandals, and what you think are absolute important. You may also want to bring a scarf to double as a head-scarf in certain occasion. Try not to bring a rolling suitcase, in my opinion.
Bring a guidebook as you may, the best one has to be the Bradt guide by Philip Griggs – our survival guide! It’s not perfect like most things in life, sometimes it describes a place a lot more fancier than it actually is. But I believe it’s still the most well-rounded guide of Ethiopia out there, even the Ethiopian travel tourism board agrees. And for short-trip travelers, it can really make it up for your short time in the country by teaching you a lot about Ethiopian geography, history, culture, etc.
Do research on the weather but expect the unexpected! We went during late April – early May which is the dry season. Every season has its ups and down. Dry season may make the landscapes look dried out, especially if you go to the mountains but you have better visibility.
Money: We brought some euros over to exchange but did end up withdrawing quite a bit. Things to pay attention when withdrawing money:
- Many ATMs don’t work. If they do, the max amount they allow is so little it’s not even worth it. Take your time to find one that allows you to withdraw at least 5,000birr at a time. Otherwise your bank charges won’t be worth it.
- Many places take euros (and dollars). Sometimes you’re better of paying in Euro / USD because the locals love keeping foreign currencies to travel abroad, they’re willing to give you really good exchange rate. But if you’re not comfortable bringing cash, withdrawing while you’re there is still an option.
You are going to Ethiopia, don’t expect it to be all glam at an exclusive resort. Unless you are, that I cannot speak for. The light is gonna be out occasionally or not available at all. Running water can also be tricky to have let alone hot water. And please don’t expect to have the internet all the time. That said, your necessities are covered.
What about LANGUAGE? Well, for the most parts, you can get away with English. Since each region has its own official language, learning just Amharic won’t necessarily help. Some “hello”, “thank you” in the local languages go a long way. They aren’t the easiest to learn but they’re fun. Give ’em a shot.
Pack on some knowledge about the culture and the people. Of course you don’t have to know everything (you can’t anyway) but you can definitely avoid being a complete ignorant tourist. So please, do your homework. You can start here (like how we did):
- Posts organized by destination: New Faces New Places
- Beautiful collections of and photos on Handzaround and Backpackingman
- TripAdvisor, packed with a lot of resources but could be overwhelming
DOS – THE PLACES
You can’t do everything or be everywhere if you have limited time. Choose wisely! We were no exception. Before the trip, we mapped out many possibilities with little knowledge that the northern part has more nature and dramatic landscapes, whereas the south has more traditional tribes. So with the 9 days we had, we prioritized the northern half of Ethiopia.
Trekking the Simien Mountain:
You can trek or as little as one day (then that’s more of a hike) to as long as 2 weeks.
Arriving to the capital Addis Ababa, we immediately took a flight to Gondar and went straight to Debark then Simien Mountains for a 3-day trek. We got in contact with our trekking guide Desu desalgn2012[at]gmail[dot]com, literally a few hours before we left Spain. I found his contact on TripAdvisor and so glad I did. He organized EVERYTHING for us from transportation, cook, scout, and even our travels after Simien. We paid him after the trek (I know most guides charge 50% before the tour).
Our three-day two-night trek destinations are: Jinbar waterfall, camp night at Sankabar, Imet Gogo (The Grand Canyon of Ethiopia), and camp night at Geech – pretty much all the names you need to know for a short trek. We wanted to make the most of our time so we asked the guide to skipped the first camp base and went straight to the second on the first day. Having hiked through Yosemite National Park, Inca Trail – Machu Picchu, I wasn’t super impressed by the dried Simien Mountain. But I’m glad I did anyway, I love spending time in the nature and getting disconnected with my phone for a bit. I also loved meeting the Gelada baboons along the way.
This is a small town, you don’t need much time to visit but a good transitioning town if you trek the Simien Mountains. The Fasil Ghebbi fortress and palace compound here are UNESCO heritage sites. This is a perfect place to learn about Ethiopian history, especially how it was one of the two countries in Africa never been colonized before.
Four Sister Restaurant is a must if you visit Gondar. The on point decor, the yummy food, great service and live traditional music will satisfy every wanderlust soul. Did I mention the price was super reasonable? A dinner for two with drinks costed us less than 8EUR! As a foodie, this restaurant won my heart (and tummy) over the fortress! Oops!
Or Axum, where it traced back to the ancient Kingdom of Axum in 100 AD – 940 AD. The Roman Empire and Ancient India connected through here, yo! You can still see the Obelisks of Askum standing tall and impressive. Take notes, there’s A LOT to learn here! It was a quick 2-hour stop for us but you can definitely spend more time learning about ancient history, again, depending on your time budget.
Churches carved on high mountains:
The day trip to the churches on Gheralta mountains in the Tigray region was one of the best days of my travel life ever. We were unsure if we had enough time to make this trip happen but it did! Wow, how did they come up with an idea to build churches on such high mountains that you need to hike up for. Some you even need to climb vertically. We negotiated with a tour operator for a driver and a van. There will be a Gheralta tour guide when you arrive and that’ll be a separate fee.
What are so special about these churches? They were built in the 5th-6th century and still reserve their original work. There are 150+ churches but we went to the most popular ones:
- Maryam Korkor – the largest church of the complex
- Daniel Korkor – it’s the most easily accessible from Maryam Korkor
- Abuna Yemata Guh – epic climb to get there, not for peeps with vertigo
“Hottest Place on Earth”:
Getting lost in the Danakil Depression in the Afar region (bordered with Eritrea) made me fall in love with Ethiopia a little deeper. The 3-4 day tours are the most common, I wouldn’t recommend less or more. ETT is the biggest tour operator for this route but you do have other options around Merkele (where all Danakil tours start). Yes, you do have to sit in the jeep for a big chunk of time during this tour and it has its own challenge. The heat was brutal and you can get easily dehydrated. The highlights of this tour are hands down Erta Ale and Dallol.
Erta Ale, I know peeps who only visit Ethiopia for this volcano! It’s such a unique landscape. Disclaimer for peeps with asthma (or with history of it like myself): the toxic sulfur smoke may give you a hard time. So even the hike happened at night, you may still get dehydrated easily. Dress smart and bring as little as possible (prioritize the water!). There was a middle-aged woman who gave up half way and got back on a camel. Yes there would be emergency camels, just in case.
Dallol, oh my goodness! When I saw photos before the trip, I thought it was amazing but must have been somewhat exaggerated. Marketing needs good shots, don’t you agree? But boy oh boy! This place is even more magical in real life!! The colors were vibrant and it’s just breath-taking… quite literally. The smell of sulfur isn’t great but the beauty definitely makes up for it.
A few other memorable stops during this Danakil Depression tour include Afrera – the salt lake, Ragad (Asebo) – the salt mine and the brutal conditions the workers here undergo, the camel caravan and the Bolivian Salar the Uyuni equivalent on the way to Dallol. Just beautiful!
Addis Ababa – I didn’t spend too much time in Addis and wasn’t keen on, to be honest. I grew up in a big city and always have a soft spot to get out of it so it wasn’t exactly Addis fault. Plus, I picked Sunday to be there which isn’t ideal. Most shops and markets are closed! We ended up hopping from one cafe shop to another. But if you’re here during any other day of the week, get on your fabric or spices shopping at the markets!
What we could have squeezed into our itinerary but preferred not to rush.
- The Blue Nile Falls and Lake Tana
- Lalibela in Amhara: I felt bumped that we missed out on this. Some tourists visit Ethiopia exclusively for this one-of-a-kind place. We’re talking about a compound of medieval rock-hewn churches! Like, how?!! Definitely coming back for this one!
TRES – THE FOOD
[My photo collection of all the food I ate is coming up shortly.]
If you are an herbivore like myself, there are bountiful options of vegan/vegetarian food for you to choose from. I didn’t run into any problem finding no-animal involved food anywhere. Even with pre-booked tours, carrying and cooking plant-based food is a preferred choice which makes sense. Preserving meat requires a much more complicated system!
You’ll see injera (fermented crepe made of an Ethiopian cereal called tef) everywhere and it’s supposed to be good for you. Some love it, some don’t, I’m indifferent for it. I like it when it doesn’t have an overly sour taste and must be accompanied with a paste. I became a fan of their variety of stews and pastes made of lentils, chickpeas, spinach and other earthy ingredients. Oh so yummy!
Yes, their coffee does live up to its reputation! I loved watching how they roast the coffee beans on charcoal stove and pour the goodie from a clay pot. The aroma and the taste are quite something to remember. The coffee ceremony is everywhere, you shouldn’t be paying (other than for the coffee itself) just to see it.
Peanut tea was something new that I tried and didn’t like. I like peanut and tea separately but as a combination. Just to be clear though, I did skip the sugar, maybe I messed up there.
Honey wine was also interesting! Definitely give that one a try, too!
Fruit juice and smoothie shops here define deliciousness! They are made of the ripest and juiciest fruits. So fresh and so darn affordable! Prices range from 18-30birr (1USD = 27birr) a cup. I usually got two, not because the cups were small, but I’m a fruit monster. Just thinking about it makes me emotional, I terribly miss my yummy daily cups of vitamins and I predict that you will too!
By the airport, there’s this restaurant called Yod Abyssinia catered to tourists and well off Ethiopians. Prices are high but the live music was worth it. This place is perfect if you have a few hours to spare before taking off at midnight. Other than that, I’d say keep your eye out for local only places. Good and cheap!
In short, Ethiopian food is colorful, flavorful and nutritious. Not every place has such a combination so be ready to eat your heart (or stomach?) out!
Here comes a BONUS SECTION compiling of observations, and some nibbits I learned from the trip:
- Ethiopia doesn’t have a good football (soccer for you US Americans) team but more long-distance runners. Those athletes train on high altitude so when they go to international competitions at lower land (in Europe, for example), they outperform everyone else. They train their lungs to have better capacity to retain oxygen, and thus, become extremely competitive.
- We ran into the Fasil Kenema FC at the Gondar Airport on their way to an away game for the Ethiopian Champion League, though. That was cool!
- Crossed-religion marriages are legal though not common.
- There’s no Ethiopian the language. Every region has its own language. Amharic is the most widely spoken. Certain regions have tension with each other for the difference in religions and linguistics.
- The same names may appear differently even on official documents for the differenct typology of each region. For example, Gich and Geech are different spellings for the same place. Similarly, you have Gonder vs Gondar, Aksum vs Axum, etc.
- Donkey, cows, horses and more animals cross the roads including highways like it’s noone’s business. I love how the people find it so normal they slow down or completely stop for the animals.
- Farmers start planning crops end of May and harvest in December. Wheat and barley dominate most fields. You may be passing by land of many colors. It may look pretty, but in fact, face serious erosion problems. During the rainy season, the water comes out as brown around this area instead of clear white because the land is washed away.
- We ran into a local wedding at a humble venue in Gondar. They invited us to dance with them. We were totally under-dressed for it. I mean, flip-flops and t-shirts *face-palm*, where everyone else was in their beautiful traditional white cotton dresses with colorful details.
- Damaged vehicles (car, truck, van, you name it!) after accidents are often abandoned on the roadside. I saw 4 after two full days of driving (and I fall asleep A LOT on the road!). Apparently, getting it out of the mess and fixing it costs more than putting your hand on a another vehicle.
- Many locals will try to take advantage of you or ask for money, so be alert! Bargain but also be fair!
- Plastic bottles piles up by UNESCO heritage, beautiful natural reserves and residence areas that mark the footprints of tourists. It’s upsetting to see and I think there’s a lot of space for sustainable eco-friendly tourism to grow.
- Teddy Afro is a national pride, make sure to check out his music!
- How have I not mentioned that the Ethiopian people are SO gorgeous! They have some of the most good-looking (best-looking?) faces I’ve seen! Like whoa!
Will I go back? ABSOLUTELY YES! I’ll priority the Southern parts where a lot of the unique ethnic groups reside. Not sure how much I’ll enjoy disturbing their beautiful, raw and authentic lives. I need to educate myself better on that.
Have you been to Ethiopia? Or are you planning to go? Let me know your experiences and thoughts!