I questioned myself before writing this post, “Why am I bothering to write an Ethiopia travel guide? Who am I even writing it for?” The fact remains that my Ethiopia travel posts drew a lot of positive attention towards this east African nation and many of my Indian travel lover friends want to go there. It is a country that deserves a lot of recognition for its natural and cultural heritage and Ethiopia is ‘one of the few countries left in the world that has the capacity to make you go ‘wow’ every day’. It is also equally capable of making you want to pack your bags and leave. Long story short, traveling in Ethiopia is nothing short of an adventure. The tourism industry there is still at its nascent stage; moving around the country feels raw and primal, and experiences matter more than just social media-worthy photographs. Don’t get me wrong, it is a drop-dead gorgeous country that is full of jaw-dropping surprises and you will find one month too less time to enjoy it to the fullest. There is a lot to experience in Ethiopia. From hand-feeding hyenas, visiting subterranean rock-hewn churches hewn, wildlife spotting in one of Africa’s highest mountains, to coming face to face with some of the world’s most intriguing indigenous communities, Ethiopia offers many diverse and unique draws. It is also one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and despite my tumultuous month traveling through this “Land of Origins”, I would return there in a heartbeat. Presenting my Ethiopia travel guide that contains literally, everything – from how to get a visa, flying in from India, top experiences, cultural facts, personal travel tips, and an idea of costs incurred during my 2019-2020 trip.
Table of Contents
Some FAQs for a proper Ethiopia travel guide
Please note that some parts of this guide are adapted to suit Indian travelers.
- The capital and largest city of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa. It has a population of around three million and is home to the African Union.
- The time in Ethiopia is GMT +3.
- Amharic is the official national language of Ethiopia. There are 88 individual languages in the country of which the most widely spoken is Oromo. English, Arabic, Italian, and French are also commonly heard.
- The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr (ETB).
- Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the main religious body in Ethiopia.
- All mobile phones are operated by Ethio Telecom.
- Ethiopia shares borders with Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sudan.
There are 2 types of tourist visas available for Ethiopia: the visa on arrival and the e-visa. Both are very easy to obtain. Many nationalities are eligible for the visas on arrival which can be secured only at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. The month-long single entry visa on arrival costs 50 USD. Alternatively, apply at the official website for a quick and easy e-visa. Check out the link for more information, application button, and costs.
I would advise flying in and out of Ethiopia by Ethiopian Airlines. Personally, I found the airlines to be friendly and professional along with a wide network of destinations. Moreover, if your international flight is with Ethiopian Airlines, then you get whopping discounts up to 60% on domestic flights. Trust me, if you want to experience as much as Ethiopia as possible with minimum discomfort, you will want to fly within the country. For overlanding into Ethiopia, read this excellent guide by Against The Compass.
Buses are the most common and the cheapest way to travel around the country. The most reputed private bus companies are Salem Bus and Sky Bus. In Addis Ababa, they leave from Meskel Square at around 4 am. Public buses are cheaper but can get very crowded and uncomfortable. Private transportation unless shared by other travelers can be quite expensive. Most travel companies offer transportation as a part of package tours within the country. There are no railway services in Ethiopia except for the Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway, the Awash–Weldiya Railway and the Weldiya–Mekelle Railway. If you want to avoid long hours of bumpy rides on rough roads, opt for Ethiopian Airlines flights to other destinations across the country. Within cities and towns, you can get taxis, tuk-tuks, minivans, and shared tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks are called Bajaj in Ethiopia.
Best time to visit
The best time to travel to Ethiopia is the dry season (between October and June). The highlands are green, lush, and perfectly suited for hiking. The wetter months are hot, humid, and with the lowest prices. January to March is the high season. The weather is warm and sunny and some of the country’s best festivals such as Timkat and Leddet fall during this time. The shoulder season of October to December is also a good time to visit Ethiopia. It is the ideal time to hike in the Simien Mountains. April to September is the peak rainy season and should be avoided.
Accommodation in Ethiopia
Accommodation options are limited beyond Addis Ababa where you can find a few international chains like the Hilton and Sheraton. Elsewhere, the best you will find are small hotels, guesthouses, homestays, and camping grounds. Hostels are not that popular and the Ethiopian guesthouses are quite good. Do not expect luxury in the small hotels and they will not always be cheap. However, the service is always friendly.
Food and Drink
Injera, a flat, slightly sour flat bread with a spongy texture is a staple in Ethiopia. It is served with a variety of vegetables or meat toppings. You can also opt for mixed meat or fasting (vegetarian) platters that come with a variety of stews and stir fries. Ethiopians eat with their hands. They use a piece of injera to scoop up some stew and eating is a communal practice. Usually, Ethiopians eat out of one platter. A local breakfast usually consists of fir-fir, which is made of shredded injera mixed with a spicy red sauce. Coffee is an integral part of the Ethiopian culture, social life, and economy. Make sure you experience a local coffee ceremony. Locally coffee is called bunna. Ethiopia is blessed with an abundance of fresh fruits. So make sure you enjoy a lot of smoothies and fresh juices in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian honey wine is called the. The local Dashen and St. George beers are not bad.
Must see places to visit in Ethiopia
- Addis Ababa – Addis Ababa is the capital and largest city in Ethiopia. One of my favorite places in Addis, as it is locally known, was the outdoor marketplace, Addis Mercato. It is filled with crowded, chaotic vendor stalls where you can bargain for coffee pots called gebena, handwoven clothing or carved wooden objects. Visit a dance and dinner show at Habesha 2000 in Addis Ababa and make sure to meet Lucy, our earliest hominid at the museum.
- Lalibela – Located at an altitude of 2,630m, Lalibela is home to 13 rock-hewn churches. Built in the 12th century, these 900 years old monuments were carved right out of balsatic scoria volcanic rocks; meticulously sculpted below ground level and immaculately preserved until they were discovered by a Portuguese priest in 1520. These are fully functioning churches and are a World Heritage Site.
- Gonder – The ancient capital city of Gonder is a treasure trove of 16th-century palaces, lavish castles, and sprawling gardens. It also has some very well preserved churches that feature impressive wall art.
- Aksum – Though ignored by most travelers, Aksum was my favourite place in Ethiopia. It is a relaxing town that is famous for being claimed as the hometown of the Queen of Sheba. The town itself is very charming and has the stallae fields that are supposed to be one of the mysteries of the world.
- Simien Mountains National Park – With some of Ethiopia’s highest peaks, the Simien Mountains National Park offers stunning views and great hiking options. It is home to many wildlife like the Gelada baboons, ibex, and wolves.
- Danakil Depression and Erta Ale Volcano – Danakil is known for being one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Located close to the Eritrean border, it is an arid, unwelcoming land filled with volcanoes and insane geological formations, sulphur springs of neon colours and absolutely crazy landscapes. The region is inhabited by a distinct ethnic group named Afar.
- Tigray rock-cut churches – The Tigray region is home to the largest concentration of rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia. There are much less accessible than the more famous churches in Lalibela and attract mostly adventure lovers. However, it is a beautiful region and climbing one of the highly perched churches like Abuna Yemata is an unforgettable adventure. They are extremely photogenic with stunning interior frescoes.
- Bahir Dar – Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake is worth visiting to escape from the dusty towns. Its waters are inhabited by hippopotamus, hundreds of endemic species of birds; and its shores are dotted with over 30 monasteries, some of which feature the best murals in Ethiopia. Bahir Dar is the base for visiting the Blue Nile Falls.
- Other places of interest – Harar, Bale National Park, Rural Villages in Guassa Conservation area, etc.
One destination that you may skip and why
- Omo Valley – Though many people visit Ethiopia to come face to face with some of the most interesting indigenous cultures in the world, I would recommend skipping it completely. This opinion is based upon my recent unpleasant experience and the reasons are unregulated tourism practices, exorbitant prices charged by the local tour companies, and a human zoo like of environment due to a sudden surge in tourism. Unless you have time to spend there being involved in a community and getting local life experience, avoid Omo Valley. This is a remote destination so be prepared for a pricey and challenging trip – both logistically and physically.
How easy is it to travel independently in Ethiopia?
Ethiopia’s poorly developed infrastructure and remote mountainous attractions do not make it a very independent traveler friendly destination. I suggest that in Ethiopia you combine independent travel with some guided tours. Some destinations like Danakil Depression, Simien Mountains, etc cannot be visited independently.
Ethiopia Travel Guide Tips and Things to Remember
- It is a safe destination. Nowhere in Ethiopia have I felt unsafe. The people are friendly and hospitable.
- They have their own time – Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar and so their dates and years are different from the international model. Their clock also runs differently – 6 hours apart from the western clock – because their days begin at 12 o’clock when the sun rises at 6 am.
- Everything closes between the hours of 12 pm and 2 pm in Ethiopia.
- Ethiopia is not a cheap country. This is mainly due to the mandatory requirement for guides and guided tours. Accommodation costs also mount up and the application of “tourist tax” is common.
- In Ethiopia, you have to go with the flow. Expect slight hassles, changes in the tour programme, chaos, and some disorganization.
- Don’t forget to bring your 2-pin plug travel adapter.
- Evenings can be chilly especially in the cooler months and in the mountains. Pack accordingly and don’t forget your hiking boots if you want to hike in the Simien Mountains. Getting a headlamp is a good idea especially for a Danakil trip.
- Bring your own toiletries including a good body moisturiser, face moisturiser, and lip balm. Ethiopia is super dry.
- Ethiopia is a vegetarian and vegan friendly destination. Christian Orthodox Ethiopians, which make up the biggest religious group, fast every Wednesday and Friday apart from other religious holidays. During fasting, they avoid meat and dairy products. You can ask for fasting food if you are a vegetarian or a vegan.
- The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr (ETB). It can’t be bought outside the country. You can either obtain it by exchanging foreign currency at local banks or by using ATM machines. It is not allowed to take more than 200 Birr out of the country when you leave.
- Remember to keep any exchange receipts, you are supposed to present these when exiting the country.
- USD is the most preferred foreign currency in Ethiopia. Euro and the British Pound are at times even denied. Bigger notes will fetch a better exchange rate on the black market, so bring $50 and $100 bills.
- Using a shared taxi is a fun cost-friendly transportation idea in Addis Ababa. The public taxis are called minivans and they ply on fixed routes. Use the Lucy app to book a taxi in Addis Ababa. The fares are fixed, and they provide better cars.
- Getting a local SIM is cheap and highly recommend for travel in Ethiopia. Sim cards can be bought in the morning (Mon-Sat) from any Ethio Telecom shop. Make sure to bring your passport and some money. Recharge coupons can be bought anywhere.
2019-2020 Ethiopia travel costs
Presenting an idea of travel costs in Ethiopia (2019-2020).
1 USD – 37 Birr
- Visa On Arrival = 50 USD
- Sim Card – 400 B
- Airport Taxi – 200 Birr
- Lunch – 110 B
- Arba Minch Bus – 640 B (2 SEATS)
- National Museum – 10 B
- Coffee – 5 B
- Minivan to Mingayi – 5 B
- Taxi from Mingayi to Guesthouse – 150 B
- Totot dinner and dance – 740 B (like Habesha 2000)
- Hostel – 40 USD/1272 B (1 night)
- Water – 20 B
- Taxi from Bole to Bus Station – 200 B
- Breakfast – 50
- Shared taxi to Jinka – 200
- Hotel in Jinka (2N) – 920
- Photo fee at Alduba Market – 125
- Van and driver for 3 days – 300 USD
- Hotel in Turumi – 350
- Hamar Village fee (guide/entrance/photo fee etc.) – 1000
- Local Guide – 800
- Mago National Park Fee – 270
- Village Entrance Fee – 400
- Security Guard Fee – 400
- Photography Fee – 400
- Flight from Jinka to Addis Ababa – 2409B/77 USD
- Flight from AA to Auxum – 2893B/93 USD
- Beer – 25 (1 bottle)
- 2 Baskets as Souvenirs – 500
- Danakil and Tigray – 375 EURO + 3050 B (400 USD)
- Laundry – 160
- Yohanes Hotel – 1400 B/2 night
- Tigray (Abuna Yemata, Mariam Korkor/Daniel Korkor local guide) – 50 USD
- Scout – 200
- Gunaza Guesthouse – 790 B/per night
- Flight to Addis Ababa – 2700 B
- Flight Ticket to Lalibela from AA – 4080 B
- Lalibela Hotel – 500 B
- Lalibela Guide – 40 USD
- Lalibela Entrance Fee – 1600 B
Follow the rest of the Ethiopia series here
- 20 PHOTOS THAT WILL WANT TO MAKE YOU VISIT ETHIOPIA
- ETHIOPIA TRIP TIPS
- MY ADDIS ABABA MEMORIES
- PHOTO ESSAY OF ADDIS MERCATO
- ADDIS ABABA TO JINKA: AN ETHIOPIAN ROAD TRIP
- OMO VALLEY, THE HUMAN ZOO OF ETHIOPIA
- THE LOWER OMO VALLEY IN ETHIOPIA
- REAL LIFE PHOTOS OF OMO VALLEY TRIBES
- OMO VALLEY TRAVEL GUIDE AND TIPS
- MY LAZY, RELAXING AKSUM DAYS
- TIGRAY ROCK-CUT CHURCHES: A CLIMB OF FAITH
- DANAKIL DEPRESSION IN 15 PHOTOS
- DANAKIL DEPRESSION TRIP
- MY LALIBELA EXPERIENCE
- THE AMAZING ETHIOPIAN FOOD
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE