I cannot emphasize enough on the importance of responsible Omo Valley travel. Unless you want a human zoo experience, you would bear a few things in mind. First of all, Omo Valley is still not suited for independent traveling. Public transportation is scarce there. Distances are quite considerable and except for in Jinka, expect no luxuries. Even in Jinka, the standards of the hotels and guesthouses range from being comfortable to dingy. You will have to do without wifi most of the time. It is extremely hot there and Omo Valley is not cheap. You need to understand the sensitivity of the area, how your visit will impact the people who live there, and be mentally prepared to be equal parts shocked and fascinated. Know that the lifestyle, beliefs, and culture of the Omo Valley tribes are nothing similar to what we understand as “normal life”. However, leave your judgment behind and be prepared to understand the interesting details of various aspects of the Omo Valley communities’ lives. Only if you go with an open mind, patience, and time, will you come back with a wealth of knowledge and amazing photos of your Omo Valley travel.
Table of Contents
Where is Omo Valley and how to reach there
Omo Valley lies on Kenya’s northern border with Ethiopia. It is in southern Ethiopia. There are two ways of getting there: overland trip and by flight. Jinka town in Omo Valley is the best base to explore the area.
By Flight – Ethiopian Airlines offers direct flights from Addis Ababa to Jinka. The flight takes 1 hour and 10 minutes. It is the fastest, most comfortable, and a more expensive way to get to Jinka. Ethiopian Airlines offers discounts up to 66% on domestic flights when you fly into Ethiopia with them.
By Road – It takes two buses to get from Addis Ababa to Jinka. Most travelers stop overnight at Arba Minch. Salem Bus offers the best services on this route. Buses for Arba Minch are available from Addis Ababa Meskel Square. Make sure to carry your passport when buying a bus ticket. Addis to Arba Minch takes 9 – 10 hours. Minibusses and shared jeeps for Jinka are available in front of Arba Minch Tourist Hotel. The jeeps leave when they are full. You can buy more than one seat to be comfortable. This journey takes around 6 hours.
A brief introduction to the Omo Valley tribes
Omo Valley travel is alluring due to its ethno-tourism opportunities. It means that you get the chance to experience the cultures and lifestyles of people who seem to be suspended in time. Practicing animistic beliefs and fascinating traditions, Omo Valley tribes are as photogenic as they are interesting. Hundreds of small tribal villages dot the vast savannah landscape and each ethnic group has its unique customs and even their own language. These tribes have lived here for centuries, and since the discovery of human remains dating back nearly 2.5 million years, the Lower Valley region has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. There are 80 tribes in the Omo Valley but the most interesting ones are the Mursi, Hamar, Banna, and Karo.
The Mursis are the most photographed owing to the big clay plate in their lower lip.
The Hamars are famous for their bull-jumping ceremony which initiates a boy into manhood. Hamar women sport red clay strands in their hair and the deep whiplash scars that are proof of devotion to their husbands.
The Karo Tribe is known for the beautiful body paintings that distinguish them from the other tribes of the Omo Valley.
Dorze with their unique beehive-shaped houses can be seen around Arba Minch.
The other Omo Valley tribes are namely
- Ari (Aari)
- Banna (Bana, Bena)
- Basketto – outside Omo Valley
- Borana – outside Omo Valley
- Dassanetch (Daasanach)
- Konso – outside Omo Valley
- Kwegu (Muguji)
- Nyangatom (Bume)
- Meen (Bodi)
- Surma (Suri)
- Tsemai (Tsemay, Tsamai)
How many days do you need for Omo Valley travel
Without taking the commuting days into consideration (for overland travel), Omo Valley is best experienced in 10 days. Understand that the journey from Addis to Jinka by bus takes 2 entire days (one-way), with an overnight stop in Arba Minch. Each tribe needs at least a day. Sometimes, you may be able to combine your visit with a weekly market. To understand the local people better and to experience their traditions impromptu without the staged tourist traps, dedicate at least 15 to 20 days to this unique region.
Best Time for Omo Valley travel
It is possible to visit Omo Valley any time of the year except during the rainy season which lasts from May to September. The wettest months are from May to July. During the rainy season, the muddy roads become practically impassable. The best time to visit Omo Valley is from the end of June through September and from November until early March when it’s the dry season. October tends to have some light rains that may or may not affect accessibility.
Where to stay in Jinka
Jinka offers many accommodation options. It is the best base for Omo Valley travel. I stayed in a comfortable and clean Nasa Hotel. It offers clean rooms with a super comfy bed, a bathroom with a hot shower, and a power backup. The promised wifi does not work and Nasa does not have any meal service. The friendly hotel staff however are always ready to order you a meal from the nearby restaurants. Sometimes for a small tip, the guard runs errands for you.
Do you need a tour in Omo Valley?
Omo Valley travel is not suited for independent travelers. Irrespective of whether you are a budget backpacker or a luxury traveler, at some point, you will have to hire a jeep and a local driver/guide/translator to take you to some of the tribes. However, the question remains whether you want to hire them full-time or for just the absolutely necessary parts. In my opinion and based on my experience, I would suggest buying a complete tour with a reputed company. I recommend Wild Philanthropy, a local company that promotes sustainable tourism with a mutually beneficial exchange between visitors and the people and land they visit. Their tours are not cheap, but neither is Omo Valley travel pocket-friendly in any way. Moreover, a reputed company tour goes a long way in helping you avoid unnecessary hassles and harassment that comes in the forms of local tourism mafia, absurdly expensive bad accommodations, battered transfers, questionable permits, and overpriced guides. You can book an Omo Valley tour in the following ways:
- Online (may or may not guarantee good experience unless going with a reputed company that is based abroad)
- In Addis Ababa (possibly the worst option, most expensive, and the local Addis guide will be treated as a foreigner in Omo Valley and will have no local clout or insight)
- In Arba Minch (a hit and miss option, better than buying a tour in Addis, Arba Minch has some good tour operators and a visit to the Dorze is usually included in packages from Arba Minch)
- In Jinka (the best and the cheapest option, more tour operators to choose from, the drivers and the guides are locals and belong to one or the other tribe, they know the region like the back of their hands)
Things to ask before hiring a tour
Before you hire either a full tour or car and driver, be specific about the tribes you want to visit and what ceremonies you wish to join if possible. Also, mention the markets you want to see in case they coincide with your visit. This will enhance your itinerary and experience. Also, ask a few following questions about the vehicle and what’s included in the tour.
- Is the vehicle a 4×4 or a minibus? A 4×4 is recommended for the road conditions, but it is more expensive than a minibus.
- Does the vehicle have a written letter of authorization to visit South Omo? All private vehicles are required to have this letter. Is there a spare tire in the vehicle?
- Is accommodation included? If so, what type of accommodation – private rooms with shared/private bathroom, how many nights in which places, etc.
- Ask about the meals that are included in the tour.
- Are the village fees, market fees, photography fees, and national park admission included? This is extremely important. Otherwise, you will be fleeced by the local tourism mafia. Let your tour operator handle all these fees.
- Are the local guide tips (in each village) included? Once again, trust me, you don’t want to be hassled by this. I have had the worst experience in this matter by trying to do it independently.
Shop around in Jinka and do not make any promises until you are satisfied. Just say I am not sure (maybe). In Jinka, the local tourism mafia tries to harass independent travelers and push them to go for certain guides or drivers. Their trick is that you promised them and trust me, they lie like crazy. So don’t make any commitments and if possible, have these discussions at their registered office in front of other people. Get every specification documented when you are buying a tour or hiring a guide/driver with a car. Get all the necessary phone number of your contact person, and insist on a receipt of your purchase along with the itinerary and inclusions.
Interested in independent Omo Valley travel, then try this
This option is possible only for those travelers who have plenty of time to spend in Ethiopia. Remember that at some point, you will have to hire a guide.
Sort Out the Public Transportation Schedule
First of all, get an idea of public transportation that runs between the following towns:
- Jinka – South Omo capital.
- Turmi – Small town and a good base to visit Hamar and Karo tribes.
- Omorate – The most southern town right before the Kenyan border and a good base to visit Daasanach tribes.
The buses are scarce and they may run only once or twice a day. Go to the bus stop the day before and ask for the right timings. Remember to find out how long the journey takes. Every village in Omo Valley has its own guide and it is mandatory to hire their services in order to visit the village. Ask your local village guide at the village to help you get on the right bus for your next stop.
Hunt and Bargain for an accommodation
Omo Valley is a “you get what’s available” kind of a place. Walk around and ask each and every place about availability and prices. Bargaining is mandatory. Expect basic amenities.
Food is not an issue
The food is pretty cheap in Omo Valley. Don’t expect many restaurants and cafes outside Jinka. If possible, stock up on snacks and drinks.
Omo Valley Fees and Tips
Omo Valley independent travel means you end up paying or getting hassled to pay a lot of fees.
- Remember that there is an entry fee for each village in Omo Valley.
- You have to hire a local guide from that village and pay his fee.
- Plus, there is a photography permit fee. With this, you can take as many pictures as you want.
- When taking pictures of the tribes, it is customary to offer a photo fee. It is usually around 5 Birr (around $0.25) per person including a baby.
- Weekly markets also have their own entrance fee. You have to hire a local guide and the photography fee applies here as well.
- Armed security guards are mandatory while visiting the Mursis. Here you have to pay an additional national park entrance fee and armed security guard fee along with the usual village entrance fee, local guide fee, and the photography fee.
- Solo travelers can hire a local guide with a motorbike to save money. Plus, it is more adventurous.
Photography with dignity
- Ask for permission before taking a picture. If the person asks for money, consider either paying or leaving them alone.
- Don’t sneak a free picture. It is both dehumanizing and disrespectful.
- Thank them after taking a picture and if they are interested, show what you captured.
- Do not take pictures of those who do not wish to be photographed.
- In Omo Valley, some tribes like the Karo and Mursi dress up to put up a show for tourists’ pictures. However, these are not costumes, but their real traditional garment.
My Omo Valley travel costs (2019-2020)
- Addis to Arba Minch Salem Bus Ticket Price 640 Birr/18 USD (2 seats)
- Lunch at Arba Minch Tourist Hotel – 120 Birr/4 USD
- Shared Jeep to Jinka – 200 Birr/6 USD
- Nasa Pension in Jinka – 920 Birr/26 USD (2N)
- Dinner in Jinka – 140 Birr/4 USD
- Minivan + Driver + Guide for 3 Days – 9500 Birr/260 USD
- Photo Permit in Alduba Market – 125 Birr/4 USD
- Hotel in Turmi – 1000 Birr/30 USD (1N)
- Hamar Village Guide + Photo Permit – 1000 Birr/30 USD
- Souvenirs (assorted) – 1200 Birr/33 USD
- Local Guide for Mursi – 400 Birr/12 USD
- Mago National Park Fee – 270 Birr/8 USD
- Armed Security Guard Fee – 200 Birr/6 USD
- Mursi Village Entrance Fee – 200 Birr/6 USD
- Mursi Photo Permit – 200 Birr/6 USD
- Omo Valley Guide Fee – 6100 Birr/167 USD per day
Don’t miss the market days
Try to adapt your Omo Valley travel based on the following market days schedule.
- Dimaka – Saturday and Tuesday
- Jinka – Saturday
- Key Afer – Thursday
- Konso – Friday, and Monday
- Turmi – Monday and Tuesday
A tentative Omo Valley plan
Omo Valley travel usually has the following bases – Jinka, Turmi, and Omorate. Day trips to various tribal villages can be done around these three base towns.
– Jinka (2N)
- Visit the Mursis at Mago National Park
- Go to Key Afer which is about 40 minutes away to visit a Hamar village.
– Turmi (2N)
- Hire a driver for a day trip to the Karo Tribe as they live near the Omo River.
- Do a separate day trip to the Dassanetch Tribe.
- You can see the Hamar Tribe in Turmi as it is their village.
- Visit the Hamar market at Dimeka. It is just 40 minutes drive from Turmi.
– Omorate (1N)
- Travelers who wish to visit the Dassanetch Tribe, do so as a day trip either from Turmi or Omorate.
– Return to Turmi (1N)
– Return to Jinka
Challenges you will face during your Omo Valley travel
- It’s a very remote region, so fully independent travel is practically impossible.
- You will often have to deal with irresponsible, insensitive tourists.
- The local tourism mafia is a real pain in the neck.
- The unexplained and often confusing fees and permits.
- Basic amenities at towns apart from Jinka.
- The tribal people being pushy about selling something or asking for candies, pens, money, etc.
- The feeling of being reduced to a cash cow.
- Limited human interaction.
- Scarce public transportation.
- The nagging feeling of visiting a ‘human zoo’.
- Finally, it is expensive.
- Language barrier.
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
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE