What most people conjure up at the mention of Ethiopia are visions of a drought devastated land, bloody civil war, ensuing famine, and malnutrition children with distended bellies. The reality is far from this and a well planned Ethiopia trip of today will disperse these grim images of the ’80s. One of my oldest readers, Indra commented on my first post of this series that prior to my introduction to the country, Ethiopia was a dark place for her. The fact is that it is like no other country and its astounding natural beauty, ancient history, bustling markets, intricate coffee ceremonies, and delicious food will blow your mind away. However, there are a few things that you need to know before you plan your Ethiopia trip because though this country will mesmerize you with its sheer beauty, it is not an easy destination to explore.
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Feedback from my own Ethiopia trip
Today in retrospect, I wish I had done some things differently, been prepared better, and read more about the challenges faced during an Ethiopia trip. Not only would it have made my experience more pleasurable, but it would cost less money and saved me from some unexpected unpleasantness. I have to admit that the first few days of my Ethiopia trip were spent wishing I was somewhere else and this was mostly due to my unpreparedness for this vast country. In this post, I will try to enumerate all the things you need to know before you plan your Ethiopia trip, because, trust me, this country is an explorer’s dream. It is raw, challenging, and brims over with adventures. I hope this information helps you understand the country better, know what to expect, and you enjoy your Ethiopia trip to the fullest.
A bit about Ethiopia before you travel
Ethiopia is an orthodox Christian country that is much driven by religion. It has some of the most beautiful rock-hewn stone churches in the world and the ones in the Tigray region seem straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. It is also a place where anthropology and mythical legends have equal precedence. Skeleton of one of our oldest ancestors, Lucy can be viewed here, neatly tucked away at a museum and the Ark of Covenant is believed to have been kept here at a small church in Aksum. This is also believed to be the land of the legendary Queen Sheba and many Ethiopian kings claimed to be direct descendants of King Solomon. Ethiopia was briefly occupied by the Italians during the rule of the dictator Benito Mussolini. Many different languages are spoken in Ethiopia with Amharic being the national language of the country. It is 7-8 years behind the rest of the world since the Gregorian calendar is followed here. Many gold medalists in sports hail from this country and its present Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has won a Nobel Peace Prize. In the olden days, Ethiopia was known as Abyssinia. The beautiful landscape of this country is a perfect blend of staggeringly high mountains, arid deserts, cloud forests, and semi-arid forests. Food and rituals involving serving and sharing the dishes mark Ethiopia’s social scene and coffee ceremonies are of extreme importance here. Ethiopia produces one of the world’s finest coffees and it is essential to Ethiopian life and pace. Ethiopians love music and dancing and they have a unique dance called Eskista that involves moving the shoulders and torso in unbelievable gyrations. Festivals especially the Timket is huge here and these are awe-inspiring celebrations of faith. Most major tourist destinations in Ethiopia have domestic airports and the national carrier Ethiopian airlines fly to many countries around the world. Most nationalities can avail of a visa on arrival at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa and Ethiopian Birr is the national currency of Ethiopia. It is located in east Africa and this land-locked is bordered by Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, and Somalia.
The wonderful pros to expect in Ethiopia
- Friendly Ethiopians – People are generally friendly and welcoming, though, solo (women) travelers should be wary of men on the prowl. Scams abound especially in Lalibela and Omo Valley, especially the Bible scam in Lalibela. Many travelers give negative feedback on the unfriendliness of the Afar people of the north.
- 9 UNESCO Sites – Ethiopia has nine UNESCO sites more than any other African country. The most famous one is the complex of rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
- Cheap domestic flights – One of the best things about traveling around Ethiopia is cheap domestic flights. This is true especially if you fly in and out of Ethiopia by Ethiopian airlines. Then all you have to do is present your international ticket and get amazing deals.
- Safety – Nowhere in Ethiopia did I once feel unsafe. It is a very safe country even if you are a solo woman traveler and the people are genuinely friendly.
- Coffee, Beer, and other beverages – Ethiopian coffee (bunna) is absolutely smashing. I love the excellent brew served at Tomoca in Addis Ababa and even the street fare was excellent. The Ethiopian St. George beer was not bad, but their local wines like honey wine are excellent. Avoid any other kind of wine or alcohol in Ethiopia. There are plenty of fresh fruits available here and I enjoyed some of the most delicious juices during my entire Ethiopia trip. The avocado juice especially is to die for.
- Vegetarians and vegans will be happy here – Ethiopian food is incredibly vegan and vegetarian friendly. Ethiopians are Christian Copts and they follow the ritual of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays during which they abstain from eating any kind of animal product. Vegans and vegetarians should simply ask for “fasting food” at any restaurant during their Ethiopia trip and they can be rest assured to be served no animal product. The fasting food is delicious too.
- No language barrier – English is widely spoken throughout Ethiopia with the only exception being the truly remote areas.
- The official currency – Birr is the official currency of Ethiopia and you cannot buy it outside the country. Ethiopia being a cash friendly country, it makes sense to either withdraw Birr at ATMs or exchange them at registered money exchangers. Always make sure to check out the exchange rate before changing your cash. The Birr notes come in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100, and don’t despair even if they seem a bit grubby. Only 200 Birr is allowed to be taken out of the country at the time of departure. Keep any exchange receipts as travelers are meant to present these when exiting the country. USD is the most accepted foreign currency. Larger denominations like 100 and 50 USD notes will fetch you better exchange rates. Many places do not accept British Pounds or Euros.
Some cons to know before your Ethiopia trip
- Highly Populated – It is a vast and densely populated country with a population of approximately 109 million people in 2018.
- Altitude Sickness – Altitude sickness is something most travelers don’t expect in Ethiopia, yet it hits you really hard. Remember that during most of your Ethiopia trip, you will be at 1500 meters above sea level. The capital city of Addis Ababa itself is located around 2350 meters above sea level. Travelers may feel shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, and even insomnia. Acclimatization takes time and things that help are altitude sickness pills, easy to digest carb meals, drink lots of water, and avoid drinking alcohol.
- Heat Exhaustion – Be prepared to face heat exhaustion in Ethiopia as well. This is especially true in the Danakil Depression, where you will visit Erta Ale Volcano, Lake Giulietti, and Dallol, the hottest place on earth. This place has an average temperature of 34 degrees Celsius and peaks that regularly go well over 40 and even 45 degrees. The best way to treat heat exhaustion is to drink plenty of water, consume some electrolyte powder that you can dissolve in water, wear light cotton long pants and t-shirt, hat, and sunscreen.
- Chaotic Cities – Mayhem exists in Ethiopian cities. Picture construction and road work everywhere; markets at every corner; cars, tuk-tuks, buses, trucks, bikes, horse-pulled carriages, donkeys, goats, and cows all trying to dodge the streets and the potholes.
- Weak internet – While nearly all hotels and guest houses in Ethiopia have wifi for their guests, and wifi is available for free at all airports, it may or may not work. Many travelers suggest investing in a VPN to bypass government blocks. It is also an unpleasant reality that the Ethiopian government regularly shuts down social media and many other sites.
- The local transportation – Tuk-tuks are an easy and pocket-friendly way of getting around the cities in Ethiopia. The microbuses that run on fixed routes are the cheapest options and people who use them usually are always happy to help you find your stop. Instead of hailing down taxis in major cities (especially AA), opt for taxi apps like RIDE, Lucy Taxi, etc.
- A local Simcard – I bought a local SIM card at the Bole International Airport. Ethiopia has only one network and sim card provider called Ethiopian telecom (ETC). ETC shop is located at Terminal 2 after crossing the customs (January 2020).
- Mandatory organized tours – This is one huge wallet crusher however in Ethiopia (in some parts), you have no other option than to go with an organized tour. This is especially applicable if you wish to hike the Simien Mountains, Bale National Park, visit the Omo Valley, and explore the Danakil Depression. Be prepared to expect less than what was promised, different prices for different people on the same tour, and a lot of frustrating irregularities. Unfortunately, there are only two or three major tour operators in Ethiopia and they employ agents and sub-agents to sell their packages without regulating the prices.
- Uncomfortable long bus rides – I tried exploring Ethiopia twice by long-distance buses and they were uncomfortable, long, cheap, and bone-jarring. There are quite a few long-distance bus companies in Ethiopia that ply and tickets are easily available. The most reputed ones are Selam Bus and Sky Bus. Most long-distance buses depart from Maskel Square in Addis Ababa. Ticket prices are fixed.
- Be prepared to eat lots of injera – Whether you like injera or not is a matter of personal choice, but be prepared to eat it nearly every day. Injera is the staple diet of Ethiopia. It is a spongy thin bread made of teff flour and used to scoop up curries that are served with each meal. Even though I love it, injera is an acquired taste. You can eat injera with meat-based stew or stir-fried vegetables and a delicious lentil mash called shiro.
- Touts can be annoying – This is another factor that can mar your Ethiopia trip if you are not firm. Touristy places, especially Lalibela has too many touts and they are sometimes quite pushy in their sales tactics. However, a firm but polite no always works. Personally, I felt this to be extremely annoying in Omo Valley where apart from being pushy, the local touts are rude and mercenary.
- Watch out kids demanding pens, candies, etc – Okay, so this is another annoyance that you will face in Ethiopia especially in touristy places like Lalibela. The local kids will come thronging the moment they see a new foreign face and tug your clothes, hold your hands, and even demand pens, candies, etc. Despite hailing from India, where I have seen this happen many times, I have to admit it is extremely tiresome and the best way to deal with them is by not giving. Giving in only encourages them to continue with this behavior.
- Accommodation standards will either be poor or exemplary – Throughout my entire Ethiopia trip, I was lucky to have found some really good accommodation options. My best stays were in Mekelle, Aksum, and Jinka where the rooms were clean with well-functioning facilities. My worst stays incidentally were in Addis Ababa where I got fooled by false information given by the B&B owner, Danakil, Lalibela, and Omo Valley. While I had not expected much comfort in Danakil and Omo Valley, the prices of really basic rooms shocked me.
- Inadequate waste disposal problem – I come from India which has a massive garbage disposal problem, so if I call Ethiopia dirty, it will be like a pot calling a kettle black. Having said that, it is heartbreaking to see some stunningly beautiful areas like the Danakil Depression and Erta Ale to be so badly littered with discarded plastic bottles, wet wipes, toilet paper, etc. The rest of the country surprisingly is quite clean, Ethiopia being the first African nation that has a waste to energy plant that incinerates around 80% of the city’s waste and uses it to supply around 30 percent of its household electricity needs. However, I found the Lalibela and Danakil Depression areas to be extremely filthy with loads and loads of plastic trash.
Your Ethiopia trip will not exactly be cheap
In comparison to many Asian countries, your Ethiopia trip will not be cheap. The main chunk of the expenses is because of the obligatory requirements of either organized tours or guiding services. Accommodation costs can also mount if you wish to stay in a clean, comfortable room with some facilities. Long-distance domestic travel costs will also increase if you wish to fly instead of suffering bone-jarring bus rides and the application of “tourist tax” is quite common. Cultural entertainment places like restaurants where they host traditional dance shows end up being quite expensive. If you are not careful, taxis in Addis Ababa can really rip you off.
The beauty of an easy tourist visa
Thanks to the easy availability of the visa on arrival facility and e-visa service, an Ethiopia trip is slowly featuring in many travelers’ wishlists. Ethiopia gives VOA and/or e-visa facilities to many countries across the world and it costs around 50 USD for a month-long stay. Some nationalities may have to show a return ticket. A longer duration tourist visa is also available for a higher fee. Only the overlanding visitors need to apply for a visa in advance. You can apply for an e-visa at the official government website and these are accepted at land borders as well.
What to pack for your Ethiopia trip
Packing smart is essential for a comfortable Ethiopia trip. Missing out on certain necessities can either mar or your trip or create a dent in your budget. So make sure to pack the following items – a European adapter, long-sleeved t-shirts and light jackets for cold evenings, hiking gear, hiking shoes, a headlamp, toilet paper, moisturizer shampoo, extra batteries/SD cards for your camera, and any special medicine that you may need.
Understanding the culture before your trip
- It is a tactile culture and people touch each other especially among friends.
- There are several ways of greeting some in Ethiopia. These range from shoulder bumps, cheek to cheek kisses, handshakes, and saying “Selam” a.k.a hello.
- A shared taxi is called a minivan and a private taxi is a “taxi”. Tuk-tuks are called Bajajs.
- Hotels are not quite a thing in Ethiopia and even the expensive ones will not meet the standards found in most countries. Guesthouses are much better and they come with laundry facilities, wi-fi, transfers, and breakfasts.
- Men and women are quite progressive and they like to take care of their appearances.
- The most important festivals in Ethiopia are Timkat, Meskel, and Genna (Ethiopian Christmas).
Best time for your Ethiopia trip
Ethiopia is best explored from mid-October to January when the rains are gone and the countryside is lush and green. It is best avoided during the rainy season, which falls in the summer months (June to August). During this time, the mountain roads can get flooded and the hiking trails may become too slippery.
Places to explore on your Ethiopia trip
- Addis Ababa
- Tigray Region churches
- Bahir Dar
- Danakil Depression
- Omo Valley
- Simien Mountains
- Bale Mountain National Park
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