Exploring Ethiopia (Our Travel Blog)
If you are looking to travel to Ethiopia or understand why Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations you've in the right spot. I visited Ethiopia earlier this year, and it did not disappoint.
This travel blog is about my experience, and hopefully will help you plan your trip to Ethiopia and give you a few interesting facts and tips!
Ethiopia is somewhere We've always wanted to visit. With its rich history, stunning landscapes and unique culture, it's no wonder that this country was so high on our travel list.
Check out our Guide to Gorilla Trekking here!
Where is Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is a country located in the Horn of Africa and it is a big country. It is bordered by Eritrea to the north, Djibouti and Somalia to the east, Sudan and South Sudan to the west, and Kenya to the south. Ethiopia has a population of over 102 million people, making it the most populous landlocked country in the world.
The Capital City of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa
The capital and largest city is Addis Ababa, which is also the political, economic, and cultural hub of the country.
Ethiopia is a federal state divided into nine ethnically based regions. The regions are further subdivided into over 80 provinces. Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world, with a rich history and culture dating back thousands of years
In the earth’s long history of dramatic geographical changes, the most recent volcanic upheavals took place in East Africa. Torrential rains in the region created gushing rivers and waterfalls, which in turn eroded away much of the newly formed volcanic mountain massifs; leaving behind a broad plateau divided by gorges thousands of metres deep.
As far as the eye can see are the contours of crags and buttresses of hardened basalt unsoftened by time. Listed as a World Heritage Site the Simien Mountains are some of the most breathtaking scenery that I have ever seen. At an altitude of 3,500 – 4,000m this is high-altitude trekking and initially hard work while your body adjusts to the thinner air.
Arriving in Ethiopia
On the spur of the moment, we arrived in Ethiopia. I had been thinking about it and planning a trip for several months. Realizing that if we didn’t do it now, I didn’t know when the chance would come up again, so I booked flights.
Three days later we boarded the plane and now, a few days after arriving in the country, we were trekking in the Simien Mountains in the north of Ethiopia.
Late, unexpected rain had come to the Simiens just in time for our visit.
Weather in Ethiopia
October and November are usually the best times to visit the area, as the dry season runs from October to April, and we had come in mid-November. We had glorious weather in the mornings and this usually lasted just long enough for us to get our daily 6 or 7 hours of trekking done. (Rainy Season in Ethiopia is from May to September.)
Just as we approached the camp, or not long after we had arrived, the weather would close in and rain would start to fall. The rain usually lasted most of the night, making getting out of a cozy sleeping bag, doing battle with a stubborn tent zip and going out to 'commune with nature' an unpleasant thought.
As we had generally gone to bed by eight o’clock at night, the morning was a long, long way away and presented a superhuman challenge to bladder-holding skills.
What is Ethiopia Like for Tourists
Say the word ‘Ethiopia’ and what comes to most peoples’ minds is civil wars, coups, droughts, famine and danger. Yet Ethiopia is starting to become a place more tourists wish to venture to. This year an estimated 600,000 tourists will visit Ethiopia, and this number is projected to rise to 900,000 in the next year or two (to put this in perspective, the number of tourists visiting South Africa is now in the region of 10,000,000 annually).
Trekking Simien Mountains (Explore Ethiopia)
Of these 600,000 or so tourists, about 20,000 will venture to the Simien Mountains, and only approximately half of those will actually trek in the park. We decided on a five-day, 60+km trek, which would finish with a climb up Bwahit, Ethiopia's second-highest mountain. At an altitude of 4,437m, Bwahit was a five-hour hike, and a one-kilometre vertical ascent above our camp… taking us up into the clouds and giving us a stunning view of where we had been the days before.
Of course, amongst the 10,000 people trekking in the Simiens annually, you are bound to come across a variety of 'characters'. We encountered all sorts; a retired German couple who were absolutely delighted with the entire experience, a bunch of loud and unbelievably ignorant Americans in their 20s, and a narcissistic Spanish girl who emerged briefly from her tent each morning, only to go back inside and spend at least thirty minutes brushing and tying up her hair to give it that artfully contrived, 'dishevelled chic" look.
The 'piece de resistance' however was a group of Belgians who we came across on our last night. We were eating dinner (a chicken that had clearly not had an easy life, and whose drumsticks could perhaps be better-termed matchsticks) in the somewhat cramped and smoke-filled communal cooking shelter. We were celebrating our last night in the mountains with a surprisingly decent bottle of Ethiopian Merlot when the rain drove a group of Belgian trekkers into our shelter.
They ensconced themselves by our fire and to our dismay produced printed song sheets and started a group sing-a-long in Flemish. We endured one song, gulped down the last of our wine and escaped to our tent, from where we could hear the singing continue for hours! Finally silence. We thought gratefully we would get some peace at last, but sadly not. They retired to tents nearby and regaled each other with Belgian jokes for a couple more hours laughing uproariously. As we didn't understand a word they were saying, we assumed, judging by the hilarity, that the jokes must be good ones... until we heard the punch line of one, which happened to be in English... "And that is why my father never lets my mother drink coffee alone"... Which rendered the group hysterical but left us wondering just how much was lost in translation!
Simien Mountains National Park
A remnant of the more unsettled times in Ethiopia is the prevalence of weapons, 80 – 90% of households own a gun, and the bulk of the adult male population has either served as soldiers or are still members of various militia groups (something like reserve soldiers). It is compulsory to hire a local ‘militia man’ to accompany you as a scout when trekking in the Simiens. These militiamen are approved by the national park's authority to work as scouts and to accompany you throughout the park, ostensibly to keep you and your possessions safe, though at no point did we feel threatened or that the ‘man with the gun’ was really needed!
Guides in the Simien Mountains National Park
The scouts are generally local farmers and take on this role to earn an extra income. The cavalier and nonchalant way our scout slung his Kalashnikov over his shoulders didn't exactly instil us with confidence, though the thought of an armed man walking up the hill behind you, with his ancient weapon pointing vaguely in the direction of your butt, certainly provided any necessary inspiration to keep moving!
Ethiopia Endemic Species (Animals)
Along with all this spectacular scenery are found several animals endemic to Ethiopia.
Lammergeyer Bearded Vulture
Gelada monkeys, the critically endangered Walia ibex (the entire population of which, is estimated at approx 500) and the Ethiopian wolf (the rarest and most endangered canid in the world, with less than 500 left in the wild).
Ethiopian Walia ibex
The critically endangered (the entire population of which, is estimated at approx 500)
Geladas are amazing and intelligent ‘old world’ monkeys, the males have vampire-like canines, which they bare frequently, and golden manes that wouldn’t look out of place in a shampoo commercial! Once found, according to fossil records, all over Africa and into the Mediterranean and Asia, they are now found only in the mountains of Ethiopia. With their falsetto cries, explosive barks and soft grunts they have one of the most varied repertoires of all the primates. Grazing primarily on grass, these noisy herds are easy to follow, except at night when they disappear over the edge of the steep cliffs to sleep on tiny ledges out of the way of leopards and other predators.
We could happily have spent hours watching them. We saw the ibex and heard the wolf (though sadly never saw it), and given the heights we climbed, we had the rare vantage point of looking down on a variety of kites, eagles and vultures, including the lammergeyer, known as the ‘bone breaker’ for its habit of dropping animal bones from great heights to smash them open and reach the marrow inside.
Town of Bahir Dar and Anchient
Ethiopia has much more to offer than just mountains and spectacular scenery. Going back in time, we travelled to the town of Bahir Dar to visit the 14th-century Ethiopian Orthodox Church monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret on Lake Tana.
An uninspiring building from the outside, but as we crossed the threshold we were blown away by the 700-year-old paintings that covered every inch of the interior walls.
Created by monks using only natural pigments, crushed berries and plants, the paintings are a spectacular depiction of biblical scenes and Ethiopian mythology that have survived the ravages of time.
Ethiopian Ancient Sites (Ancient Capital Gondar)
Even more spectacular were the ruins at Gondar, 175km away from Bahir Dar. Nestled in the Simien Mountains' foothills, Gondar was Ethiopia's ancient capital.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Camelot of Africa’, the city has an impressive royal enclosure of castles and palaces all dating back to the 1600s.
There is also the church of Debre Birhan Selassie, with its walls decorated with paintings of biblical scenes and its ceiling painted with beautiful winged angels.
To top it all was Lalibela Orthodox Church, in the mountains of northern Ethiopia.
Here we visited the eleven medieval churches, all over eight hundred years old and all carved by hand out of solid rock with, as myth has it, the help of angels.
Why are there so many Churches in Ethiopia?
Emperor Lalibela started the construction of these churches after living for some time in Jerusalem. Following Jerusalem's capture by Muslim forces in 1187, the legend is that a dream told Emperor Lalibela to recreate the splendours of Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Lalibela has lost none of its power to awe centuries after its creation, even more, incredible is that, despite their age, these churches are still tended by white-robed priests who speak Geez (an ancient Semitic tongue), hermits still live in tiny caves in the walls of the church’s courtyards and people still pray in these churches every day.
To millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians though, Axum is the most sacred city, where Ethiopia’s most precious religious object the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ (believed by Orthodox Ethiopians to be the original sacred chest of the Hebrews) is housed.
We didn’t have time to get there this trip, but it’s on the list for next time.
Hiking to the Asheten Maryam Monastery (Ethiopia travel blogs)
Without really checking into the finer details, we decided to hike from our hotel in Lalibela, at an altitude of 2600m, to the famous 12th-century Asheten Maryam monastery towering over the town at a height of 4000m. About halfway up, I noticed glimpses of a road that seemed to be heading in roughly the same direction as us. I asked the guide where it led, and he replied, straight-faced, "to the monastery". On hearing this, my husband, who is an 'exercise avoider' of note, muttered under his breath "if I get to the top and there is a Mcdonald's and a car park this guy will not be getting a bloody tip!”
We climbed through local villages, where we were nearly always greeted with calls of “selamta” (welcome) and for a while we were accompanied by an old man wrapped in a 'repurposed' Ethiopian Airlines blanket, herding his donkey up the mountain. He derived great enjoyment from my husband’s red-faced huffing and puffing, and from time to time would place an arm around his shoulders and chuckle with delight as some private joke of his own. There was no Mcdonald's at the top, but there was a small place for vehicles to park, only about a 15min walk from the Monastery.
It was still a bit of a precarious walk along the edge of the cliff and a slight scramble to get from the 'car park' to the top, but the views over Lalibela and the countryside were beautiful. The monastery was the first of the famous Lalibela churches to be commenced, though the last to be finished. About 20 tourists a day come by bus and climb the last stretch to the monastery, and usually only one or two people a day are foolish enough to walk the 5-hour round trip like us! When we got back down it took two beers and lunch to restore my husband's spirits.
Ethiopia Travel Guide Itinerary
We were fortunate to have our travels impeccably organized by Shif Asrat of www.simientrek.com, who not only seamlessly arranged all our logistics but also has Limalimo Lodge, a fabulously located, sustainable luxury lodge situated on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Simien Park
Flying Ethiopian Air
We flew Ethiopian Airlines, and it is worth noting that if you arrive in Ethiopia on an Ethiopian Airlines international flight, you are eligible for up to 40% discount on your domestic flights with Ethiopian Airlines.
Why visit Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is an experience like no other. The stunning scenery, the incredibly rare wildlife, the fantastic people, the history and the ancient culture.
Ethiopia Travel Tips
If you are thinking of visiting Ethiopia, do it! You will not regret it.
Make sure you have your travel logistics well organized before you arrive.
Fly Ethiopian Airlines and take advantage of their domestic flight discounts.
Visit Axum to see the Ark of the Covenant and the ancient churches.
Hike to the Asheten Maryam Monastery for stunning views over Lalibela.
Stay at the Limalimo Lodge for a sustainable luxury experience.
Shif Asrat is great with organising the logistics of www.simientrek.com
Official Language of Ethiopia
The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic, though there are over 80 individual languages spoken throughout the country.
Currency in Ethiopia
The currency in Ethiopia is the Ethiopian Birr. $1 USD is approximately equal to 53 Ethiopian Birr.
When to Visit Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a year-round destination, though the best time to visit depends on what you want to see and do. The Simien Mountains are best visited between October and November when the weather is dry and mild. January to February is the best time to see Ethiopia's wildlife, as this is when the animals congregate around waterholes.
How to get to Ethiopia
The best way to get to Ethiopia is by flying into Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. Ethiopian Airlines offers direct flights from a number of major cities around the world, including London, Paris, Frankfurt, Dubai and Johannesburg.
Visas for Ethiopia
All visitors to Ethiopia need to obtain a visa in advance. visas can be obtained from Ethiopian embassies or consulates, or online through the Ethiopian E-Visa website.
Simien Mountains National Park
The Simien Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Ethiopia's most popular tourist destinations. The park is home to a number of rare and endangered animals, including the gelada monkey, the Ethiopian wolf and the Walia ibex.
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa
The Holy Trinity Cathedral is the largest cathedral in Ethiopia and the second-largest church in Africa. It is located in the capital city of Addis Ababa. The cathedral was built in 1941, and it is the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie I and his family.
Lalibela is a small northern Ethiopia town best known for its rock-hewn churches. Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Ethiopia's most popular tourist destinations.
Axum is a city in northern Ethiopia, best known for its role in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and as the supposed final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
Asheten Maryam Monastery
The Asheten Maryam Monastery is a small monastery located on the edge of the escarpment overlooking Lalibela. The monastery is only accessible by foot, and the hike to the monastery is considered to be one of the most scenic in Ethiopia.
Limalimo Lodge is a sustainable luxury lodge located on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Simien Mountains National Park. The lodge has its own organic farm, and all of the food served at the lodge is locally sourced.
Ethiopian National Dish / Ethiopian Food
The national dish of Ethiopia is Doro Wat, a Spicy Chicken stew made with spices, meat and vegetables.
Injera is a spongy, sourdough flatbread that is traditionally served with wat. It is made from teff flour and has a slightly sour taste.
Dabo kolo is a snack made from roasted peanuts and spices. It is often served with alcoholic drinks.
Buna is the Ethiopian word for coffee. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and coffee plays an important role in Ethiopian culture.
Tibs (sautéed meat strips)
Shiro be Kibbe (legume stew)
Wat (stew made from meat, vegetables, spices, and clarified butter).
There are many restaurants where you can order off a menu, as well as street food vendors who serve traditional Ethiopian dishes.
Traditional Coffee Ceremony
The traditional coffee ceremony is an important part of Ethiopian culture. Coffee is roasted and ground by hand, and then brewed in a pot over a fire. The coffee is served black, with sugar and bread.
The Tigray region of Ethiopia has been a prominent and formidable part of the country's storied past. Many activities are found here, so you'll want to spend some time exploring this area when visiting it for just one or two days at most! Head up into mountains where ancient Tigray churches stand guard over monks who have inhabited these lands since before Christianity became established Africa-wide;
Visit Yeha - an old ruin now used as storage space by locals living nearby because its holy status makes them afraid someone might damage something else if they were not careful enough while taking pictures inside...and don't forget about climbing Debre Damo cliff face (only men allowed)
Ethiopia Fun Facts
Ethiopia is the only African country with its own alphabet and script.
The Geez alphabet is used to write Amharic, Tigrinya and other languages in Ethiopia.
There are over 80 individual languages spoken in Ethiopia, though the vast majority of the population speaks either Amharic or Oromo.
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia and is spoken by around 27% of the population.
Oromo is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, with around 34% of the population speaking it as a first language.
Other languages spoken in Ethiopia include Tigrinya, Somali, Gurage and Afar.
The Ethiopian calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar used in much of the world. The Ethiopian year is comprised of 13 months, 12 of which have 30 days, and one month (Paguemen) with 5 or 6 days.
Ethiopian Christmas (Genna) is celebrated on January 7th, and Ethiopian New Year (Enkutatash) is celebrated on September 11th.
Major Sights in Ethiopia
The Simien Mountains National Park
Lalibela and its rock-hewn churches
Axum, the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant
The Asheten Maryam Monastery
Blue Nile Falls
What to Eat in Ethiopia
Wat, the national dish of Ethiopia
Injera, a spongy sourdough bread
Dabo kolo, a roasted peanut snack
Buna, Ethiopian coffee
The traditional coffee ceremony
The Ethiopian calendar
Ethiopian Christmas (Genna)
Ethiopian New Year (Enkutatash)
Fun Facts About Ethiopia
Ethiopia is the only African country with its own alphabet and script.
There are over 80 individual languages spoken in Ethiopia.
Is Ethiopia Safe?
2022 Update: Reconsider travel to Ethiopia due to armed conflict, civil unrest, communications disruptions, crime, and the potential for terrorism and kidnapping in border areas. Do Not Travel To Tigray Region and the border with Eritrea due to armed conflict, civil unrest, and crime
Normally Ethiopia is a safe country to travel to. There is very little crime, and travellers are generally welcomed by the locals. However, it is always important to take precautions when travelling to any new country. Be sure to research the areas you will be visiting, and always keep your belongings close to you. If possible, travel with a group or with a guide. Ethiopia is an amazing country with a lot to offer, and it is well worth the effort to explore it safely.
Getting a Sim Card and Mobile Data in Ethiopia
It is possible to buy a sim card and mobile data in Ethiopia. However, it is important to note that not all phones will work with the Ethiopian network. Be sure to check with your carrier before you travel. If your phone is compatible, you can purchase a sim card at the airport or at any of the major telecom providers in Ethiopia. Once you have a sim card, you can purchase mobile data packages from any of the major telecom providers.
Internet Access in Ethiopia
Internet access is available in Ethiopia, but it can be quite slow. The best way to get online is to purchase a mobile data package from one of the major telecom providers.
Ethiopia is home to a rich artistic tradition. Ethiopian art includes painting, sculpture, pottery, weaving, and metalwork. Ethiopian artists often use traditional techniques and materials, such as natural dyes and clay.
Some of the most famous Ethiopian artworks include paintings at Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches and the Axum Obelisks.