Two Weeks in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a country I’d wanted to visit for a long time before I finally arrived there. From its history—it was, at the outbreak of World War in the 20th century, the last independent black country in Africa—to its delicious food, to pictures I’d seen of its otherworldly landscapes, Ethiopia was calling me.
When I finally answered, the voice on the receiver was more complicated than I’d expected. Ethiopia was beautiful, both its people and its scenery, but it was also a country in transition from poverty to wealth, with everyone clamoring for a piece of the pie. This usually took the form of annoying (but innocuous) street hustlers, but was sometimes more extreme, such as the schoolchild who robbed me at an archaeological site outside the city of Axum.
(And I haven’t even mentioned the food poisoning, the infrastructure and the often extraordinary unfairness of prices for travelers.)
Cynicism—and complaints—aside, Ethiopia is a beautiful country, and I do ultimately feel like my trip there was rewarding. But it’s not a destination for beginners, neither to Africa nor to travel in general, so do tread carefully once you finally hit the streets (or mud paths, as it were). This itinerary is for two weeks in northern Ethiopia, which is in my opinion the most special and rewarding part of the country to visit.
When to Visit
The most important thing to know about when to spend your two weeks in Ethiopia is that you should avoid the northern hemisphere summer—June, July and August are the rainy season in northern Ethiopia, which produces deluges that make already bad roads impassable. If you visit during the first few months of the year, like I did, you’ll look upon more arid landscapes, while scenery in September and October tends to be more lush, both in terms of nature and people: Many Ethiopian festivals occur during the autumn months.
How to Get Around
If you’ve only got two weeks to spend in Ethiopia, you should fly whenever possible—and you should wait until you arrive in Ethiopia to book your flights. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but tickets are much cheaper when purchased from a local agent. Another way to make your tickets cheaper (I’m talking an additional 50 per cent discount, or more!) is to arrive on Ethiopian Airlines.
If you do need to travel by land, the good news is that many of the country’s main roads are now paved (thanks to the Chinese), which makes journeys less agonizing, if still quite long. Like many countries in Africa, Ethiopia offers a variety of public and private ground transports, from full-size buses, to minibuses, to taxis and tuk-tuks, which are called bajaj around these parts. Many Ethiopian cities, meanwhile, are quite walkable.
Where to Stay
If you’re accustomed to backpacker’s quarters, then Ethiopia will be a walk in the park for you. If you prefer luxury, or even boutique accommodations, good luck. Even many of the “nice” hotels in large cities lack amenities like air conditioning or mosquito nets, and farther afield, you’ll be lucky if you can find a comfortable place to stay at all. Sorry!
Money, Costs and Communication
Ethiopia is expensive—more expensive, at least, than it should be. That’s less due to ordinary expenditures, such as long-distance and city transport, hotels and meals, and more due to the excursions you’ll want to take, namely to the Semien Mountains and Danakil Depression. Any time you need private transport, you can expect to pay a minimum of $150 per day for the vehicle, and probably as much for your guide and driver.
As far as communication, I was surprised how good it was. Prior to my trip, I’d read that internet outside of Addis Ababa was almost nonexistent, but most every hotel I stayed at had it, everywhere in Ethiopia, even if it was slow. Likewise, my ethio telecom SIM worked basically everywhere in the country, with only brief interruptions, such as at the top of Erta Ale volcano. Impressive!
Unless you arrive in Ethiopia by land from another African country, your trip will begin in the capital, Addis Ababa. For me, Addis Ababa was basically indistinguishable from any other East African capital (most specifically, it reminded me of a larger version of Kigali), and it certainly doesn’t live up to the translation of its name, which means “New Flower” in English.
With this being said, you can definitely spend a full day of your two weeks in Ethiopia enjoying the sights of Addis (to which the city’s name is often shortened), from churches like Holy Trinity and Medhane Alem, to the Red Terror Martyr’s Museum, to the sprawling, wild Mercato market.
Bahir Dar and Lake Tana
The majority of travelers continue on to Bahir Dar less for the city itself, which is dusty and frankly lacking in character, but for Lake Tana, on whose shores it sits. And, more specifically than that, the monasteries of the lake, some of which date back almost to the time of christ. It’s easy to book a half- or full-day boat trip from the lakeshore in Bahir Dar, although you should note that many of the monasteries don’t allow entry to women.
The other main attraction in the vicinity of Bahir Dar is Blue Nile Falls, which is only 35 km away, but takes about 4 hours roundtrip thanks to the condition of the road. To be honest, I would only consider the falls worth a trip if you visit just after the rainy season, when they’ll be roaring. Spend between 1-2 days of your two weeks in Ethiopia in (and, mostly, around) Bahir Dar.
Gondar and the Semien Mountains
For me, Gondar is where my trip to Ethiopia really began. That’s because while Gondar Castle is incredible, the city built up around it is very picturesque and has loads of character in its own right, to say nothing of secondary tourist attractions such as Debre Birhan Selassie church and Fasilides Bath, where ancient King Fasilides used to bathe, which are just as interesting as the castle.
Gondar also sits in close proximity to the Semien Mountains—and touts on the streets of Gondar know that. If you haven’t already booked a tour in advance (and, frankly, you don’t need to), you can arrange trips that range from day excursions, to four-day, three-night trekking expeditions. Depending on how long you want to stay in the mountains, spend between 3-5 days of your two weeks in Ethiopia in Gondar.
Lalibela, on the other hand, was a huge disappointment. While the main attraction (the rock-hewn church of Bet Giyorgis) was amazing, and worth the price of the $50 ticket to enter the religious complex, the rest of the churches ranges from underwhelming to downright boring, and the town had zero character at all.
I honestly wouldn’t recommend spending more than a full day of your two weeks in Ethiopia in Lalibela. And to be frank, if getting to Lalibela takes you too far out of the way, you wouldn’t be any worse for skipping it.
Axum and Tigray State
For my money, the ancient sites of Axum were more impressive than those in Lalibela, namely the Church of St. Mary of Zion and the Northern Stelae Field, which sit inside the city. The Palace of the Queen of Sheba required a bit of imagination to enjoy, while the hike to the Lioness of Godebra (an archeological site) was more interesting than the rock painting itself (until I got mugged by my school-aged guide, anyway).
Where the Tigray region of Ethiopia really shines, however, is outside of Axum, on the way to the city of Mekele. Along this route, you’ll find ancient churches that are literally built into cliffsides, many of which require daunting climbs to reach: Abuna Yemata Guh, Daniel Korkor and Maryam Korkor were my favorites. You’ll need a driver and a guide to get you here, and while prices are uniformly expensive, you can negotiate with touts in Axum or Mekele to find the best rate. Spend 2-3 days in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Like Vanessa Williams, I’m a big fan of saving the best for last, which is why I recommend you wait until the end of your trip to travel down into the Danakil Depression, home to the otherworldly Dallol sulfur field and Erta Ale volcano, among other extraterrestrial-looking landscapes. There’s also a salt flat here, which is fitting since the closest cognate I can find for Danakil is Bolivia’s Uyuni region.
As is the case with the Semiens and the Tigray churches, you’ll need a tour to see the Danakil Depression, but not just any tour: Danakil tours require a military escort, thanks to aggression from nearby Eritrea, which means—you guessed it—a very high price: Around $500-600 for four days. I used a company called ETT Tours, who seems to be the best option, and certainly the most popular.