Ethiopia is my favourite country in Africa and it is brimming with sights. The culture of Ethiopia is so rich and different, that the major attraction of the country is not any specific attraction but instead meeting the people and learning about their culture. Ethiopia is truly unique.
The historical circuit is the aptly named route heading to the north of the country. The most famous site on this route is the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Though undoubtedly impressive the churches really come alive during one of the numerous holy days on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church calendar. Try to coincide a visit with one of these days, but not necessarily the biggest of them (Easter and Christmas) as they can be crowded with other tourists and accommodation prices increase dramatically. Lalibela has received criticism recently due to the very steep rise on entrance fees to these churches, and it has dissuaded some (including myself) from a return visit and even a first visit.
Two other essential stops on the historical route are Bahir Dar and Axum. Bahir Dar sits on Lake Tana which is home to numerous island monasteries – but some places do not allow the entrance of women. I particularly liked the feel of Bahir Dar and it, along with Axum, is my favourite city in Ethiopia. Axum in the north was once the home of the Axumite Kingdom and it is famous for its stelae, the tomb of King Gebre Meskel and churches, especially the one reportedly holding the Ark of the Covenant. Nearby to Axum are the rock churches of the Tigray Region. There are some outstanding churches, but the best in terms of paintings is definitely the Abraha Atsbeha church.
Also in the north are some of the finest mountains you will see. Simien Mountains are a hiker’s paradise, and the best place to organise a hike and compulsory guide is in the town of Debark. Figure on 2-3 nights on Simien in order to appreciate and explore its beauty. Most of the trails lie above 3000 metres, so the usual altitude sickness warnings are in place.
In the far south west of the country near the border of Sudan lies one of Africa’s most astonishing areas. The Lower Omo Valley is home to an incredibly diverse range of tribes that are vastly different from each other. My three favourite tribes are the Hamer – based around the town of Turmi. Ensure you are there for the bull jumping initiation ceremonies from July until October, but even then such ceremonies are irregularly held during this time.
The Karo are known for being the best body painters in the region. Try to visit their village of Kolcho which commands an incredible view over the Omo River. As with all the tribes take time to get familiar with people and their village.
The most famous of the tribes are the Mursi – easily recognisable for the lip plates some women wear. Best time your visits for the morning, and the Mursi can be quite aggressive in convincing you to take photos (much like another tribe, the Arbore). A tactic I learnt was that the longer you stay, the less aggressive they become, so try to survive that initial onslaught.
Throughout most of the Lower Omo Valley one must pay an amount to take photos of any of the people of the tribes. Though the amount is small, it does add up once you are in the Valley for a few days. Bring plenty of Ethiopian one birr coins – more than you think you will need.
For a real adventure, you can travel to the Danakil Depression – one of the hottest places on earth. I have never been, but according to reports from adventure seekers, it can provide the highlight of any visit to this most fascinating nation.
Some of my blogs about Ethiopia: