Addis Ababa feels like a magical halfway house, before entering another world. For Ethiopians, it is a city whose streets are paved in gold. A stay at the gateway to the mystical and ancient world of Ethiopia is essential to understand this highly complex nation. Addis Ababa is the also best place in the country to sample Ethiopian food and coffee, and has some wonderful museums and fascinating shops.
Lalibela's history and mystery is frozen in stone, its soul alive with the rites of Christianity at its most ancient and unbending. No matter what you’ve heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen of its breathtaking rock-hewn churches, nothing can prepare you for the reality of seeing it for yourself. It is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but truly a world wonder. Spending a night vigil here during one of the big religious festivals, when white-robed pilgrims in their hundreds crowd the courtyards of the churches, is to witness Christianity in its most raw and powerful form.
In Ethiopia’s northernmost region, the precipitous Gheralta Mountains are a formidable frontier. The landscapes of Gheralta and northern Tigray lead to comparisons with North America’s Monument Valley and its southwest desert. The rock-hewn churches of the Gheralta Mountains in the Tigray region are carved from cliff faces and built into pre-existing caves or constructed along the steepest mountain cliffs, very different from the more famous monolithic churches of Lalibela which are carved out of the ground and attached to the earth only at the base. Ascending some of these high altitude churches may not be for the faint-hearted and requires some technical climbing skills but the reward at the top is worth the effort.
Gondar lies in a bowl of hills, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood of royalty. It is known for the walled Fasil Ghebbi fortress and palace compound, once the seat of Ethiopian emperors. Dominating it is the immense 17th-century castle of Emperor Fasilides, which combines Portuguese, Indian and local architectural styles. It's often called the 'Camelot of Africa', a description that does the royal city a disservice: Camelot is legend, whereas Gondar is reality.
Some people like to describe Bahir Dar as the Ethiopian Riviera because of its wide streets shaded by palm trees and sweeping views across Lake Tana’s shimmering blue waters. Visit one of many islands in the lake that are home to medieval monasteries and their elaborate, colourful murals. The Blue Nile River snakes southeast of the city toward the towering cliffs at the Blue Nile Falls.
One of the Danakil’s highlights is Dallol where formations of twisted sulphur and iron oxide paint a yellow and orange landscape that looks more like a terrestrial coral reef. This is the lowest place in Ethiopia and allegedly the hottest place on Earth. The dry, cracked bed of Lake Asale alongside Dallol is where the Afar people hack blocks of salt out of the ground, before they are loaded onto camels for transport.
Known by the Afar as the ‘smoking mountain’ and ‘the gateway to hell’, Erta Ale is a 2,011-foot-high constantly active basaltic shield volcano. It is one of only a handful of continuously active volcanoes in the world, and a member of an even more exclusive group: volcanoes with lava lakes.
For centuries, locals have been trekking in with camel caravans to mine the salt by hand, and in recent years, a few have been guiding tourists into the alien-looking landscape.
There are the iconic Surma, Mursi, Kara, Hamer, Nyangatom, Dassenech and several other lesser known tribes whose ancient customs and traditions have remained almost entirely intact.
Venturing into these communities and staying among them is like receiving an invitation and initiation into a forgotten world. A highlight of any visit to the Omo Valley is witnessing one of the many festivals that form an integral part of the traditional culture - age-old ceremonies marking rites of passage which are as impressive as Ethiopia's Orthodox Christian celebrations in the north.
Violent volcanic eruptions 40 million years ago created the Simien Mountains massif, which rises to over 4500 metres in northern Ethiopia. The region is a mystical world of primeval forests, misty peaks, bizarre plants and exotic creatures.
Endemic gelada monkeys forage and parade in massive troops of up to 600 individuals across the high plains of Menz-Guassa and the Simien Mountains.
Ethiopia's most important biodiversity hotspot, Bale Mountains National Park supports a rich mosaic of high-altitude habitats including lush evergreen forest, stands of giant bamboo, pastel-shaded moorland, and sheltered river valleys swathed in fragrant juniper-hagenia woodland. The park is also the most important stronghold to three endemic large mammal species: the Ethiopian wolf, mountain nyala and Bale monkey, while its incredible avifauna make it one of the continent’s top five birding hotspots.
Gambella National Park is Ethiopia's greatest wildlife show-in-waiting, and being difficult to get to doesn't change that. It has vast herds of migrating antelope species including the second largest mammal migration in Africa which it shares with Boma National Park across the border in South Sudan, numbers to rival East Africa's great migration. For now, it remains a dream with no infrastructure in the southwestern parts of the park - the deep swamps, where the wildlife concentrations are.
Lastly, the wild but 'friendly' hyenas of Harar offer a unique wildlife experience like no other where man and hyena have evolved a mutually beneficial - albeit strange - arrangement.
Ethiopia's birdwatching - with over 850 species recorded - ranks among the best in Africa. The country also has small but growing populations of elephant, lion, leopard and hyena, and healthy crocodile and hippo numbers in Awash, Gambella and Bale; and we expect more traditional safari operators to operate in these parks in a few years' time.
Whether you are observing a tribal ceremony in the south, attending a special mass in the north, sipping coffee made from ancient plants in the west or exploring the lunar landscapes and active volcanoes of the east, visiting Ethiopia is like stepping into a time machine and you just decide whether you want to go back hundreds or thousands or millions of years.
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We do not subscribe to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy. Sample itineraries and cost estimates are meant purely as a guide. To find out more, please contact one of our expert travel consultants to plan a customized itinerary based on your budget and interests.