Ethiopia is country of unexpected diversity. A country that often flies under-the-radar for tourists, we consider Ethiopia a true hidden gem for travelers unafraid to explore a more offbeat destination that few visit. Twice the size of Texas, Ethiopia’s diversity ranges from cloud-shrouded mountains to lush valleys, and from a rich ancient—and prehistoric—history to more than 80 distinct ethnic groups found there today, each with its own traditions, language and culture that date back over 3,000 years. For centuries it’s been a melting pot between North Africa, Sub-Saharan, and Middle Eastern civilizations, leaving it marked with unique cultural character and chock full of historical sites still in active use, such as Lalibela and Axum (must-sees for history enthusiasts in the north). Yet long before civilizations could meet, early hominids called this region home, with archaeological findings dating back some four million years, expanding our knowledge of human beginnings. Ethiopia may not be your typical wildlife safari destination, but we love it for its vibrant cultural elements, history, and ample selection of outdoor excursions.
Ethiopia is perfect for travelers who have been on safari before, and want a different, more offbeat Africa experience. What the country lacks in big game, it more than makes up for in big culture; travelers should love exploring and learning about different people and traditions, rich history and an abundance of sites to visit, plus a stunning variety natural landscapes. Additionally, the best travelers for Ethiopia aren't looking for premium thread counts; even the country's luxury accommodations often fall below 5* standards in other destinations. If you're okay "roughing it" a little more, however, you won't regret it.
Where to go for...History
This is one of the most popular destinations in Ethiopia and also one of the most special. Medieval Lalibela is the site of eleven rock hewn monolithic churches, believed to have been built by King Lalibela in the late 12th or early 13th century. These amazing structures are carved, both internally and externally, from the volcanic rock in which they stand and are considered among the Wonders of the World. This living site is still used today but, trust us, you don’t need to be religious to enjoy. This UNESCO World Heritage Site also has an on-site museum with relics while the nearby town offers a vibrant weekly market, mountain views, local restaurants and coffee shops.
Axum is the ancient capital of Ethiopia, dating from the 1st to the 13th Century AD. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its said to have been home to Queen Sheba's Palace and the Ark of the Covenant. Visitors today can marvel at giant obelisks and stone stelae found here, made of single pieces of granite with identical decorations. The biggest of them, now fallen is 33 meters high and weighs 500 tones, making it the largest monolith in the world. The Church of Saint Mary of Zion, the oldest church in the country, is also in Axum.
Like Axum it is also a former capital of Ethiopia but more recent, with architectural variety from the 17th and 18th centuries. We find an otherworldly beauty here, perhaps from the numerous castle-like palaces which have garnered it the nickname, “Camelot of Africa.” A typical day at Gondar includes morning at the Royal Enclosure, and visits to the Debre Birhan Selassie Church and Fasilides Bat where a fascinating annual celebration known as Timket blesses the site and opens the baths for bathing.
Where to go for...Culture
Home to the Mursi and Hamar people, just two of the area’s best-known communities, the Omo Valley is a virtually unexplored frontier for travelers, and unlike any other place on earth. With an outsanding number of indigenous tribes in a relatively small area, the Omo Valley is packed with tradition, fortified hilltop settlements, terraced fields and anthropomorphic grave-markers. Intrepid travelers will also find the Shappe Rock Engravings, thought to be 5,000 years old. For more on cultural encounters, check out Marcia’s trip report from her visit!
Where to go for...Trekking
If you ask us, the Simien Mountains should be on everyone's list for Ethiopia. Very accessible, beautiful, hiking for all fitness levels—we mean it. You could hike from the Simiens to Axum if you wanted or stick to a day or half day hike. Multi-day treks with fully catered camping is available. For many, a real highlight is encountering Gelada Baboons. The baboons are more closely related to monkeys, and they are fascinating to watch. Their blond locks look as if they met a 1980s hairstylist, fully crimped into an enviable mane. When we’ve been, they were incredibly relaxed and really paid no attention to us, only occasionally glancing up for a photo op. It was priceless (even for those of you who have been gorilla or chimp trekking).
The high altitude Sanetti Plateau is home to hundreds of Ethiopian Wolf as well as Klipspringer, Mountain Nyala, lions, leopards and other species, and is one of the last protected Hareena Forests in Ethiopia. If you’re an avid outdoor adventurer, you’ll delight in the variety of craggy peaks, high plateaus, waterfalls, wildflower meadows, and crystalline streams. Summit Mount Tullu Dimtu, one of Ethiopia’s highest peaks, or explore the culture of Bale’s Oromo farmers.
Due to Ethiopia's vast range of landscapes and altitudes, there's no single "best" season to go. Most travelers, however, can typically expect October through May to be cool and dry, optimizing sightseeing and outdoor excursions. The highlands, especially Addis Ababa, maintain comfortable conditions in the 70s. The lowlands can still get quite hot during this time, however. July and August see the heaviest rains, typically ending by September.
Heavy summer rains can make some roads or remote areas impassable. The southern Omo Valley sees two, brief, rainy seasons in the fall (October-November) and spring (April-May); avoid those months for travel in the Omo Valley.
Ethiopia is not a good country for big game-viewing when compared with other safari destinations like Kenya. However, the country's mountains are home to some very special and rare species including the Mountain Nyala, Ethiopian Wolf, Gelada Baboons, and the Walia Ibex.
A typical 10-day Ethiopian safari may start at approximately $5,000 per person sharing. All our safaris are carefully tailored to each client, though, so consider this only a starting point to begin exploring your options.
Helicopter over the Danakil Depression - Visit island monasteries on Lake Tana - Taste some of Ethiopia's finest roasts on a coffee tour - Encounter Gelada Baboons in the Simien Mountains - Experience remote and traditional cultures in the Omo Valley
Ethiopia has some of the highest peaks on the African continent but also includes one of the lowest and hottest places on the planet, while the ceremonies and rituals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church allow a glimpse at the world of the Old Testament.
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