This is the first African country to be covered on this site – as a result of a tour with Wild Frontiers (see below) in early 2016. Until the conflicts between the government and the Tigray and Oromo regions have been resolved it is not safe to travel to Ethiopia.
Although Ethiopia is a huge country, for travel purposes it can be divided simply into north and south. Within these areas there are 12 best places to visit which largely define Ethiopia’s allure.
This is the only major African nation that’s never been conquered or colonized – except for a five-year occupation by Italy in the 1930s – which hardly counts. As a result, it’s a real country, and Ethiopians have a sense of identity, of pride and continuity.
There are some tensions between the two main ethnic groups (the Amhara and the Oromo) and as a consequence some ethnic politics – but until recently these were generally under control. Moslems and Christians live together in harmony and respect. Most people are devout and unaggressive. There is, of course, poverty – most of the population of 90 million are subsistence farmers. Despite that, there is strong economic growth, with tourism one of the expanding sectors. Walking through one of the rural settlements and engaging with the locals quickly reveals that although these people live hard lives, the atmosphere is sunny – compared with the gloom and tension of housing estates in Northern Europe. Perhaps the darkest note is struck by signs warning people to act together to prevent child trafficking.
It’s a country of time warps: in the space of half an hour you can experience prehistory, ancient history, the Middle Ages, the post- industrial revolution and modern times, all rubbing shoulders. If you’re unused to Africa, get ready for long, long road journeys: seven hours driving is a normal and much of it can be on dirt roads. If you can afford a private driver with a four-wheel drive car, go for it: ordinary cars, buses and mini buses get penetrated by the dust and grit. Be ready, too, for patchy housekeeping even in the best lodges: bedside lights that don’t work or sockets that fall off the wall are a common problem.
This is not a family holiday destination. You’ll meet young back packers, adventure travellers and a few tour groups of enquiring but elderly travellers.
Locals will hassle tourists for money given the smallest encouragement – nothing new in that – but compared with the aggressive hustling of, for example, Egypt or Morocco, the bother factor in Ethiopia is usually mild.
Although the cities are generally safe, be prepared for a chaotic atmosphere with roaring traffic and many an unfinished building: people have a fatalistic attitude to obstacles and anyway there are 17 religious holidays per month – Europeans and Americans will ask themselves how anything ever gets done. By contrast, the country towns and village proceed at a pace of their own. Livestock and people – walking, walking, always walking – share the roads with cars and lorries on more or less equal terms. Let it flow over you: if you fret, you’ll spoil what should be one of the richest travel experiences on earth.
Try to visit Ethiopia during Timkat, the religious festival that takes place each January, centred on the churches’ Tabots – replica Arks of the Covenant. These sacred objects are removed from their normal lodgings and taken to a local river or stream where everyone gathers at 2 am for ritual re-baptisms and for extended celebrations. Country Timkats are much more atmospheric and enjoyable than city ones.
We recommend Wild Frontiers as the most reliable and imaginative tour operator for Ethiopia. For more details, see the rest of the pages.