Splendorous mountains through to lush national parks. medieval churches that were hewn into ancient rocks centuries ago. Rare wildlife, diversified cultural manifestations and a vibrant atmosphere that encompasses modernity and ancient customs.
How could I not be drawn to visit Ethiopia?
My journey in this lively country took nearly 5 weeks, and was divided between visiting the North, the East and the South.
During my first three weeks I followed an itinerary often chosen by most travellers visiting the region, the so-called “Historical Route”, which will be the focus of this article.
Addis Ababa – A fast-changing capital
It only took me 6 hours to fly from London to Addis Ababa. The level of excitement I felt when the plane landed cannot be put into words. I was about to start a journey I had been anticipating for quite a while, in Ethiopia, but as it was also the first stop of my third multi-country trip around the world, I was happier than ever.
I had done a fair bit of research and was looking forward to spending a few days in the capital to get acclimatised with the country and its culture before venturing up north.
My first impression of Addis could be described in one word: development. The entire city seemed to be under construction. Roads were being re-paved, buildings were being built and although that filled the air with dust and made the already chaotic traffic yet worse than usual, it didn't seem to affect the rhythm of the city and of its residents.
Addis Ababa has plenty of interesting museums, ranging from the Red Terror Museum that focuses on the brutal history of famine the country went through 5 decades ago, to the impressive National Museum. But my favourite was the Ethnological Museum, found inside Addis's University, hosting wonderful interactive displays of many of the tribal communities spread around the south of the country.
Addis also has a very vibrant nightlife, mixing locals and foreigners. Being the capital of the UN in Africa, the number of expatriates living there is rather high.
One of the things I was really looking forward to experience was attending some live Jazz sessions, particularly the genre Ethio-Jazz, made famous around the world during the 1960s. Aside from having gone to a few gigs, I also made a point of having dinner at some “Cultural Restaurants”, where national food dishes (amazing for vegetarians!) are served in their most traditional way, while guests enjoy local live music and dance acts.
Great local music: check. What was next of my favourite things to explore whilst travelling? Local markets! And I couldn't have asked for a more authentic experience: Merkato/Mercato – Africa's largest outdoor market was an explosion to the senses in all levels. Everything imaginable could be found for sale, ranging from the few tourist-focused souvenir stalls to the many sellers of houseware, flowers, vegetables, recycled material goods, just to name a few. It was endless, and the atmosphere was absolutely chaotic. Certainly not meant for tourism, but a really authentic opportunity to observe locals going on about their everyday lives,
My favourite experience in Addis was a rather simple one though: navigating through the shared minivans while trying to get around the city. It was a great opportunity for meeting people and engage in conversation. Although finding which minivan to catch (they had no name, not even in Amharic, cash collectors from each van would shout out the destination as they drove by) and to make my way in was rather challenging, it never took long for a local to “rescue” me and wait by my side until I was at the appropriate minivan taking me to whichever destination I meant to go. Always good fun.
Bahar Dar – Lake Tana, Monasteries, the Blue Nile Falls and the source of the Nile River
After a good few days in Addis, I was ready to start moving up north. Bahar Dar, Ethiopia's second city, was only an hour’s flight away (or a 12-hour-long local bus ride). Although still busy with insane traffic and much smaller in size, Bahar Dar has a very different feel to it, as the city revolves around Lake Tana.
The popular activities taken by most travellers include touring Lake Tana and stopping at small islands in order to visit monasteries dating from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, surrounded by small rural villages. The monasteries were colourful and interesting, however, most of us travellers on the tour found them to be somewhat similar to one another.
The tour continues to the source of the Nile River, where great birdwatching is available and every once in a while, hippos are said to be spotted. Didn't happen in our tour, I must say, and I wasn't surprised.
The second biggest attraction in Bahar Dar is taking a day trip to the nearby Blue Nile Fall, only about 1.5 hour away. As the Falls were said to have only 20 percent of their normal water level, I wasn't too keen on taking the long hike. And I must admit that after having seen the 3 most famous waterfalls in the world (Iguassu, Niagara and Victoria) I've became a bit of a waterfall snob – it now takes a bit more to impress me. I heard from most travellers it was an interesting trip, but nothing out of this world.
Gondar – 15th century Royal enclosures and the main site for Ethiopia's biggest festival
It only took me 4 hours on a local minivan to reach Gondar. It was the first of many overland journeys I was to take in Ethiopia, and although the landscape was stunning, it was also my first view of a painful reality constantly observed while travelling through the countries’ road routes: extreme poverty levels.
Although the old image of famine associated to Ethiopia decades ago is not quite their reality, the lack of structure and facilities in the small villages is rather noticeable. Ethiopia is mainly an agricultural country, so people don't seem to lack food as much they do seem to lack many other things, such as clothes, school, water supplies and so on. Hard-working people could be seen on the roadside and the hardship of the life they led was stamped in their face.
Begging seemed to be a very common habit, particularly towards foreigners, and many people really struck me as not having more than the outfit they were presently wearing. A good eye opener, reminding me of just how much disparity is out the in the world, and that Africa still goes through a lot of structural deprivation in all sorts of levels.
Gondar was a small-size town but it receives a fair bit of tourists – mostly trying to organise treks to the nearby Simien Mountains. It was my first experience staying at a local Ethipian house for a night, which was a rather humbling experience.
The town's main attraction is the 15th century Royal Enclosure, hosting the oldest castle found in Africa. Set against a beautiful mountainous setting, I had the chance of exploring the grounds during sunset, and much to my privilege; nearly nobody else was around, making it a truly unique, magical experience. I never expected to find such medieval, old architectural relics in Africa!
Every January, the enclosure is the country's main site for Timket – Ethiopia's largest religious festival, taking place for three days, surrounding Fasiladas' Bath inside the Royal Enclosure, for a symbolic re-enactment of Jesus' baptism.
The Simien Mountains National Park
Two to three hours north of Gondar is Debark, the last village prior to entering the famous Simien Mountains National Park. Ethiopia is supposedly a hiker's paradise, and although I met quite a few travellers looking to take 6 to 7 day hikes up and down the small villages, accompanied by mules, porters and cooks, I was happy to recognise my own fitness level and go to the mountains for a day, which was challenging enough for me and extremely rewarding, over 3600 metres above sea level up in the mountains.
Aside from the dramatic landscape through mountain passes and waterfalls, the Simien Mountains are also the home of the unique Gelada Monkeys, hardly found anywhere else in the world. These rather docile monkeys can be found in large numbers at parts of the park, and their behaviour is very interesting, extremely different to other monkeys.
After a full day of trekking I was beat, and could hardly move any further. I admire the serious trekkers that would continue on for days... Certainly the views would be rewarding and make up for the strenuous treks that awaited.
Aksum, and the Tigray Church clusters
I continued moving up north, in Aksum, home of the ancient Aksumite civilisation and the many ruins that were left in excellent condition to be visited in the city. The biggest draw is the Stelae Park, where these concrete tombs seemed to reveal a lot of what was practised way back in Ethiopia's ancient days.
The road from Aksum to Tigray went via Adigrat – the closest city one could get to from the border with Eritrea, now closed for many years, and after the 1998 war. The scenery was indeed spectacular and the road, extremely windy and scary. Once again, the minivan ride was responsible for most of the fun, as locals took interest in me, my travels, and did their best to assist me in getting to my destination.
My next stop was Wakro, in the Tigray region. This region is visited a lot by travellers, as it has many clusters of the famous Rock-Hewn Churches distributed all around. Some of the clusters are easier to be accessed by independent travellers without a tour or on a group, but the area definitely lacks good transportation options, making it a bit challenging and costly for solo independent travellers, such as myself. Wakro was my first base of choice as I had read that from there it was possible to catch some local buses into nearby villages, from where long hikes could be taken in order to reach some of the churches.
On my first day, I visited the Tika Tesfaye cluster, hosting some of the oldest and better carved churches in the region. The hike was interesting, as it went through farm lands and beautiful paths. It was impossible to avoid the many kids following me and offering to guide me to the right path, so I ended up electing one to show me the way to the church. The final climb was a bit challenging, but nothing compared to some of these churches, where visitors need to climb for hours and finalise the climb by being assisted with a rope to reach the top.
Much to my luck, once I reached the church, the priest could easily be found, as they keep the key to the entrance and only come around when visitors approach. There are many reports of travellers taking strenuous hikes to in the end wait 3 to 4 hours for the priests to finally show up.
There is a fair bit of hassle in the Tigray area; everyone is always scamming foreigners for money. Even priests are reported to lock visitors inside churches until they agree to pay extra money, after having paid an already rather costly entry fee that must be paid for each visited church.
The churches’ construction are indeed impressive, but I honestly found them to be a lot more interesting to appreciate from the outside (they're hewn and carved on rocks, sometimes absurdly well hidden!) than from their inside, which looked like old, yet rather simple churches.
I took another local bus to a similar church, which was also interesting, but not half as interesting as the ride through the village itself.
After an exhausting day in Wukro, I moved into Hawzien the following day, as it was another well visited site for church clusters. But I was done with church-visiting for the time being, and was more interested in the dramatic landscape and the supposedly huge local market hosted every Wednesday in the town. The Gheralta area has a desert-like, arid nature all around it, and I chose to visit the nearby mountains in the back of a motorcycle this time around.
The market was indeed massive, and aside from the usual market things, it also received camel caravans coming with salt from the Danakil Depression in the east of Ethiopia. It was a rather interesting market to see. The area also hosts what is considered to be Ethiopia's finest lodge – the Gheralta Lodge, set in a bit of a mountain top, boasting splendid views of the area. Although I couldn't afford to stay there, I went there for dinner and to use WiFi, and ended up meeting a few really interesting people and having a great time overall.
Lalibela – Ethiopia's biggest attraction
It was finally time to visit Lalibela – probably the single most visited town in all of the country. It is there that the famous St Giorgi's Church can be found – an amazing display of an old church built on rocks, that even back in discovery days was enough to impress explorers when they first came across the town, and reported back to Portugal what had been found, in absolute awe.
Lalibela is set in the most beautiful region of Northern Ethiopia, in my opinion. The town itself is small, but there are many communities around it, in areas much greener and a lot lusher than the desert-like Tigray region.
It is a hefty entry fee to visit the church: USD $50 for a 3-day admission ticket!
The churches are divided into the south and northern complexes, but for me, once the actual Lalibela Church is seen, in all of its architectural magnificence, and set in the most beautiful landscape it could possibly be set, all other churches become somewhat uninteresting, As a big tourist town, the level of hassle coming from touts looking for business from tourists in Lalibela can be a big drawback.
I met several travellers that were sick of it, and I was getting to that level myself. What saved the day was the fact that nature is really out-of-this-world stunning, and when the atmosphere surrounding the town got to be a bit much, a nearby mountain hike to superb views would make me feel better and once again, happy to be there.
I was hosted in a local house for the two days I spent there, and spending time with a local family was also a very nice experience.
Saturday was market day, and what made this market so special was not its massive size and diversity, but the fact that it was set below a hill, and seating up the hill to observe market life from afar was a really rewarding way of spending a Saturday afternoon.
In a nutshell, this is the “beaten track” of travellers venturing into Northern Ethiopia: Addis-Bahar Dar-Gondar-Simien-Aksum-Tigray-Lalibela, whilst some adventurous travellers that can afford a bit more also choose to go into Mekele and, from there, start a trek to the Danakil Depression.
Even being on a popular backpacker route, one doesn't feel as if one is doing something too touristy, as very few backpackers are around. To me, this came as a bit of a surprise, as Ethiopia has become a popular destination, well talked about in the past few years. A really cool thing though, is that once I came across travellers, they were all really interesting and experienced ones, making sharing stories and experiences a highlight. Everyone seemed to share similar views about the scenery, the people, the hassle and the fact that few backpackers were around... It was interesting.
Northern Ethiopia and me - What I took away
Overall, Northern Ethiopia was a challenging, but interesting place to travel. Challenging for the level of hassle found in some areas, making it hard to keep enjoying the visit at times. But what was found there was definitely worth visiting, and whenever my patience started running a bit low, I reminded myself of just how precious everything I kept coming across truly was.
Ethiopia can certainly be visited in a less challenging way, by choosing to explore the region with a private driver (rather affordable) or through using any of the many reputable agencies offering group tours. But for experienced travellers with a fair amount of time to spare, willing to compromise on comfort and looking for a real travel experience (and all the hassle that comes with it, at times), it is a very rewarding experience, as overcoming the challenges and being able to enjoy the many rewards is a great feeling, and this feeling is becoming more difficult to find by the day, as the travel world is becoming more and more accessible, and in a way, losing its challenge aspect.
With a bit of extra patience and perseverance, a highly recommended destination that still offers great unique experiences.