It’s hard to overstate Ethiopia as a travel destination. It has fascinating and unique history and culture, sites to visit and activities to do, a combination of anthropological and wild natural beauty- in short, all the things you would look for, from a range of travel backgrounds. In addition, Ethiopian Airlines has a safe, wide-reaching and very economical domestic network making it easy to get from place to place. The cost of food, accomodation and activities are all very low, the country is safe and stable (with the exception of some border regions), and the Ethiopian peoples are, as a rule, gentle and friendly. And finally, while there is a significant tourism business here, the place is not overrun by ferengi, so you don’t need to feel like you’re part of a giant guided tour.
If that doesn’t entice you to come for a visit, let me give you a short and very non-exhaustive list of things you can do in Amhara Region, one of the more popular travel destinations.
Note: I’ve generally quoted prices in Birr. The exchange rate is roughly USD 1: ETB 18.
1. Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, UNESCO World Heritage listed, are possibly Ethiopia’s most famous tourist draw- and unsurprisingly-so. While the most famous of these- the cross-shaped Bete Giorgis (St George’s Church), sometimes refered to as the 8th Wonder of the World- features prominently in photographs, there are in fact a constellation of structure scattered around this small mountain village. The main dozen-or-so churches are clustered in three groups, all within easy walk of one another, carved into trenches out of the solid rock itself rather than constructed using bricks or blocks. They are connected by tunnels and passageways, worn by centuries of use (the churches are active to this day).
The churches themselves- St. Lalibela is said to have built the town and its icons around his memories of Jerusalem from time spent there in his youth- are tall and blocky, I suspect reminiscent of the Jewish Temple/Tarbernacle. In the Orthodox style, they have an outer area for the congregation, and then an inner sanctuary like the Holy Place, concealed behind a thick curtain, into which only priests can enter. Flash photography is forbidden, and shoes must be removed at the door. The insides are furnished with rugs and icons, dimly lit, some distinctly cavernous in mood.
The Lalibela churches, built in the 12th & 13th centuries, rate right up there with the most interesting and enjoyable archeological sites I’ve ever visited- right on a par with somewhere like Angkor Wat. Exploring the churches and passageways is a hoot, and in style true to the continent, there are no ropes or overly-cautious shepherding of visitors through set passageways. If you want to plunge to your death over a 50-foot rocky ledge, that’s your own dumb fault. We spent an afternoon and saw perhaps half the churches, but it was a rush job. I’d recommend you block out two days to take your time, explore the nooks and crannies, and really soak in the otherworldly atmosphere of this interesting place.
Lalibela village is probably the most touristed of Ethiopian locales, and because of its small size and big draw, it’s the one place in Ethiopia where you’re likely to trip over other foreigners. The kids will strike up conversation in any of the major tourist languages- I tried English, French and Spanish, and I suspect Italian and Russian are on the menu too- and will try the usual ways to get you to give them money- ask for foreign coins (we’re collecting coins for a school project), ask for footballs (we had a football team but the ball burst so now we can’t play), invite you home for coffee, or offer to guide you into the hills to see another church. They are harmless, and if you politely tell them to leave you alone (assuming you don’t want the banter, which can be entertaining), they generally will.
You can reach Lalibela by road, but most people fly in- there are a couple of flights daily to and from Addis, doing a loop via Gondar and Aksum. Shared minivans cost a set 70 Birr one-way for the 30-minute ride between the airport and the village, which is perched on a shoulder at around 2,500m above the valley. The ride is visually spectacular, as are the views from the village. A pass to visit all the churches costs 350 Birr and lasts for several days- you buy it at the tourist booth as you head into the first of the church complexes. You will be asked for it regularly, and if you get a pass with several friends, you’ll need to stay together (as I found out to my frustration). Guides are on offer and are entirely up to personal preference. The complex is self-explanatory and fun to explore alone, and we didn’t bother. There is plenty of material available online on the history of the churches, but if you want somebody to take you round and tell you stuff, that works too. Note that guides are of varying quality- and may spin things that aren’t true.
The Seven Olives Hotel, on the main road, has pleasant leafy gardens and a terrace overlooking the valley, and makes a lovely spot to have lunch. The Mountain View and the newer Cliff Edge Hotels have dramatic views from their exposed locations, the former with one of the towns better options for dinner. Consider booking, as it can get full during peak times.
2. Fasilides Castle, Gondar
When King Fasilides made Gondar the seat of his empire in the 1600s, he constructed a palace that would eventually sprawl into a large complex, as children and grandchildren added their own buildings to the compound. Set in the heart of what is now one of Ethiopia’s largest cities (still fairly small at around a quarter of a million people), the palace complex is a mixture of beautifully-preserved period architecture with European and Moorish influences, and rambling ruins.
Interestingly, Fasilides’ Castle itself is the best-preserved, and you can wander through its lower halls and explore its nooks and pockets. Elsewhere are reservoirs and steam-baths, the remains of kitchens and stables, even the enclosures for leopards and lions that used to grace the grounds. The place has a ramshackle feel in many ways, the buildings a little haphazard in their placing, but it makes for a great afternoon’s exploring.
As with Lalibela, guides are on offer (for a fee) but entirely optional. It’s fun and freeing just to explore by yourself, although again, if getting historical explanation is part and parcel of the experience for you, go for it. Entrance costs 100 Birr for a tourist, and will also give access to Fasilides’ baths, a ceremonial complex a five minute bajaj (tuk-tuk) ride away. The Castle sits by the Town Centre, where buses and taxis both drop off, and is hard to miss.
The Goha Hotel sits on top of a hill overlooking the town itself, and is a grand place to enjoy dinner and a drink (ideally a Daschen Beer, as their Brewery is in Gondar, so the stuff is fresh). I can’t comment on the rooms, but it looks like one of the town’s better hotels. There are plenty of cheaper options.
3. Blue Nile Falls
The Blue Nile- the shorter but higher-volume tributary of the Nile River vis-a-vis its chromatic counterpart, the White Nile- flows out of Lake Tana just a few kilometres north of Amhara’s administrative capital Bahir Dar. From there it flows thirty or forty kilometres eastward, and tumbles over a precipice. Its flow split between a hydro-electric power-station and the falls themselves, the flow over the falls can vary depending on season and the functioning of the power station, from not much more than a trickle, to a thundering wall of water 400m wide and up to 45m high.
I’ve seen the falls twice- once with the power-station turned off and water diverted over the waterfall, and once with lower flow. Both times were visually dramatic. The water spouts over and throws up a steady mist, creating swirling winds that gust over the little plateau at the falls’ base. A winding canyon is carved into the hillscape below the falls, and another narrow stream joins as well, over which is hung a suspension footbridge. It’s possible to walk almost to the base of the falls (although the mist makes it hard to take photos without spotting your lens), and it’s also possible to walk around to the very top of the falls (see earlier comment about lack of ropes and plunging to death). The view leaning out over the rock ledge above the cascading brown water is quite spectacular. When the water level is low, it’s also kind of fun walking in the ‘bed’ of the Nile to check out the falls.
It’s about a 45 minute picturesque car journey through open farmland from Bahir Dar to the falls- known locally as Tis Abay (Abay being the Amharic name for the Blue Nile). There is public transport (minivans), or alternatively, you can negotiate a hotel shuttle- we were quoted 800 Birr. Bajajs would struggle with the gravel road, and would probably take about 3 hours each way for the journey, so don’t try that option. In the small village of Tissisat, you pay an entrance fee (around 70 Birr, if I remember), then walk or drive to the river crossing about 500m upstream. A motor launch shuttles you across the channel for 10 Birr each way per person, and then it’s a 15 minute walk through gentle countryside to the site of the falls themselves. Children sell scarves and drinks at the top, but are generally good-natured and easily dissuaded.
There’s a second approach to the falls which involves a four-hour walk through local villages, coming up on the cascade from the other direction, which sounds like an enjoyable trip to make. I’d love to see the falls in flood, as I suspect it would be an awesome sight. None the less, the Blue Nile Falls should be a must-see on any Amharic agenda if you’re in Bahir Dar.
4. Lake Tana Monasteries
There are some sixty-odd Orthodox monasteries, apparently, scattered around Lake Tana. The Lake is Ethiopia’s biggest, source of the Blue Nile, and stretches northwards from Bahir Dar. The monasteries are situated around the lake’s edge, and on a number of small islets that dot the waters. And they’re open for business.
Checking out Lake Tana’s monasteries is one of the more unique things you can do in Ethiopia. I guess the idea behind any real monastery is an element of isolation or seclusion, but short of the needle-top monasteries of Meteora, in Greece, these guys really seem to be ahead of the curve. Started seven hundred years ago, these isolated little pockets of meditation are really worth checking out.
We visited three monasteries (all we had time for in a single afternoon). The first was at the mouth of the Nile, on what was said to be an island (though could also have been a little peninsula), surrounded by papyrus reeds, with a small village and an assortment of fruit trees to keep it company. The church at the heart of the complex was typical Orthodox style, a round shell with roof made from bamboo and leather strapping. The other two we visited were far more isolated, out in the centre of the shallow lake (Tana never gets deeper than 9m) on hilly little islets a couple of hundred metres across, if that. The sense of isolation was tangible, the natural beauty striking. It’d be hard to come up with a more idyllic place to spend ten years of your life meditating on scripture, if that’s your thing.
Getting out to the monasteries, you can hire a launch and driver from the lake’s edge in Bahir Dar. Rates vary by number of passengers, number of monasteries, and time. Three pax, three monastaries, and a good four hours or more on the water cost us about 700 Birr for the boat and driver. I’m sure that rate could be brought down with some good bargaining. Once you reach the islands, there is also an entry fee of 100 Birr per monastery. We hired a guide at the first stop (not knowing the protocol) for about 150 Birr, found him to be useless and factually vague, and also noted that after that first stop, there were no more guides available, so really, I wouldn’t recommend getting a guide. The two things worth noting: First, take your shoes off before entering the churches, and second, the inner sanctuary is holy, and non-Priests cannot enter, so don’t.
All up, factoring in driver, boat and entry fees, by Ethiopian standards, it’s a pretty pricey day. As much as the islands themselves, the journey is a big part of the fun, and we enjoyed lounging on our little boat in the choppy afternoon winds, chatting, dozing and enjoying the sunshine. It’s a relaxed, slow-paced and memorable half-day trip, highly recommended.
5. Flying Gondar-Aksum-Lalibela
Ethiopia’s domestic airways can be a bit of a shuttle-run, with short hops between multiple towns en route to your destination, and I was initially disappointed to find that our jump from Gondar to Lalibela- a very short flight in a straight line- first went via Aksum, almost on the Eritrean border. Each leg of the flight in the 80-seater Bombardier Q400 lasted just over 30 minutes. And the scenery was epic.
The flight takes you over the top of the Simien Mountains, to the north of Gondar. The mountains are sheer, craggy, riven by improbably deep valleys and split by rock walls that rise giddyingly out of the shadows. They’re a breathtaking view, and I spent the flight with my face glued to the window.
Approaching Aksum, the scenery is a dry patchwork of terraces and smallholdings set against a jagged horizon, also eye-popping. The leg from there South-East towards Lalibella skirts further to the east of the Simiens (still very visible as you fly past), and then the terrain breaks into a vast jumble of flat-topped hills and steep gullies, almost uninhabited and truly some of the wildest, most inaccessible landscape you can picture. Once clearly an upland plateau and now eroded by eons of flowing water, it’s a scene that leaves itself burned on your memory.
The plane flies at around 20,000 feet, but given that the landscape is already up at around 8-10,000 feet in places, it means you’re not so far off the ground, and at this time of year, the sky is cloudless. Sitting on the right-hand side of the plane (seat L) and far forward or far back gives the best view. I recommend 11L, which is right at the front on the right, and by good fortune was what I was given without realising the treat that was in store. None the less, despite being just a part of the travel process, the two flight legs became one of the strongest memories of that particular trip.
From a cost perspective, the itinerary Addis Ababa-Bahir Dar, then Gondar-Lalibela-Addis Ababa, came to a total of $160.
5 Quick Travel Tips
1. Public transportation has a fixed price. While taxis and bajajs will try and fleece you (and, given how cheap everything else is in Ethiopia, boy are they pricey), there’s usually a fixed cost for minivans that doesn’t require bartering, and doesn’t change between locals and ferengi. It’s worth finding out this price ahead of time, on the offchance that you do meet an unscrupulous tout on a minivan or some-such. The prices are generally pretty cheap for intercity travel. The 3-hour journey from Bahir Dar to Gondar costs 65 Birr ($3.60). The van from Lalibela airport to Lalibela town, by contrast, was 70 Birr for a half-hour trip- captive market. As a footnote, do bear in mind that the intercity minivans are a fairly unsafe form of travel- they roll and crash regularly, with high fatality rates.
2. Bring toilet paper. This one’s a no-brainer for anybody who’s travelled in the third world. But trust me, Ethiopia’s one of the worst offenders when it comes to disgruntled bowels- some combination of a relatively poor country, and high altitude (meaning water doesn’t necessarily sterilized when boiled due to the fact that water boils at a lower temperature at altitude; it’s the same reason so many people get sick in Nepal). I haven’t yet met anyone who’s spent any significant time out here and not had a bout of gastro of one form or another (myself included), and some of it’s nasty. While higher quality hotels will probably have toilet paper, cheaper places won’t (and practice your squat for the latrines). Of course, at the risk of going the TMI route, it should be pointed out that if you find yourself on round six or seven for the night cleaning yourself, some water and your left hand is far more soothing to tender areas than another scrape of dry paper. Just wash well.
Also, bring antibiotics.
3. Local ID gets cheaper rates. Often. Not always. But if you’re lucky enough to be in posession of a residency permit, even a temporary one, hotels will often discount room-rates (not as much as for an Ethiopian, but it’s a start), and you can also enter some tourist facilities at a reduced rate too.
4. Beware the cultural restaurant. Ethiopian dancing is pretty amazing stuff. And the music is interesting too. I really do recommend checking out one of the high-quality cultural restaurants in Addis Ababa- some place like Yod Abyssinia just off TeleBole Rd, for example. The dancers are energetic and skillful, and though the music is about 40dB too loud, it’s an unforgettable experience.
Unfortunately, there is an assumption that a tourist in Ethiopia must want to be serenaded in this fashion every time they eat. At restaurants frequented by ferengi, expect to find traditional performers, many of whom can be quite lacklustre, and whose musical escapades will leave your ears ringing. It makes conversation very difficult. They usually hit around the 6.30-8pm mark, so eating early or late can mitigate this particular travel hassle which, I’d have to say, our little posse found far more intrusive to our holiday pleasure than the kids approaching us for conversation and money.
5. Warm clothes/layers. At this time of year (December), Ethiopia’s pretty chilly. And by that I mean cold. At night time anyway. Days can be deceptively warm. The air is still and the sun bright, and you’ll want to be in short sleeves (with sunscreen) or thinly covered (as dress standards may dictate in places like monastaries). But within half an hour of sunset, you can expect the air to have a real bite. Most of these places are well above 2,000m (6,000ft) and this might be Africa, and not far off the equator, but it’s downright frigid at night time.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, Ethiopia is pretty cheap, especially compared to the rest of Africa. To give you an idea, if you eat at western-style restaurants, unless you’re staying in a spa resort, you can expect to pay well less than 100 Birr ($5.50) for a main, and no more than 30 Birr ($1.65) for a beer or soft-drink (imported wine is more expensive- 400-800 Birr ($22-44) for a bottle of South African, for example). Eating at restaurant targeting local Ethiopians, you can get away with a total meal cost of less than 40 Birr ($2.20), including soft drink (though you do need to watch food hygeine if your constitution isn’t bomb-proof). Three of us regularly ate at nice hotel-restaurants and generally paid less than 300 Birr ($16.65) for the full tab- and we weren’t trying to keep the cost down in the slightest.
Hotels vary with quality. Staying at a local pension, a small room with a toilet might go for under 200 Birr ($11) a night, a room without a toilet 150 Birr ($8.30) or less (I have paid 70 Birr- $3.80- for one such). At the better end, you can get a decent, clean and moderately-well appointed room (3-star standard in a good location) for 6-800 Birr ($33-44) in one of the better quality hotels in any of these places.
5 More Things to See and Do in Amhara Region
I’m hoping to have the chance to do more travel in the area, as there are still plenty of things I haven’t had a chance to check out yet. Among them:
1. Hike the Simien Mountains. From what people say, this is the thing to do in Ethiopia- possibly alongside the Lalibela churches. The scenery is apparently breathtaking (I can believe it, from what I saw from the air), and everybody who has done it has raved about it.
2. Hike the Lalibela area. There are apparently walks in the hills, as well as churches away from the town itself. The landscape around Lalibela is rugged and beautiful, and they say it also greens up during the rainy season. I’m keen to try this out.
3. Aksum. This isn’t technically Amhara- it’s in Tigray Region- but it’s easily accessible from Gondar and the Simiens find themselves halfway between Gondar and Aksum. There’s supposedly more UNESCO World Heritage goodness with the remnants of the ancient Aksumite Kingdom, and the landscape makes me want to check it out.
4. Gondar Area Castles. As well as Fasilides and his mob, I understand there are more old castles, forts and/or churches in the Gondar area. The terrain is just beautiful round there as well, so it would be well worth an explore over a couple of days.
5. Explore the Southern Hinterlands. South of Bahir Dar, there’s not much by way of tourist infrastructure, but I was lucky enough to drive through it on field visits. The landscape is lush and dramatic, and it would be a fantastic place to spend several days idling through, taking photos, and soaking in the slow pace.