Backpacking Ethiopia is one of the best travel experiences I have had, so I’ve put together this detailed Ethiopia travel guide for other backpackers.
Ethiopia is cheap, full of changing landscapes, many different cultures, and very historically rich. Perfect for backpackers.
I spent 2 months exploring all over and it’s one of the highlights of all my travels. I often recommend it as one of the best countries to see in Africa, if not the world.
I’ve done various posts about Ethiopia over the years but have never put into one post all of the best experiences you can have. Now I have. Also included:
A good backpacking route for 2 weeks of travel there (the average time most travellers spend).
Backpacking in Ethiopia costs and safety.
I will start with some of the best things you can do in Ethiopia with links in relevant sections to more specific articles on that region.
There are a lot of photos in this post to give a good visual guide for the regions, but being so many it may take a while to load so please bear with it.
The best guidebook I have used for the country is the Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guide). I highly recommend you get one for your trip.
Ethiopia Travel Guide For Backpackers
1. The Danakil Depression Tour
Not only one of the most awesome places in Ethiopia, but in the world. An absolutely stunning other-worldly alien landscape of volcanic lava flows, active volcanoes, salt flats and remote Afar tribal people.
It’s one of the hottest places on earth and the dry heat sucks the moisture right out of your body.
You descend from the Ethiopian highlands into an arid barren landscape with salt flats that go for as far as the eye can see. Further on near the border with Eritrea you pick up some soldiers for security against rebels.
With the soldiers accompanying, you climb up an old lava flow to the top of an active volcano where you sleep overnight.
One of the most remote and surreal places ever.
This is a link to a more detailed post on the Danakil Depression tour.
2. The Rock Churches of Tigray
Set in the north of Ethiopia this landscape is full of old churches and monasteries carved into the rock of mountains and rocky outcrops. They date back to the 4th century onwards and are culturally very rich.
But it’s not just the history that makes this region one of the best in Ethiopia –
It’s the beautiful landscape and peaceful atmosphere.
To get to many of the churches and monasteries of Tigray you will have to scramble up the side of mountains and climb up ropes to reach the top. A priest will show you the ancient frescoes and paintings in the churches. Baboons jump around and eagles fly overhead. The villages are also great to walk around as there are many friendly locals.
Renting a car with other travellers is the best way to cover the scenery.
The most popular area in Ethiopia for rock churches is Lalibela which gets more attention than Tigray, but personally I enjoyed the Tigray region better as there is less hassle. There are open spaces between everything, and just more peaceful and stunning.
Lalibela is not in the same place as Tigray but I had to mention it. It’s still a very fascinating area to see though and you should take a look if around there.
3. The Blue Nile Falls
One of the large tributaries of the great Nile river, the Blue Nile Falls is place to escape the busy towns and cities and get into nature.
Hiking to the falls you pass through chilled out villages where the locals will be happy to see you and often join you for the walk. Passing over a rope bridge with thunderous water underneath you reach the side to descend to the spray enveloping the land around you.
This is one of Africas more spectacular sites.
It’s only 30km away from Lake Tana and is an easy hike from the main road. There’s not much to do there except enjoy the view and relax meeting the villagers. Combining a stay at Lake Tana with a visit here is a must do in Ethiopia.
4. Omo Valley Tribes
This is not only a seriously adventurous place to go to, but has more of an “African feel” than other parts of Ethiopia.
A journey here to stay with the local tribes and live amongst them attending age old rituals and hiking across the stunning landscape will seriously blow your mind. I could say this is not only one of my favourite places in Ethiopia but also one of the best in Africa.
Most people take tours to the region as it’s the easy option, but you don’t have to do that if you have time to spare. Here’s a link to a article about the area and how you can visit the tribes of the Omo Valley cheaply.
5. The Simien Mountains and the Castles of Gondar
Hiking in the Simien Mountains is the best hiking I did in Ethiopia.
When I visited parts were shrouded in mist and so the view was obscured sometimes, but in ways this actually made the time there better. Large groups of gelada baboons which are unique to the area would come wandering out of the mist. You can hang out sitting near them and watching them up close.
On clear days I have been told that the views are absolutely breath-taking. Even if the weathers bad go there for the baboons.
In the nearby town of Gondar, which is used as a jumping of point to the Simiens, you can see the Gondar Castles from a kingdom long ago. There are many castles in a complex in the centre of town, each built by different kings of the realm. It feels like a fantasy land.
There is also an ancient church nearby looked after by a priest. The whole place is set in the highlands of Ethiopia.
6. Mystical Lake Tana
Monasteries that have carried relics from the time of the birth of Christianity are located on small islands in Ethiopia’s largest lake, Lake Tana. Ancient Ethiopian emperors have been laid to rest there.
You can only get to many of the monasteries by boat and you should pass by fishermen en-route still using traditional reed boats. Although not a hardcore adventure place, the cultural significance of the place for Ethiopian’s make it worth the effort .
Combine the lake monasteries with a trip to the nearby Blue Nile Falls.
7. The Ancient City of Harar and Feeding Wild Hyenas
Located far in the east near the border of Somaliland Harar has a more Muslim influence.
The best part of the place is the Harar old city with winding alleys full of people selling things in the narrow market places. Many different cultures have left their mark on the city such as Indian and Arab traders. Visit here to feel a different vibe from the rest of Ethiopia.
The adventurous thing to do is to feed wild hyenas in Harar. Almost every night a man, known suitably enough as the hyena man, makes noises like the hyenas to draw them to the outside of the old city walls.
Although the hyenas are wild and live in nature you can tell that they are used to being fed there so are not completely ferocious.
However having a stick put in your mouth with a piece of meat on the end and having a hyena come and snap it of only inches from your face gets the heart racing. After all the hyenas have the second most powerful jaw of any land creature in Africa.
8. Aksum Tombs and the Lost Ark of the Covenant
Time to get your Indiana Jones adventure fantasy on.
Aksum is full of ancient tombs of old emperors and the queen of Sheba dating to biblical times. It’s also said to be the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant in a church there.
In legend King Solomon and Queen Sheba’s son brought the Lost Ark of the covenant to Ethiopia after the Babylonians destroyed King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.
This is a tomb raider fantasy trip as 90% of hidden tombs are still to be found. As it is you can descend into the earth to see the tombs that have been discovered.
9. Ethiopian Food and Coffee
Ethiopian food has been described as some of the best in Africa and I agree to an extent. The various spices in the food give it great flavour and I really enjoyed that part of it.
The big problem is the injera bread that comes with every meal. It’s an acquired taste as it’s sour tasting. Personally I didn’t like it but that didn’t put me off munching up the tasty main courses. Ethiopian food is second only to Swahili food o the Kenyan coast for me as far as food in Eastern Africa goes.
Did you know that coffee originates from Ethiopia?
They have a coffee ritual that they often do before giving you your coffee. Part of it involves them waving a scoop full of hot roasted coffee beans under your nose. For the coffee lover it’s paradise. But if you like your coffee without sugar be sure to tell them as they will put a serious amount in otherwise.
Enjoying the cheap coffee and food is one of the best things about travelling around Ethiopia.
10. The People
Last but definitely not least is the people you will meet. It’s such a culturally rich and diverse country that you will see many different ways of life. I met so many friendly people.
Oh sure there are hassles in parts, but overall the Ethiopians are a welcoming group of people and I had such a great time with them.
I’m sure you will have a great time to.
Backpacking Ethiopia Route
This is all time dependant. If you have unlimited time you can explore the whole country!
If you are travelling on a budget then it’s best to go everywhere by bus. Although not comfortable it’s the cheapest option (outside of hitch-hiking, which is not common). Otherwise if you have the money then you can fly between destinations and it’s surprisingly not that expensive and saves you a lot of time.
If you are mostly interested in historical things with a bit of nature involved then you would be best to do the so called northern route.
This would involve leaving Addis Ababa (the capital) and heading to Bahir Dar, the town next to Lake Tana. See Lake Tana and the nearby Blue Nile Falls before going north to Gondar where you can see the castles followed by hiking in the Simien Mountains.
Keep going north to Aksum to explore the tombs and organise a car to take you around the rock churches of Tigray, before heading down to Lalibela and then back to Addis Ababa. If you have the time and money spare then take 5 days to go into the Danakil Depression to the east of Tigray.
If you are travelling by bus and going reasonably fast then you could do this whole northern route in around 2 weeks, but it would be rushed. If you add on a trip to the Danakil Depression then it would be around 3 weeks total.
If it’s pure adventure that you’re after then it’s time to get into the Danakil Depression and the Omo Valley. It doesn’t matter which one you choose first they are both situated at different ends of the country. Read the links I provided in those specific sections for longer posts on how to organise a visit to these areas.
Visiting the Danakil Depression and Omo Valley is also one of the best options if you are interested in tribal people as the Omo Valley is full of different tribes and the Danakil Depression has the Afar tribe. Both culturally fascinating to meet.
Doing the Danakil Depression out of Addis Ababa would take just under a week on a tour, but the Omo Valley could take anywhere from at least 5 days to many weeks, depending how much you want to explore and hang out with the tribes. If rushing you could do both in 2 weeks.
Otherwise if you have the time to spare and like slow travel then spend several weeks travelling everywhere 🙂
Backpacking Ethiopia Costs
Ethiopia is really cheap to travel around and you can keep the costs of backpacking in Ethiopia really low. Most backpackers I met on the road there were travelling by bus and staying at budget hotels and doing the same activities I did.
As this is a post mostly for backpackers and not those travelling with more money I will just stick to the cheaper end of the spectrum.
To keep it simple if you just wanted to travel around by bus, stay at cheap hotels, eat street food mostly, and not get up to much then you can spend around $15 a day.
Add into that some activities and you can make that up to $25 a day. For example visiting the castles of Gondar would cost you around $7 entrance.
Plus on many of the excursions, such as hiking in the Simien Mountains and visiting the Omo Valley you will want to take a guide that would cost around $25 a day average. If you are with a group it will be cheaper for you obviously.
The biggest expense I did in Ethiopia was visiting the Danakil Depression which was unavoidable as it’s extremely hard to get deep into that region without your own car without being on a tour. I wrote more about that in the link to the Danakil Depression article.
Backpacking Ethiopia Safety
Travel in Ethiopia is generally safe except for some certain regions.
If you visit the Danakil Depression you will need to have an escort of soldiers for protection from possible Eritrean rebels. Also in the far south-west there are sometimes violent disputes between Kenyan and Ethiopian tribes.
However as a general backpacker you won’t encounter and of these problems and the most you would have to worry about is being robbed in Addis Ababa as it’s a big city.
I have only heard of one report of robbery in Ethiopia so as a rule I wouldn’t worry so much about safety in Ethiopia.
Backpacking Alone in Ethiopia
As far as backpacking alone in Ethiopia, especially as a solo female traveller it is easy enough to find others to travel with at budget hotels in Addis Ababa.
Or try on forums such as the Lonely Planet thorn tree to see if you can meet up with people.
I went to Ethiopia alone but met others easily to travel with.
When To Go Backpacking in Ethiopia
Many travellers such as myself tend to last minute visiting places so anytime technically would be ok, but don’t have the image that Ethiopia is warm and dry all the time.
Some of the best areas to explore are in the lush green highlands where it can get cold at night and rain during winter. Plus visiting somewhere like the Danakil Depression or Omo Valley will be very hot during summer.
Both times I visited Ethiopia for the 2 months total were in August which is part of the rainy season. the rainy season generally lasts from June through to September.
Having said that I didn’t have to much trouble with the rain except around Lake Tana and the Simien Mountains. I would like to go back and visit at a different time of year next time.
Go Backpacking in Ethiopia
Go and see one of the best travellers countries in the world. Yes there is some hassle there, the transport is hard to get around, and poverty in parts can be sad to see.
Ethiopia is such a beautiful country with interesting people, culture, history, and landscapes, that it should be high on your bucket list of destinations to visit.
If you’re heading to Ethiopia and wandering what to pack then check out my post on what I pack for travelling. I have used this gear list for my backpacking trip in Ethiopia.
The Bradt Travel Guide to Ethiopia is one of the best guidebooks I have used and I highly recommend it. You can purchase it through this link to Amazon.
Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides)
Check for places to stay in Ethiopia –
I hope you have a great time in Ethiopia and this post helped you in planning your trip there.
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