Ethiopia is one of the best places you could visit as a backpacker for many reasons. You have diverse cultures, different landscapes, a rich history, decent food, plenty of adventure, and it’s cheap to travel. In fact it is one of the most fascinating countries you could see in Africa, if not the world.
It’s surprising then that it doesn’t have a bigger backpacker scene. But then the lack of more travellers adds to its charm, and the ones you do meet tend to be of a similar mindset of escaping the more popular places.
It may be in part to an image problem that the country picked up in the 1980’s, with pictures of starving people in an undesirable climate. The reality is that you will see poverty, but the images of the past are changing to one of hope and optimism.
Visiting and spending money into the economy will help it progress forward into a happier future.
Before I get started I want to highly recommend this guidebook on Ethiopia. It’s the best guidebook I have read on any country and if you were to buy any book about Ethiopia then this is it. I would even go as far as saying it is a must buy before visiting –
The Beautiful Landscapes.
Ignore that thought you may have of dry, dusty deserts. Yes it does have those in abundance, but it’s only a part of the vastly changing landscape.
Imagine green rolling hills heading up into towering mountain peaks. Deep green forests bursting with life. Volcanic plains. You will see them all.
In the north there are the Simien Mountains, a perfect hiking destination. There you can disappear into the mist and come across the gelada monkeys that inhabit the mountain range, as well as other wildlife.
The north part of Ethiopia is very green and fertile. The impressive Blue Nile Falls are located there, and the nearby Lake Tana is great for relaxing around.
The vast desert areas are mostly in the east, where you will come across the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on earth. The area is surrounded by salt flats and active volcanoes, and is insanely hot. But the remoteness and harsh landscape just make it more of a unique place to visit.
To get there you will need to be with a group of cars for safety reasons, as breaking down would be very bad to say the least. Traders collect slabs of salt and take them out on camel trains from the region to be sold in the markets. It’s highly regarded.
The south is home to forests full of wildlife, and some mountain ranges. There are dry landscapes punctuated with some trees and bush which can be found in the west of the country. In the south-east it’s very harsh desert.
Crocodile infested rivers are also around, where you can cross in small wooden canoes that barely float. Very nerve racking when you see the crocodiles on the banks go into the water and disappear.
Having reached the other side sweltering heat awaits you in the forest and tough terrain.
Travel around there can be very difficult.
The People and Food.
There are so many different groups of people in Ethiopia, it could feel like you are seeing many different countries. From the remote tribes of the south in the Omo Valley (see woman in picture at beginning of post), to the muslims of the far east in Harar, the Afar tribe in the deserts, and many others.
Most of the people will be curious to meet you and welcoming. Depending which part of the country you are in more will be welcoming than others. The more remote places are definitely the friendliest.
Like every country you will get some who are not so nice, and in Ethiopia it is mostly the hassle you get from touts and children/teenagers begging that are the biggest nuisance. But you can look past that and delve deeper into the mindset of most Ethiopians and see an amazing cultural people.
You will see the orthodox Ethiopian christians in abundance at places like Lalibela, Tigray, and Lake Tana regions of the north, as well as others.
I always say that it’s the people and food that make a place special, and everything else is a bonus. That can certainly be said for Ethiopia.
As far as the food goes you will find injera covered in all kinds of spiced vegetables. Injera is a kind of sour pancake, and is found almost everywhere. Be sure to try one at a good restaurant at least once.
There are also plenty of goat and lamb dishes, some of which are served up in huge communal pans to be eaten with hands.
If you enjoy coffee then welcome to absolute heaven. Ethiopia is where it originates from, and many times you will be welcomed with a free cup, and when you do have to pay it costs almost nothing.
They even do a beautiful coffee ceremony where they roast the beans in front of you.
Backpackers Love an Adventure.
Backpacking Ethiopia will lead you to see so many different environments, and find some adventurous activities. In the historic muslim city of Harar in the east you can feed wild hyenas . A man who deals with them regularly calls for them when the sun sets and they come creeping slowly towards you.
As long as there is meat to feed the hyenas they wont be interested in having a bite of you. Want to know what it feels like to have one of the strongest jaws on earth snapping a piece of meat 30cm from your face from a stick in your teeth, then that is where to go.
The Danakil Depression is the ultimate in adventure. Hot remote desert, local Afar tribes, and active volcanoes to climb. When you head into this region you need to have several soldiers escort you for safety against rebels from Eritrea.
Fancy scouting with a group of soldiers like a ghost in the dark up a volcano that is still active? You can. Seeing the beauty of the lava boiling away in the top of the crater is mesmerising. You can read about that here.
In the Simien Mountains of the north you can go hiking, where you will be able to get up close with large families of gelada monkeys. Hanging out with them in the often misty mountains is an unforgettable wildlife experience.
Hiking in the region is also perfect as long as you get the right weather.
The south is perfect to get lost in the remote tribal regions of the Omo Valley. Tours go there but are expensive, and it can be much more fun to go with a small group of travellers hitch-hiking in, and then walking between the villages and staying with the various tribal people. I wrote about how you can do that trip here.
There are many more adventures to be had, you just have to go looking for them.
A Fascinating History.
The legend of the Queen of Sheeba comes from the north of the country where there are many ancient remains of settlements. Indeed the region around the town of Aksum is covered in old remains. This is also where the Ark of the Covenant is supposedly kept in a church. Indiana Jones anyone?
The area is also home to the rock churches and monasteries of Tigray, built high into the sides of mountains with beautiful vistas. It can be very adventurous getting to some of them, with having to climb up steep cliff faces by rope, and walk on narrow planks of wood with a straight drop down.
Further south is Lalibela, one the historical highlights of Ethiopia. Here the rock churches are built into the ground, and you enter sometimes through tunnels, moving around in the dark.
At Lake Tana there are monasteries containing ancient manuscripts of the orthodox Ethiopian church. You have to take a boat to reach some on remote small islands, seeing fishermen out on their traditional canoes. The castles of Gondar are nearby a little further north, an impressive network of intertwined structures that are labelled Africa’s camelot.
The city of Harar is home to old muslim buildings and traditions, Then there is the many different cultures of the tribes scattered around in the south.
In fact there is enough history to satisfy anyone.
Backpacking Ethiopia is Cheap.
Yes the holy grail of backpackers is cheap travel, and Ethiopia is one of the cheapest you can find. Staying in budget hotels, eating food such as injera, taking local transport and so on, you could get by on as little as $15 a day, even less. But that would be living very frugally, and you would want to spend a little more sometimes to do things..
But that’s just to give you an idea on how cheap it can be. If you end up getting out to places like the Danakil Depression then that will cost you a lot more as there is no public transport.
Go to Ethiopia.
Hopefully this has persuaded you to think about having an adventure in a country that deserves more attention than it gets. It truly is one of the most fascinating places you could end up visiting.
You can find read more about Ethiopia with my guide to the best things to do in Ethiopia.
I highly recommend this guidebook to Ethiopia –
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