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Backpacking In Ethiopia Travel Guide

Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating countries to go backpacking in and is one of my personal favourite countries in the world to travel to.

After spending two months there I’ve put together this detailed Ethiopia travel guide.

Ethiopia is full of changing landscapes, many different cultures, and very historically rich, as well as being cheap to travel for those on a budget.

Ethiopia’s beautiful places are everywhere.

Ethiopia is perfect for backpacking around.

I spent two months backpacking in Ethiopia to most of what the country has to offer.

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 never put into one post all of the best experiences there is to do there.

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 depending on your internet connection,  so bear with it.

The Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression is 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 the 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.

A Danakil Depression tour is highly recommended and although not cheap is definitely worth it and will be one of the best things you do in Ethiopia.

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.

Volcanic activity danakil depression backpacking Ethiopia
Volcanic activity.
Soldier stands guard.
Soldier stands guard.
The active volcano at night.
The active volcano at night.
Soldiers and guide taking a rest on the old lava field during the hike down.
Soldiers and guide taking a rest on the old lava field during the hike down.

This is a link to a more detailed post on the Danakil Depression tour.

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.

Beautiful scenery.
Man reads scripture at monastery.
backpacking Ethiopia
People climb up rock escarpment to pray in church at top as the sun sets.
Remote monastery on top of rocky outcrop.
Remote monastery on top of rocky outcrop.
Lalibela rock church backpacking Ethiopia
Lalibela rock church.
Lalibela rock church.
Lalibela rock church.

The Blue Nile Falls 

One of the large tributaries of the great Nile river, the Blue Nile Falls is a 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.

Blue Nile falls backpacking Ethiopia
Blue Nile Falls.
A narrow rope bridge to get across a gorge on the way to the falls. It’s also used by farmers for their animals.
A small village in the area.

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 an easy option, but you don’t have to do that if you have time to spare.

Here’s a link to an article about the area and how you can visit the tribes of the Omo Valley cheaply.

Tribal woman in one of the remotest parts of the Omo.
Tribal men and women gather for a ceremony.
A narrow wooden canoe used for taking you across a crocodile infested river.
Men paint their faces in preparation for a ritual ceremony.


Take travel insurance!

Seriously the last thing you need is to have a medical incident somewhere on an adventure as it will normally cost loads to get treated. 

I had a very bad medical incident happen to me when backpacking in India and thankfully travel insurance covered all the costs. I recommend using SafetyWing Travel Insurance for your trip, just in case, it’s best to be prepared.

Get a backpackers insurance quote:

The Simien Mountains and the Castles of Gondar

Trekking in the Simien Mountains is the best trekking in Ethiopia I did.

The Simien Mountains weather can change a lot and 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.

backpacking Ethiopia Simien Mountains.
Part of the Simien Mountains.
Gelada monkeys in the mountains.
Children appear out of the mist.
Gondar castles.
Gondar castles.
One of the bigger castles.

You can easily organise a Simien Mountains tour in Gondar.

Mystical Lake Tana in Ethiopia

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.

Traditional reed boat on Lake Tana.
Traditional reed boat on Lake Tana.
Lake Tana monastery.
Lake Tana monastery.

Ancient Harar City

Located far in the east near the border of Somaliland Harar in Ethiopia 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.

Gateway to Harar old town.
Gateway to Harar old town.
Old town market.
Old town market.
The hyenas gather from the wild to eat.
Scary :P
Scary 😛

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.

Obelisks scatter the landscape.
The church they say holds the Ark of the Covenant.
Entering a tomb.
Entering a tomb.
Obelisks. Like a fairytale land.

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 a 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.

Preparing the coffee.
Coffee ceremony.
Coffee ceremony.
Injera with spices.
Injera with spices.
Small cut up pieces of meat in spices.
Small cut up pieces of meat in spices, my favourite.
Plenty of goat meat called tibs when they fry it in a large pan.

The People of Ethiopia

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.

Ethiopia Itinerary

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 things to do in Ethiopia 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.

Ethiopia Budget

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.

Ethiopia Travel Safety

Backpacking 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 in Ethiopia Alone

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 Travel 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 was 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 too much trouble with the rain except around Lake Tana and the Simien Mountains weather. I would like to go back and visit at a different time of year next time.

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.

Ethiopia is easily one of the best countries to visit in Africa.

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)

I recommend using SafetyWing Travel Insurance for your trip, just in case, it’s best to be prepared.

I hope you have a great time backpacking in Ethiopia and that this post helped you in planning your trip there.

If you liked this article about backpacking Ethiopia I would appreciate you sharing it –

14 thoughts on “Backpacking In Ethiopia Travel Guide”

  1. Wow, your trip looks amazing! I really loved reading about our trip and how you more or less did it on your own. I would love to do something similar and was so excited when I came across your blog when I was researching what to do in Ethiopia!

    I am planning to go to Ethiopia at the end of August for 2 weeks and was wondering if you have any safety tips? I am a 22 year old female. I have traveled to many European countries alone, but never anywhere like Ethiopia.
    I was also wondering where you found your guide? Or the soldiers you hired for the Danakil Depression… I am planning to try and meet a couple other fellow travelers and make our way up from Addis Ababa together, see some villages… just really experience as much of Ethiopia and culture as possible (while staying safe). Any recommendations would be awesome! So far all I’ve gotten are very expensive tour companies who arrange everything for you (which is not honestly how I like to travel – takes away half the experience).


  2. Thank you so much for this guide! I am finishing a trip through East/Southern Africa in October and I have been debating whether to end it in DRC or Ethiopia (money won’t allow for both since the must do’s cost a fortune). In the end, I decided to do the DRC and to return to do Ethiopia and Sudan next year once I save up, but this article is making me re-think! I’ll probably still do the Congo, but will definitely be back here for more Ethiopia inspiration. Wish you more wonderful travels

  3. I’m jealous 🙂 I always wanted to go to the DRC as well…. someday. But for sure try to get to Ethiopia sometime, it’s awesome! Let me know how DRC goes.

  4. Hi, sorry for late reply. I met solo female travellers there and they had no problems, it’s just common sense like anywhere. Addis Ababa you need to keep an eye out for sure, even myself I was avoiding certain places. It should be easy to meet other travellers in Addis Ababa and arrange a tour together there. Read my post about the Danakil Depression and you can see how I recommend doing it. Have fun!!!

  5. Hi,
    Your guide is very complete and extremely interesting to read .
    I was wondering if you have contact of potential guide back to Ethiopia. I’m going next year for two months at the end of July and we would like to do the Historic route (Addis Abeba + North west ).

  6. Hello Jonny!
    it is the best blog so far I’ve read about backpacking to Ethiopia! Going there to see the Nile River Falls is always my dream. I see you said you have travelled twice to Ethiopia, (is it correct?) and the things you have kindly shared here are the summary of two trips are they? I think I may not have the capacity to travel too long due to my work, what would you recommend to include in the trip of 21 days in Ethiopia? Blue Nile is a must to me, are the other destinations you’ve shown are accessible within that short period of time? and would you think September could be a good season? thank you again for your very insightful sharing! i look forward to hearing from you! big hug from Berlin. Shania

  7. Hi Shania! Yes this was done on two trips, but I took my time. You can easily do all of this in 21 days if you rush. Otherwise take out either the Danakil Depression tour, Omo Valley trip, or Harar, to free up some days to slow down in other places.

  8. Sweet Jesus I’m sold on Ethiopia. I actually just saw the Danakil Depression on the documentary ‘One Strange Rock’, now on Netflix, and I didn’t believe it would be possible to backpack there. I’m SO doing this now!

  9. Super informative and insightful post. The landscapes look otherworldly. Ethiopia is worth a visit – definitely in my plans.

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