Before You Go
The weather in most of Ethiopia is cooler than you might think due to high elevations. Your Ethiopia Packing list should include layers and fleece.
Get in shape if you’re planning to hike Danakil’s volcano or in Simien National Park. Even the altitude in Addis Ababa may leave you breathless.
If you’re short on time in Ethiopia, book all your tours, drivers, and guides but be aware you will pay top dollar when booking abroad.
Map out your trip by narrowing down the places you want to visit.
Where to Visit
Don’t miss Danakil Depression – one of the most incredible places I ever visited. Make sure you check out the volcano status (sometimes the lava isn’t flowing) and security situation before you go.
Decide if Omo Valley is really for you – not everyone will appreciate this destination.
Harar is still a bit off the tourist circuit and you can do something unique and feed the hyenas.
The churches of Tigray are another spot you can get away from the crowds.
If doing the Northern Circuit, don’t miss Simien National Park. Even a day trip is enough to get a good taste of this park and see the famous, interesting Gelada monkeys.
Hawassa was a nice surprise and great place for relaxation. Sit by the lake, enjoy the views and the beers.
Like most of Africa, the tap water is not potable. Drink bottled water.
Or better yet, use a filter bottle and save the environment by avoiding disposable plastic. This is one of my favorite travel accessories:
Malaria and other diseases are present in Ethiopia. Talk to your travel doctor before traveling.
You also need to have the Yellow Fever vaccination, especially if coming from a yellow fever zone, but likely you won’t be asked for verification.
Learn a few words in Amharic – hello and thank you go a long way. You will hear “Ishee” – Yes, or OK, everywhere you go. you can find notions of Amharic language here.
ATMs in major towns. Credit cards accepted in some top-end hotels (especially in Addis), but in very few restaurants or even midrange hotels. Bring US dollars in cash.
Many banks in major towns now have ATMs that accept international Visa cards and MasterCard; some hotels have ATMs in reception. Note that foreign Solo, Cirrus or Plus cards do not work in any ATM.
Unlike 10 to 15 years ago when almost all currency exchanges were conducted on a fairly open black market that gave significantly higher rates than the banks, things have now tightened up drastically. The black market still exists but Remember, that the black market is illegal and penalties range from hefty fines to imprisonment.
Ethiopia’s currency is the birr and there are one, five, 10, 50 and 100 birr notes. The Birr1 note is slowly being replaced by the Birr1 coin. The birr is divided into 100 cents and there are 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent coins.
As with many African countries the US dollar is the preferred foreign currency in Ethiopia although the euro is also very easy to exchange. You’ll have no trouble exchanging US cash wherever there are Forex facilities, but try to bring US dollar notes (especially US$100) from 2006 or more recent; earlier notes may not be accepted at banks.
Most hotels will exchange US$ cash or euros for you, but the rates are sometimes (but not always) worse than those offered by the banks.
According to National Bank of Ethiopia regulations, all bills in Ethiopia must be paid in birr. But this isn’t enforced and Ethiopian Airlines, most major hotels and most travel agencies accept (and sometimes demand) US currency.
One regulation that’s strictly enforced is the conversion of birr to US dollars or euros; this transaction can only be done for people holding onward air tickets from Ethiopia. This means people leaving overland must budget accordingly. There are black-market traders around the borders, but rates are poor and it can be risky.
Don’t come to Ethiopia and expect to rely on your credit card. Credit cards (Visa and MasterCard) are increasingly useful in Addis Ababa but are rarely accepted outside it, with the exception of some Ethiopian Airlines offices and top-class hotels. The travel agencies, airline offices and major hotels that do accept cards typically ding you 2% to 3% extra for the privilege.
Cash advances (Visa and MasterCard) are possible at branches of the Dashen Bank in the capital and elsewhere.
Exchange Rates : For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Tips (gursha in Amharic) are considered a part of everyday life in Ethiopia, and help supplement often very low wages. The maxim ‘little but often’ is a good one, and even very small tips are greatly appreciated.
If a professional person helps you, it’s probably better to show your appreciation in other ways: shaking hands, exchanging names or an invitation to have a coffee and pastry are all local ways of expressing gratitude.
Furnishing yourself with a good wad of small notes – Birr5 and Birr10 – is a very good idea. You’ll need these for tips, taking photographs etc.
Go to a Cultural House or two. These are not merely venues for cheesy tourist shows. Many are full of locals having a fun time and enjoying the entertainment.
If you can, visit the Cultural House with a local so they can interpret. The singers like to satire the audience.
Tip the musicians in the Cultural house. It’s common to tip the female singers in the top of their blouse/cleavage.
Go to a nightclub. You’ll hear the best of the popular Ethiopian rock/dance songs along with a few international hits.
Get to a concert if you can. Tickets are not unreasonable to see the top music stars.
Go to a football (soccer) match. They are a great way to see the football culture and tickets are often less than $2. Games are on Sundays and the season starts in October. Pick a side, sit with their fans, and scream to your heart’s content.
Ethiopia is a big country. Many of the main tourist destinations are 1-2 days apart by bus. Save your time and take one of the many Ethiopian Air flights.
Don’t forget to get your discount if you arrive in Ethiopia on an Ethiopian Air flight (either booked direct or by partner code share). You can save more than 50% on your internal flights.
For long distance buses, use Selam Bus or Similars.
Get your long distance bus tickets a day or two in advance. They often sell out.
Consider hiring a driver for some legs of your trip. I found having a vehicle is especially useful in Omo Valley and Tigray region, as the best sites are not easy to get to by public transportation.
Ethiopia is a Cultural, Historical & Educational Destination.
Ethiopia is not a top safari destination, but the country more than makes up for this with its unique culture and people. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have roots here, with the Oriental Orthodox church being the dominant faith today, although animism is practiced in the Omo Valley. In the northern Tigray Region, 120 rock-hewn churches are perched high on the sandstone cliffs of Gheralta. The most spectacular of these, including Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor, can be accessed only by a climb of 1,000 feet, some of it involving scaling the rock wall. But the payoff is incredible: extraordinary views and the chance to explore ancient structures, carved into a rock face and containing relics from the 4th and 5th centuries. The most touristed site in Ethiopia is Lalibela, home to a complex of 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches, each an ancient engineering marvel.
The people live today as they have for centuries, and the best way to witness this is by visiting the remote Omo Valley. Spending time with the tribes there is genuine, challenging and enriching. They are subsistence farmers with their own traditions, including body painting, scarification, the use of lip plates and the wearing of beadwork and metal jewelry to indicate wealth and marital status. There is a wrong way to experience the tribes. Some charge a pay-per-click fee for photos, and they pose and perform ceremonies for money. Indagare can offer a more authentic experience at Lale’s Camp, named for one of its co-owners, who is a member of one of the tribes and acts as a guide. Lale returned to his community after attending college and is respected among all the tribes, which allows for more meaningful connection with the locals.
The landscapes are incredible.
For a landlocked country, Ethiopia has a wide variety of landscapes, from the mountains of Gheralta and the canyons of the Simien Mountains to the jungle and mighty river of the Omo Valley and the fertile Great Rift Valley in the south. Among its most notable features is the Danakil Depression, a lava field that is the hottest place on earth and sits 410 feet below sea level.
You need time to properly experience it.
Ethiopia’s history is long and rich, its expanse huge and its topography varied, so we recommend trips of 12 nights or more. If you add on another destination like the Seychelles, up to three weeks of travel is required. Ethiopian Airlines has lots of flights within the country, but getting to and from airports can take a lot of time. Charter flights here are relatively cheap and worth looking into, since they can simplify logistics.
Visit Ethiopia now, but avoid the rains.
Ethiopia’s temperature is consistent year-round, but the rainy season extends from June through August. When planning a trip, also keep in mind the major religious festivals: Ethiopian New Year (September 11); Meskel, celebrating the discovery of the True Cross (September 27); Timkat, the Epiphany celebration (January 19); and Ethiopian Easter (usually one week after western Easter). The festivals are colorful, but they are also crowded, so it’s best to avoid them if you want to experience Ethiopia as it is most of the time, a seemingly undiscovered destination.
Ethiopia is the only country still on the Julian calendar, which is eight years behind the Gregorian one used by the rest of world: the current year in Ethiopia is 2011 (2019).
Ethiopia is where paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson discovered Lucy, the fossilized skeleton of one of the earliest human ancestors.
Ethiopia is one of the only African countries never to have been colonized, although it was occupied briefly by the Italians.