Going Simien Mountains trekking is the best way to experience one of the most beautiful, pristine landscapes in Ethiopia.
Some people opt to visit on a day trip from Gondar – but honestly, unless you are super constrained on time or physically unable to hike, it’s a pity to miss out on the opportunity to be completely immersed in the nature.
Simien Mountains National Park has a multitude of trails, and you can go on two, three, four, seven and even eight day hikes – the latter one going all the way to Aksum. I have done the two-day Simien Mountains trek and it was a great experience – quite possibly the highlight of my trip to Ethiopia.
In this post, I explain everything you should know about Simien Mountains trekking, sharing plenty of information about the hike and giving you practical tips to make the most of it.
Some Background Information About The Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains chain runs across the North of Ethiopia. Simien Mountains National Park is one of the 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the country – and this should give you an idea of how unique and how beautiful the landscape is.
Easily accessed from the lovely city of Gondar, the Simien Mountains are home to some of the tallest peaks in Africa, with Ras Deshen reaching more than 4500 meters, and Kidis Yared reaching 4453 meters.
The mountains are covered in this forest and meadows, and are home to several unique wildlife species such as the Gelada Baboons and the Ethiopia Wolves. This means that throughout your Simien Mountains hike you are bound to get incredible views – of the mountains, of the valleys below, of the forest and of all the animals that live in the area.
Add to this the fact that Ethiopia hardly is a mass tourism destination (quite the opposite in fact) and you’ll quickly understand why Simien Mountains trekking is a truly special experience.
Jinbar Waterfalls is easily the best sight during the Simien Mountains hike
2 Days Simien Mountains Trekking Experience
As I have pointed out before, the Simien Mountains trekking experience is likely to be the highlight of your time in Ethiopia.
The first day of the hike, after a few hours driving from Gondar and after having passed the Simien Lodge (the highest lodge in Ethiopia, where some base themselves to go on day hikes in the region), you’ll reach the beginning of the trail.
You’ll go on a gentle uphill to begin with – nothing strenuous if you are an experienced hiker. After about one hour of walking, the ascent stops and you’ll be walking on a plane for about another hour. Eventually, you’ll have to go on a steep downhill to get to the main dirt road, which you will follow for about ten minutes to get to the camp where you’ll have dinner and spend the night.
The trail isn’t marked, and it is hard to find at the beginning – but you’ll have a guide so you shouldn’t worry about it. Once you actually get to the trail, it is quite beaten and easy to follow. The terrain isn’t difficult, but keep in mind it can be muddy after a day of heavy rain.
During your first day of the Simien Mountains hike you’ll get breathtaking views of mountain peaks and valleys below. You’ll come across several animal species – we saw some gazelles, a bearded vulture (called Lammergeyers), right before we started hiking we saw a massive group of Gelada Baboons, and we even saw a caracal at night, right in the camp!
Yet, if you are anything like me you will find the second day to be even more rewarding.
Shortly after leaving the camp, on day two you will encounter the first groups of Gelada Baboons.
As you’ll continue walking, in around one and a half hour you will reach the impressive Jinbar Waterfalls, which drop for more than 500 meters. To get to the actual viewpoint you have to get on a very narrow rock path for a few meters, and there are no handrails and no protection whatsoever.
It’s not the easiest trail to walk across – definitely don’t do it if you get vertigo and if you are not 100% sure of your steps – but it is very short and honestly worth the effort. The view from there is simply spectacular – there even is a bench where you can sit to relax. Once again, keep in mind that there is no guard rail at the viewpoint, so don’t get too close to the edge!
Gelada Baboons steal the show during the Simien Mountain hike
The Gelada Baboons
Gelada Baboons, also known as “bleeding heart monkeys” for the bright red chest of the alpha males, are only found in the Ethiopian Highlands, where they live in large groups of up to 1200 individuals.
One interesting fact about the Gelada Baboons is that they are not actually baboons! In fact, they are the last surviving species of the Theropitecus genus, a species of monkeys that live on land.
Gelada Baboons typically come out during the day to feed on grass and to groom. They are very peaceful – they will hardly notice your presence, so you can spend as long as you want admiring them and taking photos. However, make sure to never touch them – they can bite! And don’t stare at them in the eyes as they may see it as a sign of aggression.
You will be accompanied by an armed guard
What to expect when hiking the Simien Mountains
I didn’t find my Simien Mountains hike challenging, but I am a very experienced hiker. Other people that are less accustomed to hiking – such as one guy in my group – may find it very difficult. This is to say: the Simien Mountains trek is not for inexperienced hikers.
The first thing you want to keep in mind is the altitude. You will be starting at an altitude of 3000 meters above sea level, and going up higher in some places. Unless you are very fit and have already fully adjusted to the altitude, you will find going up the narrow and steep trail terribly hard, and end up slowing down the rest of the group.
Having to struggle to keep up with the others will be unpleasant for you; just as the group will not like having to regularly wait for someone to catch up.
Another thing to keep in mind is the trail. It’s steep and narrow in parts, at times the terrain is rocky; and it can also be muddy and slippery. You really have to know your step!
I guess the bottom line is: know your level of fitness and know your limits before going on the hike, and warn your guide accordingly.
Overall walking distance
During the 2 days Simien Mountains trekking, you will be walking a total of around 22 km – more or less 10.5 km each day.
Overall walking time
10 to 12 hours spread across the two days, including various stops for photos, rest, lunch and to admire the views and the wildlife.
Even during the dry season, you can expect some rain
Practical Information To Organize Your Simien Mountains Hike
The best time for a Simien Mountains hike
The best time for a Simien Mountains hike is in the dry season, which in this part of Ethiopia goes from November to April. Having said so, you can expect some rain even when it is meant to be dry season – I hiked towards the end of November and it rained for more than 12 hours between the first and the second day of the hike.
Keep in mind that as you’ll be walking at an altitude (starting at 3000 meters above sea level) the temperatures can be quite cold during the night, and even during the day if the sun is not out – though you’ll surely warm up as you hike.
There have been incidents in the past whereby hikers have been attacked by members of the local community, apparently frustrated by the Ethiopian Government who pushes them out of their land and homes and wants to relocate them elsewhere.
I have experienced none of this – in fact, I mostly met friendly people.
The only minor nuisance (but hardly a safety concern) are the children who may get quite persistent in their efforts to sell you whatever sort of small souvenir and in demanding money. Saying a polite but firm no or ignoring them usually forces them to desist and is a f
You can’t hike the Simien Mountains independently. Like for many other places in Ethiopia, a certified guide and an armed guard are necessary – the latter said to be there to intervene in case of animals attacks. There will also be a chef cooking the meals, and a person to help the chef. Groups tend to be small – no more than 10 persons usually.
You can book your Simien Mountain hike through your hostel or any tour company in Gondar or, alternatively, travel do Debark independently by bus or private shuttle and hire a guide and an armed guard at the National Park office where you have to stop register.
Keep in mind that it may take some time to arrange everything – especially as the office not only will have to hire the guide and armed guard, but they’ll have to arrange any equipment and food you may need for the hike, unless you are carrying your own. So, all in all, I recommend booking in Gondar.
You can even buy your Simien Mountains trekking tour online via engines such as Viator. There are several options:
A two days Simien Mountain hike costs between $115 and $130. The price usually depends on the size of the group. Different companies in Gondar may charge a slightly different amount, although the service is exactly the same. For example, I paid $115 (I booked through via Gondar Backpackers, a lovely hostel in town), but another person in my group booked through a different company and paid $185 for the exact same tour!
What you need to keep in mind is that all Simien Mountain treks take the form of community based tourism, with guides and the rest of the staff hired among the local community in Debark, the closest city to the national park. Paying more doesn’t mean getting a better service at all – as it often happens in Ethiopia – so I’d say go with the cheapest.
A sour tomato – it’s not actually edible.
Food and drinks
You will be given food and snacks for the duration of the hike – a packed lunch, snacks and dinner on day one; breakfast and a packed lunch on day two. Make sure to bring your own water – around two liters per day. You can have your water refilled once you arrive at the camp – make sure to carry a bottle with a filter for that.
Food surprisingly good, given the circumstances. Snacks usually are tea and coffee with freshly prepared popcorn and toasted seeds. Dinner consists of a fresh vegetable soup, a pasta dish, lots of different vegetables and even a dessert (we had banana fritters).
Most people hiking the Simien Mountains sleep in tents which are carried and put up by the team in designed camps. Huts are available in the camps scattered around Simien Mountains National Park. These are very basic – beds around the perimeter of the hut, filthy mattresses and extremely old and dusty blankets. So, unless it’s pouring outside and your tent is leaking, you are better off spending the night in the tent.
My experience sleeping in the tent was actually very good: despite the heavy rain and the cold temperatures, the tent did not leak and the inside stayed dry. The sleeping bag was actually brand new and warm enough for the cold night. Some people in other groups reported leaky tents and ended up completely soaked during the night.
TIP: Make sure to enquire about the quality of the tents and the sleeping bags before the hike. There is no guarantee your concerns will be heard (customer care is virtually non-existing in Ethiopia), but hopefully you will get a decent tent.
There are no toilets at all when hiking in the Simien Mountains, and you’ll have to use the bushes any time you have to go. There’s supposed to be toilet facilities at the camp, but after a member of my group reported on the dire status I thought it better to once again use the bush.
You’ll have to bring enough toilet paper, wet wipes and hand gel for the duration of the hike. Keep in mind you will need some bottled water to also brush your teeth at night as there also are no sinks.
Remember to leave as little footprints as possible when visiting Simien Mountains National Park. I recommend carrying an extra bag to place any garbage and to bring it back to town with you.
The trail can be narrow and muddy in parts
Essential items to wear and carry for a Simien Mountains hike
You need to be properly dressed and equipped when hiking the Simien Mountains. One the one hand, you need to wear appropriate clothing that take into account the chilled temperatures, especially at night. One the other, you need to pack as light as possible – though the good news is that you don’t really have to carry your stuff as it’ll go directly to the camp by car, along with the trekking crew.
I recommend wearing long hiking pants – you’ll be walking on tall grass on occasions; a light cotton long sleeves t-shirt; a light sweater and a rain jacket for the day. You will need to take a change of clothes and other essential items too.
This is an essential list of what you should be wearing / carrying:
All travelers who want to go Simien Mountains trekking base themselves in Gondar. This is where all guided hiking tours depart from, and where you will find the best accommodation and sleeping options. From Gondar, you will be driven to Debark, which is roughly a 2 hours drive. Once in Debark, you will have to sign Simien Mountains National Park register. From there, it is another hour to the beginning of the trail.
How to get to Gondar
The most convenient way to get to Gondar is by plane. You can fly there directly from Addis Ababa, Lalibela and even Aksum. Ethiopian Airlines has some really good deal – especially if you flew with them internationally on your way to Ethiopia. From the airport, you can get a tuk tuk (locally known as bajaj) to get to town: it takes around 15 to 20 minutes and costs no more than 200 Birr.
Alternatively, you can get there by bus. This is definitely a cheaper option, but keep in mind that bus travel in Ethiopia is terribly slow due to the bad road conditions.
Where to stay and eat in Gondar
You’ll find no shortage of good accommodation options in Gondar. The following is a small selection:
Gondar Backpackers is a good, recently opened hostel run by an Israeli-Ethiopian couple. Dorms are basic, but the beds are comfortable; guests can use the kitchen and laundry facilities. Internet works ok – better than in most places in Ethiopia. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
With regards to restaurants, Four Sisters is possibly the most famous one in town. It serves dishes of international cuisine, though it is more popular for its Ethiopian dishes. Book in advance if you are going with a larger group.
Mami Shiro is closer to Gondar University and easily reached from Gondar Backpackers. You’ll find a few to no tourists. It serves Ethiopian dishes as well as some pasta dishes. Staff doesn’t really speak English so ordering may be a bit of a challenge.
Other useful information
Make sure to get a good travel insurance for your trip to Ethiopia. Get yours here.
There are a few things you should know before you travel in Ethiopia. This is a country like no other, that will blow your mind with its sheer beauty; but where traveling is by no means easy.
I wish I had better prepared for the trip, read a bit more about the challenges that it presents, for this would have made my life much easier – or at least I wouldn’t have been so frustrated when things went (repeatedly) wrong.
In this post I will do my best to highlight all the things you need to know before you visit Ethiopia, hoping that you’ll go there with plenty of information on what to expect, and tips that will help you fully enjoy your trip.
People in Ethiopia are very friendly
33 Important Things To Know About Travel In Ethiopia
It’s more populated than you may think
Most people who have yet to visit Ethiopia have no idea how big the country is. Ask your friends and family to tell you how many people live in Ethiopia and they will shoot random numbers – 20 million! 12 million! – each of them wrong.
According to the World Bank, in 2018 more than 109 million people lived in Ethiopia. Ethiopia capital Addis Ababa counts more than 7 million, according to official data – though apparently the actual number is closer to 10 million.
In other words, Ethiopia is a huge country and it is very highly populated, though there are some areas which are almost completely uninhabited due to the harsh climate conditions.
People are generally friendly
The first think you’ll notice when you travel in Ethiopia is how friendly people are. Locals are generally curious to know where you are from, what you are doing and whether you are enjoying the country. They will take a chance to practice a little English with you whenever they can. They are very social – you’ll often spot them sitting in coffee shops enjoying coffee, or hanging out in the streets and square, chatting to friends.
More than anything else, Ethiopians love dancing – from the traditional dances you’ll have a chance to see at a “cultural restaurant” to the more informal ones at parties, don’t miss the opportunity to mingle with them and learn some moves (though I shall warn you, Ethiopians have the moves, and you won’t be able to replicate them!).
The only area where people appear to be less friendly is the Danakil region, home of the Afar region. Most Ethiopians accuse the Afar of being “crazy and unpredictable,” and impossible to work with. I don’t like giving such extreme judgements, and my experience is too limited to express an informed opinion. Sure enough, the hardship and isolation in which they live doesn’t help establishing relationship with visitors.
Fasil Ghebbi Castle is one of the UNESCO sites of Ethiopia
There are 9 UNESCO sites
Ethiopia has more UNESCO sites than any other African country. The most famous one is the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela. Among other UNESCO sites there are Fasil Ghebbi Castle in Gondar; the Simien Mountains; and Aksum.
The landscape is breathtaking
With highlands, high mountains, a high volcanic plateau and a desert depression, Ethiopia has a variety of ecosystems and – with that – a variety of climates. You can rest assured that the landscape in this part of the world is absolutely stunning.
When you travel in Ethiopia, you are inevitably mesmerized by the views of places such as the Simien Mountains – especially Jinbar Waterfall. You will think that the region of Gheralta, home of the Tigray Churches, looks like the perfect set for a Western movie.
Yet, it is Danakil that will take your breath away with the Mars like landscape of Erta Ale Volcano and the vivid colors of Dallol.
Altitude sickness may hit you
One thing to keep in mind when you travel in Ethiopia is that most of the country is located at more than 1500 meters above sea level. Chances are the first place you’ll visit is Addis Ababa, which is at around 2350 meters above sea level, so you may experience some (or all of the symptoms) of altitude sickness. You may be short of breath and dizzy; you may get a headache; and even insomnia.
Make sure to factor in enough time to get adjusted to the altitude. Things that help in dealing with altitude sickness symptoms are: a diet of easy to digest carbs; drinking lots of water; avoiding alcohol.
As well as heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is as much of an issue for people who visit Ethiopia as is altitude sickness. The Danakil Depression, where you’ll visit Erta Ale Volcano, Lake Giulietti and Dallol, is known as the hottest place on earth, with an average temperature of 34 degrees Celsius and peaks that regularly go well over 40 and even 45 degrees.
It’s important that you are prepared for such harsh conditions. Here are some very basic tips:
Drink plenty of water – two liters per day as a minimum
Carry some electrolyte powder that you can dissolve in water for cases of extreme dehydration. You can get it here.
Wear light cotton long pants and t-shirt, better if long sleeved so as to avoid getting sunburnt
Wear a hat or a bandana on your head to protect from the sun
Minimize the amount of time you spend outside
A view of Addis Ababa from the terrace of Hyatt Hotel
Cities are chaotic
Cities in Ethiopia are mayhem. Addis Ababa is a nightmare to get around, with the most congested traffic you can imagine – I think I have seen worse only in large Indian cities such as New Delhi. Other smaller cities may not have as much traffic, but they are chaotic nonetheless. Just picture construction and road works everywhere; improvised markets sprouting at every corner; cars, tuk tuks, buses, trucks, bikes, horse pulled carriages, donkeys, goats and cows all trying to dodge the streets and the potholes, and you may get an idea of what to expect. It’s fun to observe, in a way!
The official language is Amharic
There are around 80 different languages spoken in Ethiopia, which include the official ones and the languages spoken by indigenous communities around the country.
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia. You may want to try to learn a couple of words, but the fact that it has its own alphabet makes it extremely hard. The other main language spoken in Ethiopia is Oromo.
Though English is widely and well spoken in Addis Ababa and in the most touristy areas such as Lalibela or Gondar, you’ll find that in other parts of the country people – even those working in the tourist industry – speak little or no English. Just be extra patient, as most people really do their best to understand you and to talk to you!
Ethiopia is on its own time system
This is a little complicated, really. The Ethiopian calendar is currently seven years behind the Gregorian one which is the one we commonly used – so they are currently in 2012. In fact, according to the Ge’ez calendar which is the one used in Ethiopia, there are 13 months in a year, 12 of which have 30 days. The 13th month has five or six days, depending on whether it is a leap year or not.
The good news is that you won’t really have to work out which day of the week it is, because working in the tourism industry normally refer to the Gregorian calendar when dealing with tourists. Yet, it is interesting to note how, when filling in the date for tickets to attraction, they indicate a different month and year!
You need a visa to enter
You will need a tourist visa to travel in Ethiopia. You can get it on arrival, and some people argue that the line to get the visa is just as long as the line that people who had previously arranged it. I actually think it is better to get the visa online – the line when I got to Addis Ababa airport were insanely long, whereas I had to wait no more than 5 minutes. You can obtain your visa here– it costs $50 plus $2 USD handling fee.
And you are better off with a good travel insurance
You really, truly, definitely don’t want to take any chances when you travel in Ethiopia: don’t forget to buy travel insurance before your trip. Get yours here.
Trying to get online in Ethiopia is frustrating at best. The best internet is in Addis Ababa, and even there it is sparse.
While all hotels and guest houses have wifi for their guests, and wifi is available for free at all airports, this really works on and off and you will – at most – be able to get on Whatsapp or Messenger (though you won’t be able to send photos or videos to family and friends and to download voice messages). Facebook takes forever to upload, and Instagram too. You may be able to download emails – but attachments are hard to open.
If you want to bypass the government blocks you may want to invest in a VPN – there are several apps you can download directly on your phone. You may want to do this before visiting Ethiopia though!
Between the slow internet and the fact that the Ethiopian government regularly shuts down social media you may as well want to give up entirely and enjoy your trip without having to worry about getting online. Warn your family and friends that you won’t be getting online much and set up an out of office reply for your email and deal with it later, once you get home.
You may be able to get a local SIM – but not at the airport
I generally advise to get a local SIM card to stay connected when traveling – it usually is easy to get at airport kiosks. However, you won’t be able to find a ETC (Ethiopian Telecommunications Corp) at Bole International Airport, which means you’ll have to find an ETC shop in town and get in the forever line to get your card. Apparently you can also get a SIM card at the shop located on the ground floor of Hilton Hotel, and there is virtually no line.
Hostels aren’t common
You won’t find many hostels when you travel in Ethiopia – these are simply uncommon there. There is Gondar Backpackers in Gondar, which is actually a really nice place, and where you will be able to use the kitchen.
Other than that, your best budget friendly choice will be local guesthouses, which are usually quite basic – you get a room with ensuite bathroom and internet for around $15 to $20 USD, usually including breakfast.
If you decide to book a hotel room via Booking.com (which is where most local hotels are advertised) make sure that you are assigned the room you have booked and paid for – hotels will often try to place you in a smaller, less expensive room than the one you have paid and it will take a bit of back and forth communication with the receptionist to get what you want. Make sure to download the Booking app on your phone (and to take screenshots of your booking) and be prepared to show your reservation until you get the room you have reserved.
A shop in Aksum
Tuk tuks are the most budget friendly way to go around
The best way to go from one place to another in Ethiopian cities is a tuk tuk, locally known as bajaj. Make sure to call them that when looking for one, and by all means haggle the price!
Domestic flights are cheap
Ethiopia is a huge country and ground transportation tends to be a bit lacking. Long distance buses exist, but they aren’t frequent, and you may be forced to pay for an expensive private transfer to get from one place to the other.
The best alternative to cover long distances are domestic flights, which can be quite inexpensive especially if you flew on Ethiopian Airlines to get to Ethiopia. You will have to use your international flight reservation code to access the best deals for domestic flights.
Keep in mind that Ethiopian Airlines has a thing for changing the flight schedule, and may even reschedule you to fly on a different date than that you had originally booked. You may want to book your flights via a travel agent that can deal with the schedule changes and reschedule your flights for you.
You have to go through security twice at the airport
This is something that I can’t really explain, and that for some reason exhausts me. Upon getting close to the airport, you’ll find a road block where they military will ask you to show your passport. Before getting inside the terminal, you will have to show your passport again. Then, you’ll have to go through security – shoes off and all.
After checking in, you’ll have to wait in the main lobby until your flight is called and then you’ll have to go through security again.
Withdrawing cash is easy
Cash is king in Ethiopia, and you will need it to pay anything – from small fees to enter a museum, to restaurant bills and even tours. You can change cash at the airport as soon as you arrive (the exchange rate is the same you’ll get in town, but it’s much easier to get it done there).
Alternatively, you can withdraw cash easily at the many ATMs that can be found in any city. If you are planning to tour the Danakil, make sure to withdraw cash before as you won’t find any ATM in the desert!
Guided tours are a necessarily evil to reach the most inaccessible places
Guided tours are (unfortunately) necessary
There is no way around it: whether you want to hike the Simien Mountains, visit the Tigray Churches or explore the Danakil Depression, you will have to join a guided tour.
I have always said that guided tours are a good thing – you get a guide, you get everything arranged for you, and the prices are usually convenient for what you get.
But when you travel in Ethiopia, this isn’t necessarily the case.
Tour companies tend to charge random fees – so you’ll see people taking part in the exact same tour, each one of them having paid a different amount.
Paying more doesn’t necessarily mean getting a better service. More often than not you’ll experience accommodation which is between poor and unacceptable, with mattresses that would be better thrown in the garbage. Food is barely eatable. And the hygienic conditions of the places where you stop for meals are dire if not disgusting altogether.
And let me not talk about the guides and drivers. The average ratio is one guide for a group of 25 tourists – not nearly enough in places such as the Danakil where the conditions are very harsh and the guide should be keeping a close eye to the tourists, to keep them safe.
On occasions, you’ll have guides that speak no English at all, and that have no experience in guiding. I had this occur on my tour of the Tigray Churches and when I reported this to the tour company they literally shrugged the information off and said the guide had been recently hired and would be fired.
Everything shuts for lunch
This reminds me of how Italy used to be when I was growing up! All museums and tourist attractions shut for at least one hour during lunch break, so you may as well embrace it and go for lunch as well.
Fasting food – injera layered with various pulses and vegetables
Injera is the main staple of Ethiopian diet
Whether you like Ethiopian food or not is purely a matter of personal taste. I found it to be quite repetitive, but other people I traveled with loved it.
The main staple of Ethiopian diet is injera, a sponge like very sour and thin bread made of teff flour which is layered with various dishes and which is used to scoop up food – unless you ask for it, you won’t generally be given forks to eat.
The nicest dish is shiro tegamino – a very thick, spicy chickpea paste. Injera firfir, on the other hand, is nothing more than injera layered with scrambled and even more sour injera.
Vegans have it easy
The one remarkable thing about Ethiopian food is that it is incredibly vegan friendly. Ethiopians are Christian copts and they observe a diet of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, whereby they avoid eating any sort of animal product. Sit at any restaurant and ask for “fasting food” to make sure you are served only vegan food.
Coffee is delicious
One thing that is always, consistently good in Ethiopia is coffee. Walking around cities small or large you will smell coffee being roasted. A cup of freshly brewed coffee will awaken your senses. For the best coffee, head to Tomoca in Addis Ababa. I honestly don’t think I have ever tried anything so good. Trust me, I drink lots of coffee.
A bottle of Ethiopian beer
Whereas wine and beer are just passable
There is quite a decent variety of beers in Ethiopia, and even local wines. Local beer is definitely better than local wine. The best beers are St. George, which is commonly found in all restaurants and bars, and Habesha, which is the most refreshing one. Dashen is by far the worst among the local beers.
My experience with wine is limited – I had a glass for dinner when I was in Addis Ababa, and wasn’t particularly pleased with the taste. All in all, opt for a beer if you really need to have a drink!
Water is not safe to drink
By all means, never have tap when you visit Ethiopia – not unless you use a water filter. Water is not safe to drink, and you may get all sorts of bugs from it. Avoid salads and raw vegetables that may have been washed with tap water.
If you like sparkling water, opt for Ambo Water – it’s delicious.
It’s a safe country
For the most part, Ethiopia is a safe country and you shouldn’t encounter any major problems when traveling around. Keep your eyes open and belongings safe as incidents such as theft of wallets and cell phones is common in larger cities. I also recommend using your good judgement when walking around, especially at night, as cities tend to have poor illumination.
Yet, touts are common
Though safety is hardly an issue when traveling around Ethiopia, touts are. Faranji (white tourists) are the favorite target of people trying to sell stuff in the streets, self-professed tour guides, bajaj drivers and all sorts of beggars. The best way to avoid touts is to avoid any sort of eye contact. By all means never smile at them and if they do offer anything, a polite but firm no is necessary.
Children will ask for money
“Hello, money!” is the typical greeting you’ll get from children. They will surround you as soon as you get off the car, or as they see you walk close to an attraction. They will call you, pull your clothes, pull your hand and at times even pinch you to get your attention and to demand money, pens, and at times even the clothes you are wearing.
Ignoring them or saying no is generally enough to make them desist. If you are even a tiny bit friendly with them (a simple hello, or a high five), chances are they will follow you for a long while, exhausting you.
I know it is harsh – they are just kids after all – but really! Be firm in this. These children should be going to school and not hanging out in the streets demanding money off tourists and if you give them even just a cent, you will be encouraging them to continue!
Plastic waste is a major issue in the Danakil Depression
Hygienic conditions are inadequate
In most places in Ethiopia, hygienic conditions are inadequate, with poor to no sanitation at times. Quite often the only toilet available is a squat one, with no flush and no running water at all. In many places, there are no sinks to wash your hands.
Some of the local “restaurants” where you’ll stop during your tour of the Danakil are beyond filthy – expect to see all sorts of garbage on the floor, with leftover food such as chicken bones, flies all over the place, and nobody taking care to clean. It will honestly test your guts.
You are bound to get food poisoning at some point
Everybody gets some level of food poisoning at some point or another when traveling in Ethiopia. My friend got sick on the third day of our trip and by then we actually thought it may be altitude sickness. I got sick with similar symptoms, but ten times worse, after more than 10 days of traveling, when I had fully adjusted to the altitude.
Try to eat only safe food – avoid things such as raw vegetables which may have been washed with tap water, and even rice, which gets easily contaminated.
Food poisoning symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and fever. If you experience any of these make sure to get rest and drink plenty of fluids. Eat very plain stuff such as pasta with just oil, bread, and avoid anything spicy, creamy or cheesy.
The only part of Ethiopia where you’ll feel garbage really is an issue is the Danakil Depression. There, plastic waste is everywhere. As you walk along the lava flows of Erta Ale Volcano, you’ll see plastic bottles and other plastic waste in each and every crack. It’s sad to see the sheer beauty of the region ruined by so much plastic waste, and I truly wish something was done to clean it up and keep it clean.
Keeping your head covered is a must when visiting Dallol
Smart packing is essential
This is especially valid if you are crossing several climates and may encounter both very cold and very hot weather. Make sure to carry only the bare essentials – you won’t really have any chance to dress up anyways. The following is a very basic packing list:
Toilet paper and tissues – you won’t find it in any toilet around the country, and you will need it when hiking the Simien Mountains or when touring the Danakil.
Whether you take a water bottle with a filter or not is entirely up to you. You won’t come across any taps when hiking the Simien Mountains or when touring the Danakil – the tour companies generally provide bottled water, so there’s little purpose in carrying a bottle.
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Great Ethiopian Run for the first part of my trip to Ethiopia (Addis Ababa and Lalibela) and wish to thank them and Blogilicious for putting together a fantastic trip and for allowing me to have such an incredible experience. Needless to say, the views expressed remain my own.
There are many more things to do in Ethiopia than you’d ever imagine. A month wouldn’t be enough to discover them all, but the good news is that you can enjoy a lot of them on a two weeks Ethiopia tour.
A country yet to fall on the mass tourism’ radar, Ethiopia has a lot to offer. Mysterious archeological sites; breathtaking views; unique wildlife; ancient cultural traditions; flavors to tickle your taste buds – these are only a few of the things that Ethiopia has to offer.
Although tourism in Ethiopia has been constantly increasing in the last few years, traveling around the country isn’t exactly easy, and the tourism infrastructure is still somewhat lacking. Whatever the country lacks in terms of modern day comforts, however, it abundantly makes up for with its unspoiled charm.
In this post, I highlight 15 of the things to do in Ethiopia if you plan for a two weeks Ethiopia tour. I will also share some tips that will help you better plan your trip.
Showing support before the GER starts
13 Incredible Things To Do In Ethiopia
Take part in the Great Ethiopian Run
If you are planning on visiting Ethiopia in November, make it a point to enroll in the Great Ethiopian Run which takes place in Addis Ababa. Whether you are into running or not, this will easily become the highlight of your time in the country.
The GER is a fundraiser run that has now been taking place for 19 years – 2020 will see its 20th edition. Funds are raised in favor of disadvantaged categories such as ill-treated women and girls. More than anything else, this is a massive carnival which sees a whopping 40000 participants running, walking, and in general having a good time throughout the streets of Addis Ababa.
One of the things to do in Ethiopia that I recommend is actually exploring its capital.
Often overlooked for more famous destinations around the country, Addis Ababa is not exactly a picture perfect city but if you are on a two weeks Ethiopia tour I recommend spending a day to take in its sights. Besides, this is where you will find some of the best restaurants in the country; plenty of shows of traditional dances and bars and clubs where you’ll be able to listen to Ethiopian Jazz.
Among the attractions that you’ll find in Addis Ababa, there’s the National Museum of Ethiopia. Don’t expect anything big (plan to spend around one hour to go over the entire exhibit). However, this is where you’ll have a chance to admire Lucy, a fossil skeleton of a human ancestor that dates back to 3.2 million years ago and that was discovered in 1974 in Hadar (Ethiopia), and who’s changed the way we interpret and understand human history.
Another place to visit in Addis Ababa include Unity Park – a newly opened park located in the Grand Imperial Palace, where you’ll have a chance to walk through an interesting exhibit about Ethiopian heritage and culture. It costs between $20 and $50 USD to visit the park, depending on which kind of ticket you get (regular or VIP). It is a bit pricey but the park is huge and you also get a guide to walk you through the entire attraction.
Other places to visit in Addis Ababa include St. George’s Cathedral and Museum, the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Meskel Square, the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the market.
I recommend going on a guided tour of Addis Ababa to make the most of the city in a short time, and to easily get from one attraction to the other (you really don’t want to dodge the public transportation system of Addis Ababa by yourself, trust me!).
These are some of the best guided tours of Addis Ababa:
There is no shortage of good places to stay in Addis Ababa. Most of them also have an annexed restaurant. Here are two of them that I have tried and tested for you:
Yaya Village, in Sululta, is a basic but comfortable hotel outside of the city. It’s immersed in the nature, there is a running track, a pool, a gym and even a restaurant that serves massive portions of very good food. Internet isn’t the best. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Hyatt Regency Addis Ababa is one of the best hotels in Addis Ababa, conveniently located near Meskel Square. There is a pool, a gym, and a fantastic restaurant that serves dishes of Middle Eastern cuisine. Rooms are decorated in modern style, spacious and comfortable. Wifi works well by Ethiopian standards. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Learn some local dance moves
Ethiopians have an obsession with dancing, and any chance is good for them to show off some moves. They seem to have a preference for shoulder moves and for head shaking – though I have to say it is a bit reductive to narrow it down to shaking – these are twirling movements that I am honestly not sure belong to human nature at all!
Anyways, it goes without saying that one of the best things to do in Ethiopia is to learn some dance moves or – if you are as hopeless at dancing as I am – at least go to a dance show. There are plenty of “cultural restaurants” around the country’s top tourist destinations where you can sit down for a local meal and enjoy a traditional dance show.
Coffee lovers are in for a treat!
Drink all the coffee
Coffee lovers beware! Coffee in Ethiopia is “da thing.” Take my coffee-junkie word for it. I have yet to visit another country were coffee is as good as it is in Ethiopia. Whether you have the traditional freshly roasted and brewed coffee or espresso at Tomoca, Addis Ababa most famous coffee house; whether you go for black coffee or a macchiato; you are bound to have the most fragrant, rich and intense coffee cup.
Walking around, you’ll also frequently smell coffee beans being roasted. Follow the fragrance and go have a cup!
TIP: Save some space in your luggage to take home some Ethiopian coffee powder or beans. It’s much cheaper and much better than the coffee you’d get at home!
Fasting food – injera layered with various pulses and vegetables
Try the local food
I must admit I am not the biggest fan of Ethiopian food, but I still believe that trying local specialties is one of the things to do in Ethiopia. Injera – a spongy, sour bread made with a fermented dough of teff flour) accompanies all meals and it is used to scope up dishes such as shiro tegamino (a very thick red paste made with chickpeas and spices). On a typical meal you’ll be served various curries and vegetable dishes.
The good news for the vegans is that Ethiopia is very vegan friendly. All you have to do is ordering “fasting food” – Ethiopians are Christian Copts and they don’t eat any animal products on certain days, and restaurants cater to this requirement.
To better get acquainted with local cuisine, I recommend joining a guided food tour. These are some excellent options:
The Rock-Hewn churches of Lalibela are truly unique and if you have limited time to explore the country, make sure you include this attraction in your Ethiopia tour. Dating back to the 13th century, these 11 churches are named after King Lalibela, who ordered them to be carved in the rock in an attempt to recreate the Holy City of Jerusalem, and a place of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Copts.
The churches, still in use, are a real work of art. Some are better kept than others, with beautiful paintings are frescoes. The most impressive is the Church of St. George, as it is actually fully visible from above (the others have protective structures above).
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The Rock-Hewn churches of Lalibela are probably the most expensive attraction in Ethiopia. The ticket which gives you access to all 11 churches costs $50 USD – it’s honestly worth it. Consider hiring a guide so that you can make the most of all the churches and make sense of what you see. Like in all other churches in Ethiopia, you will have to remove your shoes before entering and be modestly dressed.
These are some good guided tours of Lalibela churches:
Ben Abeba is the most popular restaurant in Lalibela catering to tourists. The funky building faces the valley for incredible sunset views. It is run by a Scottish woman who’s been living in the country for a long time, so don’t be surprised if on the menu you’ll find Scottish staples such as scotch eggs or Shepherd’s pie!
How to get to Lalibela
The best way to reach Lalibela from Addis Ababa is by plane. The flight takes about one hour. The airport is at about 30 to 45 minutes drive from the city.
Fasil Ghebbi Castle is the most interesting place to visit in Gondar
You’ve probably never heard of Gondar before – at most, you may know that it’s the best starting point to hike the Simien Mountains. Yet, visiting is among the top things to do in Ethiopia, and you should factor enough time to take in all that it has to offer.
Gondar is easily the coolest city in Ethiopia, with plenty of attractions. Make sure not to miss Fasil Ghebbi Castle, built by Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century and remarkably well kept – it now is one of Ethiopia’s UNESCO Heritage Sites. The ticket costs 200 Birr (around $6 USD) and includes access to Fasilides’ Bath, a place that once was a villa with a pool for the royal family and is now filled once a year for religious ceremonies.
Another place not to miss is Debre Birhan Selassie church. You can spend some time admiring the incredible ceiling with its 135 cherubs, and the frescoes depicting Bosch-like hell. Admission is 200 Birr.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Gondar is quite spread out and the attractions far one from the other. You may hire a tuk tuk to take you around. That should cost you no more than 250 Birr for the entire city tour.
Where to stay and eat in Gondar
There are plenty of good places to stay and eat in Gondar. The following is a small selection:
Four Sisters is possibly the most famous restaurant in town. It offers dishes of international cuisine as well as the most popular dishes of Ethiopian cuisine. You may want to book in advance for larger groups.
Mami Shiro is close to Gondar University and it’s the kind of place where you’ll mostly find a local crowd. It serves Ethiopian dishes as well as some pasta dishes.
How to get to Gondar
Gondar is well connected to the rest of Ethiopia via its small but efficient airport. The airport is at about 15 minutes drive from the city and a tuk tuk ride costs between 150 and 200 Birr.
Jinbar Waterfall is the most beautiful sight during the hike in the Simien Mountains
Hike the Simien Mountains
Hiking the Simien Mountains easily is one of the coolest things to do in Ethiopia and it well deserves to be a part of your Ethiopia tour. The National Park is located at around 3 hours drive from Gondar and you can go on a 2 days, 3 days and up to 7 days hike. You will have to join a guided group hike as trails aren’t the easiest to follow, and it’s a national requirement to have a guide and armed scout (who’s mean to protect against animal attacks).
The 2 days hike isn’t strenuous – save for the fact that the starting point is at more than 2600 meters above sea level and you will reach an altitude of over 3000 meters. The views are gorgeous throughout – picture forest, open valleys, pastures, and nice wildlife. You will also typically see Jinbar Waterfall, which is simply spectacular.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: A 2 days guided hike of the Simien Mountains costs around $115, depending on the size of the group. I bought my tour directly from Gondar Backpackers hostel and was happy with the price and service.
Different companies may quote you a different price, but the tours are actually run by the local community, with guides and scouts hired in Debark (the nearest town to the National Park) on a rotation basis, so there is no guarantee you will be getting a good guide (they usually are, though). So there really is no point in paying a higher price hoping for a better service.
Tours include the guide and scout, tent and sleeping bag rental, all meals (food is surprisingly very good) and transportation from and to Gondar. Most of the time tents are actually quite good, as well as the sleeping bags, but make sure to enquire about the quality of the tents. It rains regularly in the Simien Mountains and the last thing you need is sleeping in a leaky tent!
If you’d rather buy your Simien Mountains trekking tour online, these are the best options:
PACKING TIPS: Make sure to pack as light as possible for the hike – you won’t have a chance to shower anyways. Carry some toilet paper, wet wipes and anti-bacterial gel. Bring a change of pants, socks and t-shirt in case you get wet, and something extra warm for the night ie a thick fleece and a hat. Make sure to take a rain jacket and a head lamp. Bring enough water and snacks, at least for the first day!
Ethiopia isn’t the first destination that comes to mind in Africa when it comes to wildlife, yet you will be able to observe some interesting species that are unique to the country. The Gelada Baboons are only found in the Ethiopian Highlands and mostly live in the Simien Mountains. Though they are called baboons they really have little in common with them – they aren’t nearly as mean.
Gelada are grass eaters and spend most of their time grooming and munching. They live in large groups and are active during the day.
Other species you may come across in the Simien Mountains include the walia ibex and even the caracal.
FUN FACT: As my friend and I got ready to get in the tent for the night, we saw a large orange cat hanging around the camp. We were quite surprised to see a cat that large in the mountains (and, proper cat ladies that we are) we even wished he’d come to our tents to snuggle for the night. The morning after, when we told the guide, we learned it was actually a caracal.
St Mary of Zion church is one of the most interesting sights in Aksum
Walk around Aksum
Aksum is one of the most popular places to visit in Ethiopia, and it is often used as the starting point for a tour of the Tigray Churches and included in a two weeks Ethiopia tour. The city itself has some interesting attractions – it takes no more than a day to explore all of it.
Among the places to visit in Aksum, make sure you go to the New Church of St. Mary of Zion – it is right next to the Arabtu Ensessa Church, which is off limits to women (so I can’t really comment on it). St. Mary of Zion is rather large and airy, with some interesting paintings and decorations. There is a small annexed museum too. The entry fee for the whole complex is 200 Birr.
The other main attraction is the archeological park, which includes the Stelae Park, the Obelisk of Aksum, Queen Sheba Palace and Queen Sheba Bath, King Ezana’s inscription (which, much like Rosetta’s Stone, is a stone with an inscription in 3 different languages, including Ge’ez and Ancient Greek).
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can get a ticket valid for the entire archeological complex of Aksum from the tourism information office for 300 Birr (less than $10 USD). Make sure to keep the ticket with you for inspection at each place.
WARNING: With increasing tourism in Aksum, touts and scams are becoming more and more common. Don’t be surprised if you are approached by local guides working for tour companies that offer a day tour for $150 (yes, that much). Keep in mind the city is walkable and that the overall cost of all attractions is no more than $15, so politely but firmly say no.
Where to stay and eat in Aksum
There aren’t that many good places to stay in Aksum, but the good news is that there are some nice restaurants. Here is a selection:
TIP: Make sure that the room you are assigned actually matches the one you have booked – it’s not uncommon that personnel will try to downgrade you to a smaller one.
Lucy Traditional Restaurant offers local staples in a friendly and easygoing environment. Kuda Juice and Pizzeria is the place to go if you want to have a break from injera. Pizza is decent and they also have good burgers and excellent juices.
How to get to Aksum
Aksum has a small but well connected airport with flights to most Ethiopian destinations.
Gheralta is scattered with rock hewn churches
Climb up the Tigray Churches
Visiting the churches of Tigray definitely is one of the nicest things to do in Ethiopia, and you really should include it in your Ethiopia tour. The most spectacular one is Abuna Yamata Guh. The church is carved in the rock, and though the carving work doesn’t equate to that of Lalibela churches, it is such a unique place that it’d be a pity to miss it.
Getting to Abuna Yamata Guh is a bit of a challenge – you have to climb the rock in your bare hands and food, at most with the help of a rope. So this is not for the faint of heart. Inside, the church is beautiful with paintings and an extraordinary light.
The other most famous churches in the Gheralta region are Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Guided tours of the Tigray depart either from Aksum or Mekele. You have the option of doing a one or two days tour. I honestly recommend going for the one day tour and to head straight to Abuna Yamata Guh, Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor, as these are the ones really worth visiting.
A proper Ethiopia tour has to include the Danakil Depression
Visit Danakil Depression
A proper Ethiopia tour has to factor in enough time to visit Danakil Depression. This is a place like no others, breathtakingly beautiful and harsh at the same time; challenging and uncomfortable. This part of Ethiopia is remote and hard to get to; it is inhabited by the Afar communities, which are often in conflict with the central government.
The tourist infrastructure in the region is lacking – do not expect any sort of comfort. Hygienic conditions are dire, and you’ll be saddened by the amount of plastic waste you’ll see. Yet, you will be completely mesmerized by the landscape, enchanted by the light and captured by the surreal and desolated atmosphere.
Among the things to do in Ethiopia that the Danakil is famous for there is hiking up the active crater of Erta Ale Volcano at night and before the sun rises to see the lava eruptions; swimming (or rather floating) on Lake Giulietti; visiting the colorful lake of Dallol and observing the work of salt miners and of their camels in Lake Asale.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Tours of the Danakil usually last two or three days, during which you sleep on mattresses close to the crater of Erta Ale volcano and in a very basic guest house. Tours cost between $250 and $300 USD and include transportation, guides and food. The quality of the tours and the services is very basic – expect dirty mattresses, basic food, and at times non-existing hygienic conditions. Enquire with your agency before departing, and make it a point to request new, decent materials for your tour.
USEFUL TIPS: Group tours can be quite large so make sure to follow some basic rules for safety reasons, as you won’t always be able to rely on the guide. Here is some guidance, also about packing:
Drink plenty of water – it is extremely hot in the Danakil region, especially in the Dallol;
Take a scarf or bandana to cover your mouth and nose for your visit of Erta Ale;
Bring a swimsuit if you intend to swim in the salt lake; and a tower to rinse off in the hot springs;
Cover your head with a hat; wear long pants and possibly sleeves to protect yourself from the sun;
Take a headlamp;
Always warn the guide if you intend to separate yourself from the group and never wander around by yourself. It’s very easy to lose the sense of direction!
I honestly do not have a company to recommend for this tour. The one I traveled with was a bit of a let down. My tip is to research and read reviews before you decide for one company over the other.
The hot springs of Dallol are rich in minerals – hence the colors
Finish off in Mekele
To be fair, Mekele is nothing special. Most people end up there towards the end of their Ethiopia tour, as it is the starting and ending point for expeditions to the Danakil. I recommend factoring in a night there at the end of your trip, so that you can rest in a bed and take a good shower before traveling home.
The only real attraction in town is the Palace, which takes no more than an hour to visit. Other than that, head to the market for some good shopping, or hang out at one of the many nice cafés.
Where to sleep and eat in Mekele
Despite being such a big city, the choice of good places to stay in Mekele is somewhat limited. I honestly can’t recommend the places where I have stayed (in my defense, it was booked by the agency that organized the tour of Danakil), so I have done some research to find some good options for you. Here are some good hotels:
Karibu Kitchen is a nice place with a large menu of local and international dishes. Service is slow, but the place is nice so you won’t mind waiting.
How to get to Mekele
Mekele is very well connected to the rest of the country via its airport. There are direct flights to Addis Ababa.
A salt miner and his camel in the Lake Asale
Practical Tips To Organize Your Ethiopia Tour
Visa requirements for Ethiopia
You will need a tourist visa to enter Ethiopia. You can get it on arrival, but Addis Ababa airport is extremely busy so I advise you to get it online before you go – this way you can directly go to the passport booth to get your passport stamped. You can obtain your visa here – it costs $50 plus $2 USD handling fee.
Traveling to Ethiopia
Ethiopia is very well connected internationally via its Addis Ababa airport, which is one of Africa’s main hubs. There are direct flight from most European and African capitals and major cities, and either direct or connecting flights from North America and Asia. Ethiopian Airlines usually has the best deals.
Guided tours of Ethiopia
A guided Ethiopia tour is probably a good idea if you are tight on time.
There are many local tour companies that you can book tours with. They offer services that range from decent, to unremarkable to extremely poor (picture guides that speak no English, itineraries that aren’t respected, poor food and even worse sleeping arrangements). Paying more doesn’t necessarily mean receiving a better service. I strongly advise you to thoroughly read online reviews before booking anything.
G Adventures runs a 10 days tour Ethiopia tour, so you may want to opt for that if you are keen on having some basic standards. The tour doesn’t go to the Danakil – I suspect they could not find a reliable local dealer for that, which is not surprising. You can book it here.
These are some other tours that you can book online:
Again, my recommendation is to make all sorts of enquiries before booking, to avoid any bad surprise.
Minimal packing list
If your Ethiopia tour crosses several climates (from the mild temperatures of the highlands to the colder nights of Simien and the fierce heat of the Danakil Depression), it is important to pack smartly but as lightly as possible. Here is an essential packing list:
You may also want to take a water bottle with a filter, but keep in mind that you won’t really get hold of taps when traveling (especially in the Danakil) so you’ll often have to make do with bottles of water.
Cost of travel in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is kind of baffling in terms of costs. Food is extremely cheap, accommodation in general is very budget friendly, but tours are expensive, especially given the level of service you get. Be prepared to bargain for just about anything!
General tips for traveling around Ethiopia
Ethiopia isn’t an easy country to travel around. You can’t expect most of the comforts you are used to, and this will at times be aggravating.
Hygienic conditions aren’t ideal, and there will be occasions during which you’ll go for days without a sink to wash your hands, or a toilet (not even a squat one) – though to be fair most of the toilets other than those in your hotel room (and even those in the guest houses used during tours of the Danakil) are so filthy that you’ll honestly wish you could use the bush instead.
I strongly recommend not eating any raw vegetables (ie salads) and even meat or chicken during your time in the country. By all means, never drink tap water.
Chances are you’ll get some level of food poisoning at some point (I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t!). If that happens, make sure to drink plenty of fluids and eat plain food such as pasta with oil (no sauce) or bread. Avoid rice as that’s one of the foods that gets most easily contaminated.
Tourists are often approached by children selling small trinkets or demanding money or other objects. Never give anything to them; never buy anything from them: giving money or buying whatever they may be selling will encourage them to continue doing that; whereas they should be in school.
Garbage isn’t much of an issue in most of Ethiopia, and you’ll find the country is actually quite clean in this sense. The only exception is Danakil, where plastic seems to be a major issue, with the cracks of Erta Ale Volcano typically filled with plastic bottles. Don’t leave any garbage behind!
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Great Ethiopian Run for the first part of the trip (Addis Ababa and Lalibela) and wish to thank them and Blogilicious for putting together a fantastic trip and for allowing me to have such an incredible experience. Needless to say, the views expressed remain my own.
Valle de Cocora is one of the most enchanting places in Colombia. This cloud forest is easily reached from Salento, a small town in the heart of Colombia Coffee Region. A lot of people combine their visit of Salento with that of this splendid valley.
Needless to say, the best way to enjoy Valle de Cocora is on a hike.
This post explains everything you should know before hiking Cocora Valley, with plenty of practical tips to make the most of it.
The gorgeous Valle de Cocora is a must see
Hiking Valle De Cocora
The starting point to hike in Valle de Cocora is the parking lot where you’ll be dropped off by the jeep you’ll likely take to get there from Salento (more on how to get there below). At the parking lot you’ll find people offering horse rides, a number of small shops, and a place where you can rent rubber boots – which you may well need depending on the time of day and year you plan to hike.
Once there, you have the option of going two different ways.
If you continue straight, you’ll pick the short trail and head straight to Cocora. If you turn right where the blue iron gate is, you’ll pick the longer loop. If time and weather allow, you can even do both loops in a day, by walking the short trail first and then following the long loop clockwise.
Your decision on which trail to pick should be based on the amount of time you have available, on the time of day you are starting, and on the weather. Keep in mind that chances of rain are extremely high in this part of Colombia, and that on almost any given day, it starts raining at about 12:00 pm.
TIP: Plan to start hiking as early as possible to minimize the chances of being caught in the rain.
The short trail
Overall walking time: This route takes between an hour and an hour and a half.
Difficulty level: Easy.
Pick the short trail if time is an issue, if you’ve had a late start and if the weather isn’t really good. Keep in mind that this trail doesn’t really go through the forest and you won’t get to see Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary, but you’ll get plenty of photo opportunities of amazing wax palm trees.
Once you get off the jeep, all you have to do is continue walking straight and after about one km you will come to a meadow that is surrounded by beautiful palm trees.
A pretty hummingbird at Acaime sanctuary
The long loop
Overall walking time: This route takes between 5 and 6 hours, depending on the conditions of the trail, and on how often you stop for photos and to admire the views.
Difficulty level: Moderate to difficult, depending on how muddy the trail is.
Pick the long loop if you are keen on getting deeper into the forest and want a bit more of a challenge. This trail is significantly steeper than the short one, and you will have to cross several wooden suspension bridges. However, you will be rewarded with the best views of the valley.
Once you get off the jeep, you have to take the path on the right past the blue iron gate, where there are signs pointing to Los Nevados National Park.
After a few km you will get to Acaime, a hummingbird sanctuary where you can stop to rest and have a drink while admiring the lovely, colorful birds as they zip by.
It costs 5000 Colombian Pesos (COP) (little less than $1.5 USD) to visit Acaime, but the fee includes a drink. Most visitors of Acaime rave about its hot chocolate with cheese, a typical drink in Colombia. Unfortunately my lactose intolerance didn’t allow me to try it, so I had to settle for a juice.
Once you leave Acaime, continue walking up the hill on the left and you will be at Finca La Montaña in just about one hour. This is the best viewpoint of the hike. From there, you will start descending to the wax palm trees for another hour or hour and a half. This is the last stop before you start descending back to the parking lot.
PLEASE NOTE: It takes a total of 4 hours to get to the wax palm trees on the long trail.
TIP: You can walk both trails (the short trail and the long loop) on the same day. In this case, you will have to follow the short path on the left first, and get to the wax palm trees in about one hour. From there, you can walk the long loop clockwise, heading to Finca La Montaña first, then the hummingbird sanctuary, and finally walking back down to the parking lot.
PRO TIP: Do not attempt to walk both trails after heavy rains. Trails get very muddy, and walking the long loop clockwise means having to go down on a very steep trail which, when muddy, will be extremely slippery.
Cows are a common sight when hiking Cocora Valley
The views along the hike of Cocora Valley are simply splendid. The landscape in this part of Colombia is simply lush, with meadows as green as they get, with cows lazily chewing on grass. In a way, it will remind you of Switzerland for how green it is – with the *slight* difference that instead of seeing pine trees, you will see wax palm trees.
While the views are certainly better on a sunny day, the typical overcast weather and rain of this part of Colombia give the valley a special, almost mysterious glow. Expect thick myst and fog – it wouldn’t be called cloud forest otherwise!
The forest almost looks like an enchanted place – especially when you get to Acaima, which looks like a fairytale house with all the birds flying around.
Finally, the stream you will be crossing if you walk the long loop and all the suspension bridges give the region an even more bucolic feel.
What To Expect When Hiking In Valle De Cocora
If you walk the short trail you literally have nothing to worry about – it’s as easy as it can possibly be. The long loop presents way more difficulties, because it can be steep in parts, there will be several suspension bridges to cross, and especially because the trail can be muddy beyond belief on certain times of year.
When I hiked, there were parts along the trail where mud literally got up to my knees, and it took a great effort not to get stuck there. I confess it was quite frustrating and I considered giving up a few times.
TIP: The best way to avoid getting trapped in the mud is to keepmoving.Walk as fast as possible to get past the muddiest bits – and keep in mind that there’s hardly a way to avoid the mud. You’ll be covered in mud by the end of the hike.
Another thing you have to keep in mind is the persistent rain. After all, there is a good reason why this part of the country is so lush and green. If you can learn to appreciate the rain and the fog, this will be one of the most memorable hikes in your life.
The cloud forest of Cocora Valley and its tall wax palm trees
Practical Information For Your Hike Of Cocora Valley
Getting to the beginning of the trail
The best way to reach Valle de Cocora and the beginning of the trail from Salento is by jeep. Jeeps depart six times per day from the main square in town. These are the departure times: 6:10 am, 7:30 am, 9:30 am, 11:30 am, 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm.
Jeeps carry up to 7 passengers comfortably, though honestly at times you’ll see that there load even more people and you’ll see some standing outside the jeep.
The ride lasts about 30 minutes and costs 3600 COP, which is just $1 USD.
Jeeps returning to Salento depart from the same spot where passengers are dropped off.
The fee to walk both trails is 3000 COP, which is less than a US Dollar.
The trails in Cocora Valley are easy enough to follow so the hikes can be done independently. I recommend downloading a trail map such as those on Wikiloc and to keep close attention to the trail. One thing for sure, I don’t recommend hiking the trails alone – especially as it is so muddy that you may slip and fall.
A few companies in Salento offer guided hikes in Valle de Cocora. I hiked independently, so I honestly can’t recommend a company over the other. The only guided hike I could find online is a two day one that follows the long loop. The tour costs around €170, but includes transportation, meals and even accommodation for one night. You can book it here.
Food and drinks
There is no place to get food and water along the hike, so you really need to pack some – take a picnic with you or at least some snacks – for the duration of the hike. I recommend carrying 2 liters of water as a minimum, especially if you are fortunate enough to hike when the sun is shining.
The gorgeous wax palm trees in Cocora Valley
When to hike Valle de Cocora
The good news is that Cocora Valley is gorgeous no matter the weather. The bad news is that chances are it’ll be raining when you visit. I spent an entire week in Salento hoping for a sunny day for my hike, but eventually gave up and decided to go no matter what.
The driest month in the region is July, whereas apparently October is the wettest one. I was there at the beginning of March and it rained every single day. My advice is to just take rain for granted and plan your hike and get dressed accordingly.
Best time of day to hike
If you keep in mind that it generally starts raining between 12:00 and 2:00 pm, the best time of day to hike Valle de Cocora is the early morning. Make sure to hop on the first jeep leaving from Salento at 6:10 am and you’ll have plenty of hours of sun (or at least it won’t be raining) to complete the hike, and the trails will be significantly emptier too.
Essential items to wear and carry
Hiking in Valle de Cocora requires some careful planning in terms of what you wear and what you take with you. The chances of rain are very high every day, so it is essential you dress accordingly.
The following is a list of what you should be wearing and taking with you:
Osprey Manta 28 – an very good daypack with plenty of pockets to organize your stuff. It’s perfect for this kind of hike
A 10 L drybag – you can use it to keep your camera dry the minute it starts raining.
If the weather is nice, you will also need a good sunblock.
TIP: If you are hiking after some heavy rain and the trail is expected to be very muddy, you may want to actually ditch your hiking boots altogether and rent a pair of rubber mud boots from the small shop at the beginning of the trail. The rental fee is so small that this is something you should really consider.
Other useful information
You may not want to carry it on the hike, but make sure to take a travel guide with you when visiting Colombia, as it will come in handy whenever internet is not available. These are the ones I recommend:
Whether you are into running or not, you should consider registering for the Great Ethiopian Run (GER) at least once in life.
Taking place each November in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, the Great Ethiopian Run is more than just a race. It literally is a fantastic event, and easily the highlight of a trip to this beautiful African country. The combination of events leading to it, the incredible atmosphere, the welcoming locals, the cheering, the colors, the music, not to mention the actual challenge make it a fantastic experience.
Together with a small group of friends, I had the opportunity to run the last edition of the Great Ethiopian Run. You see, I am hardly a runner – if you have been following my blog for a while, you should know that I really am into swimming. I only started running after I decided to take part in the GER. I really enjoyed training (turns out I am also into running!) but even more so I enjoyed the race. So much so that I now run on a regular basis.
For those of you who are into running, and even for those who still aren’t, I have decided to put together this post to explain everything you need to know about the Great Ethiopian Run.
Continue reading to discover why you should join the GER even if you aren’t a running pro!
A view of Addis Ababa from the terrace of Hyatt Hotel
15 Things You Should Know About The Great Ethiopian Run
It takes place in Addis Ababa
You should take this information with a grain of salt. Indeed, Addis Ababa is a city like no other. The Ethiopian capital isn’t exactly a city that calls for running. First of all, it is set at more than 2300 meters above sea level – with some of its suburbs at a whopping 3000 meters. This means that unless you were born in the highlands of Bolivia, you will need time to acclimatize to the altitude – meaning you should plan to travel to Addis Ababa at least 3 days before the Great Ethiopian Run takes place.
Traffic in the city is crazy – pictures thousands of cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes, horse pulled carriages, donkeys and what not dodging the potholes and the markets that sprout at just about any corner. You won’t be able to train in the streets, if that is what you are wondering. You will need to find a field, or better, get out altogether.
Yet, it all comes together for the Great Ethiopian Run.
Just make sure not to underestimate the altitude and the pollution factor when registering.
Running for women’s right to equality
It’s actually a fundraiser
I wish this aspect was marketed more, because I feel that if people knew what the GER is all about, even more would be eager to participate.
The Great Ethiopian Run was started in 2001 (November 2020 will see the 20th race edition) by Peter Middlebrook, a British economist, Richard Nerurkar, a British marathon Olympian and the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, an Ethiopian athlete who is the most successful distance runner of all time. It’s aim is to raise funds for those in need.
Each year, more than 1.5 million Birr (around $50000 USD) are raised in favor of disadvantaged categories – usually women and girls. The race’s motto for 2019 was “Girls Deserve To Be Equally Seen, Heard And Valued.”
It’s a 10 km race
The Great Ethiopian Run is first and foremost a 10 km race. But a peculiar one it is. Nobody is there to take timings – you won’t really know how long it took you to jog the 10 km unless you time yourself. You will mostly be racing against yourself and the altitude. There really are no winners, yet everyone gets a medal as soon as they cut the finish line.
This photo may give you an idea of how many people join the Great Ethiopian Run
But also a massive carnival
If you feel intimidated at the thought of running an international race, worry not! The Great Ethiopian Run isn’t just a race, but also a massive carnival. In fact, it is thought to be the biggest street party in Africa, and a fun one it is. Indeed, you don’t even have to run at all!
There are music, songs and dances; there are shower stations where you’ll be able to take a break from the heat; you will find water and – should you really want to party – even beer. The atmosphere is just incredible – so much so that the race will easily qualify as the highlight of your trip to Ethiopia.
More than 40000 participants register each year
The Great Ethiopian Run is one of the most widely participated running events in the world. Each year, the number of participants increases – in 2019, around 45000 people joined. In terms of the actual run, this means that unless you are in the very first batch of runners and / or you sprint to the front dodging the crowd, you will end up getting stuck every so often, and you will likely run much slower than your usual pace. But who cares about pace and timing when having so much fun?
A group photo before the mayhem began!
The course is challenging but fun
The usual start and finish venue for the race is on a fourteen-lane highway in Meskel Square, located in the centre of the Addis Ababa. It’s a very large square, perfect for showcasing the event.
The course is somewhat challenging. There are quite a few uphill bits, with one of around 600 meters, that made the race all the more fun. Just embrace the race as it comes, pace yourself a bit slower than you’d normally run, and you’ll be in for a great time.
It’s incredibly well organized
I know what you are thinking – such a large scale event, in an African country, in an incredibly busy city. Surely organization will be somewhat lacking? Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Great Ethiopian Run is fantastically well organized, things run smoothly from the beginning to the end, and there are no delays in terms of the races and of the events that lead to it and those afterwards.
Even thanks to the work of volunteers
Around 500 volunteers each year help with the organization of the Great Ethiopian Run. Volunteers usually are university students, as well as members of groups and associations typically from Addis Ababa and the surrounding areas.
Training at 3000 meters above sea level for the GER
Training for the Great Ethiopian Run is almost as fun as the race itself
If you want to take things seriously, you really should train for the race. I started running in my hometown, Cagliari, which is located at sea level, a few months before the race. My training peaked when I ran just outside Addis Ababa at 3000 meters above sea level, so that I could test my level or resistance and how I’d do at an altitude – it was no joke, let me tell you!
Even though running may not be your thing, you will quickly get the hang of it as the benefits – physical and even more so emotional – are immense!
Make sure you run a bit every other day, starting with a short distance and increasing the pace and the distance every time. Apps such as Runtastic can be downloaded for free on your smartphone and help you track your progress. Remember to stretch abundantly before and after running to avoid muscle pain, and to eat healthily and drink plenty of water after you run.
There are plenty of events leading to it
It’s not just about the race! International participants to the Great Ethiopian Run get to participate in a number of fun events, including a night out at a traditional local restaurant, with traditional music and dances; an open bus ride through the streets of Addis Ababa; and a Pasta Party at the Hyatt Hotel where there an auction to raise even more funds take place and which is hosted by British marathon Olympian Richard Nerurkar, and sees Haile Gebrselassie as the guest of honor.
And celebrations afterwards
Honestly, the race is enough of a celebration itself. But in case you want to have even more fun, you can join the reception lunch that takes place at the Hyatt Hotel Terrace after the race. You will have a chance to load on delicious food and to relax with other participants to the race.
Finishing the race we got congratulations by the legendary Haile – photo courtesy of Margherita Ragg (The Crowded Planet)
You get to meet the legendary Haile Gebrselassie
This should be reason enough to make you want to register for the race. Haile Gebrselassie is the best long distance runner of all times, winner of two Olympic titles and four world championship. More than anything else, he is an incredibly genuine, friendly, humble person that welcomes all participants to the Great Ethiopian Run with his fun attitude and honest smile.
The best chances to meet Haile are at the Pasta Party, the night before the race. I was incredibly lucky to also meet him right after I finished the race: he hugged me to congratulate me for the result (I mean: surviving the race is a result, right?) and was happy to pose for a post race selfie. Not exactly your average VIP!
As well as other international running legends
Attendees of the GER include international running superstars who go to show support for the cause. Among 2019 participants, there was Hellen Obiri, a Kenyan middle-distance runner who won the gold medal at London world championship in 2017 and defended the title and established a new world record during the 2019 championship in Doha.
Imagine my face when – the day we went training outside of Addis Ababa – I realized that Hellen Obiri would be training with us. I guess I don’t need to tell you that I only saw her at stretching time!
One of the beautiful participants to the Children’s Race
There is a children’s race too
Taking place at the Ethiopian Youth Sport Academy the day before the GER, there is a children’s race too – which is about as well attended as the GER itself. The event has been sponsored by Plan International since 2008, and has since them adopted a new motto every year in favor of children’s rights (this year it was all about girls right to equality).
The children’s race is divided in category according to age, gender as well as various disabilities category. It’s a fun event to attend, that gives you an understanding of how much running is part of the culture of the country, and how felt the run and the fundraiser are locally.
Eating well is key to a good experience
So says Haile Gebrselassie, who recommends a diet of easy to process carbs and lots of water as well as the occasional beer after some hard core training (I admit I had to tease him a bit to admit that beer is ok every now and then). Furthermore, carbs such as pasta are the best food to have to adjust to the altitude. That’s why on the night before the race there is a Pasta Party!
If you travel for food, make sure to read my posts about international cuisine:
In order to register for the race you need to visit the official website. Registration for 2020 have just opened and I encourage you to register as soon as possible, as only a limited number of international participants are allowed each year.
It costs £70 GBP (around $90 USD) for international participants to register, and with that you get a pack which includes the t-shirt you will have to wear during the race and invitations for the Pasta Party and the post-race reception. You will also get a pass for the VIP or VVIP area during the race.
Traveling to Ethiopia
Addis Ababa international airport is very well connected internationally, with flights to all European and African capitals and major cities, as well as direct or connecting flights to destinations in Asia or the Americas. Ethiopian Airlines usually has the best fairs.
You can get your tourist visa for Ethiopia on arrival or – alternatively – apply for it online and save time once you get there. You can obtain your visa here – it costs $50 plus $2 USD handling fee.
Addis Ababa is located at 2350 meters above sea level, much like the rest of Northern Ethiopia. Make sure to travel to Ethiopia at least a few days before the race to properly acclimatize to the altitude.
Where to stay and eat in Addis Ababa
There are a few good places to stay and eat in Addis Ababa. Here is a selection:
Yaya Village, in Sululta, is a plain but nice hotel outside of the city, from where you will have easy access to the forest for great training opportunities. There is an on site restaurant that serves very good food, and a small but nice pool. Internet only works (sparsely) in the reception area. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Hyatt Regency Addis Ababa is one of the best hotels in town, and definitely the best located in terms of the race as it is right by Meskel Square, where the GER starts and ends. The hotel has a pool, a gym, a fantastic restaurant where you can enjoy Middle Eastern food. Rooms are spacious and cozy (if only a bit too warm). Wifi works well even in the rooms. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
The Great Ethiopian Run and Addis Ababa are the perfect starting point for a longer trip to Ethiopia and you shouldn’t miss on the opportunity to visit this incredible country. The organization of the GER can help you put together a short itinerary.
Here are some posts that will help you plan your trip:
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Great Ethiopian Run and wish to thank them and Blogilicious for putting together a fantastic trip and for allowing me to have such an incredible experience. Needless to say, the views expressed remain my own.
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated July 2019). Learn more about me here…