A Danakil Depression tour is a fantastic addition to a trip to Ethiopia, but are you truly ready for it?
The Danakil Depression is one of the harshest places in the world. Breathtakingly beautiful, desolate and politically troubled, visiting is no piece of cake and there are many things to consider before going. This is a place that can only be visited on guided tours – but picking a good company is essential, because when things go wrong (and they might), only properly trained guides and drivers know how to react.
Curious to find out more? Read this post to find out more about the Danakil, and for everything you need to know know before your Danakil Depression tour.
Quick Facts About Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression
At the border with Eritrea and Djibouti, in Northeastern Ethiopia in a region called Afar, the Danakil Depression is one of the harshest places on earth. The landscape is characterized by unique rock formations, springs and geysers which are the result of the constant shifting of the three tectonic plates on which the region is sitting.
Set at 125 meters below sea level and receiving hardly any rain throughout the year, this place is known to be the hottest in the world, with average daily temperatures of 34° C (93.2° F), though they can go well over 50° C (122° F). The heat is the first thing you will notice there – I remember it was 8:00 am when we got there, and it was already unbearably hot.
Life in the Danakil
Despite the inhospitable living conditions, there’s life in the Danakil. You may have heard of Lucy, the hominid skeleton currently on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia, in the capital Addis Ababa. Well, this is where it was found!
This is also where the Afar people – one of Ethiopia’s indigenous groups – live. To date, the Afar still follow a traditional nomadic lifestyle, since their main economic activity is cattle or goat herding. Some also work in the salt mines in the Dallol – you may come across photos of camel caravans carrying large blocks o salt: this is where they were taken.
Now that you have the basic facts, let’s see what you need to know before your Danakil Depression Tour.
11 Things To Know Before A Danakil Depression Tour
When to go
There is no way of escaping the heat in the Danakil, but locals suggest that it’s best to go between November and January, when temperatures are a bit more bearable. Now, I don’t know if the word bearable here is the one I’d use – I went at the end of November and trust me, it was not bearable to me!
Tours of the Danakil Depression depart Mekele, the largest city in the Tigray at roughly 150 km from the Danakil. You can get there by plane from Addis Ababa and by direct bus from Aksum. The city truly is nothing special – literally use it as a base for the tour, to shower and rest once you get back and if you have extra time you may visit the market and the main museum (provided it’s open).
All tours follow more or less the same itinerary. 3-day tours are structured like this:
You’ll spend your first day driving to reach Erta Ale volcano. The drive is a tad boring, but the landscape is stunning and you may be lucky to spot some wildlife (we saw lots of antelopes and locusts, which I initially mistook for small birds!). By the time you get to the base of the volcano, it will be night already: you will be served dinner and then you set to walk with a torch to see the volcano and the lava explosions. Don’t worry, it’s an easy 1.5 hour hike to the crater, and about the same amount of time to walk back to the camp.
The volcano is active, but not quite as much as it’s been in the past. Yet, it remains an impressive sight. You need to cover your nose and mouth with a scarf or a mask when while there: the gas and fumes that come out of it are actually toxic!
After about 30 minutes to one hour, you will walk back to the camp for the night.
After waking up at 4:00 am, you will walk up the crater to admire a beautiful sunrise. After breakfast, you will start driving to Lake Afrera (also known as Lake Giulietti), a salt lake set at 100 meters below sea level. You will spend about one hour there so you may take the opportunity to swim (well, float really!) a bit.
Bring a swimsuit, a towel, and a bottle of water to rinse off as there are no facilities other than the springs by the lake.
After visiting Lake Giulietti, you will drive to Abala, a small town where you will be having dinner and spending the night in a basic guesthouse.
After an early wake up call, you will drive to the Dallol, where the salt flats, the geysers and the yellow sulphur lakes (the smell is vile) with puddles of bubbling water are located. There are wooden tracks to walk around, and you should make it a point to only walk there so as not to disrupt the delicate environment.
You will also see lots of caravans of camels carrying blocks of salt to the nearest market.
The price of a Danakil Depression tour starts at $250 per person and include transportation; sleeping arrangements; food and water (but not other drinks). Some tours cost up to $600 but they aren’t necessarily better. The following tours have good reviews and all go to the Danakil:
- 3 Days / 2 Nights Nights Danakil Depression Tour
- 6 Days tour Package (Simien Mountains, Lalibela, and Danakil Depression)
- 5 Days Axum, Lalibela, Tigray churches and Danakil
- Ethiopian Round Trip Tours To North Historic Route & Omo Valley Tribes
- Ethiopian Tours To Danakil Depression & North With Omo Valley Tribes 15 Days
When and how should you book the tour?
I am usually a fan of booking in advance for higher chances of good prices and to secure a spot with a good company, but this is one of the cases where I don’t think it makes a difference. Ethiopia is hardly a popular tourist destination, so you won’t have trouble finding a spot on a tour even if you book your tour last minute, once in Mekele (which is where you’ll find the offices of the two main companies running the tour: Ethio Travel and Tours and World Sun).
The only convenience of booking online via a major aggregator is that you will have a reliable customer service to contact in case you want to complain and / or get a full or partial refund. Online aggregators will also have flexible cancellation policies.
How much should you spend in the Danakil?
Danakil Depression tours typically last two to four days. I think three days are ideal to see everything at a good pace. Four days are too many to go without the chance of showering (considering the heat) and having a proper toilet!
Facilities during the tour
Lower your expectations, and then lower them again, because the facilities during the tour are beyond basic.
During your first day / night, you will sleep in the open, on (rotten) mattresses directly on the floor, in broken sleeping bags – you may want to bring your own. If you are lucky, you may sleep on a wooden woven bed. You won’t have a toilet or a sink.
On the second night you will be staying in a dorm in guest house and sleep on mattresses on the floor. There are squat toilets, a sink in the yard (but most of the time water is turned off) and a (cold) shower.
Food will be basic; vegetarian and vegan options are available. Pack some snacks!
Cars – typically a land cruiser – are in good conditions and with air-con, but a bit tight.
The Danakil Depression is truly dirty. Plastic bottles are a common sight, especially around Erta Ale Volcano. Unfortunately, the lack of running water means that everyone carries plastic bottles. Make sure to pack up all your waste and bring it back to town with you, whenever you can.
Expect children to run after you saying “hello money!” and expecting money in exchange of – well nothing, really. Don’t give them anything – no matter how cute they look. This is the only way to break this vicious cycle that keeps them off school.
I was also terribly bothered by flies. You’d wonder how they survive in the heat! As soon as you take food out, they come in swarms!
Visiting the Danakil Depression with Ethio Travel And Tours
I visited the Danakil Depression with with ETT (Ethio Travel and Tours), one of the most popular local companies, and I was hardly impressed. The service was basic at best: we slept in dirty mattresses; the meals were barely passable; we were not provided gas maskers although we literally slept on the rim of a volcano with lots of toxic gas (something other companies offer); and the guide had to manage a group of 20 travelers – which would be perfectly ok in any other place, but not in the Danakil where the conditions are extreme.
Although the guide spoke good English (which by the way doesn’t go without saying!), he didn’t seem motivated to share information with the group, so we felt like we were just being driven from one place to the other.
Pick your tour company carefully, and carefully read online reviews – on the tours I have linked to above, or even directly on Trip Advisor – before booking.
Safety in the Danakil
The Danakil isn’t exactly the safest place in the world and groups are escorted by an armed guard (they had to be escorted by the army until a few years ago). The Afar people who live there want an independent state and they have been having clashes with the central government of Ethiopia for decades. Though desperate for tourist money, they don’t seem happy to have tourists in the region.
Attacks on tourists have been registered, at times ending in tragedy: two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian were killed in 2012; a German tourist was shot and died in December 2017. In 2018 the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) finally signed a peace agreement with the central government and things have improved a bit.
Yet, road blocks are a common sight, and tour guides and drivers often have to negotiate with the local representatives to be able to push through, sometimes after having paid a bribe. Bribe money is actually accounted for in some tours – in my case, it was not paid but we waited around for more than one hour as the guide negotiated.
Given the circumstances, is it actually ethical to visit the Danakil? Sorry, I don’t have an answer: not even after visiting!
You can’t really appreciate the heat of the Dallol until you go there. Things such as severe dehydration and heat strokes are two direct consequences of extreme temperatures, and copious amounts of water (keep a bottle handy at all times) and a head cover are a must to minimize the risk. Sunblock is also necessary.
Your guide will tell you never to leave the group and wander around by yourself, and no matter how much you want to explore on your own you should listen! In August 2019 a young Israeli student left the group to walk back to the car, unable to bare the heat. Severe dehydration caused her to be confused and she lost her way, and never made it back to the car: she died within a few hours.
Don’t underestimate any health condition you may have. If you suffer from chronic illnesses, a heart condition etc, this is not a place for you – the nearest hospital or health care is in Mekele, at 8 hours drive!
What to pack for your Danakil Depression tour
You really don’t need to pack much when visiting the Danakil Depression – you won’t be able to shower and change! Make sure to wear long pants and a light cotton shirt with long sleeves to keep away the fierce sun. Other things you need are:
- An extra cotton shirt or two.
- A windbreaker and a light sweater for when you walk to Erta Ale Volcano.
- A hat and a scarf to wear around your face / mouth when visiting Erta Ale volcano (unless gas maskers are provided).
- Hiking shoes.
- A swimsuit and a travel towel.
- Hand sanitizer and baby wipes.
- Sun screen.
- A sleeping bag (or a liner).
- A headlamp.
- Energy bars.
Further readings about Ethiopia
If you are planning a trip to Ethiopia, you should make sure to read my other posts:
- 13 Unforgettable Things To Do In Ethiopia: A Two Weeks Ethiopia Tour
- What You Need To Know About Travel In Ethiopia
- Everything You Need To Know About The Great Ethiopian Run
- A Very Useful Guide To Visiting Lalibela, Ethiopia
- Everything You Must Know About Simien Mountains Trekking