There are a few things you should know before you travel to Ethiopia. This is a destination 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 travel to Ethiopia, hoping that you’ll go there with plenty of information on what to expect about this destination, and tips that will help you fully enjoy your trip.
37 Important Things To Know Before You Travel To Ethiopia
It’s more populated than you may think
Most people who have yet to travel to 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. Dire Dawa, which is considered a small to mid size town, almost has half a million. Arba Minch counts more than 200000.
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.
It borders with 6 countries
Land crossing is easier said than done in this continent, but just to give you an idea, Ethiopia borders with six more countries – Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Somalia.
GOOD TO KNOW: Keep in mind that the only viable border between Kenya and Ethiopia is a Moyale, which is hardly the safest place in Africa.
It’s where Lucy was found
Many people – including myself – only remember this once they travel to Ethiopia. This – and most specifically the Danakil – is thought to be the cradle of humankind. This is where the 3.5 million-year-old rests of Lucy, the famous hominid skeleton currently on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, were found.
GOOD TO KNOW: Another cool museum to visit is the Ethnological Museum of Addis Ababa, which will take you through the country’s culture and history.
People are generally friendly
The first think you’ll notice when you travel to 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.
There are 9 UNESCO sites
You will quickly learn when you travel to Ethiopia that Ethiopia has more UNESCO sites than any other African country. The most famous one is the rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela (the one that comes to mind is usually Bete Giyorgis, the cross-shaped one), which really have to be included in your itinerary (they are a real must-see).
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Fasil Ghebbi Castle in Gondar (among the only castles in East Africa). Others include the Simien Mountains and its National Park; the fortified historic town of Harar (Harar is thought to be the fourth holiest city of Islam), and Aksum, where the famous Ark of the Covenant is held.
The landscape is breathtaking
With highlands, lakes (I am thinking of the impressive Lake Tana, or Langano in the Rift Valley), high mountains, the Blue Nile and Blue Nile falls, a high volcanic plateau and a desert depression in Northern Ethiopia, this country 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 heart-stopping.
When you visit 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 – this really is a must-visit.
Yet, it is Danakil, the region on the border with Eritrea, that will take your breath away with the Mars like landscape of Erta Ale Volcano and the vivid colors of Dallol.
Wildlife is unique
This is not the safari-kind of sub-saharan Africa you may be thinking of – you won’t be seeing cheetahs and leopards as you may in South Africa. Yet, travelling to Ethiopia can be incredibly rewarding in terms of wildlife. The UNESCO-listed Simien Mountains National Park is home to the beautiful gelada baboons; the Awash National Park is inhabited by the East African oryx, warthogs, greater kudus and more. The Mole-Rats live in the Bale Mountains. You may also have a chance to spot the blue-winged goose.
Altitude sickness may hit you
One thing to keep in mind before you travel to 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 (the highest peak in the metropolitan area is Entoto Hill – simply referred to as Entoto – which goes above 3200 meters!), 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, which is often part of the itinerary when you travel to Ethiopia, is where you’ll visit Erta Ale Volcano, Lake Giulietti and Dallol. This 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
- Don’t go to the Danakil if you are a high-risk traveler (for example, if you have a heart condition).
Cities are chaotic
Cities in Ethiopia are mayhem and I recommend visiting just a couple when you travel to Ethiopia. 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. Getting from the center of town ie Meskel to the Merkato (the large market) or the Holy Trinity Cathedral is a full ordeal, even if the distance is short. 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. The Afar, one of the ethnic groups who live on the border with Eritrea, have their own language.
Though English is widely and well spoken in Addis Ababa and in the most touristy areas such as Lalibela or Gondar, when you go beyond Addis Ababa 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, and it can make visiting Ethiopia challenging at times.
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 to 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.
Make sure to enquire with the site of the Ethiopian Embassy in your country to check what documents are necessary to visit Ethiopia. Once you have your documents ready, you can obtain e-visas here – it costs $50 plus $2 USD handling fee.
GOOD TO KNOW: Make sure to check that your vaccinations are all in order before traveling to the country and take your sanitary passport with you – you need to show proof of yellow fever vaccination when entering.
And you are better off with a good travel insurance
You really, truly, definitely don’t want to take any chances when you visit Ethiopia: don’t forget to buy travel insurance before your trip. Get yours here.
Check out my post “Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”
Make sure to also check local media, the site of your Embassy or any travel advisory for up-to-date information on safety in the country when you travel to Ethiopia. Keep in mind that these – especially the U.S. Embassy – tend to give a rather dramatic picture of what’s happening in the country, often calling civil unrest what is nothing more than a peaceful demonstration and calling off any non-essential travel.
Internet is hardly a thing
Trying to get online when you visit 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 you visit 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 (about 10 minutes drive from Meskel Square) and there is virtually no line. Or else, you can decide to go on a digital detox when you visit Ethiopia.
Hostels aren’t common
You won’t find many hostels when in Ethiopia – these are simply uncommon there. There is no real hostel in Lalibela. There is Gondar Backpackers in Gondar, which is actually a really nice place, and where you will be able to use the kitchen and do your laundry.
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. Most of them will give you the chance to wash your clothes too.
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.
Tuk tuks are the most budget friendly way to go around
Public transport isn’t much of a thing in Ethiopia, at least not for foreigners. There are shared / public taxis (minivans) and contract taxis, which are just regular taxis.
However, the best way to go from one place to another in any city when you visit Ethiopia 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!
GOOD TO KNOW: My friend and I managed to score a tuk-tuk for a full day tour of Gondar for around 600 Ethiopian birr – that didn’t include entrances to the various attractions.
Domestic flights are cheap
You will quickly realize when you visit that Ethiopia is a huge country but 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.
GOOD TO KNOW: Addis Ababa, Lalibela, Gondar, Aksum, Mekele and Bahir Dar, which are likely going to be in your itinerary, are all served by airports.
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. Credit cards aren’t easily accepted – even when they tell you they are! You can exchange foreign currency 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!
GOOD TO KNOW: The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr, but US Dollars are widely (though unofficially) accepted in hotels and travel agencies.
Guided tours are (unfortunately) necessary
Though guided tours aren’t necessary to visit places such as Lalibela, Gondar and Aksum (also known as Axum and home of the Aksumite obelisk), there is no way around it in other cases: whether you want to hike the Simien Mountains, visit the Tigray Churches, wonder around the Omo Valley and its National Park or the Danakil Depression in Northern Ethiopia is in your travel plans, 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 to Ethiopia, this isn’t necessarily the case. A guide quoted my friend and me the equivalent of a whopping $170 USD for a full-day guided tour Axum! Keep in mind that’s not even what you pay for a complete tour of Rome!
So whether you are about to sign up for a day trip or for multi days tour, make sure you know what to expect.
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 operator 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.
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 pancake-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.
GOOD TO KNOW: Western-style food is available pretty much anywhere in Ethiopia. Thanks to the Italian influence, pasta and pizza are easily found on the menu. Keep in mind they don’t nearly resemble the pasta you’d have in Italy, but they’ll do!
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. This is the coffee capital of Africa and you will have many a chance to observe a coffee ceremony. 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 – and if you visit this country, you’ll end up doing the same.
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, and much like in the rest of Africa, never have tap water in 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
Ethiopia is open to international travel and, for the most part, it is a safe destination 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 – it’s a common thing you come across in Africa. 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, from the Simien Mountains to the Omo Valley. 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!
Care to be a more responsible tourist? Make sure to read my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Hygienic conditions are inadequate
In most places you will see when 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.
Garbage and plastic don’t seem to be a huge issue
One thing that will positively surprise you when you travel to Ethiopia is that the roads are quite clean and that there is hardly any garbage around. Ethiopia is the first country in Africa that established a waste-to-energy plant, located in Addis Ababa and which incinerates around 80% of the city’s waste and supplies around 30 per cent of its household electricity needs.
Except in the Danakil
The only part of Ethiopia where you’ll feel garbage really is an issue is the Danakil Depression, at the border with Eritrea. 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.
It’s best to visit Ethiopia during the dry season
But this is easier said than done. While temperatures are more or less consistent year-round, the dry season theoretically goes from September to March. But this is a very large country with a variety of climates and rain is not uncommon in certain regions even outside the rainy season.
It literally poured for the entire afternoon and well into the night when I hiked the Simien Mountains in November, and that was meant to be the dry season! My travel advice is to be prepared for all sorts of weather conditions – see more below!
Smart packing is essential
This is especially valid when you travel to Ethiopia and other parts of Africa 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. Also keep in mind that you need to follow local laws and customs even when it comes to what you wear – things such as shorts are a no-no.
The following is a very basic packing list:
- Two pairs of lightweight hiking pants. My favorite are Kuhl Resistor Pantsand Horizn Convertible.
- A pair of thermal pants and a thermal shirt for the cold nights in the Simien Mountains. I swear by Kuhl Akkomplice Bottom and Akkomplice Zip Neck
- A rain and windproof jacket such as Kuhl Hydroflex and a warmer one such as Kuhl Skyfire Down Parka
- A sweater or a micro fleece for the chilly evenings. Also take the Kuhl Alskawhich you can wear to sleep in the Simien.
- Two cotton long sleeve t-shirts. I love Kuhl Intent Hoody. Also take a couple of short sleeve ones such as Kuhl Valiant.
- A good pair of lightweight hiking shoes such as Salomon X Ultra 3 Low GTX
- A pair of flip flops or alternatively sandals such as Teva Elzada
- A hat, a headband and a bandana
- A good daypack. I recommend REI Trail Hydro
- A headlamp
- Wet wipes and hand sanitizer
- 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.
Make sure to read my other posts about Ethiopia:
- Everything You Need To Know About The Great Ethiopian Run
- 13 Top Things To Do In Ethiopia – A Two Weeks Ethiopia Tour
- Everything You Must Know About Simien Mountains Trekking
- A Very Useful Guide To Visiting Lalibela, Ethiopia
- What You Must Know Before Visiting The Danakil
You may also want to consider getting a good Ethiopia travel guide. Here are a couple I can recommend:
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.