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Crossing the Omo River in Southern Ethiopia
Crossing the Omo River in Southern Ethiopia | © Rod Waddington / Flickr
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The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Ethiopia

Picture of Serkalem Tafesse
Updated: 3 April 2018
From the ancient rock-hewn churches that appeal to a serene vacationer to the ancient ritual of hyena feeding for a little bit of an adrenaline rush, Ethiopia offers a little bit of everything for the savvy traveler. Its great weather and hospitable people will be something to will remember for quite some time.

The backpacker scene

Ethiopia holds many accolades, from being the cradle of humankind to the birthplace of your morning coffee. With diverse tourist attraction sites, the country offers a little bit of everything for travelers with different passions. For the nature lover, the scenic landscapes, endemic animals, and beautiful lakes present the experience of a lifetime. Outdoor activities are always a safe bet with sunny weather all year round—a reason for Ethiopia’s famous former tourism slogan, “thirteen months of sunshine”—so you can wear those shorts you packed anytime you want.

For the traveler on a spiritual quest, Ethiopia treasures sacred places with pilgrimage sites for both Christians and Muslims. Axum Tsion, in the northern part of the country, is where the original Ark of the Covenant is kept. You can also visit the fourth holiest city of Islam, Harar, in the East. Make that meaningful journey for the soul.

Most of the tourist attraction sites are located in rural parts of the country, which is why backpackers are usually seen in areas out of the capital city of Addis Ababa. Regardless of your reason to visit this spectacular land, here are some tips to keep your travel enthusiasm from slamming into a budget barrier.

Ethiopian coffee ceremony
Ethiopian coffee ceremony | © David Stanley / Flickr

Making the most of it

Moving around

The blue and white minibuses and yellow cabs are available for in-city travel in Addis Ababa. The mini buses have 12 passenger seats but expect to share yours with others. Taxi operators call out the name of the taxi’s destination so you know which one to catch. There are usually long queues for these taxis, especially during commute hours. You can hop on and off at any point en route. Don’t forget to say weraj ale when you reach your destination. The yellow cabs are relatively more expensive but they are perfect for a more personalized service. A light railway system is also in place in some parts of the city.

Learn key words

Being able to say a few words in Amharic can make your travel a lot easier. Here are a few Amharic words to help you out: Hello – Selam, Thank you – Amesegenalehu, Where is …? … yet new? How much is this? – sent new? Please – ebakewot.

Learn the traditional dance

Ethiopia’s traditional dance can be fun to watch but even more fun to try. Visit cultural restaurants that have traditional performers to show you the energizing Ethiopian dance moves, Eskesta. You will get the hang of it in a few minutes.

Ethiopian traditional dancers performing at 2000 Habesha Restaurant
Ethiopian traditional dancers performing at 2000 Habesha Restaurant | © Joepyrek / Flickr

Safety

Although pick-pocketing and purse snatching can be seen at times, violent crimes against foreigners hardly occur, making Ethiopia one of the safest places to visit in the world. It could be useful to keep your expensive belongings at home to avoid petty thefts.

As for the country’s traffic safety, it could be better, but it’s not something you can’t dodge by being careful when you cross a street. Driving is done on the right-hand side of the road.

Traveling solo as a woman is not a scary decision but do stay in the company of others if you have plans to take a night stroll on a less busy street. Even if you find it hard to navigate your way with a GPS system, the people won’t allow you to get lost. The welcoming and friendly nature of Ethiopians will make your stay worthwhile.

Food and accommodation

A safe-haven for vegetarians, the Ethiopian cuisine served in restaurants has extensive options, especially during fasting seasons. Teff, the gluten-free food that’s native to Ethiopia, is a regular part of the country’s dish. For an extraordinary culinary experience, you can try the raw beef or goat meat and Kitfo. Restaurants that serve local dishes are preferred choices for the cash-strapped traveler.

Hotels that are not above three stars offer good quality service for $25 on average. If you are willing to make some compromises, you can get your own room for just $11.

A variety of Ethiopian dishes
A variety of Ethiopian dishes | © CCFoodTravel.com / Flickr

Making friends

Strike up a conversation with the people at the next table in a coffee shop, chances are you’ll be welcomed with a smile. People are that friendly! For longer hours of socializing, joining a hiking group, like Addis Hikings, or volunteer for rotary clubs. It’s the shortest way to learn about the local life style. You can also drop in on some of the cultural events organized by the likes of Alliance Ethio-Française and Goethe-Institut.

Money, money, money

Keep your visa card close and your cash closer. A few places offer service at a card swipe but the cash in your pocket is second-to-none, especially for those who plan to travel out of Addis Ababa.

The Ethiopian Birr (ETB) is the most used currency and the most reliable way to exchange for dollars is banks, which you can find on every corner.

27.24: 1 – ETB to US Dollar (as of March 2018)

Costs

1 meal – ($1-$10 USD)

1 beer – $0.5

1 night at a backpacker hostel – $11

1 cheap mode of transport for inner city travel – $0.5

1 hygiene/medical essential (at a local shop) – $6

1 affordable experience – $10

Where to go

The Danakil Depression

The Northeastern part of Ethiopia is home to the hottest place on Earth, where daytime temperatures soar to 50 °C in Summer. Here, you can see magnificent multicolored landscapes that give you the impression of a carefully painted art book. The oldest active volcano, called Erta Ale, is also found in Afar. After looking at the bubbling lava from the volcano and the unbearable heat, you can see why the Afar people call this place the gateway to hell.

Lalibela

All your other plans can take a backseat until you visit the magnificent churches in Lalibela town. Dubbed the “New Jerusalem,” Lalibela is a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians and has 11 ancient monolithic churches carved out of rock and the largest monolithic church in the world. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site.

The 15-meter-high Bete Giorgis Church in Lalibela
The 15-meter-high Bete Giorgis Church in Lalibela | © Rod Waddington / Flickr

Semien Mountains National Park

Ideal for travelers seeking a trekking experience, the Semien Mountains, also called the Roof of Africa, have cliffs that tower as high as 1,500 meters. Ras Dashen, the highest point in Ethiopia, is also found here. Home to the Semien Fox, the Ethiopian Wolf, the Walia Ibex, and the Gelada Baboon, these mountains live up to your expectations of a UNESCO world heritage site.

Lake Tana

Source of the famous Blue Nile falls in Bahir dar, Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia and offers you a tranquil and relaxing setting. Hire a boat for a private cruise or to cross the lake and visit the 40 historic churches and monasteries around it.

Harar Jegol

Complementing its title as the fourth holiest city of Islam, the city of Harar is home to 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, and 102 shrines. The city is enclosed by a wall built in the 11th century with five entry gates.

Bucket list experiences

Feeding hyenas in Harar

If you are into flirting with danger, being able to feed hyenas directly from your mouth is an experience that will definitely get your heart pumping. In the ancient walled city of Harar in Ethiopia, hyena feeding is a ritual that has been practiced for half a century. A hyena whisperer sits on a hill holding meat on a stick with his mouth to feed the wild hyenas that come out every night. Here’s a chance to check “hang out with a beast” off your bucket list.

Feeding the hyenas
Feeding the hyenas | © Adam Jones / Flickr

Ethiopian coffee

Drink coffee the Ethiopian way. Traditional coffee ceremonies are usually long, taking at least half an hour. Coffee beans are roasted, ground by hand in a mortar and pestle, and boiled on a hot coal. The pleasant scent of the frankincense smoke and popcorn add to the pleasant ambiance. You can finally say you have tasted coffee from its birthplace.