Traveling in Ethiopia

When James and I decided to tack Ethiopia on to the end of our 3.5 month trip around Africa, I’ll be honest – I had no idea what to expect. Unlike other parts of Africa we visited, there appeared to be very little information accessible so I thought this post may help those considering a visit to this incredible country. There are some difficult things about travelling this country, but I wouldn’t want this post to discourage anyone, just inform them. So, to start, check out this video to get a sense of how truly incredible this trip was!

What you should know before traveling to Ethiopia:

It is one of the most adventurous, exciting, strange and beautiful places you will ever visit.
I should be clear that we only spent a week there, so we really just scratched the surface – but our time in Addis Ababa, the Danakil Depression and Lalibela left us feeling floored and excited to tell others all about it! One of the biggest benefits is just how untouched it us; this really struck me when we were visiting the House of St. George in Lalibela, which would be considered one of the most famous churches in the country if not the continent, and it was just James, myself and our guide. Even if you are doing a tour (which we did, and I would recommend to others – more on that later) it doesn’t feel crowded or touristy.


The top of Erte Ale.

If you want to see more of Ethiopia, apart from Addis Ababa, you would be wise to use a tour company.
While I am sure it is doable, my experience leads me to believe it would also be incredibly difficult getting around the country without using a company. For some areas, it is a requirement (i.e. the Danakil Depression) and for others it will probably just make your life a whole lot easier. We met some people who had used a tour company for Erte Ale in the Danakil Depression, and when they went on to the mountain churches of Tigray they decided just to keep a driver and ditch the guide, which resulted in them getting lost on the trail to Maryam Korkor, and being harassed my locals. We had a guide for this portion and had absolutely no problems at all. The one exception here might be Lalibela, which is safe and easy to navigate – but we really enjoyed learning about the history from our guide. [We used ETT for a 5-day Danakil Depression, Tigray and Lalibela Tour]. Though we didn’t book a private tour, we were mostly on our own. For the Danakil Depression, it was James & I with one other guy and our driver during all the driving – for other activities (the salt lake, Erte Ale) you are with a larger group. The rest of the trip (mountain churches of Tigray, Axum and Lalibela) it was just the two of us with a driver and guide.


ETT guides on the lookout in the Danakil Depression

Book your tour ahead of time.
Speaking of using a tour company, from our experience there is not much to be gained from waiting until you arrive to book. We had read somewhere that if you go directly to the tour company’s office you may be able to get a discount. This resulted in us spending about 5 hours one afternoon at the ETT office in Addis Ababa, while the agent called around to try and get our flights, hotels, etc. sorted. The money we saved was nominal, and we could have just booked everything through email before arriving which would have saved a lot of time and frustration!

Don’t go in expecting luxury.
One negative to it not being a big tourist destination (yet) is that it doesn’t have all the infrastructure of other places. Read: toilets. In the capital, you can find decent toilets, but on our tour (apart from the hotel) you were best suited to always carrying baby wipes and hand sanitizer with you. In the Danakil Depression, we didn’t even have squat toilets – we literally just had to find whatever privacy we could behind a mound of rocks!


Sitting on my bed, looking over the ‘toilets’ toward the sunrise.

Unless you will be spending a considerable amount of time in the capital, it is not worth getting a SIM card.
In addition to spending 5 hours at the ETT office on our first day, we also spent well over an hour trying to get a SIM card which was a 3-step process. The first 2 steps (getting the SIM, registering the SIM) took less than 5 minutes, before we joined a cue of people waiting to register their phones. To avoid residents importing phones from other countries, mobile companies make a point of registering everyone’s phone when they buy a SIM card. So, ok, after an hour we had working internet – which is great right? It was, until we left the capital. It seems that the government has blocked 3G outside of the capital, along with Facebook and other social media apps to put an end to student protests. Since we only spent 2 days in the capital, it was a waste of time (and money) for us.

Rules change all the time, and don’t always make sense.
As with the above – which had only changed shortly before we visited – the government is constantly changing the rules and there is no way to follow. We experienced this when flying from Axum to Lalibela, where James’ drone was confiscated and sent back to Addis Ababa, for us to retrieve on our way out of the country. We typically read up on drone rules and regulations, and nowhere was it stated that they are not allowed. What was even more frustrating, is that we entered the country (through Addis Ababa) with the drone no problem. Though they assured us that this was standard protocol, and we would get the drone back it was difficult to tell if what they were saying was legit, or if we were being scammed. Thankfully it was the former, but retrieving the drone once we arrived back in Addis Ababa was no walk in the park and resulted in us spending 5 hours trying to track down the right person and negotiate with customs, before leaving empty handed and picking it up the next day when we flew out.

Before the drone was confiscated 😉

Beware of scams.
On our way to the Afar Region, we stopped in a town for coffee and there were some pretty adorable kids around. One in particular was asking if we could buy him a soccer ball and my heart was turning to mush. I looked at James hopefully and he said “I don’t think it’s a good idea”. I felt sad, but knew he was probably right. It was only later when we were chatting to a guy who was on our tour that we realized we made the right decision. He did in fact buy the kid a soccer ball from one of the stores, which an older kid than stole and hid. Apparently, these kids have a deal with the shop owners that way overcharge for the ball (which the kids then return) and give the kids some of the money. We also encountered this scam several times in Lalibela, this time over a schoolbook that was needed to practice English. It would go like this – a kid would approach us and start making conversation / walking with us. He / she would let us know they are trying to learn English and need to practice. James and I would happily stroll along, chatting to them but before long they would mention that they need a book to learn more and ask if we could buy it for them. I would always offer to practice with them through conversation, but after several attempts of them not getting us to bite, they would become angry and walk away. James had read about the book scam prior to us visiting, but we didn’t expect to experience it 3 or more times!


One day in Addis Ababa is enough. 

Our one full day in Addis Ababa was enough for both of us. The best thing we did (which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting) was a walking food tour with Go Addis. Otherwise, we didn’t think much of the attractions. The highlights of our trip were definitely outside of the capital.

Like anywhere else in the world, use common sense.
On our last day in Addis, we decided to go check out a museum or two. After leaving the “Red Terror” Museum, we were walking down the street when three teenagers began walking toward us. They immediately started chatting to us, and one of them said they had a book (which was in a black plastic bag he was holding). We were gearing up for the ‘book scam’ again when the guy to my right grabbed my arm. At the same time, the guy on James’ left grabbed his arm. We both shook them off and they immediately apologized and started to walk away. Sensing that something was awry, we checked our pockets and James noticed his phone was gone so we confronted them about it [side note: this was a heavily populated area at 11 in the morning, and we did not feel any danger]. The two guys who grabbed us insisted they didn’t have his phone, but the third guy was walking away rather quickly. We walked after them and offered money to get the phone back. Suddenly he stopped and said “Ok, how much?”. James said he’d give $100 US but wanted to see the phone first. As he pulled it out of the black plastic bag to show us, I grabbed it and we quickly walked away, got in a cab and headed back to our hotel – a little shaken but otherwise ok. It blew my mind that James didn’t even feel the guy grab the phone from his front pocket! In all honesty, this type of thing could easily happen anywhere – but it was the first time in all our travels either of us has experienced it.

I hope this post doesn’t dissuade anyone from visiting this country – its culture, history and natural sights are unparalleled to other places we have traveled. If you want to read more about our experience, check out my posts about the Danakil Depression and the stunning Rock Churches of Tigray & Lalibela.

Have you visited Ethiopia? What other tips would you add to this list?

— Catie xx

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