Many people may wonder how one can get the idea to go to Ethiopia for vacation. The country has a big image problem since most people associate it with famine. We all saw the images on the television in the 80's of children with large stomachs from starvation. In fact, most of Ethiopia is quite fertile land. Most of it is highland that consists of volcanic rocks. Only in the lowlands in the eastern parts of the country draught can sometimes be a problem.

Ethiopia has a lot to offer. It is not the traditional tourist place and you shouldn't go there for the nightclubs or beaches, but the nature, an old culture and lots of different tribes in the south make the country a really interesting place to visit. Regarding nature the scenery can be grand and the country has lots of endemic spieces, especially birds. Most of the large mammals are however virtually extinct after the different civil wars where they were shot for food and money.

I visited the Addis Abeba, the south-southwest of the country down to the lower Omo region and north to Gondar, Simien mountains and Lalibela. There are other places in Ethiopia than these that I am sure are worth a visit. The ancient town of Axum, the old muslim culture in and around Harare, Bale mountains and the nomads in the desert in the Afar region are some of those regions that I imagine would be really interesting to see.

Below are maps of Ethiopia. Click the maps for a larger image.


Ethiopia with major towns and roads


Ethiopia and division into regions

I went to Ethiopia with a group travel arranged by Swedish travel agents Läs&Res. We had participated in their group travels before during the Peru trip, and we had been very pleased with them. Therefore we decided to give them another chance. Also, Ethiopia is not a country where you can easily backpack on your own. I do recommend that you get a trip arranged by a travel agency that is familiar with the country.

Before taking a photo of a person or his home you should always negiciate a price. This should be 1 Birr per photo in most of the country, with 2 Birr in some places. Do not start taking photos without having agreed on a price, since that will make people upset. Don't forget to get lots of 1 Birr notes when you exchange your currency ($US is the best to bring).

Addis Abeba

Addis Abeba means New Flower. It was founded towards the end of the 19th century and is the (so far) last of a number of capitals of Ethiopia and its predecessors.

We arrived from Sweden on the 5th of November 2004 and later returned twice to the city. At first I didn't think much of it - it doesn't have an city center that is representative of its size (poulation around 5 million) and much of it does look a bit shady. Every time that we returned to the city however I liked it better.

Ethiopia may have been the cradle of man. At least the area where the most hominids have been found is the Rift Vally, whcih streaches from Ethiopia south through Kenya and onwards. It is also the country where one of the most famous hominids - Lucy - was found in 1974. Her name came from the Beatles song "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" that was frequently played at the archeological site. Estimated to be around 3.2 million years old, Lucy was a sensation.

Lucy can be seen today at the National Museum in central Addis. It is an almost mandatory visit. The rest of that museum is however not as interesting. A better choice for getting to know the ethiopian cultures is the Ethnological (Ethnographical) Museum. It is located inside the university area in contains lots of interesting exhibitions and objects. It is better organised and provides more information than the National Museum.It is located inside the old palace of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974. The university area in itself is an oasis with its green plants, its beautiful layouts and buildings and its lack of beggars.



The terrace outside hotel Taitu where we stayed when in Addis.


The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis

Addis has everything that you can possibly want if you just look around. Gold and silver is quite cheap here and there are lots of shop for it near the De Gaulle square.


After spending a day sightseing in Addis, it was time to move on. The next stop was Awasa, the largest city in the south of Ethiopia. It was about 6 hours drive to get there with a mini-bus even though the road was a very good tarmac road. That was the only good road we were going to see in Ethiopia...

The trip took us though Rift Valley and some of the Rift Valley lakes. Awasa itself is built next to lake Awasa, another Rift Valley lake.

Lake Awassa

View of Lake Awassa

In Awasa one really started to see that Ethiopia is the land of contrasts. The streets were muddy, the houses were build from mud and so on, and yet the signs on the front of the houses said "Fuji one hour photos" or "Computer Center" . This contrast was to become even more evident later when we came to Arba Minch.


Injera (food)

Injera with some kinds of wot (stew).

In Awassa I tried for the first time traditional Ethiopian food. The fermented bread Injera is the base of this, usually complemented with one or several kinds of wot - stew. Ethiopian food is usually spicy and can be very tasty. In Awassa you could also have very good fish, fresh from the lake.

Fish market

Fish market in Awassa


Pelicans at the fish market


Beautiful flower outside Wabe Shebele hotel 1 in Awassa

Nechisar National Park and Arba Minch

Already the next day we continued towards the south. Our next target was the Nechisar National Park outside the town of Arba Minch. Now we had switched to Toyota Land Cruisers, which was good. The roads were from now on only gravel, and were in some places in very bad condition.

On the way towards Arba Minch we passed the land of several different tribes. They all had their own distinctions, not the least in the way they built their huts.


Beautiful hut on the way between Awassa and Arba Minch



Zebras in the Nechisar National Park

The next two nights we would camp in the Nechisar National Park just outside of Arba Minch. The name of the park means "White Grass" in Amharic. It is a fitting name, since some of the park contains savanna plans with quite white grass. On these plains you can se Zebra, greater Kudo and some other spieces. Unfortunatly big mammals are very rare in Ethiopa nowadays, and you wouldn't go to the country mainly for them. If you haven't been to South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania or similar it can still be interesting to take some time to watch animals.The camping site of the park can also be used as a base for exporing the area around Arba Minch, as an alternative to the hotels in town.

North of Arba Minch and Nechisar in the mountains is the little town of Chencha, home of the Dorze people. The Dorze are famous for weaving very high quality fabric as well as for their big behive huts. The road there is very bad and you really need a proper 4WD car. The visit is recommended though.

Dorse hutDorse hut

Beehive hut of the Dorze people and an old man weaving

We also stayed one night in Arba Minch hotel in town. The place was very simple but ok. There are other hotels with a higher standard as well - Bekele Mola and others.

Arba Minch and Nechisar are both situated by two lakes - Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo. On the latter it is possible to go on a boat trip and see chrocodiles and hippos up close. If you haven't seen these animals up close before I can be recommend it.

Key Afer, Jinka and the Mursi

When we left Arba Minch we countinued to head south. We passed the towns of Konso, Weito (situated on low altitude and very hot!) and Key Afer on the way to Jinka.


Beehives hung from a tree.

In Key After we stopped in order to take a look at the market. It can really be recommended - it is interesting to see all of the people that have gathered to sell and buy stuff. On markets people are also have a purpose of being there and begging is not so much of a problem. In Key Afer most people belong to the Benna and Thema tribes.

MarketGirls at market

Left: Me and a young boy in the market in Key After
Right: Two girls in the market.

Southern landscape

Scenery on the way to Jinka

Jinka is the base for exploring the Mango National Park and visiting the Mursi tribe. The Mursi are known for the lip plates that the women use. That tradition is quite special and the Mursi are interesting to see. Unfortunately, the Mursi are also very pushy, something that makes the experience of meeting them less positive.

Mursi womenMursi men

Left: Mursi women. See the lip plate!
Right: Mursi men in traditional body paint

You have to drive through some of the Mago National Park in order to get the the Mursi. We didn't see much animals there, and it seems that is normal. We couldn't get down to the river near the park headquarters because the road was too muddy after a rain the day before. We heard that one group had been stuck in a car there all night before someone came and could pull them out. You have to be careful!

Turmi and the Hamer

Next we headed further south towards Turmi, where the Hamer people live. On the way we stopped at the market in Arbore, where the Arbore and Wasa people were busy selling and buying things.

Southern woman

Southern woman with child

River crossing

Crossing the river in order to get to Turmi.

In and around Turmi we met people from the Hamer tribe. I really liked the Hamer - they were pretty relaxed and very friendly. We stayed in a camp site just by the river seen above. It was nice and shady.

Hamer women

Women from the Hamer people

Many of the Hamer women had coloured their hair copper red using some special mixture containing oil and butter ochre. It looked very greasy! I bought two of the traditional wooden pillows pillows - one from some people near the camp site and one at the market in Turmi. Interesting and well make souveniers to have!

From Turmi we made a one-day tour to visit the Karo and the Dasanech (Geleb) tribes. We started to drive at extremely bad gravel roads that soon turned to no roads at all. Since I work with AWD systems, it would be interesting to have that area as a test site if it wasn't so difficult to get there...

Karo womanGeleb man

Left: Karo woman
Right: Geleb man

During the visit to the Geleb near Omorate (very close to the Kenyan border) we could se that they were really very very poor. The other tribes like the Hamer at Turmi were not exactly wealthy, but you could see that they coped and that they were fit. The Galeb on the other hand were quite skinny and their huts looked as if they were made from whatever garbage they could find.

Camp site

Our camp site outside Turmi near the river

On the monday (15th of November) it was market day in Turmi. We walked from the camp site in to Turmi. It was about half an hours walk and it was very interesting since we shared the road with all of the Hamer people that were on their way to the market to buy and sell. The market itself was interesting to see. That day some aid from the US and EU was also distributed to the families in Turmi.

After having visited the marked we prepared to leave Turmi and start heading back towards Addis, spending nights in Konso and Ziway on the way. Suddenly our cook jumped three meters up into the air. He had found a cobra lying in the tarpaulin that they had put around the cooking place! The cobra was chased away by the local youngsters by throwing stones at it. Luckily noone was bitten!

Cows on the road

This is what the road north from Konso and Arba Minch looked like most of the time - lots and lots of cattle, goats and people!

Farmen and cows



After having returned to Addis we only stayed one night before we continued by air to Gondar. Gondar is a previous capital of Ethiopia (or Abyssinia). It was made capital by emperor Fasiladas in 1636. The population is about 110 000, but it feels smaller. The royal enclosure contains old castles build during the time that Gondar was capital. 


King Fasiladas palace in the Gondar royal enclosure

Another interesting place to visit is the Debre Berhan Selassie church just outside of Gondar. It is probably the most famous church in the country. The entire ceiling is covered with faces of angels and also the walls are covered with paintings.

ChurchRoof of angels

Church of Debre Birhan Selassie - "Trinity of the Place of Light"

Simien Mountains

We spent 6 nights in the Simien mountains area, 2 of which were in villages in the lowlands. The area is known for the possibilities for trecking. It also contains some interesting animals. The Simien wolf (sometimes called Ethiopian wold or Simien fox) can be seen if you are lucky but is more common in Bale mountains. The gelada baboons are common here and we also saw the walia ibex. All three are endemic to Ethiopia, and the walia ibex to the Simien only with an estimated numer of only around 500  .

In order to get to the Simiens you have to go north from Gondar for about 3-4 hours to a little town called Debark. The read there used to be a good tarmac road but is now in terrible condition. Ackording to our travel leader Fasil the road was destroyed when tanks were driven on it towards the front against Eritrea.

From Debark it is another two hours to get to Sankaber camp, where we stayed the first night. It was very cold and windy, and the altitude could be felt.

The next day we walked to Geech camp. At first an easy walk along the enscarpment but later much more difficult. The latter was in my case mainly due to the reaction to the altitude - I seemed to have a harder time than the others getting enough oxygen. Before we got to Geech, I was really tired.

Gelada baboonNaga

Left: Gelada Baboon on the edge of the escarpment
Right: Naga, one of the persons helping us with mules, luggage and more

Geech was at an even higher altitude at around 3500 m. The nights were even colder with frost in the mornings. We heard that a few days after we left the camp, there was snow in the morning! The camp is also situated so that the wind gets the oppertunity to gather strength before blowing into the camp. Bring very warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag!

We stayed one day around Geech, and most of the people in the group went to see three viewpoints. They were unfortunatly not very lucky with respect to the weather, and the clouds were very low that day. I and two others stayed closed to the camp and visited the Geech village.

The next day we walked to Chenek camp. When I woke up I had a migrain attack, and had to stay behind. Luckily, it was not one of the worse attacks that I've had and I could follow after a few hours. The guide had left one guy, Naga, behind so he walked with me all the way to Chenek. It was a nice feeling to be just him and me walking through the countyside in the mountains with no other westeners and very few people at all around.


Sunset at the Geech camp in the Simien mountains

After the night at Checnek, the next two nights we camped in villages in the lowlands. The track to get to the first one was ok most of the time, but sometimes seemed a bit dangerous, leaning out towards the depth. It was interesting to talk to people in the villages even though it could be a bit too much of a crowd sometimes.

On a walk

Walking in the Simiens

The last day we had to walk from the village in the lowlands to the road in the highlands. We had to walk up a very high peak and I really had problems getting up there! I seemed to react to the lack of oxygen on the altitude worse than the others even though I coped with the altitude in the Andes in Peru pretty ok. I don't lie if I say that I was very close to not making it at all!

During the walk we had mules to carry the luggage and some extra that you could ride if you got tired. The problem was that you couldn't ride where the track was the hardest, and that was were you would have really needed it!

On the way to Geech, on of the women in the group broke her foot. She then had to stay the night in Geech, ride a mule to the road, wait for a truck that passes twice a day, go on the back of  the truck to Debark where she was picked up by the travel leader (who didn't come with us in the Simiens). Then it was only a few hours to Gondar before she could get to a hospital... So take care!

Lalibela and the rock-hewn churches

After the Simiens, we returned to Gondar where we stayed the night before we flew to Lalibela. Lalibela is very well know for its rock-hewn churches from the 12th or 13th century, carved out from massive rock. When building them, they started digging around what would become the church, thus making the walls. They then carved their way in through what would become the doors and windows, creating the rooms inside.

It was very interesting to see the churches and the priests in Lalibela, even though most of them where very similar in my eyes.

Lalibela priest

Priest with processional crosses in a church in Lalibela

I must warn you that in Lalibeal beggars were quite a bit more sophisticated than in other places. They are usually students - or at least claim to be - who approach you, start a conversation and ends with a request for money. It felt like 99% of the conversations ended this way. That also ment that we weren't very interested in talking to people, which is really a shame.

St Georges church

St George rock-hewn church in Lalibela, seen from above

When we left Lalibela we flew back to Addis where we spend a day before flying back to Sweden. When we came back to Addis, we really got the feeling that it was the peak of civilisation!


All in all the tour to Ethiopia was very interesting, and I can recommend it to anyone. No, maybe not to anyone, because you have to be prepared for the poverty, the beggars, lack of showers and the "hole in the floor" kind of toilets. If that is not a problem for you, you should go!

For me, the most interesting part was the meeting with the different tribes in the south of Ethiopia. You shouldn't miss out on that! We went there with a local agency called Ethio Fauna Travel. I can recommend them since they knew the area and the people well, and took good care of us!

Gondar was interesting as well, and the Simiens (or Bale) is a must if you enjoy trecking. I can recommend that you contact Fasil Messfin if you want to have something arranged in this area. He was our travel leader for the whole of Ethiopia, but lives in Gondar and has very good knowledge of the area.

Finally, I would also like to recommend the Swedish travel agency Läs&Res, who managed to prepare a most interesting trip for us.


All text and pictures except maps Copyright Staffan Nilsson 2004

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