I could feel the heat from the roiling lava lake immediately below me. If this were anywhere else, there probably would’ve been some sort of railing or safety precaution, but instead our guide simply told us to stay on this side of the volcano to avoid the smoke billowing into the sky. The smoke was extremely toxic. But not to worry. He was on the lookout in case the wind changed directions.
Just a couple days earlier, I was in the mountains, up around 2,500 meters. Now, suddenly, I was in the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest places on earth, standing on the brim of the world’s only below-sea-level land volcano.
When I told people I was traveling to Ethiopia, most immediately asked why. Or, “Is there enough to see there that you can actually fill up two whole weeks?” The answer: You don’t even know. A month would’ve been better if I wanted to see the country more thoroughly, but there’s plenty you can do, see and learn in Ethiopia in just a couple weeks.
The beauty of traveling to Ethiopia—in addition to the literal, geographical beauty, of which there is a ton—is that the trip isn’t just cultural tourism, or animal tourism, or nature tourism, but can be a mix of all three. In the north, the mountains are dramatic and soaring, pocked with truly ancient historical sites including Ethiopian Orthodox churches cut out of living mountains. In the northeast near the border with Eritrea, the Danakil Depression is an utterly different experience: a low-elevation desert landscape, predominantly Muslim Afar tribes, camels that are still actively used for commerce and, yes, crazy volcanoes and sulfur formations and salt flats.
There’s a lot to see in the south of Ethiopia, particularly the Omo Valley, where the tourism is more centered around safaris and visiting tribes with unique cultural attributes including body modifications. There are also interesting sites in the east, including Harrar, where tourists can feed hyenas. Given my time constraints, however, and my extremely mixed feelings about visiting tribespeople in a way that would be respectful of their cultures, I stuck to the mountainous Amhara region in the north and the Danakil Depression.
Especially if you don’t have a whole month at your disposal, the easiest and fastest way to get around the country is by air. Ethiopia Airlines is modern and wonderful, and you can receive steep discounts of about half-off if you show up to an Ethiopia Airlines office in person with proof that you bought your international ticket to or from the country on their airline. As a result, my friend and I mostly got around by plane to maximize our time actually on the ground.
It’s worth noting, if you prefer traveling by road, that the country is undergoing major infrastructure development. When I visited in November, there were many brand-new roads in cities where they hadn’t existed just a year earlier. The buses may not be the most modern vehicles, but the roads are increasingly acceptable for intercity travel.
Here’s how you could spend two weeks in Ethiopia:
Day 1: Addis Ababa
The capital of Ethiopia is a noisy, bustling, dirty city, but it didn’t feel as dangerous as I’d been led to believe. In fact, as a woman traveling alone on the first day before my friend arrived, I got miserably lost in the city for about two hours without a map (long story). I eventually found policemen who asked a man to walk me toward my hotel. Despite my protestations, this gentleman walked with me for about forty-five minutes out of his way. When I asked why, he said he wanted to be hospitable, was curious to learn where I was from and that it was a holiday so he didn’t have to be anywhere immediately. When we reached my destination, he simply shook my hand, wished me well and was on his way. No ulterior motives.
Addis is a fascinating blend of emergent modernity with, well, non-modernity. The development has been massive in the past few years, but uneven. Boston Day Spa, for example, is a high-end boutique where I received a deluxe, hour-long massage for $10 or $15, but the street outside is full of broken gravel and litter and dirt.
Do: Visit the Ethnological Museum to learn more about the various tribal groups in the country; the National Museum to see the skeleton of Lucy, which was discovered in Ethiopia; or, if you have time, the Red Terror Museum for some of the history of the Derg, or the communist regime. Definitely visit Tomoca Coffee, which I heard regarded as the best coffee in Addis Ababa, the capital of the country that invented coffee.
Day 2: Gondar
This town is high up in the mountains, as is much of the Amhara region, the birthplace of the dominant ethnic group and the country’s official language. While smaller than Addis, Gondar was nonetheless bustling and crowded.
Do: Check out the fortresses and castles of Ethiopian emperors past. Highly consider paying a guide to take you around, as nothing is labeled. That’s true of many museums and other sites—the tourist infrastructure simply isn’t very well built-up yet. Only if you have time, go to Emperor Fasilades’s bath. When we went, there was no one else there, which made it a cool place to hang out, chat and contemplate for a while.
Days 3 and 4: Simien Mountains
Even if you’re an intrepid hiker, you’re probably going to need to go with a tour group through the Simien Mountains because they’re very populated and you’ll need an approved campsite. My friend and I arranged our tour before arriving in the country (though we negotiated the price on the ground), and we were joined by a number of travelers who—as is standard practice in most other places—tried to arrange everything on the fly. Most of those travelers were extremely frazzled and frustrated, and they wound up on our tour anyway. Sometimes for an even greater cost.
Yes, that might mean a hike that’s below your level if you’re a big outdoorswoman, but how else will you arrange transportation from the nearest town, Debark, to the mountains? How will you know the unmarked trails, given the absence of decent maps? How will you get home again? There really isn’t any infrastructure to get you to and from where you need to be. I guess you could try to rent a car, but that would probably be extremely stressful and dangerous, considering that the narrow roads have lots of bends and there are constantly children and donkeys jumping in the middle of the street.
Do: Hike, breathe in nature, pass by tiny mountain towns, feel uncomfortable about the intense poverty, confront and grapple with those feelings within yourself, and enjoy the free-roaming gelada baboons, which don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
Given my itinerary, I only camped in the Simien Mountains for one night and then returned to Gondar the next evening, where I enjoyed a nice dinner and rested up for another early flight the next morning.
Days 5 and 6: Lalibela
The town of Lalibela is one of the holiest in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, and one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions. That said, despite reading things online about how swamped the sites were going to be, I didn’t find the crowds too bad at all. Here, too, I highly recommend hiring a good guide, as none of the sites are labeled in any way. The main thing to see are the rock-cut churches that are dug into living mountain stone. Many of them look like a crucifix from the main level of the ground, and you have to climb down stairs to enter them from below.
I was reminded of orthodox Judaism in the way that some churches separated men and women, and of Islam in the way that we had to take off our shoes before entering the ancient churches. Given the hype around Lalibela, I was skeptical that the town would live up to its relative fame, but it blew me away. Our fantastic guide, Tesfaw, was the key to that.
Do: Visit the rock-hewn churches. Try the restaurant at Ben Abeba, run by a half-Ethiopian, half-Scottish couple. Even if you don’t stay there, stop by the (probably overpriced) Mountain View Hotel to check out the incredible views off the veranda. I stayed at the Cliff Edge Hotel, which enjoyed the same views at a lower price point.
Day 7: Axum
Axum was once one of the mighty empires of the ancient world. In fact, it’s said to be where Queen of Sheba is from, though apparently historians believe she was probably either a Yemeni queen who ruled over land including Ethiopia, or an Ethiopian queen who ruled over land including Yemen. One of the most important foundational legends of Ethiopia is that it was founded by the son of King Solomon of Israel, who brought back Judaism and laid the groundwork for some of the earliest Christianity in the world. I felt that history in Axum more than anywhere else.
My friend and I spent two leisurely days in Axum as we figured out transportation to Mekele, from which we would embark on our Danakil adventure, but if you planned well I think you could easily see Axum in just a day.
Do: Check out the ancient stelae fields left by an ancient culture that probably created these giant stones as burial markings of some kind. Visit the local market if you happen to be there on a Saturday. From what I heard, most cities hold their markets on Saturdays, so as a matter of fact, go to the market on Saturday in any town or city. If you have a male traveling companion, he should go to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, where the lost Ark of the Covenant is said to be stored, but women can’t go there. Only visit Queen of Sheba’s palace if you have extra time to kill. Do grab a drink at the Yeha Hotel, where the service and food were pretty horrible but the views were fantastic.
Day 8: Tigraian Churches
There are ways to do the trek from Axum to Mekele via public buses, but may involve juggling a lot of routes and doing a lot of machinating. We got lucky in that the agency we used to plan our Danakil Depression tour (an agency called ETT that seems to dominate Ethiopian tourism throughout the country) offered us a ride from Axum to Mekele for free because they had to get the van there anyway. We shared the ride with some other tourists embarking for the Danakil Depression, but some of them paid for the same trip we got gratis. Oops. Just ask around.
On the way between Axum and Mekele, there are a number of remote churches high up in the mountains that you can only access by hiking, and, at some points, by being lifted up with a rope. At least some of these are only accessible to men. Additionally, if you did the trip without any kind of a guide, it sounds like you’d probably have to roam through town trying to track down the priests, who also have other jobs, to get them to let you in because they’re the only ones with the keys. This could be a two-day situation if you wanted, but because we had somewhere to be it was mostly a scenic road trip with occasional short detours to stare up at a church, say, “That’s cool,” and then continue on.Do: Stop for lunch in the town of Adigrat and try tihlo, a traditional food only available in this northern region of the country. My friend tried it and said it was kind of gross, but definitely a cultural experience. When you get to Mekele to spend the last night in a legit town before embarking for the Danakil Depression, take a really nice shower and eat a really nice dinner. The accommodations will get rougher once you get out there.
Day 9: Danakil and Erta Ale
You can’t do the Danakil Depression by yourself. Period. You absolutely must go with a guided tour, both because I think it may be officially required by the government but mostly because you’ll need someone to arrange food, plenty of water, a place to stay, 4x4s to drive you around and an armed guard for part of the trip. Yup, this is near the contested border with Eritrea, but it really did feel very safe and there haven’t been any safety incidents for a number of years. Still. Oh, and when your car inevitably gets stuck in the mud or sand, you’ll want to be with a big group so you’ll have other people around to help dig it out.
We traveled with a very large group in a big caravan of maybe nine Land Rovers. While organized travel isn’t really my thing, not many people make it out to the Danakil Depression, even among those who go to Ethiopia, so it’s a self-selecting group of other people who also don’t love annoying group travel. Which is to say, all our co-travelers were really awesome.
Do: This is one of the hottest places on earth, so you’ll sit in the car most of the way out there, admiring the increasingly sparse and dry scenery. You’ll see camels in the distance. You’ll stop somewhere for lunch, arranged by your guides. You may hide out somewhere from the sun for a while. Then, if your trip is like ours, when the sun starts to go down you’ll start hiking up an active volcano, Erta Ale. The trek took a few hours and wasn’t too hard, but it was pitch black so you will really need or want a head lamp. At the top, we stood by that crackling lava lake spewing toxic fumes into the air. We could feel the incredible heat just standing there. That night we slept in sleeping bags under the stars near the top of the volcano (about a five or ten minute walk from the rim).
Day 10: Danakil Driving
We hiked down early in the morning to beat the sun, since it gets really hot really fast. From there, we had another long day of driving, which is frankly the main attraction and incredibly enjoyable in its own right, if you discount car sickness from terrible roads and the fact that the A/C couldn’t do much to help five people crammed into a car when the temperatures outside were in the low forties Celsius.
Do: Drive and admire. We ended our day in the late afternoon at a guest house where we could try to give ourselves bucket showers and relax after a hot, hot day.
Day 11: Salt Flats
After more driving in some very intense desert, we closed out the day watching very long caravans of camels carrying hand-hewn bricks of naturally occurring salt to the nearest town for trade, which was a three-day walk.
Do: Watch the camels in awe. Offer some water to the men leading the camels by foot, though it’s extremely important to keep enough water for yourself because there’s nowhere in the Danakil area to get more if you run out. As the landscape turns from pale brown chunky soil into bona fide salt flats, get out, take photos, dance around. It truly looks like you’re standing on a frozen lake, except it’s hot outside. Our tour guides cranked up the radio in one of the Land Rovers and passed around some sherry and ouzo and we had a dance party on the salt.
Day 12: The Sulfur Formations of Dallol
Even compared to the bubbling lava lake, Dallol may have been the strangest and most impressive landscape on this trip. It’s a huge area of geothermal pools and sulfur formations and natural architecture built from some unknown but distinctly smelly combination of minerals. We went early in the morning before the landscape got too hot. From there we saw a lake of naturally occurring potash, and then we met some of the men mining salt from the land, literally digging it out with sticks and hands, and then shaving it down into blocks.
Do: See, admire, be respectful of the salt workers who do and don’t want their photos taken. We finished up this leg of our trip and arrived back in Mekele in the evening. We paid a hotel to let us use its shower, ate a little, and then caught a night flight back to Addis Ababa.
Days 13 and 14: Addis Ababa
There’s a lot to see and do around Addis, from actual museums to simply walking the streets or getting coffee for a second or third time at Tomoca. Take a day or two to explore the city! I got a massage on my last day in Addis, and it was one of the best ways I could have spent my last remaining birr.
Do: Everything you didn’t have time to do when you arrived in Addis on the first day. In particular, take note of your own perceptions of the city, the people and the culture. Have they changed since you first arrived? Returning to the capital after traveling around much of the country may give you a deeper appreciation of what you see around you.
When I returned to Addis, some aspects were less remarkable than the first time: OK, I’d eaten a lot of injera, so that was hardly as much of a revelation. But the pace of industrialization in the capital, and the unevenness of recent development and distribution of wealth was even more startling after visiting the countryside.
Allison Kade’s writing has appeared in publications including Travel + Leisure, AOL’s Gadling, Bootsnall, Real Simple, Lifehacker, BoingBoing, Bloomberg, The Today Show, Forbes, The Huffington Post, xoJane, Fox Business News and more. You can find more of her writing here: allisonkade.com/