Let Us Customize the Perfect Luxury Ethiopia Vacation for you
Northern Historical Route
Ethiopia’s largest city is a blend of new and old. The city offers the largest outdoor market in Africa, excellent Italian cafes, museums, jazz clubs and traditional Ethiopian song and dance venues. We love to check out local textiles and art, and for foodies, we recommend a visit to the market followed by a cooking class where you can enjoy the fruits of your labors at its conclusion! Hotels range from simple tourist class to the luxurious Sheraton, the latter complete with extensive manicured grounds, impressive fountains, a spa and fine dining options. All of our Ethiopia tours include an Addis city tour that can be customized to your interests.
Upon arrival, Axum doesn’t seem to offer much. It’s a simple frontier town, windy and dusty, but after first impressions, Axum’s treasures are revealed. Axum was once the home of Ethiopia’s greatest ancient civilization. Throughout the town and surrounding area, travelers will find soaring stelae (ancient monuments), ruined palaces, holy churches (including what is believed by locals to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant) and underground tombs complete with ancient inscriptions. Axum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—one of eight in the country. We are currently not recommending travel to this area, but it is well worth planning a journey in the future for those interested in its rich history.
Lalibela is home to world-renowned subterranean rock-hewn churches dating back over a thousand years. The collection of 11 churches lies beneath the rich red-colored earth and is surrounded by hidden passageways, caves and crypts. The site is a living museum with the churches still in use today and travelers can freely wander among them, watching pilgrims and priests go about their daily lives. Visiting the site in the morning and evening light is magical. Lalibela is another of Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Lalibela has very good dining options and there are also wonderful hiking opportunities to explore its stunning mountain scenery, including the chance to reach Asheton Maryam monastery – one of Ethiopia’s highest.
Known by many as ‘Africa’s Camelot,’ Gondar looks more like a medieval city than an African town. With 17th century castles, bathing pools and churches covered in frescoes, the Africa most people imagine often seems far away in Gondar. Visiting the town’s castles and churches will help you work up an appetite for a delicious local feast. The town is an ideal spot to enjoy a traditional coffee ceremony or a Ras Dashen beer at sunset from the terrace of the Gondar Hills Resort. The city is at its most exciting during the annual Timket Festival when tens of thousands of faithful gather each January to celebrate Epiphany with a dawn ceremony at Gondar’s large Fasilades Bath.
This lakeside city offers wide, palm-lined streets, a sidewalk café culture, a bustling central market and beautiful vistas across serene Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. Bahir Dar is also the base for explorations of the more than 20 mysterious island monasteries that dot Lake Tana which can be explored by boat with an expert guide.
Trekking in the Simien Mountains can be both a challenging and rewarding experience. Ras Dashen, the fourth highest peak in Africa at 14,928 ft, is the tallest mountain in the range. Extended trekking options are available, as are shorter day hikes. The mountains are home to several of Ethiopia’s rare endemic species including the unusual looking gelada monkey, the walia ibex and the Ethiopian wolf, the most endangered canid on the planet.
The easiest of these species to find is the gelada monkey. Guests wishing to trek to see the geladas have a very good chance of finding them and spending time among the families. The monkeys are habituated to human presence and carry on with their normal activities as travelers quietly observe. It’s a fascinating and thrilling high-altitude experience!
The stunning Gheralta Mountains are found in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The area is home to more than 100 rock-hewn churches – some famous for their architecture and artwork, while others are known for their incredible views and seeming inaccessibility. The area is often compared to the desert southwest of the United States, with Lonely Planet describing the landscapes as ‘almost fairy-tale-like.’
Few travelers venture this way, but those that do are rewarded with its beauty and history. The area’s churches are distinguished by both by their age – many are older than Lalibela’s more famous churches – and that they are semi-monolithic, meaning that they are only partially separated from the host rock. Lalibela’s churches are monolithic – meaning they are carved out of the ground and only attached to the earth at the base. Some churches are easy to reach, while others pose myriad physical challenges. Talk with your Journey Specialist about your fitness level and current conditions in the region when planning your visit to the Gheralta Mountains.
Bale Mountains National Park
Bale Mountains National Park is another of Ethiopia’s high-altitude wonders. Its Sanetti Plateau is the main attraction of the National Park, and the best area for travelers to try and spot the Ethiopian wolf, not only in the park but in the country. The Ethiopian wolf is the world’s most rare canid, with some ⅔ of the remaining population living on the Sanetti Plateau. The wolf has specially adapted to living on the high-altitude plateau and they prey upon the abundant rodent population, many of which are endemic themselves, including the Blix’s grass rat and the giant mole rat. The rodent population also provides sustenance for the plateau’s population of raptors.
The plateau hosts a small population of golden eagles and other rare raptor varieties such as Lammergeiers and long-eared owls. For bird enthusiasts, species on the plateau include the most northerly breeding pair of wattled cranes; near-endemic Rouget’s rail; and the endemic black-headed siskin, Thekla lark and blue-winged goose.
Myriad other wildlife can be spotted in the Bale Mountains including mountain nyala and Bale monkey. The plateau itself is a mixture of amazing ‘moonscapes’, lakes and waterfalls – landscapes seen nowhere else on earth. The area can be very cold – travelers should come prepared with warm layers.
The Lower Omo Valley
The Lower Omo Valley is arguably one of the most remote destinations in Africa. Spanning a great distance from the Kenyan border north along the Rift Valley, the Omo Valley is home to many of the most well-preserved tribal groups in Africa. Travel in the region is arduous, with few paved roads, only basic accommodations or camping and extreme climate conditions. Visiting the Omo is still recommended for interested travelers but may have a limited life as continued exposure to tourism, population shifts, development and the Gibe Dam could compromise its authenticity. Be sure to discuss visiting with your Journey Specialist to determine if it’s the right fit for your trip.
For those willing to put up with some discomfort, the payoff is spectacular with otherworldly scenery and the opportunity to witness Ethiopia’s rich and colorful tribal population.
The Omo Valley has incredible cultural depth, with some 45 languages spoken by people of many different ethnic origins. These nations, from the many thousand-strong Borena to the just thousand-strong Karo, exhibit a fascinating range of cultural practices.
One notable cultural practice of these different groups of people is the way they build their houses. The Dorze, the Sidama and the Gurage in particular are known for their domed or beehive-like constructions that demonstrate the different uses of bamboo.
The Dorze Tribe
Once warriors, they now earn their living by farming and weaving. The Dorze name is synonymous with the best in woven cotton cloth and their beehive shaped bamboo houses. There is quite a big Dorze community living and weaving on the northern part of Addis on the way to Entoto. The Dorze rarely use the administrative and police force of the city. They settle all disputes in their usual cultural way, through their elders.
About 960 miles southwest of Addis Ababa lies the widely cultivated Konso land. The Konso people speak eastern Cushitic language and are agriculturalists and weavers. They idealize the figures and heroic lives of their deceased symbolized with wooden totems.
Hamar & Benna
In the far southwest Omotic region, beyond Mount Buska live the Hamar and Benna people. The Hamar and Benna are two of the Omotic speakers of remote southwest Ethiopia and practice the ‘jumping of bulls.’ The purpose of this rite is twofold: one is the passage from boyhood to adulthood, the other is the courting occasion when both men and women adorn themselves to win a mate. Traditional attire includes men putting ochre buns with ostrich feathers in their hair, while the women wear their hair in short tufts rolled in ochre mixed with fat.
Mursi, Surma & Karo
In the remote wilderness of the southwest Ethiopia live the Mursi and Surma. These peoples were completely forgotten by Ethiopia and the outside world at large, and they had no notion of the outside world including Ethiopia until the 1970s. While the women show their beauty and endurance by piercing the ear lobes and lips, the men demonstrate their courage and stamina in the stick fighting ceremony.
The Karo tribe residing along the borders of the Lower Omo River incorporate rich, cultural symbolism into their rituals by using ornate body art and intricate headdresses. The most important ceremony in the life of a Karo is the Pilla – jumping over a group of oxen. This ritual marks the passage from adolescence to adulthood. The ceremony is similar to that of the Hamar, however the Karo only have four chances to jump over the oxen without falling.
The Dassanetch speak a completely different language and are the Cushitic speaking group of the Omo Valley. The most important ritual of the Dassanetch is the ‘dime.’ In theory, only a man who has had a daughter can be circumcised, although in practice, circumcision is carried out on the entire age group. The daughter is most important in the dime ceremony. After the ceremony, which takes six weeks, the participants are upgraded to ‘great men’, or those that may engage in politics. The dime ritual is directly connected to the upcoming marriage of the daughter when cattle are slaughtered for the occasion.
Ethiopian food is another highlight of a visit. Both omnivores and vegetarians are well catered to, with delicious spiced dishes on offer. Meat or lentil stews, braised vegetables, spiced beans and more are carefully prepared then eaten by hand with spongy, gluten-free injera ‘bread,’ made with the grain teff. For less adventurous eaters, there are almost always other options unless in very rural areas. These are generally Italian-style dishes such as spaghetti.
When to Visit
Ethiopia is a year-round destination. Throughout most of the country the dry season runs from October through May while the wet season runs from June to September. The highlands tend to be temperate while the lowlands are generally hot.
Travelers visiting during the wet season will find fewer tourists, though most sights are accessible all year. One drawback of the rainy season is that when wet, walking between the churches of Lalibela can be slippery. We also recommend against trekking during these months as it can be cold and slippery, while the views can be compromised by cloud cover.
The dry season is when most visitors explore Ethiopia. Between October and January, the country is generally lush and emerald colored from the rains. September, at the tail end of the rains, is one of our favorite months as the scenery is rich and brilliant, and many areas are covered in yellow ‘meskel’ wildflowers.
The wet season in the Omo Valley differs in that the rains generally fall in April and May – though with climate patterns shifting, this is not guaranteed. We recommend visiting the Omo in September, January and February for the best weather.
Those with flexible travel schedules might consider planning their trip around one of Ethiopia’s many festivals such as Timkat, Meskel and Ethiopian New Year. Celebrations are observed throughout the country. As an example, Meskel, or the finding of the true cross, is celebrated each September after the rains when the country is lush and rural areas are in brilliant bloom. There is pomp and circumstance to be found from Addis Ababa’s massive city center celebration to the more modest ceremonies in rural villages, with religious finery on display as well as Meskel bonfires being lit at dusk, illuminating the night skies. Visiting during a festival gives an intimate glimpse into Ethiopia’s faith practices.