Ethiopia conjures images of a mysterious and ancient civilization, vibrant tribal cultures and breathtaking natural beauty. Cut off from the rest of the world for years, Ethiopia has recently started developing its tourism infrastructure. Eager to welcome tourists, Ethiopia has primed its Northern Historic Route with scheduled flights, paved roads and a selection of basic, but comfortable hotels. In the wild south of the Lower Omo Valley, travel is rigorous but the pay-off is unique—spending time with some of the most intact tribal societies in Africa. Throughout Ethiopia, adventurous travelers will be pleased to discover well-preserved religious and historical sites without throngs of tourists and long entrance lines—this is truly off-the-beaten-path adventure!

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Northern Historical Route

Addis Ababa
Africa’s fourth largest city and a blend of new and old. The city offers the largest outdoor market in Africa, Italian cafes, museums and traditional Ethiopian song and dance venues. It’s worth an afternoon’s exploration. Hotels range from simple tourist class to the luxurious Sheraton, complete with impressive fountains, a spa and fine dining options. All of our Ethiopia tours include an Addis city tour.

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 steale, ruined palaces, holy churches (perhaps 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.

Lalibela is home to world-renowned subterranean stone-carved churches dating back over a thousand years. The collection of over 10 churches lies beneath the rich red-colored earth and is surrounded by hidden passageways, caves and crypts. The site is a living museum and travelers can freely wander among the churches, 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 Site.

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 a far-away memory in Gondar. The town is an ideal spot to enjoy a traditional coffee ceremony or a Ras Dashen beer at sunset from the terrace of the Goha Hotel.

Bahir Dar
This lakeside city offers wide, palm-lined streets, a true café-culture and beautiful vistas across the serene Lake Tana. Bahir Dar is also the base for explorations of the mysterious island monasteries that dot Lake Tana. The Blue Nile Falls is also a short trip away.

Simien Mountains
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 well as shorter day hikes. The mountains are home to several of Ethiopia’s rare endemic species including the Ethiopian wolf, the most endangered canid on the planet, and the unusual and fascinating gelada baboon.

Southern Ethiopia

The Lower Omo Valley
The Lower Omo Valey 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 and extreme climate conditions. The pay off is spectacular, 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 1000-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 bee-hive shaped bamboo houses. There is quite a big Dorze community living and weaving on the northern part of Addis on the way to Entoto. These peoples 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 south west 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, with unique manifestations of traditional wisdom, 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
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, or 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 so-called 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.

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