We had wanted to explore Ethiopia for years since we knew it to be one of the oldest, most ethnically diverse countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, its diverse natural beauty includes high mountains, deserts, forests and remote lakes and river basins. And the country’s people enthusiastically welcome foreign visitors. Earlier this year, Wild Frontiers Travel organized a custom itinerary that took us to many of the country’s most compelling places.
Initially, we followed the northern historical route, which includes major UNESCO World Heritage sites: Lalibela, a town featuring large, rock-hewn churches that date to the 12th century; Axum, once the center of a thriving ancient civilization; and Gondar, the country’s former capital. Besides having magnificent, 17th-century castles reminiscent of medieval Europe, Gondar is one of the best places to observe TImkat, a three-day event that celebrates the baptism of Christ. It’s Ethiopia’s most colorful religious festival.
In the Simien Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site north of Gondar, we explored the “rooftop of Africa,” the only place in the world that’s home to the endangered Abyssinian Ibex and thousands of grass-grazing Gelada monkeys. Other destinations, such as the Lake Tana and Gheralta regions, also feature magnificent scenery as well as old Ethiopian Orthodox churches and monasteries full of well-preserved, religious murals. Additional highlights in Ethiopia include Harar, one of the four holiest places in the Islam world; the Bale Mountains, wonderful for hiking and birdwatching; and the Omo River Basin where tribes use their bodies as canvases for art.
In the capital, Addis Ababa, we found beautiful churches and fascinating archeological and art museums, markets full of textiles and handmade crafts and restaurants offering excellent continental and Ethiopian cuisine. Popular nightclubs offer either jazz or Ethiopian dancing. In addition to the country’s strong, delicious coffee, we made a habit of tej, a honey wine that’s been consumed by Ethiopians for thousands of years.
Ethiopia appears to be an up-and-coming destination. New hotels and restaurants are opening, and roads in many areas are in good condition. The largest airport in Africa is on the drawing boards for Addis Ababa. And the national airline, considered by most people we met to be Africa’s best, offers excellent international and regional service. Also impressive is Ethiopia’s popular and progressive prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea and restoring freedoms in his own country after years of political and economic repression.