Ethiopia is a landlocked country that is sandwiched between East Africa and North Africa. It is the second most populated nation in Africa and the tenth-largest by size. Ethiopia has never been colonized, which has allowed for a unique culture and preserved traditions.
Backpacking in Ethiopia is not very common, making this an incredible destination and the perfect reason to visit Ethiopia. It is a very cheap country to travel to with many beautiful sights.
When we arrived in Ethiopia in late 2016, we had no clue about any unrest within the country. A country divided by a major ethnic group that has no role within the government, and the Tigray government were at arms. There have been protests in which people have died, including a few foreigners who unfortunately were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But while the issues in Ethiopia still exist, they are not as heated as they were in 2016. Foreigners were never targeted and it still is a safe country to travel to with some precautions. We will touch on those in this guide.
In Ethiopia, natural beauty runs wild. The East African Rift system rips through the landscape to form beautiful mountains, high plateaus, and highly active volcanoes. Major sights include the rock-hewn Churches in Lalibela and Tigray, the impressive Simien Mountains, the tribes in Omo Valley, and the street hyenas in Harar.
There are so many wonderful places to visit in Ethiopia. Read on to learn everything you’ll need to know to plan a trip to this spectacular country!
Content and photographs provided by Yana Kogan and Timon.
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Important Travel Tips to Visit Ethiopia
Visa Entry to Ethiopia
A one-month, single-entry visa is available upon arrival when flying into Addis Ababa for $40 if you are a resident of Europe, the USA, Korea, China, and several other countries.
For the latest information, please refer to the Ethiopian Embassy website.
The main language in Ethiopia is Amharic, but many tribal languages also exist, including Tigrinya, Oromo, and Afar. Many people also speak English, as it is taught in schools across Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian Birr is the national currency. For tours, some companies also price in USD. In 2021, the exchange rate was as follows:
- $1 = 48.25 Birr
- €1 = 54.25 Birr
Costs in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a good place to visit on a budget. It is excellent for budget backpackers and independent travelers looking to explore places that are not overrun with tourists. However, the country is large and transportation takes time unless you fly, so having the proper amount of time is crucial.
A budget of $20 – $40/day can easily get you by in Ethiopia. The biggest variables are the tours and trekking options. Some of the main highlights that can get expensive include:
- Danakil Depression Tour ($350-400)
- Omo Valley Tour ($600)
- Simien mountain trekking ($160)
- Lalibela mountain trekking ($75)
- Lalibela churches ($50)
Domestic Flights in Ethiopia
If you are flying at least one leg into Ethiopia on an Ethiopian Airlines flight, you will qualify for reduced fares on domestic flights. Domestic flights with reduced fares cost between $50 and $90 per flight. Book at an Ethiopian Airlines office on arrival or call a local branch. We recommend flying in Ethiopia between destinations to make it a safer journey.
Most bus companies in Ethiopia are owned by Tigray companies or the government. During protests and unrest, buses often are a target during riots. They have been known to be attacked by protesters, and while they almost always let passengers off unscathed, they will destroy the bus and burn it in the streets.
This caused us to alarm, so we flew between all our destinations. We felt safe during our time in Ethiopia, but this was the one area we felt was too risky. Make sure to ask locals in Ethiopia how the bus situation is at the time so you can decide if they are safe to use.
Accommodations in Ethiopia
A clean and basic double room in Addis starts around 450 Birr ($20) up to 800 Birr ($36). Outside of Addis, rooms are considerably cheaper. Basic hotels include Wi-Fi and hot water, and cost around 300 Birr ($13) for a double room.
Note: Bedbugs and bed fleas are a common issue in Ethiopia and something to be aware of when staying at budget hotels. The only way to kill bedbugs is in high heat (a dryer), and outside of Addis, no one owns or uses dryers, so it is a constant issue in Ethiopia.
Food in Ethiopia
Food is one of the many highlights of Ethiopia. Injera, a slightly fermented, sour, and sponge pancake-like bread, is at the heart of every meal. It is served with an assortment of spicy and flavorful vegetarian or meat options.
Every Wednesday and Friday are fasting days when vegetarian or vegan cuisine is available. Coffee is exceptional and a huge part of the social scene and culture in Ethiopia. Typical costs are around:
- Main food dishes cost between 30 Birr and 50 Birr at local restaurants (~$1.25 – $2.50)
- Coffee costs between 5 Birr and 8 Birr (~$0.30)
- Beer is widely available from 14 Birr (~$0.60)
Theft in Ethiopia
Theft is a major problem in Ethiopia, especially in Addis Ababa. Addis is the pickpocketing capital of the world. One day while walking around the Piazza area, we were surrounded four times and attempted to be robbed. And we knew several backpackers who had their phones or wallets stolen in broad daylight.
This problem, unfortunately, is commonly homeless children. They will try to trick you by getting close to you with a piece of paper or kleenex, pretending to sneeze on you, or pretending to beg. While this is going on, a group of other children will come from somewhere else and pick-pocket your belongings.
To stay safe, just DO NOT bring anything with you while exploring Addis. We carried one cell phone and nothing else. I made sure it was in a zipper pocket and guarded it. It is an uncomfortable feeling and a constant nuisance in Addis. Outside of Addis, the problem is not as bad. In some areas such as Tigray, theft is not nearly as common.
2016 – 2018 Travel Advisory
During the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, runner Feyisa Lilesa from Ethiopia garnered international attention. When he crossed the finish line, he made a public stance, using his arms to mark an X above his head to protest against the Ethiopian government.
As I mentioned earlier, there has been political unrest and several protests that have turned violent. The situation has been much better, but ensure you check your home country’s travel advisories prior to planning a trip.
Top Places to Visit in Ethiopia
The capital city is a major hub in Africa and the likely point of entry and exit when you visit Ethiopia. But we do not recommend staying long in Addis Ababa. The sights are not great and the pickpocketing is the worst we have ever seen. We recommend using it as a quick stop to move on to your next destination in Ethiopia.
If you do plan to sightsee, check out the Red Terror Museum, St. George Church, the Piazza, and the Merkato. Leave valuables at your hotel, especially when visiting populated areas, such as the Piazza or Merkato.
Stay: The Bole street area is newer and closer to the airport. It is much safer and cleaner than Piazza with less harassment from the locals. Hotel Tirago has very nice, clean rooms for a reasonable rate.
Lalibela is in a beautiful mountainous region to visit in northern Ethiopia. Thousands of Coptic Christians pilgrimage here to visit the 900-year-old rock-hewn churches. Ethiopia has some of the oldest churches in the world, dating back to the fourth century. During the 12th century, Muslim conquests in the Holy Land pushed out Christianity. Lalibela took its place, earning the nickname New Jerusalem.
No stop to Ethiopia can be complete without visiting this devout and religious place. However, the churches are not the only draw in Lalibela. After a full day or two of visiting the 11 rock-hewn churches, head out for a community hike to Abuna Yosef mountain. This three-day hike starts in Lalibela, and ventures into the mountains to small villages staying two nights in a traditional mud hut.
Stay: Halle Hotel Lalibela has simple, no-frills rooms that are comfortable and clean.
The Danakil Depression is in the northeast corner of Ethiopia, not far from Eritrea. This region is one of the harshest in the world. In one of the lowest elevations (-400 feet / -125 m), this place also is one of the hottest on earth.
Due to three tectonic plates meeting at this spot, it has sights unlike almost anywhere else on earth. Take a tour to the Danakil with the major stops at the Dallol sulfur springs, watch camel caravans to and from the salt lake, and hike up Erta Ale volcano to witness one of only five active lava lakes in the world.
Stay: Mekelle Hotel in Mekele has really reasonably priced rooms.
The Tigray region is the northernmost of Ethiopia and has been a formidable and large part of Ethiopia’s storied past. Many activities are in the Tigray region so you’ll want to stay for a few days.
Hit the mountains and go on a hike to a cluster of rock-hewn Churches in Wukro and/or Hawzien. Visit the storied past and ruins of Yeha. Climb up a cliff face with the assistance of a monk to one of the most famous monasteries, Debre Damo (only men are allowed). Check out the tombs, obelisks, and of course, the current location of the Ark of the Covenant in the city of Aksum.
Where to Stay:
- Hawzien – Vision Hotel has rooms and wifi for 300 Birr
- Wukro – Hewan Pension has basic rooms for 250 Birr
- Mekele – LK Pension has clean rooms with an ensuite for 300 Birr and a shared bath for 200 Birr
- Aksum – Unlike what many tourists and lonely planet say, do not stay at Africa Hotel. There is a history of bed bugs and it seems to have come up again in late 2016. Stay nearby at The Ark Hotel instead, with rooms from 250 Birr
Other Areas of Ethiopia to Explore
Head to Gondar and the Simien Mountains for a multi-day trek into the vast wilderness and craggy peaks surrounded by lush green valleys. Hikes are between two and ten days. It is possible to hike all the way from Simien to Lalibela.
Hiking in this region is strenuous and very remote. Getting a guide or scout is required by the Ethiopian government. If you book ahead with a tour company, guides are expensive and can cost around $100 USD per day. However, if you are on a budget, it is much cheaper if you organize at the park entrance.
The park office is in Debark, where the hike also begins. At the park office, you can ask for a scout (not a guide) and a mule (i.e. a local porter). You can save more than half your money by booking on your own and not hiring a full team to support you. Agree to a price with the scout and porter, and pay park fees of 90 Birr per person and 40 Birr each night tent camping.
Visit this UNESCO World Heritage City to enjoy a different experience from the rest of Ethiopia. Harar, a walled city, is predominately Muslim, and home to many mosques, markets, and lively vendors. A walk through the small alleyways will take you back in time.
The Jegol Wall is a great place to walk around. Also, check out the city hyenas and a long-standing tradition where you can feed meat to the hyenas yourself. Harar is also the gateway to overland into Somaliland for adventurous backpackers.
In the southern part of Ethiopia, the Omo Valley is home to many Ethiopian ethnic groups, known for their eclectic piercings, tattoos, and body paintings. Believed to be some of the most fascinating tribes left in Africa, this also has become a major tourist destination.
Inflated prices (tours upwards of $600 per person) and additional costs for photography of each person are often reasons some skip this region altogether. However, you will get a cultural experience that is nearly lost in all of Africa.
Sample 3-week Itinerary
- Spend 1-2 Days in Addis Ababa
- Trek the Simien Mountains for 5 days with a stop in Gondar
- Explore the ruins and tombs in Aksum for 1 day
- Spend 2 days in Tigray hiking up to rock-hewn churches
- Go on a 4-day tour to the Danakil Depression
- Spend 4 days in Lalibela exploring the Churches and a community hike
- Feed Hyenas and shop the bazaars in Harar for 2 days