For most people, Ethiopia is not the first thing that comes to mind when considering a trip to Africa, but it is actually one of the world’s most remarkable, fascinating, and beautiful countries. In fact, it was recently named the “World’s Best Tourism Destination” (2015)!
Located in East Africa, just north of Kenya, Ethiopia offers a vastly different experience than its neighbors. It’s not a wildlife safari destination, but instead delivers dramatic landscapes, spectacular wilderness areas, and fascinating historical and archaeological sites, with remnants of ancient cultures and religions that date back more than 3,000 years, to the origin of human evolution.
The country is well-known for its incredible diversity of architecture, religious monuments, relics, art, and fossils. To name just a few – the fairytale castles of Gondar; the walled city of Harar; Axum, Ethiopia’s most ancient city, with magnificent monolithic obelisks as well as the country’s oldest church, housing the original Arc of the Covenant; Lalibela, a pilgrimage site known for its ancient churches built into steep rocky hillsides; the monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana; and the important paleontological finds of human/animal fossils and stone tools in the Omo region and the Lower Valley of Awash, the location of the most complete fossil, 150,000 years older than Lucy.
In addition to these man-made attractions, Ethiopia is also a country of outstanding natural beauty, with stunning scenery and parks, including the lush Simien Mountains, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world with jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and sharp precipices dropping 5000 ft. The park is also home to some extremely rare animals, found nowhere else on earth, such as the Gelada baboon, the Simien fox and the Walia Ibex. There is also Blue Nile Falls, a breathtaking waterfall dropping over a sheer chasm more than 150 ft. deep. And one of the driest and hottest places on earth, Danakil Depression, is a geological wonder with surreal, otherworldly landscapes and noxious hot springs…..only for the extreme adventurer.
In addition to the cultural and natural history, there are also the modern day Ethiopian people to encounter along the way, whose ancestry is often reflected in the traditions and festivities of the tribes living there today. There are more than 80 different ethnic groups, including the Afar people, nomads who somehow survive in Danakil, the Omo, with their magnificent body painting and feathered headdresses, and the isolated Mursi women with large clay lip plates symbolizing their “worth” and beauty.
Ethiopia may be one of the words last great ‘undiscovered’ destinations, but this is changing rapidly. If you want to visit before the secret gets out, the time is now!
Located in the northern highlands, Axum is Ethiopia’s most ancient city, and one of the country’s most significant and impressive historical sites. The massive ruins were once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Axum, the earliest Christian Kingdom in the world, which ruled between 1st and the 10th century A.D. Although only remnants of this fascinating past remain today, modern-day Axum is still the spiritual heart of the country and remains a very religious city.
Visitors can wander among the ancient, giant monolithic obelisks, each carved from a single rock, the tallest single pieces of stone ever quarried and erected in the ancient world. There are also ruins of ancient castles, royal tombs, and the palace of the Queen of Sheba, In addition, although still in debate, many believe that Axum is the final location of one of the most sacred religious artifacts, the Ark of the Covenant. With all its historical and religious significance, Axum has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Blue Nile Falls & Lake Tana
Blue Nile Falls is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Africa – 150 ft. high and about a half mile wide- nicknamed ‘Smoking Water’ for the enormous cloud of mist produced by millions of gallons of water plummeting down a sheer cliff and into the deep gorge below. It is certainly worth a visit, even if that was all there was to see, but there are also many other interesting and unusual sites in the area for those who want to explore a bit.
The islands on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River and Falls, are home to some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries, dating back to the 14th century- with magnificent wall murals, frescoes, manuscripts, ecclesial objects, gold and silver processional crosses, silver drums, and royal vestments. There is also wildlife to encounter walking to these buildings, hidden in the forests, including monkeys and abundant birdlife. A boat ride on the lake, to visit the islands, is a nice addition to the whole experience, with beautiful sunsets, and a possible encounter with the resident hippos. There is also a great market nearby for handicrafts and some local culture.
This part of the country has a lot to offer – scenery, history, culture, and wildlife – a great combination with something for everyone.
The churches of Lalibela, located in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, are some of the world’s most incredible “buildings”, because they weren’t actually built at all – they were each carved out of a solid rock. Although they are connected by tunnels, each one has its own distinctive architectural design, complete with windows, moldings, doors, columns, and floors. There are also ceremonial passages, hermit caves and catacombs with mummies of monks and pilgrims. These medieval monolithic “cave churches” are dug into the ground, so you often have to descend into the earth to enter. Today, the town itself is still very religious, with a large population of priests, and the churches are still being used.
Dating to the 13th-century, the churches of Lalibela are a remarkable achievement of an ancient civilization, which some have called, the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. When the first Europeans saw this extraordinary site, they thought it was so incredible that no one would believe them, and today, it still inspires awe.
Simien Mountains National Park
Simien Mountains National Park, in the far north of Ethiopia, is an isolated region of stunning, dramatic landscapes – towering, rugged mountains with snow-covered peaks, beautiful valleys, steep cliffs, primeval forests, colorful and exotic alpine plants, deep ravines and gorges, and plunging waterfalls. The mountain range, including the country’s highest peak at more than 15,000 ft., has been called “chess pieces of the gods” (Homer) and more recently, the ‘roof of Africa’. In addition to the spectacular scenery, visitors who come to experience this otherworldly region will also spot unique wildlife, found only in Ethiopia, including large troops of Gelada baboons and Walia Ibex.
Although you don’t need your hiking boots to enjoy Simien, it is a trekker’s paradise – a bit challenging, but very rewarding, although certainly not for those with a fear of heights. Campsites are as high as 12,000 ft., and even the valleys start at 6500 ft. There are also opportunities for visiting some very authentic local villages.
If you would ever consider trekking, even for a short time, do it. It is, for many, the highlight of their trip to Ethiopia, and for some, one of the most unique experiences of their lives. If you don’t trek, come anyway, it is still worth a breathtaking look over the ridge into the “Grand Canyon” of Ethiopia.