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The diverse country of Ethiopia is filled with gorgeous natural scenery and some of Africa’s lesser-known wildlife as well as having a history that’s left its wide-ranging landscapes laden with historic treasures, ranging from 17th-century castles to ancient tombs and obelisks. If you haven’t thought about taking a journey to Ethiopia, here are the top reasons you should.
With over 80 ethnic groups and some 200 dialects, each ethnic group preserves its own unique customs and traditions. In the remote mountains and in the Great Ethiopian Rift valley, you’ll find unique tribes living a lifestyle they were living thousands of years ago. The Omo valley was isolated from the rest of the world for more than 1000 years and is home to an exciting mix of many small and distinctive tribes, including the Karo, the Mursi and the Hamer. All of the tribes retain their age-old traditions and rituals, and some communities have been opened to tourists who are privileged to learn about their tribal traditions.
Although there are many tribes are found within this area, it’s fascinating to learn how they find unique ways of expressing their artistic expression. For all the exotic variety, there is a similar thread in all of Ethiopia’s people: they’re incredibly friendly, hospitable and proud to show you their beautiful nation.
Ethiopia’s landscape varies from deep depressions, the vast expanse of Lake Tana and the arid plains of Omo Valley to the sprawling city of Addis Ababa and the craggy peaks and valleys of the Simien Mountains. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place with more striking contrasts than this one. It’s anything but those images you probably remember from back in the 1980s, which showed Ethiopia as a barren land, filled with dirt, dust and more dirt, without a plant in sight. While there are a few areas like that, there are plenty of lush, green areas. More than 70 percent of the mountains on the African continent can be found in Ethiopia, making it a hiker’s paradise too.
Stepping into Ethiopia, you’ll not only feel as if you’re worlds away from home in an exotic land, but you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. As the world seems to get smaller and smaller, and the streets start to look more similar, it’s rare to find yourself somewhere that truly feels different. Ethiopia certainly provides that, and a whole lot more. Many people here get around the old fashioned way – by donkey cart or horse and buggy. The donkeys aren’t just a gimmick, in rural parts of the country and provincial towns such as Awassa, horse-drawn buggies and donkey carts are the standard mode of transport. Out in the country, wooden plows are drawn by oxen, women wear traditional dress, children offer to shine your shoes for pennies, and while there is still poverty, most have enough to eat.
Here there are contrasts with the new and old everywhere you look. Unlike the countryside, in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, there is a massive building boom with modern glass buildings going up side by side with tiny street shops. Many of the women here dress as they might in any European capital, and they walk by talking on their smartphones too.
Africa is renowned for its wildlife, and Ethiopia is home to many of its more unique, lesser-known animal species, like the Gelada baboon, the mountain nyala, the Ethiopian wolf and the Walia ibex. This is also an exceptional spot for birdwatchers with some 850 bird species, many of which are endemic to this country. At Awash National Park, Abijatta Shalla Lakes National Park, Mago National Park, Bale Mountains National Park, Omo National Park, Neshisar National Park, Simien National Park, and Yangudi National Park, as well as the seven lakes in Rift Valley, you’ll not only discover astounding natural beauty, but you’ll have the chance to spot many of these rare species, including the mountain nyala and Walia ibex as well as the African antelope, mountain horned goats and the Ethiopian wolf.
Ethiopia’s also offers a fascinating mix of religious sites. The small town of Lalibela is home to one of the world’s most sacred sites with 11 rock-hewn monolithic churches, each carved from a single block of granite back in the late 12th- or early 13th-century. The structures are noted for their artistic splendor, and each has a distinctive architectural design. They’re actually dug into the ground, with the roofs at ground level. The walled city of Harar houses 99 mosques, you’ll find island monasteries at Lake Tana, and one of the oldest churches in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox church, which was founded more than 1,600 years ago. There are many religious ceremonies held throughout the year that are unique to this country too, particularly Timket, Genna and Meskel.
History buffs will be in heaven here, with Ethiopia’s history including everything from hominid ancestors and Stone Age hunter-gatherers to emperors, invaders, castles, palaces and a lot more. You’ll find practically an endless number of outstanding historical sites to explore, and with knowledgeable guides, leave with a real insight into the country’s fascinating history. In Ethiopia’s most ancient city, Axum, the capital of the historic Axumite site, is a wealth of remarkable monolithic obelisks, the three most important being decorated to represent multi-storied buildings, complete with doors and windows. The largest, nearly 115 feet long and weighing 500 tons, is the biggest piece of stone ever cut by humanity anywhere on earth. Just outside of town are the remains of an early Axumite palace, believed to have belonged to the Queen of Sheba.
Ethiopian food is one of the world’s most exciting cuisines. Eaten with friends and family, it’s extremely unique and extraordinarily flavorful. The way that it’s served, on a communal platter, is specifically designed for sharing the food, as it isn’t meant to be eaten alone in Ethiopian culture. The most well-known dish is injera, a large, spongy, pancake-like bread on which portions of spicy meats and veggies are served. The injera is actually used not just as a serving dish, but an eating utensil for scooping up the sauces – a messy, but a delicious experience. If you’re a vegetarian, you can enjoy dishes like shiro wat.Along with injera, shiro wat, sometimes simply called shiro, is one of the most widely consumed dishes in Ethiopia. It consists of chickpea and broad bean flour, mixed with garlic and onions, and made into a thick, almost paste-like substance – similar to refried beans, but smoother. While non-vegetarian versions of shiro often include quite a bit of butter, the vegan version usually uses olive oil instead.
If you’re a coffee lover, visiting Ethiopia means you’ll be able to say you’ve been to the place where coffee was first discovered. In the 9th-century, a goat herder found that after his goats nibbled on the coffee beans they wouldn’t sleep at night. Today, coffee is still grown and roasted across much of the country. Taking part in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony – an integral part of Ethiopian’s social and cultural life – is an especially eye-opening cultural experience, which is always followed by a massive jolt of caffeine in the freshest cup of coffee you’ll ever taste. All you need is a tiny cup and it will keep you going for hours. In most parts of Ethiopia, the ceremony takes place in the morning, at noon and again in the evening as the main social event in the village where the community, politics and personal lives are discussed.
One of the greatest falls in all of Africa can be found in the Ethiopian plateau passing the Blue Nile River. Blue Niles Falls, also known as Tis Issat, which means smoking water due to the continuous dropping of water that creates a smoke-like bounce of droplets, has a width of about a half-mile. It’s also enormously high, plunging for around 150 feet. Watching the river as it heads down the falls is absolutely spectacular. As the falls are located down a rather poor, dirt road approximately 17 miles southeast of Bahir Dar, it’s best to take the bus which leaves about every hour for Tis Abay village. Since the falls are a popular tourist attraction, there are also numerous outfitters that take visitors here.
For anthropologists and tourists alike, the Omo Valley is a rich kaleidoscope of tribal culture, a cross-road of early human migrations. Nowhere else on the planet is there such a variety of cultures within such a small area. While getting there requires a trip in the back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle on notoriously bad roads, it’s well worth it for the cultural experience. Ethiopians own a culture that has been growing ever since history itself began. Unlike the other African countries, the Ethiopian people were able to protect their country from the European colonizers which helped them to keep it from becoming a mixture of another. Every ethnic group has its own unique lifestyle – if you’re hoping to see what such genuine culture looks like, Ethiopia is an ideal place to be.
In Ethiopia, you can attend a festival during just about any time of the year. They offer lots of color and insight into Ethiopian culture and tradition. Cultural affairs and sporting events abound throughout the year, the biggest of which are held in Addis Ababa. Dance and musical performances are a common theme of traditional events, along with art and religion. The Timkat Feast is a three-day festival held annually on January 19 that celebrates the baptism of Christ on the Jordan River. Beautifully decorated tabots (tablets onto which the Ten Commandments are inscribed) that represent the Ark of the Covenant are paraded around the capital city. Both the Ethiopian Film and Music Festivals are held in May and feature outdoor film screens along with a series of musical events and concerts that celebrate the wide variety of genres and styles that have emerged here.
The National Museum of Ethiopia is absolutely fascinating – and, it happens to hold the bones of what was once the oldest ever discovered hominid, 3.2-million-year-old Lucy (Ardipithicus ramidus, or “Ardi,” found in 2009 is thought to have lived about six million years ago). Lucy spent six years on tour in the U.S., but returned home in 2013 and can be seen here in this state-of-the-art facility built just for Lucy and the many thousands of other fossils found around the country. Other highlights include a vivid display of Ethiopian art ranging from early parchment (roughly the 14th-century) to 20th-century canvas oil paintings by leading modern artists as well as a collection of secular arts and crafts, including traditional weapons, jewelry, utensils, clothing and musical instruments. The extensive array of artifacts include an elaborate pre-1st-century-AD bronze oil lamp displaying a dog chasing an ibex, a 4th-century-BC rock-hewn chair emblazoned with mythical ibexes and ancient Sabaean inscriptions.
Harar is one of Ethiopia’s true gems, an ancient Muslim walled city in the eastern region of the country. Lonely Planet writes about its unique ambiance, noting that you’ll feel as if you’re “floating through another time and space,” as a notorious center of “chat culture.” But chat or “qat,” is actually a mildly intoxicating, relaxing and addictive narcotic, not a pleasant conversation. You’ll see men walking through the city every afternoon carrying plastic bags filled with the leaves. In Harari culture, it’s mostly the men who chew, although some women do as well. Many people have a regular birtcha, or qat chewing sessions, where they meet most afternoons to socialize and work. Visitors to Harar are likely to be invited to a number of birtchas, and going to them provides the chance to see the inside of locals’ homes and meet people from all walks of life.
Who wouldn’t want to find the lost Ark? It has been written about by some of the most prominent writers and travelers of our times, including Richard Pankhurst, Graham Hancock and Philip Marsden – as well as having been featured in the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” starring Harrison Ford. Some say the Ark is just a legend, but Ethiopians believe that it isn’t really lost, just hidden in one of the islands on Tana Lake. As proof, every Orthodox Church of Ethiopia has its own Tabot, a similar object to the original one. If you want to find out more, well, that’s just another reason to visit.
The Simien Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site often referred to as “God’s playground,” because of its unique formations, is a hiker’s paradise. This chain of mountains stretches across northern Ethiopia, a rugged and remote range with rocky plateaus separated by deep gorges, valleys and towering peaks. The highest mountains in the range reach more than 14,400 feet, providing an incredibly breathtaking backdrop for any hike. You can take a trek into the national park for a chance to spot all sorts of wildlife, including baboons that are plentiful in the highlands, as the rare Walia Ibex and even the world’s rarest candid, the Simien wolf. Organized tours are available too, and the tour company will arrange everything for you from Gondar, including all your equipment and food, a guide, scout and mules. They’ll even pitch your tent for you.
Seasoned travelers looking for a more unique experience shouldn’t miss visiting Somaliland – and Ethiopia is the only place it can be accessed. While the rest of Somalia has been declared a no-go zone for over 20 years now, the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland has restored law and order within its boundaries and the safety of Westerners and foreigners is taken very seriously. As with so many destinations, it’s the people that make the visit so worth it. Somalians are known for their legendary sense of hospitality. But it’s also filled with fabulous surprises, including cave paintings that are believed to be the oldest and best-preserved in Africa, beautiful deserted beaches, mountains, bustling market towns and a fast-growing capital.
The Ethiopian Tourism Department also offers up its own unique reason for visiting. As the country follows the Coptic-style calendar, it has 13 months in a year which puts the organization in the position of being able to promote Ethiopia as truly offering “13 months of sunshine.” There’s not another nation on earth that can compete with that. Its calendar has 12 months of 30 days, plus five or six epagomenal days that make up its thirteenth month.