Backpacking Ethiopia: Top experiences
- Camping on the rim of an active volcano, Danakil Depression
- Watching early-morning mass at Bet Giyorgis, Lalibela
- Getting lost in the markets and alleys of Harar Jugol
- Hiking around Tigray in search of ancient rock-hewn churches
- Feeding wild hyenas with the “hyena men” of Harar
Jump to the list of posts from Ethiopia for more Ethiopia travel tips, or read on for the destination overview.
I spent about three weeks backpacking in Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa --> Mekele --> Danakil Depression --> Mekele --> Wukro --> Hawzien --> Axum --> Lalibela --> Dire Dawa --> Harar --> Addis Ababa
My original plan was to go to Bahir Dar and Gondar instead of Dire Dawa and Harar. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government staged a violent crackdown against protests in both cities two weeks before I went. Gondar was rumored to be a mess, so I decided to steer clear.
I took my trip to Ethiopia in rainy season (August), which made a trek in the Simien Mountains or Bale Mountains impossible.
Know before you go
Ethiopia is one of Africa’s cheapest countries for backpackers.
Nevertheless, it’s useful to have a daily budget and a separate big-ticket item budget while backpacking Ethiopia.
You could keep daily costs under $20 a day during Ethiopia travel, especially if you have enough time to take buses instead of domestic flights to get around.
See the Activities section for big-ticket-item costs.
Accommodation when backpacking Ethiopia is reasonable, especially for Africa.
You won’t find many hostels with dorm rooms, but you can get private rooms for as low as $8. Always ask if the hotel has a cheaper room — they’ll show you the most expensive one first. You don’t need reservations in advance.
If you’re used to cute, comfortable Southeast Asian guesthouses at that price point, be prepared to be disappointed. Ethiopian cheapies are clean and safe, but they’re a little rough around the edges. They tend to be bare-bones and a little worn.
If you’ve been making your way up from Southern Africa on stodgy maize porridge and tripe stew, you’re in luck. Backpacking Ethiopia is a foodie adventure.
The staple food is injera, a sour pancake-like bread made from a grain called teff. It’s totally unique to Ethiopia.
The injera forms both your plate and your utensils. Various lentil stews, meat dishes, and veggies are ladled on top. Rip off a piece of injera, use it to pick up the topping of your choice, and stuff it in your mouth. An injera platter costs under $3 for more food than one person can finish.
If you get sick of injera, don’t despair. Ethiopia also has some of the world’s best Italian food for ridiculously cheap prices. You can always get a pasta dish for about $2, or a proper wood-fired pizza for $3 — even in the smallest towns.
Ethiopia is also the birthplace of coffee. They brew it similarly to Turkish coffee, with sludgy grounds at the bottom and loads of sugar mixed in. A cup will cost you $0.25.
You will inevitably be invited to a “coffee ceremony” at least once during your trip. It essentially means you burn incense while drinking a couple cups of coffee and snacking on popcorn.
There is a huge variety of things to do in Ethiopia. In fact, Ethiopia has nearly everything you could want out of a trip to Africa — everything except the wildlife.
Most people backpacking Ethiopia stick to the ‘historical circuit’ — Bahir Dar, Gondar, Lalibela, and Axum. Each of these cities boasts sites from some of the world’s great — and lesser-known — civilizations. You’ll visit ruins, museums, and churches and soak up the ancient cultures. Aside from admission to Lalibela ($50 for three days), you won’t spend much money here — sites cost $1-$5.
One of the most popular places to visit in Ethiopia is the Simien Mountains. Most travelers do a 3-night, 4-day round-trip tour from Gondar for about $100 a day. You could keep costs lower if you organize your own transport. Simien Mountains trekking is difficult to organize and would be miserable in rainy season.
The other popular addition to the historical circuit is the rock-hewn churches of Tigray. These are tough without your own transport, but a handful are public-transport accessible. Alternatively, hire a car with a driver for $75 a day, plus a minimum of $15 per church for admission and tips.
The Danakil Depression is expensive, at a minimum of $400 for four days (but more likely $600). But it’s the single greatest four days of travel I’ve ever done and I highly recommend finding the cash to do it. You absolutely have to do it on a tour, due to security risks and byzantine local bureaucracy.
Harar is the gateway to eastern Ethiopia, and arguably the country’s most interesting city. It’s part classic Africa, part Middle East, part just Ethiopian — there’s really nothing like it. There isn’t much to do here besides wander around the old city, go to the markets, and take photos. Oh, and feed hyenas out of your hand.
For many tourists, the biggest allure of Ethiopia tourism is a safari into the tribal regions of the Omo Valley. The only realistic way to do it is on a tour, and you need a minimum of six days. Fees to the tour agency start around $120 per day, plus you’ll have to pay “photo fees” in all the villages.
Ethiopia is fairly easy to get around. Roads are good. By law, drivers can only carry as many passengers as they have seats. The only problem is it’s a huge, mountainous country.
If you have more time than money, government buses run between all major destinations. Fares are under $1 an hour. Most buses leave around 5 am for long routes, so you’ll need a ticket in advance. For short routes, just show up and wait for the next bus to fill up.
Minibuses are the next level up. They’re most common around Tigray. I found driving standards to be better than government buses. Fares are about $1 an hour, but most journeys are under two hours.
If you’re sticking to the historical circuit and Harar, the best options are the luxury buses operated by Selam Bus. They’re comfortable, driving standards are good, and they’re only about $0.25 per hour more expensive than government buses. Book tickets at least one day in advance. Unfortunately, Selam Bus can’t take you to Lalibela (yet).
Sky Bus offers similar services to Selam, but I heard from several other backpackers that the driving was insane. Ethiopians also complain about Sky Bus’s corruption, so think twice before giving them your money.
If you have more money than time, it’s worth considering a domestic flight or two (or, in my case, four) when backpacking Ethiopia. Prices are jaw-droppingly low — you can find deals for as little as $10! You get a big discount if your international flight to Ethiopia was with Ethiopian Air, and it’s much cheaper to book from within Ethiopia than from abroad (most offices are cash-only).
You can also hire a car and driver or try taking one of the Ethiopia tours offered through overland companies. Tours are essential for the Danakil Depression and the Omo Valley, and they make traveling in Tigray a lot easier, but they’re unnecessary in the rest of the country. Ethio Travel and Tours is a popular and cheap Ethiopia tour operator. They offer amazing tours to the Danakil Depression. For other parts of the country, you’re better off asking on online forums for private guide recommendations.
Ethiopia is one of the safest countries in Africa. Unlike in most of its neighbors, you can walk around on your own at all hours with almost no risk.
Addis has a pretty serious pickpocketing problem, especially around Bole (near the airport), Merkato, and Piassa. Nobody ever tried stealing from me, but nearly everyone else I met said they experienced at least one attempt.
Outside of Addis, you’ll find more hassles than dangers. Backpackers — and travelers in general — are still pretty rare in Ethipia, so you will constantly be the center of attention. Some travelers find the constant calls of “faranji, faranji” (the rough equivalent of ‘gringo’) to be annoying, but it’s mostly friendly.
Baksheesh is part of the culture when you visit Ethiopia, so expect to hand out small tips to anyone who helps you. Better yet, negotiate a cost in advance for any favors you ask from a local.
Travel in the Danakil Depression presents more risks than elsewhere in Ethiopia, due to its proximity to the contested Eritrean border. It never felt unsafe to me — aside from its total remoteness — but most foreign governments still advise against all travel there. The last incident involving kidnappings or tourist murders was in 2012.
Finally, Ethiopia is not 100% politically stable. Ethnic tensions run high, especially among the Omoro people. Keep abreast of the news in the weeks before you travel, and prepare to shift your itinerary or fly over trouble spots. In particular, avoid large demonstrations.
Try to get a sense of what’s going on before you arrive — the government censors the internet, so you may have a hard time finding out about problems once you’re in the country.
Don’t let that scare you — I went to Ethiopia right after a large-scale government crackdown. I had to change flights last-minute to avoid Gondar, but I had a completely trouble-free trip. So while you may see the international news and wonder, “is Ethiopia safe,” try to check with local contacts to get a better sense of what it looks like on the ground and check the State Department’s Ethiopia travel advisories.
For women alone
Backpacking Ethiopia was one of the easiest trips I’ve done as a woman alone.
Ethiopians are very, very friendly and most people speak good English. So men will want to chat with you, ask how you’re doing (“are you fine?” in Ethiopian parlance), and invite you to hang out.
For once, it’s actually okay to let your guard down — most men aren’t interested in anything more than getting to know you.
I did get a little bit of street harassment in Harar while backpacking Ethiopia, but nothing worse than what I get in my home city of Washington, DC on a daily basis.
Women outside of Addis dress conservatively, so it’s best to cover your shoulders and to your knees. If you venture into the predominantly-Muslim cities of the east, that’s even more true.
Lastly, prepare for lots of young girls to treat you like a celebrity. They’ll all want to talk to you, hold your hand, take their picture with you, etc.