Ethiopia is incredibly beautiful. We had no idea how beautiful it was, which made the country all the more appealing, because we felt as if we’d stumbled upon a secret. In the course of one or two days of driving, we passed through rolling green hills, mountain ranges, and dusty deserts.
We kept commenting, This is just like England! Or like wine country in France! Or the Southwest in the United States! (What is it about beautiful places that makes you want to compare and contrast them?) We never made it to the Danakil Depression, a stop on many tourists’ route, but that tundra of lava pits and active volcanoes is said to possess an otherworldly beauty, as well as being the hottest place on the planet.
Ethiopia is the second most populated country in Africa, with 88 million people from 80 different tribes, and is the tenth largest in the continent, with a landlocked parcel roughly equal the size of Texas and Wisconsin combined. It claims the mantle of “the cradle of mankind,” since some of the oldest hominid fossils were found on its soil, including Lucy who got her name because Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing on the camp radio that day. Ethiopia also boasts the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world (tied with Morocco) and has the distinction of being the only country in Africa to defeat an invading European power and thus escaping colonization. Free from the suppression and dilution of colonists, the culture remains strong and vibrant and the people are prouder for it.
We found Ethiopians to be friendly too and eager to share their culture. The country is developing rapidly on many fronts, and increasing its tourist traffic is one of them. Many people, especially in the cities, speak English. They learn it in school. Everyone was warm and welcoming to our children. Mothers in the small markets in the countryside offered to take our five-year-old son and raise him. One lady went as far as lifting her shirt a little to offer her nipple to to suck–which was a joke, I think–and made Roman laugh and blush in equal measure. Other women bent to touch our eight-year-old daughter’s hair and kiss her face, as if her golden hair and skin might bring them blessings. In the more remote villages, we weren’t the first tourists they’d seen—they called us “Faranji” which literally means French–but they hadn’t (yet) been so overrun as to seem jaded by our presence.
Kids tending sheep or goats or cattle along the recently completed roads in the southern part of the country ran after our car, yelling “Highlander! Highlander!” They wanted our empty water bottles, which they used to transport water or their homemade beer, or simply collected as a trophy from the Faranji. Other times, as we walked around a local market, they called “You, You, You!” which made me wonder who had been calling them “you” and in what context. But the chant seemed more curious and playful then unfriendly.
If you want to take someone’s picture, particularly the tribal people in their traditional dress, you will be asked to pay for it. We took a few pictures of individuals, but we found that the experience quickly turned a nice encounter into the spectator ogling the spectacle, which feels weird and off-putting. I was also turned off from watching tourists shoo away the children dressed in rags who tried to squeeze into the tourists’ photos so as to collect their few birr too. “You, you, out,” with a backwards wave of the hand. We stuck mostly to group shots, which one can take surreptitiously for free .
There are two sets of prices for most things—one for the locals and the others for Faranji. This is how it should be in my opinion, since we have a lot more money than they do. This two-tiered structure existed especially when negotiating cab fares and buying souvenirs, and require some bargaining. Generally we paid about 25% less then the starting fare for a ride and 40% less than the starting price for an item. Hotels prices were somewhat negotiable depending on how full they were. Restaurant prices were not.
Our family liked the traditional food of wat (a spicy stew of vegetables or meat) and tibs (meat with vegetables) eaten with the sponge-like injera bread. The diet offers a good dose of vegetables and even my kids grew to like it. When we wanted a change, it was easy, even off the beaten track, to find pasta or delicious grilled fish.
Our fanciest dinner, at the Totot Cultural Restaurant in Addis Ababa, with multiple courses including kitfo, the traditional raw minced beef spiced with chilis, and a carafe of tej, the potent honey wine, cost 900 birr ($45) for the four of us. The average lunch for four was 250 birr ($12).
For our family of four, we paid on average $70 to $100 a night for one or two rooms including breakfast in a mid-to-upper range guest house or smaller hotel/resort. The international hotels in Addis Ababa can run over $200 a night, but there are lots of other good cheaper options to be found on Tripadvisor. Out in the villages, the prices were sometimes lower, but the standards were lower too. During our three and a half week stay, we spent an average of $220 a day, not including airfare, which included a week long tour of Omo Valley, and a car and driver.
3G Internet was available in most hotels in the cities, with broadband available at many Internet cafes and the more expensive international hotels. The country’s cellular network had coverage even in remote villages in Southern Ethiopia and, if you have a smart phone or modem with a local Sim card, its wireless data transmission was often more reliable than wifi at the lodges.
The country feels very safe—and indeed we were told it was fine to walk around at night, unlike other places in Africa where we visited. The most we had to deal with was requests, which sometimes bordered on demands, to buy things for or give money to the local kids.
The political situation in the country is quite stable, thanks in part to an oppressive government that tamps down opposition and throws its critics into prison. Often cited as an excuse is the country’s rapid pace of development. Last year, the GDP grew in double digits, making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. From the new light rail in Addis to the massive dam project in the north (which will make Ethiopia the largest supplier of electricity in Africa) to the foam plant just outside the city to the fields and fields of rose cultivation to the buildings going up everywhere—hotels, office buildings, resorts in the north and south—signs of the country’s growth are everywhere. Much of it is fueled through Chinese investment and completed by Chinese laborers, including chain gangs of prisoners, which made us wonder how this growth will help lift average Ethiopians out of poverty. Also worrisome is the rapacious, short-sighted quality to the development, with the foam factory located next to an animal reserve, the lack of any planned green space among the new buildings in Addis, the huge number of hotels planned for the tourist city Lalibela, known for its ancient rock-hewn churches, when half of them were sitting empty during the second biggest religious festival of the year. Despite all this, Ethiopia buzzes with the energy and excitement of a country on the move, and we met lots of nationals, who’d returned in the last ten years after fleeing the Dirge decades before, eager to participate in defining the country’s next chapter.
We spent about three and half weeks in total in Ethiopia, with nine nights in the capital, Addis Ababa (before and between our trips), seven nights touring Omo Valley in the south, which is home to various tribal people, and nine nights touring the northern “historic route,” which boasts a number of significant archeological sites, 12th century churches hewn from volcanic rock, and 17th century castles. The north also offers the Simian and Lasta mountain ranges that are popular for trekking.
Addis Ababa is a busy bustling city, but compared to the African capitals, Kampala and Nairobi, it’s relatively easy to get around. The recently completed “ring road” seems to have helped ease up the traffic, and we didn’t witness much congestion, even to and from the airport, during our time there. We stayed at Ababa’s Villa, a beautiful historic house that has been in the family of Eyersulem Ababa since her grandfather helped to defeat the Italians in 1896. Located in the old part of the city, with a lovely large garden that is home to lots of dogs and huge turtles, Ababa’s Villa was a great mix of old world charm and the comforts of home. (You can read all about it in our review here.)
The cheapest mode of transportation around the city is the blue minibuses, which they call taxis. These are similar to the shared taxis minibuses one sees all over Africa. Figuring them out required some help from the staff at our guesthouse, but basically a barker calls out the bus’s destination, which allows you to determine its route and decide whether or not to hop on. There are usually riders who speak English who are more than happy to help you. The ride costs no more than 4 birr or the equivalent of 20 cents (in USD) per rider depending on the distance,. Be aware that drivers sometimes try to get foreigners to hire the bus like a private hire taxi and bring you to your exact destination for a higher fare. So get off where everyone else gets off to avoid this.
Private hire taxis are much more expensive, ranging from 100 birr ($5) for a short ride to 250 birr ($25) for a long one. If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing, it is worth hiring a driver for the day. We booked a wonderful guy named Ermias through our guest house Ababa’s Villa for 800 birr for the day ($40). The other bonus when hiring Ermias is that he is a dad himself and my kids were happy to wait in the car with him, reading books or coloring, while we visited, for example, the Red Terror Museum, which documents the country’s years under the violent regime of the Dirge and wasn’t appropriate for them.
We had drinks at the funky old Taitu Hotel with a friend of a friend, a young American woman named Kaethe Hostetter who lives part-time in Addis where she teaches violin and fronts a few different bands (back in the States she plays with an Ethiopian jazz band called Debo). In the hotel’s Jazzamba Lounge, we watched an Ethiopian big band play a few cheesy Las Vegas lounge singer versions of American soul numbers, before hitting their groove and getting the crowd on their feet with some funky updates of traditional Ethiopian numbers.
It was a Thursday night, and Kaethe’s phone kept buzzing with texts about who was going to which bar to hear which band later. The scene was a mix of ex-pats from France and Germany, and Senegal and Nigeria, along with locals. “It feels like something is happening here. You know what I mean?” I did know—I could feel it too—and would have liked to have seen more of it myself, but the thirteen-year-old daughter of the cook at the guest house who was watching the kids had school the next day. We dropped Kaethe off and headed home.
Things To Do and See in Addis
The National Museum houses a number of the ancient tools and hominid fossils, including 3.5 million year old “Lucy” and the more complete “Ardi” who is about 4.4. million years old, that earned Ethiopia the reputation as being “the cradle of man kind.” Normally the real fossils are off somewhere being preserved with plastic replicas in their place, but a guide told us that because there was recently a documentary film crew visiting, what we were staring at was the actual remains. We tried to appear properly excited and impressed, but it was the guide’s affection descriptions of Lucy and her “older sister” that brought the remains to life for us. Touring National Museum was a great way to make the story of human evolution concrete to the kids. It’s worth a few hours, with a break for lunch or coffee in the very pleasant adjacent café, Lucy, that serves a variety of Ethiopian and western choices.
The Ethnographic Museum is housed at the University of Addis Ababa. It is a nice introduction to the wide range of tribal people in Ethiopia—and includes such kid friendly exhibits as artifacts of “play” from around the country, along with examples of traditional pottery and baskets you see for sale outside the city. The university was formerly the Haile Selassie’s palace and his and the Empresses bedrooms and bathrooms remain intact and on view.
In the early 1960s, the Emperor donated the palace to the University of Addis Ababa, which he established as the country’s first university a few years early. In the entrance to the museum, there’s a good concise exhibit detailing the history of the monarchy, the reign of the Dirge, and role of the students throughout these events. Ironically before the establishment of the university, Selassie funded the education abroad, usually in England, of the children of wealthier families. When these students returned home, Ethiopia seemed behind and backwards to them, and they joined up with the peasants to overthrow the monarchy.
A visit to a university or college campus and a chance to see the students and the posters and flyers on display gives you a feel for the vibe of the city. No signs of political protest—the government keeps tight control on The days of political protest During our visit in September, there were some graduations going on, and we saw a number of students in cap and gown with an entourage of proud family in tow to take pictures. It’s not unlikely that many of these proud graduates were the first in their families to do so.
Entoto Hill sits up a windy mountainous road about 1000 meters above Addis Ababa, making it 3200 meters high and a nice respite from the bustle and exhaust fumes of the city down below. Hermias, our driver, told us that Haile Gebreselassie, the Ethiopian marathon star, trained on this hill. During the The drive we passed a half a dozen women carrying huge bundles of sticks on their backs they’d collected from the forest dotting the mountainside. Why is it always women, the kids wanted to know, and our driver Hermias simply said that it always had been.
At the top, there is a picturesque octagonal church, Entoto Maryam, that dates from the late 19th century and a small museum display of artifacts from the Menelik II monarchy, who made the hill the seat of its thrown, also in the late 19th century. The former palace is a series of small modest buildings, which aren’t what you think of when you imagine royal accommodations, but the grounds were nice for running around, and view was lovely. We even saw a patch of snow that had fallen the night before, which is a rarity in Ethiopia. Note: the bathrooms at the church hold the distinction for our kids of being the worst we’ve seen, so try to plan ahead to avoid using them.
The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum offers a balanced history of the discontent with the monarchy and Emperor Selassiet that lead to its overthrow by the Dirge, and the increasingly violent tactics of control by its leaders. Images and instruments of torture, documentation of the murdered, collections of their possessions help to convey the scale of the violence and make for a devastating and powerful experience. We thought it was too graphic for our kids and left them in the car with our driver.
When you need a break from sightseeing and want some first world pampering, head to the pool at the Sheraton Hotel. It’s heated by natural hot springs that run under Addis Ababa. These same springs used to also heat the public pool at the nearby Ghion Hotel, which is the chain of the former government hotels, until, we were told, the Prime Minister diverted the spring for his residence. The Sheraton pool is quite pricey ($90 for 4 people and it didn’t even include wifi) but there’s a huge shallow area, which was great for kids, along with a water slide, and a deep pool where you can do laps. The people watching was fun with lots of ex-pats and wealthy Ethiopians. There’s a great playground next door, and it was fun pretending we were luxury travelers for a day. Our day there remains in the top five list for my kids.
The Arcade at the Edna Mall in Bole Road offers a similar break from the sightseeing routine. It has a ton of games, including bumper cars, along with ice cream, cotton candy, and current movies in English upstairs. 100 birr ($5) bought us a few rides on the bumper cars, a handful of sock the mole and other classic arcade games, and two epic rounds of air hockey. A very economical way to pass a few hours if you are in need of some mindless entertainment.
Southern Omo Valley is home to various tribal peoples who the guidebooks describe as living an “authentic” tribal life. They have traditionally sustained themselves through farming or tending sheep, goats and cattle, but as more and more tourists are drawn to the spectacle of their difference–women with plates in their lips, men with shaved scalps and feathers, everyone adorned in body paint and bead work–the authentic life for the more colorful tribes is fast becoming an African Disneyland. Many tourists visit the area with the intention of collecting photos of the various tribal people, the same way they hunt to capture proof of seeing the big five on safari. Instagram and Facebook haven’t helped this urge to show off how far into the heart of the heart of Africa a traveler has ventured. Especially because we are traveling with our kids, we were worried of exaggerating the distance between us and them by gawking at the way they look.
We strongly considered not going ourselves, until we learned about a tour guide named Shigirir Ayele. Shigo, as he goes by, grew up in the Bana tribe and tended sheep as a child like many tribal kids. Accompanying his parents to the weekly market in Key Afar, he spotted children wearing school uniforms and carrying books, and asked his parents if he could attend school too. Like many parents from the tribes, they said no, since they wanted him to remain in the village tending sheep. Eventually he set out alone to Key Afar and slept on the street until a widow took him in. After graduating from high school, Shigo began leading tours in the Key Afar market and had recently moved on to organizing tours of the entire Southern Omo Valley.
Shigo speaks English very well but has also remained connected with his culture and speaks a number of the tribal languages. He had good friends wherever we went who welcomed us with what felt like genuine hospitality. We arranged an all-inclusive tour with Shigo, which included the guiding, the driver, accommodations, food, and village fees for around $300 a day for the four of us. Since he handled all the exchange of money, we didn’t have to deal with negotiating all of the time and could enjoy our interactions without the taint of haggling over money. (Here’s a link to a full report about Shigo and our trip.)
We left off visiting the most “colorful” (i.e. different) tribes, the Mursi and Dasenach, since we heard that they were the most aggressive in the photo-for-birr exchange and would get upset if you didn’t want to take their picture. Instead, we visited the Dorzay, Konso, Hamar, and Caro tribes in their villages and then also saw the Bana and Ari people in three different markets. We particularly liked the markets for their viewpoint into regular life for the tribal people, with the buying and selling of sorghum, coffee, vegetables, cattle and sheep, along with the tourist souvenirs.
We spent one night in a small village of the Hamar people. Shigo was friends with one of the men from the village and we pitched a tent next to his hut. We thought the kids might be too scared to sleep in their own tent and Nico and I didn’t want to split up on this eventful evening, so we all crammed into a two person tent, and slept—or mostly didn’t—head to toe to head to toe. But first, we spent a long afternoon in the village where our son played soccer with the boys and our daughter had her hair spontaneously braided by some girls, along with coffee ceremonies with two different families while visited them inside their huts.
All the coffee made it even harder for Nico and I to sleep, but we lay there with our heads sticking out the tent’s open flap and watched the stars shoot across the widest sky I’ve ever seen to the soundtrack of the clanking goat and cowbells.
Sitting in the huts of the two different families, I watched the women as they bent over the fire making coffee. Raised stripes of scars ran and twisted down their backs. The Hamer people, along with the Bana, perform a male initiation ceremony where the young men have to run back and forth across a line of bulls four times before they are considered ready to marry. Beforehand, the initiates’ sisters beg to be whipped to show their support and raise the stakes for the boy to perform well. On the drive down to the valley, we passed roadside signs promoting gender equality and calling for end to violence against women.
When I asked Shigo if a girl had to comply, he insisted that they didn’t, but he didn’t know of any who had refused. A young girl could never leave her village and head alone to town without making herself very vulnerable (especially since rape victims are outcasts in Ethiopia), so they couldn’t choose another life. The Moral Relativism argument, which we heard plenty of, would have me refrain from judgment out of respect for their culture, but I couldn’t stop looking for signs of the women’s discontent or feelings of oppression. There was none that I could see. Their expressions revealed very little. I did have a small moment of connection with one of the mothers when we were watching the kids play soccer. Roman went to kick the ball hard and missed, knocking himself off his feet in the process. The mother and I both started to laugh. Kids are funny everywhere.
The historical route, as it is called, loops through the northern part of the county, with stops at
- the 2000-year-old obelisks in Axum, remnants of a thriving trading empire that dates back to 400 BC;
- the series of 12th century churches carved from volcanic rock in Lalibela;
- the 17th century castles in Gondar, when the city was the seat of the monarchy,
- and the 12th century monasteries dotting small islands on Lake Tana in the city of Bahir Dar.
The distances between the stops are great, and most people fly the majority of the legs. As of May 2014, if you flew into the country (or book a ticket flying out) on Ethiopia Airlines, you can save up to 50% on the flights of the northern route. We skipped Axum, because there was only so much looking at old churches and castles the kids could tolerate (in retrospect, I might have skipped Gondar instead), and booked a private van to ride between Gondar and Bahir Dar. Our three legs of flights, from Addis to Lalibela, and from Lalibela to Gondar, and Bahir Dar back to Addis, ran us around $200 a person, through the Ethiopian Airlines discount, and the minivan cost another $40.
The highlights were trekking up the Lasta mountain range in Lalibela where we spent two wonderful days at ecolodge called Lalibela Hudad and visiting the daily market in Bahir Dar where we used up our remaining birr buying souvenirs before we left the country the following day. I stumbled across Lalibela Hudad while hunting around on some blogs for advice on malaria medication in Ethiopia. It looked incredibly beautiful in the pictures and was the one place we booked in advance.
On our last day in Ethiopia, before we flew off to Uganda, we put our haggling skills to the test in the daily market in Bahir Dar. Esme played her part to perfection when the shopkeeper refused to negotiate much off this traditional dress.
She shrugged, said it was a little hot and uncomfortable, and slipped it off. We had left the market when the shopkeeper came running after us, wiling to negotiate after all. Roman, on the other hand, started to cry when we refused to fork over 300 birr ($15) for an Ethiopian soccer jersey. We’d seen them elsewhere for 200 birr. Suddenly, the price was firm, and we were stuck. So he spent his time in Uganda, shirting for another African team. But that was the depth of his love for Ethiopia, and we all hope to get back there one day soon.