Ethiopia is an independent backpackers dream. Cheap, fascinating and full of adventure, it is a perfect backpacking destination for any gap year traveller. But so few backpackers visit this amazing country despite an embarrassment of cultural, historical, geological and natural riches for them to explore. Here is why all travellers should be adding Ethiopia to their bucket lists.
No longer held back by the past it is so often defined by, Ethiopia is growing fast. It is a country opening itself up to the world like never before and is ready to welcome intrepid and open minded backpackers to experience the beauty and diversity held within its borders.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s most unique, yet most overlooked destinations, and one that by all rights should be right up at the top of every gap year bucket list.
A completely landlocked country split in two by the Great Rift valley, it holds some of Africa’s most diverse and beautifully raw landscapes. Vast forests give way to unending Savannah’s and deserts. Churches have been carved into the top of mountains over 4000 metres above sea level overlooking starkly beautiful landscapes, whilst vast salt plains and volcanoes are sunken deep into the earth, ready to greet the traveller who dares to step down into the lowest point on the African continent in the Danakil Depression, giving intrepid adventurers the chance to gaze at both heaven and hell in one fell swoop!
With over a dozen national parks containing a staggering array of wildlife and with a history dating back over 3 million years , Ethiopia even has a legitimate claim to be one of the great birthplaces of civilisation, a fact recognized with one of the greatest collections of sites of historical, religious and cultural significance on the continent outside of Egypt, from the remains of Lucy, the oldest known human ancestor, to the ruined palace of the Queen of Sheba and even the supposed resting place of the Ark of the Covenant itself!
A grand total of 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites are ready to greet travellers, from the famous rock hewn churches of Lalibella to the staggeringly picturesque Simien National Park, and a host of adventure travel opportunities to more sedate cultural experiences such as partaking in the hour long coffee ceremony are all part of the intricate DNA of the burgeoning tourism industry in Ethiopia that is only now starting to become truly established.
Yet despite all of this Ethiopia is still not on the radar of most backpackers. Even many of those who consider themselves well travelled through Africa know very little of the country beyond out of date stereotypes fed by black and white, slow motion images of starving children every Christmas.
Thanks to paternalistic efforts by self serving musicians to combat famine in the early 80’s and enduring images in the media of poverty and civil unrest, Ethiopia often does not have a favourable stereotype in the West, and for those few who are actually aware of the country as a destination it is that stereotype that often strikes the country off many travellers must see lists.
And that is a terrible shame.
Ethiopia is far more than what you just see in the news. Overhyped stereotypes of civil war and political unrest barely have an actual reality for any traveller on the ground. It is an extremely proud nation that is quickly moving away from the problems of the past and is embracing a global future that has left the culture of paternal aid far behind, one that reflects the diverse, multicultural and fast moving developed world around it.
It is true that Ethiopia is still very much a developing nation, and yes poverty still does exist – to deny that would be foolish – but the focus should absolutely be on the suffix part of the word developing. Let me repeat that word and put it into the right context, developing, because that is exactly what the country is doing, and on a grand scale.
Ethiopia is growing fast, the Capital Addis Ababa is littered with huge construction projects, transport and infrastructure is growing on a grand scale and new internal air routes are opening up with the national carrier all the time making life much easier for travellers to get around. You can almost see the possibilities of what Ethiopia can become opening up in front of you.
The stereotypical images of poverty and famine in the past are changing to ones of hope and optimism.
The essence of adventure.
The truth is however that despite this huge growth Ethiopia is still not always the easiest place to travel. The infrastructure for travel is still not always perfect and the sheer size of the country makes getting around a time consuming and often backside numbing experience, the transport options – whilst improving rapidly thanks to quickly expanding internal air routes – are still not as extensive as they could be and can be hard on the spine when a bus is forced to turn into an all terrain vehicle, accommodation options are sometimes limited and rolling blackouts mean that travellers may have to rely on good old fashioned paperbacks and a head torch instead of the now ubiquitous wifi if they want to entertain themselves.
And the truth is, coupled with negative stereotypes this does put some travellers and a lot of tourists off, but it is so important to remember that all of these are not necessarily bad things.
Travel shouldn’t always be easy and given to you on a plate.
The very things that put so many travellers and tourists off coming to Ethiopia is for me at least one of the biggest reasons to come!
Travelling through Ethiopia harkens back to a more adventurous time in the backpacker world, when smartphones weren’t a thing and Lonely Planet was still relevant and considered ‘the bible’. A time when you could throw your pack on your back and just see what the world threw at you. A time when you could just turn up to a town that wasn’t in the guidebooks without a plan or a pre booked hotel and a safe and pre planned ‘adventure tour’.
And this is a good thing! This is travel that pushes you out of your comfort zone, challenges your perceptions and turns you into a damn travel superhero!
Ethiopia rewards the backpacker intrepid enough to cross into its borders with a renewed spirit of real adventure, a taste of a time long thought to be lost when the reason for travel was travel itself, not to get that exact same Instagram shot as everyone else.
Travel in Ethiopia is more than just travel, it is a salve for the soul filled with often unrequited and never fulfilled love for eternal wanderlust.
The fact that relatively few backpackers and travellers still don’t visit this amazing country is truly mind boggling, but it is also a huge bonus too. There are still a lot of tourist hotspots of course but it is very easy to get away from the crowds and the few travellers you do come across will be few and far between compared to countries with heavily established tourist industries.
Ethiopia is the definition of the road less travelled, and that alone is the very reason backpackers should be going! The stories you will gain from Ethiopia will be earned, they will mean something precisely because you will have had to leave your comfort zone to achieve them, and when you do, you can discover some of the most fascinating and diverse cultures, climates, landscapes and attractions on the planet.
And believe me there is so much to be discovered. There are archaeological and historical wonders in Aksum that rival anything in Egypt or Peru. Travellers like myself who are drawn to the past can spend days exploring the Northern Stelae field, a vast graveyard marked with huge monolithic structures and underground mausoleums, visit the Queen of Sheba herself in her now ruined palace or head to the church of St Mary of Zion, the home of the guardian of the Ark and the supposed last resting place of the famed Ark of the Covenant. A site that was for me the culmination of a childhood dream.
This connection to ancient history alone for me was reason enough to come to Ethiopia because to me the history of any given place, the connection to it’s past, is not only a way to satiate a passion for history and archaeology, but it can give a deeper connection to the culture of that place too. I had travelled to Egypt specifically to see the Pyramids of Giza and every other archaeological wonder and treasure. I had visited Jerusalem and got lost in the past as I wandered through some of the most iconic sites in biblical Archaeology. I had gone in search of a lost ancient wonder in Greece and walked in the footsteps of the Incans, the Mayans and Aztecs in central and south America. I have wandered the world searching for the past, and Ethiopia gave me everything I had been looking for and then some.
There are even more recent historical masterpieces in Ethiopia that no traveller should miss. The iconic Bete Giyorgis, or the church of St. George, is the jewel in the crown of the famous churches of Lalibela. Carved fifteen metres deep into the rock itself, it is the seminal masterpiece of the rock hewn church tradition in the region and is the subject of much historical, spiritual and scholarly debate.
But Ethiopia is not just a museum filled tonic for the mind, there is more than enough adventure and excitement to keep even the most ardent adventure lover entertained too.
Want to go rock climbing? No problem. Hiking? You have your pick of vast national parks. Trekking into one of the deepest, volcano filled and most alien landscapes in the whole of Africa? Ethiopia has you covered!
A visit to the rock hewn churches of Tigray sounds exciting enough, until you find out that one of the most impressive, Abuna Yamata Guh, is spectacularly situated in a sheer cliff face at the top of a mountain, and getting there requires a challenging hike and finally climbing up that sheer mountain with ropes. Barefoot.
A feat that is more than worth it to find the famous rock hewn church at the top, and talk to the priest that still presides over it, handing down centuries of religious tradition and oral tales, passed down from generation to generation.
And what may surprise a lot of people is that Ethiopia is a haven for wildlife lovers too. I know that when everyone thinks of wildlife in Africa they think of safari’s in Kenya or seeing the ‘big 5’ up close, and as awesome an experience as that is, Ethiopia has some genuinely unique opportunities for wildlife lovers too.
With a burgeoning tourism industry that has yet to make many of the same conservation and responsible tourism mistakes of it’s neighbours, Ethiopia has vast national parks that are protected and for the moment seem to be running responsibly with conservation methods in mind.
There is a high number of endemic and often unique species in Ethiopia such as the Walia Ibex, the Simien Fox, the Gelada Baboon and the Ethiopian Wolf, and with vastly smaller tourism numbers, good responsible scouts as guides who will put the animals needs before your own and more isolated, protected national parks, travellers have a much higher chance of seeing wildlife on a genuine level.
The UNESCO world heritage listed Simien National Park is a truly spectacular example of this. Trekking through the stunning ranges at an an altitude of up to 4000 metres above sea level leads you through peaks and gullies that yield some of the best views in all of Africa.
It wasn’t long before our scout spotted some Gelada, animals that are closely related to Baboons and are found only in the Ethiopian Highlands, and we sat down to view them from a distance. But they were so unused to tourists or so completely disinterested in us being there because they saw us as non threatening they moved toward and around us without blinking an eye, only interested in the grass they were picking at to eat. It wasn’t long that there were too many of them to count!
Occasionally one of the younger babies would give me a curious glance and change its direction before resuming eating, or one of the larger males would stare at me with a bored expression, as if he knew he was still the alpha male and could take me without breaking a sweat.
I was glad he didn’t decide to test that theory!
But this magical, once in a lifetime experience of seeing Gelada’s up close was one of the highlights of my entire time in Ethiopia.
I wasn’t lucky enough to catch a glimpse of any ibex or wolves whilst I was there, but as the scouts said, they just didn’t want to come and see us that day. Which was the ideal response when compared to too many irresponsible guides in safari parks who will chase after wildlife for tourists. But the experience with the Gelada’s alone made the trip worthwhile and is genuinely one that I will carry with me forever.
And these are just a taste of the world class attractions that Ethiopia has to offer that the world at large does not yet know about, which given the problems of overtourism facing the rest of the world, is not necessarilly a bad thing either!
Ethiopia is more than just its attractions.
But for me the highlight of visiting Ethiopia has not been the major tourist attractions, as epic and as fascinating as they were, more often than not it was the little things that made my trip special. The random encounters and unexpected experiences.
My experience of Ethiopia is the random game of table football at the side of the road surrounded by local kids. The surprising discovery that a red rag on a stick stuck into the ground outside a local building meant that it was being used as a local pop up pub, and the subsequent invite to share a potently homebrewed drink of Tella that would have sent me into an alcoholic coma if I had ever managed to finish it.
It was the invitation to an underground local nightclub, where justifiable Ethiopian pride in their diverse culture was on full display and unfortunately for me (or them depending on your perspective) non participation in the dancing was never an option.
It was the random encounters at a traditional Ethiopian wedding.
It was the unquestioning welcome of a complete and obvious outsider joining in an ancient religious ceremony, walking around the outskirts of Aksum following thousands of faithful worshippers in a procession behind a replica relic of the Ark of the Covenant, and the smile of the young girl who handed me a spare candle when mine had burned out.
It was the genuine warmth of everyone I met, the warm welcomes, the hugs and the shoulder bumping greetings, the eager pull to dance with a stranger and the openness and the willingness to share and enjoy life that made me fall in love with Ethiopia a hundred times over in as many different ways.
And it is that feeling that I hope you get to experience when you visit too, because not heading to Ethiopia should never be an option for any traveller.
So by all means, come and see the major sites and tourist attractions; you should, they are epic in scale and majesty and popular for a reason, they really should be significant bookmarks of your time in this amazing country. But they aren’t the whole story either, it is the little things that matter too. It is the people themselves, the culture, the food and the small interactions that make up the narrative and fill in the details of your own personal odyssey.
They did for me, and that is my story of Ethiopia.
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This article was written in partnership with Ethiopian Airlines, the Ethiopian Tourism Organisation and the Ethiopian Embassy of London. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.