I visited Ethiopia in 2012 with my friend Sam– we went to Addis Ababa, Gondor, Bahir Dar, and the Blue Nile Falls. It’s an incredible country and one of my favorite travel destinations. Not only does it host some of the oldest evidence of human civilization, but it boasts a tremendous number of world-class sights from various historical periods such as Sheeba, Axum, and Gondor, not to mention Haile Selassie and the Rastafarian movement.
Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is a sprawling city with plenty to offer– it also hosts the African Union. We stayed with a friend who was living there, and provided us a quick overview of the city. Our first stop on arrival was the National Museum of Ethiopia, which has fossils dating back to the earliest known periods of human civilization, as well as the remains of the famous 3.2 million year old hominid, Lucy. (Lucy returned to Addis in 2013 after having been on tour abroad for several years).
We also visited several brightly-colored Orthodox Cathedrals in Addix (such as the one shown below), although I’ve lost track of many of their names.
A Note on the Ark of the Covenant: Many believe that the Ark of the Covenant is located in the city of Axum, at the St. Mary’s of Zion Church), having been brought to Ethiopia 3,000 years ago by Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheeba and King Solomon. I’ve heard others say that the location is undisclosed to prevent anyone from knowing the location definitively– with many churches having replicas inside. For many Orthodox churches, only the head monk is allowed into the inner circle of the church, where the Ark would be located. I didn’t make it to Axum while in Ethiopia (as all the flights were booked when we were in town), so I can’t weigh in on the matter!
Passing through Meskel Square at the center of town, we visited the Red Terror Museum, which offered a sobering but educational glimpse into the dark period of the 1978-88 purges associated with the Marxist Derg group that overthrew Selaisse in 1974 and plunged the country into civil war.
Moving to a cheerier site, we visited the Orthodox Medhane Alem Cathedral, which is beautiful decorated with three green domes — it is largest cathedral in Ethiopia.
Given that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee — and because my caffeine deficiency was kicking in– we stopped by Kaldi’s Coffee, a local chain whose circular logo and green lettering bears a striking resemblance to another coffee chain : ) The coffee was great — and they had an interesting poster explaining the origins of coffee (a Shepard noticed his goats became more active when eating beans off of a tree, and the rest was history!)
Another highlight of Addis was the Mercato — thought to be the biggest open-air market in Africa. It is a frenetic jumble of commerce that sprawls on for several blocks. Anything you can imagine was basically for sale — massive mountains of clothes, pillows, electronic parts, food, handicrafts, you name it. It is easy to get lost, so you definitely need to stay on your toes! Still, it was worth wandering around and experiencing the energetic buzz of the market!
Just north of Addis is Mount Entoto, a 10,000 foot mountain surrounded by beautiful pine forests and eucalyptus trees, which makes for a good half-day trip. Our friend dropped us off about half-way up the mountain and we hiked alongside the road to the top, which was a pleasant trip and not quite as grueling as I’d imagined. We finally reached the colorfully-decorated St. Mary Monastery– built in 1877 by Emperor Menilik II– as well as the adjacent Palace of Emperor Minilik. Interestingly, on the hike up to the summit, we passed several old ladies carrying massive bundles of tree branches on their backs– which I later learned is used as firewood. We stopped in other interesting churches on the way up and were mobbed by groups of children who lived in the area. Apparently it’s common for tourists to pass out stickers and small gifts– and having been notified in advance– we loaded up a bag of trinkets to pass out. We still ran out after a few minutes!
The food in Ethiopia is uniformly delicious, with plenty of spongy bread (injera) and spiced meat chunks (tibs) or stew (wat). The honey wine (Tej) was harder to find than I expected, but it was still possible to get it at fancier restaurants. There was also plenty of daal (spiced lentil bean mash), foul (spiced fava bean mash), and hard-boiled eggs to go around. I also tried kitfo, a raw meat dish that was quite tasty!
We had wanted to get up to Lalibela, which is famous for its stone-hewn churches, but the flights from Addis to the North (both Lalibela and Axum) had been sold-out well in advance due to a local holiday. So instead, we moved to our next item on the list — Gondar, which ended up being a highlight of the trip.
Gondar was the previous capital of the Ethiopian empire and it is home to several well-preserved 17th century castles that were built by Emperor Fasildes. Upon arrival, we headed straight for the Fasil Ghebbi (royal enclosure), where most of the castles are located. After exploring those ruins, which have earned it the nickname “Camelot of Africa,” we stopped at the nearby Mentewab’s Palace. We then visited the Fasilides’ Bath on the western side of town, which has another castle-like building surrounded by a pool, with plenty of rooted plants overgrowing the walls. It felt a bit reminiscent of Cambodia’s Angor Wat.
After exploring the castles, we popped into the Debre Birhan Salassie church, an 1880 church build atop the ruins of a 17th Century predecessor that was damaged by Sudanese dervishes (as they do…). Some consider this to be the most beautiful church in Ethiopia, as its walls are covered in colorfully-painted murals, with numerous cherubim faces amidst the wooden beams on the ceiling. It was very impressive!
After our visit to Gondar, we took a road trip south in a (very) crowded minivan to Bahir Dar, at the mouth of Lake Tana. The young man sitting next to me had a large bag of Qat (a mild stimulant plant, also popular in Yemen)- and the more he chewed it, the more friendly and talkative he became. From this dynamic, I was able to learn quite a bit about the surrounding region– as well as Qat cultivation. Eventually we arrived in town and took a cab to our hotel, B&B The Annex. The hotel was cheap, clean, and centrally located along the water, with a beautiful garden. Breakfast was offered in an outdoor eating area surrounding a massive tree.
After settling into the hotel, we walked down to the docks at Lake Tana and hired a boat captain to take a tour of the lake. The trip was spectacular — we saw plenty of birds including pelicans, storks, ibis, and spoonbill, as well as a hippo that came a little too close to our boat for comfort! It was at that moment that our boat captain explained that the hippo is the deadliest animal in Africa and can easily become aggressive. Yikes! There were also plenty of people fishing and rowing around the lake in canoes fashioned out of reeds.
We stopped at a small island and walked down a rough path through thickets of coffee trees and visited a nearby monastery. Apparently there are several island monasteries on the lake, but we didn’t have time to see them all.
We continued touring around the lake and saw plenty more birds feeding on the rocks, before heading back to town to have some dinner ourselves!
After grabbing some Injara and Tebs at a local restaurant, we found a concert hall along the side of the road with a rocking local band! Spectators packed into the room and were singing and dancing along to the music. I ended up getting “butter coffee” which was a cup of thick, strong coffee and a plate of oily ghee-like butter, to be mixed into the coffee. It wasn’t as good as it sounded at first, but it improved with some sugar– and kept me wide awake to enjoy the concert!
Blue Nile Falls
After finishing our visit to Bahir Dar, we hired a driver to drive to the head of a hiking trail, where we set out to see the Blue Nile Falls. Even though it was dry season, the landscape was scenic as the trail winded along hillsides and past small villages.
We met a few villagers along the trail, including one guy with an AK-47 who wanted to get a photo. (We took a photo and then I let him look at my camera while he let me check out his machine gun!)
We wound around the trail a bit more until finally reaching the Blue Nile falls. The scenery was gorgeous, although the water wasn’t as dramatic as I’d seen in pictures (since it was dry season and all…)
The falls had a series of warped rocks with circular pools, testifying to years of unique water currents passing overhead during the rainy season. We climbed around the waterfalls for a bit before continuing on the trail.
Hiking along the Blue Nile, we came to a valley where a herder was pushing a group of cattle through a somewhat-narrow passage. We joined in the herd and walked with the cattle down the rocky path, until we reached the river bank once more. We had to cross the river to get back to the town where our driver waited for us; fortunately, we found a small boat ferrying passengers to the other side. I sat with a father-son Qat-farming team (who had a few large sacks bags filled to the brim with Qat) and made our way to the other side of the river.
Upon arrival back in the village, we found a lady cooking coffee the traditional way — roasting the beans over coals and using an earthen pot to cook the thick, strong beverage. I had a double–which was amazing and potent– and then we met up with our driver and drove back to Addis.
Something for Next Time: There’s so much to see in Ethiopia that I have plenty on the list for next time. The top of the list includes the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, the Aksum— not only (but partially) because of the Ark, as well as the Omo Valley in the South, where the Mursi tribe lives (famous for the huge lip plates). Finally, I really want to get up to the Erta Ala volcano in the north, which has one of the world’s only open lakes of hot lava. When we went before, the security conditions were problematic due to intermittent attacks from a group called the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Movement — but a visit nowadays should be feasible with a proper guide.