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Flag Source: CIA World Factbook
Ethiopia is a nation that should be proud of its age. Previously known as Abyssinia, Ethiopia has cultural traditions going back as far as 3,000 years, and humankind there goes back much, much longer: Lucy, the world’s earliest hominid, was found in Ethiopia and dates back 3.5 million years. As the second-most populous nation in Africa after Nigeria, Ethiopia is approximately double the size of Texas. Best known for its Olympic-caliber athletes and phenomenal cuisine, Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing African nations, independent of oil energy, and in 2007, the country had the 11th-fastest-growing economy worldwide. Bordered by Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti, Ethiopia has people, culture, and cuisine that combine for an unforgettable travel experience. Indeed, the country has no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites within its borders.
The Top 10: What to Do in Ethiopia
1. Ethiopian Cuisine:
Like Morocco, Ethiopia has exported its cuisine to the rest of the world with great success, and for good reason: it is outstanding. Injera, the staple bread, is a flat, spongy pancake made of teff, a grain grown on the highlands of Ethiopia. It is traditionally eaten with stews or with kitfo, a dish akin to a Western steak tartare, made with raw beef and mouthwatering spices. Injera is also used as a kind of plate; a spread of stews, spiced vegetables and meat, and condiments all may be served on a single large circle of injera. Eat it all up: that bread is soaked with spices, and eating it is an amazing way to finish dinner. Don’t be surprised if your host pulls off a bite and puts it into your mouth; that is a local sign of kindness and generosity.
2. Fasil Ghebbi:
Located in Gondar, this site is nicknamed Africa’s Camelot. Home to a 17th-century castle, the city was the residence of the Ethiopian emperor Fasilides and his successors. The city is surrounded by a 2953 feet (900-meter) wall and contains palaces, churches, and monasteries that feature Hindu and Arab influences. In this city you will have to remind yourself you are in Africa and not on an island in North Wales.
One of the most impressive sites in Ethiopia is the city of Lalibela, home to 11 huge rock-hewn churches, all carved out of mountainsides. Mind- boggling feats of masonry, the churches are connected through a maze of tunnels and underground passageways.
4. Semien Mountains:
These natural beauties are breathtaking, owing to thousands of years of erosion on the highland plateau. The jagged peaks rise and plunge dramatically, providing an astonishing backdrop for the nearby national park’s collection of native birds, plants, and mammals. This area is home to the giant horned Walia ibex, a goat native to the area and found nowhere else on Earth.
5. Ethiopian Archaeology:
Ethiopia has several sites for the curious observer, including the ancient city of Aksum, close to Ethiopia’s northern border. The birthplace of Ethiopian civilization, the kingdom of Aksum was the most powerful state between Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire. Dating from between the first century A.D. and the 13th, this site has royal tombs, monolithic stelae, giant obelisks, and ruins of ancient castles. Even after the kingdom’s political demise, in the tenth century, the site was still used as the location for the crowning of Ethiopian emperors.
The prehistoric town of Tiya, in southern Ethiopia, is another great stop for archaeology buffs. While not as visually stunning as those at Aksum, the 46 original stelae of Tiya date from between the tenth century and the 15th, they bear enigmatic carvings dissimilar to those of other regions. The town’s exact age is still unknown.
7. Blue Nile Falls:
Just outside of the city of Bahir Dar are the picturesque Blue Nile Falls (or Tis Abay, in Amharic). Smaller than Niagara Falls but dazzling nonetheless, the falls are at the southern end of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia. Islands on the lake are home to some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries and are easily accessible by boat charter (as is Orthodox custom, women are not allowed in some of monasteries on the islands). Ask your guide to show you the best places for hippo spotting.
8. Lower Omo Valley:
One of the last untouched wilderness areas on the African continent, this valley is secluded by the 14764 feet (4,500-meter) mountain range to the north, the impassable swamplands of the Nile to the west, and the desert of Kenya to the south. The valley features a diverse group of ethnic tribes within a very short distance. It is believed to have been an ancient crossroads where early humans passed during migrations to surrounding areas. Visit a Dorze village to see beehive-shaped huts, purchase local woven fabrics, and watch as craftsmen and women weave, throw clay for pottery, and forge.
9. Addis Ababa:
The capital city, Addis Ababa is the fourth-largest city in Africa and home to a variety of cultural institutions, including the National Museum, Jubilee Palace, Meskal Square, St. George’s Cathedral, and the Ethnology Museum. Merkato and Piassa are famous markets: Piassa is great for silver and clothing. Merkato is the largest market in Africa, but bring along a guide! Set aside a day or two to stroll around the city, appreciating the culture, the sights, and the friendly people.
10. Danakil Depression:
Located near the southern end of the Red Sea and home to nearly 3 million Afar people, this tectonic plate junction reaches almost 394 feet (120 meters) below sea level. Landscapes reminiscent of the moon’s are a highlight of this trip, and make sure to visit the Erta-Ale shield volcano, created by almost 90 years of continuous lava flow. It can get very hot here, so dress accordingly. As well, it can be difficult to get to this site—make sure that you travel with a guide.
When to Go
Ethiopia is a sun-filled country. Although the highlands, including the tourist-friendly historic circuit, receive rain from March to September, most days still enjoy a considerable amount of sunshine. A great time to go is right after October: at that time, just after the rainy season, Ethiopia is lush, green, dotted with wildflowers, and less traveled than in other parts of the dry season. If you plan on visiting the tribes of the Lower Omo Valley, try not to go in April, May, or October, when rain makes roads in this area nearly impassable.