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Ancient temples, wild hyena feedings, the most delicious cuisine in Africa, cheap as chips – now that sounds like a backpackers dream. Welcome to Ethiopia! If you’re looking for a list of the best things to do in Ethiopia, I wrote that here.

Rock-hewn churches lalilbela

I spent just shy of a month in Ethiopia and even that didn’t seem to be enough. Every corner of this amazing country offers great sights and experiences so wherever you venture you’re sure not to be disappointed. The only place I’d recommend you don’t stay too long is the capital, Addis Ababa. I agree it’s a cool sounding name but that’s where the coolness ends! Everything is overpriced and it’s full of touts, drug-dealers, hookers and general reprobates – only stay as long as you have to. On a brighter note, here are the amazing must-sees in this captivating country.

Harar: Potentially the highlight of my time in Ethiopia. Harar is the Islamic centre of Ethiopia and you can feel the Islamic culture seeping from every nook and cranny. The old town, in the city centre, feels like a time machine. You waltz through the old city gates and you’re transported back to the 16th century. Everyone is wearing traditional clothes, English is non-existent (as is electricity seemingly), the alleys are narrow and the buildings ooze character. You can enjoy a day wandering around this mesermizing place for sure.

Then prepare for the evening… The hyena man! Near the old city, a family have passed down the hyena feeding skills for generations so now the ‘wild’ hyenas flock to his area each evening as he feeds them raw meat. You should pay around $4 for his services. When I was there there were probably 20 hyenas running around and howling, you can even feed them yourself if you’re feeling brave, or stupid:

Feeding a hyena in Harar

Bahir Dar: Sitting on Lake Tana, the scenery is beautiful. Spend a couple of days here – one of which you can rent a boat for and visit the monasteries on islands on the lake. Half a day is more than enough here because once you’ve seen a couple, you’ve seen them all trust me! Well worth a look though.

If you have a second day, jump in the rickety bus or grab a taxi to the Blue Nile Falls – a very impressive waterfall and a great way to spend a day. It’s a pleasant walk from where you get dropped off and the waterfall is a sight to behold.

Bahir Dar Monastaries Blue Nile Falls

Lalibela: Wow! I’m not going to say too much but get yourself to Lalibela and check out the churches, how I have never heard of this place before I came to Ethiopia must be indicative of my ignorance because Lalibela should be on every tourist map, everywhere. Number 1 attraction in Ehiopia for sure!

Lalibela churches

WELCOME TO ETHIOPIA - This is Lalib...
WELCOME TO ETHIOPIA - This is Lalibela

Simien Mountains: The peaks exceed altitude of 4000m so it’s not to be sniffed at. Trips can be organized from Addis or Gondar but try not to be tempted by a day trip from Gondar  – realistically it’s too far, regardless what your new best friend salesman says. If the budget allows, go for 2 nights/3 days (should costs around $80 with guides, cook etc.) and guarantee yourself a look at the devilish Gelada baboons. The topography is unreal so make sure your camera is charged, you’ll be blown away.

simien mountains

Aksum: UNESCO declared the whole place a World Heritage sight and rightly so. There are endless tombs and ruins to waltz through but for me the highlight should be visiting one of the chapels which allegedly contains the Ark of the Convenant!! One ticket, for about $5 USD, grants you access to most of the city so it’s not too pricey but before too long you may feel yourself a little ‘templed’ out!

Dankali Depression: Expensive, difficult, hot as hell and ridicously amazing! You can reach the lowest point on the entire continent (and if you’ve summited Kilimanjaro you’ll touch the highest and lowest point, pretty cool huh?!). The best (only?) way to do this effectively is to rent a 4WD between a few people or book a tour through when your in Addis. It will end up costing about $150 to $1500 depending on reputation and safety, all in so if, like me, you’re on a tight budget it may be beyond your means this time round.

danakil depression ethiopia


Budget: $15 or even less.

Food: A meal in a restaurant costs around $1, on the street about $0.5 and it is amazing. Make sure you order minchet, tibs and kitfo – you won’t be disappointed! Macchiatos, the most delicious drink in the whole world (aside from Guinness naturally) is readily available in Ethiopia, a snip for less than $0.15.

Accommodation: Private (dingy) room costs between $2 – $6 depending on your tolerance for grime.

Transport: Cramped large buses, bumpy roads, a worrying amount of crash sites on the side of the road and all for less than $1 an hour. Seriously, a whole day on the public bus (12 hours or so) costs around $6. There are a couple of luxury liners – Starbus and Salambus, they are 3 times the price and take about one hour less but they come with A/C and a lot less people. Also, there are no night buses in Ethiopia

People: Unsurprisingly for Africa, the people here are very friendly. Aside from the real tourist areas, just send a big smile their way and they’ll accept you as readily as family.

Weather: Quite nice actually, hovers around the high 20s most of the year, peak rains in June-August.

Religion: Divided between Christianity and Islam and generally each city tends to have a dominant religion (Islam in Harar, Christianity in Lalibela etc)

Currency: $1 USD – 17 Ethiopian Bir

Visa: Bloody difficult! Get an Ethiopian visa before you come to Africa. Recent legislation prevents visas being issued in neighbouring countries and there is no visa on arrival (VOA) by land, anywhere. If you’re already in Africa the only option will be to fly, and get your VOA in the airport (ok for EU citizens, check your eligibility). The cheapest flight tends to be Nairobi to Addis with Air Ethiopia for around $150. If you’re coming from the north you’re in trouble if you’re in Sudan already – Khartoum to Addis is pricey!

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40 thoughts on “A Backpackers Guide to Ethiopia

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  3. Hi Johnny,

    Oh wow, can you pm me too please please? I am in Addis Ababa now and heading to Mekele in three days still deciding if Danakhil Depression or Simien since it’s so expensive!, I am a starving grad student and I would love to know how you got to for 150!!!


  4. Hello Johnny

    I read that you can go to Danakil Depression for only 150 dollars.I am a budget traveller and I need to save a lot of money before I can go on a tour.Could you please tell me how to do it?

    Can you give me some good advice how to go to the Simien Mountains?Is there a cheap way?

    THanks you so much!


  5. Hi, Johhny, fantastic pic of you and the hyena. Very brave, as sometimes even the hyena man gets nipped on the mouth. I went to Ethiopia in 2006 after watching the Globe Trekker programme with Ian Wright. I was supposed to be there for 3 weeks but came back after 11 days. I visited Addis Ababa, Bahar Dar, Gondar, Lalibela, and Axum. Here are my pros and cons about my experience. The good: Amazing archaeological sites such as Gondar Castle, St. Georges Church, Lalibela; absolutely amazing 13th-century rock-hewn church, where my guide showed me the dead body of a hermit monk (not so good). St. Mary of Zion Church, and also the incredible Stellae field of Axum. Very cheap and good beer everywhere I went. Visiting a bar in Bahar Dar, where I saw and tried out some Eskitsa (shoulder shake) dancing. The bad: As it’s a poor country, everyone wants money from you: begging, tips blatantly asked for, even before the tour began, a ridiculous price quoted for a trip to the Simien Mountains, £200 a day. Ferenji Frenzy, where kids surround you, shouting “You,You.” I regret not seeing the Simien Mountains, as they look stunning. I don’t know if I would travel back to Ethiopia, though I must say that it is a totally unique destination in Africa.

  6. Great stuff man, we camp in Ethiopia for 30 days. We did not make it out to the Dankali Depression but we did hike for 3 days in the Simien Mountains. One of the best hiking adventures in the world.

  7. ‘d like to join a small group tour of about 10-14 days. Length and dates very flexible, as long as a good time to visit Ethiopia. I’m 74 years old, fairly fit, but don’t want long hikes or climbs. Can you help? Am travelling alone but am happy to share accommodation.
    Thank you. From Cape Town

  8. Hey johnny seems the Ethiopia visa will be a problem.. im planning on Flying to Egypt later this year, travelling down, through sudan, ethiopia and so on by land.. do you know how long before it expires as i know some visas start straight away, others let you enter within 3 months etc

    cheers mate

  9. Probably one of the most asked questions in here… How did you do Danakil for $150? I would be highly pleased if you could share this information with me. Thank you 🙂

    1. This article was written in 2010. I think I heard that the lowest price is now $280 [if you haggle a lot] & you have to go on a tour (solo travel is no longer allowed in the area as it’s not a stable area).

  10. it’s ok all tourist sites are peaceful place. If you go north,south,east all are secured. The people are socialble. Addis Ababa city tour and the whole Ethiopia you can visit by reasonable price. am visited many places and tourist guide in ethiopia. any one who want to visit please contact to get quality service.
    name bereket hogago
    phone +251940637476

  11. Awesome post, I am planning my trip to Ethiopia and found this article to be really helpful. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Hi Johnny,

    Brilliant post 🙂 would it be possible to get more information on how you did the Danakil depression? I’m planning 3 weeks there (travelling independently) in December/January of this year.

    Thanks very much


  13. hii
    could you explain more on climbing kili for $150 please? the blog you linked outlines a $1000 budget? I was thinking of heading there end of this year, in december. Any tips/advice would be appreciated 🙂

  14. Hi I’m in ethiopia right now and just like some previous commenters mentioned I was wondering if you could explain more of exactly how you did danakil for $150. Everywhere I’ve looked it’s been around 1,000 euros because of the car, security, water, etc. I would love to go if I could find it for less. Thanks!

  15. This is an absolutely epic and inspiring post Johnny. I was in Ethiopia for a short time only last week but managed to get Harar and Addis Ababa done and got a flavour for the entire country. That fact about touching the lowest point of Africa is also cool and the Danakil seems incredible. Every tourist that visits Ethiopia should read this guide beforehand. Thanks and safe travels. Jonny

  16. Hi. I’m looking to spend about a month in Ethiopia in January. Heard its very tough traveling by bus between sites, i.e from Addis to Bahir Dar. What do you think? Plus I’ve heard doing the tribes in South Omo is over rated, noticed you didn’t recommend this so do you agree? Thanks!

    1. hey Dan was wondering if you made it to ethipia? im going there in November, ill be there for a month and im also looking to travel around. did you end up going to omo valley? any tips?

      1. Andrea,
        I am also traveling from the states to ethiopia in nov 20th to be exact for two weeks… I am actually an Ethiopian native but haven’t been there since childhood… Never travelled to any of the sites and would like to go .. wouldn’t mind sharing costs with other groups .. Let me know if you are interested in doing so.

  17. Hello there! Can you tell me, please, how much would be a normal price of excursions to the North and South of the country? I’ ve just been offered 6 700 $ for about 24 days which I find reeeally cheek and too much!

  18. Hello! its me again. I dont know how i missed this the first time. Whats this about going to the Danakil Depression for only $150??!! that sounds really cheap all things considered. So you did the trip then? Tell me more as i REALLY must go there. I am heading to Ethiopia shortly to begin my trip. Thanks again

      1. Any chance you could let me know about this as well? All other research I’ve done so far is pointing towards $400-600 for the tour, compared with the $150 you paid.

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