East Africa may not be the first choice for the average holidaymaker, but Ethiopia is far from being the average holiday destination. The main thing any potential visitor to this beautiful country should know is that it follows an adaptation of the ancient Coptic and Julian calendars, so therefore their current year is 2005 and not 2013. The Ethiopian calendar has 12 months of 30 days followed by a 13th month of 5 days (6 for a leap year).
The Ethiopian New Year starts on September 11th and Christmas Day is January 7th in accordance with the ancient calendars and these dates are local public holidays. The country also follows its own time system of two 12 hour sections where days start at 6am and evenings at 6pm so be very careful when attempting to be somewhere at a certain time as local rules will apply.
Ethiopia’s dry season is from October to May and the rainy season is June to September so make sure you know what the weather is going to be like before you plan your stay.
It is a truly unique country to visit with some of the most amazing places on the planet and more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country in Africa. Although many off these amazing sights require a guide to find them and are well off the beaten track, they are more than worth the effort of getting there, even if it involves travelling by donkey.
Bahir Dar is a small lakeside community where you’ll find the monasteries of Lake Tana and The Blue Nile. Ethiopia is host to the source of the River Nile and one of the most spectacular sights here is the Blue Nile Gorge with unbelievable views, waterfalls and small naturally formed pools to swim in.
The obelisks and ruins of Askum mark the heart of ancient Ethiopia and are one of the most popular tourist attractions along with the surrounding villages.
3200 metres up into the northern mountain region is Gondar in the Simien National Park where expert guided treks are an unforgettable experience. Humans are hard to find here but wild animals can be spotted everywhere including the famous gelada baboons, ibex and even wolves. Accommodation and car hire is available for some of the way and the trekking is considered average to moderately hard mostly because of the altitude rather than extreme terrain.
Laibela in the mountains is a beautiful small town with churches dug from the rock face and you can hire a donkey to travel further up the mountain to see some of the more difficult to reach ancient buildings.
Tradition and custom are very important in Ethiopia and a third of the population is Muslim. Accordingly, they dress very conservatively and as a visitor, you should respect local customs, traditions and laws at all times, particularly when travelling to religious areas where these may be enforced.
Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims, normally falling around August and September and it requires that a fast is observed between dawn and sunset each day.
If you are planning to be in Ethiopia during Ramadan then you should be aware of the fast and make a point of not eating, drinking or smoking in public, even chewing gum can be seen as offensive. Locals understand that you are not under any obligation to fast with them, but your awareness and respect for their customs will be greatly appreciated.
Some restaurants and cafes may close or have shortened opening hours, but restaurants that usually serve tourists will be open as normal. You may find that hotels screen part of their dining areas off between western and Islamic guests.
The Ethiopian Highlands are mainly Christian and fast on a Wednesday and Friday and during Lent when smaller restaurants will only serve vegetarian dishes.
Iftar is the time each day when the Ramadan fast is broken and families and friends share a meal. Public transport and taxis can become busy during this time as everyone is on the move to get home. Eid is the three day festival marking the end of Ramadan and again, transport becomes extremely busy so bear this in mind if you are making travel arrangements.
There are two types of taxis within towns and densely populated areas – those that have a meter and those that don’t. If you don’t see a meter in the cab then you have to negotiate a price for your journey with the driver before setting off.
The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr and you can only exchange foreign currency and travellers cheques at authorised banks and hotels. Credit cards are generally not accepted anywhere so cash is needed for just about everything.
Ethiopia is a dream destination for those who crave a truly unforgettable experience and tourism in Ethiopia is on the increase so there are flights from most major international airports. You can even cheapen your experience by getting a Hotels.com discount code to cut costs on both flights and accommodation.
Getting around the country can sometimes be difficult but Ethiopian Airlines has an extensive domestic network with 43 airfields and 21 smaller landing strips in remote areas. Car hire is also fairly commonplace now and worth knowing that it is often cheaper to book in advance before you go if you are requiring a car to continue your journey from your main Ethiopian airport.
FURTHER READING: Visit the Danakil Depression
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