If Ethiopia’s not on your travel list, it should be. It’s a huge country – the largest landlocked country in the world – with unique cultures, a diverse landscape, incredible man-made creations, one of the oldest human skeletons ever discovered, and really good coffee. And there aren’t many tourists, largely because of lingering misconceptions of the country following the famine of 1984. Check it out now, before everyone else figures out what an incredible place it is.
I traveled throughout the country for two weeks with National Geographic. We didn’t go everywhere, but I saw enough that I can point you to ten amazing places and things to see – any one of which could justify a trip. I actually came up with 20, but am limiting this list to my ten favorite:
The Merkato, Addis Ababa
The Merkato is the largest open-air market in Africa. You won’t find any souvenirs to purchase here, but if you want to see how African commerce works it’s the place to go. It’s fascinating to wander around for a couple of hours. Colorful too!
Lucy, National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa
Lucy is a 3.2 million-year-old skeleton and one of the earliest examples of early humans walking upright. There’s a replica of Lucy in the National Museum, but the original is actually kept next door, secured in a safe in an anonymous room. This is the reason I like to travel with National Geographic – they open doors (sometimes literally) and get access to things that normal travelers can’t. We had a good half hour with Lucy and similar finds in the upstairs room, and then got a tour of the building, seeing room after room of fossils dating back millions of years. Humans originated in Africa; a visit to the museum makes that history a little more real.
It’s Africa, so you’re supposed to see wildlife, right? Ethiopia’s not a safari destination, but Lake Chamo has an incredible amount of hippos, crocodiles, pelicans and other birds, and a boat ride is the perfect way to see everything. I’ve been on a lot of animal-viewing excursions around the world that were ultimately disappointing because of the lack of animals. This wasn’t one of those!
Mursi Village, Omo Valley
There are over a dozen tribes in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Over the course of two weeks we visited the villages of six of them (Arbore, Daasanech, Hamer, Kara, Konso and Mursi), learning about their ancient cultures and photographing the people. The photography part isn’t easy or comfortable. Once tourists started coming into these villages and disrupting normal daily routines, the people saw a business opportunity and started charging for photos. The money goes back to maintaining traditional life (cattle and crops), so it didn’t appear that tourism was forcing the people to modernize, but there’s a point where you start wondering whether the elaborate body decoration is still traditional or whether it’s now done because tourists will pay to photograph it.
It was fascinating to spend time with the Mursi and other tribes, trying to get past those doubts, and appreciating the villages and tribes for how little they’ve changed over thousands of years.
The Kara Villages of Kolcho and Dus
I enjoyed our visits to the Kara villages the most. The people were slightly more approachable, and in one case (Dus) NatGeo had arranged in advance to spend the afternoon at the village, with full permission to photograph without needing to pay individuals. The Omo River overlook in Kolcho was stunning, and the village of Dus was fascinating – half forested and half dust/dirt.
Omo Child, Jinka
Around the Omo Valley, certain tribal children are singled out as Mingi, or “cursed”. They’re then killed to keep their villages free of bad luck. Omo Child rescues these children before they can be killed, raises them and educates them. In Jinka you can visit Omo Child’s orphanage and school, and it’s a powerful experience. They’re normal kids! To meet them really brings home how horrific the killing of any of them would have been.
A Hamer Bull Jumping, Turmi
A bull jumping is a rite of passage for young men in the Hamer tribe. The men must jump up onto a bull and then run across a line of 10-30 bulls completely naked four times without falling. Another element of the ceremony involves men whipping their women hard, causing bleeding and scaring. That was difficult to watch. The bull jumping, however, was fascinating.
The Konso Village of Gamole
Konso villages are very different from other tribal villages in the Omo Valley. The Konso villages consist of concentric stone walls, built over the course of many generations and constantly expanding outward, and their houses are similarly permanent. To be a Konso means moving a lot of stones in your life, and a major rite of passage is being able to throw a heavy stone over your shoulder. Look for the generation poles, erected every 18 years.
The Stone Churches of Lalibela
Yes, this is the same country! In the south you have tribes living how they have for millennia, with Addis Ababa you have one of Africa’s ten largest cities, and in the north you see the stone churches of Lalibela. The churches, 11 in all, were carved 800-900 years ago and are the reasons why Ethiopia was on my radar in the first place. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s particularly interesting spending time in each church and watching pilgrims come to pray and be blessed by Lalibela’s priests.
Yemrehane Kristos church is a church built into a cave northwest of Lalibela. As at the stone churches of Lalibela, I loved just spending time there, watching the interaction of the church priests and the many, many pilgrims coming to visit. The hike from the road is a gorgeous one, and the cave is surrounded by waterfalls. So cool!
Per my introduction, there were a lot of places I easily could have included on this list. I routinely post my favorite photos on Instagram (instagram.com/travelbabbo). Here are a few that didn’t fit into the areas above.
Ethiopia with Kids?
Photo expeditions aren’t kid-friendly, with a lot of travel between places and a total emphasis on creating images, including early wake up calls every morning to be in place for sunrise. Ethiopia is reasonably kid-friendly, but I would consider it to be adventurous, cultural travel best suited for kids 10 and over. If you’ve taken your kids to Ethiopia and have thoughts about best ages and/or an optimal itinerary, please comment below. I’d love your thoughts. And if you have other favorite places, with or without kids, please let me know so I can craft a different agenda for my next trip.
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