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Introduction to Ethiopia

Travelling in Ethiopia won't be everyone's cup of chai: there's not much tourist infrastructure here, and checking your email rivals carrier pigeon for speed. But the landscape is splendid, the people are welcoming, the sense of history is tangible and you won't have to worry about crowds of tourists.

You'll soon see that there's far more to the place than famine and misery. Ethiopia is just about the only country in Africa never to have been colonised, and its people have a proud tradition of fighting for their independence. The pride is justified.

The country is also unusual for its rich Orthodox Christian heritage, which the Ethiopians maintained even when all its neighbours embraced Islam in the 7th century. If you still don't get it, let's tell it the way it is: Ethiopia is arguably Africa's best kept secret.


Travel within 20km of the Eritrean border in the Tigray and Afar regions - a military zone -should be avoided. The border itself is permanently closed. Car hijackings are known to occur in the south. Ethnic tensions dog the west of the country.

Recent election results in Addis Ababa caused angry protests which came under fire from police on June 9, resulting in 26 deaths. Travellers are warned to maintain a low profile in the capital and to monitor local news sources for developments regarding further protests.

Full country name: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

Area: 1.09 million sq km

Population: 64 million

Capital City: Addis Ababa

People: Oromo (40%), Amhara and Tigre (32%), Sidamo (9%), Shankella (6%), Somali (6%), Afar (4%), Gurage (2%), other (1%).

Language: Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromo, Arabic

Religion: Muslim, Ethiopian Orthodox, animist

Government: federal republic

GDP: US$50.6 billion

GDP per capita: US$100

Inflation: 14%

Major Industries: Agriculture, forestry, agricultural processing, textiles

Major Trading Partners: USA, Germany, Japan, Italy

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Everyone except Kenyan nationals needs a visa. Visas are usually single entry, although multiple entry visas do exist.

Health risks: schistosomiasis (bilharzia), HIV/AIDS, malaria, meningococcal meningitis, yellow fever, hepatitis, intestinal worms

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3

Dialling Code: 251

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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On 19 January, Ethiopian Christians celebrate Christ's baptism at the festival of Timkat. During the festival, which runs for three days, priests remove the symbolic Ark of the Covenant from every church and parade it to a nearby consecrated pool. Giant Masses are held, accompanied by late-night picnics. Ethiopian New Year, Enkutatash (or Kiddus Yohannes) is celebrated on 11 September, which is also the feast of John the Baptist. Enkutatash is a spring festival, with kiddies dancing in the streets, handing out flowers and miniature paintings, bonfires and plenty of singing and dancing. On 27 September another Christian festival, Meskel, commemorates the finding of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. Town squares are filled with huge piles of meskel, or 'cross', daisies, which later become giant bonfires. Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas (Genna or Leddet) is celebrated on 6 and 7 January.

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Best time to Visit

Ethiopia is pretty pleasant all year round, with temperatures in Addis Ababa averaging around 20C (68F) no matter what season it is. The rainy season is from mid-June to the end of September.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Ethiopian Birr


Budget: US$1-2

Mid-range: US$2-5

High: US$5-8

Deluxe: US$8+


Budget: US$2-5

Mid-range: US$5-30

High: US$30-50

Deluxe: US$50+

If you want to live like a local, Ethiopia goes very easy on the wallet. If you're staying in small hotels, eating street food and travelling by bus, you can get by on about US$10 a day. Doubling that budget will allow you to stay in slightly classier hotels and eat in restaurants, but you'll still be restricted to bus travel. If you're willing to pay around US$70 a day you can stay in quite upmarket hotels, jet between towns, eat whatever you want and hire a guide.

Travellers cheques in US dollars should do the trick just about anywhere in Addis Ababa and the larger towns. Keep cash in US dollars on hand to cover you in really out-of-the-way places. There's really no point taking a credit card with you, other than to pay at some of the larger hotels and airlines.

If you use a guide while visiting one of Ethiopia's historic sites, they'll expect a tip - about US$1 an hour seems to be the going rate. Tips aren't expected in restaurants, but they will be happily received. Bargaining with taxi drivers and souvenir-sellers for a better price is quite acceptable.

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Addis Ababa

Of the 5 million people who live here, 3 million have arrived since the 1991 revolution. Founded in 1887, the city was almost abandoned due to lack of fuel until eucalypts were introduced to the area. A huge, sprawling place, it has very few street signs beyond the main strip, Churchill Ave.

The Ethnographic Museum is an ideal place to start learning about Ethiopia's rich ethnic diversity. The National Museum is much smaller, but it does have the fossils of 3.5-million-year-old 'Lucy', perhaps our earliest ancestor. It is ranked among the most important sub-Saharan museums in Africa.


Aksum is the holiest city in Ethiopia. According to the Orthodox Church, the original Ark of the Covenant, which holds the ten commandments, is somewhere around here. This is also the place where Christianity was declared the national religion in the 4th century.

The Ark is supposed to live somewhere in the grounds of the diminutive 17th-century St Mary of Zion church, but of course no one is allowed to look at it. The church's museum has a small but impressive collection of bibles, crosses and crowns.

Bahar Dar

Bahar Dar sits on the southern shore of the 3600 sq km (1404 sq mi) Lake Tana. Nothing much happens in Bahar itself but there's plenty to see in the surrounding area. Lake Tana is scattered with islands, many of which are home to monasteries, some built as long ago as the 11th century.

The Blue Nile Falls are about an hour by tour bus from Bahar Dar. Known locally as Tis Isat, the falls are over 400m (1312ft) wide and 45m (148ft) deep. Because of a series of dams near Bahar Dar, they aren't as impressive as they used to be.

Rift Valley Lakes

The seven lakes of the Rift Valley sit in a wide, fertile valley between Addis Ababa and the Kenyan border, one of the best parts of Ethiopia for bird watching. Lakes Lagano, Abiata and Shala are perhaps the most popular of the seven - one lake is blue, one silver and one brown.

Lake Abiata is shallow, with heaps of birds, while Lake Shala sits at the bottom of a 250m (820ft) deep crater. Lagano is the only lake in Ethiopia which is bilharzia-free, so take a dip while you have the chance. It's also the only one of the three lakes with accommodation.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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