For a country with such a rich history and such incredible scenery, Ethiopia seems to be left off many a backpacker’s bucket list. The transport links in the country are very good (by African standards) and there is enough of a tourist infrastructure to ensure that [most of] your journeys are efficient and safe. It’s time more people enjoyed the wonders of Ethiopia!
The main backpacking circuit everybody takes in Ethiopia revolves around the following itinerary: Addis Ababa – Bahir Dar/Lake Tana (Blue Nile Falls) – Gondar – (Simien Mountains) – Lalibela – Addis Ababa. While it may not be possible to head any further north than the Simien Mountains to see the wonders of Tigray Province, such as the ruins of Axum and the charming city of Me’kele, due to time restraints, you should still get a great feel of Ethiopia from the itinerary that you already planned for.
Flights to Ethiopia will probably land at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, which has links all over the continent and beyond. The flag carrier airline of Ethiopia, Ethiopian Airlines, has flights to major cities in Europe and the Middle-East, and even fly as far as Hong Kong and Singapore. It has never been easier getting to Ethiopia! From Addis Ababa, there is not even any need to leave the airport, as if you want to avoid long bus journeys in the country, then Ethiopian Airlines can fly you on domestic routes straight to places like Bahir Dar or Lalibela – although obviously this is a much more expensive option than the buses! Whatever your preferred method of transport, tourists visas cost $50USD and can be obtained on arrival at the airport for many nationalities (check to see if you are included!).
Currency in Ethiopia is called the Ethiopian Birr. This currency is pretty weak and you will need a strong currency in your pocket when you arrive in Ethiopia, such as GBP, USD, or Euros. Don’t get too many Birrs in advance of your arrival, as you need one of the strong currencies to pay for the tourist visa at the airport (Birrs are NOT accepted). However, if you don’t like using your debit card/credit card too much in foreign countries, then you should “risk” using an ATM at Bole Airport and get enough to last the rest of your stay (but still make sure you have some of a strong currency) to pay for taxi fares and street food etc..
Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar takes around 9 hours by bus. Bahir Dar is located on the southern shore of Lake Tana and is only an hour’s journey to the Blue Nile Falls. If you wanted to take this journey, it is best to do so as a day trip while based in Bahir Dar. From Bahir Dar northwards to Gondar, it takes 3 hours by bus or taxi. While spending time in Gondar, it is wise to include a day trip (or overnight trip) to the Simien Mountains National Park, the journey to which will take around 3 hours. When returning to Gondar, your next leg of the backpacking circuit will be to head to Lalibela. Gondar to Lalibela is a journey that takes between 6-7 hours on the road. Lalibela itself is also around 7 hours away from Addis Ababa.
When you have factored in the travel time involved between the iconic sights of Ethiopia, you can look forward to arriving there and spending some time in local accommodation. In particular, you should attempt to stay for 3-4 nights in Bahir Dar and a similar length of time in Gondar. This gives you the possibility to undertake day trips such as Bahir Dar to the Blue Nile Falls and Gondar to the Simien Mountains.
The major sights of Ethiopia could be separated into 4 different areas: the monasteries of Lake Tana, the castles of Gondar, and the churches of Lalibela (plus the spectacular scenery everywhere!). It is impossible to pick a highlight, as they are equally incredible – it depends of personal preference! You have to understand that many people consider Ethiopia to be one of the “oldest” countries in the world, and many of its attractions date back further than most other things you will have seen before.