Exploring Ethiopia

Exploring Ethiopia

Exploring Ethiopia

I’m your 52-year-old Madison Park neighbor, father, husband and local real estate broker. At first glance, I might seem like a normal guy, but lurking just beneath the surface is a powerful addiction.

Almost every year, I head off alone with my backpack for about a month to out-of-the-way destinations around the globe. I intentionally travel like a local: buses, little boats, and even hitchhiking. I keep my plans open, eat street food, immerse myself in local culture, and let things develop along the way.

I’ve had some great journeys, and I’ll share a little taste of one of them every few months in hopes that I might inspire you to try something new when you travel.

I accidentally stumbled into a little Ethiopian cafe in Seattle in 1996; it’s been one of my favorite foods since then. It turns out we have 35,000 Ethiopians in town, the third-largest community in the United States. Many of them fled the murderous Derg regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Over many meals and great conversations, I became aware that Ethiopia had an ancient history, was the only country never colonized in Africa, and the place where coffee was first discovered. One day, a couple years ago, I set off to see the country. It was an amazing trip, a country not to be missed. Here are some tips if you decide to go.

The two best ways to get there from Seattle are Ethiopian Airlines — connecting in Washington, D.C. — or Emirates Airlines connecting in Dubai. The Emirates flight connection will have you overnighting in Dubai; Emirates generally includes your hotel in the cost of your ticket.

That’s what I chose, and I even had time for a fantastic Dubai City tour complete with a visit to the iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper and wonderful dinner by the sea. The very comfortable flight from Seattle to Dubai was 14 hours, another easy 4 hours into Ethiopia the next morning.

Arriving at the Addis Ababa airport was pretty straightforward. If you are using a tour guide service that you have arranged in advance, they will meet you in the main terminal holding a sign with your name. I chose to take care of myself, which is quite doable.

Thirty-day tourist visas are available upon arrival and easy to obtain — make sure to have two passport-sized photos with you. It isn’t a bad idea to have a couple extras for tours you might take during your trip.

Money is easy to change in the airport terminal; I’m always a fan of only changing what you need at the airport as rates can be more favorable in hotels or on the street. The exchange rate at the time of this article is 27 Ethiopian Birr to 1 USD. Communication isn’t an issue.

Although Amharic is the official language, English is widely spoken. Besides the presence of lots of solicitors, I felt really safe in the airport; Ethiopian culture is very welcoming, and many people are willing to help.

In general, I found the country to be quite safe, but it is recommended to avoid political gatherings and use common sense in crowded places or at night.

Ethiopian Airlines had an excellent domestic flight network; I found their flights to be safe, friendly and affordable. It is a surprisingly large country, so chances are you’ll be using them. People who use Ethiopian Airlines International to get to Addis Ababa are given discounts on domestic flights.

I chose to travel independently.

Whether you do this or travel on a package, lodging options are many. I encountered truly beautiful boutique hotels in the $150-$200 range, and simple, clean rooms for under $10 a night. There are many options in between and around $50 a night will often get you a very nice room.

Food can be found in hotels, on the street and everywhere, delicious and affordable. Food is generally eaten communally. Most common is Enjera (a spongy, slightly sour pancake bread) covering a whole plate, topped with different kinds of spiced meats, lentils, greens and cheese. Tasty beer, fresh juice, soft drinks and bottled water are widely available, and excellent coffee is everywhere you look.

As far as health preparation, visit your local travel medicine clinic well before you travel; malaria medicine and proper coverage at dusk and dawn can help a lot. Ethiopia didn’t seem to have near the mosquito problem of many African countries I’ve traveled to. It is important to filter your drinking water or drink bottled. I’m a fan of filtering, so I don’t add more plastic to the world. 

Be aware of temperature extremes when you pack; it’s very hot in the desert, and surprisingly cold at high altitudes. Pack appropriately and protect yourself from the sun.

The possibilities for travel in Ethiopia are many; I barely scratched the surface in my month there. Guides and private car hires are available to stay with you for the whole trip or just portions of it. Many travelers I encountered were doing a combination of self and guided travel.

Enticing possibilities include: Danakil Desert, including trekking the Erta Ale active lava volcano; the incredible stone-carved churches of Lalibela; pre-Christian stellae monoliths in Axum; the Castles of Gondor-Timkat Festival every January; extremely colorful tribal cultures of Omo Valley, South Ethiopia; trekking to see Gelada baboons and antelope in Simien and Bale Mountains.

You can also visit where coffee was first discovered, and witness the culture firsthand, near Bonga in the heartlands. Other great ideas include visiting thes of the Blue Nile River near Bahir Dar, the ancient city of Harar in Eastern Ethiopia, rock climbing to the ancient temple of Debre Damo, getting a taste of Sudan in the far-west Ethiopian city of Gambella, and enjoying food, museums and music everywhere in the capitol Addis Ababa.

Whatever you decide to do, you will encounter ancient customs and warm people.

Vince Decker is a Madison Park Resident, Husband, Local Realtor and Addicted Traveler. Follow his travels at