We loved Ethiopia! My friends Merianne, Jean, Lisa and I spent nearly two weeks In February doing what is called the Northern Circuit. It’s composed of visits to four towns of historic significance – Bahir Dar, Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. We all agreed it was one of our best trips ever.
If you’re considering a trip here (and we really suggest you do), here are some things we learned that might be helpful to you:
1) Choose a local company for your travel arrangements.
At our age (we’re all in our 50’s and 60’s), backpacking through Africa is not an option. Instead, we used a tour company, Travel Ethiopia, to make hotel arrangements and provide a guide and driver when we needed them. It’s a locally-owned (and, yay, woman-owned) business, which meant their prices were much better than some British companies we contacted in our planning.
Although we adored our guide in Bahir Dar (see previous post), for much of the trip we were simply with a driver/guide, Asrat Eshete. Asrat not only provided all of the information we needed, but he was incredibly attentive to our interests.
When we said we’d like to see the inside of one of the farm houses outside of Gondar, he pulled off the road, loped across a field and asked a family if we could visit them. Being invited into their two-room house – one room for family, one room for storage and animals – was a highlight of our trip.
2) Spend at least two nights – preferably three – in every town.
If you look at the tour group itineraries, they move often, usually just spending one night in each town. And during that single day, they start early and end late.
To us, that’s exhausting. We took a typical two-week itinerary and stripped it down to five different places, so in a couple of places we spent three nights. It’s heaven not to be packing and unpacking.
And don’t worry; there’s always plenty to do, even if that plenty is just sitting on the back terrace of the hotel having a drink and watching the sunset.
We also specified, as we always do, that we didn’t want to stay at hotels that catered especially to Americans. We already know a lot of Americans. We were interested in staying where Africans stay. As it turned out, most of our hotels, while distinctly down-market if they were in the US, were among the best in the towns. And we rarely saw Americans there.
3) Tell your guide or driver what you’re really interested in.
Although we started with a standard itinerary of the Northern Circuit, we amended it even before we left.
And once we were there, we often ignored what the guidebooks said – and even our established itinerary. Among our group, we were interested in livestock, children and schools, women’s centers, and libraries, for instance.
As a result, in Gondar, Merianne noted that it was wedding season and wondered aloud if we could see a wedding. Soon we encountered two men on horseback, dressed in white with sashes across their breasts in the Ethiopian national colors – definitely a sign of a wedding. We followed them down the road. At the church, Asrat went in to ask if we might come in.
We missed the ceremony, but loved the singing and dancing that surrounded the wedding party as they left the church. We took lots of pictures of the bride and groom (they wore traditional silver crowns and capes) and their wedding videographer took lots of shots of us.
In Addis, we inquired about commercial greenhouses, knowing that Ethiopia is a big exporter of flowers to Europe. Sure enough, Asrat drove us out of town, through the beautiful alpine-looking Entoto mountains, to visit a collection of greenhouses.
An agronomist walked us through the growing flowers and told us all about cultivating freesia and statice for export; it was a highlight of the trip – but definitely not on any tourist itinerary.
More to come in Part 2.