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A beginner’s guide to Ethiopia

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A mountainous and landlocked nation in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is a truly enthralling destination for those who love going outside of their comfort zone. With an immense historical tapestry – one that stretches back to ancient man and weaves through bygone eras of African kings and queens – it’s one of the only countries on the continent relatively undisturbed by Western influence (aside from a brief Italian occupation during WWII). This means its archaeological sites carry vital weight, and it’s unique – not only in its insight into the origins of Africa, but of civilisation itself. 

Though it’s definitely an adventurous choice for a holiday, Ethiopia’s infrastructure for tourism has vastly improved in recent years. With diverse, welcoming people and spectacular natural landscapes, you’re guaranteed a compelling trip that you’ll not regret taking a chance on. 

Read on as we explain some of the endless reasons to visit Ethiopia as a first-timer, from its jaw-dropping gelada baboons to a delectable plate of injera with doro wat. 

An undisturbed African history

Ethiopia’s recorded history spans thousands of years and even holds paleontological artefacts dating back to ancient man. As a nation never colonised by European powers, Ethiopia’s spirit of independence runs deep, resulting in a multi-faceted populus with around 90 spoken languages and 80 different ethnic groups – including numerous indigenous peoples who have thrived on the land for centuries. Even the country’s adoption of Christianity predates colonisation – and was introduced through trade and missionary activities under King Ezana around the 4th century C.E. 

With this in mind, unique UNESCO World Heritage Sites abound here. One of its best preserved spots, the ancient city of Aksum, is famed for its towering obelisks and its connections to the iconic Queen of Sheba, as well as signs of early Christianity. Gondar, the country’s former capital, is a medieval city of well-preserved palaces and castles from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Another is the famed rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela, an architectural vision of King Lalibela, who intended the site to emulate Jerusalem itself. High up at an altitude of around 2,480m, the eleven carved churches (seven of which are cut into the mountainside) date back to the late 12th century, and took 24 years to complete. The churches are a site of pilgrimage, holding deep spiritual significance for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and indeed anyone invested in religious history in Africa. 

The home of the first coffee

Hundreds of years ago, a lowly goat farmer named Kaldi realised his herd became particularly incensed after eating the seeds of a particular shrub. Those Ethiopian goats and their curious herder had discovered the very first coffee beans. So was the beginning of a huge trade for Ethiopia, and a worldwide obsession with the caffeinated elixir. 

To gain an appreciation for how much coffee is cultivated in Ethiopia, head to Kaffa – one of the first places it was produced. There are rolling green vistas and gorgeous hikes here, as well as coffee farms that still use old style methods of growing coffee. Coffee is also huge in Sidamo, Yirgacheffe and Jimma, where you can explore plantations, go on guided tours and sample the heritage beverage yourself. 

If you have the chance, don’t miss a traditional coffee ceremony; Ethiopians honour coffee and see it as a spiritual practice to grow, grind and drink the beans. To see coffee celebrated in this context will give your usual grande americano back home a whole new significance. 

Traditional Ethiopian Coffee

Wild and extreme landscapes

Ethiopia as a whole is breathtakingly beautiful, with stretches of desert, glittering lakes and grassy savannas; though many are surprised to learn that Ethiopia is largely mountainous – with steep, rugged landscapes that can be difficult to traverse in a hurry. The combination of its placement near the Great Rift Valley, and the deep valleys and dramatic cliffs of the Highlands has even given Ethiopia the nickname the ‘Roof of Africa’. Those who make the sometimes-tough journeys across challenging terrain are rewarded with consistently stunning scenery that is barely seen by outsiders.

The Simien Mountains are most renowned for this, where you can trek captivating trails along the ridge and admire the views of jagged cliffs and sloped alpine meadows that stretch far into the distance. Here you’ll likely see the world’s last grass-grazing monkeys: the fearsome-looking gelada baboons, as well as other endemic wildlife like the Walia ibex.

In stark contrast to these fresh, forested vistas, the more daring traveller might head to the Danakil Depression. At 116m below sea level, it’s one of the hottest and most inhospitable environments on Earth. With sprawling volcanic landscapes, eerily green sulphur springs and spluttering lakes of lava, it is the closest to feeling on another planet you’re sure to get. 

Simien Mountains

Underrated, delicious cuisine

Ethiopian food isn’t widely available in the West (though its presence is slowly increasing) – and you’ll soon find out what a crime that is. Ethiopian flavours are very savoury and complex with a trademark heat, usually due to the spice blend known as berbere (largely chilli peppers, ginger and garlic). 

The national dish of Ethiopia, injera with doro wat is a real treat. Injera is a sort of soured flatbread, made from a local, gluten-free grain that gives it a satisfyingly tangy taste. Doro wat – a spicy chicken stew which is lip-smackingly moreish – is then spooned on top, and often accompanied by sides of vegetables, lentils and sauces so you can tear off pieces of injera and mop up the plate.

Another popular dish is kitfo, a similar set-up to doro wat but with spiced minced beef, as well as plenty of vegetarian delights, such as shiro (a spicy chickpea stew) and atakilt wat (made with cabbage and potatoes). 

The capital, Addis Ababa is best-placed for you to experiment with cuisine, as it’s home to a roaring food scene with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients that come as standard. While you’re in the capital, also visit its excellent museums; the National Museum of Ethiopia, for example, contains the fossilised remains of ‘Lucy’, a three-million-year-old hominid, as well as an impressive range of artefacts, historical art and traditional costumes that will give enlightening context to what you see on your trip.

Traditional Ethiopian food

Make it happen

Ready to start planning your trip to Ethiopia? Our locally-based travel experts are based on the ground in the country, with all the knowledge you’ll need to build a trip entirely customised to you. Get in touch with them today.

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