Ethiopia is a country which defies stereotypes. Far from being a starved and arid land, Ethiopia brims with life in the form of its rich history, colourful culture and deeply entrenched ritual that introduces a whole new depth of beauty to some otherwise mundane practices. Ethiopia’s religious backgrounds are ancient, it’s wildlife endemic, rare or endangered and its landscapes alien and dramatic. Why should you visit Ethiopia? Well, if it’s not for the Queen of Sheba’s palace or the Ark of the Covenant itself, here are some more reasons why it should be on your travel bucket list.
ROCK-CUT CHURCHES OF LALIBELA
Ethiopia is home to what many consider the eighth wonder of the world: eleven huge monolithic churches chiselled out from solid rock. These impressive 12th-century rock-hewn churches are unique to Ethiopia and they symbolise the country’s long history of Christianity, an association that goes all the way back to the apostles.
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1978, no visit to Ethiopia would be complete without taking a pilgrimage to this ancient holy site, of which there are two main groups of churches – to the north and to the south of the river. Visitors may even be able to witness an Ethiopian Orthodox service or get a glimpse of one of the priceless ancient manuscripts used by the priests if they're lucky.
Ethiopia isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine and you might not find too many restaurants serving this kind of cuisine in many cities outside Africa. Which is unfortunate as it is delicious and, often, an unexpected bonus for many visitors to Ethiopia.
Typical fare consists of a fantastic array of spiced meats and curries, tasty dishes with lentil and chickpeas, all served on injera - a large, slightly sour and spongey flatbread - which serves as both tablecloth, cutlery (how else do you scoop up those mouthwatering curries?!) and of course, a delicious meal. And remember that Ethiopia is where the coffee bean was first cultivated, with the coffee ceremony being a distinctive part of Ethiopian culture, but more on that to come. You can read about Ethiopian cuisine in more detail here.
ETHIO-JAZZ IN ADDIS ABABA
Ethiopia may not be the first place you would think to find dozens of late-night jazz clubs but since the 1950s, Addis Ababa has moved to the rhythm of Ethio-Jazz. It’s a fusion of traditional Ethiopian music combined with jazz, creating a unique sound that is best experienced in the bars and clubs of Addis Ababa.
The Ethio-jazz movement was forced underground by the Derg during the 18-year rule of the communist junta after Emperor Hailie Selassie was dethroned. However, it was never extinguished and in the last decade, the movement has seen a renaissance.
THE DANAKIL DEPRESSION
The Danakil Depression lies at the meeting point of three tectonic plates and is one of the hottest places on Earth. It’s a geological and ecological goldmine, fascinating scientists and visitors alike.
Bright green and yellow algae grow in the little remaining water, which gives the entire area an otherworldly feel. Huge pillars of rock salt dot the landscape while lava pools and active volcanoes occasionally erupt. It's a surreal environment where you can easily pretend you’re doing some interplanetary exploring (if that’s your thing), but completely unforgettable.
THE SIMIEN MOUNTAINS
Situated on a high plateau, Ethiopia has an incredible mix of landscapes from vast grasslands and deserts to steep canyons and fast-flowing rivers. But it is the splendour of the Simien Mountains that stands out in the memory of most of our clients.
One of the few places in Africa that receives regular snowfall, these rugged peaks are home to bountiful wildlife including the rare, and endemic, Simien Wolf and the Gelada Monkey. Not that Travel Consultant Jamie felt the gravity of this having been surrounded by them on his recent tour of the Simien Mountains. He was also lucky enough to witness the endangered Walia Ibex bounding over some rocks, showing off their spectacular curved horns. Basically, if you like wildlife, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
You’ll soon scoff at that essential morning Starbuck’s once you’ve tasted the deep aromatic version Ethiopia has to offer. And it’s not just about the taste! Far from an incorrectly spelt name scrawled across your paper cups, drinking coffee just won’t be the same without the whole Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony to accompany it. With nary a glowing laptop or phone screen in sight, engage in a friendly catch up that’ll captivate you as flowers and grass are scattered ceremoniously on the ground, watching your host ground coffee beans in a mortar and pestle, before adding the grounds to hot water, sieved and served. Then it’s brewed again and again, with each round of coffee even having its own name. You won’t know where the swirling steam from the coffee ends and the burning incense smoke begins.
Orthodox Christianity and Islam are Ethiopia’s biggest religions. The former especially comes with many festivals throughout the year to get involved in or witness, from the dramatic bonfires of Meskel to the colourful outfits and bobbing umbrellas of Timkat. You can bet Orthodox Christian festivals in Ethiopia are going to be the clearest window from which to witness Ethiopia’s culture, people and traditions intermix in a flurry of dance, drinking, food and ritual, which often extends beyond religious beliefs.