Situated in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia boasts extraordinary natural features, a vast range of wildlife, and a captivating historical and cultural heritage. An increasing number of visitors are frequenting this treasure trove filled with unique attractions. Popular attractions include: the medieval castles of Gondar; the walled city of Harar; and Lalibela, a pilgrimage site known for its ancient monolithic churches, hewn into the area’s steep rocky hillsides. Ethiopia’s stunning natural landscapes are the real tourist drawcard. From the lush Simien Mountains to the sulphur vents of the Danakil Depression, the country’s outstanding natural environment is unforgettable. Bahir Dar, located on Lake Tana, is popular as a base from which to explore the fascinating monasteries situated on the numerous islands dotted around the lake, as well as the Blue Nile Falls, which are arguably the most spectacular falls in North Africa.
Banking and Currency
Ethiopia’s currency is the birr. It’s divided into 100 cents in 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent coins as well as a one birr coin, and there are 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 birr notes.
According to National Bank of Ethiopia regulations, all bills in Ethiopia must be paid in birr. But this isn’t enforced and Ethiopian Airlines, most major hotels and most travel agencies accept (and sometimes demand) US currency.
The US Dollar is the best foreign currency to bring with you to Ethiopia and it can be exchanged at banks and foreign exchange bureaus. US Dollars should be carried in cash (they do not accept US Dollar travelers checks)
One regulation that’s strictly enforced is the conversion of birr to US dollars or euros; this transaction can only be done for people holding onward air tickets from Ethiopia. This means people leaving overland must budget accordingly. There are black-market traders around the borders, but rates are poor and it’s risky.
Visitors may import an unlimited amount of foreign currency but this must be declared on arrival to the customs authorities on the appropriate blue-colored form.
Foreign currency may only be exchanged at authorized banks and hotels, and a receipt must be obtained. The currency declaration form must be retained as this will be required by customs on departure along with the currency exchange form. Visitors may change back any surplus Ethiopian Birr to cash at the airport before departure.
Please note that the banking infrastructure is not well developed in Ethiopia and can cause problems for independent travellers. Therefore, it is advisable to use a reputable tour operator while travelling in Ethiopia as they will be able to assist you with dealing with payments while travelling.
Banking hours are usually from 8:00 am – 4:00 pm from Monday to Friday and from 8:00 am – 11:00 am on Saturdays. Closing times may be an hour later in some private banks. Most banks work through lunchtime; however foreign exchange services close during lunch hours (12:00 noon – 1:00 pm).
In the main city centres there are a limited number of ATM machines and they are often clustered together. You are likely to find six to seven ATM machines concentrated at some malls or hotels and then none at others. Outside of the city centre ATMs are very rare so it is advisable to carry as much cash as is possible and safe. Note that ATMs in Ethiopia often do not recognize foreign debit or credit cards. It is best to contact your local bank to find out if your card will be compatible with Ethiopian ATMs.
Major credit cards can be used to pay for flights with Ethiopian Airlines and maybe 2 of the big hotels in Addis Ababa - but that's about the extent of their usefulness. It's best to bring cash. Wearing a money belt that fits discreetly under your clothes is recommended.
Travel, Transport and Getting Around
Ethiopian Airlines is reasonably priced and has fairly comprehensive domestic services. Flights are often overbooked, so it is essential to reconfirm your tickets at least a day in advance and show up at the airport on time. If you forget to reconfirm, they may assume you aren't going to show up and give away your seats.
Tip: Booking tickets for Ethiopian Airlines on-line works out to be very expensive compared to booking at their office in Addis Ababa. Even better: If you have booked your international trip to Ethiopia via Ethiopian Airlines's webpages you will get a 50% discount on domestic flights.
Ethiopian buses fit into one of the following categories: the ubiquitous minibuses or matatus (typically Toyota vans that carry up to 14 people) that operate throughout the region; small to large sized passenger buses called "Higer bus" (named after the manufacturer) that often travel between regions ("1st level" to "3rd level" indicating the class); luxury buses (Korean modern standard buses) going between the main cities, and the large (often double-jointed) red Addis Ababa city buses.
There is a comprehensive network of cheap Higer buses along the major roads, although these are slow and basic. Buses travelling shorter distances generally leave whenever they have filled up with passengers (in practice, this means once an hour or so). Buses do not travel at night; they will stop before sundown in a town or village with accommodation for the passengers, or, between Dire Dawa and Djibouti, just in the plain countryside. Between some cities (eg, Adama and Addis Ababa), minibuses will run after the larger buses have stopped for the night. Everyone on the bus must have a seat by law – this prevents overcrowding, but often makes it difficult to catch a bus from an intermediate point on a route. If planning to travel by bus, keep in mind that almost all the vehicles are old and very dusty and some of the roads are in bad condition.
The bus stations usually open somewhere around 05:00. If you are catching an early morning bus, you should get to the station at 05:00. They are very chaotic first thing in the morning, and many buses will sell out of seats before they leave at about 06:00. To make things easier and less stressful, you can often buy a ticket in advance. In smaller cities, you can often buy your ticket from the conductor when the bus arrives from its previous trip the afternoon before you travel. Even if you already have a ticket, arrive early and claim a seat as soon as possible. If you don't have a ticket, you will have to ask people to show you the correct bus (unless you can read Amharic). In this case, don't waste time trying to buy a ticket from the window or from the bus conductor—push your way on board the bus and claim a seat! The conductor will sell you a ticket later. Medium sized backpacks can usually be squeezed under the seats, but large packs and most luggage will have to go up on the roof. Claim your seat before you worry about your luggage. Luxury buses however have a really professional approach with both numbered seating and dedicated luggage compartments under the bus. Anyone assisting you with your luggage, including the person passing it up to the conductor's assistant on the roof, will expect a small tip (around 2-3 birr).
Although more expensive than public transport, renting a car is a good way to explore Ethiopia. You can take small aircraft to expedite your tour, but you will see more of the scenery if you travel by car. However, there are few rent-a-car services in Ethiopia outside of Addis Ababa so you may prefer to depend on the services of touring companies that offer cars and 4x4s complete with an experienced local driver. Petrol costs 21 birr a litre. Make sure to check the pump is zeroed before re-fuelling starts.
Food, Drink and Cuisine Advice
Most upmarket restaurants in Ethiopia will have reasonably high standards of food hygiene. Eating from roadside food stalls is not recommended as the food safety cannot be guaranteed. Travelers should be warned against eating vegetables such as those in salads that may have been washed in water. Try limiting fruits and vegetables to those you peel yourself such as oranges, mangos, etc.
Ethiopian cuisine characteristically consists of vegetable and often very spicy meat dishes. This is usually in the form of wat (also w'et or wot), a thick stew, served atop injera, a large sourdoughflatbread, which made out of fermented teff flour. Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hands, using pieces of injera to pick up bites of entrées and side dishes. Utensils are optional.
It is important to remember to only drink bottled water. There are many brands to choose from; always check the plastic seal on all bottles before paying any vendor.
Climate and Weather
The best time to visit Ethiopia is between January and March when clear, sunny days bring regular average daily temperatures of 25°C (77°F). This is Ethiopia's busiest time to visit, with wildlife spotting at its peak and the festivals of Timkat and Leddet drawing huge crowds.
The rainy season (April to September) brings soaring temperatures and humid conditions. Due to rain, from May to August some roads in the Lower Omo Valley become impassable. August is the hottest (and wettest) month with temperatures reaching 45°C (113°F) regularly in the lowlands. In the highlands temperatures are much more moderate but sightseeing is hampered by downpours of rain.
October to December is an excellent time to visit Ethiopia as the countryside is lushly pretty after all the rain, there are plenty of sunny days and historical sites and monuments are not overrun with tourists. Night time temperatures in highland areas often drop to between 5°C (41°F) and 10°C (50°F) during November and December so be sure to pack a warm clothing.
Clothing and Dress Recommendations
Due to vast altitude differences between highland and lowland areas, if you are intent on exploring Ethiopia fully you should prepare for a wide range of temperature differences.In general between seasons clothes and layers are appropriate. Bringing clothes that can be easily layered is the obvious choice. You will need lightweight clothing for the lowlands and mediumweight for the hill country. At least one warm jumper or pullover should be brought along to cope with dramatic temperature drops once the sun goes down.At higher altitudes, a warm or a coat are needed in the evenings. Travelers should take rain coat or other rainwear, particularly when visiting the country during the period from February to October. It is usually possible to have clothes laundered at or near hotels within a short period of time (frequently services are offered 24 hours a day).
Electricity and Plug Standards
Ethiopia has 220 volt electricity, meaning unless your computer or appliance is dual voltage or designed for 220 volts, you will need a converter or transformer. The cycles (Hz) are 50 per second. The power sockets that are used are of type C / E / F / L. While adaptors are available in Ethiopia, buying one prior to leaving home is recommended to avoid the hassle of trying to find one when you arrive.