Ethiopia is a landlocked country in the horn of Africa’s east coast with a rich and diverse cultural history. Its mythological origins stem from the biblical character of Menelik, son of the Queen of Bathsheba and King Solomon, around the 10th century B.C. and its royal dynasty ended finally with the famous Emperor Haile Selassie in 1960. Ethiopia was also the only African country that was never colonised but was occupied by Italy during WWII and still retains remnants of Italian influence. Sadly, my idea of Ethiopia was closely associated with Somalia and the ravages of famine represented by images of skeletal children, flies buzzing around their eyes with bloated and distended stomachs from kwashiorkor. But that was a dated perception linked to the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s and very out-of-touch with modern day Ethiopia.
Modern day Ethiopia has a new liberal prime minister who has selected 50% of his cabinet as female and it has just appointed a female president, Sahle-Work Zewde. The capital, Addis Ababa, is the headquarters for the African Union which is the continental co-operative organisation for Africa and sees Addis filled with governmental delegations throughout the year. Due to the successful expansion of Ethiopian Airlines, the international airport in Addis has become a transport hub for citizens all over the world. Ethiopia is known for its gold and silver jewellery, coffee, leather and from a country plagued by famine, it has now become an agricultural exporter. There is high rise construction on every single street in Addis with many buildings being held up with an intricate network of wooden sticks. There are indications of strong American and Chinese financial aid and investments in the country with the presence of many American non-profits and even the lift at the African Union building directing passengers with a Mandarin accent.
However, it is not all signs of development and prosperity. On almost every street corner you will find prostitutes waiting for customers, in the hotel lobbies, and even chatting to me on my elevator ride to my hotel room. There are beggars everywhere knocking on your car windows in the traffic and the phenomenon of poor naked beggars on the street with nothing left to lose. Besides the Chinese, the economy seems closed off to other foreign businesses and therefore you see Ethiopian knockoffs of foreign brands such as Starbucks. The banking or financial system is very underdeveloped. It was very difficult to buy from street vendors in brick and motor buildings or pay for food in restaurants without cash. In South Africa although we also have a number of small businesses and street vendors they have many different credit card payment options to facilitate transactions.
A highlight of Addis was definitely the multi-cultural fast-paced vibe of the city. The many different types of good quality and reasonably priced food from Moroccan, to Italian, Indian and traditional Ethiopian. The fact that you can get a massage for ½ the price in South Africa. I have yet to explore beyond Addis Ababa but Ethiopia is a large country with many beautiful and significant historical and natural sights and hopefully I will get to see some of these things.
Top things to see in Ethiopia
- Underground churches of Lalibela
- Addis Ababa
- Simien Mountains National Park
- Hyenas at the city of Harar
- Lake Tana Monasteries
- Sof Amar Caves
- Bale Mountains National Park
Accommodation in Addis
There is a plethora of quality hotels in Addis. I have stayed in the Marriot, Ramada and Sheraton but that was all paid for by the African Union. Note that it is standard practice at all hotels, for security reasons, to scan your bags each time on entry. The prices seem to range from about $500 per night which seems ridiculously expensive but I am sure there are more reasonably priced less fancy hotels.
Transport in Addis
I flew on Ethiopian Airlines directly from Cape Town to Addis Ababa. They have one direct flight per day. All of the hotels have private transfers to/from the airport. When you arrive at the airport in Addis you can find representatives/phones to all of the hotels. Driving in and around Addis, you can take a local taxi where you negotiate the price before you leave.
Visa requirements for Ethiopia
You can get an e-visa on-line before visiting Ethiopia which will help you skip the queue. However, each time I have got a visa on arrival for $50 for normal entry (only $30 for the African Union entry) which was relatively easy. You should also ensure you have your yellow fever vaccination at least 10 days before travel although I have never been asked for my certificate of vaccination.
The local Ethiopian currency is the Birr which is useful to have on hand as the credit card options are limited. Otherwise the US Dollar is widely accepted everywhere.