Despite safety issues along its borders (avoid those with Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia especially), Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s most admired tourist draws. It’s the mix of contemporary and ancient history, combined with a natural world that encompasses vast savannahs chock-full of animals and absorbing tribal villages.
The holy city of Lalibela feels like stepping back in time through several centuries, with cross-shaped rock churches dropped into square holes in the earth, and large columned hallways standing guard. The city is a ‘New Jersusalem’ – a Christian response to the real Jerusalem’s ancient Muslim capture – and draws legions of pilgrims to sites that are antique copies of Jerusalem’s originals.
Gonder’s heavily fortified 17th century palaces have earned it the nickname ‘Africa’s Camelot’, and have a rustic fairytale feel. Aksum is a sprawling, dusty city with tottering Stelae (narrow cubic towers to rival the Egyptian Obelisk), crumbling palaces and heavily inscribed underground tombs. In Lake Tana you’ll find century-old island monasteries tucked away in the middle - a great backdrop to the surreal sunsets – and hippos frolicking in the water.
For the truly intrepid, Lower Omo Valley is touted as ‘Africa’s last great wilderness’ and is home to tribe upon tribe of heavily painted tribal Ethiopians, some wearing lip disks, and others clad in long shell necklaces or oversized animal-horn earrings. For your wildlife fix, Nechishar National Park is known for its Zebras and occasional Lion, while Bale Mountains National Park is home to 60 species of mammal – a number of them endemic – and 260 different types of birds.
Exercise junkies will love the Simien Mountains, full of craggy escarpments and startling drop offs, and the perfect place for a major hiking expedition. Tigray is similarly dramatic, out of the way, and home to churches carved from rocks that hover precariously over massive cliff sides.
In fact, for all its exotic charms, you could be forgiven for leaving congested capital Addis Ababa and flocking to the countryside for the duration of your visit. With reams of history and hauntingly rugged landscapes, Ethiopia is a rural traveler’s dream.