When it comes to east Africa, Ethiopia is still very much off the beaten track. In comparison to other places it can be expensive and hard to manuver because the country lacks the infrastructure to efficiently host tourists. Although there are fantastic guide books that give realitively good information, there still is a great gap in information when it comes to moving throughout this country. After talking to locals and those that have traveled throughout Ethiopia I have been given a few tricks to make this place much more affordable and manueverable for the everyday tourist.
The northern circuit is by far the most traveled route in Ethiopia because of the historical lure and can be easily accessed by inter country flights that should be purchased after arriving in Ethiopia. I know this sounds ridiculous, especially for those of us who live in a society where a minimum of 3 weeks is necessary for decent prices, but trust me when I say buy your tickets in Ethiopia. The price at any Ethiopian airlines counter is easily 1/3 of the online price. When traveling in the North each ticket should be no more then $50 per leg.
Unfortunately my time in Ethiopia was limited and so I wanted to make the best use of it. There is so much to see in this country and with transportation not being as effiecient as desired I knew that I had to pick strategically and so I decided to venture north and see what all the talk of these unique ancient sites was all about. I must say that I was not disappointed.
First stop: Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar is the biggest of the cities apart of the northern circuit and is considered by many to be one of the more attractive cities in Ethiopia. This city sits on Lake Tana, the source of the Nile, and is an easy place for visitors to come and get stuck in. Life feels much easier here: I mean what is not to love about sitting at one of the bars or restaurants on the lake front with a local beer or coffee in hand?!
If you find yourself in Bahir Dar I recommend 1/2 day boat tour to the monasteries (300 birr). Be aware that each monestary will charge you 100 birr to enter. They are not all that different and I found the church on the Zege Peninsula to be the most interesting and worthwhile of my 100 birr ($6). From there head to Blue Nile falls and hike to see it rather then go by boat. The walk is beautiful and the suspension bridge is right out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At night Chcho Cultural Bar is a must-- you really cannot beat the cold St George's and the fantastic music and dancing. Bewarned you may get dragged on stage to shake your groove thang (and have video to prove it).
Second stop: Gonder
After playing on the banks of Lake Tana I then headed to Gonder, the medival city of Ethiopia. Known for its powerful and quite brutal kings (they would hang dissidents outside the castle walls and leave the bodies to be eaten by wild dogs and hyenas), Gonder definitely captures the travelers eye.
My first impressions of Gonder is that it is a town full of hustlers. The second you exit the airport or mini bus you are swarmed by eager guides wanting to sell you anything from a short taxi ride to a week long trek in the Simein mountains. However after settling in, I found the people of Gonder to be
welcoming and incredibly optimistic, especially regarding the weather. Hotels are plentiful here and really range in quality. Price does not nessisarrily mean your room will be clean and bug free; my travel mates and I looked at 4 different hotels and found that the high end, $40/night place to be quite dirty (and tacky--do you really need to drape that much fabric in one 5'x5' box?!). By a stroke of luck we ended up finding ourselves at Lodge du Chateau where the rooms were very clean, the breakfast delicious, and the water hot. But more than anything the employees there went above and beyond to accommodate their guests--and for a ridiculously good price ($15)
On my second day in the Gonder area I headed to the Simein mountains to hang with the baboons. 3 hours by car from Gonder, the Simein mountains are one of Ethiopia's natural wonders. Home to baboons, ibex, and many more interesting creatures (see photo below), Simein NP is stunning--even when it is pouring rain. Although I would highly recomend spending more than a few hours there (unless it is the rainy season), it can be done in one day for a decent price if you are able to pull together a group of other weary travelers. People all over Gonder are hustling to take people to the Simein's and so beware of the prices and scams out there. After a few phone calls and some bargaining we found Lodge du Chateau to be the best price ($62 pp in a group of 4--prices will differ during the high season).
Third stop: Lalibela
The rock churches at Lalibela are a must see. A UNESCO World Heritage site, these churches are not only beatutiful but are an engineering feat. Lalibela is a place where science and history and mysticism are constantly battling for truth. The story goes that King Lalibela was poisoned and during a coma had a vision that he was to recreate Jeruselum in Ethiopia. After waking from his dream he set to work and over 23 years, working by himself by day and with the help of God's angels by night, he carved 12 churches in the cliffs of central Ethiopia.
The other story, not written in stone, only whispered from person to person over hundreds of years, is that these "angels" were actually people from Babylon, Egypt and Jerusalem. Some, rather extreme people, even believe that it was the Knights of Templar that influenced and encouraged the building of the churches here because the style of architecture is shockingly similar to other buildings built by the Knights. Believe what you wish but one thing is truth: the rock churches are worth your time and your wallet (930 birr ($50) to tour them--ouch!)