Why you should care
Because Ethiopia is wonderful, wondrous and cheap — but the cheap part won’t last forever.
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As a tourist destination, Ethiopia may be near a tipping point, the kind that far-flung travel spots like Angkor Wat and the Inca Trail already tumbled over. Before, they were wondrous and cheap, if difficult. Now they’re easier, but pricier and crowded — landmarks on a well-trod path rather than the road less traveled.
In 2011, more than half a million international travelers visited. Rastafarians explore Haile Selassi’s legacy; Pan-Africanists connect with Axum’s powerful early dynasties; and caffeine addicts revel in the indigenous, aromatic coffee. Tourism is part of Ethiopia’s ambitious “growth and transformation plan ,” as the country races toward middle-income status . While overall visitor numbers are still small — about half of those visiting Tanzania and a sliver compared with those visiting South Africa — the upward trend is clear.
The time to visit is now, before it costs what it’s worth. And that’s a lot.
Ethiopians have noticed — and bumped up prices in an effort to rake in more from each traveler. Between 2010 and 2011, international tourist receipts rose almost 50 percent, to $763 million. The hikes continue. The government tripled domestic airfares in November 2013, and no hotelier charges the rates listed in guidebooks.
The time to visit is now, before it costs what it’s worth. And that’s a lot. We recommend making it a road trip, following a route that can span weeks or months. Meals can cost a few dollars and cheap hotel rooms just a few more, and while its sights and landmarks have endured for centuries, the affordability will not.
Some tips for getting in and around while the getting’s still cheap:
Don’t linger in Addis.
You’ll likely fly into Addis Ababa, which is not just the country’s capital, but also the self-declared “Capital of Africa” (claimed on the basis of housing the African Union building, which was, ahem, built and financed by the Chinese). Don’t stay long. Getting around is a pain. Indecisive urban planning means Addis seems constantly under construction, and the city is now building Africa’s first subway system. Massive troughs dug through major boulevards give taxi drivers good reason to charge you double for the trouble.
So skim past the urbanity and drive north to history. In Bahir Dar, a 10-hour drive north of Addis optimistically dubbed ”Ethiopia’s Miami,” you can take languid boat trips to islands and peninsulas where 14th- to 18th-century monasteries are tucked into the forest. Legend has it the Ark of the Covenant was cloistered here for centuries.
Take the bus.
With 420,000 square miles, Ethiopia is among the most spacious African countries, which means many of its nine UNESCO World Heritage sites require a journey. Our recommendation: Go by bus, not by plane. (Even an Ethiopian Airlines agent, noting the bump in airfares, agreed.) The bus is cheaper and comfortable enough. Plus, for daydreamers especially, there’s the view: It’s priceless.
Through the bus windows, watch the earth deepen from red to black and see pine trees fade into banana trees, into mustard fields. The visual feast is soothed with a soundtrack of Ethiopia’s famed traditional jazz , reggae remixes and romantic pop videos streaming on drop-down screens.
Get to church.
A full day’s drive north from Bahir Dar will take you through breathtaking mountain ranges to Lalibela, where 11 churches are carved into stone earth. From a distance you can barely see these submerged architectural feats, but you’ll descend stairways and secret passageways into fully formed sanctuaries, with etched pillars and ancient paintings. “How did they do this?” and “Why?” are questions worth asking your guide. (Short answers: “magic” and “piety.”)
Lalibela, home to a living, precolonial Orthodox Christian tradition, is renowned in Ethiopia, though sometimes overlooked outside the country. Still, the priests had faith in the churches’ lure and bumped the ticket price tenfold in early 2013. Now it costs $50 to enter all the churches, which, for all their ancient history, remain sanctuaries for believers. Go on a saint’s day and cram yourself into a stone nook to watch the monks dance.
Farther north, the landscape shifts again in the wide-open, arid Tigrai region. Though well off the beaten track, the rock-hewn churches etched into cliffs are essential for travelers — if you’re fit and don’t suffer vertigo. To reach Abuna Yemata Guh, you climb for an hour, scale a rock face (you can pay extra for a harness), then hug the wall and don’t trip as you walk a meter-wide path alongside a sheer, 200-meter drop. Behind a humble door is a church whose very remoteness shielded it from centuries of persecution. Remove your shoes, lie on the carpet, calm your invigorated heart and admire the intact 15th-century wall paintings.