With regard to alcoholic drinks, locally bottled lagers are sold throughout Ethiopia. Draught lager is served on tap at some bars and restaurants in Addis Ababa and other larger towns. Ethiopia has been a low-scale wine producer for several decades. The recently launched Rift Valley range, produced by the Castel Vineyard outside Ziway in the Rift Valley, is certainly more than acceptable. Imported wines are also available at better restaurants. One of the most consumed fermented alcoholic beverages is tella, which is made mostly with barley but wheat, maize, sorghum, and teff are utilized depending on the region. Its production process shows the similarity to beer. Areke is the other colorless distilled alcoholic beverage from fermentation products prepared in the same way as tella but much stronger. Most of the time, Ethiopians drink Areke for treating illness like stomachaches or because it is said to give high temperature for the whole body especially in rainy season. Finally, something of an acquired taste is Teji. Tej is made from fermenting honey and ‘gesho’ a shrub used in the same way hops are. The resulting drink is sweet, smokey and probably like nothing you’ve had before.
Climate / When to Visit
Ethiopia’s peak tourist season, runs from the last week of September to January, with festivals such as Meskel and Timkat being particularly popular with both visitors and the hotels that spike their prices for the occasion. This is also a great time to visit weather-wise, with pleasant temperatures, blue skies and low rainfall in most parts of the country. In practice, however, unless you plan on doing a lot of hiking – the upper slopes of the Bale or Simien mountains can be rather unpleasant in the rains – there is little obstacle to visiting Addis Ababa, the northern highlands and the Rift Valley at any time of year. Even in July and August, rain tends to fall in short, dramatic storms that interfere with day-to-day travel less than might be expected. Also, at this time of year the countryside is magnificently green and popular sites such as Lalibela are far less busy with other tourists. Perhaps the optimum time to explore the northern circuit is September, when the rain has abated slightly, the tourist season has yet to kick off properly, and the green slopes are enhanced with blankets of yellow Meskel flowers. Further south, the rainy season tends to start and end a few weeks earlier, and South Omo is wettest between March and June – a period when the region’s rough and muddy roads can be seriously affected and travel is best avoided. Wildlife viewing is consistent throughout the year, but resident birds tend to be most colourful during the breeding season, which usually coincides with the rains, while the European winter months attract flocks of migrant birds from the north.
Calendar and Time
Based on the Alexandrian calendar used by Egypt’s Coptic Church, the Ethiopian calendar differs from the familiar Gregorian calendar used in Europe. The year consists of twelve thirty-day months plus a thirteenth month of only five days (six in leap years). New Year, or Enkutatash, falls on September 11 (Sept 12 in leap years), in keeping with calculations made by the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus. This means that the Ethiopian calendar is eight years behind the rest of the world most of the time, and seven years between September 11 and the end of December – Ethiopia celebrated the turn of the millennium in 2007. Practically speaking, most institutions used by tourists now operate on the Western calendar, but visitors are occasionally caught out by the difference. A quirk with far greater impact on visitors is that Ethiopians measure time in 12-hour cycles starting at 6am and 6pm. In other words, their one o’clock is our seven o’clock, their two o’clock is our eight o’clock, and so on. Even when speaking English, Ethiopians frequently stick with Ethiopian time, which means that when somebody tells you something is happening at two, they could mean two o’clock or eight o’clock. One way to check is to specifically reassure whether they mean European or Ethiopian time.
Ethiopia is not a self-driving destination. Car rental companies will only rent self-drive cars for driving around Addis Ababa. Car and driver are the only way anywhere else. You would also need to change your driving license first with a temporary local one at the Transport and Road Authority office in Addis Ababa. Many roads in Ethiopia are poorly maintained, unlit, and poorly marked. Traffic accidents are common. In case of any accident the driver is most certainly always in a very difficult legal situation that can quickly lead to inprisonment.
Ethiopia is a vast country and its road infrastructure, though greatly improved in recent years, is still rudimentary by most standards. Because of this, the most efficient way to get around is by plane, though some sites are accessible only by road, so many visitors prefer to travel on bespoke tour with an agency that provides a 4×4 and driver/guide. Terrestrial public transport leaves much to be desired and is recommended only to adventurous travellers who are prepared to explore Ethiopia at its own erratic pace.
Electricity is 220 volts at 50 cycles. Power cuts are frequent throughout the country, and while most superior hotels have a generator that kicks into action when required, few budget hotels don’t. Bring a torch. The most common electric sockets are round two-pin, but round three-pin are also in use.
Getting there / Entry Points
Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa is one of the most transited airports on the African continent, and Addis Ababa is a common stop for many flights going to other African destinations and the Middle East. The main airline operating in the country is Ethiopian Airlines, a modern company that flies all over the world, including to and from the American continent. Moreover, there are many other international airlines that fly to Addis. There are overland borders to and from Djibouti, Sudan, Somaliland and Kenya which are usualy open to foreign travellers, while Eritrea, South Sudan and Somalia can currently only be reached by plane.
Ethiopia has the most distinctive cuisine in Africa, and also perhaps the spiciest, which means it tends to appeal most to travellers with a taste for curries and other fiery dishes. Made from a highly nutritious grain called teff that’s unique to Ethiopia, the main staple of Ethiopian food is injera, which looks like a large foamy pancake and has a rather sour taste as a result of the dough being fermented for a few days prior to being cooked. Injera is normally served to cover a full plate (or, more accurately, a round tray), with one or several accompanying dishes. The idea is that the diner tears off a piece of injera with their hand, scoops up some of the accompaniment, then places it in their mouth. Ethiopians eat communally, with everybody sharing one plate, and use their right hand only . Travellers who quickly overdose on injera, or who prefer to avoid communal eating, will find that most local restaurants, even in small towns, offer at least one alternative, usually bread or pasta. Christian Ethiopians recognize more than two hundred fasting days in any given year, a list that includes the forty days of lent, every Wednesday and Friday, and several other religious days besides. It is forbidden to consume any animal produce on fasting days, which is good news for vegans and vegetarians, since it means that even the most inauspicious of local eating holes in Christian areas will cater to their requirements more than half the time.
No vaccinations are required to enter Ethiopia, although it is highly recommended to take precautions against prevalent diseases like typhoid fever, hepatitis E and B, meningococcal meningitis, rabies, and malaria. Healthcare facilities are limited even in the big cities, so be sure to bring along enough prescriptions with a doctor’s note if you are taking any drugs. The low oxygen levels and high altitude can take some getting used to so if you suffer any heart conditions or have high blood pressure, consult your physician before booking a trip. It’s always a good idea to have comprehensive travel and health insurance should any medical emergencies or accidents arise while traveling. There are several public hospitals and medical centres in urban areas, but care is extremely limited in rural areas. There is a shortage of healthcare personnel and public facilities are typically equipped with out-of-date technology and experience shortages of supplies and medicines. Hospitals and private practitioners in Ethiopia require upfront payment, regardless if you have travel health insurance. Evacuation – to either Western Europe or South Africa – might be required for severe medical emergencies. Ensure that you have accessible funds to cover upfront fees and adequate travel health insurance, including evacuation.
Male and female homosexual activity is illegal in Ethiopia and punishable by up to fifteen years imprisonment. Homosexuality is also considered unacceptable by the vast majority of Ethiopians . This is not an obstacle to gay or lesbian travellers visiting Ethiopia, provide they are discreet about their sexuality, and though same-sex couples – particularly men – will need to be prepared to accept that many hotels will insist they take twin or possibly two single rooms.
Internet is widely available in Ethiopia but only through the state-run server Ethionet. Most hotels catering to tourists have wifi, and inexpensive internet cafés are dotted all over the capital and most larger towns. Unfortunately, internet often tends to be incredibly slow by twenty-first-century standards, and outside Addis Ababa it cuts out completely with frustrating regularity
Immigration / Visa
Everybody needs a visa for Ethiopia but today, pretty much any nationality can get a tourist e-visa. And you can easily apply through the official website. Make sure you do it through the above URL because there are many non-official websites which, even though they do issue valid visas, charge much more. Typically, there are 2 types of tourist e-visa: a 30-day visa or a 90-day visa. It’s a very easy process that usually takers less than 3 days and has very little requirements. If you don’t have time to apply for an e-visa because your flight to Addis Ababa is less than 3 days ahead, you can also get a Visa on Arrival at Bole International Airport. Otherwise, we don’t see any good reason why you should get a VOA instead of an e-visa. The only reason for applying for your Ethiopia tourist visa at the embassy is because you are entering overland and don’t want to risk a potential denial because you are only in possession of an e-visa. You can find Ethiopian embassies and consulates in many cities across Europe and North America.
The unit of currency is the Ethiopian Birr. Banknotes come in denominations of 100, 50, 10, 5 Birr, and coins (though rather useless these days) are also minted for cent values. It’s straightforward to change hard currency cash into Birr at any number of banks and private bureaux de change in Addis Ababa, and a more limited number of outlets in smaller towns. It is also possible to withdraw local currency with international MasterCard or Visa cards at the ATMs found at Bole Airport, outside most banks in Addis Ababa and other large towns and in the lobbies of a few popular hotels. As is the case in so many countries, traveller’s cheques are now more or less obsolete in Ethiopia. Be aware that Ethiopia is a cash economy and credit cards are not widely accepted. Changing money on the street is illegal and comes with the risk of severe punishment. Ethiopian Birr can neither be taken out of the country nor be legally changed back to hard currency at the end of your stay in Ethiopia!
There are no genuine taboos on photography. It is fine to photograph both the interior and exterior of the churches, as well as mosques from the outside, and Ethiopians are generally relaxed about foreigners photographing street scenes. What is unacceptable, however, is to photograph local people without permission, which will often be refused, or given subject to a few birr changing hands afterwards. This is particularly the case in South Omo, where photography (and payment for it) dominate tourist interaction to a disturbing degree. It is also advisable to ask before photographing any large bridge or government building.
Ethiopia on the whole is a safe country, with the exception of a few remote Eritrean, Somali, Sudanese and South Sudanese border areas seldom visited by travellers. Levels of violent crime are low, but travellers should be alert to the presence of pickpockets and con artists, particularly in Addis Ababa. Elsewhere, too, pickpockets occasionally operate in markets and bus stations, usually in the form of a loner taking advantage of the confusion when a surge of people boards a bus. For this reason it is not advisable to carry anything of great value in your pockets at any time. In the case of theft, you should report the incident to the police, if only for insurance purposes, though do be aware that the level of helpfulness to foreigners is variable. Walking around any city or town by day should be safe, but it’s advisable to catch a taxi or bajaj rather than walk after around 8pm. There have also been occasional riots at mass gatherings in the past. We strongly advise to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings of people.
The dialling code for international calls into Ethiopia is +251. Ethiopia has reasonable terrestrial and mobile phone networks, though both are controlled by the state-run Ethiopian Telecom. If you are spending a while in Ethiopia and expect to make plenty of phone calls, the best option is to buy a local SIM card. Airtime can be bought on prepaid scratch cards all over the country.
Genuine guides should be tipped if they provided a good service, There are also occasionally aspirant guides who latch on to tourists without bringing much to the party except their own tiresomeness, and tipping them is definitely to be discouraged. Tipping waiters is not customary in local eateries, but it has become so in restaurants used to tourists, and 10 percent of the bill would be fair to generou