Any tips for travel to Ethiopia?
March 29, 2010 11:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm going on holiday to Ethiopia - specifically, Addis Abeba and some hiking in the Simien Mountains. Does anyone have any tips or recommendations? Whilst I am fairly well travelled, this is the poorest country I will have visited; is there anything I should look out for or anything I should take?
posted by handee to Travel & Transportation around Ethiopia (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I assume you have read through the State Department - Ethiopia Consular Information Sheet?
posted by edgeways at 11:26 AM on March 29, 2010

edgeways no, but I have read the foreign and commonwealth office advice - I assume it is similar.
posted by handee at 11:34 AM on March 29, 2010

handee, oops. I apologize. Stupid assumptions on my part (grrr me)
posted by edgeways at 11:35 AM on March 29, 2010

Although she was there in 1968, Dervla Murphy's "In Ethiopia with a Mule" covers the same ground and might be good historical insight as much as anything else
posted by runincircles at 11:40 AM on March 29, 2010

I spent a little more than a month there on holiday in 2007. I didn't hike in the mountains but I recall meeting a few people that did. It wasn't the most popular thing to do mainly because you needed to get a group together yourself and doing it alone or with only 2 people was quite expensive.

Please note that this information is a few years old and I suggest you check with some people over on the Thorntree to get more up-to-date information. At the time you were only allowed to exchange $450 US in travelers checks during your entire visit and it was marked in my passport once I finished the transaction. Technically you could only change traveler's checks if you flew in and out of the country. I arrived on a one-way ticket and had to gently persuade the clerk to allow the exchange. $450 sounds like a lot of money but its not if you're playing for flights or hiring a car.

Consider how you will get cash. When I was there only three ATMs existed in the country and at least one of the three was empty. Again, double check on all of this information. Some banks could do cash advances for a hefty commission and once my bank cancelled my Visa card I had to find the one bank in all of Ethiopia that would give me an advance on a MasterCard (for about 8% commission).

Money issues aside, I loved Ethiopia. I met some random people at the airport and ended up renting a car (with driver) for 11 days around the South. Amazing. I then took public transport from Addis to Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela (which took 2 days by bus with an overnight in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere) and then back to Addis (which also took 2 days with a stop in Desse—buses aren't allowed to travel at night). Most people fly the Northern route but I wanted to get a good taste of the countryside. If you have limited time I don't recommend public transport but if you have the time, patience and an openness to new cultures there's no better way to see a culture than to ride public transport. That said—I overlanded from Addis to Nairobi by bus alone and I will never do that again.

The South is only accessible at certain times of the year, and hiking can also be limited so make sure you check that out before you plan your dates. I worried about Malaria but all I ended up getting was the flu. There is some great souvenir shopping in Addis and good coffee. Outside of the capital it is hard to get Western food apart from a few towns. As for things you should look out for—prostitution is big, even in small towns, so watch out for scams involving women. I was amazed by the Western sex tourists I met. HIV/Aids isn't talked about much regarding Ethiopia but it is fairly prevalent. I can't think of anything specific to bring but if you have more questions I'll try to answer them.
posted by Bunglegirl at 3:53 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, do consider how you are going to get cash. I have friends who do field work there with established organizations and they have to bring cash in from their Nairobi office. I'm not experienced with getting it myself, in-country, as my organization's office there is one of the biggest and they are able to supply it for us, but I did get the impression that it can be very difficult. You are probably going to have to get comfortable carrying a large amount of USD on your way in for changing at the ForEx (typically the airport ForEx doesn't give nearly as good of rates as the ones in town, fyi).

Register with the embassy so that they know you're in country should something go wrong. And have travel insurance for sure.

Don't bring candy for poor kids, but you may want to consider bringing some basic things to barter with - in the poorer areas even things like pens or cigarette lighters can be pretty hard to come by, and thereby worthwhile for trading for fruit or keepsakes or whatnot. I travel regularly in 3rd world countries for work now, and my basics are: books to read, camera and a charger with plug adapter, cell phones with chargers (wall and vehicle), flashlight or headlamp, water bottle, pocket knife, toiletries, clothes (which includes boots and a rain jacket). And sometimes whiskey. Don't take flashy jewelry or electronics, keep a low profile, and keep your head about you and stay alert.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:30 AM on March 30, 2010

I haven't been to Ethiopia specifically, but general advice for traveling in "developing" countries:
-Buy bottled water. Always. And make sure it's sealed when you purchase. You can also buy a water bottle with a

-Learn a few words of Amharic, if you haven't already.

-Expect to be identified, vocally and constantly, as a foreigner. Literally - kids will yell "foreigner" at you. I can't remember the word they use in Ethiopia (ferengi?). It's awkward to be noticed so much. I either ignored it or would turn and wave. Either provoked equal amounts of laughter. Ah well.

-Overland travel in Africa is, um, interesting. To generalize about the entire continent. I would assume Ethiopia is the same. Bring motion sickness pills, even if you have never had motion sickness before.

-Street food is delicious, cheap, and usually safe if other people are eating it.

-I had a lot of use for a solar power USB charger while traveling and unable to get to outlets. I could then fully charge either my phone or my iPod with about a day of sunlight; I would clip it to my backpack and let it sit by a window on taxi-brousses and such.

-Wind-up flashlights are worth the money mean you don't have to carry / worry about batteries.

-Nth all the cash discussion, as well as registering with the embassy. I've found, however, that airports do have a decent change rate. Bring large notes; for USD, that was $100. You get a better rate.
posted by quadrilaterals at 10:03 AM on March 30, 2010

Register with the embassy so that they know you're in country should something go wrong.

Not to derail, but I've traveled in a lot of developing countries and the American Embassy seems pretty indifferent to travelers unless you're living or working there. Even when I've been hurt and needed help they've been like "We can't help you. You do realize you're in *insert middle of nowhere country here*, right?" So I don't think its worth the trouble of finding the embassy, especially for a few weeks of travel. YMMV.

Seconding travel insurance, not giving kids stuff (especially with wrappers that will be immediately thrown on the ground), but not even pencils or toothbrushes, and learning "hello" and "thanks" in the local language. Amharic is really the "official" language but there are others that will be more predominant where you're traveling. Still, locals usually appreciate the effort.
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:23 AM on March 30, 2010

Not to derail, but I've traveled in a lot of developing countries and the American Embassy seems pretty indifferent to travelers unless you're living or working there.

True, but its still important for certain types of emergencies. You're going to have a MUCH easier time getting an emergency replacement passport if yours goes missing if you are already on their list of registered travelers in-country.

Its also important for bigger-scale disasters (not "I broke my leg" - that's what the SOS / evac med insurance is for) - stuff like all Americans need to be evacuated ASAP after Islamic militants attack an embassy or something. Which is pretty par for the course in Eastern Africa, frankly. Ethiopia shares a border with Somalia, let's not forget.

Put it this way: can't hurt for them to know you're there.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:43 AM on March 31, 2010

The embassy question is moot, as I'm not American. But thanks for all your answers.
posted by handee at 12:59 AM on March 31, 2010

I'll be travelling to Eritrea later this year, and have bought the combined Ethiopia/Eritrea guide from Lonely Planet. It's just been thoroughly updated and I'm finding it very helpful for planning. Haven't looked in great detail at the Ethiopian part (by far the longer part of the book), because there's no way to travel between the two countries except by triangulating via a third country (too expensive and time-consuming for my trip), but on the surface it looks just as helpful. I've done a lot of (non-professional) third world travel, and I usually find LP's advice, while erring on the side of caution, worth reading; there's always something useful I hadn't known about/considered.
posted by aqsakal at 2:23 AM on March 31, 2010

Just following up with some stuff now I'm back in case anyone finds this through search:

The Simiens were COLD at night. I wish I'd taken a woolly hat to wear in the tent. And more socks. And maybe more jumpers. And a scarf. The sun was fierce in the day - not hot, but fierce - a sun-hat would have also improved matters, all over, but particularly in the mountains.

There were ATMs in a couple of the big hotels in Addis - they didn't always work, but the staff at our hotel (the Ghion) seemed to know what was what. Also - the Ghion is a good hotel. A bit disorganised (like much of Ethiopia), but it has an olympic sized pool and lovely grounds. If you're going to book a place in Addis I'd choose there over the Sheraton or Hilton any day - more character, and the money you spend is actually ending up in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian food is fantastic.
posted by handee at 10:12 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

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