Ethiopia - Historic Ethiopia
Ethiopia has to be one of the most exciting countries in Africa, a nation that is overflowing with history and culture yet quietly keeps its charms to itself, devoid of the visitors one might expect. This tour explores Ethiopia’s historic northern region, a land of ancient monasteries and castles where tradition rules. Starting off in Addis Ababa, we explore its many sites before flying to one of the jewels of the country – enchanting Lalibela with its amazing 11th century rock cut churches. We spend time exploring both the main churches and lesser known ones before driving to the region of Tigray – similar to Petra with churches hewn out of the surrounding landscape, but many feel far more spectacular, with many churches built halfway up almost inaccessible cliff faces. We spend time learning about the history of the ancient Axumite Empire at Axum then travel to ‘Africa’s Camelot’ – the wonderful castles and palaces of Gondar. Ethiopia’s natural beauty reveals itself in the Simien Mountains, where we walk amidst some of Africa’s most captivating scenery, looking for endemic gelada baboons. And to round off our exploration we visit the isolated island monasteries on Lake Tana, home to treasured religious artefacts and strong monastic traditions. This two week tour gives a fantastic insight into the cultural heritage of this spectacular nation.
Fitness ●●●●○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●○○ | Culture ●●●●○ | History ●●●●● | Wildlife ●●●○○
- Explore a land of ancient monasteries, castles and churches
- The marvellous rock hewn churches of the Tigray Region
- Spectacular scenery in the Simien Mountains
- Isolated island monasteries of Lake Tana
- Blue Nile Falls
Accommodation: Mix of comfortable hotels and lodges
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary.
Group Size: Maximum of 12
Start Point: Addis Ababa
End Point: Addis Ababa
Transport: Mini-vans or 4WD or private buses & internal flights
Extension option: Harar – Also our Omo Valley Explore tour runs back to back with this tour
Tour Itinerary Notes
While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.
Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not just passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK as we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be necessary to change the guide at one or more points during the tour.
Day 1 – Addis Ababa
Arrive in Addis Ababa and transfer to hotel. The rest of the day is free to relax. Overnight Jupiter International Hotel or similar.
Addis Ababa was founded in 1887 by Emperor Menelik II, and its name means ‘new flower’ in Amharic. A large city, it is the third highest capital in the world sitting at an altitude of 2400m. It hosts East Africa’s largest market, the Mercato, a sprawling mass of stalls where one can find just about anything for sale, including the much favoured national drug qat, and is well endowed with other sights. Churches such as St George’s Cathedral and the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity give a great insight into Ethiopia’s particular brand of Christianity. The Cathedral of St George, named after Ethiopia’s patron saint (the famed dragon slayer that also serves as patron saint for England) was built by Emperor Menelik to commemorate his victory over Italian forces at Adwa, and houses a small museum with a collection of important religious paintings, books and artefacts. A good National Museum holds an interesting selection of artefacts from Ethiopia’s wide and varied history. Ethiopia was the only African nation never to be fully colonised, although the Italians occupied parts of it for a while in the first half of the twentieth century, and it is still possible to see remnants of their legacy in Addis, particularly in the Piazza area which is a great place to walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
Day 2 – Lalibela
Fly to Lalibela with its wonderful rock cut churches, known in some circles as the 8th wonder of the world. In the afternoon we visit some of these intriguing monuments to discover more about Ethiopia’s enigmatic past. Overnight in Mountain View Hotel or Panoramic View Hotel or similar. (BD)
The small dusty town of Lalibela in the north of Ethiopia is home to some of Ethiopia’s most amazing sights, a collection of rock cut churches dating back hundreds of years. Often known as ‘Africa’s Petra’, Lalibela is a great centre of pilgrimage among Ethiopians, flocking here to worship, and during religious festivals is packed with priests and monks. Lalibela and the surrounding area are dotted with excellently preserved churches, still used today. Many of them are connected by underground tunnels and passages, with tiny caves hollowed out in nearby walls used as homes for ascetic monks and hermits who stay here for years on end. Many legends surround the origins of Lalibela, but the most popular is that they were constructed by angels in one night. The churches date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, and the most spectacular is Beta Giorgis, built in the shape of a cross in a large pit in the ground. Some contain ancient religious artefacts, which resident monks are often happy to show to visitors, including intricately decorated crosses and a wooden box said to be carved by King Lalibela.
Day 3 – Lalibela
Morning excursion by mules to the Asheten Mariam Church, known for its wonderful views. Alternatively a visit will be arranged by car to the cave church of Naktuleab. Afternoon visit to the remaining churches in Lalibela. Overnight in Mountain View Hotel or Panoramic View Hotel or similiar. (BD)
Day 4 - Mekelle
After an early breakfast start the journey to the town of Mekelle. Along the way there will be plenty of opportunities for photo stops as we pass through small Amhara villages. Overnight Axum Hotel or similar. (BD)
Please note that today involves between 9 and 10 hours driving.
Day 5 – Tigray churches
Today we continue our exploration to the Tigray region to visit the marvellous churches that dot this remote and inspiring landscape. Today we visit the churches of Medhane Alem Adikusho, Wukro Cherkos and Abraha Atsbeha. Overnight Agoro Lodge or similar. (BD)
Tigray’s rock-cut churches
The rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region are one of Ethiopia’s most enchanting and fascinating sites. Many of them are carved into sheer cliff faces which take effort to reach, perhaps to protect the treasures that many of them hold in terms of paintings and artefacts, or to provide the solitude necessary for religious meditation. Isolated and mysterious, the churches are still used today and if lucky enough to visit when a religious festival is taking place, an unparalleled place to witness Ethiopia’s spiritual traditions. Even without this though, they retain an aura which is spellbinding, enhanced by the fact that very few western travellers actually get here. However the time and effort it takes to reach them makes them all the more special.
Day 6 – Axum
Today we drive to Axum through some spectacular views. En route we visit the 5th century temple of Yeha, displaying incredible skills in stonework and in fact the oldest building still standing in Ethiopia. Overnight Yared Zema or Sabean Hotel or similar. (BD)
Day 7 - Axum
Visit the amazing sites of Axum, including its collection of ancient stelae, the bath and the palace of the Queen of Sheba and St Mary of Tsion Church, which legend says is where the Ark of the Covenant is located. Overnight Yared Zema or Sabean Hotel or similar. (BD)
The northern town of Axum is reputed to have been the capital of the legendary Queen of Sheba, in the 10th century BC. Once a great city and the capital of a powerful empire around the time of the birth of Christ, it is thought by some to be one of the great civilisations of antiquity, controlling the all-important trade routes between Asia and Africa for many centuries. Today it is a site of pilgrimage, containing many important religious buildings as well as palaces and tombs belonging to past Emperors of Ethiopia. The most notable of these is the church of St Mary of Tsion, which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant and is watched over by a guardian who prevents anyone from seeing it. According to legend, the ark was brought here by Emperor Menelik, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Axum is also famous for its collection of stelae, sculpted from single pieces of granite and intricately carved. Although some are in ruins, those that remain are the legacy of one of Africa’s most powerful civilisations.
Day 8 – Simien Mountains
A long drive today to the Simien Mountains, a spectacularly scenic area with interesting endemic mammals, including the gelada baboons and as well as various species of birds. Depending on our arrival time we may have time to do a short walk in the park before our main walk tomorrow to experience the breathtaking beauty of these mountains. Overnight Simien Lodge or similar. (BD)
Please note that due to intermittent road construction activity the driving time on this day can be up to 10 hours.
Ethiopia is sometimes called the ‘Roof of Africa’, and the spectacular Simien Mountains hold its highest point Ras Dashen, at 4620m the fourth highest mountain on the continent. The Simiens are a dramatic landscape of green carpeted gorges and chasms which are home to some of the country’s rare and endemic species. It is relatively easy to see large troops of gelada baboons, shaggy maned primates with bright red patches of flesh on their chests, grazing on the vegetation, which are found only in Ethiopia’s mountains. You are less likely to see two of its other rare creatures, the Walia Ibex and the Simien wolf, the rarest of the world’s canine species. Walking in these mountains, watching lammergeier vultures swoop into deep ravines, offers one of the scenic highlights of travel in Africa.
Day 9 – Simien Mountains
We spend today walking through the mountains to visit awe-inspiring viewpoints and spot some of the wildlife. For those that do not want to do a long full day trek a shorter alternative can be taken. Overnight Simien Lodge or similar. (BL)
Day 10 – Gondar
Drive to Gondar, a city famous for its amazing collection of old castles and palaces. We visit the main sites of the town, including the palaces and castles of King Fasiladas and the beautifully decorated Debre Birhan Selassie Church (Light of Trinity) with its wonderful murals. Overnight Goha Hotel or similar. (BD)
The Royal Enclosure at Gondar is one of Ethiopia’s key sites, and rightly so. Enshrouded in mystery as to its origins, Gondar became the capital of King Fasiladas in the 17th century and an important city in the region. What is astonishing about Gondar is its collection of castles, very European in character and seeming very out of place in this corner of Africa. There are different theories as to who constructed them – some say Portuguese architects and builders were responsible while others claim that Ethiopian craftsmen constructed them. The best preserved is Fasiladas’ Palace, a two storey building with towers and parapets. There are several buildings within the enclosure, including a lion cage, a chancellery and the Royal Archive. Wandering through these medieval relics it is not difficult to see why Gondar has been christened the ‘Camelot of Africa’.
Day 11 –Bahir Dar
We head to Bahir Dar, stopping en route for any sites of interest. On arrival we drive to the Blue Nile Falls where we take a short walk to view the falls themselves. Later we return to Bahir Dar, where our hotel tonight overlooks Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. Overnight Avanti Blue Nile Hotel or Abay Minch lodge or similar. (BD)
Blue Nile Falls
Some 30km from Lake Tana, near the village of Tis Isat, lie the Blue Nile Falls, discovered by the Scot James Bruce in the 18th century. Some 400m wide, they are the second largest set of falls in Africa, after the mighty Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. However, in 2003 a large hydro-electric dam was constructed upstream, which has reduced the flow over the falls considerably – the falls are only ‘switched on’ on certain days of the week. The walk to the falls, invariably accompanied by small children, starts in Tis Isat and takes you over a small bridge constructed by the Portuguese in the 17th century, before ending up at a fantastic viewpoint.
Day 12 – Lake Tana
This morning we take boats out onto Lake Tana to explore its fantastic collection of ancient monasteries, dramatically situated on the lake’s islands and peninsulas. This afternoon is free to explore Bahir Dar, with the option of visiting Bezawit Palace, built for Emperor Haile Selassie. Overnight Avanti Blue Nile Hotel or Abay Minch lodge or similar. (BD)
Lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake, and its shoreline and islands are home to several monasteries dating back to the 15th century, most of which are still in service today. Many contain excellent murals and frescoes, painted in the unique Ethiopian style, while others contain ancient books which are sometimes possible to see, guarded by monks in their religious finery. Many monasteries were used as repositories for royal and religious treasures, to keep them safe from any invaders, and their remains of previous emperors are said to be housed at Daga Istafanos. The shoreline is dotted with small villages, whose inhabitants traverse the lake on tankwas, small boats made from papyrus, often carrying impossibly large loads. Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and contains excellent birdlife, as well as hippos.
Day 13 – Addis Ababa
Fly back to Addis. Subject to time you will have an afternoon tour of the capital. Visit the Entoto Mountains, with a fantastic view over the city the National Museum, St George’s Cathedral and the Merkato, reputedly the biggest open air market in Africa. Overnight Jupiter International Hotel or similar. (BD)
Day 14 – Addis Ababa
Tour ends with a transfer to the airport. (B)
Day 1 - Awash
A morning drive takes you from Addis Ababa to Awash National Park. This park is one of the most beautiful in Ethiopia. The River Awash runs through a spectacular gorge; the park itself is home to 392 species of birds and many mammals live there including onyx, gazelles and antelopes. Upon arrival take a game drive in the park. Overnight Genet Hotel or similar. (LD)
Day 2 - Harar
Early in the morning we will visit the park, with wonderful birdlife, hot springs, and the Awash waterfalls. Afterwards continue to Harar. Harar is unique within Ethiopia. With its 368 alleyways squeezed in to just 1sq km, it’s more reminiscent of Fez in Morocco than it is of any other Ethiopian city. Its countless mosques and shrines, coffee –scented streets, busy market place - probably the most colourful in Ethiopia, crumbling walls and charming people remind one of a bygone era. Overnight Heritage Plaza Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Day 3 - Harar
Explore and walk through the old city seeing its many sites including the house where Rimbaud lived. Harar was the poet's favourite city and he established quarters there in order to trade in arms, eventually destined for the emperor Menelik. In the evening, see the renowned ‘hyena men’. Overnight Heritage Plaza Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Day 4 - Dire Dawa
The road and surrounding fertile lands rise up the Cercer Mountains (3,000 metres above sea level), offering magnificent panoramas. On the road we begin to see crops of 'chat', a bush whose leaves are chewed because they provide light stimulation. The women of this region wear very brightly coloured clothes. We arrive in Dire Dawa and explore the city in the afternoon. Overnight Samrate Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Day 5 – Addis Ababa
Drive back to Addis Ababa to connect with your departure flight. (B)
Arrival and departure transfers
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader (please note that small groups will have different guides in each place visited, rather than one guide accompanying the trip throughout)
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary
Any airport taxes
Updated 20/02/17 LM