In preparing for our travels I was grateful for all those who put their experiences on the internet, a useful addition to the standard guidebooks with the extra advantage of being up to date. After all, things change, sometimes rapidly, and the most recent experiences can be quite different from what the guide book researchers found some years ago.
I will add my own practical experiences, below. I have split them in international and local transport and accommodation; I also added a few tour operators. Mind you, experiences are very personal, and this is by no means a guarantee that you will find the same treatment, service, value for money – or that you would what I received interpret the same way as I did. So, bear that in mind when you read the below.
How did we get there?
We flew Turkish Airlines, great value for money… if nothing goes wrong. If it does, like we experienced on the way up because of snow in Istanbul, they are not particularly good at communicating. They managed to re-book us without too much delay, though. The return flight was an even more disastrous experience, with no less than four hours delay, in the middle of the night in Addis Abeba, and with our rebooked flight from Istanbul back to Dusseldorf also three hours delayed. To top it off, they managed to lose all our three bags – not for lack of time between flights!! – and then, once again, failed to answer the telephone, or emails, until suddenly our luggage turned up four days later.
Egypt Air also has a competitive price, via Cairo – which we didn’t test on this occasion. I also considered Emirates, via Dubai, another competitively priced option, but the problem here was poor connections, forcing you to hang around Dubai airport for 8 hours at night.
The established big European airlines have direct flights to Addis Abeba, but are significantly more expensive.
How did we get around?
Internal flights in Ethiopia are dirt cheap, as long as you buy them in Ethiopia from Ethiopian Airlines offices. Booking them via internet, you pay foreigner prices, 4-5 times the local ticket price. Some of the routes tend to get booked up quickly, so try to book a few days in advance, this should normally get you a seat.
Flying in and out of Hargeisa is expensive, and very unreliable, apparently; we decided to use Jinka, the airport in Ethiopia closest to the Somaliland border, but you then still have to do the rather arduous overland trip from Jinka to Hargeisa.
Busses are cheap, of course, and going around the so-called northern circuit (Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondor, Axum, Adigrat, Mekele, Lalibela, Dessie, Kombolcha) is reasonably easy. Sometimes minibuses are quicker, but I found the bigger busses generally more comfortable, and much more fun, than the minibuses. I suspect they are also safer, as they don’t go so fast. The problem with busses is that they tend to leave very early morning, somewhere between 5 and 6 am (and they really do leave early!). Try to get tickets the day before, and try to be at the bus station early: although technically everybody must be seated in Ethiopian busses, we have seen busses pretty overcrowded, ticket or no advance ticket.
The superior bus option is the Selam Bus, a company that runs fast and comfortable busses between the main towns – as long as the road is mainly tarmac (which excludes Lalibela, for instance). You will have a reserved seat, they provide you with a snack and a drink, and most importantly, especially for women, they stop every three hours or so to allow for a convenience break. Another, similar service is Sky Bus, but apparently they have a worse safety record (or perhaps this was just the impression because they recently had a bad accident, I don’t know; fact is, they are even faster than Selam Bus). The Selam Bus tends to get booked up quickly, so try to arrange your ticket a few days in advance.
Taking minibuses is easy between two towns not too far from each other, and there are usually frequent minibuses throughout the day. When it comes to longer distances, minibuses tend to swap passengers every few hours, involving everybody including all luggage to change van. This is generally a fairly efficient process, but make sure you don’t get doubly charged.
Outside the Northern Circuit, the route east to Dire Dawa/Harar/Jinka, and possibly the rift valley south of Addis Abeba, busses are a lot less frequent, and less reliable. The South Omo Valley and the Afar region, for instance, are far more difficult using public transport, and forget about the Danakil Depression.
Whether to fly or take the bus is your own preference, of course. Apart from the cost difference, which is not a major issue in Ethiopia, because of the cheap internal flights, going by bus allows you to see more of the country. Especially if you take the local bus, not Selam or Sky, you also experience daily life, pulling into the stations on the way, meeting different passengers, and that is generally a lot more fun than taking an airplane. Having said this, flying gives you a fabulous view from the top - Ethiopia can be a spectacularly beautiful country from the air (if it is not too hazy).
Where did we stay? (and where did we eat?)
- Addis Abeba: we stayed the first few nights in the Weygoss Guesthouse, recommended by LP and Bradt Guide, which was OK, nothing special, small, dark rooms, queen-size bed for two, intermittent internet, not so good value for the 42 US$ a night we paid. When we came back to Addis, Weygoss didn’t have a room available, so we changed to the MN International Hotel, on Haile Gebre Selassie Road (near the Queen of Sheba Hotel). Excellent place, we negotiated down from 65 to 50 US$ a night, for which we received a super room including en-suite bathroom, with bath and hot water, breakfast, relatively good restaurant, wifi (not always very good, though) and very friendly people, from the manager all the way down to the cleaners, bell boys etc. Recommended, even at the original price! Excellent food is to be had in Rico’s Restaurant, along Bole Road, in the Sichuan Restaurant next to the MN International Hotel on Haile Gebre Selassie Road, and in the Lebanese Restaurant on the Ethio-China Avenue, just off Bole Road.
- Bahir Dar: the Ghion Hotel was perfect for our purpose. We paid 300 birr per night, for a simple, large room, mediocre en-suite bathroom, but hot water, and quite good internet in the restaurant. Location is the word here, the hotel is situated at the lake shore, with a large garden and open restaurant. They can also arrange all sort of trips (Blue Nile falls, or to the lake and churches) and onward transport, but make sure you haggle, they tend to overprice these services considerably.
- Gondor: the cheap option is the Crown Pension, right behind the four-star Taye Belar Hotel. The Crown Pension is simple, spotless clean, run by women (a strong plus!), but has no restaurant – for which you can, however, use the hotel across the road, which also has internet in the lobby. We paid 300 birr per night for a room. We also stayed in the Le Chateau Hotel, which has an attractive courtyard, but is vastly overprices at 50 US$ a night for a pretty basic en-suite room. The Fasilades Hotel, 100 m along on the same road behind the Citadel, is a much better option in the same price range, with good restaurant and internet in their own court yard.
- Gorgora: the site of Tim & Kim is worth the detour to Gorgora on Lake Tana in its own right, even if you didn’t plan to go there. Their place is 5-10 minutes walk west of town, on the lake: simple tukuls, for the time being with common but spotless clean showers and toilets, but hopefully soon with en-suites as well, once they are finished. 320 birr per night was a bargain, I thought. They also have a site for overlanders – people who travel Europe to Africa and/or back by truck -, and I am sure they allow you to camp, as well, if there is space. Problem is how to contact them, without internet or phone on site they only read emails once a week, I think. Email email@example.com, tel. +251 (0)920336671/916300425
- Axum: the Africa Hotel, basic en-suite rooms, hot water, internet, good restaurant, and very nice people, really. We paid 200 birr a night, excellent value. The manager can arrange every sort of trip, cars, anything really.
- Wukro: we stayed in the Dengolo Park Hotel, a small, new outfit, all the way at the southern end of town, on a corner on the west side of the main road. Problem in Wukro is that nobody has running water, so 150 birr per night seemed good value for our small room, spotless clean, queen-size bed (no other options, I am afraid). A few hundred meters further down the road is the town’s top hotel, the new Luwam Hotel, which looks and smells like a prison, really.
- Mekele: we stayed at the Axum Hotel, for around 50 US$, good hotel, good restaurant, good service, excellent internet connection. There are cheaper options in town, for sure, but we felt like comfort.
- Kombolcha: the Hikma Pension is the pace to be, 250 birr per night for an excellent, clean, large room, with two beds, hot water, and the use of the veranda, full of birds. Very friendly staff, just about acceptable restaurant, and fabulous mango, papaya and avocado juices.
- Dire Dawa: you can do worse than staying in the African Village Hotel, which has comfortable tukuls and rooms in the 250-500 birr range depending on size, around a nice central courtyard with some shade, a good restaurant, and fast internet.
- Harar: the Belyneh Hotel, nothing to get excited about, but functional, and fairly cheap at 225 birr/night. No hot water, but a pleasant enough roof-top restaurant with a good view over the market and the Showa Gate
- Jijiga: the Bade hotel is really the only acceptable option, just about. The higher floors have better rooms than downstairs, still a little run-down, though, and no hot water. We paid something like 200-250 birr per night. No facilities, restaurant was closed, although they do serve breakfast if you ask.
- Hargeisa: the Orient Hotel, in the order of 30 US$ per night for a double room, with all the amenities you need, hot water, restaurant etc. The manager is very well connected, and can arrange every trip you wish to make – within reason – at short notice. Trips do not come cheap, though. Good food can be had at the Dalxiis Restaurant, especially roasted goat was superb.
- Arba Minch: the Bekele Mola Hotel, with a terrace overlooking the two rift lakes below, has a brilliant setting. Hotel itself is pretty basic, a little run-down even, but then a room with en-suite bathroom and hot water, and mosquito nets, comes for 300 birr per night, not such bad value compared to the competition along the escarpment. Restaurant is OK.
- Jinka: after extensive research we opted for the Orit Hotel, best quality even though pretty basic – make sure you get a room in the new wing, 400 birr per night (old wing suffers from poor design, lack of water etc., but can be had for 250 birr). Sometimes they have food, as well, but otherwise the Goh Hotel, 200 meters to the south, serves a good meal.
- Turmi: Buska Lodge has 110 US$/night rooms (incl. breakfast and dinner), otherwise they have tents for 15 US$/night – perfectly comfortable. It is a very nice place, well laid-out, green, open restaurant and bar, but not cheap. Problem is that there is nothing in between, in Turmi, and Buska Lodge is vastly superior compared to similar-priced Hamar Village Lodge.
- Yabello: the Yabello Motel seems to be the best option in town, even though the 30 US$ we paid for a very simple room with en-suite was vastly overpriced. Good restaurant, and very nice setting in shaded flower-filled garden.
- Awassa: the Lakeside Motel charges 300 birr for a perfectly acceptable, clean, comfortable room with en-suite, hot water, but no internet. What is more, though, the Motel is located right next to the Dolce Vita restaurant, a delightful Italian place with fabulous food.
- Awash: for us there was no question as to where we would stay. With a place like the Buffet d’Aouche, the old railway hotel, there can only be one choice. For 179 birr we had a fabulous, large room, en-suite bathroom but no hot water, private veranda including rocking chair, absolutely brilliant place. Restaurant with good food, although service is somewhat slow, and coffee is the worst I have tried in Ethiopia.
- Semera: the Erte Ale Hotel in Semera is, as far as I know, the only hotel with en-suite bathrooms north of Awash. Comfortable room, although one queen-size bed for two is the only option if you want a double room; hot water, restaurant, and very friendly service. Semera is sufficiently centrally located – if you have your own transport – to reach Logiya, Dichioto, the Eli Dar salt works and Assaita within an hour’s drive.
Who helped us:
It is a bit of a hit-and-miss when it comes to using tour operators in Ethiopia, and they tend to be excessively expensive, yet, for some things you need them. Especially South Omo and Danakil are areas not easily traveled independently, because of the poor, and often totally absent, public transport, so you may have to get a private car arranged. Simien Mountains trekking can be quite easily organized in Gondor, cars can be organized in the larger towns.
Gondor: Tess Tours in Gondor arranges trekking in the Simien Mountains, an excursion to the Kosoye area if you have no time for the Simien Mountains, or anything else, I imagine. firstname.lastname@example.org, +251 (0) 911021308/918150409
Axum: Ephrem Brhane from the Africa Hotel in Axum can arrange whatever you plan to do, and can provide cars. email@example.com , +251 (0) 911553405
We arranged our South Omo and Danakil trip through a Dutch-Ethiopian travel agency, Yared Tours. Ours was a private trip, no other people involved, which made it pretty expensive. The design of the trip was good – biggest problem was the execution, in the hands of a local driver/guide who not always fully understood the best interest of the client – or perhaps it is just that we are not used to have our trips organized by somebody else, and are too demanding when it comes to fulfilling expectations. However, both Yared’s Addis office and their Netherlands office are extremely helpful and very competent, and I have no problem recommending them. Biggest asset is their reliability, combined with local touch and feel. www.yaredtour.com, in English and Dutch.
Although in the end I did not make use of his services, I have been in contact with George, who runs South Ethiopia Tours (www.southethiopiatours.com), and specializes in trips to, for instance, South Omo Valley. He seems competent, and was certainly very responsive. firstname.lastname@example.org , +251 (0) 911118120.