Jenny Barchfield | Associated Press
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – For many people around the world, mentioning Ethiopia brings to mind its devastating 1984 famine. The specter of the disaster haunts the countrys international image and still hurts the growth of its fledgling tourism industry.
But heres the reality that awaits those adventurous few who make the trip: A high plateau of lush, green hills thats more like Scotland than the desert; decadent nightlife in Addis Ababa; and historic sites such as the island monasteries of Lake Tana and Lalibela.
In addition, Ethiopias wildlife parks are teeming with game, but unlike Kenya, where packs of tourists compete for a glimpse of lions, here you might have the animals all to yourself.
Traveling in Ethiopia, however, can be disorienting. Ethiopians insist on doing things their way. They have their own calendar – with 13 months; their own year – its currently 2003; and their own time – 6 a.m. is their midnight.
The national language, Amharic, has Semitic roots and a unique alphabet. (However, English is widely spoken.) A trip to Ethiopia, then, is less like a sojourn in Africa than a visit to some far-flung island.
Youll need a couple of weeks to even begin to do justice to this sprawling country.
Roads are generally poor, and it can take long hours or even days to travel several hundred miles overland.
Travel in Ethiopia
Luckily, Ethiopian Airlines – widely considered Africas premier carrier – operates flights from the capital, Addis, to the main must-see sites, including Lalibela.
Addis is a sprawling city, with ample night life, shopping and dining. Top suggestions include Eyoha or Fasika national restaurants, where remarkably athletic dancers showcase the countrys unique shoulder-shaking traditional dance styles as diners tuck into heaping plates full of local delicacies.
Ethiopian cuisine, which is heavy on sauces and served on spongy crepe-like bread called injera, leaves no one indifferent. You either love it or you hate it.
Made from an Ethiopian grain called tef, injera is eaten at every meal and also serves as cutlery, used to scoop up the juicy sauces.
After a few action-packed days in Addis, youll be ready to hit the road. Most visitors head north to visit Ethiopias tourist triumvirate – Bahir Dar, Aksum and Lalibela, the crown jewel. Ethiopian Airlines sells multi-leg tickets from Addis with stops at each site.
A winding complex of 11 churches cut out of the rust-red granite tucked into a wind-swept moonscape, Lalibela is frankly astounding. The complex was commissioned by the powerful 12th-century King Lalibela and picked out of the rock with hammers and chisels over decades.
Bahir Dar is perched on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Built mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries, some sites have fantastically painted interiors and ceilings. Boat tours will take you from island to island but some sites are off-limits to women.
Aksum, near the sometimes volatile northern border with Eritrea, was the capital of an empire that flourished for centuries beginning in the fifth century. Even earlier ruins of what was a major hub on a trade route between the Roman Empire and India dot the outskirts. Towering obelisks and remains of royal tombs and ancient castles are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Elsewhere in the country, east of Addis, is Harar, a mostly Muslim city that was once a hub for trade between East Africa and the Persian Gulf region. Its also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Head south of Addis for the countrys best safaris, at the Yabelo or Stephanie Wildlife Sanctuaries or the remote Omo National Park. With all these possibilities north, south and east of the capital, the hardest part may be deciding where to go in Ethiopia.