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 country’s international image and still hurts the growth of its fledgling tourism industry.
But here’s the reality that awaits those few adventurous visitors who do make the trip: a high plateau of lush, green hills that’s more like Scotland than the desert; decadent nightlife in Addis Ababa; and historic sites, such as the island monasteries of Lake Tana and Lalibela, a remarkable complex of 12th-century churches.
In addition, Ethiopia’s 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 uniquely disorienting. Ethiopians insist on doing things their own way. They have their own calendar — with 13 months; their own year — it’s currently 2003; and their own time — 6 a.m. is their midnight.
The national language, Amharic, has Semitic roots, like Arabic and Hebrew, and a unique alphabet. (Rest assured, English is widely spoken.) Roughly two-thirds of the people are Ethiopian Orthodox — a creed with its own rites, different from those of the Russian or Serbian Orthodox churches — while a third is Muslim.
A trip to Ethiopia, then, is less like a sojourn in Africa than a visit to some far-flung island, where everything is strange and compelling.
You’ll need a couple of weeks to even begin to do justice to this sprawling country — bordered on the north by Sudan, on the south by Kenya and Somalia and on the east by Djibouti and Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war.
Roads are generally poor, and it can take long hours or even days to travel several hundred miles overland — particularly in the April-September rainy season. Luckily, Ethiopian Airlines — widely considered Africa’s premier carrier — operates flights from the capital, Addis, to the main must-see sites, including Lalibela.
Explore the city
Addis is a sprawling city of congested thoroughfares and hidden residential neighborhoods with narrow streets that dissolve into thick mud every time it rains, and it can seem a dismal place to start an Ethiopian sojourn. But resist the temptation to flee and the city will open to you, revealing scores of cute cafes, hot nightspots and gourmet restaurants.
Top suggestions include Eyoha or Fasika national restaurants, where remarkably athletic dancers showcase the country’s 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. Love it, and you can eat like a king, splurging on multidish meals of wot, a sauce of goat or lamb, and kifto, marinated raw meat. 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.
Addis has the best shopping in the country, with a wide range of regional specialty products and styles. Try the area around Piassa for the heavy silver disc earrings from the northern Tigray region and Persian Gulf-inspired necklaces in oversized beads of silver and resin — all sold by the gram.
After a few action-packed days in Addis, you’ll be ready to hit the road.
Most visitors head north to visit Ethiopia’s tourist triumvirate — Bahir Dar, Aksum and Lalibela, the crown jewel. Ethiopian Airlines sells multileg 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. Legend claims it’s the work of angels but in reality the complex was commissioned by the powerful 12th-century King Lalibela and picked out of the rock with hammers and chisels over decades.
The roofs are at ground level, so to reach the churches — clustered in two separate sites — you have to climb down steep stairs cut into the rock and worn smooth by a millennium’s worth of bare feet.
Priests swathed in cream-colored robes live inside the cool, dark interiors, lit by sunlight that filters in through cross-shaped windows sliced into the rock walls.
The most impressive church is Bet Giorgis, or Saint George, a towering structure with a floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross. The churches are still used — during the Easter period, tens of thousands of pilgrims converge on the site — so you can’t visit them without a guide.
Bahir Dar is perched on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. The once-mighty Blue Nile Falls has been largely choked to a trickle by a dam, but dozens of monasteries and churches dot the lake’s islands. 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 B.C. 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. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a bustling market and profusion of mosques, most of them small shrines built during the city’s heyday in the homes of successful merchants.
Head south of Addis for the country’s best safaris, at the Yabelo or Stephanie Wildlife Sanctuaries or the remote Omo National Park. The sprawling park covers some 15,400 square miles.
With all these possibilities north, south and east of the capital, the hardest part may be deciding where to go.