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Adventure Travel in Ethiopia: History, Nature, and Ancient African Tribes

The Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia

For Adventure Travel, Ethiopia may not be the first destination to come to mind. But it should be on your list of places you just have to see. Unusual sights, natural beauty and exotic wildlife are all waiting for you.

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Most of the attractions in Ethiopia are either historic, like the incredible stone churches in Lalibela or places where you can experience the wilderness.

Ten national parks make it as great a destination for safari tours as Kenya or Tanzania, though much less accessible. Most of the historical areas are to the north of the country, and the National parks are to the south.

And that doesn't even touch on all the amazing cultural diversity in Ethiopia. There are many tribes and ethnic groups that still live as they have for thousands of years. The people of Ethiopia can be as fascinating as the landscape.

Here are some of the best regions in Ethiopia to visit:

Addis Ababa - Your Ethiopian Entry Point

It's the capital city of Ethiopia, and where most international flights will arrive. As a pretty typical metropolitan area, its a lot like other major cities in Africa and not too adventurous at first glance.

That doesn't mean there aren't some exciting things to do in Addis Ababa. The Merkato is the largest open-air market in all of Africa, and there is no better place to really immerse yourself in Ethiopian culture while you haggle for bargains.

Explore the Past in Lalibela

Rock Hewn Church in Lalibela

The holy city of Lalibela is filled with deep antiquity, and is the destination for many a pilgrimage.

Of particular interest are the 13 stone churches that date back to the 12th century. A stone church may not seem too interesting, but these churches are actually carved right out of the mountain ridge.

They're like the famous carved temples in Petra, except that these monolith churches are actual free-standing buildings. In fact, they are the only free-standing carved churches in the world. Can you imagine the time it takes to carve an entire building out of solid rock? Completely awe inspiring.

Historical Spires and Ancient Graves in Axum

Axum (also spelled Aksum) is famous for its collection of ancient carved stone monuments, or steles. The tallest one still standing is more than 70 feet high. Some of them have toppled over the centuries, and their broken pieces remain. It illustrates the tragic end of an ancient civilization.

Amongst many of the steles, are other tombs and old gravesites for more exploring. Another sight to see in Axum is the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. While it may seem like just another orthodox church, it is rumored that the Ark of the Covenant with its broken ten commandment tablets, rests inside. Just like the Indiana Jones movie. Needless to say, you won't be able to see that on any tour.

Gondar Holds the Unexpected

In Gondar, you'll see something you probably never expected in Ethiopia: a medieval castle. The complex includes fully fortified walls, towers, chapels, palace buildings and more. All that's missing are the knights on horseback. It's a one-of-a-kind destination that dates to the 16th century. An early Ethiopian emperor once lived there, and the site is called Fasil Ghebbi.

And if that isn't enough to keep you entertained in Gondar, you can also visit the Debre Birhan Selassie Church. It's roughly the same age as the castle, and famous for the elaborate paintings inside the church. Hundreds of stylized angelic faces watch you when you enter, and much of the art reflects a crucifixion theme.

Thundering Tis Abay Falls at Lake Tana

Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia, and a gorgeous place to visit. The beautiful Tis Abay (or Tis Issat) waterfalls are downstream of the lake, where it feeds the Blue Nile river. Hence its pther name, the Blue Nile Falls.

Lake Tana's most popular attraction are these falls, and the monasteries on a few islands in the lake. These monasteries are hundreds of years old, and the mosaic murals inside are fantastic. Be warned that the rules of the Ethiopian Orthodox church can be strict, and women are forbidden to enter many of the monasteries. You can also check out the busy market in the nearby town of Bahir Dar, or just relax on the shores of the lake.

Omo Valley National Park

People of the Hamer tribe in the Omo Valley

The Omo valley is one of the most remote parks in Ethiopia, which makes it much more appealing to an adventure traveler. Facilities are meager and the roads are very poor. Be prepared to rough it.

The Omo valley is home to animals like the hippopotamus, but the most intriguing part of the region is the number of indigenous tribes living there. A few tour groups will take you through some of the villages and give you a chance to meet members of some of the tribes. Of particular interest are the Mursi, also know as the lip-disc tribe.

Whatever tribe you visit, you will get an authentic look into a lifestyle you may never see again.

Simien Highlands

The Simien National Park is one of the few wildlife parks in the northern part of Ethiopia, so make a stop if you're in the area. There are hiking trails throughout, and you can see some simply amazing views of the country from the highlands. You can just follow the trails yourself, or book a guided tour (with mule!).

Rare species of animals are found in this park, like the Ethiopian wolf and the Walia mountain goats. You are likely to see lots of baboons while you are there, too. The highest point in the park is the peak of Ras Deshen Mountain, with an elevation of more than 15,000 ft. It's reachable if you want to actually rock climb, but not along the regular hiking trails.

Adventure Travel offers in Ethiopia

Though you can explore Ethiopia on your own, having an arranged tour can be very helpful if you are planning on visiting the more remote areas. These tour companies offer some great excursions:

Gap Adventures

Britain-based Gap Adventures have 3 different tour packages for Ethiopia. There is basically one tour for the north part of the country, one for the south, and a longer tour that covers both areas.

The packages are the Ethiopia Explorer, Ethiopia Discovery and Ethiopia Encompassed (in that order).

The easiest tour is the southern Discovery, with moderate walking and hiking difficulty. The northern tour portions are more strenuous, especially when traveling the Simien highlands. Accommodations are pretty basic, and the tours include most meals.

Highway Tours

A specialized local organization with a good track record is Highway Tours. They have several excellent options to choose from. Their tours are a bit shorter than some other companies, which can be great for someone with a shorter amount of time to spend and still wants to see several destinations. You can take a tour to see the wildlife of the Bale Mountains, or combine history and nature on a Northern Historic Trekking & Photo Safari to the Simien Mountains.

If you prefer to visit the ancient African Tribes, the Cultural Tour & Photo Safari in Omo Valley is highly recommended. And if you want to see it all, take the Historical & Cultural Tour by Air and Road.

These pre-packaged tours are good value for money, but you can customize your package to suit whatever sights you want to see in Ethiopia.

Responsible Travel

Do you want to compare Ethiopian tours from several other respected companies? Try browsing through the 18 different tour packages with Responsible Travel. It is a good selection of what is available, and each tour operator in this list has a good reputation with their clients.

Most of the tours are around 2 weeks in length and are designed for small groups.

Doing it on your own

Though there are many great tour packages out there, the most adventurous may want to stay solo and see Ethiopia on their own. You might have difficulty getting access to the tribal villages of Omo without some assistance though.

Getting around Ethiopia on your own might be a bit of a challenge, but the road system is decent and there are highways leading to most parts of the country if you rent a car. Buses are cheaper, slower and less comfortable. But taking a crowded bus through Ethiopia would be an adventure in itself.

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