There are many great sites in Ethiopia, but we opted for a 7-night tour that hit the highlights of Lalibela, Simien Mountains, and South Omo. These three sites reflect the best of Ethiopia’s history, nature, and culture, respectively.
Days 1-2: Lalibela – Mezena Lodge
We took the early flight from Addis to Lalibela, arriving about 10:30. A 30-minute drive took us to Mezena Lodge, which had great views over the valley and nice grounds filled with African bird life (we saw 35 species of birds at Mezena). Our room was clean and spacious, and Mezena’s food was good (tip: try Ethiopia’s Rift Valley Cabernet).
View from Mezena Lodge
The churches of Lalibela can be visited over the course of about six hours – which our guide (Abel) nicely divided over two days. St. George’s is the iconic photo so it’s best to save it for the morning of the second day (arrive before 8 to avoid the crowds).
St. George’s Church
On the second afternoon, we hiked to a cave church some distance from Lalibela. Wifi worked reasonably well at Mezena.
Days 3-4: Simien Mountains – Limalimo Lodge
We next flew to Gondar, which is about 2.5 hours drive from the Limalimo Lodge. Limalimo Lodge is widely considered the best lodge in Ethiopia, with sweeping views of the Simien Mountains National Park, fine dining, and nightly entertainment. The rooms are modern and clean with a wall of windows looking out onto the Park.
View from Limalimo Lodge
Simien Park has one road (you go in and out on the same road) that climbs above 14,000 feet before you turn around and come back. It takes a full day to go in and back. We had a troop of hundreds of Gelada monkeys to ourselves, which we walked among only a few feet from where they were eating and playing.
Among the Geladas
We also got close to several impressive Walia Ibex at 14,000 feet elevation and hiked down a slippery trail to 1640 feet tall Jinbar Waterfall. (Tip: stop off at Simien Lodge on the way back for a drink and WIFI – there is no WIFI at Limalimo).
Day 5: Jinka – Eco-Omo Safari Lodge
We flew from Gondar to Jinka, which was convenient (two short flights connecting through Addis). Eco-Omo offers simple safari-style tents with a fixed bathroom attached to the back of the tent. The restaurant overlooks a small river and had decent food choices and WIFI. The first afternoon we visited the cultural museum (which offered a quick overview of the South Omo ethnic groups) and the Ari tribe. The Ari tribe is mostly transitioned to modernity. They live on the edge of Jinka and wear western clothes. The visit shows some of their traditional activities, including metal forging, cooking, pottery, and distilling of liquor. The next morning we drove into the Mago National Park to visit the Mursi tribe. It was a 1.5 hour drive to reach their semi-nomadic village. Along the way, we saw many baboons, small antelope, and bird species. Of the tribes we visited, the Mursi clearly had the least contact with modernity. This is the tribe where the women wear lip plates. When we arrived, the village was occupied by only women and children. They welcomed us and took photos with us while they marketed their lip plates.
Among the Mursi
Toward the end of our visit, several men arrived who were not as friendly as the women, and they were not at all interested in posing for pictures. Note that there is some tension in this area between the Mursi and the government, as the Mursi struggle to maintain their traditions.
Days 6-8: Turmi – Buska Lodge
After lunch at Eco-Omo, we drove south to Turmi, which is where most of the other Omo tribes can be visited. Most of the route is controlled by the Hamer tribe, and they are seen along the way. Buska Lodge lies a few miles outside of Turmi – which is a much smaller town than Jinka. We spent that afternoon at a Hamer village, learning about the Hamer traditions. The Hamer still dress authentically – or in some cases, wear little or nothing at all – but do carry around cell phones, attend government schools, and visit the town of Turmi regularly. They seemed to be a society that was in the midst of transition. Both the men and women of the Hamer village were friendly, and we felt comfortable there.
Among the Hamer
Buska Lodge is the best option at Jinka, but our freestanding hut could certainly use some improvements. For starters, we really like our sleeping accommodations to be secure from insects and animals. The screens at the top of the room were not secure, and there were large cracks under and around the door. This led to a procession of insects, bats, and rodents marching through the room once night had fallen. The mosquito net around the bed offered us a second layer of defense, but we still had our fair share of bug bites in the morning. That being said, the shower always had hot water, the WIFI worked, and there was an extensive buffet each evening. The grounds and surrounding trails also were filled with birds, which enabled us to expand our Ethiopia sightings to over 100 species. The next morning we drove south to Omorate, which is home to the Dassanach Tribe. Their village is on the west bank of the Omo River, which requires an exit through Ethiopian customs (even though the South Sudan and Kenya borders are still a few miles further) (Tip: Be sure to bring both your passport and your printed e-Visa as they will be inspected). We reached the Dassanach tribe via a dugout canoe (which was great).
Crossing the Omo River
Then we heard about how the Dassanach hunt the Omo’s many crocodiles. The Dassanach village is quite a bit different from the others, with its huts being a mixture of sticks and assorted metal. It looks like something out of a science fiction movie (think Mad Max).
Among the Dassanach
The Dassanach were very friendly and about 30 of them performed a traditional dance at the end of our visit. That afternoon we drove 30 minutes outside of Turmi and then hiked about a mile to see a Hamer bull jumping ceremony, which is a sort of fitness test required for a Hamer boy to become a man. As we walked around the bend of a dried riverbed, we heard screams and the ringing of bells. We were soon surrounded by thirty Hamer women. They had mistaken us for the “whippers”. We learned that before the bull jumping, the female relatives of the jumper succumb to whipping to demonstrate their support for the jumper. The scarred backs of Hamer women are a visual testament to this tradition. We sat on rocks with the Hamer women for several hours, waiting for the whippers to arrive. They never showed up, though, and the ceremony was postponed to another day.
On the Road to Jinka
The next morning we drove back to Jinka and then flew to Addis. Our flight left at midnight so we took a room at the Sheraton and enjoyed a shower and a nice meal. The Sheraton is great option for staying in Addis. We also spent two nights there prior to the start of our tour and visited the usual sights around the city. These were sufficiently interesting to pass the time, but the stars of Ethiopia are Lalibela, the Simien Mountains, and South Omo. Based on our conversations with Abel, a second trip would take in Bale Mountains (home to the Ethiopian wolf), Harar and its hyena man (where Abel fed wild hyenas), Danakil (desert landscape and volcanos), and Arba Minch (Abel’s home town, which offers crocodile and hippo watching). If you have more time, these can be added to your itinerary.