But, for a long time, tourism was on the back burner due to drought, famine, political unrest and revolution. Fast forward to 30 years later, though, and the country has recovered from the disasters and is becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
In recent years, Ethiopia has also experienced a tourism push, thanks to a massive upsurge in foreign investment and the construction of proper infrastructure. The country is now back on its feet and ready to welcome travellers again. Here’s everything you need to know before a trip.
Why should you go?
In the long and disturbed history of the African continent, Ethiopia remains the only country which has never been colonised (except for a brief occupation by Italy during World War II). As a result, the country has a treasure trove of immaculately preserved historic churches, monasteries and ancient towers. Ethiopians have also retained a strong sense of identity and pride – and they are eager to share this with the foreign traveller.
Extensive erosion over the years on the Ethiopian plateau has created one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, with jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and sharp precipices dropping some 1500m. Ethiopia's wildlife is diverse, too, with unique indigenous creatures such as the Gelada monkey and Ethiopian wolf.
Why is now a good time to visit?
Ever since the government made tourism its priority in 2013, the country has seen a lot of improvements to infrastructure. The building boom in Addis Ababa includes a massive expansion of Bole International Airport and a number of new hotels currently under construction.
Provincial capitals are also getting new airport terminals, and a nationwide road improvement campaign is rapidly improving land transport between major cities. Ethiopian Airlines is also growing its route network, with New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dublin, Cape Town and Manila added since early 2015.
But Ethiopia's flourishing tourist industry took a plunge in 2016 after violent anti-government protests led the Ethiopian government to declare a six-month state of emergency. The situation has since improved, and most tour operators have resumed their trips to the country. Go now and you can enjoy Ethiopia’s sights all to yourself.
Is it safe to travel to Ethiopia?
Travelling independently in Ethiopia can be very challenging; its lack of infrastructure in places (despite recent improvements) and remote mountainous attractions make any trip here an adventure. But first-time visitors may be surprised to find that Ethiopians are extremely welcoming and curious about foreigners (considering how few travellers visit).
Several explosions at hotels in Gondar and Bahir Dar occurred in January and April 2017, but the government lifted the state of emergency on 4 August 2017. You should remain vigilant, however, and follow the advice of the local authorities and your tour operator. It’s important to check official travel advice before you go.
Which sights should I not miss?
The country’s most visited sight is the 900-year-old rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. The cluster of 13 medieval churches carved right out of balsatic scoria volcanic rocks is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rise early and visit at dawn to see pilgrims and priests chant in a hypnotising and spiritual setting. History buffs should not miss the ancient capital of Gondar – lauded as the Camelot of Africa – and its treasure trove of 16th-century palaces, lavish castles and sprawling gardens.
For natural landscapes, the Simien Mountains are home to Ethiopia’s highest peaks. You can easily spend weeks trekking here and still not see everything in the national park (from troops of Gelada monkeys to mountaintop monasteries). Off the tourist trail is the Guassa Conservation Area, a 98-square-kilometre park that has been protected by the local community since the 17th century. It’s an excellent area to spot endemic wildlife.
Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake (and Africa’s third largest), has a peaceful and serene setting that’s worth visiting to escape from the dusty towns. Its waters are inhabited by small pods of hippopotamus, hundreds of endemic species of birds; and its shores are dotted with more than 30 monasteries, some of which feature the best mural art in Ethiopia.
What's the food like?
Many visitors are surprised to learn that Ethiopian food – much like other aspects of its culture – is some of the most diverse on the continent.
The country’s main staple is injera, a ubiquitous pancake that’s eaten for every meal in every part of Ethiopia. The injera is made from tef (an indigenous cereal) and prepared on a big flat pan, and topped with mounds of spicy meat stews, colourful vegetable curries and even raw cubes of beef. It may taste tangy, bitter and even slightly sour at first, but give it another few mouthfuls (or dip it in piquant red berbere powder) and it will surely grow on you.
Injera is often eaten with wat, an Ethiopian version of curry which can be very spicy. Chicken curry (doro wat) is known as the national dish, and it’s often eaten on religious festivals. Devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, during which vegetarian food will be served in most eateries and restaurants.
When’s the best time to go?
The best time to travel to Ethiopia is from mid-October to January, when the rains have subsided and the countryside is still lush and green. It’s best to avoid the rainy season, which falls in the summer months (June to August). Roads in the mountains can get flooded and hiking trails may become too slippery.
Time your trip to coincide with one of the many religious festivals and you’ll see the country at its best. The biggest festival of the year is Genna, the Ethiopian Christmas, which falls on 7th January every year. It marks the end of a 40-day fast, and is celebrated by massive feasts and parades. The country’s most colourful festival, Meskel, is celebrated by massive cross-topped bonfires and elaborately dressed clergy.
Timkat, the Ethiopian Epiphany on 19th January, sees locals dressed in traditional costumes and celebrating on the streets. The tablot (replica of Ark of Covenant) is removed from every church in town and paraded around by priests. The baptism of Christ is reenacted by people splashing water at one another.
Ethiopia's January celebrations are not to be missed. Read our guide to Ethiopian Christmas.
How do I get around Ethiopia?
It comes as a surprise to many that Ethiopia is an extremely mountainous country. Many of its major sights lie on the central plateau and getting anywhere in the region can be a challenging task on its bumpy roads or unpaved mountain dirt tracks. While the government is building new routes at lightning speed, many of the existing roads are still in poor condition.
The easiest (and most comfortable) way to get around Ethiopia is by plane. Ethiopian Airlines operate domestic flights to many parts of the country, including Lalibela, Gonder, Bahir Dar and Arba Minch (Omo Valley). Flights usually cost less than US$100 each way. If you’re flying Ethiopian Airlines from your home country to Ethiopia, you will be able to enjoy a discount on domestic flights.
Top image © Lukas Bischoff Photograph/Shutterstock