Ethiopia can be a very cheap travel destination, one of the few in sub-Saharan Africa that’s still comparable cost-wise with the likes of India and Southeast Asia. The proviso is that in order to travel on a rock-bottom budget, say less than 500 birr (US$25/€20/£15) per day, you’ll need to stay in the cheapest local accommodation, which can be very basic and run-down, to take most of your meals at cheap local eateries, and to travel by public transport or on foot. Double the budget, to 1000 birr (US$50/€40/£30) per day, and you’ll be able to afford comfortable en-suite rooms in respectable local hotels, to enjoy a more varied diet, and to make occasional use of taxis. Note that entrance fees can also mount up, especially at historical churches, many of which now charge up to 100 birr US$5/€4/£3) per person. Accommodation that meets (or aspires to meet) international standards typically starts at (US$50–100/€40–80/£30–60) per double per night, depending on the location. Most visitors using accommodation of this sort also book organized tours, which usually also include guides, entrance fees, transport and meals. Costs for these vary hugely, depending on whether you travel with a group or alone, whether you fly or are driven around and whether you stay at mid-range or upmarket accommodation, so get a few quotes before booking anything.
Ethiopia on the whole is a safe country, with the exception of a few remote Eritrean, Somali, Sudanese and South Sudanese border areas seldom visited by travellers. Levels of violent crime are low, but travellers should be alert to the presence of pickpockets and con artists, particularly in Addis Ababa. Elsewhere, too, pickpockets occasionally operate in markets and bus stations, usually in the form of a loner taking advantage of the confusion when a surge of people boards a bus. For this reason it is not advisable to carry anything of great value in your pockets at any time. In the case of theft, you should report the incident to the police, if only for insurance purposes, though do be aware that the level of helpfulness to foreigners is variable. There are no tourist police in Ethiopia. Walking around any city or town by day should be safe, but it’s advisable to catch a taxi or bajaj rather than walk after around 8pm.
Ethiopia can be hard going for single women who travel there independently. Partly this is because certain types of annoying (if ultimately harmless) behaviour occasionally directed at travellers of both sexes – teenagers yelling obscenities, kids mobbing foreigners – can come across as more threatening to single women than it might to male travellers or couples. But many female travellers and volunteers complain that they are persistently hit on by locals, in a manner that can get creepy or genuinely threatening. This probably reflects a perception that Western women are sexually more promiscuous than their Ethiopian counterparts, and also a certain prestige attached to having a faranji girlfriend. It is also often down to simple cross-cultural behavioural misunderstandings. Women are less likely to have problems of this sort if they dress modestly, refrain from drinking alone in non-hotel bars, avoid staying in the sort of cheap local hotels that often double as brothels, and never accept an invitation for a meal or drink that could be misconstrued as a date.
Electricity is 220 volts at 50 cycles. Power cuts are frequent throughout the country, and while most superior hotels have a generator that kicks into action when required, few budget hotels do. Bring a torch. The most common electric sockets are round two-pin, but round three-pin are also in use.
A visa is required by all except nationals of Kenya and Djibouti. Single-entry tourist visas can be issued on arrival at Bole International Airport for nationals of countries deemed to be tourist-generating, a list that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, as well as the UK and most other EU member states. Visas issued on arrival cost US$20 (also payable in euros or pound sterling) and are sometimes stamped for thirty days only, and sometimes for three months. This is not applied consistently, and if you want longer than thirty days you may need to specify so before the visa is stamped. It is usually possible to extend a thirty-day visa to three months at the Immigration office in Addis Ababa (on Zambia Street, off Churchill Avenue). Multiple-entry and business visas are not available on arrival at Bole except by prior arrangement. No Ethiopian visas can be issued at land borders; travellers who arrive overland without a visa bought in advance will most likely be turned back to the country from where they have come.
Male and female homosexual activity is illegal in Ethiopia and punishable by up to fifteen years imprisonment. Homosexuality is also considered unacceptable by the vast majority of Ethiopians (around 97 percent, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey undertaken in 2007). This is not an obstacle to gay or lesbian travellers visiting Ethiopia, provide they are reasonably discreet about their sexuality, and though same-sex couples – particularly men – will need to be prepared to accept that many hotels will insist they take twin or possibly two single rooms.
Travel insurance is highly recommended. Make sure it covers evacuation in the case of an accident or emergency. Be sure to read the small print, especially if you will be partaking in adventure activities or intend to visit border (or other) areas listed as dangerous by the FCO or other government advisories.
Internet is widely available in Ethiopia but only through the state-run server Ethionet. Most hotels catering to tourists have wi-fi, and inexpensive internet cafés are dotted all over the capital and most larger towns (expect to pay around 20 birr/US$1 per hour). Unfortunately, internet tends to be incredibly slow by twenty-first-century standards, and it cuts out completely with frustrating regularity, even in Addis Ababa.
Launderettes are few and far between but most proper hotels provide an inexpensive formal laundry service, while at cheaper hotels there will always be somebody willing to clean a pile of clothes for a negotiable fee.
International mail is inexpensive and reliable but very slow. It is fine for sending postcards and other inessential correspondence, but probably can’t be recommended for valuable or bulky parcels. Stamps can be bought at post offices and some upmarket hotels.
There are no fully reliable maps of Ethiopia. The pick of the internationally published maps is the 1:2,000,000 Ethiopia and Eritrea published by ITMB, which sells for around $10. However, this omits many large or strategically important towns and villages in favour of more obscure ones, and often uses idiosyncratic or obsolete spellings. It also excludes several new roads built in recent years. The far cheaper government-produced Tourist Map of Ethiopia, which can be bought in most hotel and bookshops in Addis Ababa, is just as reliable and also has a useful Addis sheet map on the back.
Traditional English-language media coverage is quite limited in Ethiopia, and the internet (when and where it works) is the best source of international news coverage. Of print media, the locally published English-language weekly Addis Tribune can be bought in Addis Ababa but is not widely available. From a visitor’s perspective (and that of an increasing number of locals) the limited domestic television service has been superseded by satellite television, of which the South African-based multi-channel DSTV service caters best to Western interests and is available at most upmarket hotels.
The Ethiopian government has traditionally stifled the voices of its opponents and the country dropped to 143rd in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index due to its continuing repressive application of an anti-terrorist bill passed in 2009 and the ongoing detention of several local magazine editors and journalists. It also has a high level of internet censorship.
The unit of currency is the Ethiopian birr, which currently trades at around 20 birr to US$1, 25 birr to €1 and 32 birr to £1. Banknotes come in denominations of 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1 birr, and coins (though rather useless these days) are also minted for cent values. It’s straightforward to change hard currency cash into birr at any number of banks and private bureaux de change in Addis Ababa, and a more limited number of outlets in smaller towns. Best in this regard are the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE; www.combanketh.et) and Dashen Bank (dashenbanksc.com). It is also possible to withdraw local currency with international MasterCard or Visa cards at the ATMs found at Bole Airport, outside most branches of the CBE, Dashen and various other smaller banks in Addis Ababa and other large towns and in the lobbies of a few popular Addis hotels. As is the case in so many countries, traveller’s cheques are now more or less obsolete in Ethiopia.
Opening hours in Ethiopia are looser and more variable than most visitors will be used to. The exceptions are institutions such as banks, which usually open 9am–noon and 2–4pm on weekdays, and government offices, which usually open at 8.30am on weekdays and stay open until at least 3.30pm. Shops and local restaurants and bars generally keep much longer hours; opening times for each establishment are provided in the Guide. Some historic churches and other tourist sites have official opening hours, as included in the Guide, but these are not always adhered to strictly, particularly in the case of less regularly visited churches, which often open only if the priest who keeps the key happens to be around and in the mood.
Banks and government offices close on public holidays, but most private institutions carry on as normal. Note that public holidays mostly fall a day later in leap years. In addition to fixed holidays, Ethiopia recognizes Fasika (Ethiopian Good Friday, which usually but not always falls on a different date to Western Good Friday) and the Islamic Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), all of which are moveable each year.
Ethiopia has reasonable terrestrial and mobile phone networks, though both are controlled by the state-run Ethiopian Telecom Commission (ETC) and prone to periods of unreliability. In theory, if you are spending a while in Ethiopia and expect to make plenty of phone calls, the best option is to buy a local SIM card, but in practice this can be both time-consuming and unreliable. It is far easier to rent a SIM card and/or phone through an Addis tour operator or Red Zebra Executive Solutions (0911 240565, redzebraes.com), which charges from US$12 per week for the card and additional US$10 for the phone. Airtime can be bought on prepaid scratch cards all over the country. The dialling code for international calls into Ethiopia is +251.
There are no genuine taboos on photography. It is fine to photograph both the interior and exterior of the churches, as well as mosques from the outside, and Ethiopians are generally relaxed about foreigners photographing street scenes. What is unacceptable, however, is to photograph local people without permission, which will often be refused, or given subject to a few birr changing hands afterwards. This is particularly the case in South Omo, where photography (and payment for it) dominate tourist interaction to a disturbing degree. It is also advisable to ask before photographing any large bridge or government building.
Ethiopia is in the East Africa Time Zone (GMT+3). It doesn’t observe Daylight Saving. However, its calendar is out of sync with the Gregorian calendar by a small matter of seven years, eight months and ten days, and it also measures the daily cycle very differently to Western countries.
The Ethiopian Tourist Commission operates tourist offices of varying usefulness in Addis Ababa, regional capitals and some tourist sites. Other official sources of tourist information are almost non-existent.
Ethiopia is a challenging destination for travellers with limited mobility. It is possible to fly between the main attractions, where upmarket hotels generally have wheelchair access, as do the better hotels in Addis Ababa. Overall, though, facilities for disabled travellers, where they exist, fall far short of what one would be accustomed to in the West. Several key sites on the northern circuit, such as Fasil Ghebbi in Gondar and the main stelae field in Aksum, are quite flat and easily accessed. Others, most obviously Lalibela and the Blue Nile Falls, are not at all wheelchair-friendly. For further information you could contact Access-Able (sath.org/disability-travel-websites), though at the time of writing its online African coverage didn’t extend to Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is not the most child-friendly of destinations, unless you stick to expat enclaves in Addis Ababa. The country’s major cultural attractions will likely hold little appeal to easily bored youngsters, and theme parks and other facilities catering specifically to children are almost non-existent. In addition, public hygiene standards are low and medical facilities poor, which puts children at risk of picking up sanitation-related diseases. With very young children, you’ll struggle to find things like baby milk, nappies, formal baby-sitting services and highchairs outside of Addis Ababa. None of which is to say that you can’t travel with youngsters in Ethiopia. The local culture is very tolerant of children, who will attract plenty of good-natured attention, and the wildlife, though not as prolific as in many African countries, will hold some allure. Still, bringing children to Ethiopia could be advised only to parents with previous experience of travel in the developing world and a good idea of what they are getting into.
Based on the Alexandrian calendar used by Egypt’s Coptic Church, the Ethiopian calendar differs from the familiar Gregorian calendar that has been used in Europe since 1582. The year consists of twelve thirty-day months plus a thirteenth month of only five days (six in leap years). New Year, or Enkutatash, falls on September 11 (Sept 12 in leap years), in keeping with calculations made by the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus dating the annunciation of Jesus to the same day in 8 BC. This means that the Ethiopian calendar is eight years behind the rest of the world most of the time, and seven years between September 11 and the end of December – Ethiopia celebrated the turn of the millennium in 2007. Practically speaking, most institutions used by tourists now operate on the Western calendar, but visitors are occasionally caught out by the difference.
A quirk with far greater impact on visitors is that Ethiopians measure time in 12-hour cycles starting at 6am and 6pm. In other words, their one o’clock (and sa’at or hour one) is our seven o’clock, their two o’clock (hulet sa’at or hour two) is our eight o’clock, and so on. Even when speaking English, Ethiopians frequently stick with Ethiopian time, which means that when somebody tells you something is happening at two, they could mean two o’clock or eight o’clock. One way to check is to ask the time in Amharic (sa’at sintno?), in which case you can be sure the answer will be in Ethiopian time. Alternatively, ask whether they mean European or habbishat time.