Most of Ethiopia is considerably more temperate than might be expected of a tropical country so widely associated with drought, worth considering when deciding the best time to visit.
The majority of its top tourist sites, including Addis Ababa, the main points along the northern circuit and Harar, have highland locations where daytime temperatures usually peak between 22˚C and 28˚C, and evenings are often so cool as to justify pulling on a jumper or sweatshirt. At higher altitudes such as the Bale or Simien mountains, you may need thicker clothes. The lower-lying southern Rift Valley and South Omo are warmer, but only by a few degrees, and it is only in the northern Rift Valley – in cities such as Dire Dawa – that year-round temperatures can get seriously hot.
In addition, far from being unusually dry, Ethiopia typically has a relatively moist climate, with Addis Ababa, for instance, receiving about double the annual rainfall of London. Most of this precipitation is highly seasonal, however, with most places receiving at least seventy percent of their annual allotment in the space of three to four months. In Addis Ababa and the northern and central highlands, this rainy season falls between June and late September, with the wettest months by far being July and August. Further south, the rainy season tends to start and end a few weeks earlier, and South Omo is wettest between March and June – a period when the region’s rough and muddy roads can be seriously affected and travel is best avoided.
Ethiopia’s peak tourist season, runs from the last week of September to January, with festivals such as Meskel and Timkat being particularly popular with both visitors and the hotels that spike their prices for the occasion. This is also a great time to visit weather-wise, with pleasant temperatures, blue skies and low rainfall in most parts of the country. In practice, however, unless you plan on doing a lot of hiking – the upper slopes of the Bale or Simien mountains can be rather unpleasant in the rains – there is little obstacle to visiting Addis Ababa, the northern highlands and the Rift Valley at any time of year.
Even in July and August, rain tends to fall in short, dramatic storms that interfere with day-to-day travel less than might be expected. Also, at this time of year the countryside is magnificently green, popular sites such as Lalibela are far less busy with other tourists, and most hotels are willing to negotiate generous rates for walk-in clients.
Perhaps the optimum time to explore the northern circuit is September, when the rain has abated slightly, the tourist season has yet to kick off properly, and the green slopes are enhanced with blankets of yellow Meskel flowers.
Wildlife viewing is consistent throughout the year, but resident birds tend to be most colourful during the breeding season, which usually coincides with the rains, while the European winter months attract flocks of migrants from the north.
Ethiopia’s most famous festivals are all annual events on the Christian calendar, the best known being Timkat (often referred to as Ethiopian Epiphany) and Meskel (the Finding of the True Cross). These holidays are celebrated in all Christian areas but attract large numbers of local pilgrims and international tourists to the likes of Lalibela, Aksum and Gondar, meaning that accommodation prices rocket and rooms can be difficult to find.
Jan 20 (Jan 19 in leap years). Countrywide. More important to Orthodox Christians than Christmas (which is celebrated quite sedately 12 days earlier), this three-day festival commemorates Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. It is one of the few occasions when the tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is removed from church altars; it’s then swaddled in colourful cloth and paraded around at the head of a procession. Timkat is a particularly spectacular occasion in Gondar, when Fasil’s Pool is filled with water and hundreds of eager participants leap in to re-enact the baptism. It is also a big event in Lalibela.
Sept 12 (Sept 11 in leap years). Countrywide. The country’s most important secular holiday, Enkutatash, or Ethiopian New Year, is celebrated vigorously throughout Ethiopia, with a similar party atmosphere to New Year festivities anywhere in the world. Traditionally, the date is also associated with the Queen of Sheba’s arrival back in Aksum after her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem 3000 years ago.
Sept 27 (Sept 28 in leap years). Countrywide. This colourful spring festival, which shares its name with the yellow daisy-like flowers that blanket the highlands in September, commemorates an ancient legend that Empress Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, was led to the buried True Cross on which Jesus was crucified in 326 AD. The festival is highly significant to Ethiopian Christians, who claim that a fragment of the cross, given to Emperor Dawit I in the early fifteenth century, is now stored at Gishen Maryam monastery, to the northwest of Dessie. The best place to be for Meskel is Aksum or at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. The centrepiece of the festival is the burning of a massive pyre as colourful processions of priest and worshippers look on.