On most maps, Ethiopia is definitely part of Africa – but not to Ethiopians! Perhaps because of their unique culture and history, the people of this East African country see themselves as quite distinct from their neighbors. In fact, if you tell an Ethiopian that you’ve visited, say, Kenya, they may well ask you what Africa was like.
The truth is, though, that Ethiopia is different – in all sorts of perplexing but ultimately wonderful ways. You’ll begin to notice these the moment you arrive: the language, writing, food, and calendar are all very different to anywhere else.
Ethiopia was one of the very few African countries that wasn’t a European colony, and this is only one chapter in a long and proud history of independence. Ethiopia’s cultural significance extends far beyond its borders: former Emperor Haile Selassie is revered as a spiritual icon by Rastafarians the world over.
For visitors, Ethiopia offers a heady mix of scenery, wildlife, and especially cultural encounters. Our advice would be to fully immerse yourself in every aspect of life in this compelling nation. Ethiopia will certainly get under your skin, and as you get to know its people, you’ll be made incredibly welcome.
Ethiopia is full of wonders, from the tribal cultures of the Omo Valley to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Rare and unusual animals can be seen in the Semien Mountains, including the Ethiopian Wolf (Africa’s rarest carnivore) and the incredibly sure-footed Walia Ibex.
It is, however, Ethiopia’s cultural sites that are likely to make the biggest impression on you. Religion is an important driving force in Ethiopian society, and has inspired some of their greatest achievements. Rock-hewn monasteries and churches (often reached by vertiginous cliff-edge paths – don’t look down!) contain incredible works of art, while the churches of Lalibela truly have to be seen to be believed.
Occasionally frustrating but ultimately endearing, Ethiopia is Africa as you’ve never seen it, and richly rewards explorers.
Gateway cities: Addis Ababa, Nairobi
Best time to travel: October to June (or September to January for festivals)
Highlights: Addis Ababa, Gondor, Lalibela, Harar, Semien Mountains, Danakil Depression, Meskel and Timkat festivals.