Bargaining is expected in tourist markets and many souvenir shops. Although some such places do have fixed prices, it's always worth asking if a 'discount' is possible. The same applies to many midrange and even some top-end hotels, especially when things are quiet and discounted rates are sometimes offered.
Dangers & Annoyances
Compared with many African countries, Ethiopia is remarkably safe – most of the time. Serious or violent crime is rare; against travellers it’s extremely rare. Outside the capital, the risk of petty crime drops still further.
A simple tip for travellers: always look as if you know where you’re going. Thieves and con artists get wind of an uncertain newcomer in a minute.
It’s very unlikely you’ll encounter any serious difficulties – and even less likely if you’re prepared for them.
Most of Ethiopia is fairly trouble free, but there are a couple of areas where trouble does flare with worrying frequency. These include the Ogaden region, border regions (which can include the Danakil Depression) and parts of the south. It’s generally a mixture of rebel activity and ethnic violence. Though you’re highly unlikely to get caught up in it, do keep your ear to the ground for developments.
In 2016, large-scale protests against the government, particularly in Oromia and Amhara regions of central Ethiopia, prompted many foreign governments to warn foreign travellers against all but essential travel to the country. Many demonstrators were killed in clashes with government forces, and while it seem that tourists were never the target, some foreign-owned businesses were attacked and burnt to the ground. Without such unrest, the country is usually one of Africa's safest countries in which to travel.
Always check your government’s latest security reports on countries (such as those published by the British Foreign Office). Don’t let these scare you away as they do tend to err on the side of caution (though if they warn you not to venture to a specific area then your travel insurance might be invalid). Try also to speak with people inside the country before making any decisions whether or not to visit.
Mobbing & Faranji Frenzy
The infamous ‘faranji frenzy’, when shouts of ‘You, you, you, you, YOU!’ greeted you at every turn, is thankfully becoming rarer and rarer – at least in touristy parts of the country. Off the beaten track you can still expect it to be a musical accompaniment to your travels.
If it does start to get to you then just ignoring it or, even better, treating it with humour is probably the best answer in how to deal with it. Anger only provokes children more (there can be few things more tempting than a grumpy faranji!). An Amharic ‘hid!’ (clear off!) for a boy, ‘hiji!’ for a girl or ‘hidu!’ for a group is the Ethiopian response and sends children scuttling; however, it can have the reverse effect and is considered rather harsh from a foreigner.
Several travellers have reported stone-throwing children in various parts of the country.
Compared with other African countries, Ethiopia has few scams and rip-offs. Those that do exist, like the notebook scam (where kids beg for notebooks and pens for school, which, if you buy them one, are taken straight back to the shop to exchange for money), are pretty transparent and rather easily avoided.
In Addis in particular, reports have emerged recently of small boys selling chewing gum and the like surrounding unsuspecting visitors – in the confusion and press of bodies, pockets are often emptied. We've also heard isolated reports of a pedestrian spitting on a person’s leg, pretending it was an accident and then trying to help you to clean it up (and clean out your pockets in the process).
You’ll also hear many ‘hard luck’ stories, or those soliciting sponsorship for travel or education in Ethiopia or abroad. Although most are not genuine, some stories are sadly true, so don’t be rude.
Also look out for fake antiques in shops.
High unemployment has spawned many self-appointed and unofficial guides. You will be approached, accompanied for a while, given unasked-for information and then charged. Be wary of anyone who approaches you unasked, particularly at the exit of bus stations etc. Unfortunately, there’s almost always an ulterior motive. Be polite but firm and try not to get paranoid!
In some of the more remote areas – these include the southeast’s Ogaden Desert, near the Kenyan border; along the Awash–Mille road at night; and in the far west – shiftas (bandits) are sometimes reported. Tourists are very rarely targeted, but it does happen; in early 2012 five foreign tourists were killed and four people kidnapped close to the Irta'ale Volcano in the Danakil Depression. The government blamed Eritrea for the attacks, but nobody has ever been brought to justice. Since that time, a large Ethiopian military presence has made the Danakil area safer than before but it's still worth keeping your ear to the ground.
Check government travel-advice warnings to keep up to date with any recent trouble spots. Tour companies are also a good source of information; though remember that some less than reputable ones might tell you a place is safe when it isn’t just in order to get your custom and money.
Pickpocketing is the biggest safety concern for travellers, but is a problem mainly in Addis Ababa and other large towns.
Keep an eye on your belongings at bus stations and be wary of people offering to put your bags on the bus roof. Be aware that professional thieves sometimes operate at major festivals and markets, targeting Ethiopians as well as foreigners.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information for travellers:
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (www.voyage.gc.ca)
- French Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et Européennes (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/conseils-aux-voyageurs)
- Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri (www.viaggiaresicuri.mae.aci.it)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)
Embassies & Consulates
The following list isn’t exhaustive (almost every African nation has representation in Addis Ababa), but it covers the embassies that are most likely to be needed.
Canadian Embassy Also represents Australia.
Emergency & Important Numbers
You need to drop the first zero from the number when calling Ethiopia from abroad.
|Ethiopia's country code||251|
|International access code||00|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entering Ethiopia by air is painless, including if you have to pick up your visa upon arrival at Bole International Airport.
Ethiopian border officials at land crossings are more strict. While official Ethiopian visa rules suggest that visas can be obtained on arrival, in practice, they're only available for those who arrive at Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport by air. What that means is that you must have a valid visa to enter overland as none are available at borders. Those entering with vehicles should have all the necessary paperwork and expect a lengthier process.
There’s no limit to the amount of currency that can be brought in, but no more than Birr100 can be exported and imported. You may import 2L of spirits and 200 cigarettes or 100 cigars duty-free.
Most visitors flying into Addis Ababa can either obtain an e-visa beforehand (www.evisa.gov.et) or acquire a one-month visa upon landing (US$50). If arriving by land, you must obtain a visa at an embassy in advance.
Coming From Kenya
At the time of writing the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi was only issuing visas to Kenyan citizens or residents, a situation that has remained unchanged for a few years. Not a major problem if flying from Nairobi to Addis, where most people can get one on arrival, but a real pain for overland travellers. If coming overland, plan accordingly and get one elsewhere in Africa. Note also that Ethiopian visas are not available at the Moyale border crossing.
If travelling north to south across Africa then the good news is that visas were being issued without much fuss in Khartoum.
The above information is likely to change, so double check in advance. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) is good for up-to-date information.
In theory a yellow-fever vaccination certificate is mandatory, as is a vaccination against cholera if you’ve transited through a cholera-infected area within six days prior to your arrival in Ethiopia. These are rarely checked, but you probably wouldn’t want to risk it.
All important documents (passport data page and visa page, credit cards, travel insurance policy, air/bus/train tickets, driving licence etc) should be photocopied. Leave one copy with someone at home and keep another with you, separate from the originals.
Visas for Onward Travel
Bring US$125 (48-hour service) or US$150 (24-hour service), a hotel reservation, a plane or bus ticket out of the country, and one passport photo to the Djibouti Embassy early in the morning and you’ll usually have it by the next day. Visas can also be obtained on arrival at the airport in Djibouti.
The Kenyan Embassy charges US$50 for three-month tourist visas. Two passport photos are required. Applications are taken in the morning only, with visas ready the following afternoon. Visas are also easily obtained at the Moyale border and at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.
The Somaliland Embassy produces one-/two-month tourist visas for US$40/60. It requires two passport photos and it’s issued while you wait.
Unless you’re using the services of a registered Sudanese tour company, then obtaining a tourist visa at the Sudanese Embassy is mission impossible.
Instead, apply for a transit visa, which is valid for one month from date of issue and allows up to two weeks in Sudan from the date of entry. Transit visas are relatively easy to obtain, but you will require: an onward visa for Egypt, two photos and, for most nationalities, US$100 cash. Americans, you get to pay US$200. It normally takes a day to issue.
South Sudan is not used to tourists, and, boy, can you tell that when you go to its embassy. No-one in the embassy seems too sure of what's required, so just in case bring along with you proof of sufficient funds, a letter stating the purpose of your visit, two photos and US$100. In addition you may be required to supply a letter from your home employer and they may ask you to attend an interview. Once you’ve done all that, one-month visas are issued in 72 hours.
Be aware that visa regulations can change. The Ethiopian embassy in your home country is the best source of up-to-date information.
- Currently, all visitors except Kenyan and Djiboutian nationals need visas to visit Ethiopia.
- Nationals of most Western countries (including the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and most Western European countries) can obtain tourist visas on arrival at Bole International Airport. Aside from some (usually minor) queuing, the process upon arrival is painless and a tourist visa costs US$50. For those arriving into Bole, you also have the option of obtaining an e-visa prior to arrival via the government's website (www.evisa.gov.et).
- Normally immigration staff automatically grant a one-month visa, but if you request it, three months doesn’t seem to be an issue. Immigration officials in Addis Ababa told us that they don’t require onward air tickets, though some people have been asked for them.
- Three- and six-month multiple entry visas are also possible. Note that visas are NOT available at any land border.
- Ethiopian embassies abroad may (or equally may not; it varies from embassy to embassy) require some or all of the following to accompany visa applications: an onward air ticket (or airline itinerary), a visa for the next country you’re planning to visit, a yellow-fever vaccination certificate and proof of sufficient funds (officially a minimum of US$50 per day).
- If your citizenship isn’t one that can acquire a visa at Bole and there’s no Ethiopian diplomatic representation in your country, you may be able to ask Ethiopian Airlines or a tour operator to order you a visa before your arrival; otherwise contact the Department of Immigration in Addis in advance. Visas in such circumstances cannot be obtained on arrival without prior arrangement at immigration.
- Travellers of all nationalities can obtain transit visas on arrival or at the embassies abroad; these are valid for up to seven days. To obtain a transit visa, you will be required to show proof of onward travel or a visa for the next country you plan to visit.
- The Department of Immigration is unlikely to grant visa extensions to those travelling on tourist visas – rather than arguing the case, it may be easier (if far more expensive!) to fly to Nairobi and then straight back again where you should be issued with another one-month tourist visa without fuss. Business travellers can get visa extensions but will need a letter from their employer.
Ethiopia is a curious mix of social conservatism (many Ethiopians are deeply religious) and a fairly relaxed approach to life. As a general rule, you're more likely to find the latter in Addis, and the former in rural areas and smaller towns. To be on the safe side, modest behaviour and dress in public areas is almost always the way to go. While you may be forgiven as a foreigner for stepping over the line, you should still try not to offend and always seek local advice if you're unsure.
Ethiopians will almost always seek to behave respectfully to one’s elders and we encourage you to do likewise. Greetings are important to Ethiopians so take the time to greet people properly before launching into the main business of the conversation.
Eating is one area where it pays to try and replicate local customs.
In Ethiopia and the rest of the Horn, homosexuality is severely condemned – traditionally, religiously and legally – and remains a topic of absolute taboo. Don’t underestimate the strength of feeling. Reports of gays being beaten up or worse aren’t uncommon. To give you an idea of how widespread such feelings are, a 2007 study found that 97% of Ethiopians thought homosexuality was not something society should accept.
In Amharic, the word bushti (homosexual) is a very offensive insult, implying immorality and depravity. One traveller wrote to us to report expulsion from a hotel and serious threats just for coming under suspicion. If a hotel only offers double beds, rather than twins, you and your companion will pay more or may even be refused occupancy.
Women may have an easier time: even the idea of a lesbian relationship is beyond the permitted imaginings of many Ethiopians! Behave discreetly, and you will be assumed to be just friends.
Note that the Ethiopian penal code officially prohibits homosexual acts, with penalties of between 10 days’ and 10 years’ imprisonment for various ‘crimes’. Although gay locals obviously exist, they behave with extreme discretion and caution. Gay travellers are advised to do likewise.
Information on homosexuality in the Horn is hard to come by, even in the well-known gay publications. Try Global Gayz (www.globalgayz.com/africa/ethiopia) or the International Lesbian & Gay Association (www.ilga.org) for more information.
A travel-insurance policy for all medical problems is essential for travel in Ethiopia, while one to cover theft and loss really is helpful but not vital.
Many insurance companies will not cover you for countries, or parts of a country, that your home government has issued a travel warning for. In Ethiopia many border regions and parts of the south can often fall under this category – check before travelling.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/bookings. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Internet cafes are everywhere in Addis Ababa and other major towns and are fairly easy to come by in smaller places that see few tourists. Most are open 8am to 8pm Monday to Saturday; many open with limited hours on Sunday. Most, however, come and go with monotonous regularity and few last the distance.
In-room wi-fi is increasingly common in most hotels, including most budget hotels. Before you get too excited, remember that internet connections in Ethiopia can be among the worst on the continent as bandwidth is often insufficient, although things are slowly improving.
The Ethiopian government is highly suspicious of the internet. Opposition websites and others critical of the government are frequently blocked. During the unrest in 2016, all social media (Twitter, Facebook, Skype, etc) was completely blocked, and although most Ethiopians managed to find ways around the ban, that option was not easy for casual visitors.
Remember that when in Ethiopia, you’re subject to Ethiopian laws. If you’re arrested, you must (in theory) be brought to court within 48 hours. You have the right to talk to someone from your embassy, as well as a lawyer. For the most part, police in Ethiopia will show you as much respect as you show them. If confronted by the police, always maintain your cool, smile and be polite. Compared with some other African nations, police here rarely, if ever, ask for bribes (we’re yet to experience it) and police checkpoints, for example, seem to make a point of waving tourist vehicles through.
Alcohol cannot be served to anyone under 18 years of age in Ethiopia. Disturbance caused by those under the influence of alcohol is punishable by three months’ to one year’s imprisonment. Driving while under the influence is also illegal and attracts a fine.
Penalties for possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs (including hashish) are strictly enforced in Ethiopia. Convicted offenders can expect both fines and long jail sentences.
Consumption of the mildly stimulating leaf chat is permitted in Ethiopia.
For those venturing off into the nether regions with 4WDs, a detailed map is essential. Since trekking without a guide is illegal in the Simien and Bale Mountains, additional maps aren’t necessary, though topographic maps can help you plan your routes with more precision.
In Ethiopia, the map produced by the defunct Ethiopian Tourism Commission (1987; 1:2,000,000) isn’t bad and can be picked up in some Addis Ababa hotels. However, the road system is now very outdated.
A more accurate map (although it lacks distance labels between cities) of the same scale is available from the Ethiopia Mapping Authority in Addis Ababa.
Of the maps currently available outside the country, the best by far is the Gizi Ethiopia map (1:2,000,000). It’s much more up to date than other maps and includes elevations, but some of the place names are very different to how you’ll see them written elsewhere.
- Newspapers The best-known English-language dailies are the government-owned Ethiopian Herald and the privately owned Monitor. Other weekly private newspapers include the Fortune, the Reporter, Sub-Saharan Informer and the Capital. Only the Ethiopian Herald is available outside Addis Ababa. The weekly Press Digest gives useful summaries of the most important stories from the week’s Amharic and English press.
- Radio Radio Ethiopia broadcasts in English from 3pm to 4pm and 7pm to 8pm weekdays. The BBC World Service can be received on radios with short-wave reception, though frequencies vary according to the time of day (try 9630, 11940 and 17640 MHz).
- TV Ethiopia’s ETV1 channel broadcasts in English from 11am to 12pm Monday to Friday and 11pm to midnight daily. ETV2 broadcasts in English daily from 8pm to 9pm. Many hotels and restaurants have satellite dishes that receive BBC or CNN.
ATMs in major towns. Credit cards accepted in some top-end hotels (especially in Addis), but in very few restaurants or even midrange hotels. Bring US dollars in cash.
Many banks in major towns now have ATMs that accept international Visa cards and MasterCard; some hotels have ATMs in reception. Note that foreign Solo, Cirrus or Plus cards do not work in any ATM.
Unlike 10 to 15 years ago when almost all currency exchanges were conducted on a fairly open black market that gave significantly higher rates than the banks, things have now tightened up drastically. The black market still exists (when we were in Ethiopia, US$1 was changing for around Birr22.25 in banks and around Birr24.50 on the black market, less outside Addis); ask your guide or driver for advice. Remember, however, that the black market is illegal and penalties range from hefty fines to imprisonment.
Ethiopia’s currency is the birr and there are one, five, 10, 50 and 100 birr notes. The Birr1 note is slowly being replaced by the Birr1 coin. The birr is divided into 100 cents and there are 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent coins.
As with many African countries the US dollar is the preferred foreign currency in Ethiopia although the euro is also very easy to exchange. You’ll have no trouble exchanging US cash wherever there are Forex facilities, but try to bring US dollar notes (especially US$100) from 2006 or more recent; earlier notes may not be accepted at banks.
Most hotels will exchange US$ cash or euros for you, but the rates are sometimes (but not always) worse than those offered by the banks.
According to National Bank of Ethiopia regulations, all bills in Ethiopia must be paid in birr. But this isn’t enforced and Ethiopian Airlines, most major hotels and most travel agencies accept (and sometimes demand) US currency.
One regulation that’s strictly enforced is the conversion of birr to US dollars or euros; this transaction can only be done for people holding onward air tickets from Ethiopia. This means people leaving overland must budget accordingly. There are black-market traders around the borders, but rates are poor and it can be risky.
Don't come to Ethiopia and expect to rely on your credit card. Credit cards (Visa and MasterCard) are increasingly useful in Addis Ababa but are rarely accepted outside it, with the exception of some Ethiopian Airlines offices and top-class hotels. The travel agencies, airline offices and major hotels that do accept cards typically ding you 2% to 3% extra for the privilege.
Cash advances (Visa and MasterCard) are possible at branches of the Dashen Bank in the capital and elsewhere.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Tips (gursha in Amharic) are considered a part of everyday life in Ethiopia, and help supplement often very low wages. The maxim ‘little but often’ is a good one, and even very small tips are greatly appreciated.
If a professional person helps you, it’s probably better to show your appreciation in other ways: shaking hands, exchanging names or an invitation to have a coffee and pastry are all local ways of expressing gratitude.
Furnishing yourself with a good wad of small notes – Birr1 and Birr5 – is a very good idea. You’ll need these for tips, taking photographs etc.
Tips For Tipping
Tipping can be a constant source of worry, hassle or stress for travellers. This guide has been compiled with the help of Ethiopians.
- In the smaller restaurants in towns, service is included, and Ethiopians don’t tip unless the service has been exceptional (up to 10%).
- In bars and cafes, sometimes loose coins are left. However, in the larger restaurants accustomed to tourists, 10% will be expected.
- In Addis Ababa’s midrange and top-end hotels, staff will expect a minimum Birr20 per service.
- Outside Addis Ababa, midrange and top-end hotels’ luggage handlers will expect a tip of around Birr2 to Birr5 per bag, and people acting as impromptu guides around Birr10.
- At traditional music and dance shows in bars, restaurants and hotels, an audience shows its appreciation by placing money (around Birr10) on the dancers’ foreheads or in their belts.
- Car ‘guards’ (often self-appointed) expect Birr5.
- If the service has been good at the end of the trek, a rule of thumb for tipping guides/scouts/mule handlers might be an extra day’s pay for every three days’ work.
- A good tip for professional English-/German-/Italian-speaking guides and drivers hired from Addis Ababa travel agencies for multiday 4WD tours is around US$10 per day from each person if you’re a group of two or three. Less per person per day for a larger group.
Like in many countries travellers cheques are increasingly hard to cash – often impossible. You’re much better off relying on plastic and a bit of cash. If you do choose to use cheques then bring US-dollar ones and ask at larger Commercial Bank of Ethiopia branches. Note that most banks ask to see your passport and the cheque’s proof-of-purchase receipt (which most travellers-cheque companies advise you to leave at home!). Some banks also charge an additional service fee for changing travellers cheques.
Banks 8.30am–11am and 1.30pm–3.30pm Monday to Friday, 8.30am–11am Saturday
Cafes 6am–9pm or 10pm
Government offices 8.30am–11am and 1.30pm–3.30pm Monday to Friday, 8.30am–11am Saturday
Internet cafes 8am–8pm Monday to Saturday, limited hours Sunday
Post offices 8.30am–11am and 1.30pm–3.30pm Monday to Friday, 8.30am–11am Saturday
Restaurants 7am–10pm; upmarket restaurants in Addis and other big towns generally open noon–3pm and 6pm–10pm daily
Shops 8am–1pm and 2pm–5.30pm Monday to Saturday
Telecommunications offices 8.30am–11am and 1.30pm–3.30pm Monday to Friday, 8.30am–11am Saturday
In general most Ethiopians love having their photos taken, though in remote areas people are still suspicious of cameras and many feel seriously threatened or compromised, especially women. Be sensitive. Always ask permission, even if it is only using basic sign language. Best of all, use a local as an interpreter or go-between. Never take a photo if permission is declined.
In other areas, where people are starting to depend on tourists for income, the opposite is true. In the Lower Omo Valley, you’ll be chased by people demanding their photo be taken! However, their eagerness has to do with the fee they’ll claim for each snap of the shutter (around Birr2 to Birr5 per person per picture). Always agree to an amount first. The whole mercenary and almost voyeuristic affair can be rather off-putting for many travellers, but the reality is that for these people modelling is a business and they certainly don’t regard it as either wrong or ‘corrupting of their culture’ as some travellers do.
Ethiopia’s postal system is reliable and reasonably efficient and the prices are low. Letters should take between five and eight days to arrive in Europe; eight to 15 days for the USA or Australia.
International parcels can only be sent from the main post office in Addis Ababa. All parcels are subject to a customs inspection, so leave them open until you’ve had their contents inspected at the counter.
Ethiopia observes the following national holidays:
Leddet (Christmas) 6 or 7 January
Timkat (Epiphany) 19 or 20 January
Victory of Adwa Commemoration Day 2 March
Good Friday March or April
Easter Saturday March or April
International Labour Day 1 May
Ethiopian Patriots’ Victory Day (also known as Liberation Day) 5 May
Downfall of the Derg 28 May
Kiddus Yohannes (New Year’s Day) 11 September
Meskel (Finding of the True Cross) 27 September
Major Islamic Holidays
|Islamic year||New Year||Prophet’s Birthday||End of Ramadan||Festival of Sacrifice|
|1438||20 Sep 2017||30 Nov 2017||26 Jun 2017||1 Sep 2017|
|1439||10 Sep 2018||19 Nov 2018||15 Jun 2018||21 Aug 2018|
|1440||30 Aug 2019||9 Nov 2019||5 Jun 2019||11 Aug 2019|
|1441||20 Aug 2020||28 Oct 2020||24 May 2020||30 Jul 2020|
|1442||10 Aug 2021||17 Oct 2021||13 May 2021||19 Jul 2021|
There are anti-smoking laws on Ethiopia's books, but at the time of writing they have only come into force in Addis Ababa and Mekele. Under these laws, smoking is banned in bars, cafes, restaurants, hospitals, schools, stadiums and cultural and religious events. Fines start at Birr2000.
At the same time, smoking by locals is not widespread and is widely frowned upon, particularly if the smokers are women. If you do feel the need to light up, we suggest that you do so in private.
Taxes & Refunds
In Ethiopia, quoted prices and tariffs usually include all taxes, but always check – sometimes in restaurants there's an additional 15% tax (plus a 10% service charge on occasion) added to the bill, but menus should always state whether or not the prices include tax.
Ethiopia has no system of sales-tax refunds for tourists who purchase items in the country.
All Ethiopian numbers have 10 digits. If calling an Ethiopian number from within the country, you'll need to dial the three-digit area code as a prefix to the number.
The international country code for Ethiopia is 251 and you need to drop the first zero from the number when calling from abroad. To call an international number from within Ethiopia, dial 00 followed by the number.
Mobile numbers begin with '09'.
All mobile phones are operated by Ethio Telecom (www.ethionet.et). Whether you’re using your home phone on a roaming plan or a locally bought phone and SIM card, expect connection problems, although the situation is improving.
Ethiopia is three hours ahead of GMT/UTC.
The Ethiopian daily clock sits six hours behind European time – beginning each day with sunrise, which is 12 o’clock. After one hour of sunshine it’s 1 o’clock. After two hours of sunshine? Yes, 2 o’clock. Also, the 24-hour clock is used occasionally in business. In short, be careful to ask if a time quoted is according to the Ethiopian or ‘European’ clock (Be habesha/faranji akotater no? – Is that Ethiopian/foreigners' time?). Additionally, note that instead of using ‘am’ or ‘pm’, Ethiopians use ‘in the morning’, ‘in the evening’ and ‘at night’ to indicate the period of day.
Oh, To Be Young Again
In addition to the Ethiopian clock system, another Ethiopian time-keeping idiosyncrasy that confounds many a traveller is the calendar. It’s based on the old Coptic calendar, which has its roots in ancient Egypt. Although it has 12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month of five or six days, like the ancient Coptic calendar, it follows the Julian system of adding a leap day every four years without exception (which is the sixth day of the short 13th month). If you’re travelling during a leap year and want to attend a specific festival check you’ve got the dates right – we have heard plenty of stories of people missing Christmas celebrations by a day and that includes people on an organised tour!
What makes the Ethiopian calendar even more unusual is that it wasn’t tweaked by numerous popes to align with their versions of Christianity, like the Gregorian calendar (introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582) that Westerners have grown up on.
What does this all mean? It means the Ethiopian calendar is 7½ years ‘behind’ the Gregorian calendar, and you’re seven years younger!
A Question of Time
Time is expressed so sanely in Ethiopia that it can be rather simple once you get the hang of it. At sunrise it’s 12 o’clock (6am our time) and after one hour of sunshine it’s one o’clock. After two hours of sunshine? Yes, two o’clock. The sun sets at 12 o’clock (6pm our time) and after one hour of darkness it’s…one o’clock!
Both sit-down and squat toilets are found in Ethiopia, reflecting European and Arab influences, respectively. In midrange and top-end hotels as well as budget hotels catering to foreign tourists, Western style ‘sit-down’ toilets are the norm. Elsewhere it’s squat toilets only.
Public toilets are found in almost all hotels and restaurants, but may not form your fondest memories of Ethiopia. In small towns and rural areas, the most common arrangement is a smelly old shack, with two planks, a hole in the ground and all the flies you can fit in between. You may suddenly find that you can survive the next 1000km after all.
Toilet paper is very rare in any toilet outside a hotel; you’re best advised to carry your own. In many budget hotels, expect the toilet seats to be missing.
Ethiopian tourist offices are not especially useful and tend only to provide very general advice; there are offices in:
For more detailed information, contact tour operators in Addis Ababa, and local guide associations and the traveller grapevine for travel outside the capital.
The UK-based Anglo-Ethiopian Society (www.anglo-ethiopian.org) is also a good source of information before you travel. An active, nonpolitical organisation, it aims ‘to foster a knowledge and understanding of Ethiopia and its people’. The society publishes a tri-annual Newsfile, holds regular gatherings (including talks on Ethiopia) and has a well-stocked library open to members. Annual membership is from UK£15.
Travel with Children
Ethiopia is not Africa's most child-friendly destination. Distances can be long (although internal flights are sometimes possible), attractions (such as churches and archaeological sites) don't naturally appeal to many children and recent security issues may make you think twice about planning a family holiday to Ethiopia.
All of that said, if you plan carefully, you could have an adventure that the kids will remember forever. There's some terrific wildlife-watching possibilities in particular, while families who enjoy a good day's trekking will find plenty to tempt you out on the trail. Attending a festival or visiting one of Ethiopia's many traditional peoples, too, can be a terrific way to open your children's eyes to cultures and ways of living they never otherwise experience.
Unless you’re planning to be in Ethiopia for the long haul, we advise you to bring everything with you that you think you’ll need. For invaluable general advice on taking the family abroad, see Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children by Brigitte Barta et al.
- Babysitting How shall we put this?...Your kids are your responsibility.
- Car seats These may be available from car-rental firms, but it's rare and you’d be better off bringing your own.
- Changing facilities Almost unheard of.
- Cots Only in top-end hotels, and not always even in these.
- Health A check-up with your doctor back home is a good idea before setting out for Ethiopia.
- High chairs Almost nonexistent in restaurants.
- Mosquito repellent Check with your doctor before setting out, as some mosquito repellents with high levels of DEET may be unsuitable for young children. Some lodges have mosquito nets; if you’re camping, consider bringing your own.
- Nappies & baby food These are available from supermarkets in Addis, but they may not be the brands you’re used to. Bring your own.
Intrepid travellers with disabilities do visit Ethiopia, although the country can be something of an obstacle course and you'll end up relying on the goodwill of others rather than dedicated facilities in order to get around.
- For those with restricted mobility, all the cities on the Historical Route are easily reached by internal flights, but once there, many sites will extremely difficult to access. For example, only a handful of Tigray's rock-hewn churches are close to the roadside and even these often have a large number of steps.
- Car rental with a driver is easily organised. Some rough roads can be hard on the back.
- Taxis are widely available in the large towns and are good for getting around, but none have wheelchair access. In Addis Ababa a few hotels have lifts; at least two (the Sheraton and Hilton hotels) have facilities for wheelchair-users. Kerb ramps on streets are nonexistent, and potholes and uneven streets are a hazard.
- Outside the capital, facilities are lacking, but some hotels are bungalow affairs, so at least steps or climbs in such places are sometimes minimal.
- For those restricted in other ways, such as visually or aurally, you’ll get plenty of offers of help but little else. Unlike in many Western countries, Ethiopians are not shy about coming forward to offer assistance.
- Before leaving home, visitors can get in touch with their national support organisation. Ask for the ‘travel officer’, who may have a list of travel agents that specialise in tours for people with disabilities.
There are a few volunteering opportunities in Ethiopia, although many opportunities through international agencies need to be lined up in advance of your visit, rather than offering openings for drop-in volunteers.
Keep an eye out for small, focused grassroots projects. One such organisation in Addis Ababa is Hope Enterprises.
The following international organisations are good places to start gathering information on volunteering, although they won’t necessarily always have projects on the go in Ethiopia.
- Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (http://ccivs.org)
- Earthwatch (www.earthwatch.org)
- Idealist (www.idealist.org)
- International Volunteer Programs Association (www.volunteerinternational.org)
- Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov)
- Step Together Volunteering (www.step-together.org.uk)
- Worldwide Experience (www.worldwideexperience.com)
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures The metric system is used.
Compared with many African countries, Ethiopia is pretty easygoing for women travellers. The risk of rape or other serious offences is likely lower than in many Western countries. The best advice is to simply be aware of the signals your clothing or behaviour may be giving off and remember these unspoken codes of etiquette.
- Drinking alcohol, smoking, and wearing excessive make-up and revealing clothes are indications to the male population of ‘availability’, as this is also the way local prostitutes behave. Apart from the young of the wealthier classes in Addis Ababa, no ‘proper’ woman would be seen in a bar.
- Many cheap hotels in Ethiopia double as brothels. Ethiopian men may naturally wonder about your motives for staying here, particularly if you’re alone. While there’s no cause for alarm, it’s best to keep a low profile and behave very conservatively – keep out of the hotel bar, for example, and try to meet up with other travellers if you want to go out.
- Accepting an invitation to an unmarried man’s house, under any pretext, is considered a latent acceptance of things to come. Dinner invitations often amount to ‘foreplay’ before you’re expected to head off to some seedy hotel. Even a seemingly innocent invitation to the cinema can turn out to be little more than an invitation to a good snog in the back row.
- Be aware that ‘respectable’ Ethiopian women (even when they’re willing) are expected to put up a show of coyness and modesty. Traditionally, this formed part of the wedding-night ritual of every Amhara bride: a fierce struggle with the groom was expected of them. Consequently, some Ethiopian men may mistake your rebuttals for encouragement. The concept even has a name in Amharic: maqderder (and applies equally to feigned reluctance for other things such as food). If you mean no, make it very clear from the start.
- If there aren’t any other travellers around, here’s a quick trick: pick a male Ethiopian companion, bemoan the problems you’ve been having with his compatriots and appeal to his sense of pride, patriotism and gallantry. Usually any ulterior plans he might have been harbouring himself are soon converted into sympathy or shame and a personal crusade to protect you!
- Adultery is quite common among many of Ethiopia’s urban population, for both men and women. For this reason, a wedding ring on a woman traveller (bogus or not) has absolutely no deterrent value. In fact, quite the reverse.
- The one advantage of Ethiopia being a relatively permissive society is that Western women (in particular, white women) aren’t necessarily seen as easier than local women, something that’s common in many developing countries due to Hollywood cinematic ‘glamour’.
In some of the monasteries and holy sites of Ethiopia, an ancient prohibition forbids women from setting foot in the holy confines. But the holy fathers go strictly by the book: the prohibition extends not just to women but to all female creatures, even she donkeys, hens and nanny goats.
There are few opportunities for getting work in Ethiopia and those that do exist – such as working in a hotel, or as a tour guide – must be arranged through a company well in advance of your visit to the country. In such cases, you will need to obtain a work visa, rather than a tourist visa.