Ethiopia is one of the oldest and most remarkable places in Africa. It’s got a long and storied history, incredible food, and some of the most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites this side of the Great Rift Valley. Fortunately, it’s also relatively inexpensive, if you know how to do it right. And that’s what we’re here for. Let’s say you’re not a mid-career professional who can blow a few thousand on luxury safari packages. While this is indeed possible, there are also plenty of ways to see Ethiopia on a budget. Here are 15 essential activities to do in Ethiopia on a budget.
1) Addis Ababa
One of the largest and most interesting cities in Africa, Addis Ababa translates to “beautiful flower.” Ethiopia’s chaotic capital has countless activities that can be done on the cheap. With countless churches, monuments, and beautiful architecture, you could spend weeks exploring this sprawling city. There are plenty of museums, some of which are free, others costing no more than a few dollars. There is plenty to do and see here without breaking the bank.
A quick hop from Addis Ababa, Adama, also known as Nazareth is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. Not that Addis is expensive, but like any capital city, things can add up if you let them. While there isn’t a dearth of activities like Addis, why not take a ride around town on a horse pulled taxi called a Gari for a few Birr? There is ample opportunity for great hikes in the mountains that surround the town as well.
One of the oldest cities in Ethiopia, Harar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the holiest cities in Islam. Surrounded by ancient walls, Harar has over 200 mosques and shrines which can be explored for free. Another top draw here are the hyenas which locals feed by mouth.
4) Learn about Ethiopian coffee
True Ethiopian coffee and the ceremony surrounding it is as old as the country itself. Practically the national beverage, Ethiopia has some of the best beans in the world. Head to a more popular coffee shop in Addis or a small hole in the wall anywhere else and for a few Birr, get the full experience. Coffee beans are roasted in front of you over a small charcoal fire, then ground with mortar and pestle, brewed in a traditional clay pot, and sometimes served with plain popcorn or with some frankincense burning to add to the experience. Usually for less than a dollar, too!
Gondar Castle is also called Ethiopia’s Camelot and is one of, if not the best preserved castles on the continent. Generations of emperors ruled here for close to 1,000 years. There are several buildings and fortifications within the complex.
It breaks our Africa-shaped hearts, but the famous rock churches of Lalibela are not the budget attraction they once were. One of the most impressive sites in the country, the 11 churches carved out of pure rock and sunk into the earth now cost quite a bit to visit. Causing great anger amongst the hoteliers, guides, and restaurants in the area, some have speculated that the price hike was implemented by corrupt priests since most of the entrance fees went to the government as opposed to the community. While definitely not a budget site anymore, this amazing UNESCO Site is what we would spring for if we had one ‘”splurge” activity here.
Ethiopia has countless mountains and hills spread throughout the entire country. The region of Abyssinia itself has some of the most dramatic scenery and views in all of Africa. That said, you can hop out of a minibus almost anywhere and find opportunities to hike the hills and valleys with nothing more than your pack, camera, and a bottle of water. Dramatic views, abounding nature, and picturesque villages and farms await, and almost all of the time, for free! A great way to offset the cost of that Lalibela excursion.
Axum is in the northern Tigray region and yet again, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Featuring countless fields of stelae, or granite monoliths, many have toppled but there are still a good amount standing. The largest was over 100 feet (33m) high and weighed 500 tons before collapsing. Hire a guide for the day, some of which are archaeologists to really learn the history for as little as 200 Birr ($10). The impressive Church of St. Mary of Zion is also worth a visit.
9) Rift Valley lakes
The Great Rift Valley extends north to Ethiopia. Just south of Addis Ababa lie eight Rift Valley Lakes which comprise the farthest extent of the Rift. Beautiful and relaxing, the lakes are a great way to get out of the towns and cities. Hire a local to take you out on a boat, do some birding, or find a small guesthouse or restaurant and relax with a sundowner for a few Birr.
10) Food tour
While we all know Africa has great food, let’s be honest, the continent isn’t exactly known for its culinary prowess. Ethiopia is a bright shining star in what can otherwise be considered a somewhat dark landscape. Served on a platter of enormous, spongy Injera bread, many dishes consist of spiced meats, lentils, vegetables, and stews. Ethiopian restaurants can be found in many large cities in the US, UK, and Europe. So delicious, so varied, and so cheap, exploring the country’s rich culinary history is another great way to learn about Ethiopia without spending a lot.
11) Bahir Dar
The third largest city in Ethiopia, Bahir Dar is the perfect jumping off point to visit the churches and monasteries on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, or the nearby Blue Nile Falls. Hire a boat with friends and check out some of the churches set on islets in the lake (unfortunately, many charge an additional entrance fee). Or catch a minibus to the village of Tis Abay where a quick 30 minute hike will get you to the Blue Nile Falls.
12) Tigray rock churches
Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is home to some of the most amazing ancient churches in the world. Over 150 of them and many cut straight out of or into the numerous rocks and mountains. Spread throughout the region, some are only accessible by climbing a rope, rickety wooden latter, or by ascending notches in a stone cliff face. The churches are as breathtaking as the journey getting to them and most charge around 100 Birr ($5) to get in.
One of the most exciting parts about traveling anywhere is hitting the markets, bazaars, and souqs. And Ethiopia definitely has some of the best. Whether you’re looking for an authentic coffee set, some Haile Selassie regalia, jewelry, or religious icon recreations, the markets are the best in the world. And they’re free! Just make sure to keep a close eye on your belongings as many travelers report stickier fingers here than in other parts of Africa. And make sure to brush up on your haggling as Ethiopians bargain hard!
14) Arba Minch Hot Springs
The area around Arba Minch is a natural hotbed of geothermal activity. Just outside the town proper is an area set in the forest teeming with monkeys and baboons. Trek through the forest and rocks until you find any of the various springs and take a dip. The area is also a great jump off point for excursions to nearby national parks and cultural visits to local ethnic groups.
15) Simien Mountains
Another highlight of many travelers’ itineraries in Ethiopia, Simien Mountains National Park has some of the best vistas in the entire country. Many opt for guides, porters, biking, or four wheel drive vehicles, but those can all add up. From there, do a few day hikes or hire a mule for a few hours for a truly unique way to experience the views and troupes of thousands of gelada baboons.
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This article was originally published on November 13, 2014.