ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – For many people around the world, mentioning Ethiopia brings to mind its devastating 1984 famine. The specter of the disaster haunts the country's international image and still hurts the growth of its fledgling tourism industry.
But here's the reality that awaits those few adventurous visitors who do make the trip: A high plateau of lush, green hills that's more like Scotland than the desert; decadent nightlife in Addis Ababa; and historic sites like the island monasteries of Lake Tana and Lalibela, a remarkable complex of 12th-century churches.
In addition, Ethiopia's wildlife parks are teeming with game, but unlike Kenya, where packs of tourists compete for a glimpse of lions, here you might have the animals all to yourself.
Traveling in Ethiopia, however, can be uniquely disorienting. Ethiopians insist on doing things their own way. They have their own calendar — with 13 months; their own year — it's currently 2003; and their own time — 6 a.m. is their midnight. The national language, Amharic, has Semitic roots, like Arabic and Hebrew, and a unique alphabet. (Rest assured, English is widely spoken.) Roughly two-thirds of the people are Ethiopian Orthodox — a creed with its own rites, different from those of the Russian or Serbian Orthodox churches — while a third is Muslim.
A trip to Ethiopia, then, is less like a sojourn in Africa than a visit to some far-flung island, where everything is strange and compelling.
You'll need a couple of weeks to even begin to do justice to this sprawling country — bordered on the north by Sudan, on the south by Kenya and Somalia and on the east by Djibouti and Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war.
Roads are generally poor, and it can take long hours or even days to travel several hundred miles overland — particularly in the April-September rainy season. Luckily, Ethiopian Airlines — widely considered Africa's premier carrier — operates flights from the capital, Addis, to the main must-see sites, including Lalibela.
Addis is a sprawling city of congested thoroughfares and hidden residential neighborhoods with narrow streets that dissolve into thick mud every time it rains, and it can seem a dismal place to start an Ethiopian sojourn. But resist the temptation to flee and the city will open to you, revealing scores of cute cafes, hot nightspots, chill lounges and gourmet restaurants.
Top suggestions include Eyoha or Fasika national restaurants, where remarkably athletic dancers showcase the country's unique shoulder-shaking traditional dance styles as diners tuck into heaping plates full of local delicacies.
Ethiopian cuisine, which is heavy on sauces and served on spongy crepe-like bread called injera, leaves no one indifferent. You either love it or you hate it. Love it, and you can eat like a king, splurging on multi-dish meals of wot, a sauce of goat or lamb, and kifto, marinated raw meat. Made from an Ethiopian grain called tef, injera is eaten at every meal and also serves as cutlery, used to scoop up the juicy sauces.
Hate it, and you stand a good chance of shedding some serious weight. Besides a dozen top-notch places in Addis, restaurants serving foreign cuisine are few and far between. Order the spaghetti marinara in some provincial town, like I did, and you might find yourself using scraps of injera to scoop up earthworm-sized bits of cold pasta drenched in what appeared to be ketchup.
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But there is some decent Italian food to be had if you know where to go. Indeed, the best foreign cuisine in Ethiopia is a result of Italy's brief occupation of the country in the 1930s. Try Castelli, an Addis institution that has been serving up an antipasti buffet and fresh pasta for generations. Another option is the Ristorante da Bruno, which has won well-deserved acclaimed for its wood-fired pizzas.
Another legacy of the Italian presence are the coffee houses that serve up strong espressos and macchiatos. At Tomoca, you can get vacuum-packed bags of Ethiopian grown beans roasted to perfection in oversized colonial-era machines.
Vegetarians be warned: Ethiopian Orthodox adherents normally go vegetarian twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, and fast for the 56 days preceding Ethiopian Orthodox Easter. But for the month after Easter, so-called "fasting foods," or meat- and dairy-free dishes, are scarce.
For all-night dancing, try Club Platinum or the Gaslight, at the Sheraton hotel, where the mix of Ethiopian and R&B beats is infectious. Just be aware that at both establishments, as in other clubs across Ethiopia, most of the women on the dance floor are prostitutes.
Addis has the best shopping in the country, with a wide range of regional specialty products and styles. Try the area around Piassa for the heavy silver disc earrings from the northern Tigray region and Persian Gulf-inspired necklaces in oversized beads of silver and resin — all sold by the gram.
After a few action-packed days in Addis, you'll be ready to hit the road.
Most visitors head north to visit Ethiopia's tourist triumvirate — Bahir Dar, Aksum and Lalibela, the crown jewel. Ethiopian Airlines sells multi-leg tickets from Addis with stops at each site.
A winding complex of 11 churches cut out of the rust-red granite tucked into a wind-swept moonscape, Lalibela is frankly astounding. Legend claims it's the work of angels but in reality the complex was commissioned by the powerful 12th-century King Lalibela and picked out of the rock with hammers and chisels over decades.
The roofs are at ground level, so to reach the churches — clustered in two separate sites — you have to climb down steep stairs cut into the rock and worn smooth by a millennia's-worth of bare feet. Priests swathed in cream-colored robes live inside the cool, dark interiors, lit by sunlight that filters in through cross-shaped windows sliced into the rock walls.
The most impressive church is Bet Giorgis, or Saint George, a towering structure with a floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross.
The churches are still used — during the Easter period, tens of thousands of pilgrims converge on the site — so you can't visit them without a guide.
Bahir Dar is perched on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. The once-mighty Blue Nile Falls has been largely choked to a trickle by a dam, but dozens of monasteries and churches dot the lake's islands, making Bahir Dar well worth a visit. Built mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries, some sites have fantastically painted interiors and ceilings. Boat tours will take you from island to island but some sites are off-limits to women.
Aksum, near the sometimes volatile northern border with Eritrea, was the capital of an empire that flourished for centuries beginning in the fifth century B.C. Ruins of what was a major hub on a trade route between the Roman Empire and India dot the outskirts. Towering obelisks and remains of royal tombs and ancient castles are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Elsewhere in the country, east of Addis, is Harar, a mostly Muslim city that was once a hub for trade between East Africa and the Persian Gulf region. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a bustling market and profusion of mosques, most of them small shrines built during the city's heyday in the homes of successful merchants.
Head south of Addis for the country's best safaris, at the Yabelo or Stephanie Wildlife Sanctuaries or the remote Omo National Park. The sprawling park, which covers some 15,400 square miles, and the surrounding Omo Valley region are also home to a patchwork of tribes: The Mursi are known for their elaborately scarified bodies and oversized clay lip plates, while the Hamar people are herders with distinctive clay-colored rag-doll braids, known for their bull-jumping ceremony. (An initiation for young men, it's exactly what it sounds like.)
With all these possibilities north, south and east of the capital, the hardest part may be deciding where to go.