Ethiopia's historic sites are truly breathtaking. The country is also home to some of the continent’s highest mountains, beautiful flamingo-filled Rift Valley lakes, mighty rivers and rare wildlife.
There are more than nine official World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia, with a further five waiting for authorisation. Dating from the 16th century, the castles and palaces of historic Gondar and the astonishing subterranean rock-hewn churches of sacred Lalibela are some of the most famous. The monasteries at Bahir Dar on the islands of Lake Tana, Axum’s 4th century giant stone obelisks and the chapel that is said to house the Ark of the Covenant, are all notable highpoints on Ethiopia’s classic historic circuit.
With over 80 languages spoken and many different religious affiliations, Ethiopia’s heritage and culture are incredibly diverse. The many tribes of the Omo Valley are testimony to this cultural richness, including the Dorze with their distinctive beehive shaped homes, the Karo who live in wooden hilltop fortresses and sculpt totem poles and the Turmi who decorate their hair with red clay and on special occasions hold bull jumping ceremonies.
The colourful Orthodox Coptic festivals of Timket and Meskel are two of the most fascinating national celebrations and can be experienced countrywide. Celebrating the Epiphany, three-day Timket is Ethiopia’s most important festival. Held in January, there are huge colourful processions accompanied by music and dance. The annual festival of Meskel falls in September and celebrates the discovery of the True Cross. Large bonfires are decorated with daisies prior to the celebrations, which take place in the early evening.
Formed by volcanic activity, Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile, one of the major tributaries of the Nile. They are worthy of a visit, even though the level of water at the falls has been reduced by the construction of a hydroelectric dam.
For those interested in archaeology, Lucy, the world’s oldest almost intact hominid skeleton, was discovered in the Awash Valley.
Ethiopia has two important national parks. In the north, Simien Mountains National Park was created to protect the critically endangered Walia Ibex, which clings to sheer rock faces. It is also home to the Gelada (bleeding heart) monkey and the rare Simien wolf (also known as the Simien fox or Abyssinian wolf). The open afroalpine moorland of Bale Mountains National Park is also a good place to see a range of Ethiopia’s endemic mammals, including the Simien wolf. As wildlife is relatively sparse, combining a big-five safari in Kenya with a cultural experience in Ethiopia is a popular choice.