How to get there and get out
Almost all travellers arrive in Ethiopia by air (Addis Ababa). However, those who have time and an adventurous spirit can also do so across the land borders of Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti and even Somaliland. There are no land or air links between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The borders with Southern Sudan and the rest of Somalia are closed or dangerous.
Arrival in Ethiopia
Entering Ethiopia by air is easy, even if you have to pick up your visa when you arrive at Bole International Airport. The departure fee is included in the ticket price.
Ethiopian officials at land border posts are stricter. The official rules for obtaining the Ethiopian visa indicate that it can be obtained on arrival, but in practice, this is only the case if you arrive by plane at Bole International Airport. Therefore, to enter Ethiopia by land, it is essential to already have a visa. If you travel by car, you must bring all the necessary documentation.
Airports and airlines
Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa is the only international stopover in Ethiopia. Although it is modern, on arrival you will only find little more than a bank (24 h), a restaurant and some cafés; luggage carts and wifi connection are free. Those preparing to go out will enjoy a bar and some duty-free shops.
Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s only domestic and international airline, is considered one of the best and largest in Africa; it has a modern fleet and a good safety record.
A word of caution: if you prefer to fly with a European airline (such as Lufthansa or KLM), make sure that the flight will indeed take place on one of its aircraft rather than on one of Ethiopian Airlines.
They share routes and often place passengers on an Ethiopian Airlines plane, but they charge them more than if the ticket had been purchased directly from the Ethiopian airline.
It is advisable to book the flights to Ethiopia in advance during August, Easter, Christmas and New Year.
Arriving in Ethiopia by land is an adventure the travellers will never forget, no matter where they come from or how they do it.
Border formalities between Djibouti and Ethiopia are often quite straightforward, but it is essential to have a visa beforehand, as it cannot be obtained at the border.
There are currently two roads linking Djibouti and Ethiopia: one through Dire Dawa and Gelille and other through Awash and Galafi.
If you do not have a vehicle, the first one is better: there are daily buses linking Djibouti city and Dire Dawa. The journey takes 10-12 hours, but you have to change at the border.
In Djibouti city, Société Bus Assajog buses depart at dawn from Ave Gamel Abdel Nasser. Tickets to Gelille cost 1500 DJF and must be purchased at least one day in advance to be sure to find a seat.
The ticket to Dire Dawa must be purchased in Gelille.
Once in Dire Dawa, the ticket can be bought the same day of your trip at the Tibuuti Ee City office, north of the Old City (Megala), next to Ashawa Market. Tickets cost 185 ETB and buses depart around 00.00 from a place north of this office.
The road between Dire Dawa and Gelille is expected to be fully paved within a few years.
In the meantime, it is recommended that those travelling by car use the road that passes through Galafi. It is longer, but it is completely paved.
If you are coming from northern Ethiopia, you can take this route through an asphalted shortcut from Woldia.
If you do not have a vehicle, you can also pass through Galafi, although it is not a direct route.
In Djibouti city, you have to take a minibus to Galafi, 5 km from the border. The only option in Galafi is to take one of the few morning minibusses that go to Logiya (60 ETB, 3h) or get transport with one of the many trucks that go to Ethiopia. If you use this route to leave Ethiopia, it is possible to go by truck directly to Djibouti city.
The price of the 6-hour trip from Logiya is around 400-500 ETB, but there are many trucks and a few passengers, so it is necessary to negotiate.
The railway line between Dire Dawa and Djibouti is now completed, but passenger services are not yet operational. When the line is fully completed, it will connect Djibouti with Addis Ababa via Dire Dawa.
If you want to go to Ethiopia from Eritrea you have three options: from Asmara to Adwa and Aksum via Adi Quala; from Asmara to Adigrat via Senafe; and from Assab to Addis Ababa via Serdo and Dessie.
However, all of these border crossings have been closed indefinitely since the 1998 war and, judging by the relations between the two countries, are unlikely to open soon.
The only way to get from Ethiopia to Eritrea is by plane, with a stopover in another country, such as Djibouti, a much cheaper and more direct option than passing through Cairo, Egypt.
There are usually not many problems moving between Ethiopia and Kenya. The only viable land border crossing is Moyale, located 772 km south of Adías Ababa. Moyale offers two options, one on each side of the border.
The northern Ethiopian part of Moyale is well connected to the north and Addis Ababa by bus: the road is paved and in quite a good condition, but bumps abound. Although safety is not usually a problem on the main north-south route and in the Moyale area, violent tribal clashes have occasionally occurred.
Obtaining reliable information about the situation when you want to cross the border can be complicated. The websites of travel agencies and governments providing information to travellers will be able to indicate when there have been serious and prolonged clashes in the area, but for everyday skirmishes, it is best to talk to other travellers.
The southern (Kenyan) part of Moyale is in the middle of nowhere: about 800km north of Nairobi. A daily bus connects Moyale with Marsabit, where transport can be obtained to Isiolo and then Nairobi. At the main junction, trucks on this route pick up passengers.
For those with vehicles, the journey between Moyale and Marsabit is long, but the construction of the asphalt road has made things much easier. Fortunately, it seems that the problems of banditry that existed in the past are under control, even if there are no outbreaks of tribal clashes and some cases of banditry. Although this usually happens far from the main Marsabit-Moyale road, there have been serious tribal fighting in and around Moyale.
This route is sometimes traversed with armed convoys, but only when the tension is extreme. The Wajir road to the south is still not considered safe. Before leaving Moyale, it is always necessary to find out about safety; it is also advisable to fill up the tank in Ethiopia, as petrol costs half as much.
The Ethiopian and Kenyan borders of Moyale are open every day. At the Kenyan immigration office (6.30-18.00) you can get a visa (3 months) for 50 US$. They accept US dollars (sometimes euros), but not birrs. Transit visas (7 days) cost 20 US$.
The Ethiopian immigration office does not issue visas: they must be obtained from an Ethiopian embassy before arriving at the border.
If you go south and have a good SUV, you can cross the border near Omorate on the shores of Lake Turkana. At present, the main (but rarely used) route for land travellers is a vague sandy track off the Turmi road, about 15 km after Omorate. It is a tough trip with few services, which requires being well prepared; many recommend doing it with a guide. The trip to Loyangalani takes two days; during the rainy season, the road is impassable.
With the construction of the bridge over the Omo in Omorate, crossing at Namoruputh is easier, because the road is better. The Kenyan immigration office is in Todonyang, 7 km after the border. Tribal conflicts in this area remain frequent: check the situation.
There is an Ethiopian immigration office (7.30-17.00) in Omorate, where you get the exit stamp. Besides, there is still no Kenyan representation issuing visas; they must be obtained in advance from the Kenyan embassy in Addis Ababa. When arriving in Nairobi, it must be taken to be stamped; Immigration officials are accustomed to this procedure. This trip requires good fuel reserves and a great spirit of adventure.
Although it sounds very adventurous, the truth is that getting to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is very easy.
Many buses and minibusses run on the paved road between Jijiga and the border town of Togo-Wuchale (32 ETB). Get your exit stamp from the Ethiopian immigration office (a white building with a flag and satellite dish) before you walk the 100 m of no man’s land along the elevated road to the clearly marked Somaliland immigration office in Wajaale. The visa must be obtained in advance through a hotel or travel agency in Hargeisa.
From an unpaved parking lot next to the immigration office there are frequent taxis to Hargeisa (140 ETB), about 90 km southeast. Taxi drivers will try to charge a surcharge for luggage, but there is no need to give in.
At the time of writing, the border between Ethiopia and Southern Sudan at Jikawo was closed to foreigners but is usually open to citizens of both countries. If reopened, there are buses from Gambela to the border town of Jikawo (98 ETB), where you take a collective taxi to Adora (Southern Sudan).
Another option sometimes used by Gambela people is to wait by the river in Gambela in the hope of getting transport with one of the small boats that occasionally cross the Baro on their way to Akobe. Although there is no evidence that any traveller has opted for this route, if permission is obtained from Immigration officials it will undoubtedly be a very interesting way to cross the border between Ethiopia and Southern Sudan.
Whichever option is chosen, the situation in Southern Sudan must always be carefully checked. As this guide was being written, there were numerous clashes in southeastern Southern Sudan.
How to get around Ethiopia
The only airline offering regular domestic flights is Ethiopian Airlines, with extensive destination coverage and a good safety record.
Even if you travel on a limited budget, it’s worth considering taking one or two planes: it’s not particularly cheap, but it saves you long and uncomfortable bus trips.
Standard security rules apply at all airports. Domestic flights allow 20 kg of luggage to be carried; hand luggage should not be bulky, as space inside airplanes is limited.
Most flights depart from Addis Ababa, but not all are direct, so it is possible to travel between several cities.
If tickets for domestic flights are purchased at a travel agency upon arrival in Ethiopia, it is almost always cheaper than doing so over the internet from outside the country.
For the historical circuit and during the main holidays it is important to book in advance to ensure a place on board.
In theory, all domestic flights must be confirmed 72 hours in advance. This is certainly a good idea, although the authors of this guide never did and did not have any problems. However, you can never be too cautious.
Remember that flight times can vary due to weather or technical problems: it is better not to plan an itinerary so tight that it does not allow changes.
Cycling in Ethiopia is an extremely rewarding way to explore the country. New and second-hand bicycles can be bought in Addis Ababa, but they will not be ideal for the historic circuit.
In the past, uneven terrain and poor road conditions deterred many adventure lovers, but today the road network has improved significantly, so it may be a good time to try the experience.
It is recommended to observe the usual safety rules: never travel after dark, beware of theft and keep the bike in good condition. When riding on mountain roads, it is essential that the brakes work perfectly.
Local drivers should not be expected to take the cyclist into account. Trucks, minibusses and other vehicles often take bends on the wrong side of the road: you have to be alert and ready to step aside in a fraction of a second.
Be very attentive to dogs: sometimes it is better to get off the bike and slowly walk away. Pedaling during the rainy season can be especially difficult.
Punctures are easily repaired: just go to a tyre repair shop or mechanic. In many cases, they will be happy to lend a hand and are often very resourceful in improvising an emergency repair.
There are special customs regulations for importing bicycles. Normally, when you arrive in Ethiopia, you have to leave a deposit (equivalent to the amount of the bicycle) which will be returned when you leave the country.
Ethiopian Airlines international flights accept bicycles. For nationals, you should consult it, as it will depend on the type of aircraft that covers the route on the desired date.
Check and tighten the nuts and bolts often; carry a spare chain; mount a luggage rack at the front and back; carry a water filter in case you get trapped somewhere remote.
Apart from tourist boats, there are few commercial boats to move around Ethiopia. An exception, although not very advisable, is the weekly ferry between Bahir Dar and Gorgora, on Lake Tana.
A good network of long-distance buses connects Ethiopia’s major cities.
Recently, a new category of fairly sophisticated buses (with air conditioning, reclining seats, onboard toilets, TV, and even free snacks) circulate on Ethiopian roads. The best companies are Selam Bus and Sky Bus. It is strongly recommended to travel with one of these new private companies, even if they are a little more expensive: buses are much more comfortable, rarely travel at night and are safer.
The other option is to use state buses and other similar private services.
There are a state bus company and about a dozen private companies, but it is not easy to distinguish them.
State buses sell tickets with pre-numbered seats and passengers wait in line while the bus is loaded. Tickets are then checked and passengers board. Private buses, on the other hand, simply open the doors and start selling tickets to the avalanche of passengers who crowd up. Logically, the private ones tend to leave earlier and are also a little more comfortable than the state ones.
Unlike in many other African countries, long-distance buses in Ethiopia are not allowed to stand in the aisle, making them more comfortable – without being comfortable – and safer. On longer journeys, there are usually 20-minute meal breaks.
In many cases, when you arrive at the station there will only be one bus in the desired direction, so whether it is private or state-owned will be irrelevant. If a reservation has not been made through the new private companies, there will only be one choice: take the bus that departs first.
You will soon notice that all buses are slow. On asphalt roads, an average speed of 50 km/h is reached, but on tracks, the usual speed is 30 km/h or less. In the rainy season, delays are very frequent. Fortunately, new roads are being built all over the country and dirt roads are being transformed into fabulous asphalt roads. Unfortunately, this has increased the number of accidents due to increased speed.
When asking for the departure time, remember that it will be indicated according to the Ethiopian system (6 hours more than in the West).
In remote areas, it is common to have to wait a long time until the bus is full and starts (sometimes it does not get out). Generally, the sooner you get to the bus station, the more likely you are to catch the first bus out of town.
The main drawback with bus travel is the size of the country: just to cover the 2500 km distance of the historic circuit you have to spend 10 days sitting on a bus.
Almost all journeys of more than one day require a stop at night (Ethiopian law stipulates that all long-distance buses must stop running at 18.00, although in practice it is not usually complied with).
In many cases, it is not allowed to remove the luggage from the roof, so it is advisable for the traveler to put in a small bag what is necessary for one night and take it with him.
Transportation is usually done by Isuzu minibusses and trucks n the most remote cities and towns. They are usually faster and sometimes cheaper, but it will be necessary to decide whether this compensates for the risk involved.
Buses are very cheap in Ethiopia. Both public and private buses cost 1.50-1.75 US$/100 km. New buses charge double or triple, but it’s always worth it.
Sky and Selam bus tickets should be booked as far in advance as possible.
Tickets for most long-distance journeys (over 250 km) can normally be purchased in advance. If possible, it is best to do so: it guarantees a seat (but not numbered on private buses) and frees the passenger from the clever ones who buy all the remaining tickets to resell them for double to last-minute travellers. Almost all state ticket offices are open daily from 4.30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For short journeys, tickets can usually only be purchased on the same day.
If you want some fresh air during the journey, it is best to sit behind the driver: the window is usually open, unlike almost all Ethiopian passengers, who keep them closed. However, in the event of an accident, these are the worst seats.
Automobile and motorcycle
If the traveller is going to use his or her own jeep or motorcycle, he or she will need a passage card (a document issued by the national motoring association of his or her country guaranteeing that the vehicle will not be sold during the journey), vehicle registration documents and a third party insurance policy covering Ethiopia.
Tourists who drive their own vehicle can use the international driving license for three months, after which they will need an Ethiopian driving license. However, this measure is rarely applied: most travellers do not apply for an Ethiopian permit (the process is extremely complicated) and have no problems.
Fuel and spare parts
Fuel (gasoline and diesel) is easy to find, except in the most remote regions, such as the southwest. However, the option of unleaded petrol is non-existent: there are only diesel and normal petrol (in Ethiopia called benzene). Remember that in the highlands the vehicle will consume 25% more fuel than at sea level.
Although there are good workshops all over the country (the hotel may recommend one), it is not easy to find spare parts outside Addis Ababa. It is recommended to buy in the capital all parts that are expected to be needed during the trip. Many tour operators use Toyota Land Cruisers, so spare parts for these vehicles are more abundant and less expensive than for Land Rovers.
Many travelers rent a SUV with a driver. Now that the roads are much better, this type of vehicle is not always necessary, but given that almost all tour operators only offer all-terrain vehicles, it seems that there is no other option.
Despite competition among the many Addis Ababa travel agents who rent SUVs, prices are high: from US$180/day. Many companies’ fares include unlimited mileage, driver and per diem (food and lodging), fuel, third-party insurance, partial exemption from liability for collision damage and government fees. You should ask if there will be any additional charges later and if the driver has a set schedule. Some companies allow you to pay for fuel separately, which is usually cheaper than the all-inclusive fare.
Prices are always negotiable and vary greatly depending on the length of the rental and the season. Although it is more annoying, it will always be cheaper for the traveller to arrange the rental on his own (or through a local company) in Ethiopia than through an agency in his country.
The driver is compulsory: currently, no agency rents jeeps without a driver outside Addis Ababa. Your presence is very useful: you can act as a guide, interpreter and mechanic. Although he is usually tipped at the end of the trip, it would be good if during the trip the traveller invited him to eat with him (it costs very little).
Renting an all-terrain vehicle is expensive, but the main advantage over travelling by bus is the saving of time: at least half; moreover, in remote places, it avoids waiting for infrequent and erratic buses. Also, some national parks can only be visited with a SUV.
Some agencies based in Addis Ababa have branches in the cities of the historic circuit and rent all-terrain vehicles (reservation required).
You can only rent a car without a driver to drive around Addis Ababa and the surrounding area (and this is not very common). If you are interested in renting a car to move around the capital (it is more expensive to take a taxi), you must have an international driving license and be between 25 and 70 years old. It costs from 120 US$/day, with 50-70 km free.
Currently, it is not possible to rent motorcycles.
The law requires third party insurance.
Fortunately, unlike other African countries that require vehicles to be covered by an insurance company based in that country, in Ethiopia insurance elsewhere is also valid. If one is not available, the many offices of the Ethiopian Insurance Corporation, sell insurance policies to third parties and against all risks.
State of the roads
Ethiopian roads are getting better and better, but many are still not paved.
Those in the south have improved considerably in recent years; now many areas of the Omo valley can be accessed all year round (even without an all-terrain vehicle). However, there are still many bumpy stretches.
The paved roads start from Addis Ababa to the west, and it seems that in the not too distant future they will reach Gambela. In other parts of the west, many roads in the plains can be infernal in the rainy season.
Addis Ababa is connected to many of the major cities on the northern circuit by acceptable paved roads (but there are still bumpy stretches).
Harar and Dire Dawa (both 525 km east of Addis Ababa) are connected to the capital with well-paved roads.
Dangers on the road
On the outskirts of towns and villages, attention should be paid to pedestrians (especially children playing on the road). Unmarked speed reducers can also be an unpleasant surprise.
Avoid driving at night. The risk of accidents is much higher; in the most remote areas, there are still shiftas (bandits); some trucks park (without lights) in the middle of the road.
In the countryside, animals are the main danger; in the plains, camels roaming the road can cause serious accidents; many animals, including donkeys, are not accustomed to traffic and are easily frightened: approach slowly and cautiously.
During the rainy season, some roads (especially in the west and southwest) are impassable. Before leaving you should check with the local authorities.
Rules of the road
You drive on the right side of the road.
The speed limit for cars and motorcycles is 60 km/h in towns and cities and 100 km/h in extra-urban areas.
The level of driving is not very good; mirrors and flashing lights are more decorative than functional.
On plateau roads, drive defensively and watch out for trucks moving at high speed in the opposite direction (sometimes on the wrong side of the road).
A row of stones or pebbles on the road indicates the presence of works or an accident.
Safety belts are only mandatory for the driver, but many vehicles lack them.
Hitchhiking and carpooling
In the past, if someone hitchhiked or asked for a ride it was supposed to be because they couldn’t afford the bus ticket and didn’t arouse much sympathy. Many Ethiopians were also suspicious of ulterior motives, such as theft.
Now, however, it is quite common in villages that are not easily reached by buses or light vehicles, and the fare has to be paid and negotiated beforehand. The best place to get transport is in hotels, bars and cafés and in the centre of the town.
On many roads, the density of vehicles is still very low; in remote areas, you may not see any.
Hitchhiking is never completely safe and is not recommended. Those who opt for this mode of travel must understand that they run a small risk, which could become serious. It is safer to hitchhike in pairs and it is advisable to inform someone of the planned route. A woman should never hitchhike alone.
In many large cities, minibusses are the fastest, most comfortable and cheapest way to get around (about 2 ETB for short distances). Bus collectors often shout out the destination of the bus; if in doubt, ask yourself.
Taxis are available in many major cities, including Addis Ababa. Fares are reasonable, but wealthy foreigners and Ethiopians should always pay more for ‘contractual services’. Ask the hotel what a reasonable rate would be.
In many cities there are bajajs (motorized rickshaws); the price per person in a collective bajaj for an urban route is around 5 ETB; the same route, but without sharing the bajaj, leaves for 15-20 ETB.
Microbuses and trucks
Minibusses are often used for journeys between cities connected by paved roads or for short journeys. Legally they cannot cover more than 150 km, but many drivers ignore this rule; some travel at night to reduce the chance of encountering the police; by day, they simply change documentation halfway to confuse officers. Minibusses cost a little more than buses, but they are more frequent and cover distances more quickly; however, they are also more dangerous: avoid buses that run at night. They are usually found at bus stations.
Some foreigners used to travel through the most remote regions of the country (such as the lower Omo valley) in the back of freight trucks. This practice is now illegal for security reasons, although it is rumoured that it is actually for tourists to hire organised circuits; however, it seems that the rule only applies to foreigners.
In Ethiopian towns, villages and rural areas, there are two types of taxis: ‘private’ and ‘collective’. The latter have fixed routes, stop when a passenger wants to get on or off, and generally function as a small bus. They become ‘private taxis’ when stopped (or ‘hired’) by one or more people for a private journey. In this case, the fare is divided among all taxi passengers.
You always have to negotiate the price beforehand.
There are four reasons why the independent traveler should consider hiring an organized tour: perform certain activities (such as a safari); access remote regions with limited public transport (such as the lower Omo valley or the Danakil depression); make thematic excursions with expert guides; see the maximum of the country in the shortest possible time.
You can reduce the price of the tours (few are cheap) by forming a group with other tourists or contacting the agency well in advance in case the traveler could join any of the scheduled tours (in these cases you have to be flexible).
The agencies offer all or some of the following services: guides, 4×4 rental, camping equipment rental, historical circuit excursions, bird watching and wildlife watching, Omo valley circuits, photographic safaris, trekking in the Bale and Simien mountains, excursions to the Rift Valley lake, the Danakil depression and the Afar region. Some have branches in cities other than Addis Ababa, where (by reservation) you can rent an all-terrain vehicle or do a circuit.
Although prices are officially fixed, they can almost always be negotiated, especially in the low season. Some agencies now accept credit cards (2-3% commission). The following list includes some of those recommended by travellers and Ethiopians in the tourism sector.
Important railway projects are currently being carried out, such as the following:
- Dire Dawa-Yibuti Finished, but not very useful.
- Addis Ababa-Dire Dawa Mostly completed.
- Addis Ababa-Mekele Under construction.