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Ethiopia - Travel and visas
A valid passport is required to enter Ethiopia, and entry may be refused is it is set to expire within six months of your intended departure date. All visitors to Ethiopia require a visa. The most straightforward way to obtain this is to buy an online e-visa. Single-entry 30-/90-day e-visas can be applied for at evisa.gov.et, which accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. The website currently only processes applications for single-entry tourist and conference visas for people who intend to enter Ethiopia at Bole International Airport. .
All international flights arrive and depart from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Many airlines fly to Ethiopia. Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s oldest airline and has an excellent safety record, but may not be the cheapest option. Other major airlines that fly to Addis Ababa include Air China, Egyptair, Emirates, Fly Dubai, Gulf Air, Kenya Airways, Lufthansa, Saudi Airlines, Sudan Airways, Turkish Airlines and Yemenia.
An established London operator, well worth contacting, is Africa Travel Centre.
The main overland route south from Europe runs through Egypt and Sudan, entering Ethiopia at Metema west of Gondar. This route was closed for many years due to political instability in Sudan, and it remains potentially volatile, but with Sudanese visa in hand, travellers have been getting through with relative ease since 2003. If you opt to head this way, do keep your ears to the ground, and be prepared to fly over troubled areas, for instance between Cairo and Khartoum or Khartoum and Addis Ababa. Most people cross into Ethiopia at the Metema Yohannes crossing west of Gondar. A regular minibus runs between Gondar and the border, taking about 1 hour. The crossing is straightforward, if rather time consuming, provided you have the appropriate visa, which must be bought in advance crossing in either direction. In addition, Selam Bus now runs a weekly coach service between Addis Ababa and Khartoum. This leaves Addis Ababa on Saturdays at around 05.00 and overnights in Gondar before arriving at Khartoum on Sunday evening. It starts the return trip from Khartoum on Monday morning and also overnights in Gondar en route.
Travellers heading between Ethiopia and more southerly parts of Africa have a more straightforward ride. Several viable routes run between South Africa and Nairobi (the capital of Kenya), the most westerly running through Namibia, Zambia and Tanzania, and the most easterly through Mozambique and Tanzania. The most volatile part of this route, since it is prone to sporadic outbreaks of Somali-related banditry, is the stretch between Nairobi and the Ethiopian border town of Moyale. It is generally a very relaxed crossing, assuming you have a valid passport and bought an Ethiopian visa in advance.
Ethiopian Airlines runs a good network of domestic flights connecting Addis Ababa to most major tourist destinations. The best connections are in the north, where at least one flight daily goes in either direction between any combination of Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Lalibela and Axum (flights to Mekele are slightly less numerous). There are also flights to other parts of the country, such as Arba Minch, Jinka, Kombolcha, Gambella, Jimma, Assosa, Jijiga and Dire Dawa. Internal flights are generally efficient and normally leave to schedule, but you need to check in 2 hours before departure, and last-minute delays still occur from time to time. For this reason, you should ideally allow one non-travel day between flights.
By bus, truck and minibus
Ethiopian road transport compares well with that in many other parts of Africa. Buses are rarely crowded, the driving is as sober as it gets in Africa and, because buses rarely indulge in the African custom of stopping every 100m to pick up another passenger, you can generally expect to cover 30km in an hour on dirt and 50km on surfaced roads. Also unusual for Africa are organised breakfast and/or lunch stops on longer runs. In fact, the only real problem with bus transport in Ethiopia is the size of the country. The northern historical circuit, for instance, requires more than 2,500km of road travel – and at an average progress rate of 40km/h this means that a daunting total of 60–70 hours, or the bulk of about seven waking days, must be spent on buses.
The best services, closer in style to a Greyhound-type coach than a typical African bus, but still very reasonably priced, are Ethio/Abay, Selam, Limalimo, Falcon, Golden and Sky. Between them, these companies offer daily fixed departures in either direction between Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar, Gondar, Mekele, Axum, Dessie, Hawassa, Jimma, Nekemte and Assosa. Services to Dire Dawa, Harar and Jijiga should hopefully also resume soon.
By taxi, gari and bajaj
Taxis can be found in many larger towns. Except in Addis and towns with a high tourist turnover (for instance Gondar), they are very cheap but foreigners are frequently asked higher prices and you should expect to bargain. Taxis in Addis are expensive (though still cheap by international standards) and often drivers will refuse to drop their prices for foreigners. In towns with a cool climate, the horse-drawn cart or gari replaces taxis. These are even cheaper than taxis and very useful for reaching places a few kilometres out of town. Growing in number, however, outside of the capital, bajajis – small three-wheeled tuk-tuks imported from India – have replaced taxis in many of the country’s flatter regional towns such as Bahir Dar, Gondar, Harar and Hawassa as the main means of local transportation. The standard fare for a short trip is birr 1, but you will undoubtedly be asked to pay more than five times this. You can also charter a bajaj for between US$0.60 and US$1.20, or even less if your negotiating skills are good.
By car/car hire
It is straightforward enough to hire a vehicle in Addis Ababa, but as a rule a driver will be supplied so in essence you are really organising a tailored tour or safari. Car hire in Ethiopia is expensive by any standards – the lowest rate you’ll get will be about US$150 per day, and US$200 or higher is likely from a reputable tour company. Avis is represented in Ethiopia by Galaxy Express, but most other operators in Addis Ababa can arrange car hire. If you are thinking of driving yourself, be warned that Ethiopian roads are not what you are used to at home. Many Ethiopian roads are in poor condition, and the pedestrians and livestock share a quality of indifference I’ve encountered nowhere else in Africa when it comes to dawdling in the middle of the road while a hooting vehicle hurtles towards them at full tilt.