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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, though citizens of the USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, China, Japan, Korea, Israel, Russia, the UK and all other European Union nations can buy a one-month visa upon arrival at Bole International Airport (Addis Ababa) for US$20–30. Other passport holders will need to arrange a visa in advance – if you live in a country where there is no Ethiopian embassy, and travel with Ethiopian Airways, you can apply for a visa through the airline office.
Travellers coming overland to Ethiopia should be aware that a single-entry visa is usually only valid for entry 30–90 days after issue (the exact time frame seems to depend on where it is issued) and that it is increasingly difficult to obtain Ethiopian visas in neighbouring states such as Kenya or Sudan unless you are resident in that country. For this reason, it might be safest to buy a multiple-entry visa (valid for one to two years, once again depending on where it is issued) before you leave home.
Should you need to spend longer in the country than is stamped into your passport, extensions can be granted at the Immigration office on Churchill Avenue in Addis Ababa. These cost the birr equivalent of US$20, regardless of the length of the extension, and usually take 24 hours to process.
A yellow fever certificate is not required for entry into Ethiopia unless you are coming from a yellow fever endemic zone. However, some countries may insist you have a certificate upon returning from Ethiopia, so it’s safest to ensure yours is still current and to bring it with you.
Should there be any possibility you’ll want to drive or hire a vehicle while you’re in the country, do organise an international driving licence (any AA office in a country in which you’re licensed to drive will do this for a nominal fee).
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. Bookings can be made online at www.ethiopianairlines.com, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other major airlines that fly to Addis Ababa are Alitalia, Emirates, SAA, KLM, Lufthansa and Kenya Airways. There are dozens upon dozens of travel agents in London offering cheap flights to Africa, and it’s worth checking out the ads in magazines like Time Out and TNT and phoning around before you book anything.
An established London operator, well worth contacting, is Africa Travel Centre (www.africatravel.co.uk).
Two reputable agents specialising in cheap round-the-world-type tickets rather than Africa specifically are Trailfinders (www.trailfinders.com) and STA (www.statravel.co.uk). There are STA branches in Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester.
An airport tax of US$20 is levied when you fly out of Ethiopia. This is normally included in the price of your ticket; if not, it must be paid in hard currency; an extra commission is taken for travellers’ cheques.
The main overland route south from Europe, often referred to as the Nile Route, goes through Egypt and Sudan, entering Ethiopia 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. It is no longer possible to cross between Ethiopia and Sudan via Eritrea, as the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been closed for some years and looks set to remain that way.
Travellers heading up to Ethiopia from more southerly parts of Africa have a more straightforward ride. In terms of safety, the route from South Africa to Kenya via Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania has been good for over a decade. The most volatile part of this route is the Kenyan–Ethiopian border area, as northern Kenya is prone to spasmodic outbreaks of Somali-related banditry. Plenty of people get through from Kenya without a problem, but the situation is subject to frequent change. As always, your best source of information is travellers coming in the opposite direction.
If your time in Ethiopia is limited, flying is far and away the most efficient way to get around. Even travellers who wouldn’t normally do so might think about using a couple of flights in Ethiopia. For starters, the full spectacle of Ethiopia’s ravine-ravaged landscape is best seen from the air (the leg between Gondar and Lalibela is particularly recommended). You could also save a lot of time by flying out to a far-flung destination – for instance Axum, Arba Minch or Gambella – and working your way back overland, rather than repeating a similar bus trip out and back.
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, Gambella, Jimma and Dire Dawa. The internal flights are generally efficient and they normally leave to schedule, but last-minute schedule changes are commonplace and you can probably expect on average one serious hold-up when you fly around the historical circuit. The soundest advice we can give in this regard is always to allow one non-travel day between flights, which eliminates the possibility of missing something important.
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.
Light vehicles such as pick-up trucks and minibuses are less widely used in Ethiopia than in many other African countries. You can, however, rely on there being some form of regular light transport between large towns that are close together (for instance, Adwa and Axum, Goba and Robe or Dire Dawa and Harar). It is also possible to town-hop on light vehicles on some major routes (between Axum, Adigrat and Mekele; Addis Ababa and Adama; and Mojo and Hawassa). The other situation where light vehicles come into play is on routes where there are no buses, for instance between Goba and Negele Borena or Arba Minch and Jinka. Generally, these light vehicles are privately owned, are more crowded than buses, and fares are higher. That said, new government regulations which prohibit foreigners travelling in local ISUZU trucks, has made independent travel all but impossible.
Buses are cheap. Typically you are looking at around US$1 per 100km, though road conditions and travel time will also affect the fare. If you use light vehicles on routes where there are no buses, expect to pay considerably more than you would for a comparable distance on a bus route.
The only remaining rail service in Ethiopia, the French-built line between Addis and Djibouti, which stopped en route at Awash and Dire Dawa, had ceased operations at the time of writing. However, in mid 2010 the government announced plans to construct a new 4,780km railway complex that will link Addis Ababa to some 49 regional centres along eight main routes around the country, with the line to Djibouti given priority. We will post any news on our updates website: http://updates.bradtguides.com/ethiopia.
Two ferry services run on Lake Tana: a daily service between Bahir Dar and Zege, and a weekly overnight service between Bahir Dar and Gorgora.
Anybody thinking about cycling around Ethiopia should refer to the detailed online report (www.owen.org/cycling/ethiopia), written by Owen Barder and Grethe Petersen, who undertook a cycling holiday there in 2002.
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.