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Intro: There are few countries covered on this site or in the world as misunderstood as Ethiopia. It is hard to know where to begin in summarising a country like Ethiopia and sadly you have to begin by explaining how it is not, before you can explain how it is. Even then it is hard to begin, with most minds conjuring images of the 1985 famine, deserts and the dark spectres of Africa - images that have unfortunately become synonymous with Ethiopia and indeed most of the continent. Ethiopia, like most of Africa, is desperately poor and yes parts are desert, but for the rest and the areas of most interest to travellers, it is a fertile high altitude plain (providing ~80% of the Nile's water, no less) and what is lacking in road infrastructure, 4 star hotels and country wealth is made up for by a rich and unique culture, intriguing history and welcoming people.
Contra to popular belief, the high plateau which forms central Ethiopia - and for years kept it a virtual mountain kingdom - supports a huge population (Addis Ababa, the capital, is the 3rd highest on a global scale and the population ranks only behind Egypt and Nigeria on the continent). There are deserts (including Africa's lowest and most consistently hottest point), extending from Northern Kenya and Somalia, but they are thinly populated and few travellers ever see them. 90% of what is interesting in Ethiopia is in the highlands and it is the most widely travelled area. Looking very different than you might imagine Ethiopia to be, the highlands have high mountain plateaus, a moderate climate and, depending on the time of year, are pretty green.
Emerging from the 'Scramble for Africa' as one of only two African countries never colonised by a European power (the other being Liberia, which was a American quasi-colony), and with several hundred years of self-imposed isolation in its history, Ethiopia is as unique as it comes. 13 months in a year, a clock starting at 6 each day rather than midnight, Gregorian calendar never adopted... are only a few examples of such, with practically every facet of Ethiopian culture being unique. Ethiopia was also home to one of the world's great empires (Aksumite) with historic ruins abounding and is the world's second-oldest Christian country with examples of Christianity and religious fervour much closer to Christianity's Middle Eastern, Judaic roots than the Vatican inspired version we are familiar with today. The medieval capital of Lalibela with a cluster of churches carved deep into rock (putting Petra to shame) is at certain times of the year one of the most atmospheric and extraordinary places on earth. There are also 17th century castles, interesting food, small friendly towns, a lack of malaria at altitude and some breathtaking scenery - with every flight or bus trip in the highlands a jaw dropping treat.
Ethiopia is extraordinary and highly misunderstood. It is poor and parts might bring to mind Niger or Mali and cause sudden spasms of guilt. But people are friendlier and more relaxed than in West Africa and even big cities are fairly calm and neat, a far cry from the chaos in the likes of Bamako (Mali), Lagos or even near-by Nairobi. Infrastructure is equally poor, partly due to the terrain, with bus rides between major points taking long days (or two). However, a great network of cheap internal flights gets you most places with ease. It is not the perfect travel destination by any means and many of the short-comings of African travel are present. Yet for independent travellers it is cheap and easy with okay facilities for the most part and obviously it's fairly uncrowded.
Visiting Ethiopia is not only a revelation, it is humbling and like travelling through time - travel at its most interesting.
Highlights: Lalibela (Lal-e-bell-a) with it's churches caved deep into solid rock, stream of pilgriams and remote location. The scenery, with the Simien Mountains being the most spectacular, anywhere in the highlands being a visual treat and easy to explore at random from towns/villages. The people, culture, convenient flight network and of course the coffee.
Lowlights: Travelling substantial distances overland in the highlands. Since the construction of several dams the Blue Nile Falls now is more akin to a trickle rather than the gushing torrent seen on pictures and the one Bir note. Constant questioning and annoyance from kids in popular destinations. The obvious poverty and spasms of guilty it can cause.
The jury is out on: The tribes of South Omo such is the cost and effort of getting there. As unique and fascinating as the tribes are, constantly paying to take photos and the feeling of being in a human zoo sometimes can outweigh the interest.
Visa strategy: Most nationalities need a visa, available for about US$20 at the airport (a photo is often listed as necessary, but never required in our experience) - make sure you have US$ to pay and time to spare as queue can be long, any other currency you will need to change into US$ to pay for the visa. Note that unlike a Kenyan visa, an Ethiopian visa cannot be issued at the border and if coming over land you will need to arrange in advance.
Typical tourist trail: Ethiopia has four obvious points of interest within the highlands (aka. the historic circuit): Bahir Dar - from where Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls are accessible. Gonder with its castles and access to the Simien Mountains. Axum and of course Lalibela with its rock-hewn churches. You could also add Addis Ababa where most arrive. Addis aside, using internal flights, there is no specific order in which you need to visit these destinations. Many internal flights serve one or more of the above en route to another and with flying being such an advantage you will continually meet the same people on the road/airport.
Some travellers add Harar to the above if they have more time and those with money/transport might head South towards the tribes of South Omo.
Getting Around: Getting around Ethiopia's main attractions is on one hand fantastically easy and good value and on the other, either fantastically hard work or both fantastically hard work and expensive. The difference lies in the route, the need for private transport and most importantly the use of internal flights. [go to map]
The historic circuit
The highland/historic circuit is effectively all the main 'must-see' sites and the 'standard' Ethiopian trip. This circuit which comprises of Addis to Axum and back, taking in Bahir Dar, Gonder and Lalibela on the way, can be made in a variety of orders (with little discernable price difference) via Ethiopian Air internal flights or by overland transport, or a combination of the two. However, it is important to remember that distances are huge and most road surfaces are poor.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Ethiopia has a hugely varying climate, ranging from the hottest and lowest point in Africa (the Danakil Depression) to one of the highest (Ras Dashen). Variations aside and concentrating on the highlands and main points of interest mentioned above, you can visit anytime of year and the climate is moderate. Rains come from June to early October, but with the rains come far fewer tourists and a wonderfully green countryside. September to October is particularly gorgeous, however most visit from October to January. Daytime temperatures are between ~20-30 degrees C in the highlands and you definitely need a sweater at night and warmer gear if heading to greater altitude. Off the main tourist circuit the lowlands and South (Omo) roasts most of the year with rains in April and May.
Money: For long Ethiopia was famous as one of those places you still could not use an ATM. This is no longer the case with Dasen Bank adding international ATMs in Addis, Gonder and a few other cities. However, as great as a back-up as this is, with so few ATMs, aim to take most of your funds in USD/EUR cash and travellers cheques (as always bring your receipts). You can use a credit card to get cash in some banks and to pay for international hotels in Addis - as you might expect a surcharge is normally added.
Costs: Ethiopia is indisputably cheap. Far cheaper than the rest of East Africa and Euro/CFA linked West Africa. Costs would be somewhat akin to Nepal or Malawi. There are few temptations in where to stay or what to eat or drink. Quality is lowish, but many prices are rock bottom. However, all but the most long on time (and/or with suicidal tendencies) will want to take at least one internal flight in the highlands. Flights are excellent value, but if flying between something like the major sites (Addis/Gonder/Axum/Lalibela/Addis) this will set you back US$250-400 (combined) depending on the routing and when you book.
Equally entrance fees to the churches in Lalibela, monasteries on Lake Tana islands and historic/religious attractions in Axum will be far more than you would spend in several days of comfortable living and do add up. Other surprises are the cost of accommodation at peak times, particularly in Lalibela during Christmas, Timkat or the Ethiopian New Year. Equally any travel in a private car, 4x4 or mini-van that you need to reach off-the-beaten track destinations or anywhere not served by public transport will be expensive (the more travellers you can find to share with the less so).
Worth noting is Ethiopia is currently suffering from major inflation and although most costs here are quoted in USD and should be reasonably accurate guidebook costs will likely all be wrong.
It is hard to explain South Omo and its unique tribes - it is certainly very different from the rest of Ethiopia (if not the rest of the world). Located in the far South in the low lands where travel is strongly limited by seasonal factors (rain putting it virtually off limits), it is expensive and complex to visit. This is Africa how you imagined it to be (without the large game) - or at least how National Geo led you to believe - a cultural Garden of Eden on par with very few places around the globe.
Interesting, while at the same time being rather confusing, you will in the course of any travels note dates written on admission tickets and hotel check-ins, as being about 7 years behind the year you are use to. Hence the phrase come to Ethiopian and be seven years younger!. The reason being that Ethiopia never adapted the Gregorian calendar (more info on Wikipedia). There are 30days in each month with the remainder forming a 13th month. Likewise, time-keeping is also interesting, with the clock starting each day at 6 (rather than 12midnight). So 0600 in the morning translates to 12 and 0900 would be 3. Just deduct 6. It is more a point of curiosity rather than something with a significant effect on travel. Some bus departure times are quoted in local time, but Ethiopians are conscious that foreigners don't always understand their system and all official transport, like airplanes, work on the clock you will be familiar with.
Media: Hawkers sell copies of Time and Newsweek in Addis, equally you can find some English language books. Away from the capital there is almost nothing, although English and other football (soccer) leagues are popular and it is easy enough to seek out somewhere showing a game.
Communications: Internet is fairly widespread with several internet cafes in major towns. Speeds are pretty slow, but standards, equipment and speeds are not bad compared to the rest of the country. Many will also let you make internet phone calls or burn CDs.
Food: Ethiopian food is far superior than the normal bland foods elsewhere in Africa, delicious, easy to find, cheap and a serious novelty. The staple food is injera which is a pancake like breadish substance made from teff flour. This big circular pancake is topped with various curry like dishes, as pictured. You tear the injera up as you eat with your hands, effectively eating the plate. Along with Ethiopian dishes you can easily find eggs or chicken based dishes. Equally getting a piece of cake or even a (bad) pizza or pasta is not impossible on the beaten track.
Vegetarians: Finding great veggie food is easy as Wednesday and Friday are the Orthodox fasting days when meat is abstained from. Every day of the week you can find an injera dish with a variety of vegetarian toppings (as pictured). Simply ask for 'fasting food'.
Coffee: As history would suggest (this is the home of coffee), coffee is found everywhere for next to nothing, often roasted in front of you and is simply amazing.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Travel in Ethiopia is not hassle free, there will be beggars everywhere (although hardly ultra-aggressive). It is also hard not to be left alone without being approached by someone (very friendly) wanting to practice their English or offer you some service. Most frustrating of all are the constant cries from children for 'one pen' - which is more like a game rather than a serious attempt to get a pen (please read the responsible tourism comments). It is all pretty harmless, even when you are the centre of attention, but the most frustrating thing about the kind of foreigner hysteria that you can encounter is it immediately puts a barrier between you and your efforts to connect with locals.
Women alone: On the beaten track (historic circuit) with common sense, fine.
'Thrilled to see Ethiopia as an 8.5 - totally blew me away. Your summary is very accurate - who knows where the country's tourism industry would have been today without all those pictures we saw back in the 80s. People still can't believe there's anything to see there - until they go. I just hope that the tourist industry becomes developed in a sustainable way - very hard to balance what we term as progress with maintaining such distinct cultures. - Jason K.
'I would like to add some additional info: Ethiopian beers are pretty good as is some Ethiopian music. Fasting is not just limited to Wednesdays and Fridays - eg, there is a 40 day fasting period leading up to Easter (Fasika). Avoid eating meat off the beaten trackduring fasting periods, - hotels and restuarants catering for tourists in major centers are generally OK, but outside ofthese treat meat dishes with caution (during the fasting periods). If you are going to drink water, rather stick to bottled water. Omo tribes, - if that's your bag well go for it but exercise caution when choosing your tour company and avoid the rainy season. National Parks: Some beautiful places(Semien- and Bale Mountains, Nech Sar. Paradise for birders.Access usually difficult and/or expensive (4x4). The downside is often more people and livestock than wildlife. But, the Semien landscape will blow you away, and the crocodiles in Lake Chamo (Nech Sar) are the biggest in Africa. Curios etc.: Be careful (VERY) about buying 'antique' religious icons/manuscript, - most are fake, and if per chance real, it's illegal to take them out of the country. In Aksum a number of touts will hassle you constantly to buy icons or Aksumite coins. Crime: generally you're OK. In parts of Addis minor stuff like pickpocketing does occur. If you take normal precautions you'll be OK. Dangerous/violent crime is absent. In 5 years I've never had any hassles outside of Addis. Bus travel: Interesting. Selam Bus is the best but you must book in advance. For bus journeys longer than 1 day, the buses stop at certain 'hotels' for the night. These are really "local" hotels, but foreigners using these buses are so few and far between that you usually get good service (in relative terms). TIP - these places mostly have communal ablutions, - try to be the first to use the toilet. There's no room service, but you'll be safe, and woken up in the morning. All buses leave at very early hours, but usually stop along the way for brunch. The biggest hassle (in Addis) is arranging for a taxi to pick you up and to drop you off in time to catch your bus at 5/6 in the morning. Ethiopia Airlines internal flights: - usually OK and on time. Hiccups do occur though. When planning your trip budget for airport time, Some spots require you to check in 2 hours before take off, and then sometimes the flight arrives late. Bole Airport (Addis Ababa): you can buy tourist visas here. If you're lucky it takes maybe 15-30 minutes but on 2 occasions it's taken me 1-1.5 hours due to the crowd!! TIP: The taxis outside are rip-offs. I suggest you book your first (and last) night at a hotel with a airport shuttle service. If you arrive in the daytime and you're up to it, ask for directions to Bole Road and walk, - about 500m outside the airport there is a large bus and taxi rank under the flyover - you cannot miss it, - look for the blue and white Lada taxis there, - they'll still rip you off but not as badly as the taxis at the airport. GENERALLY, - as this site says, Ethiopia is well worth a visit. It never was on my list of "places to see", - it never even occurred to me to go there. But, I got a job there and fell in lovewith the place. Forget all the 'Time magazine' images you may have in your mind. After the rains Ethiopia is painfully green! There are deserts, and the Danakil is worth the effortand expense to see, - it's probably the closest one can getto visiting "another planet". - Many thanks to Derek Clark for sharing his knowledge and experience.
Intro: The entry or exit point for most overland trips in Africa and a favourite package safari destination - in many ways Kenya is East Africa. Even though a look at the map may reveal that many of the more evocative place names associated with the region lie in neighbouring countries - there is no doubt that Kenya with its compact tourist circuit, cheaper than Tanzania safaris and fine facilities should not be over looked as they so often are (amidst concerns over crime). With 'back in time' trips to lake Turkana in the north, amazing beaches/islands on the east (inc. the wonderful Lamu islands) and fine national parks / lakes all over the country - it's worth spending some time. Ignore anybody who tells you Kenya is too touristy - you simply need a little courage and to make the effort. Off the beaten track (if you have time) Kenya is amazing and quite safe.
Highlights: Samburu NP in the north is highly rated since there is a good chance of see the 'big three' away from the plains and the road trip from the south takes in a diverse range of landscapes from lowlands, beautiful white highlands and stunning Mount Kenya. Some prefer the heavily touristed Kenyan extension to Tanzania's Serengeti, the Maasai Mara - which are an amazing example of iconic African plains and Africa's best value safari . Best advice if you have the money is to visit a few national parks. Lamu is so relaxed it's almost falling over, a great add on even if you are going to Zanzibar. A trip to lake Turkana in the far north (as seen in 'The Constant Gardener') is worth the money and Lake Nakuru with it's millions of flamingos really makes a typical east African site.
Lowlights: Touristy package beach resorts, high rate of crime, poverty, clashing cultures, need for private transport when making national park trips and danger of mugging in the capital and some beach areas.
Visa strategy: Many nationalities need a visa, available for about US$50 at the airport or border - make sure you have GBP, USD or Euro (which is now accepted widely) cash.
The Safari Circuit:
The most compelling reason to visit Kenya, is to take a safari (journey). However this is an expensive activity for the budget traveller (although cheaper than in Tanzania). Expect to pay at least US$100 per day for a safari if you hit a very good deal, however US$120+ is nearer the mark.
It goes without saying that pushing the limits of how cheap you can get a trip for, will often compromise it's quality. This sort of price will be camping, which is fine (in fact it's great) and require a full group. If you want fixed accommodation or a vehicle to a couple them you better triple and more the per day price.
The reason for this cost being so high is that like in all parts of East Africa you pay for 1) fuel for a very long trip, 2) a guide plus a cook and 3) most importantly up to US$60 per 24 hours (more in most popular parks) for park admission (plus fees for the vehicle and camping - you can check latest rates on the KWS website). Understand that you will be expected to tip at the end of your trip and therefore will need to budget for 5-10 bucks extra a day.
Competition is fierce and any guidebook will recommend some establish operators which with to haggle with. Perhaps the most sensible way to approach the situation is to make contact before you arrive, but if you can't don't worry. A trip is easily arranged in Nairobi and best deals can be secured when you team up with another group (normally trips work out cheapest when a couple has pre-booked from their home country at a premium and you turn up with flexibility and say 'I will go as well'). If you have some flexibility, there is no real reason to pre-book, since several companies offer daily departures and you would certainly be a fool to book via a company based in your home country that was listed top of the page when you did a Google search. As a final note, look at getting yourself in a Land Rover or Land Cruiser not a mini-bus and with a enough blankets for the cold Maasai Mara night's.
The most popular itineraries are out of Nairobi are for three to four day Maasai Mara only, and six to seven day trips to Maasai Mara and Samburu with an over night stop at Lake Nakuru and Mount Kenya. The latter is a highly recommended alternative to the Tanzania circuit with a great range of animals and landscapes.
Note that unless just after the rains, Samburu is typical dry dense bush as found in Southern Africa. The huge Tsavo NP (most easily accessed from the coast) is also dry and dense, so is Amboseli where iconic Kilimanjaro views cannot be anywhere near guaranteed. See Tanzania safari info in the respected section for more tips and advice.
Self drive safaris are not really an option in Kenya and are much more suited to Southern Africa, where a safari can be made much cheaper in rental cars and your own camping equipment, although don't expect to see sweeping plains, wilder beast migrations or huge numbers of predators as can be found in Kenya/Tanzania.
Climbing: With your own kit Mount Kenya can be climbed independently (just hire a local guide). Even with an organized trip, a climb works out much cheaper than Kilimanjaro (although still not 'cheap'), but beware unlike Kilimanjaro, this is quite a technical mountain with most casual climbers not getting right to the jagged top.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Normally quite hot as you would expect with the equator running right through the country. Beware both Nairobi and the Maasai Mara are at altitude and can get cold during night. Be sure to pack a good fleece and get a good sleeping bag from your tour company.
Costs: About US$20-30 per day, excluding the cost of any safari or tour you take.
Money: ATMs in big cities, travellers cheques can be difficult to cash (take original receipts), as you would expect green backed $$cash is easiest to use and carry, although least recommended due to crime risk associated with carrying cash.
Getting around: The roads are served by a chaotic array of Kenya's gift to the world - matatus (which have become a lot safer in the past few years with strict regulations bringing road traffic accident deaths down by 70% in 6 months!), they make short trips easy and having compulsory seat belts and maximum occupancy means adrenaline junkies will have to go somewhere else. Good buses run long and international routes. Trains are subject to tourist pricing and therefore the popular Nairobi to Mombassa route is over priced.
Dangers: It's difficult to overstate the risk of being mugged, pick pocketed or conned in Nairobi especially if your guard is not right up (i.e. you just arrived and did not take a taxi into town). The coast is also a major target, other than that you will get the normal sticky fingers around bus stations in other parts of the country, but with common sense and luck you are pretty safe.
What to buy: Typical curio
Locals: Generally very nice, although on the coast they can be a good deal of hassle.
Other travellers: Fine (not too many of them).
Tourist factor: 7/10
Accommodation: Good range to be found in most towns
Average cost: Under US$10 for a basic room US$20 for a much nicer one. International standard tourist resorts found on the coastal beaches and in game parks will be well out of a backpackers price range.
Hot water: In budget accommodation, hard to get on the coast. However, you might be surprised to have a hot shower in the middle of a game park, where even on cheap tours you are very well looked after.
Communications: Internet great in Nairobi and okay in most other developed parts, but can be slow.
Food: Excellent food on tours, good food in towns and great Indian food in larger cities.
Vegetarians: Generally Fine
Hassle and annoyance factor: 7.5/10
Women alone: Generally fine, keep a guard up.
Rating: 7/10 - fall foul to Nairobi and this rating tumbles, but don't get too worried, myself and most others survive it just fine and with that said probably halved the chance of having a theft problem in Africa until reaching the major South African cities.
Miss at your peril: Kenya or Tanzania Safari and Islands - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Intro: Malawi lacks the high international profile enjoyed by many of the regions other countries, but it holds a reputation of almost legendary status among travellers. A reputation, that for many whom visit and want to do more than simply relax by the lake and/or don't have the time or equipment to trek is hard to substantiate. Yet in many respects Malawi could be seen as a perfect backpacking destination - it's cheap, compact, hassle-free and in most parts very beautiful. Known as the 'warm heart of Africa' (unfortunately since the end of dictatorship, a title that appears to be slipping), Malawi is best known for it's beautiful lake, bays and beaches. It's also one of the poorest countries in Africa which adds up to some very cheap travelling, however also translates to some more expensive prices (such as imported goods) than the country's GNP would indicate. On the whole Malawi is cheap, but you can end up feeling that those items which are incredibly low in price (crafts aside) are of equally low quality. In addition when staying in one of the many lake resorts, good quality accommodation (often foreign owned) and food soon adds up. In short visiting Malawi with high expectations will no doubt lead to disappointment. Public transport can be hellish and incredibly slow plus some areas of the country are really very difficult to get to, normally requiring hiking without any support facilities. Nonetheless, if you just want to unwind from Africa, learn to dive, spend a few days on a boat or simply hang out in some great accommodation lakeside then it would be hard to be disappointed.
Highlights: The lake of course; snorkeling, learning to dive or simply chilling out in resorts like Nkhata Bay or Cape Maclear. Good and very cheap trekking in Mulanje, Nyika NP and Vwaza marsh reserve.
Lowlights: Transportation, poverty, the traveller resort nature of places like Nkhata and Candy Bay.
1) Government buses, should technically work on a timetable, but never seem to show on time. They are very, very slow, but more spacious than the other four wheeled choice. 2) The other four wheeled choice are mini-buses which are the most expensive, but most practical. They leave when full (and I mean full) and travel quite fast. These buses really do get VERY crowded and things can get a little difficult with a big bag. With a big bag and recommended for general comfort is purchasing two spaces (this laughably equals one 'normal' seat) or try to get the front seats.3) Since these buses leave so full they sometimes can't pick up passengers on the way, which makes hitchhiking the only option, but do expect to pay for your ride and only travel during daylight. 4) is the Ilala ferry which operates a sort of weekly erratic service up and down the lake. Favourite for getting to Cape Maclear and to islands. The ferry is again slow and gets a little boring after the second day. Comfort, security and serenity are also questionable on the first class deck. A first class cabin is okay, but hardly a bargain. Second class is only for the brave. 5) Lastly is walking, which is the only way to see some areas and get to some places, such as Livingstonia.
Not too long ago, Malawi was widely regarded to be the safest travel destination in the region. This unfortunately can no longer be still said. That's not to say it should be compared to Nairobi or Jo'burg, it is just that travellers need to be alert to casual and armed theft (like anywhere else in Africa).
Crime seems to be a greater problem than in cities at popular lakeside resorts, notably Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear. Stay alert no matter how relaxed you feel, make sure your pockets don't have valuables in whilst swimming and especially guard your possessions during a ride on the Ilala ferry.
The biggest question for most travellers in Malawi is should I swim in the lake? The obvious answer is yes, it's warm, crystal clear and everyone else seems to be doing it. However in the back of most travellers minds is the fact that the lake like many others in Africa contains Bilharzia which is a debilitating disease cause by tiny worms that digest their way through human and animal skin. Normally infected travellers suffer fewer problems than the some 200 million people worldwide with the illness, since symptoms (fever and wheezy cough) encourage them to seek prompt treatment and they are exposed to fewer parasites. It's commonly stated that 75% of those diving off Cape Maclear for only one week acquired the disease - whether the statement is true or not, it's a serious risk.
Visa strategy: A visa is required by all except holders of a Commonwealth, EU, USA and South African passport, and should be obtained in advance.
Typical tourist trail: From Tanzania to Nkhata Bay, boat or bus to Monkey Bay and then leaving the country either via Blantyre or Lilongwe
Costs: Malawi is a very cheap country and you could manage on US$15-25 per day. However, a day or two in Lilongwe and the many temptations at lakeside resorts make doubling this a more reasonable figure.
Money: Outside of Lilongwe and Blantyre there are no ATMs. Travellers cheques change in most major cities (although these are so small you would not even think they would have a bank). Banks seem to close at 1300. Green backs will always change, so will Rands. There's a change place in Nkhata Bay, but maybe not at Monkey Bay.
What to buy: Crafts and curio are cheaper and possibly better quality here than anywhere else in Africa.
Guide book: Lonely Planet always popular. Bradt another option.
Locals: Generally very warm, friendly and often so poor your heart strings are tugged.
Other travellers: Standard EU, Oz and US travellers. Many peace corp. or volunteer workers and overland truckers in places such as Candy Bay.
Tourist factor: Within resorts you will find the highest concentration of travellers, outside Egypt, South Africa, Zanzibar and Vic Falls in Africa, but in no way too many. Very easy to get away from it all.
Accommodation: Outside of resorts rooms are extremely cheap, but very basic. Rooms in nice resort hostels are almost on par with South Africa, so seem expensive by Malawian standards, but dorms and cheaper options are always available.
Communications: Only really in Lilongwe and Blantyre.
Food: Very limited choice in many places apart from lake resorts where you can have pretty much what every you want.
Vegetarians: Normally always able to find an option
What not to try: Right up there as one of the biggest surprises whilst travelling was fried mice being sold through the window of a bus. Still it's meat and who are we to comment without trying!
Hassle and annoyance factor: 6/10
Women alone: Not really a problem, but it's worth being on your guard
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Shake Shake, a kind of maze beer bought in cartons has to be tried, preferably before you (if into it) have a smoke. Malawian gold is probably some of the best pot in the world and notably strong. You'll be offered it at any of the resorts around lake Malawi at very low prices. It's normally safe to buy with commonsense (even in one of the world's poorest countries it's still illegal) and goes a long way to explain why many travellers rate Malawi so highly and spend so long in such a small country.
Just some of the evocative names say it all: Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Lake Victoria and of course the Ngorongoro Crater - but these are not the all and even if they draw the visitors they (since these attractions are very popular with fly in visitors and very expensive) are not reason most rate the country so highly.
Tanzania really does embody the African tourist dream and being such a large country, it's the ability and ease to get off the beaten track and meet some beautiful people in some beautiful places that is as much, if not more of a highlight than any of the instantly recognisable names mentioned above.
Come on a two week trip or flash through and you will see (with a lot of money at your disposal) some of the prime attractions Africa has to offer and go home content. Come on a three/four week trip, still visit some big attractions, but also put up with some basic accommodation/transport to get miles from it all (virtually anywhere south of the Dar - Mwanza railway line is miles from any beaten tourist track) and you will like most come to believe that far from being overrated, this is the most underrated country in the region.
Organising a Northern Safari:
There must be over a hundred safari companies operating out of Arusha and as you would imagine competition is cut-throat. Of course you get several bad apples among lots of good operators. You would imagine it's budget travellers who get caught out the most by these 'bad apple' out-fits as it is they who try to drive prices down the most. At time of writing the cheapest rate per day was around US$150-180 and you can safely assume that if you get offered much lower than this, something's amiss.
At the budget end accommodation is in tents (which is fine, although many campsites are inferior to other popular parks in Africa). Understand that a good part of several days will be spent on (poor) roads. For this reason, longer safaris seem better value as durations are normally for three to six days. Five, six or (better) seven days would take in Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Manyara and Tarangire while a typical three days takes in all these reserves apart from the Serengeti. A five day safari, would drop either Serengeti or Tarangire. To visit all four reserves you really need six if not seven days or use a short flight. See a sample itinerary, or know (recommended) company: www.basecamptanzania.com
This is safari central and you can expect lots of other tourist/jeeps at almost every point of your safari. The key to great safari is ultimately your guide/driver and luck. Both are quite random. The very cheapest deals can means the highest risk, but not always. Best advice is to give yourself a few days in Arusha, use your commonsense and have a few conversations around town. You can ask the tourist office about blacklisted outfits, but operators can always operate under another name. It is also worth noting that many touts are skilled manipulators, and often pressure you into a decision by making you feel you have a one-off deal. Arriving by bus you'll get met by many touts and although they are great to find you a room, it is well worth saying you have already been on safari. If there are only two of you try and team up with another pair or your tour will cost about 50% extra and if put into a group by an agency, then it will be the choice of the operator not yours.
The 'walk-in' safari industry in Arusha has much reduced in recent years and is smaller in volume than Kenya where budget travellers normally head. All guidebooks (the one pictured left being the best) have recommendations, but be warned many companies in Tanzania are NOT geared for budget safaris; don't offer camping or want to mix groups. If you are on a budget and can resist the exotic names, we think you are better off in Kenya (during low season) where camping is better and prices cheaper. Final note, as with anything, it always pays to ask for a discount, especially when things look slow. See Kenya safari info for more tips and advice.
Note that high costs reflect park entry fees which the government keeps on increasing, you can check latest prices here.
Kilimanjaro and others: Kilimanjaro is one of the most famous symbols of Africa and the highest mountain on the planet able to be climbed with no mountaineering skills (basically an up-hill slog taking about 4-6 days with no 'technical' climbing). The challenge and iconic status Kilimanjaro presents is lost on only a few and even fewer resist it's lure and end up going for the climb. Of which certainly a proportion regret - since Kilimanjaro is in reality not just a walk and although there is nothing technical about the ascent, it is a very expensive, very hard and arduous climb even for those who are fit and experienced. On completion many less travellers regret the overall experience (but few would say they would repeat it), however the reality is not everyone even makes it to the top.
The most daunting factor for many is not the energy needed for the climb, but the cost of the whole thing, starting at about US$1000 and normally ending up at a lot more (up to US$2000 inc. trips) - note this price includes new park fees and rates porters/cooks/guides must earn, so if you see cheaper elsewhere on the net they likely don't. The reality of the matter is that government parks fees increased dramatically in the last few years. These fees are priced per day and night in the park so depending on how long you take varies the price, but at something like US$60 per day plus camping and plus rescue insurance fees, most end up paying hundreds of US$ in fees alone. This is terrible value and really doesn't offer good value considering all the amazing thing to do on the continent. You could find guys who will take you for about a hundred bucks less than most quoted price, but Kilimanjaro is not to be taken likely and the risks of doing so are considerable. If you just can't afford it, don't lose too much sleep or head north and climb the far prettier mount Kenya or Meru close by. The mountain is both cold and the sun harsh. In addition at certain times of the year it can be wet. Most of the equipment you need will be supplied or can be hired in Moshi, although it is advisable to bring a few of the essential items yourself to ensure good quality.
Far less popular is Mount Meru (the fifth highest mountain in Africa) and rated by many to be a much better option than Kilimanjaro. It's a shorter (2-3 days), much cheaper, less tramped and certainly prettier climb (Kilimanjaro is quite ugly in places). Highly recommended over Killi.
There are several ferries that ply between Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar, these seem to take turns each going once a day (so normally three trips daily - no real need to book). All these ferries charge around US$35 - 40 for tourists and much less to locals. This is blatant tourist pricing, but there is nothing you can do about it. Ferries are okay (despite one sinking in 2011), but can be rough and night trips are best avoided, but a little cheaper. However, another option is to fly, with travel agencies (the great Safari hotel in Dar-es-Salaam will put you in touch with Kangaroo Travel behind a popular restaurant (Chefs Pride) which offers flights (15 mins) including transportation at both ends for not too much more than a ferry ticket.
There are numerous travel agencies around Dar-es-Salaam which can also arrange travel. On Zanzibar, the Precision Air offices are downtown in Stone Town. The night ferry from Zanzibar to Dar-es-Salaam (there isn't normally one the other way), is quite comfortable in first class (the only class as a tourist you're allowed). Get there early to get a whole couch to lie on. This ferry is cheapish, and saves you from needing a hotel. Just try not to use the bathrooms!
Visa strategy: It seems visas are not required by most Commonwealth and Scandinavian countries, but many EU countries, British and Americans will have to buy a visa in advance or most popular entry points - cost around 50USD. You normally get 30 days, but this is easily renewed. Although seemingly constantly in flux, at present, visa are for 3 months max, and renewing can be tricky [some say impossible without bribes]. If you are not entering the country at Dar-es-Salaam International Airport, Kilimanjaro International Airport, Zanzibar International Airport or the Namanga boarder crossing between Tanzania and Kenya - then check careful you can get a visa or better still pick it up in advance within the region or at home. Note that even though Yellow Fever is not a danger in Tanzania and practically speaking 99.99% of the time you don't need this coverage for Tanzania, it is frequently checked on many entry points and worth having your immunizion certificate with you.
Money: ATMs pretty widespread in towns (including Stone town on Zanzibar). Barclays bank now has several branches in Tanzania: Arusha, Dar es salaam, and their newest one which just opened on Zanzibar. All of these have ATMs which accept most international cards. Never a problem to change USD travellers cheques or cash.
Dangers: Muggings are really only a danger after dark in Dar-es-Salaam and Bagamoyo (try not to arrive after dark), but petty crime and scams seem to follow tourist to high concentration areas e.g. Zanzibar. Many travellers seem to let their guard down perhaps feeling safe with so many tourists around in popular areas. Overall crime in Tanzania is not a major problem and it is normally only those who feel it is no problem at all, that fall foul to it.
Costs: Budget on about US$30 to $35 a day on the beaten track. A visit to Zanzibar will raise this cost slightly and activities will completely wipe it out. See above for what to expect to pay out for a Northern circuit safari and/or Kilimanjaro climb, to name a few popular options.
Guide book: Bradt or Footprint. Bradt's Africa backpacker manual up to it's normally high standard
Locals: Normally quite friendly especially in more rural areas. Those in Zanzibar were particularly nice, open and a pleasure to talk to
Other travellers: Wide range of tourists, many fly-in rather than long-term or 'travellers'.
Tourist factor: From 8/10 to 2/10
Accommodation: Accommodation is never normally a problem almost anywhere and don't be afraid to look past your guidebook listings
Average cost: For a basic double room, pay about US$10-15 and twice this on Zanzibar
Communications: Internet cafes are scattered all over Tanzania and certainly Arusha. Internet can be slow, but is often pretty good.
Books: Second hand books for sale in Zanzibar Town and there is an excellent book shop with guidebooks in Dar es Salaam next to Steers (South African hamburger chain) restaurant
Food: Food on tours is usually great, as is that on the coast. The food market in Zanzibar Town every night is perhaps one of the best eating experiences in the world if you like seafood. Food becomes more basic off the beaten track.
Vegetarians: Fine, great seafood on Zanzibar
Hassle and annoyance factor: Safari touts are a factor in Arusha and Moshi and recommended to be avoided. Walking around major towns especially Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar town, you seem to get approached by a large number of people simply wanting to chat or help you out. These are best avoided as can sometimes lead to a nasty situation or scam.
Women alone: Tanzania does have a large Muslim population, so consideration is needed, but on the whole a woman travelling alone should be fine
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Aside from cheap plentiful beer, grass - just like in most of Africa - can normally always be found, especially on Zanzibar Island.
Miss at your peril: Kenya or Tanzania Safari and Islands - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Intro: 'Hey Muzungu where you go?!' You'll hear comments like that all over Africa (Muzungu, if you don't know is an expression for a white individual in Africa), but none so often as in the compact, friendly and tropical country of Uganda. Dubbed by Churchill and all tourist literature since as the 'pearl of Africa', Uganda is very much Africa (East), yet feels slightly different than neighbouring nations. For one it appears tropical and fertile in a subcontinent plagued by drought, as the savannah meets the western rainforests. Everywhere something grows and for the most part you might imagine Tarzan to come swinging out of the trees!
Uganda's great benefit as a destination is its compact travel circuit and lush landscapes. Those that expect big game viewing on par with Kenya, Tanzania or even Zambia will be very much disappointed. However the draw card in Uganda are monkeys and apes, which can be viewed with little effort (although with varying price tags ranging up to spectacular for the mountain gorillas that Uganda is famous for).
A current favourite with volunteers and NGO projects. Uganda - although yet to completely recover from the international image formed by the well known reigns of terror of Idi Amin and Milton Obote - is in fact one of the safer countries in the region and although this is still Africa and you need to always expect problems, it is easy to be disarmed by the real treat of the friendliness of ordinary Ugandans most of whom are happy to talk to you. Furthermore widespread English means fascinating windows into African life can be gained from local newspapers or striking up conversations with total strangers on buses, most of whom although a little hard to understand are happy to talk to you.
Unfortunately where the country has so much going for it as a destination, its faults for many travellers lie in costs. Being one of Africa's fastest growing economy's has certainly pushed up prices and equally the price of fuel (which is imported on terrible roads through Kenya and despite large oil discoveries in the country) remains more expensive than in most of the western world). However the main cause of significant [travel] expense is the proliferation - as in neighbouring countries - of foreigner pricing. Quite simply almost every notable attraction (the point of the source of the Nile for example) has an official price attached to it that is different for a foreigner than a local. Of which the foreigner price is often above a comparative level to that of the developed world and at a level where anyone on a reasonable budget would struggle to accommodate. Gorilla trekking permits aside (which are the most costly and debatably understandably so), national park fees are actually slightly less than Kenya or Tanzania, (however in fairness Uganda's national parks do not hold a candle to those of Kenya's and Tanzania's and should thus be cheaper). However national park entry and access is still expensive and lastly almost everything that is worth seeing has a 10 to 20 fold price increase for foreigners over Ugandans - not all justifiably so. This 'problem/issue' is not new or uncommon to the region and not without merits in cases, nevertheless its extension in Uganda to almost all attractions and the widespread belief that all whites are so rich the extra cost is a drop in the ocean, means those on really tight budgets should be warned.
Lowlights: The associated price tags of some of the above. Transportation (although not notably bad for the region, is still hard work), overland buses and compound (predominately white faces and very unAfrican) nature of many of the popular accommodation spots.
White water rafting, although priced at international levels is one of the most popular activities in Uganda. The Victoria Nile just outside Jinga offers some of the best and most accessible rafting in the world, on par with the Zambezi River by Vic Falls and the Rio Futaleufú in Chile (although not to directly compare with either, as the experience and scenery is quite different). There are several grade 5 rapids, but with little danger of hitting a rock or being underwater too long, due to many long flat stretches of water between rapids.
It is not easy to describe white water rafting on the Nile because since companies (Adrift was the first, NRE came latter) started operating back in 1996 the 'experience' has changed as the water level has changed due to the construction of dams. The effect of these dams has been to raise the water level and cause some of the better rapids (the amazing 'silver back' for example will probably be history by the time you read this) to disappear. However, even with the new big dam you can still raft, only the route has been pushed further down the Nile from Jinga.
Several companies run the route, all with daily departures and no need to book ahead, even in July and August with close to 400 people rafting each day you can find a spot. There are several international companies that offer the standard day trip for around US$125 and often an African run competitor with a much lower price. The standard of operation and safety from the international companies is excellent, but that of the African (local) outfit(s) is questionable. There is a good discount offered on repeat trips within a few months of an initial trip and often a bed for the night and a meal/beer after the trip is included in the price. Some companies pickup and drop off in Kampala making it an easy day trip from the capital.
No one should be overly worried about enjoying rafting as safety records are excellent and you can pass or take an easy route on any of the big rapids. However you must be prepared not to panic in the event you leave the raft on a big rapid since you will likely go under, and stay under for a little while. It is worth noting that probably contact lenses won't stay in and sun block definitely won't stay on - so cover up. You'll raft barefoot and need no special equipment.
The rapids all have various names such as 'overtime', 'the dead Dutchman' and 'Kula Shaka' and guides are only too happy to build the suspense and anxiety before each rapid, while those rafting from overland trucks will whoop and compare grades 3, 4 or 5 rapids in a cringe worthy fashion. Either way and despite the cost, if you can afford it, rafting on the White Nile (also known as the Victoria Nile) remains one of the most enjoyable activities in Africa and the sooner you do it the better as one day soon the new Nile dam will change it forever.
Few would pass up the chance to see a mountain Gorilla (for low land head to Nigeria) in its natural habitat, but most do pass up the opportunity due to the practicality and costs involved in doing so.
Gorillas can be tracked in four different parks in three different countries; in all you need a permit - of which only a limited amount are available each day - and to part with a significant chunk of change.
For your US$750 you get effectively 1 hour. That is one hour with a group of gorillas at close proximity and anything from a 20min to 5 hour hike to find the group. And of course nothing is guaranteed. Due to the cost and hassle of getting the permit, few independent travellers get to see the gorillas and most that do are on organised tours, or with overland buses that take the hassle out of getting there and the permits. Under the circumstances a cheaper option for a flavour of the experience would be chimpanzee viewing or trek in the Virunga mountains at around a tenth of the price.
Visa strategy: A visa is available on entry for around US$50. Most border points (inc. the airport) take Euro, USD or GBP. A visa is a lose term, as all you normally get is a small entry stamp in your passport. If you are a resident of a strange or developing country it is worth checking that you can get a visa on entry; nationals of USA, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ and the EU need not worry. Technically you should have your yellow fever vaccination certificate, but experiences (first and third hand) suggest this is never requested/checked (certainly not at the airport).
Getting around: Getting around is relatively easy, but fraught with all the typical slowness and discomfort of African travel.
Road: Although fuel costs are notably very expensive, local transport is still good value, but understandably very crowded. Buses cover all main routes. Many routes have buses with fixed-ish departures and every main route is served by an endless stream of white mini-buses that race along, stopping seemingly every 800 meters and are ramped full of passengers, chickens and luggage. However such transport can not get you into or around most national parks or many other wildlife points of interest, where you will need to get on a tour or hire something privately. The price for which can be far from reasonable especially if you are unable to share costs. Motorbike and bicycle taxis are common and useful for shorter distances.
Water: Boats connect Port Bell, Kansenyi and Masaka to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.
Typical tourist trail: From Kenya to Jinga and Kampala. From Kampala most visitors will head north to take in the Murchison Falls NP and to Jinga to raft the Nile and see the source. Many tours and some independent travellers also take in Queen Elizabeth NP. Those with more time might head for one of the Ssese Islands or head to Lake Bunyonyi (both of which have traveller focused accommodation options). Those lucky enough to be able to trek gorillas will of course head to the Bwindi National Park or Rwanda.
Costs: A very clear division must be made between someone just visiting Uganda and someone visiting and being an active tourist, that is participating in popular tourist activities. On one side simply visiting major towns and cities, costs are slightly above that of Kenya or Tanzania, but only slightly, with US$15-25/per day being quite reasonable. However those hitting the attractions and seeing Murchison Falls (US$100+/day), rafting the Nile US$120+/per day, etc. and generally being at the mercy of duel foreigner pricing and high transport costs to national parks would need a budget many times greater than US$15-25/day depending on what they did and how long they spent.
Money: There are plenty of ATMs in Uganda's main cities. Not all work on international networks, but many do and getting money this way is the easiest method. There are ATMs at the airport, but they can't be counted on. No ATMs issue USD which are the pricing currency of national park entry fees and most tours and activities; converting these USD prices to UGX (Ugandan Shillings) will of course be at a less favourable rate - so having a good chunk of USD cash is useful. In Kampala there are many excellent exchange places that will change almost all world major currencies from CHF to AUD at reasonable rates, but outside Kampala and in non-business hours you might struggle to find a change place or ATM. As is normal nowadays, rates for travellers cheques are poor.
Guide book: Lonely Planet is the most popular choice, despite Uganda being only a poorly covered section in the LP East Africa, until LP can be bothered to produce a dedicated edition it is best avoided unless you require the coverage on Kenya, Tanzania, et al. On the other hand Bradt provide the best option (but in no means perfects) with a dedicated Uganda only guide.
Locals: How you will find Ugandans will very much depend on how far you get of the tourist trail and how much effort you make. Striking up conversations on buses is easy and generally Ugandans are welcoming. You might get a little hassle off kids and street sellers who see a Muzungu as an attraction or millionaire, but it is all fairly harmless.
Other travellers: Actual independent travellers are pretty rare in Uganda, with the vast, vast majority of those you might come across having some other reason why they are in the country, which will be 9/10 times a volunteering or similar project. Being a compact circuit you do come across a few overland trucks and tours. Most travellers are aged between 20-30 and are from Canada/USA and Western Europe with an increasing amount of Israelis.
Tourist factor: Uganda is far from 'off the beaten track in places' (7/10) although as with anywhere in Africa it is VERY easy to escape the crowds.
Accommodation: In all major backpacker stops such as Jinga, Kampala, Murchison Falls, the Ssese Islands or Lake Bunyonyi exists one or many backpacker places (or compound would be a better description), these are not particularly good value or worthwhile, however they do offer a good information point where you can arrange tours, get questions answered, stay safely in a dorm and meet other travellers (Red Chili's would be a good example and the better option in Kampala). Sometimes an overland truck can be in town and you would rather wish you were anywhere else and equally after a while you might question why you came to Uganda to sit around drinking beer behind a high compound wall surrounded by white faces. Conversely outside of tourist areas there are some great places to stay and some terrible ones. Uganda is full of foreign owned accommodation which is always a great standard, but rarely a bargain. Almost all rooms have mosquito nets, but good to have your own treated one. Power cuts are frequent and an average cost for a double would be US$10-20. For the most part forget hot water.
Media: There is a wide selection of local English language newspapers and in Kampala international newspapers and international news magazines. Many of the backpacker pads have DSTV.
Communications: For what it is worth internet is fairly widespread and it is not too difficult to locate an internet connection. However connection speeds are slow and even in major cities you will be hard pressed to find anything near the sort of connection speed you need to comfortably use the internet.
Food and drink: This is the land of matoke which is an incredibly bland banana dish (made from cooked and mashed plantains) which is usually eaten with bland meat or a groundnut sauce. Chicken, goat and sometimes fish are common and so are rice and potatoes (always called Irish potatoes). Any large town has a westernised restaurant and backpacker joints normally serve very familiar food. Local beers are cheap and surprisingly strong with the 'Nile' brand leading the pack followed by the milder 'Club'.
Vegetarians: Normally always able to find an option, although many menus are dependent on chicken, goat or fish. The more rural you go the more you can/will struggle and end up sticking to 'side dishes'.
Hassle and annoyance factor: 4/10
Women alone: Not really a problem, but it's worth being on your guard
Although sometime out dated, all of Philip Briggs guide's come recommended.
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours).
Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
"The only reason some people get lost in thought is because it's unfamiliar territory."