Comments on the northern historical circuit

We spent 3 weeks in Ethiopia, with a few days in Addis and 17 days travelling around the northern circuit in a 4 by 4 with local driver. We paid $135 per day (all inclusive) for a 12 year old, fairly hammered, but reliable vehicle, with a driver that spoke a little English. Badly fitting doors and windows meant that dust was a problem and face masks were needed on the gravel roads.

After the guidebook warnings about petty crime in Addis, we were initially careful, but then pleasantly surprised about how relaxed and safe it felt, even in the busy areas around the Piazza and the Mercato. We only heard about one case of pickpocketing and that was in the crush of people attending the Timkat ceremony in Gonder. Generally, the Ethiopians are so friendly and helpful that its a pleasure to wander about and relax in the many cafes. Up-country, we expected hassles from children asking for money etc., but whilst this does occur, it is not the big problem that the guidebook implies and can easily be deflected with a few firm words or jokes. Generally the children just seem to like to stand around you and stare.

There have been a few new hotels built in the tourist centres but the fairly poor standard of construction and the lack of active management and maintenance means that they are already deteriorating. There is also the problem of high charges but low standards for western food.
There was no piped water in the hotels in the upper part of Gonder during the Timkat period and we were told that it was because of the filling of the pool for the ceremony. However, the provision of a large tank in the yard of our hotel and the state of the toilets led me to believe that water shortages there are a regular occurrence.

Costs have risen in hotels but the big rises are in entrance fees to tourist sites, with the Lalibela churches now costing 200 Birr and the individual churches in Tigrai 50 Birr.

The Chinese are building new roads leading north from Addis towards Dessie and from Woldia to Gashena. Quite long sections are completed but the section from Addis to Debre Sina is at an early stage of construction and the long, rough diversions make for a slow and uncomfortable journey. The roads through Dessie and Kombolcha were in a terrible state, as they were being dug up for drains and road construction.

Following are some comments on the hotels we stayed in:

Ghion Hotel, Addis. Good value rooms and facilities ($55). The extensive gardens (more like a park) are good for quiet relaxation and the Olympic size pool is great. Food is quite good, except for the buffet breakfast that is expensive and very poor. However, good fresh juices, croissants and coffee can be had in the cafes near the entrance.

Shebel Hotel, Debre Markos. Basic, but adequate rooms and a friendly place. (105 Birr)

Papyrus Hotel, Bahir Dar. Good quality, clean, but expensive rooms and decent restaurant ($50). No ambiance and pool did not look clean or inviting. The Ghion Hotel, has nice shady gardens, overlooking the lake, but the place looks basic and run-down. Good place to relax with a drink.

Queen Taitu, Gonder. Newish, but basic construction, in need of maintenance and not too clean. On the hill above the town and there was no piped water at Timkat. ( $50 at Timkat, but negotiated to $40 in view of water situation) This was a hotel with an absent manager! Food was very limited and the Quara Hotel in the main square is a much better option.

Imet Gogo Hotel, Debark. New hotel with good, small rooms. ( 150 Birr) Nice bar and dining room with good food and friendly staff.

Simien Lodge Dormitory. Very expensive bunk in shared 4 bed room. ($31 each). Shared toilets and showers not very clean and, though advertised, there was no hot water, and its very cold up there! The solar panel for the hot water was missing! The food was expensive, the breakfast very poor and the service terrible. It seems to be a case of poor and absent management. Our request for a reduction on the cost of accommodation because of the lack of hot water was turned down because the manager was not there!

Exodus Hotel, Axum. New hotel with good quality rooms and comfortable bar and dining room. (175 Birr). Variable service and breakfast menu expensive and irrational. (Full breakfast 25 Birr, including drinks, continental 20 Birr excluding drinks) Again, no management around to sort out things.

Tourist Hotel, Hawzein New motel type place, with good small rooms and friendly owner. No restaurant at present, but one is planned. (100 Birr) Only basic food in the small restaurants in town. The Gheralta Lodge, run by an Italian, is a very attractive place and has lots of information about the nearby churches, but it is small and advance booking is probably necessary.

Hilltop Hotel, Mekele. Bungalow type rooms in surrounding gardens are large and comfortable but a little run-down. (190 Birr) The bar and dining room are pleasant with good views over the area and decent food.

Lal Hotel, Lalibela. The old ,bungalow type rooms in the garden are pleasant. ($36). The new Tukals are attractive inside but set at present in a building site! ($42). The bar and Restaurant are in attractive Tukals but the food was terrible and expensive. We took breakfast in the Tukal village, across the road, and ate in the Seven Olives for lunch and Lasta Hotel for dinner.

Qualiber Hotel, Dessie. Good clean rooms, but the most unfriendly staff we came across in Ethiopia! (150 Birr) Poor service and food.

The hotels we stayed in were not always the most expensive in a town but were generally of the upper quality. We had no problems with bed bugs or fleas and we had little need to use the spray we brought as a precaution.

David Miller, Feb 2009


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