We have recently returned from a three week holiday in Ethiopia – the northern circuit plus Bale mountains and rift valley lakes.
Earlier in the year I devised an itinerary using the extremely valuable Bradt guide as my main source of information and sent it off to several UK and Ethiopian-based travel companies. While waiting for the responses, I came across a recommendation on this site about a tour company called Ethio Renaissance and having nothing to lose forwarded them my itinerary as well. In the end, based on several criteria, we decided to use Ethio Renaissance (http://www.ethiorenaissance.com/). This was the first time we have ever booked a holiday direct with a local tour operator (and we are quite well travelled) and as such was a bit of a leap of faith on our part. However, we have no regrets – the service compared very favourably, and for the most part exceeded that of any UK company we have used in the past 25 years. We would have no hesitation in recommending them to anyone else. So many thanks to Lizzie Vardon for her comments on this site.
Some other general comments that travellers to Ethiopia may find useful:
1) Roads – there is a lot of road building by the Chinese going on everywhere, at least in the highlands, and this is scheduled to continue for the next few years. The road between Debark and Shire (on the way to Axum) was particularly bad and at one point we just got through before the road was closed for three hours. In another area the road was closed for a while because of a landslip – the new road was being built above the old road and the hillside collapsed on top of it (and the hillside was still ‘moving’ as we eventually drove past). Dust at some points reduced visibility to zero! Even so we would still recommend road travel over air given the fantastic scenery and opportunity to visit local villages etc.
2) Lalibela: Tukul Village Hotel – an earlier posting on this website said that the hotel rooms had fleas and indeed in the hotel room there was a handwritten note from a previous incumbent that the bed contained fleas. However, we had no problem whatsoever and the room was cleaned daily to a very high standard. Our guide told us the flea problem was more likely to occur in the rainy season and indeed it could have been the tourists that picked up the fleas from the churches and brought them back to the hotel. One way around this is to either spray your socks with deet before entering the churches (shoes off of course) or to wear plastic carry bags held up by rubber bands when visiting the churches.
Our return trip up to Asheton Maryam by mule/walking took four hours in total but that included about one hour exploring the church and taking in the scenery – just to clarify previous comments on this site. However, we are reasonably fit and if you suffer from the altitude/ or are infirm, it would take longer.
3) Axum: Yeha Hotel – abysmal plumbing in the bathroom but we made do. The shower could barely manage to produce a trickle of water but buckets were provided – we found it easier to wash using these!
4) Hawzien: Gheralta Lodge – this is a great place to stay. We had booked two nights here but got bumped in favour of a tour group for the second night, which was a bit annoying. It can be a good idea to have a back up plan/ second choice as I guess this could happen at any location.
5) Bale mountains: Wabishebelle Hotel – we arrived at about 6pm and the hotel was in darkness due to a power cut and electricity was not due to be restored until 10pm. This meant there was no hot water etc and only a candle to see by in the room. However, hot food was available in the restaurant (and cold beers!) which had emergency lighting. We understand that this may be a regular occurrence at the moment (the next night was OK though). We were extremely lucky to see a leopard on the return journey to the rift valley lakes. We would strongly recommend that all travellers carry with them an LED torch for these occasions and for exploring some of the churches.