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Day by Day

18-Day History & Danakil

Adventure & Culture

Comfort
Highlights

Combine culture, nature and adventure on this incredible 18-day trip that takes you from the Ethiopian highlands to the hottest, driest and lowest places on earth: the Danakil Depression.

  • Sleep at the rim of the active Erta Ale volcano!
  • Hiking in Simien Mountains N.P
  • Visiting rock-hewn churches high up in the Gheralta Mountains
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Complete Itinerary: 18-Day Historic Route & Danakil Depression

 

Day 1: Welcome to Ethiopia!

Upon arrival at Addis Ababa Airport, a representative from Matoke Tours will be waiting to pick you up at the airport and transfer you to your guesthouse in Addis Ababa.

Depending of your arrival time, you may have time to explore the capital and visit sites like the National Museum (home of the world-famous human ancestor fossil Lucy), the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Ethnological Museum, which will give you an insight into the history and culture of Ethiopia.

In the evening you will have the opportunity to sample the famous Ethiopian cuisine and see a cultural show at a restaurant in town before returning to your guest house for the night. (Activities and meals in Addis Ababa today are at your own expense).

Journey time 15 min transfer
Accommodation Arequ Guesthouse
Meal plan No meals included today

Day 2: Hike Blue Nile falls / Explore Lake Tana

In the morning you will be picked up at your guesthouse and driven to Bole International Airport to catch your domestic flight to Bahir Dar.

Departure time: 8.10 AM
Arrival time Bahir Dar: 9.10 AM
 

Once in Bahir Dar you will carry on to the shores of Lake Tana. Lake Tana forms the main reservoir for the Blue Nile river and is the largest lake in Ethiopia. Its most notable features however are the historic monasteries and churches located on the shores of some of the lake’s 37 islands. A boat will take you around to some of these spectacular cultural landmarks.

Surrounded by a forest of coffee trees, Ura Kidane Mehret with its magnificent frescos is regarded as the most beautiful of the churches. It is located on Zegge Peninsula, a one-hour boat ride from Bahir Dar.

 

After lunch at a local restaurant in Bahir Dar, we carry on by car to the village Tiss Issat, and from there we continue on foot on a 2-hour walk to the Blue Nile Falls.

The trail is incredibly scenic, passing through pastoral scenes, giving you a first glimpse of rural life in Ethiopia. At the start of your walk, you will cross a beautiful old stone bridge that was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. From here the path ascends steeply, passing through a small settlement before reaching a viewpoint for the falls. Due to a dam put in place to provide electricity for the surrounding communities only about 10% of the former water volume now reaches the falls. To see the falls at their most dramatic it is best to do this walk in the rainy season (July-September).

On your descent to the foot of the falls you will cross a small canyon by way of a modern Swiss-constructed bridge. As you approach the waterfall, be prepared to get a bit wet! The trail continues up to the Blue Nile river, where you will cross by boat and be picked up on the other side and driven back to Bahir Dar.

 

 

Your accommodation for the night is Abay Minch Lodge. The lodge is nestled in a lush tropical garden, providing a cool and tranquil setting in which to relax and unwind after a busy day.

Journey time 1-hour flight, 20 min Bahir Dar, 1-hour to Tiss Issat
Accommodation     Abay Minch Lodge
Meal plan Breakfast
 
 

Day 3: Explore Gondar

In the early morning you will leave Bahir Dar and depart for the royal city of Gondar. The three-hour drive takes you through wonderful natural sites and rural villages, giving you a glimpse of the Amharic culture.

After checking in to your lodge in Gondar and having lunch at a local restaurant, you will begin a fascinating exploration of the royal and ancient city of Gondar.

 

First you will pay a visit to the fortress city Fasil Ghebbi, also known as the Royal Enclosure. This 70,000-sq meter UNESCO World Heritage site was once the seat of emperor Fasiledes and his successors in the 16th and 17th century. The numerous castles and palaces that remain within the walls of the enclose are a testament to the royal capital’s former splendor.

 

The cultural tour continues with a visit to Fasiledes’ Bath. Emperor Fasiledes built this rectangular pool to convince the people that he was a true believer of the Orthodox faith. Although the complex was used for bathing it was also used for religious celebrations, some of which carry on to this day. Once a year, during the Timkat festival, the pool is filled with blessed water and devotees are invited to swim and frolic in the pool in a ceremonial replication of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

 

Before heading back to the lodge in the late afternoon, you will visit the Debre Berhan Selassie church with its beautifully painted ceilings.

In the evening you will enjoy a nice dinner and some welcome rest at tonight's accommodation, Mayleko Lodge. The lodge is situated 30-minutes outside of Gondar, surrounded by beautiful nature and the Dilha Mountains in the background. The lodge features a swimming pool and an in-house restaurant offering excellent meals.

Journey time 3-hour drive
Accommodation Mayleko Lodge
Meal plan Breakfast

Day 4: Simien Mountains N.P.

After breakfast you will leave the city and head north to the spectacular Simien Mountains National Park

Simien Mountains N.P. is famous for its wild landscapes of deep gorges and soaring rock spires, interspersed with traditionally cultivated plateaus. It is also home to the fifth-highest mountain range in Africa, with the highest point being the summit of Ras Dashen at 4,543 meters.

 

These high-altitude landscapes are home to exotic wildlife unique to the area, such as the iconic Walia ibex, the Gelada baboon, several birds of prey and the extremely rare Ethiopian wolf, which has an estimated population of 50 in the Simien Mountains (out of 400 in the entire country). The rareness of the species residing in the Simien Mountains led to the formation of the National Park and its listing as a World Heritage site as early as 1978.

On your journey you will pass through Debark, which is the nearest town to the Simien Mountains National Park and home to the park headquarters. You can stretch your legs and enjoy a cup of coffee in this small town while your driver makes arrangements for your park permits and the mandatory guide and scout.

 

Your final destination for the day is 30kilometers up the road at Simien Mountain Lodge. Perched on the edge of an escarpment with stunning views of the Simien Mountains, the lodge is known to be the highest lodge in Africa at an altitude of 3,260 meters! 

You can choose to spend the rest of the day relaxing in the comfort of the lodge, take a nature walk around the lodge and along the escarpment or go on a longer hike in Simien Mountains National Park.

Journey time 3-hour drive
Accommodation Simien Mountain Lodge
Meal plan Breakfast and dinner
 
 

Day 5: Hike in Simien Mountains N.P.

After breakfast at the lodge you will go for a morning hike in the Simien Mountains. Depending on your interests and fitness level, your hike can take from one to six hours. Along the way you will experience the beautiful landscapes of the Simien Mountains and most likely run into the endemic Gelada baboon. These baboons are pretty sociable so you will be able to get quite close to them.

Should you opt for a shorter hike you will return to the lodge for lunch. If you decide to go on a longer hike you will enjoy a packed lunch at one of the best viewpoints along the trail.

In the afternoon you will return to your lodge for another night at the lovely Simien Mountains Lodge.

Journey time 40 mins
Accommodation    Simien Mountain Lodge
Meal plan Breakfast, (packed) lunch, dinner

Day 6: To Axum

Today you will set off early for a long drive to Ethiopia’s holiest city, Axum. During the scenic trip toward the country’s northern border, you will pass through small villages and see dramatic landscapes of the Simien mountains.

Your accommodation for the next two nights is at Sabean Hotel. The hotel is conveniently located in Axum town within walking distance of several notable sites, including the Palace of the Queen of Sheba.

Journey time 7-8 hours
Accommodation Sabean Hotel
Meal plan Breakfast
 
 

Day 7: Explore cultural highlights in Axum

If you are enthusiastic about archaeology, today will be one of the highlights of your trip.

The ruins of the ancient city of Axum are a testament to the city’s former historical and political significance. Located in the heart of ancient Ethiopia, the ruins are remnants of a time when the Kingdom of Axum was one of the most powerful empires in the world, equal to Rome and Persia.

The remaining structures, which date from between the 1st and 13th century A.D., include enormous stelae, monolithic obelisks, royal tombs, monasteries and the ruins of ancient palaces.

 

 

For foreign visitors, the main attraction is the giant stelae which were erected by the Axumite in the pre-Christian times, presumably for religious purposes. One of these granite structures, the Great Stelae, is the biggest monolith in the world, measuring over 33 meters. It fell over sometime in the 4th century while it was being erected and remains in pieces on the ground to this day.

 

This tour will also include stops at the Bath and Palace of the Queen of Sheba and the tombs of King Kaleb and King Bazen, which are thought to be some of the earliest discovered structures.

The legendary Ark of the Covenant believed to be kept in a chapel near the St. Mary of Zion Church. It is guarded by a priest who is responsible for its care and preservation for life and nobody else is allowed to see it. Men can walk up to the chapel, but women are unfortunately not allowed on the site.  

After a day of visiting these incredible ruins, you will look forward to a bit of rest and relaxation and a good meal at your hotel.

Journey time -
Accommodation Sabean Hotel
Meal plan Breakfast

 

Day 8: To Hawzien – via Yeha and the Temple of the Moon

After breakfast at your hotel you will depart for Hawzien in the Gheralta mountains. The drive is very scenic with views of the spikey peaks of the stunning Adwa mountain range in the distance following you along the journey.

About two hours along the national road you will stop in the small town of Yeha to pay a visit to the oldest structure in Ethiopia, the Temple of the Moon. This sandstone temple, which is built in Sabean style, is estimated to date back to around 700 B.C. A local guide can show you around the site as well as show you a church located just next to the temple. The church is dedicated to Abba Aftse, who was one of the nine saints who came to Ethiopia in the 6th century from the Roman Empireto spread their religious teachings.

 

From Yeha you will continue southeast to Hawzien and to the sheer cliffs and vertical spires of the Gheralta mountains. Perched high and hidden in the folds of these stunning mountains are some of the country’s least visited rock-hewn cave churches. You will have the opportunity to visit some of these extraordinary structures, some of which are over 1,000 years old.

Set in this dry and rocky environment in northern Tigray is your accommodation for the next two nights; Gheralta Lodge. 

 

This Italian-owned lodge provides a welcoming and tranquil atmosphere with features such as a shaded terrace with sun loungers, a library and a sitting room with garden views. The stone-built guest rooms are simple but serviceable and offer beautiful views of the Gheralta mountains, especially at sunset.

Journey time 6 hours
Accommodation Gheralta Lodge
Meal plan Breakfast, dinner
 
 

Day 9: Exploring monasteries in the Gheralta

Today you can decide if you want to have a rest day and enjoy the lovely grounds of the lodge or go on one of the optional hikes that will take you high into the Gheralta mountains in search of the incredible rock-hewn churches.

 

Optional: Visit to Maryam and Daniel Korkor

Visiting the Gheralta is not for the fainthearted. Each religious structure was built high in the mountains to stay hidden from raiding armies in the valley below and to bring devotees closer to God. Reaching these churches therefore requires the visitor to hike through slot canyons, free climb steep mountain faces and skirt cliff edges.

You will set off in the morning for the trailhead which is located roughly 8 kilometers from the lodge. Here you will meet your local guide who will shepherd you over these precarious trails. After 90 minutes of walking, including a steep ascent and a scramble up a 6-meter sandstone wall, you will reach Maryam Korkor. Carved partially into the rock, Maryam Korkor’s simple façade hides one of the largest churches in the area. You will be able to go inside this church to see the detailed frescos that cover the pillars and arches. 

 

 

Maryam Korkor is looked after by an old Ethiopian Orthodox monk who has lived in this remote area for over 60 years. He will lead you to Daniel Korkor, which is located just a short walk away, along a path that skirts the edge of a cliff to the back of the mountain. If you are afraid of heights, you may want to sit this one out!

Regarded as the highlight of this hike, Daniel Korkor sits on a dizzying precipice overlooking the Hawzien valley and offering some of the most amazing views in the region.

After spending some time here enjoying the church and the stunning views you will head back down to horizontal earth and return to your lodge for lunch and a relaxing afternoon.

 

If you would like to make this a full-day hike and add a bit of extra adrenaline to your day, you can include a visit to Abuna Yemata Guh.

The old adage of traveling being more about the journey than the destination could not be truer for this next section of trail. The church Abuna Yemata Gub is dramatically located within a cliff face, halfway up a rock spire. The first hour of the walk is moderately challenging with a couple of sheer wall faces requiring some free climbing. It is the last 2 minutes of the walk that will require you to keep your cool and not look down! The path consists of a little ledge etched into the mountain face, with a 200-meter drop on the other side!

Your efforts (and bravery) will be rewarded. The church holds well-preserved frescos that adorn the ceiling and an open-air tomb holding the bones of monks who once worshipped here. Even if you don’t make it all the way across this precarious section of the hike you will enjoy stunning views of your surroundings.   

At the end of the day you will return to Gheralta Lodge for some of the best Italian food in the region and a good night’s rest.

Half-day hike: $50 per person

Full-day hike: $80 per person

Journey time 30 min drive
Accommodation      Gheralta Lodge
Meal plan Breakfast, (packed) lunch, dinner

Day 10: To Ahmed Ela

You start the journey to Ahamed Ela early in the morning. The drive is truly scenic as you pass through the western escarpment of the great Rift Valley. Your final destination for the day is a military camp in the desert hamlet of Ahmed Ela where a frontier adventure awaits you. Being a truly remote part of the country, you will experience the authentic life-style of a camel caravan driver.

 

This is no glamorous life and those who venture out here must be prepared to give up all semblances of comfort for unbearably hot and harsh conditions, basic sleeping arrangements in Afar-style huts without proper toilet and shower facilities and in the company of the ever-present flies. Due to the legendary high temperatures many opt to drag their wood-frame cots outdoors and sleep under the stars in the hopes of catching a passing midnight breeze.

There are no other options than this unfortunately. The region is in the hands of the Afar people who so far have not allowed in outside investors and influence. Therefore, tour operators cannot create suitable accommodation options here. If you are up for the challenge, we do think that this is an amazing experience worth moving out of your comfort-zone for. For those of you who need an incentive; Day 13 promises lodgings in cool rooms with clean sheets and a nice shower!

Journey time 4-5 hours
Accommodation  
Ahmed Ela Camp
Meal plan Breakfast and dinner
 
 

Discover the Dalol volcano and see the salt flats of Lake Asale

Today your journey sets off to one of the most spectacular geographical features in Africa: The Danakil Depression. Situated in the triple junction of three tectonic plates this area is one of the hottest, driest and lowest (125m below sea level) places on earth. At noon temperatures can rise up to 50°C. In this unforgiving landscape, you will have the opportunity to see some of the most fascinating features of the Danakil.

 

To begin we will travel along the expansive salt flats formed tens of thousands of years ago by the evaporating of an inland sea.

These dry lands provide an incredible panoramic view where you may be able to spot salt miners extracting salt slabs from the immense basin, or meandering camel caravans traveling the age-old salt route to the markets in Mekele, laden with blocks of raw salt on their backs. You will have the opportunity to interact with the miners and caravan merchants.

 

You will also visit other geological phenomena like the multi-colored hydrothermal fields, steam emitting fumaroles and tall salt domes located in the vicinity of the Dallol. This hauntingly dramatic landscape was once described by the British desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger as “a land of death”.

Toward the end of the day you return back to camp for dinner made by your camp cook and another night under the stars.

Journey time Round-trip 2 hours
Accommodation Ahmed Ela Camp
Meal plan Breakfast, lunch and dinner

Day 12: Night trek to Mount Erta Ale

After breakfast, you will depart for one of the main attractions in the Danakil depression: Mount Erta Ale. This is truly an excursion for the diehard adventurer. The name Erta Ale means “smoking mountain” in the local Afar language, and it is an apt name for the most active volcano in Ethiopia. The 613-meter-tall flaming mountain is known for holding one of only six lava lakes in the world. At night you might see the bubbling cauldron of lava breaching the rim of the crater in a spectacular display of fiery lights against the night sky*.

 

On your drive to the volcano you will stop for lunch in the settlement called Kusqowat before continuing on to the base of Erta Ale and the trailhead to the crater. The trail is roughly 12 kilometers and will take four hours to complete. It is necessary to be quite physically fit for this trek. (If you worry about your fitness level it is possible to arrange for a camel to transport you up to the top, for an extra fee). Because of the blistering heat during the day, the hike starts at 4PM and some of the trail is navigated in the dark. Once at the rim you will be able to observe the volcano and the impressive lava lake at a close distance. Don’t forget to bring your camera!

 

To make this trip even more adventurous you will camp on the rim of Mount Erta Ale! The crew accompanying you up the volcano will transport everything you need for your overnight stay, including food, water, camping equipment and your luggage. The campsite is very rough and basic. While cooler at this elevation than in the Ahmed Ela camp you are still battling with the dust, dirt and poor facilities. You will sleep in simple Afar-style huts on rolled out mats on the ground. You will be giving up all comfort tonight, but on the plus side – spending a night at the rim of an active volcano is an adventure you will not soon forget. 

Journey time 7-hour drive, 4-hour hike
Accommodation Camping on Mount Erta Ale
Meal plan Breakfast, lunch and dinner



Note
: Erta Ale is an active volcano and as such, it is continuously changing. While Erta Ale is known for being one of the few volcanos in the world that has an almostpersistent lava lake, the levels of the lava lake’s surface are constantly rising and falling. This, along with periodic volcanic gasses being emitted from the crater, can make observation difficult on certain days. It is therefore never guaranteed that you will see the bubbling lava in the crater on any given day.

Even if the views are not as spectacular as you had hoped on the day that you explore Erta Ale, you may still enjoy the challenge of the night-time hike to the summit and the unique experience of spending the night on the rim of an active volcano.

 
 

Day 13: To Mekele

Today you will rise at dawn and together with your personal camel caravan begin your 4-hour descent back to base camp where your vehicle and a well-deserved brunch will be waiting for you. After brunch you will be able to rest your legs during the scenic 3-hour drive to Mekele.

Tonight, you will stay at a comfortable hotel in Mekele and enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.

Journey time 4-hour hike, 3-hour drive
Accommodation     
Planet Hotel
Meal plan Brunch

Day 14: To Lalibela

Today you will have quite a long drive from Mekele to Lalibela. During the journey, you encounter the scenic beauty of the Alamata mountain chain and observe the daily life of the Tigray and Amhara people in the villages that you pass along the way.

During the next two nights you will stay at Maribela Hotel located in the Lasta mountains in the outskirts of Lalibela. The design of the spacious and modern rooms is inspired by the rock-hewn churches that have made Lalibela famous, and all rooms have breathtaking views of the Ethiopian highlands.

Journey time 9-hour drive
Accommodation    
Maribela Hotel
Meal plan Breakfast
 
 

Day 15: Explore the cultural highlights in Lalibela

Today you will spend the day exploring Lalibela, which is regarded as one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities (second only to Axum) and an important center of pilgrimage.

Religious rituals are central to the life of the town and there are often processions of priests and crowds of singing and dancing devotees. This in combination with Lalibela’s extraordinary history and architecture gives this small town a timeless and biblical atmosphere.

The most famous attractions in Lalibela are the monolithic rock-hewn churches, which are the biggest monolithic temples in the world, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

The rest of today will be dedicated to exploring these architectural wonders. Nothing will prepare you for what you are about to see. Every individual church is unique in shape, size and perfectly carved and decorated by hand. Some of the churches you will see along your tour today are the historically interesting churches Bet Medhane Alem (the largest monolithic church in the world and home to the Lalibela Cross) and Bet Maryam (possibly the oldest of the churches). 

You will have a local guide showing you around who will be able to tell you everything you want to know about these churches.

At the end of the day you will return to Hotel Maribela for some rest and a nice dinner.

Journey time -
Accommodation Maribela Hotel
Meal plan Breakfast

Day 16: Exploring Lalibela further afield

There are several fascinating churches and monasteries carved into the landscape surrounding the town of Lalibela itself, and today we will go on an excursion to visit one of them. After breakfast, you will drive 50 km outside of Lalibela to the beautiful Yemerehana Christos Monastery, one of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late Axumite churches.

In contrast to the other churches you have seen on this tour, this 11th century monastery is constructed using both stone and wood. Be sure to go inside to look at the walls that have been painted with murals depicting scenes from the Bible.

You will have a packed lunch with you on the trip, which you can enjoy as you gaze at the incredible mountain views.

 

 

After this morning excursion you will head back to Lalibela to continue your exploration of the churches. The most iconic and visually spectacular of these churches is the Bet Giyorgis (St. George’s Church). The 15-meter high structure is carved out of rock, excavated externally and internally into the shape of the Greek ross. This church is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and is therefore a must see on this trip!

In the late afternoon you will return back to Maribela Hotel to relax and enjoy a nice dinner.

 

Optional Activity Day 16 and 17: Hike to Yemerehana Christos Monastery

For those interested in combining hiking with exploring Lalibela churches it is possible to arrange a hike to the Yemerehana Christos Monastery. This truly unique cultural experience involves a full day of hiking and a night spent at a homestay up in the mountains.

The trail will take you through spectacular scenery and through several small villages where you will be able to take part in traditional coffee ceremonies and see how the local people live.

The huts where you will spend the night are very simple, featuring raised beds and shared toilets. There are no shower facilities here. The amazing host at the homestay will cook you a delicious meal and share traditional songs and dances with you. 

On Day 17, you will finish your hike at Yemerehana Christos Monastery and then head back to Lalibela for lunch and visit some more churches in town, among them the iconic Bet Giyorgis. 

Cost of optional hike: $85 per person.

Journey time 1 hour round-trip drive
Accommodation   
Maribela Hotel or homestay

Meal plan

 

Breakfast

(packed lunch and dinner if you are on the hike)

 
 

Day 17: To the Asheten Mariam Monastery

If you did not go on the optional hike you will have the opportunity today to explore some churches and monasteries in the Lalibela highlands. After breakfast, you will visit the monastery of Asheten Mariam. This monastery is wonderfully located at the foot of the 3,150-meter-high Abune Josef mountain which overlooks Lalibela. 

The Asheten Mariam monastery has been hewn out of rock. Although not as refined as the churches in Lalibela, seeing a monastery chiseled into a mountain face is an incredible sight and the views from the church adds much to the setting. Inside the church, you will find some relics that have been preserved since the 12th and 13th century. 

 

After lunch, you will return to Lalibela to experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. This is one of the most important parts of the Ethiopian culture and therefore a must-do on your trip to the country. The ceremony will take you through all of the steps of preparing and brewing coffee. Be sure to savour the flavours of the coffee during your tasting.

In the evening you will return back to your hotel for another night at the lovely Maribela Hotel.

Journey time 30 minutes drive
Accommodation Maribela Hotel
Meal plan Breakfast

Day 18: Return to Addis Ababa

After an early breakfast you will be picked up at your hotel and taken to the airport for your domestic flight back to Addis Ababa.

Departure time Lalibela: 09.40 AM
Arrival time Addis Ababa: 10.40 AM


From Addis Ababa you can connect with your international flight back home. Depending on the time of your international flight you may have some time to explore the capital if you were unable to do so on your first day (at own expense). If you wish we can help arrange for a day room so that you can store your luggage and use shower facilities before your international flight.

Accommodation for tonight is not inclusive in the program. If you wish for us to include one (or more) nights in Addis Ababa, please don’t hesitate to contact us at contact@matoketours.com.

Journey time 1-hour flight (to Addis Ababa)
Accommodation Not included
Meal plan Breakfast

 

Click here, For more information on rates and details of this trip.
 

 

This is the end of your trip to Ethiopia!

Don't want the fun to end?

If you want to see more of this beautiful part of Africa, you can decide to extend your trip to another country in the region. 

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18-Day Historic & Danakil Depression Ethiopia
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