Harar, Lalibela and Gondar: Three Cities in Four Days

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After our adventures in the Danakil, we had limited time left on our respective adventures. I had to get to Madagascar in time to visit the gorgeous Miavana by Time + Tide, and Chelsea had plans to fly back to South Africa.

Most people would choose one destination to explore properly with their last few days together, but we opted for a different approach. Due to the deal with Ethiopian Airlines that I discussed in my previous post (the TLDR version is that if you fly into Ethiopia with Ethiopian, you will be eligible for extremely discounted rates on domestic flights) we could afford to do a bit of location hopping, and thus we embarked on a mission to explore three cities in just four days.

Important Note: Please be aware that travel to Ethiopia is strongly discouraged at the time of publishing, due to the current conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Please use this blog for inspiration and future planning, but be aware that travelling at the time of publishing (February 2022) that I, the author, strongly recommend you reconsider your need to travel to Ethiopia.

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After our trip to the Danakil, we flew from Mekelle back to Addis Ababa, and from Addis we then flew to Dire Dawa airport. There isn’t a whole lot to see in Dire Dawa, but from there, you can catch a bus to Harar. Harar might not be a household name for many, but for those in the know, it is a city with a unique defensive wall and some unique inhabitants.

These unique inhabitants? Spotted hyenas!

Spotted hyenas have likely called Harar home for the last 500 years, but it was only in the 1960s that they started to become kind of semi-domesticated. The TLDR version of the story is that a farmer began to feed the hyenas meat scraps each night in an effort to prevent them from attacking his livestock. Over the last 60 years, the hyenas have learned that they can get an easy meal in Harar each night, and subsequently, there are two ‘hyena men’ in Harar who earn money by allowing travellers to watch and participate in this spectacle.

After paying 200 birr (around $5 AUD) I was handed a stick with a piece of meat on the end and was quickly surrounded by hyenas!

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Ethiopia-Harar-Lalibela-Gondar-Gonder-Travel-Blog

The experience was over almost as soon as it began, and I can’t say that I’d do it again, but it was certainly a brand spankin’ new experience for me!

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The next day, we drove back to Dire Dawa and flew to Lalibela. After the Danakil, Lalibela was the place in Ethiopia I was most excited to explore. I had heard it referred to as the Petra of Ethiopia, and we couldn’t wait to explore the stunning rock hewn churches that this region is known for.

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The entrance fees for Lalibela are extremely expensive, especially by Ethiopian standards. A 5 day pass goes for a whopping $50 USD! It is worth noting that this fee can be paid in Ethiopian Birr and if possible, I would advise you to pay in the local currency as you will end up saving a little bit of cashola with the exchange rates.

Tickets can only be purchased at the ticket office within standard operating hours (from 8am) so if you have a strong desire to get started with your exploring quite early, it will pay to do as we did and pick up your pass the night before you plan to do so.

If you want a guide, this will be at extra $20-$30 USD, and street touts are available pretty much everywhere. However, these touts are a veritable pain in the a** and it might pay to book a guide in advance to avoid all the humbug.

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The next morning, our self guided Lalibela exploring begun. As we didn’t have a guide, we really just followed the site map and worked our way around – although it is worth noting that this map isn’t fantastic and we definitely needed to do a bit of ‘let’s follow those people’ to gain access to all of the sites, as some passageways aren’t as obvious as others.

The first few sites were easy to access and absolutely beautiful, but we were still copping a lot of humbug from people determined to make a buck. It might seem like we were silly for forgoing a guide when they were so readily available, but I will touch on this a little bit further into the blog.

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Lalibela is famous for monolithic rock hewn churches and is an especially important pilgrimage site for Christians all around the world; it is even considered to be Ethiopia’s holiest city!

Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the early parts of the 4th century, making it one of the first countries to do so. These churches were constructed as places of worship for the Christian faith between the 7th and 13th century and most are still in incredible condition today. They are also still used by many Ethiopian people as houses of worship.

Lalibela-Ethiopia-Churches-Travel-Blog

Lalibela-Ethiopia-Churches-Travel-Blog

You will need to take your shoes off to enter any of the temples, so it would pay to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off (such as slides or old sneakers). I would also avoid wearing any sneakers that are on the nicer side – you do risk them going missing whilst you are inside the temple.

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Lalibela-Ethiopia-Churches-Travel-Blog

The sun was scorching, but the many shadows provided a welcome reprieve and allowed us to continue exploring all day without getting too hot and bothered.

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A lot of these churches aren’t as obviously impressive as Petra (the most commonly compared site) but it is the subtleties of the architecture that really stood out to me. I found myself getting lost and side-tracked by the small and unassuming carvings and paintings spread across the site.

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We entered many churches, some large and some very small. This next one was one of the smaller ones, but it ended up being quite memorable.

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We happened across the priest of the church who invited us into a room to receive a blessing. He had enough english to tell us his name – which he then told us translated to money in english – sigh.

Normally I’d be put out by being treated like an ATM, but he was sweet, he let me take photographs and receiving his blessing was a unique and enjoyable experience, so I didn’t feel too bad about parting with some birr.

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Lalibela-Ethiopia-Churches-Travel-Blog

After exiting the temple we decided to head to the most famous of all the rock hewn churches in Lalibela – the Church of Saint George.

However, we didn’t get far before being stopped by this group of six sisters. They spoke incredibly good English and unlike most interactions we had had with locals in Ethiopia, they didn’t ask for money, they really just seemed excited to practise their English, have a looksie at my camera and ask us about our lives, it was all kinds of adorable.

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After a bit of an uphill hike, we made it to the Church of Saint George! Now, if you have ever seen a picture of Lalibela, this is likely the church that you have seen. It was beautiful, but due to the time of day, I wasn’t able to capture a shot that I was happy with. We made plans to return in the morning to see it again – which would work out well, as this would also be when Sunday mass was on.

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Lalibela-Ethiopia-Churches-Travel-Blog The view from our hotel

The next morning we were up bright and early to return to the Church of Saint George – and it was exactly as visually beautiful as I had hoped it would be.

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It was gorgeous. The church looked as I had hoped it would, and the congregation added an extra special level of reverence to the experience.

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Lalibela-Ethiopia-Churches-Travel-Blog

After we left Saint George, we continued exploring, but the next most special place we found was Biete Emmanuel, which is also known as the House of Emmanuel. This church is thought by historians to have been the Royal Chapel.

It was visually arresting, and the was a glorious prayer happening below which involved singing and dancing – it was phenomenal to witness.

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Lalibela ended up being all that I’d hoped it would be as well as endlessly frustrating. Street touts were so rude and aggressive that even though we both really would’ve liked a guide to get the most out of our visit, we were so put off that we became actively against giving any of these rude touts our money – which meant that our visit did end up being self guided.

Furthermore, I have travelled to over 60 countries and all 7 continents, often alone. I have backpacked through many corners of Africa and the Middle East without any issue, however, Ethiopia was a rare exception.

I have never been so sexually harassed in my entire life.

I wore loose and flowing clothes and made every effort to disengage with men on the street, but I honestly couldn’t take two steps without having someone yell something at me, slow down a moving car to look at me, try to touch me or comment on my ass – and this was especially true in Lalibela.

I hated it. In the end, all I wanted to do was leave. It’s a shame; this corner of the globe is gorgeous and steeped in history, but it’s not one I’ll be rushing to return to.

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From Lalibela, we flew to Gondar (or Gonder, spellings seem to be used interchangeably) which is often used as a jumping off point for people planning to go trekking in the Simien Mountains. Initially we decided to go to Gondar as Chelsea planned to go hiking in the Simiens whilst I headed onwards to Madagascar, but her plans eventually changed and instead of using the city just as a kind of drop off/parting ways point, we actually had a little time to explore.

When I say a little, I mean it, we had less than 24 hours! We literally arrived from Lalibela at around 4pm and would depart back to Addis Ababa at around 1pm the following day.

We checked into our hotel (which was one of the best places we stayed at in Ethiopia, see the the lowdown for details) and while we waited for our room to be ready (Africa time) we were treated to a gorgeously strong Ethiopian coffee on their terrace.

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The receptionist at our hotel wasted no time in giving us a few recommendations for sightseeing. A short  (but brutally uphill) walk from our hotel was the Debre Birhan Selassie Church. From the outside it didn’t look like much (and we were confused by the sign at the front stating that females couldn’t enter – hot tip, females just can’t enter through that specific door, just go around the side) but the interiors are some of the most beautiful that I have ever seen in any house of worship around the world.

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Dating back to the 18th century (although the original structure was erected in the 17th century) the church walls are covered in vivid depictions of bible verses. Apparently, the church was painted in this way for worshippers who were unable to read!

While the walls were gorgeous, for me, it was the roof that was the most striking. Covered with the faces of 135 cherubs, the roof is partially water damaged but this in no way diminished my fascination with it.

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That evening we dined at the Four Sisters Restaurant which is supposed to be the best food in town. The food ended up being lovely, but I was most excited about this being my first opportunity to try tej – a traditional fermented honey wine!

Brewed and consumed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, tej is a popular drink to be consumed during social events such as weddings and religious festivals.

Now, I gotta be honest, tej didn’t end up being my cup of tea! It had a kind of pungent earthy taste that just didn’t float my boat, but I am still so glad that I tried it.

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The next morning we decided to make one more stop before returning to Addis.

Fassil Ghebbi is more colloquially referred to as simply Gondar Castle, although this colloquialism fails to convey the vastness of the grounds. Fassil Ghebbi is essentially a historical fortress that was founded in the 17th century by Emperor Fasilides and includes castles, a palace, halls and churches. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and absolutely worth the visit.

The entrance fee is 200 birr (~$6 AUD) and this price includes a guide to escort you around the grounds and give you a short but succinct history of the fortress.

The architecture is a glorious mix of Nubian, Arabic and Baroque characteristics, the latter of which was especially obvious in the next photograph – seriously, if it weren’t for the sunshine and hot weather one might mistake this place for Scotland!

That afternoon we flew back to Addis and the following morning we departed ways. My time in Ethiopia had plenty of highs, but it was also stained by the sustained and relentless sexual harassment that people subjected me to. Ethiopia is a beautiful country, but it isn’t one that I will be hurrying to revisit. People have different levels of tolerances for many things when abroad, but sexual harassment is especially triggering for me.

However, if you do have a desire to visit Ethiopia, don’t let this comment dissuade you. Lalibela and the Danakil Depression were both on my bucket list and I have absolutely no regrets about ticking them off!

Lastly, you are probably aware that Ethiopia is presently in the midst of what is essentially a civil war – and as such, I do not recommend anyone travel to Ethiopia at the time of this blog being published (February 2022) but to instead use this blog as inspiration and to guide future trip planning when it does become safe for travellers to return to Ethiopia.

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THE  LOWDOWN

Inn of the Four SistersEasily the best accommodation we had in all of Ethiopia, this is a fantastic budget hotel option in Gondar
Safety: Travel to all of Ethiopia is currently unadvisable, but this is especially true in the northern part of the country where Mekelle is located – wait to travel until it becomes safe to do so
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 lenses
Remember: Bring patience and a solid resting bitch face, you’ll need it

Posted by

20-something year old Australian backpacker writing her way around the world.

29 thoughts on “Harar, Lalibela and Gondar: Three Cities in Four Days

  1. Wow, so many lovely photos, Ellen! I would never consider traveling to these places though, strictly because of the unrest. Be safe!

    1. Yeah, it definitely isn’t a place to visit right now! Hopefully the unrest resolves soon, its awful whats been happening 🙁 I am so happy that I was able to travel there while I could, it truly is a beautiful country!

    1. One day, I hope so too! Although I can’t see a time in the near future where travel will be back to normal in Ethiopia 🙁

    1. I’ll admit, I was ever so slightly nervous, but after all my wildlife encounters over the years it takes a bit to rattle me!

  2. Africa is always volatile and it looks like you had an interesting four days. Sad to hear about your sexual harassment, but glad you could still enjoy yourself.

    1. It was really frustrating, I can’t lie, but I am still really glad I went. It is one of those things that wasn’t exactly the most pleasant at the time, but I look back on and am glad I pushed through.

  3. What an incredible experience! Can’t say I would feed hyenas from a meat stick…but you’ve got a great story to tell. I would love to photograph those ancient stone buildings, so incredible the history they hold. Thanks for sharing your tips on the current political situation.

    1. Look, it’s definitely not for everyone, and to be honest, I can’t say I’d do it again – but it was a unique experience!

  4. Fascinating account – though I have no desire to travel outside of Europe these days. While I don’t like the exploitation of wild animals, it seems that here everyone is benefitting – the animals get food, the locals keep their livestock safer, tourists get to see wild animals close-up, and a local person(s) gets paid.

    1. I will admit, I thought long and hard about whether it was an ethical practice to engage in, and honestly, I couldn’t come up with an answer, although I was leaning towards exactly what you said, which is why I felt okay about it in the end. Why do you have no desire to travel outside of Europe?

      1. I have visited all continents apart from Antarctica at least once, so it isn’t as if I haven’t been elsewhere. But there is so much in terms of wilderness and nature here in Europe that I really don’t feel the need to go further afield any more. Of course, if someone else was paying, that would be a different matter!

  5. You managed to see a lot of fascinating places in just four days! I hadn’t heard of any of them before reading your post, but I’d love to visit them one day.

  6. It is such a shame about the unrest. Once it calms down again this all looks incredible, especially all those old churches. I have never seen anything quite like them, although that is the kind of thing I’d hope to see in Ethiopia.

    It’s also really sad to hear about all the sexual harassment. There is no excuse for that and I can totally see how it would bring down your love of the country. I feel bad for those gorgeous sisters you met. If only more interactions could be like that…

  7. Fascinating – I was supposed to visit here pre covid and now I’m itching to go, but guess I need to keep monitoring the situation. I’m now at that age when in most countries, fortunately I’m invisible to men so very little harassment although having travelled in Africa, they can sadly be persistent. But I sympathise with you, its exhausting.

    1. It was just so frustrating because I’d never experienced that kind of intensely sexual harassment in Africa before – harassment from street touts looking to earn a buck? Sure! But the sexual and misogynistic harassment was just beyond!

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