Danakil Depression in Ethiopia turned out to be one of the most colorful, alien, and beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen. There’s nothing else quite like it on this earth.
Looking into the bowel of Erta Ale lava lake was like staring at the surface of the sun.
Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
How and where do I begin to describe the things I saw when I visited Danakil Depression, ‘the hottest place on Earth’?
“Amazing” or “breath taking” doesn’t seem to cut it. “I must be dreaming because I can’t quite possibly see what I’m seeing right now” is more like it.
Danakil Depression is known for the ‘hottest place on earth’ but that title does the place so much injustice. The Danakil region (also called “the Afar Depression”) is so much more than its record setting temperature – its unique geological features are the ones that draw visitors to visit despite the cost, the many hours of off road driving, and barebone accommodation (still recovering from the flea bites).
Visiting Danakil Depression is without a doubt, the absolute highlight of Ethiopia. A brave claim considering that I haven’t seen everything Ethiopia has to offer. But I’m standing firm by my claim and looking forward to be proven wrong.
As of a matter of fact, the Danakil Depression has been the highlight of this around the world trip, if not my life. (Yet another bold claim, but just look at these photos!).
Where is Danakil Depression?
It’s located in Northern Ethiopia, in the Afar department – close to the Eritrea border. Only the first hour of the drive from Mekele was on an asphalt road, the rest was a dusty, bumpy, ride on dirt tracks – if even that. When we got to the desert, we were following faint tire marks it was a wonder our drivers knew where we needed to go without a GPS or a compass.
Where do you start the tour to Danakil
Danakil tours start from a town called Mekele. I flew here from Addis because the flight was reasonably priced. The alternative: hours of dusty and bumpy road in a crowded minivan.
How Much Does It Cost to Visit Danakil?
It cost me $550 for a 4D/3N tour from Makele with Ethiopia Travel and Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Visiting Danakil Depression doesn’t come cheap. You need to have 2 jeeps in your group (even if it’s just you and 2 drivers), armed guards, and local Afar guides. Expect to spend upwards from $400. Different tour companies can give such a wild range in prices (we’ve been quoted anywhere from $550 to $1300 per person for similar itineraries) – it’s scary.
The trip was the only thing I had organized before coming to Ethiopia since finding a group to share the cost is critical.
Finding a reputable company is even more so considering the harsh condition of the area. The Afar government requires a minimum of 2 jeeps per convoy – the reason for which became obvious when we were out there. Getting your car stuck in the loose sand seems to be the norm rather than the exception. Then, you’ll need the other jeep to pull you out.
Each time we did get stuck, out of nowhere people of the Afar tribes -adults and children alike – would show up and watch us struggle to get the jeeps out. And we would be in the middle of this barren desert and we’d wonder – ‘Where did these people come from and how do they live?’
What is the typical Danakil Itinerary?
Day 1 Mekele – Hamed Ela
Some people in our tour were worried they wouldn’t see the ‘camel caravans’ – well, they felt silly after this first day because camels are so ubiquitous along this stretch that after awhile you think, ‘Eh, another camel?’
What’s interesting is the story behind these camel caravans. The camels carry salt blocks mined in the Danakil region to be sold in Mekele, a town 150 km away. They’ve been doing this since forever. The camels and their drivers walk in soaring heat for 3 days just so they can get 15 Birr per kilo of salt. That’s less than $1 per kilo.
Day 2 Hamed Ela – Erta Ale
Erta Ale’s volcano is one of those places that leave you wordless – except for a string of curses and swearwords, because you just have to say something in the face of it, but can’t seem find the right words. The spectacle might just make a believer out of you. Read more about my experience in front of Erta Ale, the lava lake.
Day 3 Descend from Erta Ale
This day is a wash since we basically spent the day driving back from Erta Ale, but that’s probably a good thing. We needed the time to digest what we just saw the night before.
Day 4 Morning tour of Dallol then back to Makele
Dallol competes with Erta Ale in trying to blow your mind with its multi-colored alien world. If it weren’t for the quickly rising temperature, we could’ve stayed there for much longer. See my best pictures from Dallol.
After, Dallol we saw bubbly lakes, unique rock formations, and a ‘lake’ over the salt flat that’s so surreal but we barely had time for these because we had to drive back to Mekele on that very same day.
$550 and 21 flea bites later and I can safely say that it’s worth every dollar, and every single flea bite.
Practical tips on visiting Danakil Depression
- Best time to visit Danakil is in the winter November – February. It will get too hot otherwise. It was hot when we went and it was supposed to be in dead winter.
- Most tours leave from Mekele even if you arrange it with a company in Addis Ababa. Flight to Mekele from Addis is $60. Yordanos and Atse Yohannes Hotel in Makele seem to be your best bet to find other travelers, but it would probably be easier to form a group in Addis Ababa.
- Confirm that your 4×4 will have a working air-con. Can not imagine how miserable the trip would be if the air con didn’t work. And since the road is so dusty, opening the window is not possible all the time.
- Bring a good headlamp and a scarf for the Erta Ale volcano hike. Not all of us had headlamp when we did the hike and when we got to the crater. VERY dangerous as you can easily stumble and fall into the lava. The scarf is needed for the sulphurous fume that can be very irritating to eyes and throats at times.
- Our agency was Ethiopia Tour and Travels. I had some reservation when I found out some negative reviews about the company (after committing myself to the group) but went ahead anyway despite my initial reservation. Glad to say that everything went well. A little chaotic at times and we’re not really sure who this ‘university professor’ guide is supposed to be, but we had plenty of food, plenty of water, and everyone was so friendly and helpful.
- More general tips on visiting Ethiopia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
I have a strong suspicion that Ethiopia wants to get rid of me.
Let’s start from the very beginning.
I arrived in Addis on a bright, sunny morning. My luggage, unfortunately, didn’t. In retrospect it turned out not to be a big deal since the airline recovered it and even delivered it to me the next day. But that very first day in this country, all alone in a city that didn’t feel too friendly, away from Jack for the first time in our 8 months of travel, I felt mighty sorry for myself. Add to the fact that my hotel room was dreary and smelled strongly of new paint.
Things got a lot better the next day. I moved to a better place (with wifi in the room, rarer than an honest taxi driver in Addis!), and I got my luggage.
But soon after it became apparent to me that Ethiopia and I just do not get along.
First, somehow I attract pickpockets
So far I’ve counted 5 attempts – and those are only the ones I caught. Sometimes I feel that I walk around with a sign on my back that says, ‘Please mug me.’ It would’ve been very frustrating except for the fact that these guys were so, so, so, pathetically bad at this that it’s actually kind of funny. Two occasions are quite notable:
Notable pickpocket attempt #1
Location: A shared Bajaj (tuk-tuk) in Makele
I got lost in Makele so I hailed a Bajaj to take me back. I noticed a guy already inside. Not thinking too much of it as sharing a Bajaj seems to be common, I got in.
As we got closer to my destination, my companion – who until that time never uttered a word – pointed outside, “Look, Boston café! Your destination! Over there!” Naturally I leaned forward and that was when I noticed a slight pressure on my back. I looked at my companion, but he kept gesticulating for me to look out the window. Because I can be a little slow at times, I did what he wanted me to do. Again, I felt a pressure on my back. Then it clicked!
I whirled around and noticed that my Bajaj companion had his arm behind me. I looked down and saw that the front pocket of my backpack was wide open.
When I realised what was going on my first reaction was disbelief, then rage. “How dare he?!! – How… RUDE!!”
Adrenaline surging through me, I grabbed my water bottle and started beating him, yelling all sorts of obscenities. I wish it had been a Nalgene bottle and not the flimsy plastic water bottle. It would’ve hurt more. The door of the Bajaj was on my side so he was stuck there with me until he jumped across me, opened the door, and bolted outside with me still screaming after him.
Afterwards I realised that he had also slashed my bag when trying to get to the main pocket. However, in his haste to access the main pocket he had completely missed the $300 worth of Birr on the front pocket. This just proved to me that he needed a new line of work.
Notable pickpocket attempt #2
Location: a minibus from the airport in Addis Ababa
A friend and I just arrived at the airport and we hailed the first minibus we could find. They seated me up front, next to a nice lady who tried to help me with my main pack. She kept fussing with it, trying to convince me to move the bag between us. Maybe that was what set off my suspicion. 2 minutes into the ride, I felt a little poke on my side close to where my wallet is.
Paranoid, I reached for my wallet and guess what I found?
Her hand! Nicely hidden behind a slung sweater.
I didn’t start beating anybody this time because I wasn’t convinced she was trying to mug me. But still, I had my hand wrapped tightly around my wallet after that.
But any doubt that it was a coincidence was erased when 30 seconds afterward they abruptly turned the minibus around and pulled over to the side. They unceremoniously handed back our money, shooed us off the minibus, and took off leaving us on the sidewalk with all of our belongings – thankfully intact – far from where we’re supposed to be.
My friend and I looked at each other, “Wtf? Did they just let us get on to rob us?!” It seems like it.
There are many other examples. From little kids who swarmed me and felt up my pants pocket. To the guy who walked past me multiple times in the crowd, each time he walked past he swiped my pant pocket zipper open bit by bit. I always had to have my guards up all the time. It was exhausting.
Fleas and Bed bugs
I must’ve picked these guys up during my trip to the Danakil because soon after, I was covered in red bites all over my body.
This is really, really annoying.
As soon as I got back to Addis, I spread out all of my clothes and backpack in the bathroom, doused them in bug spray, and closed the door for hours hoping that these hitchhikers would just die, die, die!!
Afterwards, I had them washed and dried out in the sun for two days. Hopefully that’s enough. I really do not want to have to get a new wardrobe.
But these bites are nothing compared that Ethiopia’s coup de grace in telling me that I was not wanted here.
I got bitten by a street dog!
Rabies is kind of a big thing here in Ethiopia.
As soon as I saw blood on the wound, I thought to myself, “You’ve GOT to be kidding me!!” – I spent the next day running around chasing after rabies vaccines. That was not fun at all.
The thing about rabies vaccines is that you need 5 shots over the course of 28 days. I had to kiss my trip to Omo Valley goodbye because I needed my 3rd shot during that time period. I was really bummed.
I was looking at my other options of what to do next:
Option 1: Continue with original plan to Djibouti and Somaliland.
These are not quite your stress-free destinations to begin with. Having an extra layer of stress of having possibly contracted rabies, I decided that I wouldn’t enjoy these countries under this circumstance. Besides, to have time to do this, I’d need to stay in Addis for at least another 10 days to complete the first 3 shots before I have time between shots to travel.
Option 2: Stay and travel within Ethiopia for the next 28 days.
The thought of staying in a country that seems to try its darnedest to get rid of me isn’t appealing either. Knowing my luck so far I’d probably get bitten as I attempt to feed a hyena in Harar or contract malaria in the south.
Option 3: Finish the vaccine in another country where I know they’re available.
Preferably somewhere cheap, comfortable, and easy to get around.
After half a day deliberation, I decided that I like Option #3 best.
So as soon as my parents confirmed that yes, they have the same brand of rabies vaccine in Jakarta, I booked my ticket to Indonesia.
I feel relieved.
I miss Asian food.
I miss cheap things.
I miss Sari, my family’s masseuse who comes and gives an hour of heavenly pummeling for a mere $5.
I miss my family.
I miss NOT standing out so much in the crowd and greeted with “Konichiwa, arigato! “ or “China, how are you, China?” all the freaking time.
I’ll arrive in Jakarta on Christmas Day at 11 at night, so technically, I’ll be home for Christmas. And this puts a smile on my face.
In terms of Ethiopia, I’m bummed that I didn’t get to see as much of it as I had hoped. But on the bright side, the parts of Ethiopia that I’d seen were BEYOND amazing, especially Danakil Depression.
Furthermore, I’m looking forward to the time when someone asks me, “So, which is the most exciting country you’ve visited on your trip?” I already know what the answer would be.
Say what you will, but there has not been a dull moment here in Ethiopia.
Staying in a riad is definitely something you have to do when traveling to Morocco. We were so amazed by the beauty of our riad (Riad Al Moussika) and so pampered by the attention that the staff gave us – it will be really hard to go back to staying in hostels.
Took me 2 weeks to gather up the courage to go a hammam (read here if you’re not sure what a hammam is) in Morocco. Being naked in public has never been on my “Things I’m Dying to Do in Morocco” list. It was more like on my “Things I Still Might Not Do Even I Ever Got Bored Enough” list.
We emerged from the night bus bleary eyed in the early dawn – rubbing our eyes from what little sleep we had and trying to fight off the desert cold. The bus soon left us in a deserted road of what we think is Merzouga.
What we could see in the dawn light was mud buildings on a dusty street. ‘Cafe’ was crudely painted on one of them. Everything was closed. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but after the cramped alleys of Fez, the open desert horizon was disconcerting.
The touts started making their way towards us,
– Excuse me? Where’s your hotel?
– Excuse me, sir? Mam? English?
The camel guide who’s supposed to pick us up wasn’t there. We tried to call him only to find out that the only public phone there takes a special phone card and not coins (what’s up with that?)
In the meantime
– Excuse me? I help?
– Mam? What’s your hotel? You need camels?
– Sir? Mam? Let me help? Hotels? Camel trekking?
was buzzing non-stop around us: to our left, to our right, on our face. Jack was kind of enough to take the brunt of this, chatting all of them up, which gave me time to think of what to do next.
The only other tourists that morning – 2 German girls – were getting into the only car on the street. They asked, ‘We’re going to our hotel, do you guys want to come?’
The only other option was to wait for our guy, Mohammed, to come. Assuming he was coming.
But that would mean being alone with these touts, in a strange deserted city, with no transports to take us away if we want to. So we hurriedly got in the car with them. As we were driving away, I asked the girls how much the fare was. ‘We didn’t ask.’ ‘Seriously?’ They shrugged. ‘It’s not that we have other option.’
The driver ended up wanting 15 Dirhams from each of us. 60 Dirham for what should’ve been a 10-15 Dirham ride km ride was a rip off, even for the desert. Thinking ‘Well, it could’ve been worse,’ and too sleepy and tired to argue we decided to pay without making a fuss.
Turned out he wanted 50 Dirham. Each. Which would make the 10 min ride a $25 fare. We balked, ‘No way!’
At one time I believe I actually said, ‘200 Dirham?! Right. Just take us back then!’ – which goes to show how little sleep can addle one’s brain.
He ran in into the hotel to grab the owner – I’m guessing to demand his commission as well as to talk some sense into us. Fortunately, the front door was left open and all four of us ran in with our bags. Securely ensconced inside we felt braver. The German girls delegated the task of bargaining to us – they themselves became spectators of the ensuing back and forth.
We offered him 60 Dirham. Jack was waving our money in front of his face. He refused to take it. Some shouting back and forth ensued in a medley of English, Berber, and Spanish. He seemed to realize that now that we’re at the hotel, there wasn’t much he could do. The hotel owner translated ‘Ok, ok. He said he’d take 100 for all of you.’
‘60 Dirham or none at all’ – the hotel owner barked something in Berber waving our money that the driver finally and reluctantly took. Not without some grumbling and spitting on the ground.
Now Jack and I with the German girls are in the common room with the owner, we told him we don’t have a reservation and would like to see a room.
‘Wait!’ He walked to the kitchen. ‘We should have tea first.’
15 minutes later all four of us were falling asleep with tea cups in our hand – the adrenaline from the altercation with the taxi driver was ebbing away – sipping the tea bit by bit in silence. We were antsy to see the room, bargain for it, and go to bed, but he kept pouring more and more tea!
How much tea can that little pot hold?
We thought of the sleepless night bus from Fes. It was an experience we don’t wish to repeat anytime soon. Buses in South America seem like a luxury in comparison. Yup, that even includes the buses in Colombia.
Finally after what seemed like ages, the owner got up,
‘Let me show you to your room!’
We tried to get him to talk about prices of a camel trek. The thing is, it would be considered inconceivable that we’d stay there without booking the camel trek from them. It’s how they make money, see? But all he kept saying was, ‘You rest first. Later after you wake up, we talk!’
I hate not knowing what I got myself into. But the bed looks mighty inviting. All we wanted to do was lie down – dusty clothes and all.
Well, I guess the desert will wait. The camels will still be there. The negotiation can wait, doubtlessly accompanied by copious amount of sweet tea.
But first, sleep.
‘Welcome to the desert!’ he shook our hands seconds before we crash into bed.
To be continued…
– If you’re coming from Fes by CTM bus, they’ll drop you off at Rissani – a 20 min drive away. Do NOT get into any 4×4 car. Take a grand taxi, which is usually an old Mercedes Benz, and pay the 12 Dirham fee.
– If you’re coming from Fes by Supratours, you can go directly to Merzouga. Be warned that you’ll arrive at 6:30 in the morning. Do not expect any petit-taxis around.
– A better bet is to make a reservation and have your hotel/auberge to pick you up. All of them offer this service.