When I first arrived in Ethiopia, I had no idea what I was going to do! Ethiopia is a huge country lacking significantly in infrastructure making travel through the various regions quite difficult. Most come to Ethiopia to visit the ancient religious temples in the north only second to those in Egypt or the isolated tribes and massive wildlife reserves of the south. But on a short amount of time, these sights are mostly out of reach to even the most ambitious traveler.
Less known and equally as interesting are Ethiopian’s eastern lowlands and the ancient Islamic city of Harar. While just under a nine hour bus ride from the capital, Harar allows travelers to truly feel lost in time among the spice markets and winding streets of this city located deep in the Horn of Africa. Less visited than the other sites in Ethiopia, these mainly Somali-inhabited lowlands will give even the most well-seasoned travelers a true authentic travel experience they’ll be telling their friends about for years. If you want to travel back in time and really feel like Indiana Jones without days riding buses then Harar is the city for you.
How to get there
Buses for Harar leave early every morning from Mescal Square in Addis Ababa for many locations in Eastern Ethiopia. There are multiple companies offering service along these routes and while bus quality can vary, the prices are generally all the same. Many hotels and guidebooks will tell you to purchase a ticket before 10 am for travel the following day and while this is probably a good idea, do not let it dissuade you from attempting to purchase a ticket the night before. My first bus to Harar wasn’t even half full meaning it was probably possible to even buy a ticket the morning of departure. This could save you a few wasted days in Addis Ababa if you’re short on time. Salam bus was the nicest I rode, and while the others aren’t as modern, they’re not necessarily that much of a step down.
Extremely important to note: Ethiopian’s do not use the same clock used throughout the rest of the world. Ethiopian time is slightly different and it is advised to double, even triple check the departure time with your ticket agent to make sure you’re both on the same page. In Ethiopia, the day starts at 6 am when the sun rises and ends at 6pm when it sets. This means that 4:30 am will be written as 10:30 and 6:30 am would be 00:30. Your time may be written in either “International” or “Ethiopian” time and you must make sure you know which is which. Read more about Ethiopian time here if you’re still confused.
The bus ride will take between 8-10 hours with lunch and a few restroom stops built in. Harar is quite small and you can walk to almost any hotel from main drag where the buses stop. On the way back, you can purchase bus tickets to Addis from the several bus company offices near the traffic circle in the new city just outside the old city gates.
Whether eating camel, chewing chat, or feeding wild hyeenas at night, visiting Harar is a place apart for even the most seasoned travelers.
When I visited, I stayed at Rewda Guesthouse just inside the old city. If you want the true Harari experience, Rewda’s is the place for you. Rewda’s is a traditional Harai home with just two rooms and daily breakfast giving you a chance to feel like a true explorer living among the locals.
One of the best ways to see the city and learn more about Hariri culture is to hire a local guide. While some may approach you in the city and offer your services, I believe that the hands down best guide in that city is Rewda’s neice, Ayisha.
To contact Ayisha call her at (+251) 921 872 867. She can also help you make a reservation for Rewda’s Guesthouse.
Ayisha and I spent a day and a half together exploring the city and while it was certainly nice to have a guide show me around, I also felt Ayisha was a genuine friend to me and -in fact – the best part of my time in Harar was getting to know Ayisha.
Ayisha’s story is quite sad and over coffee in Harar’s main square, she opened up to me and told me about her past. When she was in 8th grade her father passed away, and she had to drop out of school to help support the family. By chance one day, she met a foreign English teacher that had come to Harar to help teach doctors and nurses in the local hospital. Unfortunately there are no other volunteer English teachers that visit Harar through nonprofits or programs like US Peace Corps meaning this was really Ayisha’s only chance to learn English. After several months visiting this English teacher in his home during his free time, she became conversational in English and has since been able to give these tours to visitors through Rewda’s guesthouse.
Ayisha doesn’t really charge a set price for her tours, but I ended up paying for our lunch, drinks, etc. and tipped her 400 birr or about $17 USD which I think made her very happy.
On my first night, Ayisha took me to the hyena feeding ceremony a couple kilometers outside the city walls. For generations local men have been feeding the hyenas on the cities edge and now the nightly ritual has become a tourist attraction. Depending on the night, its even possible for you to feed the hyenas yourself – even from your own mouth! Fortunately this wasn’t an option the night I was there because I honestly might have done it.
I initially thought hyena’s were going to be vicious animals tearing the meat from the hands of the local men, but I was surprised to find out that they’re actually quite timid and afraid of people. Ayisha told me that while sometimes hyenas run through the streets of Harar at night, I should be more afraid of a common dog attack than any hyena.
The following morning, Ayisha met up with me around 9 am back at the guesthouse and began giving me a formal tour of the city. Ayisha led me through the intoxicating spice markets and narrow passages throughout the city stopping at local mosques and even visiting an Ethiopian coffee roaster. The highlight of this tour by far was stopping at the camel market where they no longer sell camels but rather camel meat. For lunch we went up to the butcher and purchased nearly a pound of camel meat. Nearby there was a lady who will cook up that meat for you in a mix of spices and serve it over injera bread. Camel meat is honestly delicious – you must try this if you have the chance. The meat was a little heavier and had more fat than beef giving it a tremendous flavor when combined with the local spices.
After lunch we went back to the guesthouse for a quick rest, and that afternoon Ayisha took me out for the true Horn of Africa experience – chewing the intoxicating chat leaves in a local chat den.
Chat or sometimes called Khat or Qat is a plant native to the Horn of Africa and Arabian peninsula. Legal in Ethiopia, chewing chat is an important past time in Harar, but not nearly as popular in neighboring Somalia where chat consumption has almost become a socio-economic problem.
The leaves produce a mild euphoria feeling when chewed making people generally more talkative, friendly, and hyperactive. Khat does have a tendency to suppress appetite and the leaves could be rough on your digestive system. You also won’t want to chew it at night as you probably will not be able to sleep until the effects wear off.
Chat is usually purchased in large shopping bags with branches of the plant cut up into pieces small enough to fit into the bags. While purchasing one bag may look like too much for just one person, you’re actually supposed to only eat the smaller leaves that grow out between the bigger leaves on the plant as these are the most potent. Once you’ve collected enough leaves, you’ll want to chew them slowly often with peanuts mixed in to give it a nice flavor. When you’re done chewing, you swallow the leaves.
The flavor isn’t that bad, possibly like chewing raw spinach, but you’ll want to have a water bottle and sweet drink like coke or pepsi handy to wash down any bad flavor you make come across.
Ayisha and I chilled for several hours chewing chat, listening to music, and swapping stories and pictures about our lives. Before long it started to get late and we went back to the guesthouse so I could get to sleep early before my 5:00 am bus back to Addis.
As someone who has traveled quite a lot, few places tend to surprise me anymore; however, my experience in Harar was unlike any other. From getting to know Ayishi to truly seeing the Harari Muslim culture, I will certainly be telling this story for years to come.
If I had more time
As I said before, Ethiopia is huge. I wish I had spent more time there, but when I initially booked the flights, I thought just under five days was sufficient.
If I had more time, I would have gone to Somalia – wait what? Isn’t that dangerous? Yes it certainly is in certain parts of the country, but Northern Somalia is actually a self-declared state only recognized by Ethiopia but independent from the rest of Somalia. Going by the name of Somaliland, this region of Somalia requires separate visas which can only be obtained from the Somaliland Embassy in Ethiopia or Somaliland Mission in London. Being separate from the rest of Somalia, Somaliland is actually quite safe and extremely welcoming to tourists because they so desperately want to the rest of the world to know their country is open for business and tourism.
I found this interesting blog about a girl who traveled alone to Somaliland – you can read more about it here.
From Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, you can continue onward via bus/van to Djibouti and ultimately to Eritrea. Looking back, I wish I planned to stay in this region for another couple weeks so I could have visited some of these extremely unknown places to most Americans and continue to increase my country count, but I guess it will have to wait for another trip. At least that means more Ethiopian food!
Most conceptions of Ethiopia back in my home country think of it as an extremely poor, crime-ridden terrorist hellhole which couldn’t be further from the truth. Ethiopia is certainly a very poor country and state-led development hasn’t been doing much for the local people. Internet is extremely hard to come by even in Addis which can be very frustrating. But Ethiopia is SAFE. It is one of the safest countries in Africa with very low rates of crime and no terrorism partly because the state is so heavy-handed.
Aside from a few touts in Addis – which I easily recognized and avoided – the only difficult or distressing thing about traveling in Ethiopia is the begging. There are people that beg from locals and tourists a like which I have sympathy before, but as a Westerner in Ethiopia – a country that receives significant amount of aid from the West – you’re often seen as someone who will charitably give their money away to just about anyone. This means that locals who have no business begging, and often have their own businesses, will come up to you and ask you for money just because they can. While annoying, it is best to just ignore these types of people and certainly don’t give anything to kids. You are just encouraging this type of behavior. If you do want to help the poor, I saw many donation boxes in stores throughout Addis where you know your money will go towards those actually in need.
Lastly I would say, don’t be afraid of Ethiopia. Just dive right in and get the full experience. This is one of the few places I have traveled where I feel like you can get the true authentic travel experience without even having to look for it. And if you’re going to Ethiopia, check out this awesome guide on the food. It can be intimidating at first, but it is the best part of the whole experience.
Check out my short video on Harar: