Ethiopia - How to visit Danakil Depression?

Only one place like this on the planet

There is much to see in Ethiopia. It's easy to dedicate a lot of time solely to this country, as it is extremely diverse and has many unique landscapes. Mountains, waterfalls, deserts, monkeys, green areas, indigenous people, lakes with hippos, special churches and many other things.

But I had to decide on something. And that something was the "Danakil Depression" - and that is one of the most impressive places to see in the whole of Africa. And then before going home, the capital Addis Ababa. 

I could have packed more into Ethiopia in these 6-7 days, but after four weeks in Africa with Sudan and South Sudan, etc. it then was enough.

Especially a visit to the cities "Bahir Dar" or "Lalibela" would have been nice, but the circumstances with ominous African flight changes and the risk of flight postponements were too risky.

Map of Ethiopia - with the blue part showing the Dallol Desert.

Dallol Volcano and the other attractions in the Ethiopian desert on a map

April 27 - Day 1 - Getting Desert-Ready in "Mekelle"

I came from Eritrea this morning and had to change flight in Addis Ababa. The plane from Addis Ababa is only 45 minutes to Mekelle. 

Mekelle is the place where all the tours to the Danakil Depression started.

The Danakil Depression is the lowest point in the country and is considered to be one of the world’s hottest places. I was visiting the Danakil area in Djibouti last week and there is a huge salt lake too, so it's interesting to see Danakil from the Ethiopian side this time.

Mekelle Town from above and in the city.

Landing on the Mekelle Airport
Martyr Tower at the end of the roadStreetviewThere is much to see in MekelleIts a hotel and a restaurantMekelle Main central areaOn the top of the hill is a cross

A visit to Mekelle city before out to the desert

Arrived in the afternoon in Mekelle and prepared for tomorrow for the tour of the Danakil depression. It's going to be a two-day tour.

Mekelle itself is a busy place but not ugly. It has lots of restaurants and is a big town for all the many Ethiopian students. Therefore there are a lot of cafes and restaurants. The center is all concentrated in the middle and not covered over 10s of miles and spread out. It is possible to walk easily everywhere. 

Ethiopia is in general cheap and so are the hotels and restaurants which serve in summary good food and provide good amenities for the amount paid for a room in the hotels.

Day 2 - "Driver, start the engine, get me to the desert!"

I got picked up by a 4WD in the earlier morning. In the same hotel were other tourists staying which were also waiting to be picked up. However, they were with another company going to the Danakil depression. 

All over Mekelle, there are several tour operators who offer tours to and around Danakil of different lengths. Some even offer 4-5 days tours. For me, it was only a question if I would do 2 or 3-day tours. The 3-day tour usually includes the once-famous lava volcano "Erta Ale" (which is since few years almost without lava).

I went on the 2-days trip.

Why is a trip to the Lava Volcano "Erta Ale" not worth it anymore? 

The reason why I did not want to go for three days and include a visit to the Erta Ale lava volcano: The volcano has changed completely in the last few years and the lava is hardly visible anymore.

Until a few years ago the lava lake in Ethiopia was unique in the world because it was a huge lake of lava where you came very close as a tourist and photos looked ingenious and were easy to take.

This has changed because the earth plates have shifted in the last two years and so the lava has completely drained off and accumulated a few kilometers further. So the tours go there, but according to various reports on the internet and also by the fortunately honest confirmation of the tour providers, it is not the same anymore and so to speak, not much of what it used to be.

With good luck, you can see a little lava, otherwise only smoke, and steam.

So the volcano was no longer interesting in relation to the effort and strain. 

5-hour drive toward the Dallol desert

The tour started after a short visit to the office of the tour operator. Altogether there were about 13 people on the same tour, with 3 people per jeep.

All the way to the desert in the north-eastern part of Ethiopia is long but interesting.

The way leads past beautiful landscapes, both over and through the mountains and then down through winding roads and small villages, into the less and less inhabited desert landscape.

The further down the road the hotter and drier the air is and more and more sand and desert appear. The distance from Mekelle to Danakil takes about 5 hours. 

Mountain Area starts after Agula in Mekelle
Local house of MekelleEthiopian locals in mekelle having a walkUnique landscapes all along the roadHigh above Ethiopia is lots of mountainsLong way towards Dallol with many curvesHaving a break on the Ethiopian Mountain

The landscape is extremely diverse all along the 5-hour trip. Not boring at all.

Only with 4wd to the desert
People live the same live since 100 of yearsMore and more sandA pyramid is visible in the mountain in Ethiopia5 hour ride from Mekelle to DallolHot but nice to look at is the sandy landscape in EthiopiaTHe further the way to the desert, the fewer mountains

No dessert in the desert 

Lunch was the most basic as there are no normal restaurants or snack bars in this area around "Agula" and even smaller probability to find one after that in Dallol and further. 

Also, there is no meat in this area, not even for tourists. Thus the ugly food consisted only of rice. The hope of us tourists was that there would be a great BBQ with chicken in the evening. But that hope vanished soon.

After the mentioned 5 hours ride, everything is already completely devastated and dry and a lot of salt is recognizable on the ground, this shines white like a sugar coat.

Salty desert in Danakil
Looks like sugar on a chocolate cakeSalty area and very hot in DanakilOur Jeeps that brought us to the desert

The strange "Salt Mountain"

In the afternoon a small hill made of stone and salt appearing like out of nowhere.

This is the only hill wide and wide and looks strange in the desert. In front of it, there is a small natural pool with salt water.

Small salt mountain before getting to Lake Asale
3 people per jeep to the tour in Danakil DepressionTour Guide explaining the salt in the waterDiving almost impossible due to the huge amount of saltSharp stone is dangerous when slippingThey always check if any other people or terrorists are aroundLots of hot weather and lot of salt in Danakil

The Salt Lake "Lake Asale"

Driving continues into the salt lake. The jeeps drive as far as possible into the sea and let us get out afterward to run into the sea ourselves. The whole ground is white and consists of hard salt crust. 

The water is extremely salty, (obviously). The atmosphere is unique. Some of the tourists were in Bolivia in the salt lake, but it is not to be compared and the salt desert here in Ethiopia is completely different because it leads directly into the water. 

This depression is 125m below sea level
Lies the Afar regionWith numerous sulfur springs and salty waterInto the Danakil desert lake

Extremely hot at the Lake

Even if the view is beautiful, the climate is unbearable. It is extremely hot and there is no shelter from the sun, except in the jeep, which is already over 40 degrees inside.

In the desert at the lake, we pause and wait until sunset. They serve tea and some biscuits.

A few hundred meters is the tourist troop of ETT, another tour operator (the most famous one) and when I look over there I am glad not to have chosen this ETT, even if they are a few dollars cheaper. The amount of jeeps is two-three times as much and therefore also the number of tourists in the group.

Having tea in 40 degrees Danakil Depression
We were waiting until the sun setIts hot up until late in the eveningSecurity is important at the border to Eritrea

No shower, no toilet, no comfort but sleeping under a starry sky

After sunset, the camp in "Hamad Ela" is approached. There is no more light or lamp and there are no showers, no toilets, and no water (except drinking water from the personal amount of water bottles included per day).

The hope to have a nice BBQ for dinner died now, but in this darkness, we would not have seen anyway what kind of meat they would serve us. 

Even after 22pm, it is still extremely hot and dry. It is extremely windy and falling asleep without earplugs was not possible, as the wind was so loud.

The camp is made of wooden beds, they only provide a mattress and a pillow can be rented for some coins.

The camp has only wood beds and there are no showers for tourists

Day 3 -  One more day in "Danakil Depression"

In the morning we already had to leave at 6am to keep the program. Also, hurry because the heat soon becomes extreme. 

In the area live all the camel herders and they have their caravans with camels that transport salt from one corner to the other.

They transport the salt through the Danakil Depression
They dont have and dont earn much moneyThey do this every day, walking through the hot desertTourist attraction in Ethiopia, but the locals dont like being on photo

They earn 3 dollars per day

The workers, Afar people, are not supposed to be a show or tourist attraction and they hate to be photographed without receiving a few coins. But that is understandable.

To work in this heat for almost 3 dollars a day would make any of us feel angry if you were photographed by well-fed tourists.

Camels carrying salt that was mined by hand
All done by hand and some basic tools, its hard job in the heatThey also use it against intruders or tourists who dont pay some coinsCamels is being loaded with salt stones

Sulfur desert formation in "Dallol Volcano"

The second last stop (or sight to visit) of this 2-day tour was the Dallol Volcano.

The name is completely wrong because it is not a volcano in that sense, but a sulfur formation with sulfur mountain formations and a steaming sulfur landscape.

Anyway, it's probably something that can't be found anywhere else like here in Ethiopia. That sulfur landscape is wide and on a huge area. Also, it smells.

Armed security in this area close to Eritrea

In front was an armed AK-47 guard leading the group through the sulfur.

The reason for the security guard: Ethiopia and Eritrea are still in conflict even if it is no longer that dramatic. But the tensions are still there and Eritrea is only 30 kilometers away from this sulfur landscape. A few years ago tourists were attacked once and since then the security situation for tourists has intensified.

Even if there will be no military to attack here, the danger rather comes from terrorists.

Guards with soviet weapons protect us against terrorists in the Danakil Depression
Its already hot and long walk to the SulfurHere the movie was recordedIts sharp and does hurt when falling on itTerrorist making a fireIts a guard walking to protect the touristsLandscape of one of several hot springs in the Danakil Depression

pH Level below 1 which is like battery acid

So yes, it's not healthy to touch the sulfur. Also, I should have used shoes that I could throw away afterward, as the sulfur on the shoes discolors everything and cannot be removed.
Guide watches over the yellow sulfur area
Abandoned landscape is welcoming photographersThere is toxic sulfur everywhereOnce a tourist fell in and had to remove an armThey walk through the Sulfur as its nothingThe Danakil Depression is out of this planeThe sulfur volcano is huge and hot

Dallol is a cinder cone volcano in the Danakil Depression. The yellow stuff is a salt and sulfur mixture, dried in the sun.

Danakil Depression is made of salt sun and sulfur.
Exists only in Ethiopia. Waterfalls made of SulfurYellow looks like cake but is highly dangerousIts not an area to spend a day because of the heatIts overrun by touristsWhen tourists storm the Danakil Depression a lot gets brokenMade of Sulfur

Set of the movie "Planet of the Apes" and the Sulfur Lake

The last Danakil sight to see was a strange rock hill and a sulfur lake where you could clean jewelry.

The only one who "cleaned" jewelry there was the tour guide, who probably didn't convey very convincingly that it worked.

Because this landscape is so strange and looks like from another planet, the movie "Planet of the Apes" was made here in this area.

The movie set from Planet of the Apes - no joke
Here the apes were recordedSalt Mountains of DallolMany tourists visit each year the Danakil DepressionIn the sulfur lake its possible to clean jewelleryThe guide cleaned the jewelleryDanakil Depression is the hottest place on earth

Back to Mekelle, it's really time for a shower

Now, the 2-day Danakil tour was over and before around lunchtime, one jeep drove back to Mekelle. I was in that jeep as well as two other tourists. The other jeeps continued the tour to the volcano and its (invisible) lava. 

Back to Mekelle also takes about 4-5 hours after that I was glad to be back and to have a shower.

Loading a donkey with wood
Its simple and basic but provides shelterAlong the way from DallolThey struggle to surviveThey dress in typical african towelsThey are weak but have to work hardOn the left is the donkey and on the right the owner

After extreme heat, sweating and constantly sandy dry air it was the most brilliant to be able to shower away all the dirt and to rest in the air-conditioned room.

The next day a jeep with 3 tourists from the same tour arrived at the same hotel. That was definitely a "confirmation" for me that I luckily didn't go on the third tour day and to the volcano. They said:

Look at us we are like Zombies, we didn't have a shower for three days now, the food didn't get any better and there was no lava to see - the volcano just steam. The exertions were not worth it.

Day 4 - With the plane to Addis Ababa

I completely underestimated Mekelle. I would have expected to find a small town, but as already mentioned, Mekelle is very pleasant and has many restaurants. They are equipped for western tourists.

The whole city is compact. However, there isn't much to see from a tourist's point of view, but the Mekelle Tower is worth a look. Also within walking distance.

I had a lot planned for anything else for today except in the afternoon with the plane to Addis Ababa. 

Mekelle Martyr's Monument (Tower) and the streets around it.

Seen from Mekelle Center
Me standing in front of the Martyr TowerA visit to Mekelle was worth itIts busy but comfortable and has many restaurantsIts cheap and good food in the restaurants in MekelleIts the way to the castle in MekelleWith the horse owner

Day 5 - Things to do in Addis Ababa

Now have time today and tomorrow in Addis Ababa. After that, I will return home late tomorrow evening.

Addis Ababa is quite big to come around as a tourist. But since I had two days' time it was not necessary to stress and instead of taxi stress and dealing with taxi drivers, bus driving was interesting and easy.

Probably the best area to stay in Addis Ababa is close to Cameroon Street or Namibia Street, or close to Edna Mall. There are hundreds of restaurants here and also perfect to get back to the airport quickly, as this area is only 10 minutes away from the airport.

I don't know why the internet is saying Addis Ababa is not worth visiting. I found it pleasant to see it for two days.

Stroll through "Piazza" area

Piazza is in the northern part of Addis Ababa city center and during the day nice to visit.

In the Piazza Area much is still very old with old buildings and many locals. Many coffee shops here. In the evening it is rather impractical for tourists. I was told:

Better stay away from Piazza area in the evening, could be dangerous.

Run-down landmarks in this area
Addis Ababa Piazza has good bread in its bakeryMany backpacker hostels in the Area of PiazzaOld Piazza in Addis Ababa has many old buildings from the last century

Events around the "St. George Church"

Near Piazza Area. Here several churches and thus many older people in traditional white church dress on the way. Today was a celebration (Easter in Ethiopia is a week later than in the west) and therefore full house in and around the church.

Cathedral during Eastern in Ethiopia
During Easter is a lot of celebrations in Addis AbabaAround the church in 100 stepsAddis Ababa has many old market areas

Ethiopian rural market in "Merkato"

The Merkato is a two-kilometer drive from St George's Church and Minilik Square. I took the bus and it was easy because the locals are very friendly and helpful. The Merkato area is huge and leads me through several streets and corners. There are all sorts of stuff here, typically African and hot and stuffy, but not as narrow as e.g. in West African markets (e.g. Ivory Coast).

Addis Ababa Merkato is good to visit in one hour
In one hour is plenty to walk through the Market in Addis AbabaAddis Ababa Market has all kind of stuff for localsEthiopians playing football at MinilikOld Buildings around MerkatoIn the Merkato Area is the mosqueMany religions, including the muslims in Addis Ababa

Photo not allowed at "Derg Monument"

Bus driving is easy in Addis Ababa. The locals are happy to help and many speak English.

I got off at the Derg Monument just to have a look and take a picture. But this is probably not allowed, except for a heavy tip.

Walking tour to Derg Monument is not worth it
Ancient symbol of the Derg MonumentNext to the market at the Derg Monument and its surrounding streetsModern Addis Ababa is under construction

Restaurants and streets around streets of "EDNA Mall" 

Had my hotel near the Edna Mall, because it is the easiest and fastest to be back at the airport for the departure tomorrow. This area is perfect to find something to eat without getting food poisoning.

The security is more strict than at other places I’ve been
EDNA Area in Addis Ababa is good for tourists to eatLong streets in Addis but easy to ride with the busMost famous brand of beer in Addis Ababa

The cathedral next to EDNA area is called "Medhane-Alem Cathedral"

Doesn't really look like it, but it's the second-largest cathedral in the whole of Africa and the largest in Ethiopia. 

Its english name is "Saviour of the World"
Medhane Alem CathedralAfter church you can go eating chicken and chips in Addis Ababa

Day 6 -  Ethiopian Coffee on the last day

Ethiopia was my last country in North-East Africa. Gladly no flight delays or cancelations and so I finish this African trip.

After the last time in West Africa and the wordlessly canceled flight from Senegal to the Gambia, I would have expected that I will experience also this time similarities regarding flight postponements.

The only thing I needed to do before going home was rest and drink Ethiopian coffee the whole day.

Highway towards Airport and city center
Me in Addis at one of the most famous brand for exportRandom Ethiopian Street photoCentral Station called "La Gare" in Ethiopia

Huge busy airport in Addis Ababa

Now in the airport of Addis Ababa and I'm surprised by how many people there are. The hordes of tourists are extreme and Ethiopia seems to be the burgeoning country in Africa, which becomes more and more the hub for business and tourism in Africa. 

Let's see what Ethiopia will look like in 10 years and if tourism will change a lot.

But now I first will go home and prepare for the trip to Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran.


  1. Thanks for the article. Can you tell if there are any hotels in the Danakil Depression or solely camps? And wonderful photos by the way!

    1. Hi Ambika. Thanks for reading, unfortunately there are no Hotels there. Only camps and also there is no shower or electricity around.

  2. I have a close friend who dropped out of college when he won big at a casino and he took up traveling the world to different places. This is next on his list so I am going to share this with him so he is fully prepared. He has never been to a place like this and I am worried he will get overwhelmed. I really loved the pictures you got on your travels here. They are incredible!