Spend 10 days on a tour of Ethiopia that includes many of its cultural sites and spend time in Lalibela on January 7, otherwise known as Ethiopian Christmas. Participate in the Christmas ceremony into the early AM hours in Lalibela and listen to the priests chant at sunrise as you join the locals in this sacred festival. Also tour ruins near Gondar, cruise on Lake Tana near Bahir Dar, visit Genete Mariam and rock-hewn churches, and see the sites that have put Axum on the Historic Route map in Ethiopia. This main highlights tour of Ethiopia only takes place in January to participate in the Christmas festival there.
Witness the sacred all-night ceremony at Beta Mariam Church in Lalibela
Hear the chants and fervent dancing of the white-robed priests and locals
Tour churches, cathedrals, and markets along the Historic Route
Cruise on Laka Tana and hike to Blue Nile Waterfall near Bahir Dar
This morning transfer back to the airport for your flight to Bahir Dar. Transfer to your hotel here, the Avanti Blue Nile. Bahir Dar is situated on the southern side of Lake Tana and near the Blue Nile River. Settle in to freshen up before an afternoon boat cruise to some of the islands on Lake Tana, home to some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world. Visit the 14th-century monastery Ura Kidane Mihret, most famously known for its painted maqdas and collection of crosses and crowns. This afternoon drive to the village of Tis Isat and see the Blue Nile Falls, a scenic waterfall created by a dam along the river a short drive outside of town.
Today set out for a drive to Gondar, once the royal capital of Ethiopia. The landscape here is beautiful and the area is dotted with castles and churches built by Emperor Fassiladas and his descendants. Visit today the Debre Birhan Sealssie church with ornately decorated walls and ceilings depicting stories from the Bible and medieval history.
Drive to Sanqaber in the Simien Mountains today for a full day of hiking and exploring the breathtaking scenery, some of the most wild in all of Ethiopia. Known as the 'rooftop of Africa', the Simien Mountains are one of the largest mountain ranges in all of Africa. Enjoy your afternoon to soak up the scenery and have a picnic lunch before you head back to Gondar.
Transfer to the airport for the flight on to Axum, Ethiopia's most ancient city and once capital of the great Aksumite Empire. Take a city tour here today visiting the city's stelae park and St. Mary's Church. This sanctuary chapel is the claimed home of the original Ark of the Covenant (though it cannot be viewed by visitors) and it contains the ancient coronation yard whereby emperors were crowned. The Axum Museum, the Queen of Sheba's palace ruins, and King Kaleb's tomb are all also found here. You may see people starting to make preparations for the Christmas celebrations in Axum this day as well. Explore the city before returning to your hotel this evening.
This morning you drive to the airport for a short flight on to Lalibela, the crown jewel of Ethiopia often referred to as 'Africa's Petra'. Here you find the most well-known and preserved churches in the country and the site for many religious ceremonies throughout the year. Visit the magnificent rock-hewn churches which were built by hand between 800 and 1200 AD and are still active worship places. This afternoon tour the following churches: Bete Amanuel, Bete Markorios, Bete Aba Libanos, and Bete Gebriel-Rufael. Rest up late afternoon for the long evening ahead.
This evening attend the Christmas Eve ceremony with the pilgrims at Bete Mariam Church. Listen in awe as the priest and deacons chant throughout the night. Priests are clothed in white turbans lined with red sashes and carry gold scarves. Pilgrims clap to the drumbeat and everyone joins in on the celebration through the night and into the early AM hours. At midnight, a candle lighting ceremony is performed to commemorate the birth of Jesus.
Enjoy the ceremony through the night, or return for a few hours of sleep before the two-hour-long sunrise procession. About 100 priests form a line and climb the rocky steps to the rim of the pit overlooking the church. They follow the beat of the drum as they surround the edge and begin to sway in unison. They rattle their sitars, and alternate between crouching and standing to the beat of the drum to simulate King David’s dance and finish up the Christmas celebration.
In the courtyard below, other priests form a tight circle with two drummers in the center and begin chanting a hymn to the priests standing overhead, who respond in kind, symbolizing the people on the earth below and the angels in heaven joining voices in unity. This continues for two hours, with the intensity continuing to swell. Upon its culmination, return to your hotel to rest after the long night. Spend the afternoon wandering Lalibela as you like.
Today take a full-day excursion to Genete Mariam, one of the most interesting churches in the Lalibela area near the source of the Tekaze River. The large monolith was carved into a rocky hilltop and is supported by pillars. This site was first excavated during the reign of Yakuno Amlak in the early 13th century and contains some of the earliest discovered wall paintings in Ethiopia. Located about 30 km southeast of Lalibela, the trip out to the site and back takes a total of about 4 hours today.
This morning transfer back to the Lalibela Airport for your flight on to Addis Ababa. Settle in to your hotel and set out with your guide to visit the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, designed as a testament to the victims of a recent dark period in Ethiopia's history under the Derg Regime. The museum displays a number of graphic exhibits, including skeletal remains, photos, and models of how victims were tortured and is not recommended for young children. From here, continue on to the Muya Abyssinia craft and see how the weavings and other handicrafts are used to create home furnishings, decor, and accessories.
Day 10: January 10 | Addis Ababa | Return Home
Spend today sightseeing with a guide around Addis Ababa. Start your tour with a drive up north to Mount Entoto. Next visit the Ethnographic museum which contains a large collection of Ethiopian handicrafts and historic artifacts. Visit also the National Museum of Ethiopia, which houses the famous fossil of 'Lucy'. Enjoy lunch at a nearby cafe before visiting the Trinity Cathedral this evening. This is the largest and most revered of all modern churches. Finish up your tour with a drive through the largest open-air market in all of Africa. Rest up in your hotel room one last time before your transfer back to the airport for your flight home this evening.
The trip might have been the absolute best of our lifetime (thus far). We particularly want to commend our guide Peter in the Guilin area-he was so incredibly attentive, energetic, enthusiastic-and absolutely dedicated to ensuring that our meals were 100% vegetarian.