Trek the Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia
“The Chess Pieces of God”
Lying in the far north of Ethiopia, the stunning Simien Mountains are simply mesmerizing to visit as its undulating peaks, valleys, plateaus and pinnacles make for one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the whole of Africa.
Almost unique, this delightful part of the Ethiopian Highlands was formed over twenty-five million years ago and on Earth, they are only similar in appearance and origin to the Drakensberg all the way down in South Africa.
The rugged Simiens rise to the towering height of 4,553 metres at their highest point at Ras Dejen and such is the stunning scenery on offer that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Trekking in this lovely national park is a divine experience as you walk alongside deadly drops, past remote villages and along vast plateaus that look out over incredible scenery. Wild Gelada Baboons can be seen here and there and every now and again you may spot a glorious Walia ibex hugging the mountainside as bearded vultures sweep dramatically overhead.
With most of the Simien Mountains lying at over 2500 metres in height and often rising to over 4000, trekking can be hard work but the panoramic views all about you surely make it a worthwhile endeavour. At times mist hugs the cliff faces below you and spectacular waterfalls plunge down into the depths below.
After a long day’s hike, respite comes in the form of the small campsites dotted about the park and wrapping up warm in your sleeping bag and watching the sun go down is a rewarding experience before you settle down to sleep in the cold temperatures that plague the highlands.
Rising early, it’s another beautiful day where you’ll be scaling peaks, crossing rivers and puffing your way up steep paths that wind their way up cliff faces. With a local guide to help you out, you’ll develop a greater appreciation for the wonders of nature all about you and you’ll really never want to leave these jaw-dropping sights – each appearing better than the one before it.
Whether you decide to visit for one day or sign up for a two-week trek, the Simien Mountains are so glorious that they have been nicknamed ‘the Chess Pieces of God’ as the towering mountains and plateaus rise up so dramatically from the valleys and gorges far below.
For visiting the park you can either decide to arrange everything independently or sign up with a small group which is obviously more expensive.
With the wilds of Ethiopia all about you, your heart will soar like the birds above you as you fall in love with each and every awe-inspiring sight you come across.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
The main point of entry to the Simien National Park with its fantastic range of mountains is the town of Debark and all visitors need to sign in and pay the park entry fee here so that the wardens and officials know exactly who is there at any given time.
Most people arrive at Debark by bus or private car from Gondar which is around two to three hours away or from Aksum to the north that is five to seven hours drive.
From Debark, most people either take a taxi (if they decide to do the trek independently) or are taken by 4X4 to a popular start point near to Michibiny which is about one and a half hours away.
While a guide is not essential, you are obliged to take a scout with you at the very least and from then on they will be able to direct you.
Some people end up spending two fantastic weeks in the Simiens and there are a huge array of different treks that you can do here.
The longer the better really as the mountains are simply sensational!
Do – Activities & Attractions
Visiting the Simien Mountains is really all about one thing: trekking!
In the remote parts of the park, however, you can visit local villages and can arrange for a local Ethiopian coffee ceremony if you want to learn a bit more about the culture of the place. Every now and again you’ll meet little groups of children selling various handmade goods and they’ll happily teach you how to fire off a slingshot with unerring accuracy if this is a skill that you feel that you’ve been missing all your life.
There is some great bird watching to be had in the park and there are almost a thousand different species for you to try and spot.
While being a relatively small place, Debark has some interesting and colourful markets for you to visit on Wednesday and Saturday although most people pass through without stopping.
Not too far (relatively speaking) from the Simiens is the delightful city of Gondar which is well worth a visit with its amazing castles that look like they came out of Camelot. It also has a couple of nice old churches for you to explore.
Stay – Accommodation
Scattered about the national park are nine campsites and three community lodges for you to stay at. While pretty basic, most of them have toilets and water although a couple of them don’t.
For a more luxurious stay, there is always the Simien Lodge if you have had enough of camping out in the cold.
Most people camp throughout their stay in the Simiens.
Eat – Restaurants
On your trek, you are going to need to bring all of your food with you and carry it yourself if you decide to travel independently.
With organised tours, you are accompanied by a cook as well as a few mule handlers and the food and camping equipment is carried on the backs of the mules. The food is usually quite good for you being in such a remote location and the community lodges also offer up basic meals if you’re travelling without a group.
If going it alone there is a small supermarket and some shops in Debark for you to pick up supplies from though they are quite a bit more expensive than other ones in Ethiopia, larger because they know you have no choice. You can also rent cooking supplies in town.
When buying food supplies it is a nice gesture if you bring enough along for your scout as they will often only eat one meal a day otherwise.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
As the rainy season takes place between June and September, it is best to avoid these times of the year.
While the coldest months are from October to December, the rainy months will have turned the valleys of Ethiopia into a beautiful carpet of green and so it’s a great time to visit even if it can get very cold at night as temperatures plummet to around -10 degrees.
Generally speaking, daytime temperatures stay pretty consistent and you’ll want to wear sunscreen as the high altitude means that it is very easy to get burnt.
Another great time of year to visit is from November to March when it is usually hotter but the skies are clear.
Safety – Possible risks
Although it is pretty safe, you need to remember that you are in a pretty remote location and need to be in moderately good shape to trek the mountains. The high altitude makes it much tougher and if you hurt your leg or anything then it may take a while to see a doctor.
The scouts all have guns with them and this is just a precaution in case any wolves come sniffing around.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
While Ethiopia is generally very cheap to travel around a lot of its tourist attractions have massively inflated prices for foreign tourists.
Although trekking the Simien Mountains can be done independently, it can be quite a hassle organising everything although it will undoubtedly be a lot cheaper. You will inevitably have to haggle a lot and negotiate your way around as people often look to profit a lot off of visitors to the park.
When organising the trip you need to pay for park entry fees, camping fees, car fees, food supplies, renting cooking, tents and sleeping gear, paying for a scout and transport to and from the park if you don’t go by car. There are so many variations depending on how many people you are but it can be done very cheaply if you are willing to put in the effort. In the end, it may be as cheap as $20 a day/per person or less.
Organised tours are a lot more expensive and they again vary in price depending on how long you go for and how many people are in your group. For five nights in the Simiens, you will probably pay around $400 and this includes a guide, a scout, a cook, some mules, some mule handlers, all of your food, the camping supplies and 4X4 transport.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
When trekking in the mountains respect your companions and the guide or scout and just let them know if they’re going too fast as the altitude affects everyone differently. Just be polite and friendly and everything should be great!
If you do travel as part of a group you will be expected to tip all the people who accompanied you and made the trip so great. At the end, you’ll probably want to tip around 200 birr per person for all their hard work.
Reality Check – Be Aware
The Simien Mountains really are a beautiful part of the world and their delightful peaks, valleys and plateaus are gorgeous to explore. While the going is not particularly hard, the high altitude can be a challenge so make sure that you are moderately fit before undertaking the trek.
One thing is for sure; you won’t regret it!
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