Interior of the church of Debre Berhan Selassie © Judith Duk
First-time visitors to Ethiopia are generally amazed by the stunning natural beauty of a country that is also incredibly rich in culture and history. The striking diversity of landscapes, ancient traditions and people leaves a lasting impression to challenge the misleading stereotype of a land stricken by years of drought and famine. Ethiopia boasts of being the only uncolonised country in Africa, having defeated and expelled the Italians after a mere five years of occupation. Ethiopia has emerged into the present day as a fiercely independent and proud country, and one in which Islam and Christianity coexist in relative harmony.
Brimming with contrasts and extremes, Ethiopia beckons visitors to explore from the tops of its highlands, where mountains soar over 14,100 feet (4,300 metres), to the depths of the Danakil Depression situated below sea level. Discovering Abyssinian culture and traditions that date back over 3,000 years is incredibly exciting and it is possible to experience ancient Islamic folklore, as well as the fascinating rituals and sacred ceremonies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ethiopia is described as the Cradle of Humanity, home to the oldest human remains in the world, while at the same time its capital, Addis Ababa, meaning 'New Flower' in Amharic, is home to the more modern problems of urban migration, where homeless people roam the streets in search of food, money and a better life. Despite the undeniable poverty, however, travellers will find that the vast majority of Ethiopians are polite, friendly and hugely industrious - the urban streets may be littered with refuse but they are also full of smiles.
The north of Ethiopia is the most attractive region for visitors both from an historical and a natural point of view. The Historic Route winds through the medieval wonders of the country, including the ancient cities of Gondar and Axum and the breath-taking Lalibela churches, hewn into rock. The north also boasts the lofty Simien Mountains National Park, encompassing the fourth highest peak on the continent, and providing fantastic hiking opportunities and a variety of wildlife. Bahar Dar, situated on Lake Tana, is popular as a base from which to explore the intriguing monasteries built on the many islands scattered about the lake, as well as the Blue Nile Falls, or 'Smoke of Fire', which are arguably the most impressive falls in North Africa.
The south of Ethiopia, on the other hand, is the heartland of some of the surviving tribal cultures, with villagers living much as they have for centuries. There are fewer awe-inspiring ancient sites but the game reserves and tribal enclaves draw adventurous travellers.
Ethiopia is set among a contrasting environment of natural beauty and the signs of poverty, where lakes, mountains and wildlife reserves compete for attention with the poor and hungry. Ethiopia is used to being overlooked as a tourist destination, but the country's unique attractions are slowly taking pride of place in northeast Africa, and today the oldest independent nation on the continent welcomes visitors to experience her mosaic of ethnicity, a long and proud history, and an abundance of stunning scenery.