Ethiopia's highest mountain range, the Simiens, nurture an incredible array of native flora and fauna including animals like the gelada baboon, Ethiopian wolf and walia ibex. Scheduled to open in early 2017, a new luxury tented camp will complement basic facilities already available in the national park.
courtesy Ethiopia Tourism Organization
A spectacular red-rock landscape reminiscent of the American Southwest provides a refuge for dozens of tiny rock-hewn monasteries scattered through the mountains. Trekking is the main activity, but the region also boasts some of Ethiopia's best wilderness lodges.
Joe Yogerst/CNN
Deep in the Danakil Desert, Erta Ale (Smoking Mountain) is a continuously active volcano and one of only six on the planet with a permanent lava lake. A 10-kilometer trail leads across a volcanic wasteland to the crater rim, where hikers can eyeball nature's own sound and light show before camping overnight.
courtesy Ethiopia Tourism Organization
Like other African nations, Ethiopia has a long and rich musical tradition. Addis Ababa is the place to catch live tunes by groups from around the Horn of Africa, from traditional azmari music to cutting-edge Bolel, Eritrean pop and Ethiopian jazz.
Joe Yogerst/CNN
Native to Ethiopia, coffee is a national obsession and the coffee ceremony one of the most accessible traditions. Engulfed in a cloud of frankincense, coffee stations can be found in hotel lobbies, airport lounges and restaurants. Watch as the beans are roasted over a small charcoal fire, ground and added to boiling water to produce thick, rich espresso-like buna coffee.
Joe Yogerst/CNN
One of the architectural wonders of Africa, the Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Citadel) of Gondar is a sprawling complex of palaces, churches, plazas, barracks, stables and meeting halls surrounded by sturdy walls. Founded in the 17th century by Emperor Fasilides, the citadel was badly damaged by British bombing during World War Two, but much has been restored.
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Just downstream from Lake Tana, the newly born Blue Nile tumbles over a 45-meter rock face into a narrow gorge. The cascade reaches its greatest volume and width during the long rainy season between July and October, although the raging waters impress at any time of year.
Joe Yogerst/CNN
Haile Gebrselassie and Tirunesh Dibaba are just two of the many world record-holding athletes and Olympic gold medalists that have come out of Ethiopia. And unsurprisingly, participating in events like the annual Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa and EthioTrail Run in Abijatta-Shala National Park has become popular with tourists.
courtesy Ethiopia Tourism Organization
Like its counterpart in neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia's Great Rift Valley was a cradle of mankind (the famous australopithecine "Lucy" was discovered there in 1974) and a scenic wonderland. South of Addis Ababa, the valley is spangled with water bodies like Lake Chamo in Nechisar National Park.
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One of the great crossroads of humanity, more than 50 tribes live in and around the Omo Valley of southwest Ethiopia. Many of them -- like the Hamar and Mursi -- cling to ancient ways and means like ceramic lip disks, ritual scarring, body painting and nomadic herding.
Joe Yogerst/CNN
Founded by King Lalibela in the late 12th century, this highland city is world-renowned for its 11 stone churches. Chiseled from red volcanic scoria, the sanctuaries were the king's attempt to build the "New Jerusalem" of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Visiting the churches is especially evocative during daily rites.
Joe Yogerst/CNN
Thirty-seven churches adorn the 37 islands at the southern end of Lake Tana. Accessible by boat from Bahir Dar, the monasteries mainly date from the 14th through 17th centuries when the islands were a place of spiritual retreat for both orthodox clergy and the royal family. Their adobe walls and wooden doors are decorated with incredibly detailed religious murals, many of them hundreds of years old.
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A hip cuisine in many Western cities, Ethiopian cooking is like nothing else in the foodie world. Curry-like wat and sauteed tibs (meat and vegetables form the nucleus of most local meals, everything scooped up with a humongous portion of injera, a flatbread made from teff grain. Among the great places to eat Ethiopian in-country are Lucy restaurant beside the National Museum in Addis, the Four Sisters in Gondar and Seven Olives in Lalibela.
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One of the best collections in Africa, the Addis Ababa museum safeguards an impressive array of tribal artifacts, royal paraphernalia and monastic murals. Housed inside the former royal palace, one of the highlights is a visit to Haile Selassie's private quarters.
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Marketplace Africa

Ethiopia is the hot new place in Africa -- here's why

(CNN) — In the late 1950s, Ethiopian Airlines launched an advertising campaign in the Western media that touted the ancient kingdom as Africa's "newest travel adventure."
More than half a century later, the huge East African nation has yet to live up to that lofty billing. But it might not be much longer.
The sights, the scenery, the culture are already there. Ethiopian's ancient orthodox Christianity has endowed the nation with thousands of churches and monasteries, some of them enshrined as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
A succession of empire and kingdoms added medieval forts, palaces and tombs like the Gondar citadel and the towering stone stele of Axum.
Ethiopia was named as the world's best destination for tourists in 2015 by the European Council on Tourism and Trade. What makes the country unique? Ethiopia is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Semien National Park. Massive erosion over the years on the Ethiopian plateau has created one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, with jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and sharp precipices dropping some 1,500 meters.
Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
From Lake Tana and the Blue Nile to the red-rock Gheralta Mountains, the arid Danakil Desert and the lush Omo Valley, the landscapes are astounding and incredibly varied. Ethiopia's wildlife riches are also diverse, from typical African savannah animals in the south to unique indigenous creatures like the gelada baboon and Ethiopian wolf.
The missing ingredient has always been infrastructure -- the kind of hotels, restaurants and service that tourism rivals like Kenya and South Africa mastered decades ago.

A turning point

"Tourism was on the back burner for a long time," says Solomon Tadesse, CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO). "The country was going through major changes and the government's priorities were health, education, communication."
Not to mention drought, famine and revolution.
"There were fundamental reasons why tourism infrastructure was not in place."
According to Tadesse, the government finally decided in 2013 that tourism could generate jobs, income and wealth just like any other economic sector.
A tourism transformation council was established to provide direction to the industry and the ETO was created to handle marketing, promotion and product development.
The tourism push coincided with a massive upsurge in foreign investment from China, India, Turkey and other nations that boosted GDP to annual growth rates of around 10%.
With the Ethiopian economy going like gangbusters, tourism is slowly but surely moving toward the great expectations generated more than half a century ago.

New infrastructure, expanding industry

The annual Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa is popular among tourists.
courtesy Ethiopia Tourism Organization
Addis Ababa is in the midst of a building boom that includes a massive expansion of Bole International Airport and a number of new hotels including glitzy high-rise offerings from Marriott and InterContinental currently under construction.
The national capital has a new light rail system (the first in Africa) and the Chinese government has undertaken the $4-billion task of rebuilding and modernizing the old railroad line between Addis and Djibouti.
A brand new superhighway whisks traffic through the Great Rift Valley south of the capital while a nationwide road improvement campaign is rapidly improving land transport between other major cities.
Provincial capitals are getting new airport terminals, and in some cases (like Jinka), airports where there was nothing before.
Ethiopian Airlines is also bulking up.
Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the national air carrier is in the midst of a massive expansion that includes the latest Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
The route network is also growing, with New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dublin, Cape Town and Manila added since early 2015.
Tadesse expects tourism arrivals to reach one million for the first time this year, doubling the number of visitors from just three years ago.
With so many new hotels and infrastructure improvements, Addis Ababa is ready for the rush. But doubts remain about whether the rest of the nation is prepared to become the next big thing in African travel.

Attractive new accommodations

The spectacular Gheralta Escarpment is now home to many great wilderness lodges.
Joe Yogerst/CNN
Far and away the main issue beyond the capital is the substandard accommodation. Even the best hotels in celebrated destinations like Gondar, Lalibela and Bahir Dar hover just above a backpacker level.
The hotel situation in the south is even more dire, with only a handful of properties rising above a single star.
Problems range from lack of air conditioning, mosquito netting and basic bathroom amenities to lackluster service, less-than-stellar restaurant food and litter-filled hotel grounds.
Yet here and there you find a gem.
Like Gheralta Lodge in the mountains of the same name between Axum and Mek'ele in northern Ethiopia. Perched on a lofty ridge, the stone cottages overlook a stunning red-rock landscape redolent of America's Southwest.
"I spent six months going around Ethiopia with my wife making a list of 13 places that would be ideal for a hotel," says lodge owner and founder Silvio Rizzotti, an Italian citizen who was born in Ethiopia.
"We narrowed that down to three before deciding that Gheralta was the best place to create a modern eco-lodge."
New hotels are also in the works in the other places. Addis Ababa-based Jacaranda is developing luxury properties on the shores of Lake Tana near Bahir Dar, on a hilltop above the ancient stele of Axum, in Simien Mountains National Park and overlooking historic Gondar.
The properties will be managed by South Africa's AHA hotel group, one of the most experienced lodge, camp and hotel operators at the bottom end of the continent.
Expected to open later this year or in early 2017, Jacaranda's Gondar Hills resort is especially impressive, a $20-million mountaintop property. The environmentally friendly hotel will feature 110 rooms hewn from local stone and tucked beneath energy-saving sod roofs.
"Tourism is new in Ethiopia," says Jacaranda manager Andinet Feleke. "So you can't compared with Kenya or Tanzania. It wasn't a government priority until recently.
"But over the last three or four years, the situation has improved a lot. And there's much more awareness now that tourism is important to Ethiopia, that we can compete with Africa's top destinations."
Joe Yogerst is a freelance travel, business and entertainment writer based in California.
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