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.
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 meters), to the depths of the Danakil Depression situated below sea level; to discover Abyssinian culture and traditions that date back over 3,000 years; to experience ancient Islamic folklore, as well as the fascinating rituals and sacred ceremonies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Northern Ethiopia holds the greatest attraction for visitors as one of the country's richest regions for culture, history and natural splendor. The Historic Route takes in the medieval city of Gondar, with more castles, palaces and churches than any other city in Africa; and the ancient capital of the Queen of Sheba and Ethiopia's holiest city, Axum, where the original Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments is said to rest. Ethiopia's top attraction, however, is undoubtedly the 13th-century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, among the most incredible man-made structures in the world, revered and renowned among Ethiopians and foreigners alike and the venue for some of the most famous religious festivals in Ethiopia. Taking 24 years to complete, the astounding rock churches are believed to have been created with the help of angels.
The north also boasts the breathtaking 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 the most impressive falls in north eastern Africa.
Southwards, the Rift Valley system is another wondrous region where many other attractions are sited. The six or seven Rift Valley crater lakes are home to a large number of bird and marine life. They are also a paradise for nature and water lovers. National parks with their exotic birds, animals and plant life add to the beauty of the Rift Valley region. Beautiful landscapes and natural features are the most enjoyable components of the system. Salt lakes, active volcano sites and caravan routes still number among Ethiopia's great attractions in the Rift Valley.
Further south is the Omo Valley with its popular ethnic treasures. This is where about 50% of Ethiopia's ethnic groups live: the Konso with their terraced agriculture and rituals; the Mursi with their clay lip plates and barbarian life style; the Hamer with their bull-jumping ceremony, which young men must experience in order to qualify for adulthood; and the Karo with their body painting and adornment. Here unusual traditions such as dance, music and rituals from birth to marriage and burial are still observed in their genuine and original forms.
Ethiopia is used to being overlooked as a tourist destination, but the country's unique attractions are slowly taking pride of place in 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.