The Danakil Depression in Northern Ethiopia is one of the most unique places on the planet. Boiling and steaming hot springs in breath-taking blue, yellow, green, red and orange colors, boiling lava lakes and a salt lake of epic proportion are just a few things that expect the few adventurers who dare visiting this hostile place.
These are the top two sights in the Danakil Depression
Dallol – a volcanic area full of colorful boiling hot springs and astonishing colors
Erta Ale – a continuously active volcano with a lave lake in its crater
Things to know about the Danakil Depression before going
Visiting the Danakil Depression is only possible by joining a tour group. In the past, there have also been a few security issues with groups of the local Afar people who are fighting for independence in the border region of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Therefore, all tours are escorted by armed guards.
Overall, Ethiopia scored 40th of 54 African countries in our comprehensive safety score for Africa and is the 3rd most populous country in Africa. Check out the full ranking of African countries and their capitals, population and surface area.
How to get to the Danakil Depression
All tours start in the town of Mek’ele in the Ethiopian highlands. There are two options to get to Mek’ele from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and main gateway to the country: you can either endure a 17 hour bus ride for less than $15 (not recommended) or take one of five daily flights. Ethiopian Airlines offers 50% off all domestic flights for foreigners who have travelled to Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines. Just contact their sales office with your booking number and let them know your preferred domestic flight route and time and they will book it for you with a discount of 50%. If you are flying to Ethiopia with another airline – don’t to worry, the standard rate of a roundtrip ticket from Addis to Mek’ele is around $200 – still affordable (if not – there is still option A, the 17 hour bus journey).
More Places to visit in Northern Ethiopia
In addition the the incredible beauty of the Danakil Depression, there are plenty more incredible places to visit in Northern Ethiopia. To the east of Mek’ele are the Simien Mountains, an incredibly beautiful mountain range that is home to the Gelada Baboons. If you want to visit some of the religious places of Northern Ethiopia, you should visit the cities of Aksum north of Mek’ele or the famous rock hewn churches of Lalibela south of Mek’ele. If you have less time, you can find some ancient Tigray Churches near Mek’ele that can be visited on a short side trip from your Danakil Depression tour.
Booking a tour to the Danakil Depression from Mek’ele
There are numerous agencies that operate daily tours to the Danakil Depression. I would recommend you to book your tour once you are on the ground in Mek’ele and not to online in advance. You will have much more control over the price when you are negotiating in person. We booked our tour the evening we got to Mek’ele and left right the next morning.
Most tour operators offer the options of a two day, three day and a four day tour. I definitely recommend the three day tour. If you only do one of the two day tours, you will either miss out on the hot springs of Dallol or the hike to Erta Ale volcano – the two highlights of the tour. The three day tour covers all the sights in the area and didn’t feel rushed at all to us. The four day tour covers the same places as the three day option but at a more relaxed pace – a bit too relaxed as I was told.
We booked our tour with Ethio Travel and Tours, one of the most reputable operators. After some heavy negotiating, we managed to get the price down to $250 for the three day option including all costs including meals and water. I guess we were lucky because they still had exactly two seats in one of the jeeps available. But you should try not to pay more than $300 for the tour (the first price they asked was over $500 for the tour).
The tour highlights
We spend most of day one in the car, driving towards Erta Ale. The landscape on the way is beautifully dotted with extinct volcano craters. After sunset, we started our trek from Erta Ale basecamp up to the crater. The hike takes around three hours and is not very steep and we got to the crater at around midnight. You can walk right up to the rim of the volcano crater and watch the lave bubble under your feet. It is such an amazing and surreal experience.
After admiring this incredible natural spectacle for a bit more than an hour, we got some rest on the thin mattresses near the volcano crater that were carried up by camels. Don’t forget to look up to the stars at night. Here, in the middle of nowhere you can see millions of bright dots in the sky. At 4am, after only three hours of sleep we got up again and walked back down to the basecamp. We had to be back before sunrise because the sun is just so strong.
Day 2 and 3
Day two was mostly driving and relaxing. On day three, we set off early in the morning towards Dallol- the other highlight of the tour. The colorful landscapes formed by volcanic activity and iron-rich minerals that come straight from the core of our planet are like nothing I have seen before:
In addition to the beauty of the colorful Dallol sulphur fields we also stopped by this incredible whole in the salt crust of the lake:
One the way back towards Mek’ele, we visited the local Afar people who are farming salt from the dry lake. They spend all day working in the open sun at temperatures that often reach more 50 degrees Celcius (122°F). The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on earth.
This tour was definitely one of the most memorable experiences of my travel life. Seeing the boiling lava of Erta Ale and the other-worldy landscapes of Dallol was such an incredible experience that I can recommend to anyone.
Ethiopia has made it into the list of my top 10 visited countries because it is so diverse. Check out the other places of the list: Most amazing countries by category
After my trip to Ethiopia, I travelled to Djibouti, a small country in East Africa that is considered to be one of the top 10 destinations in 2018, according to Lonely Planet. Check out my experiences here: Travelling to Djibouti – One of the top countries to visit in 2018?
Did you ever hear about this surreal place before and would you want to travel there? Let me know in the comment section.