A friend and I recently spent three days and three nights trekking through the Simien Mountains without a tour group. Figuring out the logistics was a bit daunting, not because it’s inherently difficult, but rather because there’s so little information on the internet about independently hiking the Simiens. Ethiopian tourism is strongly geared towards organized tours, while budget travelers are left scratching their heads about how to arrange their own adventures.
To help out my fellow backpackers, I’ve compiled here everything you need to know to trek in the Simien Mountains independently. And guess what? You can easily trek for three nights on $150 per person, compared to $300-400 per person with a tour group. Happy trails!
Area: The Simien Mountains are a range of rugged escarpments and plateaus in northwestern Ethiopia. Simien Mountains National Park, where all the trekking happens, is a thin sliver of protected land wedged between a well-trafficked dirt road and a long stretch of multi-thousand-foot cliffs. Despite its slender dimensions, the park is home to three of Ethiopia’s endemic large mammal species, the Gelada monkey, Walia ibex, and Ethiopian wolf. Elevations within the park range from 6,500 to 14,700 ft (2,000 to 4,500 m) despite there being no prominent peaks in the area; even Ras Deshen, Ethiopia’s highest point, looks like just another bump on a bumpy landscape! But that landscape is beautiful—if you have the chance to go hiking in the Simiens, do so.
Logistics: There are two ways to visit the mountains. The first is to take an organized tour. If you have the money, this is probably the way to go simply because it’s so darn easy. A tour company will arrange everything for you from Gondar, including transportation to Debark, all your equipment and food, guide, scout and mules, and they’ll even pitch your tent for you. But the price tag is high; a three-night trek will cost $400 per person for a group of two, and $300 per person for a group of four.
The second way is independently. With this option you have to make all the arrangements yourself, which is what the rest of this post is about. You also have more flexibility in your trip; the only requirement is that you have a scout escort you through the park, while everything else is optional. We completed the three-night trek for $150 per person for three nights, but it’s certainly possible to do it for even cheaper if you come prepared.
Sample itinerary: I’ll provide more detailed itinerary options below, but here’s a quick version of what my friend and I did just so you know what I’m talking about in the rest of the post. Other options could include more or fewer nights, different starting and ending points, and other destinations like Ras Deshen.
- Day 1: Public transportation from Gondar to Debark; arrange everything in Debark; spend the night at a hotel in Debark.
- Day 2: Trek from Debark to Sankaber; stay in lodge or camp.
- Day 3: Trek from Sankaber to Gich; stay in lodge or camp.
- Day 4: Trek from Gich to Chenek; stay in lodge or camp.
- Day 5: Take prearranged car from Chenek back to Debark, and public transportation from Debark back to Gondar.
Debark: Debark is the jumping off point for treks to the Simien Mountains. Most people arrive in Debark from Gondar, the nearest town of consequence. A couple of scheduled full-size buses run daily from Gondar to Debark for ~40 birr (06:00 and 10:30), as well as frequent mini-buses. We arrived half an hour early for the 10:30 bus, and still we were barely able to get a seat, so be sure to arrive early! The ride takes two and a half hours. The bus station in Debark is on the opposite end of town from the Park Headquarters, but they’re only separated by about a twenty minute walk.
Where to stay in Debark: I was only there for one night, but I can definitely recommend the Simien Park Hotel. The rooms are inexpensive and clean, and those with en suite bathrooms have hot water. The onsite restaurant is cheap and popular, especially because it has free wifi (I think it’s the only wifi in town). They can also prepare a box lunch for your first day of hiking (see ‘food’ below). Finally, they have a room of lockers (bring your own lock) to store your luggage while you’re hiking for 20 birr a night.
Money: I saw one ATM in Debark, but do not count on it. That advice comes not from a bad experience with that ATM in particular, but from the general patchiness of all Ethiopian ATM’s. Over the course of two weeks in the country I was able to successfully withdraw money at less than half of the ATM’s I encountered. It’s better to bring all the birr you’ll need from Gondar where there are multiple ATM’s to try your luck at. It’s worth noting that the Park Headquarters and the Simien Park Hotel appear to accept credit cards, but that’s not true up in the mountains.
Accommodation: There are two options for sleeping on the trail. First, there’s camping. If you have your own gear, I think this is the obvious way to go. If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent it from the Park Headquarters, but it won’t be the lightweight, packable gear you may be used to. In fact, renting a sleeping bag (or two—I hear they’re not very warm), sleeping mat and tent will probably force you to hire a mule or porter to carry your stuff. On top of that, hiring all the gear is actually more expensive (170 birr per person per night) than the second option, staying at the lodges (120 birr per person per night).
There are many lodges in the park, five of which lie along the main trail from Debark to Chenek: Buyit Ras, Community Lodge, Sankaber, Gich, and Chenek. Now, “lodge” may bring to mind something welcoming and cozy, like a cabin with a fireplace. These lodges are not like that. They’re not as nice as the huts in Tanzania, and they’re a far cry from those in, say, New Zealand. Still, they’re warm and the beds are comfortable, and you don’t have to carry any sleeping gear. Each lodge has ~16 beds available. There’s no reservation system, but they don’t fill up, even during high season. They’re mostly used by scouts and guides, while most foreigners camp nearby. The beds have reasonably clean sheets and blankets, but they certainly don’t get washed after each use. The biggest downside of the lodges is the possibility of bedbugs and/or fleas. I emerged from Gich and Chennek Lodges with dozens of bites, while my friend only got a few.
Food: Of the five lodges listed above, only Sankaber doesn’t offer food. The other lodges serve basic hot food for 50 birr a plate. Spaghetti with tomato sauce, shiro and injera, and omelets were what we encountered—all good portions, all hot and healthy. As for Sankaber, you can either bring your own pre-made food for that night (like a box lunch from Simien Park Hotel, which includes a banana, boiled potato, boiled egg, roll and sandwich for 50 birr), or you can walk over to the campsite and ask one of the cooks for the guided groups to cook you something (for a fee, of course).
So, with the exception of Sankaber, the lodges can take care of breakfast and dinner. For lunches and snacks, however, you’re on your own (with the possible exception of lunch at Community Lodge if you’re traveling between Debark and Sankaber in one day). Supplies in Gondar and Debark are limited. We were able to find crackers, tuna, sardines, chocolate bars, peanuts and [expensive] peanut butter in Gondar.
Water: If you can, definitely bring your own purification system. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Steripen as it is quick and easy to use. The Sawyer is another good option for mountain water (though it doesn’t remove viruses like those you might encounter in cities). If you don’t have a water purifier, pay another visit to the campsites—cooks there will charge you 20 birr a liter to boil water for you. Note that the Simien Mountains are some of the hottest, driest mountains I’ve hiked in. I recommend three to four liters per person per day (and this is coming from someone who usually gets by fine on two liters a day). There are no water sources between lodges with one exception: the Jinbar River between Sankaber and Gich is clean enough to take water from (if you then purify it, of course).
Gear: My friend and I were able to fit all our gear, food and water into one carry-on size backpack and one daypack. If you don’t have backpacks to carry your gear, you’ll have to hire a mule or porter. You’ll need lightweight, breathable clothing during the day, and a couple warmer layers for night, including a warm hat. Be sure to bring a brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen for the day—it’s really hot and bright up there. Also, we wished we’d brought wet wipes to clean off with. Alternatively, there are water pumps at all the campsites that you can use to wash off with—and you will want to wash. The trail is covered with a powdery fine black dust that will coat your legs up to your knees even if you’re wearing pants.
As for footwear, hiking shoes are fine. I wouldn’t want anything less sturdy than that, though, as the trail is quite rocky and uneven and the days are long. Oh, soap for washing your hands would also be nice—they get too dirty for just water or even hand sanitizer to be effective. Finally, you can purchase a map at Park Headquarters for 350 birr. It’s a little out of date (though the Swiss scientists were in town while we were there to update it), but it’s nice to have so you can see your progress throughout the day.
Red tape: Everything must be arranged at the Park Headquarters in Debark before you enter the park itself. You must pay for park entry and for a scout. The scout carries a gun and is unlikely to speak any English. His job is to escort you through the park, keeping you safe from wildlife and people, and keeping the wildlife safe from you. He also knows the way, so a guide is not necessary.
Other people you may want to include in your entourage are a guide, cook, and porter or mule and muleteer. The costs of these additional men are outlined below in the ‘costs’ section. The cook includes the cost of the food he’ll prepare for you, but be sure to clarify whether that includes lunch and snacks. Note that you won’t need a porter/mule if it’s just you and a scout and guide, but if you add a cook to the mix a porter or mule will be necessary additions.
I’ve heard of the Park Headquarters staff being stubborn about letting you go with only a scout, but we encountered no such hassle. Our only hassle was regarding transportation, as I describe below.
Getting into and out of the park: Okay, here’s where this post gets interesting. Hands down, the most complicated and frustrating part of arranging an independent trip into the Simien Mountains is figuring out how to get into and out of the park. There are only two officially permissible methods: on foot, or with a private car you hire through the Park Headquarters. The cost of the private car is prohibitive, but other cheaper options have been systematically rooted out by the people in charge of the private cars. They’ve formed a sort of transportation mafia that is difficult (and scary) to get around.
- On foot: This is certainly the cheapest (read: free) and easiest way to enter or exit the park, but, obviously, it takes more time than driving. A common choice is either to walk into the park and use a hired car to get out, or vice versa. If you walk in, the first day of trekking from Debark to either Buyit Ras or Sankaber is not as scenically exciting as the rest of the trek, so some people consider it a ‘wasted day’. I disagree. The walk was still quite pretty, and it was also culturally interesting as it passed through numerous villages, and followed the path used by locals walking between markets and such. We also saw Gelada monkeys, Lammergeyers, and numerous other raptors.
- By car hired through the Park Headquarters: The transportation mafia has set the price for car transfers absurdly high, ranging from 1100 birr to reach Buyit Ras, to 2400 birr to get to Chenek. But because the transportation mafia has effectively eliminated the competition through intimidation, you really don’t have many better choices.
Here’s how our experience with the mafia went. After deciding to use a car hired through the Park Headquarters to get from Chenek back to Debark at the end of our trip, we paid the 2400 birr and received a receipt that stated my first name and the date of pick-up. We were told explicitly at the office by two separate individuals that we were welcome to share the ride with other hikers we met on the trail and split the cost with them.
Fast forward four days, we were at Chenek ready for our pickup. It took a while for us to notice the random red and blue van that had appeared, and eventually, by showing our receipt to various people, we determined that it was our ride. We were then approached by two Frenchmen and their entourage (scout, guide and cook)—they wanted to share the ride with us. Fantastic! But that’s where the mafia reared its ugly head.
The driver insisted that he’d been sent to pick up two people only, and that others had to pay extra, despite what we’d been told at the Park Headquarters. Of course, as our car was the only available option, we had to play by the driver’s rules. He tried to charge the Frenchmen a ridiculous 2600 birr, but we got it down to 1000 birr, none of which, of course, was to be paid to me and my friend.
By the way, the “I was only told to pick up two people” really means “I’m only here to pick up two tourists”. By the time we pulled away the van was full to overflowing, with the entourage of each of our two groups, plus another group who only needed a short ride, and then a half dozen or so random Ethiopians.
Back in Debark, one of the Frenchmen and I went to the Park Headquarters to complain. You might think that would be a fruitless exercise (in truth, that’s what I thought), but it wasn’t. The staff at the office had every appearance of being surprised and angered by our story. The Frenchman showed the staff a photo of the driver, who was promptly identified. A visit to the police station and two hours of red tape later, the Frenchman got 600 of his 1000 birr back (the other 400 went to the 15 or so police officers who ‘helped’ find the driver). More importantly, a precedent has been set that tourists can get money back after unfair treatment by the transportation mafia. Moral of the story: if you get shafted by the private car hire, be sure to file a complaint—it’s the only way the system will evolve into something better and more honest.
Another possibility is to tell the Park Office when you arrange the car that it’s for four people, even if those others passengers don’t yet exist. If the driver arrives assuming he’s going to pick up 4 people, he won’t try to charge extra. And if there’s only two people, well, he probably won’t care. That’s my theory, anyways. If anyone tries it out, let me know in the comments how it went.
- By public bus: We were firmly told by the Park Headquarters staff, random guides, and even the hotel staff that there is no public bus into the park. When we went to the actual bus station, however, the guys there were eager to give us rides. Unfortunately, their English was poor and I don’t speak any Amharic, so it was hard to figure out when the bus was. It was either at 07:00 and 09:00 and took two hours to Sankaber, or it left every two hours. Either way, it only cost 200 birr (faranji price), and they assured us it was entirely legal. We could only find info for a bus into the park, not out of it, so it would probably be best to take the bus to Chenek and hike out from there.
- By tuk-tuk: Another option that cuts a few hours of hiking off the trip is to take a tuk-tuk to the Park Entrance, which lies near Buyit Ras, 9 km of hiking (but 22 km of driving) away from Debark. I’m not sure how much it would cost, but it might be worth it if you want to cut down on hiking time on your first day.
- By Isuzu truck or hitch-hiking: The Bradt guide to Ethiopia assured us these two options would be available, but since the publication of that guide the transportation mafia has essentially eliminated them. Drivers of either private cars or the huge open-bed Isuzu trucks that ply the road through the park are unlikely to pick up trekkers because they’re threatened with beatings. Indeed, we heard from one hiker that someone who had gone in the Isuzu truck was discovered (you have to hide under blankets because it’s ‘forbidden’), and the driver of the truck was taken out of the cab and beaten right there on the road. So, use at your own risk, or rather, at the risk of the people giving you a ride.
Costs: Okay, with all that out of the way I can tell you about costs. The only mandatory costs are your park entrance (90 birr per person per day), the scout (150 birr per day), and a place to sleep. Below are the official costs posted in the Park Office as of January 2015 (click images for larger versions):
Here’s a breakdown of the costs for my friend and I on our three-night trek using only a scout, staying the lodges, and ultimately splitting the car four ways:
Trekking routes: Finally, there are numerous options for where to spend the nights and in what order. Here are a few possibilities:
- Debark to Chenek, morning start: On Day 1, start in the morning and hike all the way to Sankaber. Either bring a cold lunch, or stop at the Community Lodge just past Buyit Ras for a hot meal of shiro or pasta. Remember to bring your own food for dinner and breakfast at Sankaber. On Day 2, hike to Gich (the lodge is called “Everlasting Lodge”), and on Day 3 hike the rest of the way to Chenek. Drive back to Debark on the morning of Day 4, or have your car pick you up later and use the morning to climb a nearby mountain.
- Debark to Chenek, afternoon start: If you arrive early enough in Debark, you can arrange everything that day and head out on the trek in the afternoon. Instead of going for Sankaber on that day, head for Buyit Ras, just three hours from Debark. Unfortunately, I don’t know if Buyit Ras provides food as I didn’t stay there, but I’m pretty sure they do. On Day 2, head to Sankaber for an easy day, or all the way to Gich for a long day. Finish the trip as described in the first itinerary.
- Chenek to Debark: Same as the first two options, but in reverse. The nice thing about this version is the question of transportation is taken care of at the beginning, so there’s nothing to worry about later. On the downside, the first day of hiking will be your hardest and your highest with no chance to acclimate first.
- Sankaber to Chenek: If you can get a ride to Sankaber, either by bus or with a hired car, you can skip the first day of rural trekking and land yourself right in the beautiful parts of the park on the first day. You can therefore either make it a two night trek (one night at Gich, one night at Chenek), or a three-night with an extra night spent at Chenek to explore the surrounding area.
So there you have it, every bit of wisdom I can share with you about how to hike independently in the Simien Mountains! I hope this post helps you plan your trip. If so, leave a comment below and let me know how it went. Also, if you find out that anything has changed, let me know and I’ll update the post accordingly. Cheers!