If you are considering traveling to Ethiopia, chances are you will want to visit the Danakil Depression.
This is one of the most unique places on earth. It is beautiful yet very challenging. It is of the utmost importance that you go there knowing what to expect. More importantly so, you have to pick a tour company extremely carefully, because things in the Danakil can go wrong at any time, and you want a company that – ideally – knows how to face the many difficulties that this place poses.
In this post, I will share as much information as possible about the Danakil, hoping to help you decide whether you should go and, if you do decide to go indeed, giving you plenty of tips to make your trip a memorable one.
The Danakil Depression is located in the North East of Ethiopia, on the border with Eritrea and Djibouti, in a region called Afar.
The Danakil Depression is thought to be one of the most inhospitable places I the world. It’s by far the hottest – with an average daily temperature of more than 34° Celsius (with peaks going well over 50°), at about 125 meters below sea level, and with minimal amounts of rain throughout the year.
The area where the Danakil is located sits on three tectonic plates, which are constantly shifting. As a result, the Danakil is scattered with interesting rock formations, springs and geysers. You would expect that such an inhospitable place is completely desert. Alas, it is not.
What is shocking is the fact that there actually is life in this region. This is where the famous Lucy, a hominid skeleton, was found. And it is where the Afar people, one of the many indigenous peoples of Ethiopia, live. These are nomadic people who still live a fairly traditional lifestyle of cattle or goat herding. Some work in the salt mines scattered around the Dallol.
I won’t deny that the Danakil is an incredibly cool place to visit. There is nothing quite like it. But visiting is not exactly a holiday. Quite the opposite indeed.
What to Know Before You Visit the Danakil Depression
When to Visit
The Danakil Depression is hot year round. However, though you won’t be able to escape the heat, you may want to consider visiting between November and January, when temperatures are a bit more bearable. Keep in mind that the word “bearable” is quite possibly an overstatement. I visited at the end of November and sure enough found it incredibly hot.
Safety in the Danakil
I won’t deny it: the Danakil isn’t exactly the safest place on Earth. The region of Afar, where the Danakil is located, is tense. The Afar people don’t seem too happy to have tourists around, yet they desperately need tourist money to the point that they have road blocks where they stop cars with tourists on boards and demand bribes to let them through.
It’s all up to the guides and drivers to negotiate with them – my group was fortunate in the sense that we didn’t have to pay extra to the Afar people to go through the road block, but it took more than one hour of negotiation.
A peace agreement between the government of Ethiopia and the Afar people was reached in 2018, but before then attacks on tourists that ended up in kidnapping and/or killing occurred on a couple of occasions, to the point that tourist groups were escorted by the army.
Another thing that will be a bit of a nuisance is children begging for money. No matter how beautiful and cute they look (and they certainly do, let me tell you!) don’t give them anything. Not even candies. These children should be in school, and not in the streets begging for money.
One more thing to consider is the extreme heat. Please make sure to never underestimate the effect this may have on you. Severe dehydration and heat strokes can happen, so make sure to drink plenty of water throughout your visit (always have a bottle with you); cover hour head with a hat or light scarf; and wear plenty of sunblock.
Most importantly, never leave the group and wander on your own. In August 2019 a young Israeli tourist died in a few hours – she had left the group claiming she wanted to go back to the car as she was feeling too hot, but never made it there.
Finally, please consider your health conditions before visiting. This is not a place to visit if you suffer from chronic diseases ie heart conditions. Keep in mind that the closest hospital is in Mekele – depending on where you are in the Danakil, it can be an 8- hour drive.
Tours of the Danakil cost anything from $250 per person upwards. Keep in mind that paying more doesn’t necessarily mean receiving a better service.
Tours usually start in the city of Mekele, the largest one in the region of Tigray and honestly pretty unimpressive – chances are the main thing you will enjoy there is a good hot shower after days without a mere bathroom in sight.
Tours can last anything between 2 and 4 days. I recommend doing a 3-day tour. A 4-day tour will become overwhelming because of the heat and of the living conditions, and a 2-day one is simply too short and you won’t get to visit all there is to see.
During the tour, you will visit Erta Ale volcano, Lake Giulietti and the Dallol. The scenery will be stunning throughout, and you will be able to spot some wildlife too – keep your eyes wide open for that!
Erta Ale volcano is an active volcano, which however has had far less activity in the last couple of years. On the first night of the tour, you will walk to its crater in the dark to go see the lava explosions. They aren’t as strong as they used to be, but it still is a fantastic sight.
You will sleep in mattresses at the base of the volcano, and wake up well before sunrise to walk back up to the crater to see more of the activity. Make sure to cover your nose and mouth because the gas and fumes coming out of the volcano are toxic!
Lake Giulietti is a massive salt lake, similar to the Dead Sea and located at around 100 meters below sea level, where you can float. The only downside of swimming there is that there is nowhere to rinse yourself off afterwards, other than the springs near the lake.
The Dallol and the salt flats are by far the highlight of a Danakil Depression tour, usually visited on the third day. You will see men walking their camels to the salt mines and then to the nearest market (a long journey under the burning sun); others cutting salt blocks and packing them onto the camels.
The Dallol is a massive geothermal field with geysers, sulphur yellow lakes (be prepared for the strong smell), and puddles of bubbling springs that are incredibly colorful.
Guides and Drivers
You need to pick the company you travel with extremely carefully. Read as many online reviews as possible, and use your good judgement. I traveled with ETT (Ethio Travel and Tours) which offers competitive prices, but that’s about the only good thing. I would not recommend them.
Generally speaking, guides and drivers in Ethiopia aren’t exactly good – some speak little to no English, and you are often left wondering how they can work with tourists at all.
It often is the case that there is just one for a group of 20 or more tourists, and that is definitely not enough, especially not in a place as challenging as the Danakil.
The first night of the tour you will be sleeping outside, on mattresses and sleeping bags provided by the tour company. My advice is to bring your own sleeping bag, as the mattresses provided have definitely seen a better life.
The second night will be spent in an extremely basic guest house in the city of Abala. Guests sleep in common rooms, on mattresses placed on the floor.
Facilities throughout the tour are extremely basic. You will have a squat toilet and a sink only in the guest house in Abala. Other than that, you’ll have to make use of the nature. The guest house in Abala has a shower for guest use, but there is no hot water and it’s actually quite dirty.
Food is basic throughout the tour. You will get some basic pasta with a thin sauce and little else for lunch and dinner; some bread with some watery scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Pack some snack for emergencies! Water is normally provided by the tour company; but you’ll have to pay any other drinks. Vegetarians and vegans are catered for – so make sure you state your dietary requirements in advance.
Keep in mind that flies are everywhere in the Danakil, so chances are you’ll have to keep them away from your food as you eat.
Long Driving Hours
One thing you can definitely expect during a tour of the Danakil Depression is long driving hours. Especially on the first day, you will be sitting in the car for up to 8 hours as the distances are long and the road conditions poor. You will be traveling in a Landcruiser, which means you will have very little leg room and you will often feel uncomfortable, so go prepared!
Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of garbage in the Danakil. Especially on Erta Ale volcano, you will see piles of plastic bottles around. As there are no water sources, you really can’t even carry a water filter and bottle for yourself, but will have to drink bottled water. Make sure to pack your garbage and bring it back to town with you.
Essential Packing List
Dressing appropriately is essential in the Danakil. Despite the heat, you really are better off wearing long pants and long or sleeves light cotton t-shirt. You won’t really have a chance to shower and / or get changed, so make sure to pack smartly.
- Pair of lightweight, comfortable pants like the KÜHL FREEFLEX MOVE or CABO PANT
- Cotton shirts like the KÜHL MARTINA 3/4 or LAUREL SHIRT
- Light windbreaker like the packable KÜHL PARAJAX
- Light sweater like the KÜHL LEA SWEATER
- Pair of light hiking shoes
- Swimsuit and towel
- Hat with broad sun protection
- Light cotton scarf to cover your face
- Sleeping bag
- Baby wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Power bank
- Basic toiletries
Claudia is a former human rights lawyer who changed careers to follow her true calling. She now travels around the world in search of adventures and unique hiking experiences. Follow her travels at My Adventures Across the World.