Harar in Ethiopia ends up sticking in your mind. It’s a World Heritage City and it’s a crazy place. It’s also in the middle of nowhere if truth be told. Getting there isn’t the easiest thing you’ll ever do in life, believe me. But for the love of travel and with no real reason why, I headed off to go backpacking in Harar which is in the eastern highlands of Ethiopia. Rather than make it an actual top 5, here are the things to see and do there.
Getting to Harar
Most of you will come to Harar from one of two places: Dire Dawa or Addis Ababa. I randomly met a guy in a petrol station in Addis Ababa one day and that night I end up on a mini-bus to Harar! That’s how crazy it all was. That coupled with the knowledge that in Harar you can feed live hyenas and it’s also a World Heritage site within the old city walls meant I was up for it. All sounds good. Until you board a mini-bus at 8.30 pm which then preceeds to take 15 hours to get to Harar.
It wasn’t just the time, it was the journey. We broke down, we got a smashed windscreen, we stopped for 4 hours to do nothing, we got stopped by police, we went the wrong way and my legs were cramped. I’d have to say that my experience on buses in Ethiopia were the most horrendous bus experiences I have ever had. All of that faded into insignificance when I arrived in Harar. Oh the magic of it all…
How to go backpacking in Harar, Ethiopia
You have two options – 1 is do it yourself and 2 is walk with a guide. Number 1 is what I normally go for, as you know. BUT. You can bet your life if you walk on your own in Harar that you will be surrounded by a load of local kids, they’ll follow you and ask for money and you won’t get a seconds peace. So I thought the best bet is to get a local guy to take me round. That way I get to pay a local for his effort, give money to the community, ward off all the begging kids, get a tour guide in English and also someone to tell me all about their city, take me to the best spots and even take photos of me and have a drink with. In this instance it was worth paying a local guy some cash.
While standing outside the Juma Mosque, I met a local lad called Edom Mulugeta. Who by complete coincidence is probably the best local tour guide to Harar you can get, Edom (who speaks about 4 languages) handed me his business card and is mentioned on the Lonely Planet website. If you feel the need, he won’t mind me sharing his contact details on here, Edom is a top lad:
Edom Mulugeta – Mobile: 0924009496 / E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Edom is a great guide, trustable and worth paying a tip too. You’ll know I’m a cheapskate traveller most of the time, but I bought Edom a coffee (OK so it cost only 5Birr) and gave him a reasonable tip. So I toured most of the city with Edom.
When backpacking in Harar try and fit these activities in:
1. Old City Walls
Walk at leisure round the old city walls of Harar. Locals get on with their daily life while you take it all in. Coloured walls, cobbled stones and a pedestrian area make this as pretty a town as you may ever come across. Get snap happy and enjoy. Price – Free.
2. The Rainbow House (The Rimbaud House)
Built by the Indians, this is an elaborate house turned museum. It’s worth heading inside to as they have information boards in English and on the top floor an exquisite view. I called it the Rainbow house as that’s what I thought Edom my guide told me, I probably mis-heard him and he meant Rimbaud House, named after a French poet – though the rainbow fitted due to the colours!
It somehow doesn’t quite fit into Africa this place, but you will enjoy it. Price – 20 Birr entrance fee. (pay it and don’t hesitate).
3. Juma Mosque
Harar houses 82 Mosques in total (don’t believe the brochure that state it’s 99! That’s an inflated figure) and is deemed the fourth most holy city in the Islam World. Fourth only to Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem. I visited a few, the biggest of which was the Juma Mosque. In most cases you can’t go inside. If you do, dress sensibly and take your shoes and socks off.
4. Rowda Guest House
I didn’t stay in the Rowda Guest House, but you can. It costs a whopping 300 Birr per night (around $16 US) but for the privilege of doing it, you’ll get to spend the night in one of the old cities dwelling houses. During the day you can go inside and you are supposed to pay a 20 Birr donation to the lady that owns it (I did – but you could get away without paying it if you want to be more stingy). It’s basically just an old school Ethiopian style house. It’s well decorated inside and if you’re with Edom you’ll get a guided tour to explain the ins and outs of it, I’ll not go into them on here.
5. Street Markets
Harar is full of street markets, mostly selling fruit, vegetables, spices and coffee. I recommend walking all around the market areas. I didn’t actually buy anything but I enjoyed the walk. The amount of spices and vegetables around in incredible.
6. Local Coffee
Ethiopia produces a lot of exportable goods, coffee is one of them. For as little as 40 cents you can sit down in a coffee house and have a relaxing cup. This was a Godsend for me after my gruelling long mini-bus ride from Addis Ababa.
7. Chew the Khat (Chat or Qat)
Up in these highlands, the Ethiopians of Harar and the surrounding area love to chew Khat (pronounced “chat” and also spelt Qat). Khat is basically locally grown leaves that you chew all day long. It’s easy and cheap to come by Khat on street corners, markets and by asking the locals.
Does it get you high? Maybe, though I only had a small bit of it. The taste of it will linger forever though, as it helped me through the horrendous bus journeys and was the only taste in my mouth around the hyena feeding time (which is why you should read number 8 below…).
8. Relax with a Beer or Wine
Another thing you should do in Harar is chill out and have a beer or wine. I loved the range of Ethiopian beer and if you wander into the local bars you will be the only foreigner about and will be able to chat away to the locals. Most beers are around 10-14 Birr so less than $1 US. The Ethiopian Red wine is slightly dearer, but well worth it. For beers in Harar, you got to try the local stuff – Harar Beer with a red and white label.
9. Ride an Ethiopian Tuk Tuk
You might have been on tuk tuks in Thailand and Cambodia, but here in Ethiopia the drivers are even crazier and the tuks tuks are all blue and white here in Harar. Worth a ride for the experience and it won’t stretch the wallet. You can bargain down the price too.
10. Hyena Feeding
Yes, last but certainly not least and probably the highlight of your visit to Harar is the hyena feeding experience. In short, hyenas turn up at dusk on the edge of the city and wait around to be fed. As a nifty tourist attraction, backpackers and tourists alike can feed them mouth to mouth, hand to mouth and even be jumped by a hyena. This activity was my highlight from Harar and completely recommended, but be warned – health and safety is non existent. This may not be for the faint hearted. Read about it here – hyena feeding in Harar . In short – JUST DO IT!
Where I stayed – Central Hotel, Harar ($6 US Dollars for a night)
Transport Used – Mini-bus, tuk tuk
Nationalities Met – Ethiopian, Djiboutian, Dutch, Canadian
Beers Tried – Harar, Hakim Stout
Favourite Food – Lamb pancakes with spice
Animals I Saw – Hyenas, dogs, cats, rats
And that’s your guide to backpacking in Harar folks – get out there and enjoy it. It’s not a very touristy place and that’s what makes it special! Here are some of my videos from Harar:
Inside the Old City of Harar:
Finally on a second bus to Harar in Ethiopia:
Trying Ethiopian Red Wine:
In the Old Market in Harar:
Walking through the walls of Harar in Ethiopia:
Inside the Rowda Guset House in Harar:
My Room in Central Hotel in Harar, Ethiopia:
Hyena feeding in Harar, Ethiopia:
View of Harar from Rainbow House in Harar, Ethiopia: