I had a great experience of ETT Ethiopia Travel and Tours, stayed in some reasonably priced hotels, had some top guides and some great food. I hope this experience might be of use to you, so perhaps the below will help. Initially wrote this for a contact also going to Ethiopia, so excuse it's format.
I flew from Kenya to Gondar return via Addis with Ethiopian airlines who are great, good safety record and new planes. The operate the new Dreamliner on most routes out of Europe. Domestic flights can leave early if they’re full, so get to the airport in good time. Domestic flights book in-country are cheaper than from online from abroad, but I didn’t have the chance to do this.
Unfortunately I had only about 9 days in Ethiopia, but whilst it was a quick trip I do not feel that I missed out anything really from the Northern Circuit . Perhaps 2 - 2 1/2 weeks would be ideal so as to allow a little extra time to explore and less time on the road. We spent only 1 day in the Simien Mountains as visibility was limited due to the rainy season and did not go to the volcano in the Danakil. I would recommend that you try and include longer in the Simiens than this and do the volcano if you can.
Ethiopia is a truly stunning country, with some of the most fantastic people that I have met anywhere in the world. It is a truly unique place, particularly as it has never been colonised and has religion and climate that is in stark contrast to its neighbours. Do note that it is can get cold due to the high altitude. In September, the Simien mountains dropped to 5c at night and it was usually jumper-weather in the evening. The food is far better than I was expecting and day-to-day living is very cheap. We paid on average $20US for a good, clean hotel and meals were usually about $5 including a beer or 2. Coffee is from about 10 cents. The ubiquitous injera is perfectly edible (though cold, which I didn't realise) and Ethiopians treat mealtimes as a very social affair, usually sharing one large meal between however many diners there may be. The injera comes with various pastes and vegetables on it and on non-fasting days with delicious goat and camel meat. On fasting days (twice per week) the diet is Vegetarian. This means that Ethiopia is a very easy country for Veggies if you have any with you. The whole place is also very clean, people are generally punctual for appointments and there's barely any hassle. People don't generally try and scam you for money and are genuinely friendly. Of course some try and get a bit from you, but really the amounts are so small and a lot of people don't have a lot so it's understandable.
I prearranged car hire (with driver only) with ETT Ethiopian Tours and Travel who were extremely professional and who I cannot recommend highly enough. The driver met us in Gondar where we flew to from Addis. The company are based in Addis but have a second office in Mekele from where they manage their Danakil trips. I dealt with Girum in the Addis office who usually replied to my emails within a couple of hours. They offered me a good discount as I travelled off-season, so it’s worth asking the question, but this was also a last minute arrangement so it’s not to be guaranteed. It seems slightly dodgy in that Girum met me at Addis Airport, drove me to a tiny office in town, I handed over a significant wadge of cash and hoped to hell that the car would appear where we had agreed it to 700-miles North. It was 3 hours late due to a misunderstanding, but it duly turned up and was generally excellent. Note that anyone meeting you at Addis airport is likely to wait outside the terminal building in the car park as there’s always a huge queue of people trying to get in – they do security on the door of the airport and don’t really allow people in who aren’t travelling.
In Addis, I stayed in the Hotel Lobelia (£50 for a twin room) which is about 2km from the airport and near one of Addis’ best restaurants called Habesha 2000. They have live music and so on at the restaurant and is a fun place to be. It’s not cheap, but is a nice experience. Maybe bank on $15-20 a meal.
Arriving in Gondar, the car wasn’t there but Girum arranged for a contact of his to collect us, show us the town and the castle, buy us lunch and arrange the driver to meet us. So basically if this happens to you, don't worry. ETT gave us a brand new Land Cruiser with a driver called Zinabu, who was a fantastic driver by Western standards and didn't miss a trick over the thousands of km that he drove us. He speaks a good amount of English and is extremely punctual. He also knows several hotels in each town so can act as a sort of guide/translator. He is also an extremely lovely and personable chap, a resident of Addis but born in Mekele so knows the Tigray region well. His accommodation was paid for by the hire company as was his food in theory, though we took him for dinner every night - the cost is minimal and it was nice to share the evening with him. Note that the car may have an ipod connection and that you are expected to pay fuel costs, which are about $0.80/l. Most petrol stations take cash only. Some larger towns have ATMs but probably best to carry dollars/pounds/euros. Cash dollars can be spent in hotels. You usually get the bank rate on currency exchange at the bank rather than the tourist rate that you normally get in placed.
The 17th century castles in Gondar are the main attraction, though the town is nothing to write home about. We headed off to Debark (gateway to the Simien Mountains) mid afternoon following the morning spent in Gondar. Debark isn't the most appealing town in the world, but theres a couple of decent hotels (I can't remember the name of the one we stayed in but it was set back 1 block from the main road on the on the Western side of town, just North of something Pension. It was fine, clean and hot showers for $21 a double incld breakfast. The Simien national park has a base in Debark where you organise a guide and ranger to accompany you into the park. They are obligatory and the rates are set. It is possible to stay in lodges and camps in the park, though the road was blocked so we couldn't do this.
The road North from Debark to Axum and Adigrat is stunningly beautiful but is not in great condition. It's about a 6 hour drive to Axum and 7 1/2 to Adigrat. We didn't stop in Axum but overnighted in Adigrat which was a lovely town. Up near the Eritrean border but this is nothing to worry about. The town has got a lovely feeling about it and we ate in the Hohoma hotel but stayed in the one on the opposite side of the road. There's no sign outside but it's next to a bank. Was about $10 and the room was clean. Lots of nice coffee and juice bars in the road around there too.
From Adigrat its about an hour's drive to the Rock Hewn Churches around Tigray. There's loads of them so pick as many as you want to see. Again, the drive suggested which ones we went to. Abuna Yemata is an amazing climb (it is actually a climb) but not for the faint hearted. There's entry fees to each church (usually about 300birr) and for Abuna Yemata its necessary to take scouts with you who help you climb. As there's no ropes or safety, it's advisable to take them. There's plenty of others around, just see what you have time for. There's also a great place to stop on the road to Mekele to see the coffee ceremonies.
Mekele is another lovely town with a great atmosphere and the place from where to access the Danakil. We stayed in the Castle Hotel, an actual converted castle, which is $26 a night. Rooms are simple and bathrooms are nothing special, but the setting is brilliant and the whole place is wonderfully querky. Notable is George the waiter, half Italian half Ethiopian who is almost part of the furniture there. We ate one evening in the Karibu restaurant, which has fantastic food including a great pizza oven. Another tasty meal was had in the bizarre setting of an amusement park opposite the ETT office. Mekele has a large market just outside of town which is a great place to stock up on souvenirs and is very picturesque for a wander around. It is quite muddy though. It's a 15minute Bajaj ride away, which is about 20birr.
If you go to the Danakil with ETT, the main company who go there, they subtract the car hire cost from the cost of your tour. We only went to Dalol and the salt lake, a 2 day trip which is $300 all inclusive. It is the most incredible place, and just like the hottest inhabited place in the world should look. It has to be done on a tour and whilst it's not dangerous, they provide guards to accompany you due to the area's proximity to the Eritrean border. Both the drive there and the scenery is like nothing else I've ever seen and it is incredibly hot and windy. Lakes of sulphuric acid and oil, sulphur towers, water of 40% salinity sort of thing. The Afar people until recently were feared warriors but have luckily calmed down a bit, but are still a hard people as befits those who live in such an inhospitable environment. On the tour, you overnight in a village, probably the hottest inhabited village in the world as Dalol (the town with the record) has been abandoned. You sleep outside on beds made from wood and hessian, where its hot but bearable. The tour take cooks with them and the food is pretty good particularly when you see where you are. The next morning, you are taken to see the landscape around Dalol, the lakes/sulphur etc before heading back to Mekele where you arrive mid-afternoon. It's expensive but a very worthwhile thing to do, quite different from anything else and an incredible landscape. There's also a volcano which can be done on a 4 day trip, which everyone who went loved as it is in a constant state of eruption.
Mekele to Lalibela is an 8hour drive, fantastically pretty as always through the countryside. Woldia is a nice town to stop in for lunch. In Lalibela, the churches are as good as they are cracked up to be and we had them to ourselves. We treated ourselves to accommodation in the Top Twelve Hotel, which is in a stunningly beautiful location and has the best view from a room that I have ever seen. Again we negotiated a discount for being in low season but otherwise I think it's about $50. The owner, Eshetu, is a wonderful chap who it is great to share a drink with. Again we were recommended a guide, not the sort of thing that I normally do, but there's worth it to learn more about the story of the churches. We had a chap called Mekashaw Temesgen, who is a deacon in the town and has a degree in History and English making him an ideal person to show you around. Its 500birr for a guide, no matter who you take. His number is +25191186380 and email email@example.com.
Last stop for us was Bahir Dar and Lake Tana. Didn't go to the monasteries there due to lack of time, but the Blue Nile waterfalls about 30km outside of town are stunning. There's no need for a guide, they're pretty hard to miss. Bahir Dar is another lovely town, warmer than the others as its only at 1800m. Stayed one night in the Ghion Hotel, which was about $8 and fine, though the bathroom could have smelt better... The next night treated ourselves to the $50 Tana hotel, which was lakeside and lovely.
The details for ETT are below:
Ethio Travel and Tours