“Welcome to Danakil Depression, the most inhospitable place in the world.”  With these joyful words Guide Fish started our Danakil Depression adventure in Ethiopia. I spent four days traveling in this otherwordly region located <100 meter below sea level close to the borders of Eritrea and Djibouti. We drove our four-wheel drive on the worst roads, explored crazy yellow-orange landscapes and sulphur springs, saw the camel caravans of Afar people on seemingly endless salt flats, watched the sunset over the lakes, floated in the salty water and slept under a million stars… it was an absolute adventure!

But, the best moment of this little expedition was climbing an active volcano in the dark to witness one of the world’s few permanent lava lakes. The volcano put up a good show of light and fire and we saw several eruptions. That night, we slept at the rim of the volcano. It was one of my most special travel experiences ever.

Here is a Q & A to prepare for your own visit to Danakil Depression!

 Danakil Depression in Ethiopia.
Rough roads in an otherworldly landscape at the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

What is the Danakil Depression?

The Danakil Depression is located in the Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia, close to the border of Eritrea and Djibouti. It’s considered one of the hottest (average 34,4 C), driest (100-200 mm rainfall/year) and lowest regions on earth (125 meter below sea level). It is also one of the most geologically active regions with three tectonic plates meeting at the Afar Triple Junction. When tectonic plates move apart like at Danakil, it creates lave lakes, hot springs, geysers and fissures in the ground.

Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Lots of geological action at the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

What is the general itinerary of a 4-day Danakil Depression tour?

During our tour I noted down our exact itinerary.

Day 1 Danakil Depression Tour 

  • 09.00 Pick-up from hotel: Your Danakil tour is about to start!
  • 13.30 Lunch break near Berhale
  • 15.45 Picking-up our military permission
  • 17.00 Lake Assale, salt flats and camel caravan for sunset
  • 19.00 Camp, dinner and outside sleeping

Day 2 Danakil Depression Tour 

  • 06.00 Breakfast
  • 08.00 Sulphur Springs
  • 09.00 Drive with several stops (e.g. hotsprings and volcanic landscape)
  • 11.00 Cutting of salt into blocks
  • 15.30 Guesthouse in Abala (simple dorm with bucket shower): chill time & Ethiopian disco

Day 3 Danakil Depression Tour 

  • 11.00 Leave guesthouse
  • 15.30 Arrive in basecamp
  • 19.50 Leave basecamp
  • 22.30 Arrive at the volcano
  • 00.30 Sleep at the volcano

Day 4 Danakil Depression Tour 

  • 04.00 Wake-up call
  • 08.00 Breakfast
  • 12.00 Lake Afrera: swim and float in the salt lake
  • 13.00 Lunch
  • 16.00 Back in Mekele
Surreal reef-like landscape near Dallol, Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

Where and when should I book the Danakil Depression tour?

I would advice to book your Danakil Depression tour once you’re inside Ethiopia (and preferably from Mekele). There are several tour operators:

  • ETT and World Sun are the largest companies.
  • Other companies include Smiling Ethiopia, Magna Flow Tours and Abeba Tours Ethiopia.

I ended up booking ETT. I arrived around 6PM at their office, booked my trip and left the following day. Although I enjoyed my trip with ETT, our group was fairly large. It was a mix of young and old, backpackers and other types of travelers. If you’re looking for a more private experience, it’s better to book with another company. Make sure to double check whether you will truly get a private tour. I heard that some tour operators combine travelers who booked ‘private tours’. So this means you pay more and you’re still traveling in a large colonne.

I also heard that some other companies provide gas maskers. ETT did not provide any gas masker, even though we slept on the rim of the volcano inhaling a lot of toxic fumes. If you would like a masker, make sure to ask whether this is included. As a medical doctor, who is currently working at the Dept. of Pulmonology, I’m a bit worried about all those crazy smelling, intense fumes I inhaled ;)

Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Watching a gorgeous sunset over the salt flats. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

How many days should I pick for the Danakil tour?

You can do 2-4 days tours.

  • Two day tours: With a 2-day tour you can only visit the salt planes/camel caravan OR Erte Ale vulcano.
  • Three day tour: With a 3-day tour you visit both the salt planes/camel caravan, Erte Ale vulcano and Lake Afrera
  • Four day tour: Basically the same as the 3-day tour, but with a few small stops in between and an afternoon off in Abale
Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Crazy neon colors at the volcanic hotsprings of the Danakil Depression! The colors are created by sulphur and iron. Don’t dip your feet in the water, it’s super toxic! Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

What is the best time to visit Danakil Depression?

From November to June is the best time to visit.

What are the costs of a Danakil Depression tour?

People paid between 250 – 600 USD depending on what’s included (e.g. transportation from/to Mekele) and how many days. I ended up paying 300 USD for a four-day tour including ‘free’ transportation by Landcruiser from Lalibela to Mekele and transportation from Mekele to Aksum, but gas masks were not provided. People who booked from Addis Abeba or from outside Ethiopia paid most. Overall, I felt it was a fair price.

Make sure to bring some change to tip the local guards!

Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
The Afar people walk for days through desert and mountains to transport salt blocks to the city. Bandits attacks are common in the region and during the day it can get up to 50 degrees celsius! It’s one the hottest and most inhospitable regions in the world. Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

How are the facilities during the Danakil tour? 

In general: basic. Most likely your will spent four days and three nights without a shower (maybe a cold bucket shower), toilets and electricity. You will sleep on wooden woven beds in the open air or on the ground. The food during the tour was simple, but tasty. The cars are generally in good condition. The roads were extremely rough. Our car broke down and we had to wait for a replacement. In short: nothing a backpacker can’t handle ;)

Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Sleeping in the open-air during our Danakil Depression tour in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
One of the other cars got stuck in the desert sand. Since the Danakil Depression is described as ‘the hottest place on earth’, you can imagine getting a car out the sand without ANY shade, was quite intense. Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

Do I need to be fit to visit Danakil? 

I think a basic level of fitness is required to climb Erte-Ala vulcano. Overall, it’s the harsh and rough circumstances that make this trip challenging.

“The Afar walked noiselessly in plastic sandals and rubber flip-flops. Their bodies carried no fat. Their rifles were extensions of their arms, rarely set down and never out of their reach. Every noise and peripheral movement brought a reaction that only those who live in a war zone can give. Some had grenades hung from their belts that if exploded near the hardened magma would intensify the shrapnel a hundred-fold. All of them kept a dagger in their belt. Up close, their faces were a mass of scars and more than a few had a milky eye from blowing sand. They were warriors first and foremost, and they were always at war.” -James Michael Dorsey, Nowhere Mag.

Read more of his excellent story here

Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Fellow backpackers of our ETT tour around a hot spring. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

Is the Danakil Depression safe to visit?

Whether or not you find Danakil Depression safe to visit is up to you! These are the facts:

  • In 2012 two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian were killed during a Danakil tour. Two German tourists and an Ethiopian policeman and driver were abducted.
  • In December 2017 (just one month before I visited Danakil) a German tourist got shot dead during a Danakil tour.
  • Afar Revolutionary Democratic Front Militia are active in this region and may have been responsible for the attacks. This group is in favor of an independent Afar country.
  • A military escort is mandatory. Basically it’s a mix of real soldiers and guards with old Russian kalashnikovs.
  • Check your latest government travel advice. 
  • There is no healthcare nearby.
  • Obviously, driving four-wheel drives on bad roads has a chance on accidents.
  • It’s also one of the hottest places on earth. Heat stroke is a serious risk.
Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Guards at the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Military at the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

What do I need to bring on my Danakil Depression tour?

  • Head torch (most important piece as you will climb Erte-Ala in the dark)
  • Jacket
  • Summer sleeping bag
  • Camera
  • Swim suit
  • Towel
  • Snacks / cookies
  • Rubbish bag
  • Wet wipes (no showers)
  • Cap
  • Sunglasses
  • Powerbank
  • Small change to tip the guards
Afar people hack block of salts out of the ground near Dallol, Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. The salt is cut into smaller pieces and then placed on the camels. After a multiple day trip over the salt flats, the salt is sold in the city for approximately less than 1 USD per large piece. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

What to wear on my Danakil Depression tour?

Remember, Danakil is called the hottest place on earth for a reason. It was indeed very hot at the salt flats and sulphur springs, so I was wearing shorts (or a legging) and a shirt. During the Erte Ale climb, I was wearing a legging, shirt and my Northface jacket.

How to get to Mekele? 

  • Fly: Ethiopian Airlines has flight from Addis Abeba to Mekele
  • Bus: There is a direct bus to/from Aksum. If you come from Lalibela, you need to transfer in Woldia.
  • Private car: Ask around in Lalibela, some people offer private cars which you can share with other travelers. Sometimes ETT provides transportation.
Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers. Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Lunar landscapes with sulphur hot springs. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.

Is it ethical to visit Danakil Depression?

The remote Danakil Depression can only be visited with an armed escort, since there have been a few kidnappings and murders of tourists in the last years. In December 2017 (only weeks before my own visit), a German tourist was killed.

Is it ethical to visit a region you’re clearly not welcome?
Or is it ‘plain terrorism’ and should we therefore ignore this?
Is it ethical to endanger the lives of these guards, so tourists can visit?
Or is the money coming from tourism in this extreme poor and desolate region with harsh living conditions a good thing?

I don’t have the correct answers, but these are some things to consider. I can tell you that it felt a bit odd to drive in expensive four-wheel drives with DSLR’s around our necks, passing by people wearing plastic water shoes and holes in their t-shirt, working in extreme harsh conditions.

Read more about Ethical Travel Dilemmas here!

Let me know what you think! 

Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Afar people working at Danakil. As you can see, the salt works are still entirely done by hand. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Camels are very important in this region. The government deliberately decided NOT to use trucks, to provide the Afar people with work. These are some camels taking a rest. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
My Danakil Depression tour while backpacking Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers
Salt flats at the Danakil Depression tour – Backpacking Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers
hDanakil Depression in Ethiopia
Lake Afrera at the Danakil Depression tour – Backpacking Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers
Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Happy travel face at the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers.
Danakil Depression. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers
Erte-Ala vulcano at the Danakil Depression. Copyright Bunch of Backpackers

Have you ever visited a region like this? Or an active volcano?

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You may also like: 
Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Ethiopia
How much does it cost to backpack Ethiopia?

5 COMMENTS

  1. Hey,

    Ethiopia was one of the best country in Africa. In ethopia we can found best places to visit. Cool weather around ethiopia. I hope you enjoyed this trip.

  2. It looks absolutely gorgeous! Friends of mine visited around the same time you did, because they also heard about the German who was recently shot there. I don’t know if I would consider going there just now because of the heightened security ( I don’t know if I would feel at ease to enjoy the sight), but I would definitely love to visit sometimes!

    • Hey Dominque, obviously this is personal, but I never felt unsafe. Just stick to the group (the German apparently left the group) and you will be fine!

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