Harar Ethiopia is one of the most interesting places to visit in Ethiopia, but it gets much fewer visits than the major sites in the north and south. I had a pretty crazy time here from feeding hyenas, to attempting to visit a brewery, and inadvertently getting someone arrested! Read more to find out why.
The Hyena Man
Everyone who visits Harar must visit the nightly Harar hyena feeding. This is an experience that is unique to the city and maybe the only place in the world you can do this. The story says that there was a famine in this part of Ethiopia and the hyenas were wreaking havoc on the city so they started feeding them. This has continued over the years and there are a couple hyena men who know each hyena by name and feed them nightly.
We left the Harar Gate at 6:15 pm in a tuk tuk and were driven a couple kilometers east of the city on a dusty, bumpy road. We passed a guy with a wheelbarrow and the tuk tuk stopped to relieve him of part of his load… a large basket filled with bloody animals parts that we would take with us in the back seat of the tuk tuk to the wild hyena feeding site.
We pulled into the hyena site before either of the hyena men and we could see the glow of two hyena eyes in the tuk tuk’s headlights. Animal bones were scattered all through the field. The two men with the meat showed up and the Harar hyena man started calling the hyenas. Slowly more hyenas emerged from the bushes and slowly approached. Large bones with meat were tossed so they came closer. We counted at least 14 hyenas. Eventually the hyena man told me to take a seat and gave me a stick with meat on the end but the hyenas were shy.
A few more tourists showed up (7 in total, including us) and the hyenas came closer. Each tourist was given the chance to feed the hyenas by stick – first from our hand and then by our mouths. They are much more beautiful animals than I previously imagined. They get a bad rep from the Lion King.
Logistics: You absolutely need return transportation but you don’t need a guide. We caught a tuk tuk near the old city for 100 ETB ($4) but happily paid our driver 150 ETB much to his delight. Each person must pay 100 ETB to the hyena man – it is well worth it!
Get Lost in the Alleys of Old Town (Harar Jugol)
The alleys of Harar Jugol are a maze full of sights, smells, and sounds. It’s fun to walk around and say hello. I noticed people are a lot friendlier if you walk around without a camera around your neck. Some people really don’t want their photo taken but some will ask you to take their photo, mostly kids.
The Church of Medhane Alem
I went to this octagonal church in the middle of Jugol Harar at 6am in the morning to meditate and listen to the wonderful chanting.
Café in Feres Megala (Center Square)
Perhaps my favorite place to relax in Harar is the open air, second story café on the north end of the main square. It overlooks the church and you can spy on the whole town while you drink 10 ETB (40 cent) cokes in a glass bottle.
Arthur Rimbaud Museum
Arthur Rimbaud might be one of the world’s first travel bloggers – this French poet was a nomad at heart and spent his last years in Ethiopia and the Middle East. The museum is housed in a beautiful wooden building with stained glass in the middle of Harar to enjoy the photos, story of his life, and views of the city.
Stay in a Cultural House
There are 4 guesthouses in the old town. Each is in an old building centered around a courtyard and with a living room adorned by baskets. Most rooms are sharing a bath so it is not for everyone. You will ensure a quiet stay (until the call to prayer at 4:30 am) and a big breakfast. My room had a Mona Lisa painting over the bed so I thought it was appropriate.
Feed an Eagle/Kite
Inside the old town is a building in the shape of a bird with outstretched wings. A local that was telling me that he loves Donald Trump also told me the building was built by the fascists in the 1960’s and a bird was their symbol. Nowadays, it hosts a butcher and you can pay a small tip to watch someone feed meat scraps to the birds, or feed one yourself. We paid 50 ETB total ($2) for three of us to take a bunch of swooping eagle photos.
Harar Brewery (the Brewery tour that never was)
We tried three times to visit Heniken owned Harar Brewery – on Thursday morning we were told we couldn’t have flip flops and cameras, but we could come back later. On Thursday afternoon we were told it was closed and it was open tomorrow. On Friday morning we were frisked and let in the front gate only to be told the canteen and factory were closed to visitors.
Many of the young, English speaking men hang around town and try to guide you for a tip. It doesn’t matter if you say no. They walk in front of you and keep on talking. At one point we had picked up 4 of these such “guides” and I had had enough, especially after the pickpocketing incident in the capital a few days ago. So, I did a girl move and started crying – but totally fake tears. The guides got the picture and immediately left. We spent the next couple hours visiting a museum and having a Coca Cola at the café in the center of town. Just as we were leaving, a police officer and a couple men came up the stairs and right at me. I panicked a little before the following conversation took place:
Police interpreter: were you crying?
Police interpreter: were you crying at the museum?
Me: (now getting worried) um… yeah
Police interpreter: guy at the police station. Come and question?
Me: (now feeling awful) No. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.
Apparently Harar is trying to grow its tourism and has little tolerance at trouble for tourists. One of the pestering guide must have turned in another guide. Funny enough, it seemed like we had fewer pestering guides after this incident.
Dire Dawa Train Station
If flying to Dire Dawa on your way to Harar, it’s worth a stop at the old central train station in Dire Dawa. This was a major stop on the Addis Ababa to Djibouti line. Trains stopped from Addis about 12 years earlier, but still run to Djibouti. We paid 100 ETB ($4) each for a tour around this old French built train station. We got to check out the machine shop and offices. Machinists were working and still using 100 year old cranes built by the French. Note that the Chinese are building a new rail line from Addis to Djibouti that is soon to open but it doesn’t run through the center of town. I really enjoyed this train station but if planning to bus from Addis to Harar, I wouldn’t recommend a stop just for this unless you’re a train enthusiast.
How to get to Harar:
Normally there is a long distance (Selam) bus that runs to Dire Dawa and Harar, but due to some ethnic clashes and killings just a few weeks before my trip, these buses were not running, so this is how I got to Harar:
- Fly from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa – $61 (no flights to Harar)
- Taxi into town center – 50 ETB shared taxi ($2)
- Minibus to Harar – 20 ETB ($1, although they ripped us off and charged us 50 ETB, we just wanted to get out of the hectic bus station as there were a dozen touts harassing us)
Where I stayed:
Zubayda Wabar Guesthouse. 400 ETB ($16) for private room, shared bath, breakfast. Clean and quiet place to stay, but not for everyone.
If you want the hotel with private bath, TV, and wifi, and a western breakfast, the Wonderland Hotel is new and just outside the Harar gate. This one isn’t in guidebooks yet but looks great, as I got to check out the room of one of my travel companions. You can book it here.
Where I ate:
Fresh Touch is just a few blocks west of the Harar Gate and has great pizzas and cold beer. For a snack, buy a fresh batch of French fries from a lady in the old town for 5 ETB (20 cents). Make sure you get the green chili garlic sauce.
Best Guidebook for Dire Dawa & Harar: