Omo Valley is becoming one of the more popular tourist destinations in Ethiopia as hundreds of tourists visit per day. Although the scenery is quite nice, the reason all tourists come is to see the unique tribes that live in southwest Ethiopia – beautiful people with beautiful customs. This is my guide and my verdict on whether you should visit – Omo Valley Travel is NOT for everyone!
Markets are one of the easiest ways to see the daily life of people from the tribes and the goods that make up their local economy and diet. Many of them walk for many hours to sell their wares, from goats to honey to vegetables. For women, this might be their only chance for social interaction during the week. Expect to see many tourists at these markets and pay from 300 ETB ($12) per group or per person to visit a market. Except the Jinka markets, these markets have curio sections for tourists where you can buy all kinds of handicrafts (carvings, jewelry) as well as items that are used by the tribes such as the small stools used by the shepherds to the thick necklaces that indicate the marriage status of Hamer women.
Dimeka Saturday Market
Our first stop on our Omo Valley tour. This colorful market is primarily Hamer and Bena tribes. You can buy the clay here to have your hair styled like a Hamer woman… small twisted tails encrusted in red clay. I can only assume they cannot wash their hair and they largely need to stay out of the rain. It’s best to visit this one in the afternoon.
Turmi Monday Market
This market starts around 10 am and is largely attended by the Hamer people. There’s a decent animal market at the same location. Check out the honey sellers.
Key Afer Thursday Market
One of the larger markets, and attended by many tribes including Hamer, Bena, and Aari. A large livestock markets is held on the same day in a separate location in town.
Jinka Tuesday Market
This colorful market was free! It was not so much a market for tribes, but more for the local people of Jinka. We were the only tourists here so we had a mob of children following us around. Good selection of fresh goods, spices, clothing, plastics, pottery. You can get a pottery coffee pot for very cheap here.
Each town or homestead in Omo Valley that accepts visitors also charges a fee of 200 – 300 ETB ($8-12) per person for a visit. This often includes a local guide. These fees really add up if you’re visiting a couple tribes per day.
Dasenech Tribe (Omorate town)
A drive south on a gravel road took us to the town of Omorate, on the Omo River. This town is so close to the border of Kenya, we had to stop in and immigration office for a special permit. We got a ride in a dug-out log canoe to cross the muddy Omo river to visit the first Dasenech tribe.
If I had to live in this tribe, I predict I’d be dead within 24 hours. This was the southmost tribe we visited and the driest area. The huts in this village are densely populated. The townsfolk were building a fence on this day with the men digging and placing large posts and the women carrying large stacks of branches to fill in the fence line. There was no drinking water nearby so it was heartbreaking when some of the villagers were begging for my bottle of water. I gave my half full bottle to one of the men that looked particularly parched.
The Aari Tribe is centered around Jinka. Unlike some of the other tribes, most of the Aari now wear western clothing. The Aari are known for their crafts. In the village we visited, we had a chance to see injera bread making, liquor distilling, pottery making, and knife firing.
The Hamer Tribe is centered around Turmi town. The women have amazing hair and wear necklaces that indicate if they are the first or later wives of the polygamous husbands. The men are skinny and surprisingly tall. Their fashion includes tank tops, beaded headbands, a wrap skirt, and shoes made from old truck tires. Both men and women are proud of their scars from whipping or scarification. One of my favorite moments of the trip was drinking honey wine and shots with a Hamer woman in one of the Turmi bars.
The Bena people are centered around Key Afer and have similar hair and dress to the Hamer. The women often wear goat skins adorned with shells that are their most prized possessions. Our visit to the Bena consisted of visiting a single family. This family of mother and father and eight children from a baby to teenagers live in a domed hut that’s about the size of my bedroom. The whole family sleeps on the floor on cow hide. They also cook in the same hut, including brewing the coffee shell tea they made for us that we drank out of gourds. One of the interesting features of this tribe involves the teething of babies. A baby is not part of the family until the first teeth come in. If they come in on the top, this is bad luck and the family does not accept the baby. There is an orphanage in the area that accepts them.
The Mursi is the most popular and most photographed tribe of Omo Valley. They have the most unusual feature – the adult women have cut their lip so they can fit a large ceramic plate – up to 5 inches (12 cm) in diameter. The origin of this tradition was so that other tribes found them ugly and lost the desire to kidnap the Mursi women.
I didn’t know much about the tribe before visiting them, but learned from our guide afterwards that the Mursi have the reputation of being drunk and harassing visiting tourists. From the moment we stepped out of the car until we drove off, we were mobbed by Mursi people poking and prodding us to pay 5 ETB (20 cents per photo). It was quite an uncomfortable visit… I was glad to get out of there and ended up with fewer photos than I had intended to take. The locals were obsessed with me… many of them aggressively touched my breasts and one woman even wanted to take off my shirt!
The Mursi Tribe is accessed from Jinka city, by entering the Mago National Park, but I DO NOT RECOMMEND VISITING THIS TRIBE. There are other tribes, especially the Dorze, Aari, and Dasenech that are trying to build responsible community tourism… from providing responsible guides, to showing you and letting you try traditional crafts, to sharing music and dance, to letting you sit down with local people and ask questions via an interpreter.
Mago National Park
A visit to the Mursi Tribe requires entrance to Mago National Park. The fee to visit Mago National Park had risen to 220 ETB ($9) just before our arrival. The park is beautiful but not worth the park admission. Each group must also hire a mandatory scout – an armed guard for its protection, but it’s a bogus fee to employ more Ethiopians. I got a big kick out of our scout drinking our honey wine out of a plastic water bottle! There are a few animals to see it this park including dik diks, baboons, and many types of birds.
Konso Tribe and UNESCO site
We visited two of the smaller villages of the Konso Tribe – Gamole and Gersergiyo. The Konso villages are recognized by UNESCO for their stone buildings and generation poles (a collection of Juniper trees – each tree in a totem represents 18 years).
Gamole had some very nice stone buildings and central meeting houses. Gersergiyo (better known as “New York City”) doesn’t have the stone buildings, but does have some amazing sand pinnacles which reminded me of a small version of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Other Sites in the Omo Valley
Sunset at an Acacia Tree
The quintessential African view is an Acacia tree at sunset. We found a small tree in the middle of nowhere outside Turmi village and waited for the sunset – but our time was cut short when a town official demanded we pay 200 ETB ($8) to visit “the village”. An argument between our guide, driver and this guy ensued, and we won by driving away without payment.
The Greenery & Rain
The Omo Valley is beautiful in October. It did rain almost every day of our trip, but it didn’t affect anything as it mostly rained at night. The result was an extremely green and beautiful landscape, which differs from the dry season with only dead brush and green Acacia trees.
I was surprised by the high amount of wildlife in the area – amazing birds including two types of guinea fowl, cute dik diks (small antelopes that always run in pairs), monkeys, baboons, and ground squirrels. It was worth keeping an eye on the road to see what kind of wildlife would run by.
The Verdict on Visiting Omo Valley & How to Be a Better Visitor
I am happy I visited Omo Valley because I learned and saw so much but there are some definite negatives to travel in these parts. I had some worry before the trip that the visit might feel a bit like a human zoo and in some ways these worries came true. The people here don’t always like getting their photo taken – especially if you sneak a shot or take from afar – the reactions range from a dirty look to a reprimand to even threatening to throw stones. If someone motions to not take their picture, do NOT take their picture!
If you want to take a close up of someone, expect to pay 5 ETB (20 cents) per person. In one example, there were 8 boys all painted and if you wanted to take their picture, the cost was 40 ETB ($1.50). Some people go for the perfect shot of people but if ultimately you’re making the person mad is it really worth the shot? I’ve decided I don’t like taking photos when the subject is not so willing and it made me sick when I saw others being especially aggressive with their photography. I don’t plan on visiting Omo Valley again for this reason.
Most towns and markets don’t just allow you to walk around. You must pay a visiting fee and also pay for the required guide. Towns and markets are accessible for 200-300 ETB each which really adds up. Some of the fees are per party so it’s cheaper to travel with others. While a fee to visit a town may seem ridiculous, the fees do some good. After the guide is paid, the rest of the fees go to the communities to purchase much needed medicines and other supplies.
The giving of pens and candy is not the best practice. Many children will ask for these but don’t be tempted to provide. This encourages a begging culture and children missing school to get freebies. Bringing school supplies and donating to a teacher at a school is a better idea. He or she can distribute to children in need that attend class. Candy is especially bad because you will see many children with rotten teeth. Even a gift of toothbrushes would be a better idea.
But most importantly, don’t just go and take pictures and leave. It is important to learn about these cultures if you are making a visit. Ask questions. There are lively bars and restaurants when the market is in town. Don’t just go in and take pictures. Go in and buy a round of local sorghum beer and share with your neighbors. Before or after you take your pictures, consider putting your camera away and walk around town and greet people. You will find a warmer welcome and smiling faces.
Logistics of visiting the Omo Valley:
While it is possible to visit many of the Omo Valley Tribes by public transportation, it seems like it is very difficult. We saw very few public buses around the area and they were often full.
Getting to Arba Minch
It is possible to get tours from the capital of Addis Ababa, but to save money, get yourself to Arba Minch – you save a couple days in an expensive rented vehicle and tours seem to be cheaper from Arba Minch. We took the Selam bus from Addis Ababa to Arba Minch. The ride costs just 280 ETB ($11) and goes by beautiful scenery. A cake, water, and Ethiopian videos are included. It takes about 8-9 hours with two stops – a bathroom stop (find your own tree or bush) and a quick lunch stop. An alternative is to fly via Ethiopian airlines for $75+. On your way to Arba Minch by road, you might want to consider a stop at Hawassa, my favorite relaxation town in Ethiopia.
Finding a Guide
Any hotel can arrange a car, with or without a guide. We were quoted as little as $100 per day for a van. 4x4s are starting at $140 per day. The vans can get to most places in the Omo Valley. The only disadvantage is they are a little slower – we were passed by many a 4×4 in our older Toyota Van.
Alternatively, you can just get a driver as most of the villages provide local guides (but I recommend a guide if you can afford it).
Where I stayed:
- Arba Minch: Turuye Hotel. New Hotel just 2 blocks west of the Selam bus stop on the main road. This place has private hot showers and a good restaurant. 250 ETB ($10)
- Turmi: Salem Pension. Very small, basic room with shared squat toilet and cold showers (water hauled by the local ladies so use sparingly). This place houses the local guides and drivers moreso than tourists that stay in some other nearby pensions. 150 ETB ($6)
- Jinka: Nardo’s Pension. Large rooms around a great courtyard. Shared bath and cold showers out the back past the small corn field. Decent wifi. 150 ETB ($6)
- Key Afer: Sami Pension. A small, cute place with larger rooms and private bath with western toilet on the main road. 250 ETB ($10)
- Konso: Faro Family Pension. A small room and shared bath for 150 ETB ($6)