Lake Tana is classified as the largest lake in the African nation of Ethiopia and is the source of the mighty Blue Nile. It is about 95 kilometres long and spans an area of 3,500 square kilometres.
Although Ethiopia is landlocked, the presence of this lake makes up for it. A boat ride across Lake Tana is a must for anybody who decides to visit Ethiopia.
In addition to the world-famous Blue Nile Falls meandering out of the lake, this large water reservoir supports a host of ecosystems. Spend a day here, and learn about its flora and fauna, its centuries-old monasteries, and its culturally significant islands.
Lake Tana Ethiopia: An Overview
Overall, Lake Tana is a really easy place to get to and explore. However, no matter how much you like spontaneity and going with the flow, having a basic idea of the place always helps a great deal. In this section, I will give you a sneak peek into my experience at the Ethiopian Lake. Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let me give you a brief overview that will assure you of a smooth trip.
Amhara Region, Ethiopia
The currency used in Ethiopia is the Ethiopian Birr (ETB). The conversion rates in terms of three currencies: Ethiopian Birr (ETB), American Dollar (USD), and Indian Rupee (INR) back when I travelled to Ethiopia were as follows:
1 USD = 29.2 birr; 1 birr = 2.44 INR
I’ve made mention of the Indian Rupee because India is my home country.
Throughout the year
|The best time to visit
October-November (after the monsoons)
Take a flight or a bus to Bahir Dar – a port on the southern shore of Lake Tana
|A highlight of the trip
A boat ride across the lake
I was surprised to find out that a place so beautiful is not more popular among travelers. Read on, and you’ll understand why I’m talking about this place so highly.
Lake Tana is dotted with islands, monasteries, churches, fishermen, and spectacular views. Leaving this place without venturing out on a boat ride would almost make your trip abstruse.
The Islands on Lake Tana
Lake Tana is home to about 37 islands that are storehouses of cultural and historical significance. Some of the popular islands are:
The islands are said to be home to about 15,000-20,000 inhabitants. About 20 of them are widely visited by travelers and locals for its churches and monasteries. Imagine visiting a monastery on an island in the midst of an Ethiopian lake – it’s truly a wonder.
In addition to these utopian islands, the peninsulas of Gorgora, Mandaba, and Zege are also must-visits. They’re reputed for their delicious coffee, and attract birdwatchers, photographers, historians, and curious travelers from far and wide.
Visiting The Zege Peninsula
Located on the southern side of Lake Tana, the Zege Peninsula is home to some ancient but ravishing monasteries. Also, the region has a thick lush forest you can take long walks in, and a hill that you climb up for some spectacular views.
Bete Maryam Monastery
Finding itself at the tip of the peninsula, this monastery is the oldest on Zege. Here, you can marvel at some spectacular murals that depict Ethiopian life, religion, culture and folklore. ‘Bete Maryam’ literally translates to House of Mary and is a really colourful place to be in. These murals have been through a lot – water damage, replacements, and corrosion, but are ever-striking when it comes to their vibrancy.
Fact: The colours used for these murals are organic, meaning, they were derived from local produce such as plants, flowers, and vegetation.
Ura Kidane Mehret
Open to women visitors, this monastery is hardly attractive on the outside. However, once you take your footwear off and step inside, you’ll be left amused. It’s almost like being transported to a completely different world.
It is a 20-minute walk from where the boat will drop you, and the pathway is rather interesting. You’d be walking through coffee plantations, lemon trees, and some souvenir stalls trying their best to sell some goodies to you.
Tip: If you visit around February and March, you could witness the coffee harvest in full force.
It also houses a little museum that goes by the name of Zege Satekela. It has a collection of household equipment, handcrafted objects and musical instruments used by local Ethiopian communities.
Bette Selassie Monastery
If you’re energetic and enthusiastic enough, climb up the hill in Zege and visit the Bette Selassie Monastery. It takes about 45 minutes to reach and has a spectacular range of paintings. Unfortunately, it is only open to men.
Furthermore, you can also visit the Azuwa Maryam church and the Bete Selassie and Tekla Haimanot monastery at Zege.
Other Monasteries and Churches Worth Visiting
The scattered islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana collectively house more than twenty monastic churches. Following are some of the most renowned Lake Tana monasteries and churches.
Although originally built in the 14th century, this church was redone in the 19th century. A number of people find this site to be unattractive and uninteresting, but the thing is, it is much more than its looks. It is popular for its priceless collection of books, artefacts, and paintings weaved around the stories of Mary and Jesus.
Furthermore, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across locals making tankwas (traditional Ethiopian reed boats made from papyrus) on this island.
This is the monastery closest to the town of Bahir Dar, and one of the most frequented.
Its round roof, carved stones, and impressive architecture make for a beautiful cathedralic atmosphere.
Women are not allowed to enter
This monastery is currently shut for visitors.
The island is heavily vegetated, and there are high chances that you won’t be able to spot the monastery at first. However, a steep and muddy walk on the island will lead you to the monastery that emerges almost suddenly.
This is a relatively new monastery, and a short trek up a hill opens up to it. What’s cool, interesting, and rather spooky is what this monastery houses. In its treasury, lies the mummified remains of a number of former Ethiopian emperors.
Unfortunately, just like Kebran Gabriel, this monastery permits only men.
This is a small island monastery, and rather far from Bahir Dar. It takes roughly 2.5-3 hours to get here by boat and is a 30-minute uphill walk from the landing point. Its shores are covered with a forest strip that is habituated by majestic fish eagles.
All of the above-mentioned monasteries, along with many more serve as the custodians of both religious and royal treasures. If you’re keen on knowing more about the cultural facets of the region, these are a must visit.
The Region’s Protected Flora and Fauna
Lake Tana is a blessing to Ethiopia in terms of the ecosystems it supports and its contributions to the economy. The Lake Tana biological reserve has been established to protect this sensitive and valuable biological diversity.
While you’re cruising away on the calm lake, keep your eyes open for wildlife, plants, and the most exotic birds you can think of.
Lake Tana is a bonanza for wildlife lovers. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of exploring the churches, monasteries, and islands on Lake Tana, many side-line this.
|Hippopotamus – While on your boat trip, ask your driver to take you to the spot where the Blue Nile flows from the lake. Here, chances of spotting hippopotamuses basking in the shallow lake are higher than in other parts. Trust me, it will be a site to witness.
|Monkeys – While you’re exploring churches and monasteries, scan the trees for the black and while Colubus monkeys.
P.S: Do not try to feed these monkeys anything. They are used to living in the wild and fending for themselves. You can never predict how they will react to someone trying to interfere with them.
|Python – The rarely spotted African Rock Python which is Africa’s largest snake is also native to the forests of Lake Tana. It lives in swampy areas along the shores of Lake Tana and can grow up to seven meters in length.
The long Nile Monitors are also inhabitants of these forests. Other animals easily observable in the region are hyenas, prickly Crested Porcupine and Duikers.
Furthermore, Lake Tana’s biological reserve has a fair share of reptiles, snakes, porcupines, and other rare animals you might not even know exist.
Fish – Endemic and Endangered
Under the surface of the very lake that your boat will make its way on, are about 28 thriving species of fish. A majority of them are endemic (native, belonging to a particular region), with a few being endangered.
Plants – Of Coffee and Medicines
All of the islands on Lake Tana are characterized by dense patches of trees, plants, and vegetation.
You’ll find yourself exposed to a wide variety of endemic, endangered and rare vegetation on the Zege peninsula. As mentioned before, coffee plants with bead-like cherries can be found in abundance here. These very cherries are then utilized to make the country’s national drink buna, also known as coffee.
It has also been discovered that a number of plants in this region have excellent medicinal properties. They are used to cure fevers, coughs, colds, and even more severe illnesses.
The wetlands of this region have been highly inducive to the thriving wildlife, and plant population.
Ethiopians have gone a long way in protecting this sensitive, and rich biodiversity. So, when you visit Lake Tana, make sure you’re considerate, cooperative and careful about not harming what’s been protected ever since.
How Much Would the Experience Cost?
Now, this is a little tricky. How much you’ll pay for a boat ride on Lake Tana depends on a number of factors. Some of them are:
|Duration – A boat ride can be of different durations.
1) Small lake trips – This would last roughly 2.5-3 hours and you’ll visit about 3-4 monastic churches.
2) Half-day tours – This would be a 5-hour trip to the key monasteries on Lake Tana, and the Blue Nile outlet.
3) Full-day tours – This would be a 9-10-hour long stint across Lake Tana.
|Operator – There is no lack of the number of operators organizing tours across the lake. So, prices are really going to vary. Unfortunately, there’s not much uniformity in the prices and deals offered by all of them.
|Group size – This, of course, goes without saying, but the larger the group, the cheaper the per-person share gets.
Keeping all these things in mind, it is difficult to offer any approximation on the pricing structure for boat trips on Lake Tana. However, small lake trips would roughly cost about 1000 birr (34.5 USD) for a group of 4-5 people. Full-day trips would set you back 3000-3500 birr (102.5-120 USD).
If you’re on a tighter budget, you could consider taking the public boat. This boat leaves to go to the Zege Peninsula from the Marine Authority (ask any local for directions) at 7AM every day. From the peninsula, it proceeds to go to the village of Afaf.
You can explore the peninsula on foot, and eventually walk 40 minutes to get to Afaf. Hereon, you can get an evening boat back to Bahir Dar or hop on to a minibus. The last bus leaves around 4 PM.
Note that none of these prices include food, entrance fees, and other expenses. Clarify if the package includes a guide before settling on a deal. Tip: Do not go on this trip without a guide. Even if you have to shell out some more bucks for one, do it. Otherwise, it’s going to be absolutely worthless.
Entrance fees to the monasteries are 100 birr (3.4 USD) per person (per monastery).
Travelers can visit the islands on Lake Tana and peninsulas by hiring a boat from either of the following –
- Port of Bahir Dar – The southern shore of Lake Tana
- Port of Gorgora – The northern shore of Lake Tana
Lastly, as a rule, always bargain. Since there is no fixed price for the boat rides, operators do not hesitate to pitch random quotes. This is especially true if you’re a foreigner, and even more so, if you seem oblivious and uninformed.
Are the Islands of Lake Tana Prohibited for Women?
By this point of the article, you must be aware that a lot of these monasteries are prohibited for women due to religious reasons. Although they are allowed to land on the banks of the islands, they aren’t allowed to continue further.
However, women travelers can visit some churches on the Zege peninsula, in addition to a few others. So, before making any plan, do get a confirmation on this. If you are a woman, sign up for packages that will take you to monasteries you are allowed to enter.
The Blue Nile Falls
Locally known as Tis Abay, the Blue Nile Falls are one of the country’s top natural attractions. These falls mix up with the White Nile in Sudan, thus forming the (disputed) longest river in the world.
|Getting there – You can board a bus from Bahir Dar that will drop you at Tis Abay (Tissisot on Google Maps). Buses start at 7AM and cost 15 birr (0.5 USD) one way. The journey will take about 1.5 hours, after which a 30-minute walk or a quick and cheap boat ride will take you to the falls.
The last bus from Tis Abay leaves at 4:30 pm. Make sure you do not miss that.
|Fee for the falls – 50 birr (1.7 USD) per adult, and free for children
|Stay – A majority of the crowd visits the Blue Nile Falls for a day trip from Bahir Dar. However, if you have time in hand and want to step closer to rural Ethiopian life, consider staying for a night. You can spend the night camping by the falls, swimming in the river, drinking coffee, and eating locally.
|The best time to visit – August to October. This is when the water’s flow is at its strongest. During this time, the falls stand true to their name ‘Tis Abay’ meaning ‘great smoke.’
If you want, you can also visit the nearby Wonkshet monastery.
When to go to Lake Tana?
There’s no unfavourable time to visit Lake Tana as such. Ethiopia boasts of bright sunshine throughout the year. Even during the monsoons, it isn’t difficult for one to visit the country and be treated to all it has to offer.
Monsoons in this region roughly last from mid-May to September. So, if there had to be the best time to visit Lake Tana, it would certainly be October. This is when the lake is full, the vegetation is lush and green, and even the Blue Nile falls are at their best.
Temperatures do not vary much throughout the year. However, during the course of a day, there can be a significant drop in temperatures as night falls. They can drop to as low as 9°C in the winter months and can go up to as much as 30°C around April and May.
Fact: Ethiopia makes use of the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one.
Ethiopia’s Largest Lake: Backpack Essentials
Although there aren’t any strict rules that govern dress codes when at Lake Tana, it’s better to dress conservatively. Additionally, make sure you’re wearing clothes that are comfortable for spending long hours in, and for hiking, walking, etc.
Keeping everything in mind, the following is a comprehensive list that will guide you while packing for your trip to this land.
|Long thin trousers
A thin jacket
Note that it is advised for you to not swim in Lake Tana. The waters are home to a number of creatures that might make your swim unpleasant. Additionally, the reeds will most certainly come your way.
However, you might be allowed to swim in the Blue Nile Falls if it isn’t during or right after the monsoon season. It really depends on the water levels and the force of the falls. In any case, if you’re fond of swimming, do carry your swimwear.
However, exercise complete caution and only take the plunge if it feels completely safe.
Lodging and Boarding
Usually, travelers stay in hotels in Bahir Dar City, at the edge of Lake Tana. Bahir Dar is a beautiful and clean city. Here, you can find a number of budget hotels, hostels, and guesthouses.
Most of them will be able to help you out with arranging boat tours, or trips to the Blue Nile Falls. Budget options for stay are:
- Manuhie Backpackers Lodge (325 birr/11.12 USD per person per night)
This is a great option for solo travelers, since dormitories are available. It’s pleasant, cheap, and well-located. The owners are said to be really hospitable and helpful.
- Flamingo guest house (410 birr/14 USD per night for a twin room)
This is a great choice for couples and families. It comes with great Wi-Fi, and great service, and is in close proximity to the city’s popular attractions.
Bahir Dar is pretty used to hosting visitors and travelers from far and wide. In this light, a number of options for stay are flocking up. From cheap options for accommodation to luxury hotels, Bahir Dar has something to offer to everybody.
How to Reach Lake Tana Biodiversity Reserve?
Located in the Amhara region, Lake Tana is located about 600 kilometers northwest of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Commuting in Ethiopia is generally not too difficult, and also not expensive.
From Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar
To explore Lake Tana, you’ll have to make your way to Bahir Dar – a port on its southern shore. There are 2 ways of doing this:
Selam Bus and Skybus Ethiopia are the 2 popular and reliable luxury bus operators in the country. They have air conditioning, comfortable seating, and are pretty reliable in terms of punctuality and safety. If I had to recommend one, I’d suggest you go with Selam Bus. Based on reviews, and personal experience, they seem to be much more credible.
Although they claim to have online bookings, this seems to be next to impossible (at least for foreigners). So, head to their head office in Addis Ababa to get your ticket – it is right next to the tourist information centre in Meskel Square.
Tip: Do book tickets a day in advance to avoid chances of not getting a ticket, or getting an uncomfortable seat.
The bus leaves at 5 AM every day and costs about 350 birr (12 USD). If all goes well (which generally should be the case), you will make it to Bahir Dar in about 10 hours.
Bahir Dar also has an international airport by the name ‘Ginbot Haya.’ So, you can board a flight from wherever you are. The fares would depend on where you’re coming from when you’re booking, and at what time of the year. However, it would certainly be much more expensive than the bus.
As for advice, I would suggest you take the bus. The scenery along the way is absolutely gorgeous, and you get a real feel of Ethiopian landscapes and Ethiopian life.
Tip: If you find bus rides to be uncomfortable, consider booking 2 seats. This would still be cheaper and better than boarding a flight.
Guided Tours to Lake Tana
Because it gets really expensive for one to go for a boat tour alone, there are a number of operators and companies that offer guided tours here. All you need to do is sign up, pay, and rest everything will be taken care of.
There are various types of tours you could choose from. Some include just the boat tour, some include a trip to the Blue Nile falls, and so on.
Simply search on Google to find relevant tours, or ask around at your place of stay in Bahir Dar. Most of them should be able to guide you with it.
Lake Tana is a place where ancient culture meets the modern era. Brimming with secrecy and legends, the old churches of Lake Tana are quiet retreats for their monastic inhabitants and inquisitive travelers alike. Plan a trip to this African paradise soon and experience the antiquity.
Happy Wayfaring 🙂