The Omo Valley is an area located in southeastern Ethiopia, home to more than 20 different ethnic tribes. This guide will show you how to visit it responsibly, on a budget, and as independently as possible.
For years, travelers and photographers – especially the latter – from around the world have been attracted by the wetlands of a region named South Omo, popularly known as the Omo Valley.
And the reason is that this southern, remote part of Ethiopia is inhabited by several distinct ethnic groups who still practice animistic beliefs today, and whose culture remains untouched, far from any trace of Western civilization.
Traditional ceremonies, timeless settlements and colorful markets.
The Omo Valley is such a unique place, a year-round cultural festival and heaven for photographers.
Visiting the Omo Valley, however, doesn’t come without its particular challenges.
It’s a very remote region, so fully independent travel is practically impossible, and occasionally, you will have to deal with irresponsible, insensitive tourists.
I spent 10 days traveling around the Omo Valley, mainly by public transportation, but I did hire local guides to visit the remotest villages. That helped me cut costs considerably, plus I believe it is the most responsible way to visit.
In this article, I wanted to share all my tips and knowledge, so you can plan your trip to the Omo Valley the same way I did.
Don’t forget to check my Ethiopia travel guide for all the practical information to visit the country
Before even traveling to Ethiopia, I had already heard about all the horror stories that mass tourism has brought to the Omo Valley.
On the one hand, some travelers whine about the fact that most villages have turned into souvenir shops and that tribal people care about nothing but your money.
Seriously man, how do you expect local people to behave when each and every day of their lives, a shit load of 4x4s come packed with wealthy tourists whose only aim is sneaking a few free photos?
On the other hand, more well-traveled people complain about the behavior of tourists who treat tribal people like zoo animals and have zero respect for the local culture.
Because of this, whether the Omo Valley is worth visiting or not was a question under constant debate with other traveling folks I met on the road.
As I told you in the introduction, I traveled around South Omo by public transportation, always being the only white person in a bus full of tribal people.
Moreover, I always hired local, independent guides in all the villages I visited, young guides that took me to their home villages to visit their families, so the local interactions I had were always of a higher quality.
The horror stories about the Omo Valley are true, but I also believe that there is a way around it, a way to make it more authentic, more real, more enjoyable, and that is by following the tips from this guide 🙂
So yeah, I think visiting the Omo Valley is totally worth it.
South Omo can be visited any time of the year except during the rainy season, from May to September, the wettest months being from May to July.
Bear in mind that it is not about the rain itself but the fact that there are no proper roads to reach the villages and, in the rainy season, they become extremely muddy, hence impassable.
There are 3 different ways to book a tour of the Omo Valley.
This is the worst way to visit the Omo Valley tribes.
First of all, it is very expensive. Tour operators in Addis start at $150 per person per day, assuming the car is full, and rates can go up to $300.
Moreover, traveling to South Omo from Addis is a 1 or 2-day journey, days which are also included in the daily rate.
Also, if you book a tour in Addis, it means that your guide will most likely be from Addis and the first thing you should know is that an Ethiopian dude from Addis is as foreign as you in the Omo Valley.
Probably, they will have a local contact who will also join you once you reach the valley, but it will never be the same, and they will just take you to the most commercial places.
How to find the right tour operator?
I can’t recommend any company in particular but if I went for this option, I would start looking at the Lonely Planet forum for Ethiopia.
Another very good reason for not going with any of these big tour operators is that they charge you crazy amounts of money, but then just give peanuts to the tribes.
Arba Minch is a town located half-way to South Omo, and it is as far as public buses from Addis go.
The advantage of booking a tour here versus in Addis is that you can get it cheaper (especially because you can get to South Omo in 4 or 5 hours), and you can find private, local guides.
I actually met a couple who chose Arba Minch as a base from where they did several day trips to visit different tribes and villages. They paid $250 a day for a full car for themselves.
It’s a better option than Addis but the next option is much better.
Jinka is like the main town in South Omo, and the best base for making day trips to different tribal villages, as it has the widest range of hotels and restaurants.
It is a town mainly inhabited by the Aari tribe, but you are likely to see people from other tribes who come over for shopping.
In Jinka, costs will be substantially lower because distances between tribal villages aren’t that large, plus you can find actual local guides.
If you want to book a full tour starting from Jinka, I recommend you contact Mamu (WhatsApp number: +251 91 197 6389).
Mamu is a local guy (born in Jinka) from the Aari tribe. He speaks great English, is well-educated and runs a tour company. He can arrange anything for you at the lowest price and, if you decide to book one of his tours, tell him that you found his contact details in my blog, so he will know that you want to visit the most authentic villages and markets.
If you want to visit the Omo Valley in the most responsible way, at the lowest price, you must visit it as independently as possible.
However, bear in mind that this option is only for those travelers who have plenty of time to spend in Ethiopia, plus you need to remember that it is not possible to make it 100% on your own but, at some point, you will have to hire a guide.
There is public transportation running between the following towns:
The buses, however, are scarce, meaning that you may find 1 or 2 a day tops. It is recommended to go to the station the day before to ask for the right timings.
Also, remember that it takes half a day to travel between these towns. If you are lucky and find a local guide quickly, you may have time to visit a tribal village after lunch.
Note – There are more bus routes but those are the towns I visited.
South Omo is well-sorted for hotels, especially Jinka and Turmi and you can find accommodation starting from 200 or 300 birr.
Jinka: Goh Hotel (500 birr) – Budget rooms with hot shower and a nice restaurant attached.
Turmi: Tourist Hotel (400 birr) – Acceptable rooms with private bathroom. They also have budget (like extreme budget) 150-birr rooms but I don’t recommend them. I stayed there the first night and it’s not only that the room was filthy but there were chickens hanging out in the common bathroom.
Omorate: Tourist Hotel (200 birr) – Not good, but there aren’t many options in this town.
Omo Valley fact: To enter the different villages, you must be accompanied by a local guide at all times.
You may find this rule kind of disappointing but seriously, I would not want to visit any of those villages on my own.
First of all, the tribal people don’t speak a word of English and most of them are illiterate, which means that you could not even be able to discuss a price – yes, there is an entry fee for each village.
And second of all, walking around on your own would just be too awkward, you wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone and, in the best-case scenario, they would just tell you to get the hell out of their village.
Therefore, a guide is not only recommended, but it is also essential.
The way we did it was that, once we arrived at any of the towns, we would just ask around for a local guide. The main advantage of visiting the relatively large towns (like Turmi or Omorate) is that you find people from different nearby tribes. For example, in Turmi, we met a young man from the Hamar tribe who took us to his friend’s village because, on that precise day, they were celebrating the famous bull jumping ceremony.
There were no other tourists, and what was great about it was that we spent our time hanging out with the guide and his local, tribal friends. If we had gone with a tour company, they would have taken us to the most commercial villages where everybody goes.
Omo Valley travel tip – In order to cut costs, especially solo travelers, you can hire a guide with a motorbike. That’s what we did to visit the villages around Turmi. It’s half the price.
Due to its remoteness, traveling the Omo Valley takes time, but the total number of days will greatly depend on the way you travel.
The journey from the capital takes 1 full day (one-way) and, typically, you need 1 day to visit a tribe. Sometimes, you may be able to combine it with a weekly market as well.
The least I recommend is 3-4 tribes, so the very minimum is 5-6 days
Going from Addis to Jinka by bus takes 2 entire days (one-way), with an overnight stop in Arba Minch, so you would need a minimum of 7-8 days, at the very least.
If you travel around the valley by public transportation, in order to make it as independent as possible, you should add 2 or 3 additional days, so at least 10 days, from the day you leave Addis.
Travel tip – In order to save time, you can also fly from Addis to Jinka
From Addis, you need to take one of the coach buses that leave from Meskel Square. They always leave at around 4-5am and I recommend you book your ticket at the ticket office 1 or 2 days in advance at least.
The journey to Arba Minch takes around 8 hours.
In Arba Minch, I recommend you stay at Tourist Hotel. Budget, good quality rooms and a great garden-restaurant.
You can travel to Jinka by public bus or local shared Jeep, and I recommend the latter because it takes half time, plus it is way more comfortable.
Public bus: It takes 8 to 10 hours, it’s very uncomfortable and smelly. The local price is 35 birr but, depending on how foreign you look, they will charge you much more.
Local shared Jeep: ask at the hotel’s reception where you can find the fixer, but usually, they all stand just outside the Tourist Hotel. The local price is 200 birr but, once again, they may charge you more.
If you book a tour from Addis, prices start at $150 a day, so for a 6-day tour (which is the minimum), you would pay $900, including very basic accommodation and assuming your car is full.
I personally believe that it isn’t worth $900 at all.
On the other hand, if you book it in either Arba Minch or Jinka, you can get much better deals, especially if you can share your car with other people.
For example, the day we visited the Mursi tribe (the tribe whose women wear plates in their lips) we just paid $180 for a full car (we were 2 people), and that also included visiting one local market and lunch.
Telling you the exact costs can be difficult because it depends on many factors, but what I can tell you for sure is that, if you book your tour in Jinka, your total costs will be cut by 50%, at least.
Omo Valley travel tip – In the Omo Valley, most guides and tour operators will quote you a price in USD and, occasionally they will not accept the local currency. The reason is that, if you pay them in local currency, they have to give you the bank rate, which is much lower than the black market’s. It sucks because it’s like you are paying a 20% extra but then, once I got very angry with one guide because not only did he refuse to accept my birr but he gave me my 20-dollar change in birr, using the shitty bank rate. We started arguing, until he finally gave me my change in USD.
Photography is one of the main reasons people visit the Omo Valley and, at the same time, it is the most controversial and sensitive topic, falling right in the borderline of ethics and travel.
Something you need to know is that photography is allowed, but it is not free, and it’s totally understandable. If I belonged to one of those ethnic groups, I would charge money to all the annoying tourists wanting to take a photo of me.
As of 2020, however, when you visit a village, you can also purchase a photo permit – it costs a few dollars and it’s usually included in the total cost of the tour. This way, you can take as many pictures as you want and the people from the village will always be happy to pose.
On the other hand, when you visit local markets and want to take a picture of any random people, they will for 5 or 10 birr, which is quite fair in my opinion.
These are the things I managed to see and do in South Omo. I could have visited more places but I was very satisfied with what I saw.
Jinka is the administrative capital of South Omo, a relatively sizable town with all the amenities, including ATMs, restaurants and quite a few hotels. There isn’t much to do here other than meeting fellow travelers and doing day trips to nearby villages.
This was the best thing we did in the Omo Valley.
In Arba Minch, I met a guy from Argentina who was traveling around Ethiopia for the second time, after 15 years. During his first visit, he met a lovely family from a small, rural village just outside of Jinka with whom he stayed for a couple of days, as a friend.
Imagine how things have changed in the Omo Valley!
Surprisingly, he kept in touch with one of the family members and, when he let them know about his visit, they didn’t hesitate to invite him to their house for dinner, tagging me along as well.
It was our best experience in the Omo Valley because, thanks to the Argentinian guy, I was able to interact with that family in the most genuine way.
The next day, we brought them some food and drink along with some prints of the photos we had taken the day before.
By the way, the Aari tribe is the most numerous ethnic group in South Omo and, although their villages and lives are very traditional, they are, to put it simply, the most modern tribe, meaning that most of them no longer wear traditional clothes and they have the largest number of educated people.
Mursi is the ethnic group infamous for women wearing huge lip plates and really heavy earrings hanging from their ears.
Because of their uniqueness, they are the most revered tribe in the West, especially after National Geographic published a report about them.
Today, they are the most visited tribe in all South Omo.
And I believe this was the reason why I didn’t enjoy visiting them, because the few settlements which you are allowed to visit have become too commercial and, from the moment we got out of the car until we left, we had 10 Mursi people chasing us and blocking our way, trying to sell us their handicrafts.
We had barely spent half an hour there when we decided to leave.
There are many weekly markets around the Omo Valley, the most touristic ones being in Turmi and Jinka and I recommend you skip those two and ask your guide about what off the beaten path markets take place during your visit.
Mamu (the tour guide from Jinka) recommended the one in Kako to us and it was great. It’s huge, with many different sections, including livestock, and we just saw one other small group of tourists.
Turmi is one of the main towns in South Omo, but it’s just a village composed of a few unpaved streets. Most people living here belong to the Hamar tribe, but we also met some Karo people.
Here, we met a local guide who took us to his friend’s village to witness a bull jumping ceremony.
In my opinion, the Hamar are the most photogenic tribe, especially because they all wear very colorful clothes and some women have very thick ochre braids.
We drove on a motorbike for 2 hours through the jungle until we reached a mesmerizing settlement composed of stalk cabins placed on a lush green meadow.
Absolutely beautiful, and very off the beaten path.
On that day, they were celebrating a bull jumping ceremony, a traditional ceremony in the Hamar tribe in which a young boy – usually around 15 years old – jumps (completely naked) over 10 or 15 aligned bulls in order to prove that he is ready to be married.
Before the actual ceremony, Hamar people dance for hours and drink home-made liquor.
It’s a real party, and we had so much fun. We spent about 6 hours there and, once again, we were the only tourists.
Women getting whipped – During the ceremony, it’s also a tradition that the jumper’s closest women relatives get whipped by the men – like really whipped, until they bleed – and if you take a closer look, you will see that most Hamar women have their back full of scares. It’s a pretty fucked up thing to witness.
Omorate is a town located just 20km from the Kenyan border, that sits on the shores of the Omo river, the river this region is named after.
This is the best base for visiting the Daasanach tribe and, what I liked about it was that, although many tourists visit that tribe, the vast majority come here on a day trip from Turmi, so the town has a very local feel and I found people here to be the kindest in all South Omo
The Daasanach tribe is another ethnic group spread across Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia.
We hired a local guide in Omorate, around 45 minutes away on foot (it was very cheap). We were the only tourists in the village and spent a few hours just hanging out in the shade.
I just saw and interacted with 6 tribes (highlighted in bold), but there are many ethnic groups.
South Omo wasn’t my favorite part of Ethiopia, especially because human, local interactions can be very awkward sometimes, even if you don’t visit a touristic village.
However, I am very proud and happy to say that I managed to visit the Omo Valley in a way very few foreigners do, which allowed me to stay away (mostly) from all the horror stories most travelers I met in Ethiopia experienced.
Don’t forget to check our travel guide to Ethiopia.
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