During my trip to Djibouti by the end of October 2017, I had the feeling to be travelling at the end of the world and I really liked it!
Arriving by plane from Addis, we land in a desertic area. The singularity of the landscapes makes it an atypical destination. Land of volcanic origin, we can still clearly see the petrified lava flows that descend into the intense blue sea. Outside the capital, Djibouti, a sleepy city that comes to life as the sun goes down, and Tadjourah, a quiet coastal town, you can find only small villages of simple huts where the locals cattle some goats or dromedaries. Another nature wonder: Lake Assal, a real gem with its turquoise water and its “beach” of salt that you will have to yourself. Further south is Lake Abbe and its lunar landscapes where it’s amazing to get lost!
Djibouti is a country still very little known. The second smallest country in continental Africa (after Swaziland), it is located in the Horn of Africa, between Eritrea, with which diplomatic relations have been cessed since 2008 (border closed), Somaliland and Ethiopia, two neighbors with whom relations are good. Ethiopia relies on the port of Djibouti for 95% of its imports-exports, having no maritime access.
Djibouti is characterized by a strong military presence, large bases are installed: French, Americans, Japanese, Italians and Chinese … The Chinese, as in many African countries are also responsible for major works such as the construction of the railway line which will soon unite the port of Djibouti with Ethiopia or salt exploitation at Lake Assal.
Djibouti also has a very active and important port for the whole region.
POPULATION: 950 000 inhabitants, two main ethnic groups: Issas (60%) and Afars (35%)
CAPITAL: Djibouti City (approximately 600 000 inhabitants or more than 60% of the total population)
SURFACE AREA: 23200 km2 (2nd smallest country in continental Africa)
CURRENCY: the Djiboutian Franc (1eur = 203djf)
LANGUAGES: Arabic, Somali, Afar, French. For visitors, elderly people generally speak French, young people tend to learn English.
INDEPENDENCE: June 27, 1977 from France, the last colony to obtain its independence, after strong political and social tensions.
RELIGION: large Muslim majority
WHAT TO SEE? WHAT TO DO?
The tourist office located in the city center can help find a guide and has basic information but do not expect too much!
In slow motion the hottest hours of the day, it’s more like being in a big village than in a capital. The shops are concentrated in the streets of the city center, some streets are half destroyed and dusty, the dilapidated buildings contrast with pretty mosques, it’s still a nice visit.
On the northern end of the city is the luxurious hotel Kempinski, northwest is the port and north-east is Plateau du Serpent, a quiet neighborhood with some embassies and the hospital.
Go to the market, south of downtown, close to the bus station rather morning or evening. You can find everything from fruits and vegetables to spices, clothes and tailors with their sewing machines in the streets. It’s also the place to find a local restaurant where you can eat chicken-spaguetti and natural fruit juice for 500 francs (2,5eur).
There is wifi in some hotels, which you can use if you eat or drink there.
Located at an altitude of -155m, Lake Assal is the lowest point in Africa and the 3rd lowest in the world. It is also the world’s saltiest lake, even more than the Dead Sea, with about 34% of salinity. Ten thousand years ago, the area of the lake was much larger, and decreasing, the salinity increased. Today the lake has an area of about 54km2. Around the lake, you can see a large expanse of salt, which layer reaches up to 60 meters thick. The lake is shallow, 7m on average, 20m deep maximum. The landscape is unique and beautiful, the green water of the lake contrasts with the pristine white shore, where there are salt crystals, sometimes forming small stalagmites and other odd shapes.
The climate here is arid, and the temperatures are among the highest in the world, up to 55 degrees Celsius! Even in winter, it is very very hot.
Salt has been extracted for centuries by the Afars, who transport it by camel caravans, to sell or exchange it to Ethiopia in difficult conditions.
The Chinese also have a concession to exploit the salt that is transported by the paved road to the small port of Ghoubbet, 15km from the lake.
How to get there:
You can get there by public transport, well, almost… The lake is close to the road Djibouti-Tadjourah. In any case it is much cheaper than an excursion organized by an agency or vehicle rental, unless you are a group and able to share and negotiate. An agency asks me 150 usd… too expensive for me!
So, I go to Ariba square with my tent and a small backpack, a few km south of downtown Djibouti. To go there, take a taxi (500 francs) or a local bus from Harbi Square. From there, frequent departures to Tadjourah once the mini bus filled, if there are several buses waiting for passengers, choose the fullest, it is more likely to leave before!
For Tadjourah, you pay 1500 francs, it’s the same price if you go down before arriving Tadjourah because your seat will not be occupied after you get off. Ask the driver to leave you at the crossroads of Lake Assal (the 2nd one, if you have maps.me, it’s easier to know where to get off). Nobody goes down there, because Lake Assal is lost in the middle of nowhere and only a few truck drivers and nomads live in the area. It’s about 100km far, a 2h trip.
From the crossroads, there is still 15km to the lake, walking or hitchhiking. On foot, it is long, hitchhiking is easy from the new road (2nd crossroads), where many trucks pass. They go from the small port of Ghoubbet, built and controlled by the Chinese, to the lake and back. The drivers are nice and if you wave them, they will stop to take you! One of them even brought me food for breakfast when he saw my tent the next morning!!!
If you camp, walk away from the trucks to avoid the noise, they work until 20h30!
If you do not camp, leave early from Djibouti to be back before dusk.
From the lake, the same driver brought me back to the main road and I hitchhiked (because the buses were likely to be full) and a truck of cattle stopped and took me to Tadjourah. Not much traffic on this road, even if it’s the main road which connects Djibouti of Tadjourah.
Tips to visit Lake Assal:
– The best is to camp, to spend the night near the lake, see the sunset and sunrise, swim (well.. foat) and enjoy the place before it gets too hot (from 9am, the sun is already strong, even in winter). With the light of the moon reflecting on the white shore, the night is magical. And I am alone here… Super quiet!!!
Warning, there’s no camp at the lake, it’s wild camping, no water, no facilities, no shops, nothing! Also be careful not to leave anything, bring all the rubbish back with you!
– do not hesitate to swim in turquoise and limpid water, you float! Wear water shoes because the salt hurts the feet and there’s little depth near the shore, you have to walk far for the water to cover you.
-Take enough food and water, to drink (it’s hot!) and to pull on yourself after swimming, you’ll be quickly covered with a layer of salt! The place is totally desertic, there are only small stone houses where a few families live.
– protect yourself against mosquitoes in the evening and at night (less during the day), because if there is no life in the lake or in the surroundings, mosquitoes are everywhere…
WHALE SHARKS, SNORKELING AND DIVING
From mid-December to March, it’s the whale shark season. They can be seen sometimes before that and even all year round, but they are more quiet and also deeper. I went to Djibouti to see them, early November and I was very disappointed it was not the season yet…
For the snorkel, the beach of Sables Blancs in Tadjourah is superb and for diving contact one of the agency Dolphins for exemple.
For whale sharks:
Contact Dolphins, a serious PADI certified dive center, or Aquamarina Club. Both organize boat trips when whale sharks are visible. Better to contact them in advance.
A French expat couple also advised me to contact local fishermen in Arta, a small village about 60km from Djibouti, they charge around 20000 djf per boat (100eur) but besides the concern of the safety on board, I have a doubt about the respect of wildlife and ethic (number of boats per whale shark, approach distance, etc.), so I don’t recommend them!
Cost: Dolphins 110usd / person
Aquamarina 50usd, they take a minimum of 10 people and do not necessarily leave every day but they usually work with big hotels in town.
Small town on the coast, Tadjourah is very quiet. Take the time to stroll in the streets, near the harbour. Tadjourah has no big interest, but the expats come here to the most famous beach of Djibouti: the beach of Sables Blancs, 7km from the city center by a dirt raod in bad shape. To get there, you can walk, hitchhike, or take an expensive tuk tuk (2000 djf). It’s a small and very normal beach and the only hotel here is expensive for what it offers … A hut on the beach, with a foldable bed costs 10000 djf for half board (or 50eur) and 12000 (or 60eur) for the full board. Clean toilets, hearty and good meals, served in the hut. Wifi.
It’s still worth coming to relax a few days, the water is clean and quiet and the snorkel beautiful. A few meters from the beach, you can see pretty marine life, with a wide variety of small fishes and some corals in good condition.
For the return trip from Tadjourah to Djibouti, take the bus or the ferry (2h) that leaves every Tuesday and Friday at 12h30, Thursday at 12h or Saturday at 14h. Go at the harbour, at the end of the small beach of Tadjourah, 30 minutes before departure. Surprise, it leaves on time!
From Djibouti the ferry leaves at 9h on Saturday, Tuesday and Friday, 11h30 on Thursday.
The Lake Abbé and its landscapes of another planet must be a spectacular place but unfortunately, it is not possible to get there by public transport or hitchhiking. The only solution if you do not have a vehicle (4×4, motorcycle or bicycle) is to go through an agency. By asking prices, some agencies ask me 400usd … per day! It takes at least two days to go and come back that means at least 800 usd … well you can bargain! Not in my budget. That’s a pitty.. I’ll have to come back by bike one day!
DOCUMENTS AND VISA
Check before departure as the visa requirements can change quickly.
For most European nationalities, it is necessary to have a valid passport at least 6 months after the entry date in Djibouti and a visa.
The visa may be requested at the embassy of Djibouti, Paris, or Addis Ababa for example, or you can also get it on arrival at the airport of DJIBOUTI ONLY. No visas issued at land borders!
Cost of the visa: 90usd or 80eur (yes, it’s a lot…)
At the embassy of Djibouti in Addis, located in a small street perpendicular to the Avenue Bole (leading to the airport, see maps.me), give your passport in the morning from 9am and get it back the afternoon, from 14h30. They ask for two passport pictures, the original passport, a return ticket, a hotel reservation (even they don’t check), a form that you fill in and 90 usd in cash.
For the visa on arrival, the immigration officers at the airport are not that stricts. I am asked for an address (I give the name of a hotel found on my map), my job, money and that’s it! Welcome to Djibouti!
If you travel overland from Djibouti to Somaliland and back to Ethiopia, you can do your visas in Djibouti, both countries have embassies (next door) in the Plateau du Serpent area, next to the main hospital.
For Ethiopia, they request the original passport, 7200 djf for a one month visa (approx 35eur), a form, an passport picture and the visa is ready the next day. The Embassy is open except Fridays and Saturdays. Be careful as the duration of the visa starts counting from the date of issue and not from the date of entry in Ethiopia. I’m going to Somaliland for a week, so I’ll only have 3 weeks left until my visa expire.
For Somaliland, if you do not already have your visa (from Addis or London), you need the passport, 100usd (I paid London 30gbp only!), two photos and a completed form. Visa is issued the next day, the office also closes on Fridays and Saturdays.
SECURITY AND DRESS CODE
Djibouti has a political stability, that’s why many military bases are installed there. It is also and above all a strategic place: at the entrance of the Suez Canal and near an area where many conflicts persist (Yemen, Somalia).
For the traveler, it’s a safe place, and as a single woman, I did not feel any danger. Pay attention to pickpockets, especially in markets and busy places.
For the dress code, women will be more comfortable especially in contact with the local population (in the city, the markets and public transport) if they wear long or medium-length clothes, covering legs and shoulders. Women in Djibouti are veiled, but wearing the veil is not mandatory for non-Muslims and tourists.
The Djiboutians are from two main ethnic groups: the Issas (60%) and the Afars (35%), who do not get along with each other, some tensions took place in the 90s. The two ethnic groups are nomads by tradition even though nowadays there is a strong tendency towards sedentarization.
Although Djibouti hosts foreign military bases and has a very active port, the resources are not redistributed to all inhabitants and many Djiboutian, especially outside the capital, live in miserable conditions. However, they are very kind and hospitable people, always willing to help the traveler.
All Djiboutians men are addicted to khat, a plant legally imported from Ethiopia whose very bitter leaves are chewed. It’s a drug that excites at first before causing a strong drowsiness. It is found everywhere in small stands, where the leaves are protected from heat by a layer of thick and wet jute cloth.
WHEN TO GO TO DJIBOUTI?
Djibouti has a desert climate, the best season to go is from October to March. Otherwise, it can be very very hot.
WHERE TO CHANGE MONEY?
ATMs are easily found in Djibouti city, in the center, but not elsewhere!!!
To exchange cash, see with the women who are sitting on every street corner in the city center, or change in one of the exchange offices in the city.
At the airport, there’s an ATM but no exchange office or bank!
In Tadjourah, it’s more complicated, ask the hotel des Sables Blancs to change cash, no ATM.
Euros and especially dollars are accepted with ease, but you’ll be often overcharged.
Approximate exchange rate of November 2017:
1EUR = 203DJF
1USD = 178DJF
COST OF LIFE
Djibouti is an expensive country compared to its African neighbors. It is sometimes called the “Dubai” of Africa.
Taxi: from 500 to 1000 djf depending on the distance, 2000 from the airport to the city center
Bus Djibouti-Tadjourah 1500 djf
Ferry Djibouti Tadjourah 700 djf
Meal in a local restaurant in Djibouti 500 djf, 200 djf in a village
Soda 100 djf in Djibouti, 50 djf in a village
pastry in Djibouti (excellent) 200 djf
coffee in a restaurant with wifi or hotel 400 djf
WHERE TO SLEEP?
I found a nice guy on couchsurfing that hosted me in Djibouti. Otherwise, a hotel costs you around 50 euros.
At Lake Assal, I camped for free. If you don’t have camping equipment, there’s no hotels, you can maybe sleep in one of the local houses, but be prepare to sleep in poor sanitary conditions.
In Tadjourah, I had no choice but sleeping in the hotel of Sables Blancs, 10000 djf (50eur) for half board.
In Djibouti city, a large network of minibuses goes between the different districts of the city (50dfj, price depending on the distance). A taxi costs from 500 to 1000 djf depending on the distance, bargain!
Between Djibouti and Tadjourah, there are mini buses that leave from Ariba Square throughout the day once full. Choose the fullest if there are several, you will have more chance to leave before! The price is 1500dfj and the road is pretty good, paved all the way. There’s tons of trucks until the road junction of Ethiopia (transporting goods through the port of Djibouti from / to Ethiopia), but after this junction, there’s very little traffic. About 3 hours to reach Tadjourah.
A ferry (offered by the Japanese) also connects the two cities twice a week, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it leaves at 9am from Djibouti, arrives at 11am and leaves Tadjourah at 12h30, on Thursdays it leaves at 11h30 from Djibouti and 14h from Tadjourah. Duration 2h. Check in at least 30 minutes before departure. It also loads vehicles and goods.
You can hitchhike on the main road if you have patience, very few traffic.
To get to the border of Loyada, just 20km from Djibouti, vehicles leave once full from the avenue 26, south of the city center. No counter or agency, vehicles are parked on the street and you pay the driver directly.
If you go to Hargeisa in Somaliland, the price is 7000 djf that you pay to the driver in Djibouti, ask him to show you your Somali driver once arrived at the border because you will change vehicle and driver. At the Djiboutian border (Loyada), you pass the passport control in a small building, walk 500m between the two countries and arrive at the border post of Somaliland. After passing the immigration post in Somaliland, you change your vehicle, to board a large 4×4 prepared for the sandy track to Hargeisa (hence the high price). More info on Somaliland in a future article!
Do not leave too early from Djibouti, because the 4×4 in Somaliland leave at night, at 19h from the small village at the border. Do not leave too late either because the border offices close at 18h. Loyada is 30 minutes from Djibouti, so you can leave between 15h and 16h30 approx.