In this guide, I explain how to visit the tribes of the Omo Valley of Ethiopia independently on a budget of about $300. Before my trip to Ethiopia, I researched the trip extensively online. There was not much information available and everyone I spoke to just wanted to sell me an expensive $1000+ tour from Addis Ababa. As I am a budget traveler, this wasn’t an option. I was told several times that it was impossible or even illegal to go without a tour.
While this may have been true in the past, it is no longer the case. No special permit is required to visit the Omo Valley and local transportation is available everywhere that you need to go. In the end, I decided to just wing it. This guide covers costs, transportation, tours, info on the tribes, and everything else you need to go to have an affordable visit to the Omo Valley. The map below shows where you will be going
What to Bring to the Omo Valley
Before you leave Addis Ababa, you want to make sure that you have all of the gear that you need. Because the Omo Valley is so remote, some items are difficult to find. You should make sure you have:
- Enough cash- There are ATMs in Arba Minch and Jinka. I recommend you just withdraw enough cash in Addis Ababa for the duration of your stay in the Omo Valley. Remember to bring a bunch of small bills to give as tips if you wish to take photos. The standard tip is 5 birr per photo.
- Toiletries- Bring enough toothpaste, soap, razors, etc. These can be difficult to find in small towns in the Omo Valley. To help you out, check out my guide: How to Pack Toiletries.
- Good footwear- You’ll be walking a lot during this tour. Make sure you take care of your feet.
How to Get to the Omo Valley
To get to the Omo Valley from Addis Ababa, you’ll take 2 buses. First, catch a bus from Addis Ababa to Arba Minch. You will need to buy your ticket the day before you want to travel. Buy your ticket at the Selam Bus ticketing office in Meskel Square. I don’t remember the exact cost of the ticket. I think it was around $20. The bus leaves from there every morning at 5:00 am. You will arrive in Arba Minch at around 1:00 pm.
Arba Minch would be a good place to stop for the rest of the day and spend the night. There are plenty of budget hotels around town. From the bus station, you can shop around and find a room for $5-$15. Be sure to negotiate hard.
If you decide to stay the night in Arba Minch, you could spend the afternoon visiting Nechisar National Park or looking for Nile crocodiles in nearby Lake Chamo.
From Arba Minch, walk to the minibus station and catch a bus to Jinka. This is a long, unpleasant bus ride. Make sure you have plenty of water and dress appropriately for the heat. The minibus I took left at about 3:00 pm and arrived in Jinka at around 1:00 am the following morning. The ride costs around $5.
Once you arrive in Jinka, you’re in the Omo Valley. Jinka makes for an excellent base for exploring the region. It’s a larger town with a population of around 20,000. The city lies within a day or less of most of the tribes that you’ll want to visit. From Jinka, you can easily catch a minibus to Dimeka, Turmi, Arba Minch, and Konso.
Overall, Jinka is a pleasant little town. I recommend you spend an afternoon just walking around. You can follow the main road up the hill behind the city to find the museum. I don’t recommend the museum, but the view from the grounds is beautiful. You get a bird’s eye view of Jinka and a panoramic view of the lush green rolling hills of Southern Ethiopia.
A Note About Finding Hotels in the Omo Valley
Online booking options for this region are incredibly limited. In fact, when I was there, there were no hotels online. The only way to find a place to stay is to walk around town and shop around for a hotel. There are two types of rooms available:
- Basic hotel rooms- These cost $2-$6 per night. They are just a room with a bed, mosquito net, and maybe a chair. The bathroom is usually just an outhouse in the hotel courtyard. Some of these hotels have shared showers. Most just give you a bucket of water to bathe with.
- Upgraded hotel room- These cost $15-$20 per night. These rooms usually include a tv, bathroom in the room, and sometimes AC.
Tip: If you are arriving late at night, there is a common scam that hotels in the Omo Valey try to pull. Basically, the receptionist will say that the basic rooms are already booked and only their most expensive room is available. This is not true. All of the hotels have vacancies. In fact, most are empty. There are very few tourists here. I only saw two other tourists in the 10 days that I spent the Omo Valley. Luckily, I was warned about this scam by a friendly guy I met on the bus. I still had to try 3 hotels before someone would rent me a cheap room. For more info on scams, check out my list of 19 common travel scams and how to avoid them.
Jinka hotel recommendation: I stayed at Mekuria Pension. This is a clean guesthouse in a quiet part of town. It is run by an honest guy who lived in the US for many years then went back to his home town to open a business. He speaks excellent English and knows the town well. I don’t have any affiliation with this place. I just thought it was the best place in town for a budget traveler.
The Tribes of the Omo Valley
Dozens of tribes live in the region. Some of the more popular for tourists to visit include:
- Hamar (Hamer)- Famous for the bull jump ceremony and their distinctive hairstyle.
- Mursi- This is probably the most famous tribe in the region due to the lip plates that they wear.
- Bana (Banna, Bena)
- Karo (Kara)- Known for their body painting. This is the smallest tribe in the region.
From Jinka there are several tribes you can easily visit. The must-see here is the Mursi. They are a very isolated tribe of about 7500 people. To visit them, you will need to hire one of the guides from Jinka. They will approach you in the street trying to sell you a tour. If you negotiate hard, you should be able to organize a day tour to visit the Mursi tribe for $100-$120. The reason this is so expensive is because you have to pay an entry fee to the nearby national park where the Mursi live. There is no getting around this. If you are traveling in a group, this cost can be split among everyone in the group. The tour will leave in the morning.
The Mursi can get aggressive. They may touch your clothes and pinch you a bit. I have heard that some people choose to bring security. I don’t feel that this is necessary as long as you are respectful, but it is something to consider.
Another ‘must-visit’ tribe is the Hamar. This tribe lives in the southern Omo Valley near Dimeka and Turmi. They are known for the bull jumping ceremony which usually takes place during the harvest season. While visiting the Omo Valley, I recommend you ask around if there is a bull-jumping ceremony going on. Because the ceremonies are kind of seasonal you may have to plan your trip accordingly.
Another tribe you can visit from Jinka is the Banna. You should be able to negotiate for one of the tour guides to take you there on a motorcycle for $20-$30 or a bit more in a car. They live just a few kilometers outside of town.
One of the most profound moments of the trip happened while I explored this tribe’s land. I went for a short hike along the bank of a dry riverbed with my guide. We decided to take a break and sit in the shade. We sat around for a few moments birdwatching when we saw a tribesman walk up the dry river bed. He wore nothing but a loincloth.
At this point, my guide whistled to the man to let him know that we were there. The man just waved and continued walking. When he reached the middle of the sandy riverbed, bent down, and started digging a hole. Slowly, the hole filled with water. The man proceeded to splash water onto his body to clean himself off.
I thought to myself that this scene could have taken place at any time in human history. The scene that I witnessed would have looked exactly the same if it had happened 100,000 years ago. Possibly 200,000. The people and the region probably looked pretty much the same. This still blows my mind.
Market Days in the Omo Valley
Each town in the Omo Valley, including Jinka, has a weekly market where the local people go to buy and sell and trade goods. You should definitely see at least one of these markets during your time in the Omo Valley. Market days are as follows:
Dimaka- Saturday and Tuesday
Key Afer- Thursday
Konso- Friday and Monday
Turmi- Monday and Tuesday
Ideally, you would wake up early the following day and catch a minibus from Jinka to Turmi. Turmi is as far as you can go by public transport. It is about a 2-hour ride from Jinka. You will pass Key Afer and Dimaka on your way but you can visit these towns on your way back.
If you wish to go further into the Omo Valley, you can rent a vehicle or try to hitchhike to make your way to Omorate on the Omo River. Turmi is as far as I went.
Turmi is where the Hamar tribe lives. If you follow the main road, there is a Hamar village just outside town. No guide is necessary, but you will have to pay a small fee to visit the village. One day is enough to see Turmi.
On the following day, you can take a minibus just a few kilometers back up the road to Dimaka. This is another small Hamar town. It is worth spending a day here and visiting the market if possible.
Returning to Civilization after Visiting the Omo Valley
After you’ve had enough of the Omo Valley, you can start making your way back to Addis Ababa or your next destination. On your way back, you could make stops in Key Afer or Konso. You will pass through both towns on the way back and both are worth a visit if you have time. It may be worthwhile to stop for a day in each just relax and have a walk around the market.
If your next stop is Addis Ababa, you can just catch a minibus back to Arba Minch then get on the next Selam Bus to Addis. If you are continuing to Kenya, you can read my guide: How to Travel from Addis Ababa to Nairobi by Bus.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Tribes of the Omo Valley of Ethiopia
The Omo Valley was one of the most fascinating places I have been to. I was worried that it would be too touristic or feel like a zoo with loads of tourists snapping photos of the local people, but this wasn’t the case. In fact, I only saw two other tourist my whole time in the Omo Valley. I expect there will be more tourists in years to come as an airport is being built in Jinka that will reduce the travel time to get there.
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