Getting to Djibouti is not easy. You can fly from Dubai, from Ethiopia or from the hair-raising Somaliland. Chances are you will arrive from the Emirate’s most famous city as it is also the best connected airport. Although there are a few other local, and possibly “doubtful” airlines to fly with, like Dallo Airlines or Jubba Airways, the best option is Dubai’s low-cost carrier, Fly Dubai, which has a penchant for flying places you need wikipedia to decipher. Think Somaliland, Iraq, Djibouti…
Fly Dubai was surprisingly good. Aside from flying from a residual terminal that is nothing like the flashy Dubai International Airport I found the airline to be remarkably premium, for a low-cost airline.
Their aircrafts were new and well appointed, and they were the first low-cost airline I’ve seen who successfully provides entertainment painlessly and hassle-free. You can just use your credit card to swipe and buy one of two movie bundles.
Despite there are a few airlines landing in Djibouti, there aren’t daily connections from Dubai so their schedule is likely to determine how long you will be staying. In my case, that was 4 days. Although this may look short, it is enough to get a good feel for the country. I wished I had a week to ten days to add in some diving and an excursion to the national parks but 4 days gave me the chance to experience the very surreal capital, Moucha Island, and to see the two main lakes: Lake Assal and Lake Abbe, both of which are incredible natural sights.
Here is my the 4 day itinerary for Djibouti.
Day 1: Djibouti city
Landing in Djibouti is a surprise to anyone. I had limited expectations and I did not realize the importance of the country as a military base. From the sky you can already see the lines of military aircrafts, helicopters and other vehicles at the airport tarmac.
After the interesting landing and immigration arguments (most nationals from the EU and US can get a visa on arrival), you are out in the country’s heat. Since tourists or visitors of any kind are uncommon getting a taxi will not be an issue. Cars are very old, have no AC and look like they are about to die. Yet they will probably run for an additional decade.
Since most airlines land in the middle of the day you should spend the first night in the capital. This gives you the chance to wander the streets and take in the culture. There are very few sights to tick off but what makes Djibouti city interesting is watching the people, the places and taking it all in. The cultural shock is guaranteed.
The city is not large and it may take you at most an hour to walk all the interesting quarters. You should visit the European and the Arab quarters both of which are adjacent.
The European Quarter is a mix of French colonialism and moorish architecture. Expect to feel like at a run-down version of Morocco. Buildings are colorful and would have been stunning at their time but they look forgotten. I felt similarly to when in Cuba. People sit on the streets, chat, enjoy tea, chew qat and simply see the world go by. Streets are narrow and there is little motorized traffic. Life seems to go by slowly in this part of town. There are a variety of stores open selling all sorts of items, don’t expect any international brand.
If you follow the noise of the traffic you will eventually reach Place Mahmoud Harbi or Place Rimbaud where the city’s most iconic building, the mosque, stands. The sound of the call to prayer is also a good reference to follow. The large square looks more like a combination of a bus station and an open market. It is the border between the European and the African Quarters.
The African Quarter is a large sprawl of tin-roofed huts lined up on barren and chaotic streets. Goats and children room freely in equal measure and the streets have barely any public lighting relying instead on the light in people’s homes.
The streets used to be paved but have now been covered by layer after layer of dust and you can no longer see the pavement. I found an old photo from a few decades before that showed how the square and the quarter used to look and it gave a good idea as to the level of abandonment. The nature of the desert had taken over.
After you have had enough or it is too dark to see where you are walking settle for dinner at Chef Youssuf, you are likely to walk past this local institution known for the Yemeni fish, a dish you have to try. If you can’t find it, Google it, and follow the instructions, we managed to get there like that. Or just ask.
Inside, plastic chairs and corrugated iron walls like the rest of the quarter are the norm. Expect friendly service, even despite the language difficulty. If you speak French you will be in luck. Get the fish, only one because you will get the whole piece and they are large enough to share. The fish is served with a tomato and red pepper refreshing sauce that looks like a mousse and large pieces of fabulous flat bread. Such a simple dish but so well prepared in the tandori oven. Take a peek inside the kitchen, the chef will be happy to show you. To finish off, get one of the pervasive Nutella crepes made with the same bread, they are more a cilinder of rolled up chocolate happiness.
Grabbing a taxi back to your hotel should not be difficult. Just retrace your steps back to the main square and there will be enough traffic to find one. Follow the light.
Day 2 – Desert and Lake Abbe
A trip to Djibouti is not complete without one of the most surreal sights you will ever see: Lake Abbe. You cannot get there by public transportation so hire a driver to take you there. The roads will disappear at one point so make sure to get one that knows his way or you will get lost in a desert of smugglers and touareg caravans. Not recommended.
The journey will take about 4-5h with a few stops to see the sights en route.
The first portion will be the most comfortable. The road is paved and has recently been fully repaved until the border with Ethiopia in Ali Sabieh. This road is the main artery and the source of Djibouti’s revenue until the new rail line is finalized. Ethiopia has no access to the sea so all their exports go through this road. You will share the pavement with large trucks carrying goods. At either side of the road the desert is overpowering. Expect large sand and dust tornados and the white expanse of nothingness. Little grows and lives in this barren part of the world except for the grubs and acacia trees. Goats can occasionally be seen, they are as resilient as the bushes.
Ask your driver to take you to see some petroglyphs that are inscribed on some rocks in the middle of the desert. You would miss them if the driver didn’t know.
At Ali Sabieh you better stop for lunch, there will not be much civilization other than the most basic hut villages after Ali Sabieh and Dikhil. Ali Sabieh also has one of the largest Qat markets and is the last pit stop to buy water or any other provisions. This is a relatively solid town, the country’s second largest, with a few facilities, schools and the main railway station. Years ago, the railway used to connect Addis Ababa with Djibouti but this stopped long ago. It is said that the government is not fixing the rails and trains because this way there is a local thriving business to transport everything by truck into port. Ali Sabieh is remarkably run-down with the now common dusty, grey-brown-red colors of this part of Africa. It has its own charm if you look closely but I could not imagine spending any time here.
There is a refugee camp manned by the UN and a few NGOs. The sun is unforgiving without any shade to protect yourself from.
From up the hill where the telecoms tower is you will get sweeping views of the entire area as far as the eye can see. By the railway, local kids play football using the rails as seats. I see a few Barca t-shirts around. Look up the mountain for the emblem of Djibouti carved on its face.
After Ali Sabieh you will carry on until Dikhil. The road is still paved but not from then on. Dikhil is a literal oasis. In front of the only tourist restaurant in town there is a small forest and garden with plants and fruit trees. Water comes through from underwater rivers feeding the only vegetables you will see in the entire area. The greenery is as rare as it is beautiful.
From Dikhil you will be headed into the desert and rocky south. There is nothing for kilometers on end except for the odd nomad carrying goods to and from Ethiopia on camels or even smugglers trying to bring tobacco from Ethiopia. Occasionally you will pass local villages. Extremely basic with huts made of semi-circular structures covered with mats and with rocks at the base preventing animals getting inside. We see large plastic barrels that are lined up by the road. Japanese NGOs fill them with water from time to time. Water is a scarce resource. Every time we stop to chat to a local or nomad we are asked for water. The gold of the desert.
After a few more hours on the most barren of landscapes you will finally climb a small hill on the other side of which lays Lake Abbe. The vision, from the distance, is of a surreal martian landscape. The chimneys can be clearly seen and the steam coming out is expelled into the air. The yellow bushes cover the area and herds of goats and sheep can be seen around.
You can enjoy the area as much as you like until you set up at the camp for dinner. The sunset is one of the most incredible I have ever seen, the sun will linger in the horizon for over an hour. You can read all the details of my visit to the Lake here.
Lake Abbe has a multitude of areas of interest. You can marvel at the hot springs where locals cook their meals, or the chimneys, so delicate they break to the touch. You should be careful when walking around as there are quick sands.
Day 3: Lake Abbe and Lake Assal
In the early morning, after a night’s sleep (I wouldn’t say a good night’s sleep) at the camp, make sure to get up and close with the pink flamingos that will come to feed at the lake shore in the distance.
Lake Abbe used to occupy the entire area that today is filled with chimneys but the building of a dam on the Ethiopian side dried out most of the Djiboutian area leaving the chimneys uncovered. Flamingos still come to feed on the same bacteria that cover the mangroves and created the chimneys. The pink color comes from what they eat.
The closer you get to them the higher the likelihood of getting stuck on the quick sands or the mud.
The area was the set of The Planet of the Apes and you can still see the main backdrop. Ask your guide to show you or Google it.
After you are done, you should drive back, retrace your steps until you reach the paved road and onto Lake Assal.
Lake Assal is the third lowest point on Earth and a salty lake. Its shores are covered with salt and it is not extracted on concession by a Chinese Company.
The drive will be long. Expect the exact same landscape as on the way to Lake Abbe. On the way, once you get closer to Lake Assal make sure to stop by the Grand Canyon, a grey and maroon canyon that can be observed almost from the main road. On your way you will be driving along the river and will see a few other islands.
Lake Assal is the saltiest lake outside of Antarctica. Temperatures are extremely high with maximums regularly above the 40 Celsius mark. With this heat, the water would have evaporated but the lake is constantly being replenished by underground streams. You can read more about my visit to Lake Assal here.
The lake has all the colors from green, to brown, black, blue and white made of all the chemicals and particulates in the water.
No matter how isolated and detached from civilization this part of the world is, stalls with goods for sale are still available. You will be able to buy items made of salt including goats head bones covered in salt or just Djibouti salt for cooking.
For the brave in you, get in the water and practice your floating poses. Got a newspaper? You may as well read it while sitting back and let the salt play its part. If you do get in the water remember to wear booties as the shore is made of salt crystals that are sharp and painful to step on. And bring a towel and bottled water to rinse yourself, there are absolutely no facilities around and you don’t want to have a crust of water all over your body for the one and a half to two hour ride back to town.
Once you have seen enough of this majestic landscape it is time to drive back into Djibouti for one last evening. You may choose to relax at the hotel or you head into town for some Ethiopian food or some more Yemeni fish.
Day 4: Moucha Island
Djibouti is a tiny country with a relatively large coast and a few offshore islands. Diving is possible and you can see whale sharks during the season. Moucha Island is an easy day trip from the capital city. Only a 30min ride on relatively calm waters, this coral islands on the Gulf of Tadjoura provide a relatively quiet beach with limited facilities, people and plenty of turquoise water. There are officially only 20 inhabitants but locals are known to come visit in the summer months.
An Ethiopian company is building a beach club on the island which may attract some visitors. On the day I was there, we saw a few Asian tourists disembark from a boat and leave shortly after. Walk across the island on crusty sand that looks like it has been baked in the oven. Be sure to wear shoes, the sand will get extremely hot very early in the morning. On one side of the island you can sail through mangroves on your motorboat.
Tour the island to the Beach Resort on the other side and you can relax on the sun beds and umbrellas. Most likely you will have it all to yourself. If you see a relatively larger sail boat it may be that of Spanish national, Vincent, the only live aboard dive boat in the country.
You may either bring a picnic and enjoy it under the shade of the mangroves or get back to the city.
Getting out and back into the port is a complex and interesting affair. Your boat captain will have to report to the port authorities to be granted permission to leave and return and if there are any army boats anchored at port, you will be escorted by armed motorboats from the country.
At the port do not miss the opportunity to take a look at the fishermen boats that line the shore. It is said that the Somali pirates that make the international news are nothing more than the fishermen from Somalia, just like these ones, armed with sophisticated weapons.
Chances are your flight will be in the early afternoon so as soon as you are back from Moucha it will be time to pack and go.
If you had longer time I would encourage you to visit the forests in the north and the various other beaches around the city. A week would give enough time for the entire country given that it is not a very large expanse.