Traveling back in time to ancient Ethiopia

Fri May 8, 2009 11:27am EDT
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By Barry Malone

MEQUAT MARIAM, Ethiopia (Reuters Life!) - A giant eagle glides gracefully over a remote mountaintop in northern Ethiopia as a barefoot man draped in goatskin watches.

"It's a big bird that makes a peaceful sound," he says in the local Amharic language to two foreigners who have approached the cliff edge. "Where is your country?"

Until a few years ago, most people who live in these small villages surrounded by dramatic scenery and rock-hewn churches had never even seen anyone from outside Ethiopia.

But now tourists are beginning to come and communities are changing.

"We've helped the people set up hosting facilities -- a place where tourists can sleep and stay," says Mark Chapman of Tesfa, a charity that brings tourists to these areas but encourages locals to manage the business and earn money from the visitors.

"They look after the tourists, then the tourists trek from one place to another, each village providing a service, with a donkey to carry luggage and a guide to come along."

Ethiopia boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites but decades of hunger, conflict and political instability have kept its palaces, obelisks and castles off the beaten track for even the most intrepid visitors to Africa.

Tourism represents just 2.5 percent of the Horn of Africa nation's gross national product -- something the government of this desperately poor country is trying to change.   Continued...

<p>Ethiopian tour guides chat at a valley in the remote Mequat Mariam, northern Ethiopia, November 29, 2008. REUTERS/Barry Malone</p>