Our guide to the Omo Valley
Contents of our guide
- Why should I visit the Omo Valley?
- Is visiting the Omo ethical?
- What are the interactions like?
- How many communities can I see?
- How long do you spend in each village?
- How do I get to the Omo Valley? How do I travel around?
- The ethics of photography
- What are the accommodation options?
- When should I visit?
- Popular trips & example itineraries
Why should I visit the Omo Valley?
The Omo is a place like no other. The variety and diversity of life - truly a melting pot of humanity - will blow you away. We think its a must visit, if you want to understand Ethiopia and Africa more broadly. The concentration of experience and variety, often so juxtaposed to your own daily life, forces you to reflect on what it means to be human in today's world.
The Lower Omo Valley region has been as UNESCO World Heritage site since the discovery of human remains dating back nearly 2.5 million years. As you explore the region, you'll discover fortified hilltop settlements, terraced fields, anthropomorphic grave-markers, and rock engravings dating back 5000 years.
The Omo also has some beautiful landscapes; Nech Sar National Park frames much of the region with mountains, lakes and forests, and harbours 70-plus mammal species, as well as prodigious crocodiles and the endemic Nechisar nightjar - the latter arguably the world's rarest bird.
Is visiting the Omo ethical?
Without tourism, the Omo would be even poorer. The region mostly lives on meagre resources and over the years has been victim to cattle-rustling, violence, ethnic struggles, drought and is often one of the last areas to receive support or infrastructure from a national level. Tourism is vital to help support the communities, providing a basic income, and so we strongly encourage you to think about visiting the Omo if you want to experience a part of Africa like no other.
That being said, certain interactions and the manner of certain tourists can leave some feeling a bit like they’ve visited a ‘human zoo’. Disrespectful travellers have been known to wander into villages and stick their lenses into peoples’ daily lives with a feeling of entitlement, gawking at a life that is very different. There is, amongst some visitors an expectation that in every village you should be shown a ceremony, or a dance so that the tourists can tick off an experience they’ve read about, or seen in a magazine.
However, in most places - as is often the case in many parts of the world - a ceremony, or dance is a pleasure to give, and a useful part of the tourist trade. It is a transaction, but a good one.
Life is extremely different from those of most visitors, and as such you should be prepared to be shocked and even disturbed by what you see, whilst remembering that these things could be totally normal in this region and context. By way of example, large families live in small huts. Sanitation is poor. Disease, illness and destitution is, unfortunately, common here. Many tribes think nothing of not covering their bodies - women and men. Piercings, body markings and circumcision is a way of life. It’s worth remembering alongside this, that simple lives are often very happy, and free from the distractions many tourists suffer in their home countries.
The lens you see the world through may, in fact, be as odd to them as theirs is to you. One of the reasons why visiting this area is so fascinating and rewarding is that it will challenge your belief systems and understanding of the world.
What are the interactions like?
The Omo is firmly, and deservedly, on the tourist trail. As such, experiences have been designed and many villages will have a standard dance, show or tour that they like to take people on. Despite being only tens of kilometres apart, the tribes often feel completely different from one another and so experiences can range from walking through a village as they go about daily life with little structure, a formal ceremony, to a guided tour though fortified walls. Some feel organised, others loose.
The variety is fun and often planned to leave you wondering at the diversity. Almost all villagers are friendly and welcoming, and children will often charm you with their playfulness.
At Brilliant, we can help you ensure you experience the type of interaction you would like to have, and see the tribes or areas of most interest to you with minimum fuss, or negative impact.
How many communities can I see?
We’d recommend taking your time. Lift the veil of these communities and you’ll discover so much more, beyond the first-encounter experiences. That being said, if you’re short on time you can see as many as 3-5 diverse tribes in a day and still get a flavour for this wonderful region, as long as you don’t mind spending some time in a vehicle.
We recommend spending a minimum of 4 days in the Omo Valley. Any less than that and you spend a lot of time in a vehicle and don't have the opportunity to get beyond surface level interactions. Most visits to the Omo don't extend beyond a week or so.
How long do you spend with each village?
Up to you. Travellers who want to see more than the show put on for tourists would be encouraged to spend a bit longer, even stay the night in or near communities. Most visits last from an hour or two - depending on how long you have in the region.
The major constraint is the drive times - all of the travelling in the Omo is done by road, so how long you can spend with each community depends on the number of villages you want to visit, and how long you are spending in the Omo.
How do I get to the Omo Valley? How do I travel from place to place?
Arba Minch is your springboard into the Omo Valley. Most visits will start with a short domestic flight to Arba Minch, with an overnight at Paradise Lodge before beginning your exploration of the Omo in earnest the following morning. From Arba Minch, you'll be heading into the Omo on road via Toyota Landcruiser.
Over the next few days, you'll be driving to different regions of the Omo, with drive times typically 2-4 hours at a time, depending on your itinerary. The drives are comfortable enough, but the roads are often bumpy.
It's also possible to access the Omo via a drive down from Addis across the Rift Valley, where you can spend a couple of nights at the various lakeside lodges and resorts. Or, combine an inbound flight with an outbound drive if you want to experience the best of what southern Ethiopia has to offer (you might want to consider spending a couple of nights in the Bale Mountains as well).
The ethics of photography
The Omo is one of the poorest regions in Africa. With little more than their extraordinary ways, the sights and the figures you’ll meet, the people of the Omo often ask for money each time you take a photo, or a fee for taking photos. This varies from tribe to tribe and can be a little intimidating for inexperienced travellers.
Don’t worry, our guides will help you navigate this. As most tourists love to take photos, we believe that this is a fair transaction and helps ensure that money does end up in the hands of those who need it. The charge also ensures that visitors understand that there is a cost to the communities of being photographed regularly. Privacy is often less of a concern in much of Ethiopia, but it’s still worth trying to do as you would be done by.
The people of the Omo are used to tourists and photos, but just because you have paid, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be deeply respectful. Try to empathise with the idea that you, as a tourist, are a much-needed source of income, but that shouldn’t enable you to take liberties.
What are the accommodation options?
The infrastructure in the Omo Valley is much less developed than the north. This extends to accommodation, and there are not a lot of options in this region. Most travellers will stay at simple, but charming and functional lodges. These retain a sense of character and you do feel like you're in a remote pocket of Africa - which is exciting in itself. However, these lodges often suffer from maintenance issues (as does most of Ethiopian accommodation, you can read more about this here). The food is generally decent and more than sufficient to power you through your days of exploring.
If you want a truly unique experience and have a bit more to spend, there are a number of exclusive tented and fly camps set up in the Omo. Lale's camp is the flagship of these, and the camps offer exclusive access into some of the Omo Valley's most secluded regions. Ask us about this if you're it sounds like something you'd be interested in.
When to visit
Weather is one of the most important things to consider when visiting the Lower Omo Valley, since there are areas that are inaccessible during the rainy season, which lasts from March to June (the rains comes earlier in the Omo than elsewhere in Ethiopia).
The best time to travel is at the end of June through September or from November until early March. October tends to have slight rains that may at times hinder accessibility. Temperatures in the Omo Valley range between 14°C and 41°C over the course of the year, with the hottest months of the year being June, July and August.
Responsible tourism has never been as important as in the Omo Valley. If you're planning on visiting the region, remember you're entering into family homes and close-knit communities. Ask yourself why you want to visit the region, and reconsider travelling if it is just for a photo opportunity.