My top picks and must sees

1. Djibouti City

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Djibouti City serves a number of purposes.  First, it’s a great staging area for excursions into the hinterland or out on the sea.  Second, it serves as a small dose of comfort when you’re coming back from those excursions.  There are good restaurants, bars, and hotels here, so there are creature comforts that you can look forward to. Third, it’s really charming and easy to love.  You’ll notice a definite sense of change about town as the people work to transform their city from the rundown outpost it once was in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s a bit of a melting pot here with lots of cultural contradictions that fun to observe.

2. Lake Assal

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“Honey Lake” is a crater lake at the western end of the Gulf of Tadjoura. It’s 155 metres below sea level, making it the second lowest land depression on Earth after the Dead Sea.  Lake Assal is the largest salt reserve and the locals consider it to be a national treasure.  It’s in the process of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site and the views around the lake are unbelievable.

3. Tadjoura

Tadjoura

It’s one of the oldest towns on the east coast of African and dates back at least to the 12th century. Governed by a sultan, Tadjoura was once a great port for goods between Djibouti and Ethiopia – including, unfortunately, slave trade.  Often called La Ville Blanche, or White Town, because of the many lovely whitewashed homes in town, it’s a great town for walking as there are many great views of the waterfront.  In the late afternoons you’ll find all the locals out and about.  There are a number of nice mosques to see and you’ll love relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere of this quieter and less chaotic version of Djibouti City.

4. Goba’ad Plain

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This area, located between Lake Abhe and the Hanle Plain is a great place for bird watchers.  Goba’ad is the only place in Djibouti with an active breeding ostrich population.  You’ll also spot Black Crown Sparrows, Arabian Bustard, Sand grouses, Crombec, and so many more.  This lowland area is covered with shallow wadis, large sand flats, and acacia scrub. It’s areas like this that make the country such a draw for nature lovers.

5. The Gulf of Tadjoura

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Wonderfully surrounded by the lush Goda Mountains which reach heights of up to 1300 metres, the Gulf of Tadjoua is considered by those that have been there to be the perfect spot for diving and snorkelling with whale sharks.  The two towns that tend to, rightfully, attract the most tourist attention are Obock and Tadjoura.  In the latter you’ll find beautiful sea vistas and seven nationally important mosques.

6. Day Forest National Park

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This giant oasis is filled with the vibrant colours of the Djibouti desert.  About 20 km from the Gulf of Tadjoura, nature enthusiasts will fall in love with Day Forest National Park.  Surround by desert, this is one of two protected forested areas in the country.  It’s the largest forest and the most important ecosystem is the 900 ha stand of East African Junipers which grow to almost 1000 metres. If you’re lucky you can spot the Toha or Djibouti sunbird – both of which have only ever been seen inside the forest. Not to mention it’s a fantastic hike!

7. Alie Sabieh

Ali Sabieh is a town half way from Djibouti to Lake Abbe so it makes for a good lunch spot. The town has has one of the largest Qat markets in Djibouti and is the last pit stop to buy water or any other provisions. If you ever wanted to get up and close to qat or even buy some, this is the place. But I warn you, it is pretty disgusting.

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. I was told that the government stopped fixing the rails and trains because this way there is a local thriving business to transport everything by truck into port. However, trains have started to run again and one can travel from Addis Ababa to Djibouti by rail.

Children sit on the Ethiopian railway

Ali Sabieh is remarkably run-down with the dusty, grey-brown-red colors of this part of Africa dominating the landscapes. 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.

8. Lake abbe

Lake Abbe is a salt lake at the confluence of three Earth crusts pulling away. It is fed by the Awash River and surrounded by extinct volcanoes and

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depressions. Geologically speaking, it is a marvel and the set of the creation of a new ocean. The three plates pulling apart have created a thin crust that will eventually break and separate the Horn of Africa into its own island. Lake Abbe is part of this and is connected to other 5 lakes. It is a fascinating story.The most recognisable elements of the Lake Abbe are the chimneys which were created when the Ethiopian government decided to build a damn which slowly drain the lake on their side. Without the water, the mangroves were covered by limestone and bacteria. The steam coming out of the chimneys comes from the underground hot springs.

9. Djibouti’s Whale shark diving

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If you come to Djibouti between mid-October and February, you will be able to swim with whale sharks on scheduled trips on Friday and Saturday. Check out this video from a CNN Inside Africa program. Try Dolphin Services.

Whale sharks can only be found in some parts of the world and are seasonally spotted when they come to the warmer waters to breed, but are otherwise found in colder waters away from humans. Swimming with them is an exhilarating experience and one of the most incredible wildlife encounters, much like jumping in the open waters of Tonga to swim with humpback whales.

Swimming with whale sharks in Djibouti happens in the open water around 2h drive from Djibouti and you may take breaks between swims to have a picnic on the sand before going back in to try your luck. While finding whale sharks is not guaranteed, you have a good chance of spotting them and swimming with whale sharks in Djibouti is probably a much more peaceful experience as tourism in Djibouti is underdeveloped.

10. Djibouti’s grand canyon

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On your way lo Lake Abbe you are likely going to stop for a lookout point into the local version of the grand canyon. I was quite impressed to see it, and although we only could take a look from above, it was quite a stunning landscape, completely barren and rocky, made of the same grey, burgundy and brown of the earth in Djibouti.

Djibouti has a recently discovered rock art site which is only accessible on foot and has rock art from Neolithic time. The site is included in the tentative list of UNESCO sites and extends over an area of three kilometres in the rocky mountains of the north of Djibouti. You will need a guide and a 4×4 to access it and should hire one form the local village of Randa, nearby, because that is where most of the local staff helping the French who discovered the site are from.

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