New openings in the Ethiopian Highlands are rare. When it comes to the Simien Mountains National Park, one of the richest wildlife areas in the country, visitors could previously stay either in the nearby town of Debark or, if keen to be inside the park’s borders, the decade-old Simien Lodge. Limalimo Lodge, the second to be opened inside the National Park, offers something stylishly new.
Built on an escarpment within the recently expanded park boundaries, close to the village of Limalimo, the lodge has been a long time coming. Originally scheduled to open in September 2015, building work was still going on during my visit in May; the soft opening should (fingers crossed) become an official full opening once it’s all finished this month.
Limalimo is a smart 12-room boutique lodge, about an hour and a half’s drive from Gondar airport, to which Ethiopian Airlines flies from the capital Addis Ababa three times a day. There’s a deliberate earthiness about the place; the boxy cabins spread out across the wooded hillside and the main hilltop lodge are all made from “rammed earth” (soil collected from the site and compacted together), eucalyptus wood and thatch. The bar and restaurant had yet to be completed when I stayed but both are now ready and should make cosy areas for relaxing post wildlife-spotting. The star of the show, though, is the terrace, which looks out onto mountains, valleys and forests.
The Simiens has a deserved reputation for wildlife, home to, among others, gelada monkeys, who occasionally come wandering through the lodge grounds in the mornings and gather out on the escarpment most evenings before descending to their beds in the cliffs. You might see a bearded vulture (known locally as “bone-breakers” because they take bones from carcasses and smash them against rocks to get at the marrow inside) circling over the hillsides, or, at night, perhaps you’ll hear the grunts of a roaming leopard.
Gelada monkeys often pay a visit to the grounds
Opened by a small team of local Ethiopian guides and one of their wives, a British woman, the lodge was built almost entirely using a local workforce. And the majority of staff, from chefs and waitresses to the on-site handyman, are local too. Meals, especially dinner, are on the simple side, though it’s good to see the country’s national dish, injera (a spongy, sour pancake served with assorted stews) make a showing, along with surprisingly tasty Rift Valley wine.
Like the salt in the salt hotels of Bolivia, the rammed earth makes a novel, attractive natural material, which dominates the rooms. Decor is a little sparse, though; they could use some Ethiopian art or crafts to bring a bit of colour and life. It felt quite dingy in the evenings, too; additional lamps would be helpful. It can be chilly up in the mountains but there’s talk of installing heating.
The main lodge
Beds are incredibly comfortable and warm, and there’s also a window seat and lounging area. Big sunset-facing windows along the front look out onto the forest, but, a little disappointingly, the views don’t really make the most of the Simien Mountain scenery that’s out at the front of the lodge.
The terrace perched on the escarpment in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park gives great views at breakfast
The escarpment-top location gives an exceptional view of the national park. It’s quite something to eat breakfast on the terrace at the start of the day. The more basic Simien Lodge — the park’s only other option — is deeper inside, however; accessing the key wildlife areas from Limalimo involves a 40-minute drive out of the park and back in again through the main gate.
As well as checking out the hordes of habituated geladas and other wildlife, including the endemic walia ibex, klipspringers, bushbucks, birds of prey and, if you’re lucky, the endangered Ethiopian wolf, it’s also worth spending an afternoon hiking down to Limalimo to get an idea of daily life in the village. The lodge arranges guided community visits, which include spending time in the home of one of the villagers for freshly ground coffee, chunky wheat bread (dabo), barley and possibly a home-brewed beer (tella), as well as checking out the local church and taking in a fine view of the valley.
Limalimo Lodge, Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia (00 251 93 168 8062; limalimolodge.com). Doubles from US$300 (£224) per night full board.