This tiny speck of a country packs a big punch. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in beauty. Few countries in the world, with the possible exception of Iceland, offer such weird landscapes, think salt lakes, extinct volcanoes, sunken plains, limestone chimneys belching out puffs of steam, basaltic plateaus and majestic canyons. Outdoorsy types will enjoy a good mix of land and water activities, including hiking, diving and whale-shark spotting in the Gulf of Tadjoura.
Barring Djibouti City, the country is refreshingly devoid of large-scale development. It’s all about ecotravel, with some sustainable stays in the hinterland that provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of nomadic tribes.
Travelling independently around Djibouti may not come cheap, but despite the high cost of living, you’ll surely leave this little corner of Africa with new experiences and wonderful memories.
Djibouti’s capital is evolving at a fast pace, and there’s a palpable sense of change in the air. Today’s city is vastly different from the battered French outpost to which it was reduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Thanks to its geostrategic importance and its busy port, Djibouti City has been transformed from a sleepy capital to a thriving place. Yet under its veneer of urban bustle, the city remains a down-to-earth place, with jarring cultural and social combinations. Traditionally robed Afar tribesmen, stalwart GIs, sensuous Somali ladies and frazzled businessmen with the latest mobile phones stuck to their ear all jostle side by side.
Djibouti City boasts good infrastructure, including hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants it’s the place in the Horn of Africa to treat yourself to a fine meal. It’s also the obvious place to organise forays into the fantastic hinterland, or boat excursions.
Just over 100km west of the capital lies one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in Africa: Lac Assal. Situated 155m below sea level, this crater lake is encircled by dark, dormant volcanoes. The vast depression, which represents the lowest point on the continent, is an impressive sight. The aquamarine water is ringed by a huge salt field, 60m in depth. The banks of salt and gypsum surround the lake for more than 10km, and the blinding white constrasts starkly with the black lava fields around it. The water is totally saturated with salt, so there’s not much chance of a swim.
You’ll never forget your first glimpse of Lac Abbe. The scenery is sensational: the plain is dotted with hundreds of limestone chimneys, some standing as high as 50m, belching out puffs of steam. Located 140km southwest of Djibouti City, it is often described as “a slice of moon on the crust of earth”. Though desolate, it is not uninhabited. Numerous mineral-rich hot springs feed the farms of local nomads who graze their camels and goats here. Flamingos also gather on the banks of the lake at dawn.
The best time to visit the lake is in the early morning, when the chimneys appear to belch smoke in the cool morning air. An even better plan is to arrive in the late afternoon, stay the night, and leave after sunrise the following morning. In the evening, when the sun sets behind the chimneys, the landscape can look almost magical.
Plage des Sables Blancs
Plage des Sables Blancs, 7km east of Tadjoura, is tranquillity incarnate and a lovely place to sun yourself, with a good string of white sand and excellent facilities. Small wonder that it’s hugely popular with weekending expats. Your biggest quandary here: a bout of snorkelling, kayaking, or a snooze on the beach?
Other Places Of Interest
Northwest of the Gulf of Tadjoura, the Goda Mountains rise to a height of 1750m and are a spectacular natural oddity. This area shelters one of the rare speckles of green on Djibouti’s parched map, like a giant oasis a real relief after the scorched desert landscapes. A few Afar villages are scattered around and merit at least a couple of days of your time to soak up their charm. It won’t be long before you’re smitten by the region’s mellow tranquillity and laid-back lifestyle. For outdoorsy types, this area offers ample hiking opportunities.
Abourma Rock Art Site
This superb archaeological site features well-preserved rock engravings dating back to the Neolithic, which are striking both for their rich complexity and their incredible variety. Many of the engravings depict animals that are no longer found in the area â€“ giraffes, cows, antelopes, kudus, oryxes and ostriches. Human figures are also represented. The rock art works were uncovered by a team of French archaeologists in 2008. Some 30km northeast of Randa, the site is only accessible on foot.
Weary of the hustle and bustle of Djibouti City? Have a soft spot for endangered species? The well-organised wildlife refuge Decan is about 10km south of Djibouti City (in Douda, on the road to Somaliland), an easy two- to three-hour excursion from the capital. It’s not a zoo, but a small nature reserve, with its own ecosystem. You’ll see eight endlessly appealing cheetahs, four lions, as well as ostriches, turtles, Somali donkeys, caracals, squirrels, antelopes, kudus, zebras and porcupines.