The Tis Esat Abbay (Blue Nile Falls) is a waterfall located in the northwest of Ethiopia near the city of Bahir Dar. Known in Amharic as Tis Abbay (the Great Smoke), it is one of the country’s top natural attractions and the most dramatic event on the Abbay’s journey from its source at nearby Lake Tana to its confluence with the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. Historically the falls could reach up to 1,300 feet (400 meters) in width but today, hydroelectric projects further upstream have curtailed much of its natural energy.
Nevertheless, at 138 feet (42 meters) in height, the three-pronged waterfall is still an impressive sight, especially during the rainy season. Shimmering rainbows and a mirage of floating spray add to Tis Abbay’s considerable allure.
Waterfall Hiking Routes
Visitors to the Blue Nile Falls can reach the waterfall via two different hiking routes. The first takes you through fertile countryside and down into a gorge spanned by a 17th-century bridge. Built by Portuguese explorers, this bridge is historically important for two reasons — it was the first stone bridge ever built in Ethiopia and the first to cross the Blue Nile. After pausing to admire the structure, which is still in use today, the pathway climbs up again through a series of small hamlets to the main waterfall viewpoints. Because the viewpoints are located on the opposite side of the river, this is the best option for photographers.
Those that want to avoid the steep inclines of the first route can opt to cross the river via motorboat and take a flatter, 20-minute walk to the base of the waterfall. During the dry season, this route gives you the opportunity to walk behind the curtain of falling water and even to swim in the pool at the bottom. Both routes allow you to return by simply retracing your steps; but many visitors choose to combine the two to create a circuit. The full circuit is approximately 5 kilometers (3 miles) in length and takes around 2.5 hours to complete with plenty of time allocated for taking photos and admiring the views.
Top Tip: Pack your binoculars and keep an eye out for the birds and monkeys that live in the perennial rainforest created by the waterfall’s spray. The area is also home to Nile crocodiles and serval cats.
When to Go
The Blue Nile Falls is at its most impressive at the end of the rainy season in August and September. Conversely, the driest time of the year (late January to March) sees the waterfall reduced to little more than a trickle and visitors often find the experience underwhelming. If you plan on traveling during the April to July or October to December shoulder seasons it’s worth asking for an up-to-date report before booking a trip. There is a standby hydroelectric plant above the falls and if it’s turned on, the amount of water flowing into the falls can be severely affected. However, even if the waterfall is not as powerful as it once was, the surrounding countryside is beautiful enough to merit a trip at any time of year.
Top Tip: The rainbows created by the waterfall are usually most beautiful at around 10 a.m. when the sun is at the optimum height in the sky.
Entry to the Tis Esat Abbay (Blue Nile Falls) is controlled by a ticket office in Tis Abay village (sometimes called Tissisat village). You’ll find the ticket office at the end of the main road and 160 feet (50 meters) from the turn-off to the trailhead of the first hiking route. Tis Abbay itself is 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Bahir Dar on a partly sealed road. There are no licensed taxis from the city to the village, so you can either drive yourself if you plan on hiring a car or take a local bus. The latter is relatively easy, with buses departing from the main station in Bahir Dar approximately every hour. Return buses leave Tis Abay when they’re full, which is typically every 45 minutes. The last bus back to Bahir Dar usually leaves at around 4:30 p.m. The bus costs 15 birr each way.
Top Tip: If you are nervous about navigating Ethiopia’s public bus system, several tour operators in Bahir Dar offer guided excursions to the Blue Nile Falls.
Admission to the falls costs 50 birr per adult; children go free. There is also a 50 birr charge for personal video cameras. Upon arrival in Tis Abay you will be approached by local guides offering their services. It’s important to note that hiring a guide is not compulsory, however, many visitors recommend using one. Guides not only help you find your way but can also point out interesting cultural and historical sites or help ward off overzealous souvenir vendors. Expect to pay around 400 birr per group, plus tip. Crossing the river on a motorboat costs 20 birr per person and boats run throughout the day unless the water is too high or fast to be safe. The Tis Abay ticket office is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Top Tip: If you travel during the rainy season the waterfall’s spray can soak everything within a kilometer radius. Make sure to add a raincoat and protection for your phone or camera to your Africa packing list.
Overnight Stays & Nearby Attractions
Although most people choose to go to the Blue Nile Falls on a day trip from Bahir Dar, Blue Nile Camping is an exciting option for those that want to extend their visit with an overnight stay. The lodge offers pre-pitched tents and traditional mud-and-grass huts located right next to the waterfall. There are no creature comforts (including electricity and showers — you’ll bathe in the river) but it’s a chance to experience rural Ethiopian life in the most beautiful setting imaginable. You can sample regional cuisine, coffee and khat or sign up for a guided hike to nearby Wonkshet Monastery. The monastery is famous for its holy springs which are said to have healing powers and attract pilgrims from all over Ethiopia.
Other attractions in the surrounding area include Lake Tana and Bahir Dar itself. The lake is the largest body of water in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. It’s known for its natural beauty, rich birdlife and historic island monasteries. A cultural center and capital of the Amhara region, Bahir Dar has wide, palm-lined avenues and breathtaking lake views that make it one of the prettiest cities in the country.