After a three-hour hike, you crest the ridge. Before you is the glowing caldera, filled with dancing fountains of lava.
Ethiopia is increasingly making its mark on global tourism. Once just the province of dedicated Peace Corps workers and intrepid backpackers, newly built roads and new hotels are opening it up to the broader tourist market.
But even for the most veteran traveler to Ethiopia — who has already visited the baboon-infested northern highlands, the nearly inaccessible mountain monasteries of the Tigray Region or the rock-cut churches of Lalibela — the Danakil is in a category of its own.
This punishingly hot lowland, set between the mountains of the Tigray Region and the Eritrean Red Sea Coast, is home to immense salt flats that once were a major source of wealth for the medieval Abyssinian Empire, as well as colorful sulfur pools and the Erta Ale — or “smoking mountain” — the most accessible of the region’s volcanoes.
At the summit, your guide leads you down into the plain around the crater and you scramble over lava flows that were just a day or two old. Once, you could camp right next to the crater. In the past year, though, Erta Ale has become quite active. You will only make it within about 70 yards of the bubbling cauldron before the heat keeps you back.