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Visit Djibouti, a tiny African nation filled with wonder

Visit Djibouti, a tiny African nation filled with wonder

Djibouti is a tiny African nation, filled with foreign military bases and heavily reliant on its port as it forms the gateway to the Suez Canal. Although Djibouti is not known to be a tourist destination, my 4 day stay in this fascinating country and offbeat location was enough for me to get a sufficient taste of Djibouti’s charm.

If I had my way, I would stay for a week to ten days to do a bit of diving and visit some national parks. Four days however allowed a visit to Moucha Island, their surreal capital with two incredibly beautiful lakes- Lake Assal and Lake Abbe. Here’s the itinerary.

Day 1 in Djibouti

Djibouti city

I was immediately surprised as I never expected the high level of significance Djibouti has as a military base. Even before landing, I could see lines of military aircrafts, helicopters and vehicles at the airport tarmac.

As most flights land in the afternoon we recommend spending your first night in the capital. Wander the streets and observe the culture, people watching reveals much about the city. A culture shock is guaranteed.

Explore the European Quarter

A mix of French colonialism and moorish architecture, the European Quarter feels like a run-down version of Morocco. Colourful buildings stand forgotten although it is clear they were stunning in their prime. The people of Djibouti sit by the road to talk, drink tea, chew qat and watch the day go by. Although many stores sell a myriad of products, international brands are nowhere to be found.

With the sound of the call to prayer as a reference, eventually reach Place Mahmoud Harbi, or Place Rimbaud. The city’s mosque stands as their most iconic building with the square looking like both a bus station and an open market. This is the border between the European and African Quarters.

Explore the African Quarter

A spread of tin-roofed huts on barren streets create The African Quarter. An equal number of children and goats run free and you become dependent on the light coming from people’s homes- public lighting is scarce. Although streets were previously paved, layers of dust have rendered it impossible to see. I acquired an old photo of the square taken a few decades ago looking extremely different to how it does now. The desert’s nature had made some changes.

Have a scrumptious dinner at Chef Youssuf

Before it gets too dark, have a lovely dinner at Chef Youssuf. This local institution is known for the Yemeni fish- a definite must-try! We used google to get there although asking would also be sufficient.

Although language may be an issue, service is warm and friendly. Order the fish, it is served whole and substantial enough for two. The fish is served with a refreshing mousse-like tomato and red pepper sauce and comes with large pieces of delicious flatbread. Simple, but incredibly well prepared! The chef kindly allowed us a look inside the kitchen where the fish is cooked in a tandoori oven. A Nutella crepe makes for a perfect end to your meal, the same flatbread is rolled into a chocolate filled cylinder. Bliss!

Head back

Follow the lights to get back to the main square. You will be able to catch a taxi back to your hotel.

Day 2 in Djibouti

Take a journey to Lake Abbe

When in Djibouti, a trip to the surreal Lake Abbe is compulsory. Public transportation will not take you there, so do hire an experienced driver who knows his way. There will come a point where the road ends and getting lost in a desert of smugglers and touareg caravans becomes a possibility. Thus, pick a driver carefully! The journey takes an approximate four to five hours with a couple of sights to stop at on the way.

The roads till the border with Ethiopia in Ali Sabieh is fully repaved, making a comfortable ride. Until a new rail line is developed, this road is the main artery and source of Djibouti’s revenue as exports to Ethiopia use this road. Large sand and dust tornados may occur, and the expansion of nothing but white sands is a sight to behold. Other than grubs, acacia trees and an occasional goat, the desert is barren.

Have a look at some petroglyphs inscribed on rocks in the midst of the desert. Do make a request as your driver may not be aware of this attraction.

Make a stop at Ali Sabieh

Facilities and amenities are limited after you pass Ali Sabieh and Dikhil, so do stop at Ali Sabieh for lunch. Take advantage of one of the largest Qat markets to buy water and any provisions you may need. Ali Sabieh is the country’s second largest town with a facilities, schools and a main railway station. With dusty grey-brown colours common in this part of Africa, Ali Sabieh does have its own charm.

A refugee camp manned by the UN and a few NGOs can be found here. The sun shines relentlessly with no shade to hide under. The telecoms tower is atop a hill, where you will be treated to panoramic views of the entire area. There is a mountain with the emblem of Djibouti carved on it.


The journey continues to reach Dikhil– a literal oasis. There is only one tourist restaurant in town with a small forest and garden in front of it. Fruit trees can been seen as water from underwater rivers feed growing vegetables. This rare sight of green life is beautiful.

Continue your journey

The paved roads end at Dikhil, continuing your journey into the rocky south. Other than the odd nomad carrying goods or some smugglers bringing tobacco from Ethiopia, there is nothing to see for kilometres on end. Local villages are sometimes spotted consisting mainly of semi-circular huts covered with mats and rocks at its base to keep animals out. Large plastic barrels are in a line by the road- every now and then Japanese NGOs will fill them with water. Water is extremely limited, we were asked for some from both nomads and locals.

Reaching Lake Abbe

After a couple more hours on barren land, we reach a small hill. We climb the hill to see Lake Abbe on the other side. From a distance, it looks like a picture of martian landscape. Chimneys expel steam into the air, and herds of goats and sheep are seen amongst yellow bushes covering the area.

Spend as much time as you like taking it in before setting up camp for dinner. The sunset is one of the most spectacular that I have ever seen, lingering in the horizon for more than an hour.

There are many things to appreciate in Lake Abbe, but do be careful not to step into any quicksand! Watch in awe as locals cook their meals in hot springs, or take a look at chimneys so fragile they break when touched.

Day 3 in Djibouti

Lake Abbe

Wake up to a distant view of pink flamingos coming to feed at the lake shore.

The building of a dam on the Ethopian side left most of the Djiboutian area dry. Therefore, the area that used to be covered by Lake Abbe is now filled with uncovered chimneys.  Flamingos still feed on the same bacteria that created these chimneys and that cover the mangroves. They are pink because of what they eat. Take caution as the closer you get to them, the higher the chances of getting stuck in the mud or quick sand.

This area was featured in the movie The Planet of the Apes. If your guide isn’t aware of this feature, refer to Google.

Lake Assal

Retrace your steps and drive back to the paved road onto Lake Assal.

The salty Lake Assal is the third lowest point on Earth and the saltiest lake outside of Antarctica. The high temperatures regularly go above 40 degrees celsius which would usually lead to the water evaporating. However, the lake is constantly replenished by underground streams. The lake consists of many colours- from green, brown, black, blue and white. This is due to the many chemicals and particulates in the water.

If you’re brave enough, get in the water and float! As the shore is covered in sharp salt crystals do remember to wear booties. Also bring some bottled water and a towel to rinse down with, there are no facilities in sight. The ride back lasts for a good ninety minutes, you want to be comfortable!

Grand Canyon

Do stop by the Grand Canyon as you get closer to Lake Assal. The grey and maroon canyon can almost be observed from the main road. The ride will be long, but you will be treated to a view of a few other islands as you drive along the river.

As isolated this part of the world is, there are still stalls with products for sale. You can buy a goat’s skull covered in salt or regular Djibouti salt to cook with.

Head back to Djibouti

Back at Djibouti, you can either relax in your hotel or head into town for some food.

Day 4 in Djibouti

Moucha Island

Djibouti is a small country with a reasonably large coast and a couple of offshore islands. If the season is right, it is possible to catch sight of whale sharks while diving. Day trips to Moucha Island is easy from the capital city. The half and hour boat ride was relatively calm, and the coral islands on the Gulf of Tadjoura offers a peaceful beach. The beach has limited facilities, a small number of people and beautiful turquoise waters. Only 20 officially live in Moucha Island, with locals paying a visit during the summer.

On one side of the island, you can sail through mangroves on your motorboat. On another, there is a beach resort with sun beds and umbrellas to relax on and under. Chances are, you’ll be the only one there. Either enjoy a picnic you’ve brought under the shade of the mangroves, or head back to the city.

Some tips when visiting the island.  Do wear shoes on the crusty sand, it gets painfully hot in the early mornings. Getting back into the port is oddly complex. Your boat captain is required to ask the port authorities  for permission to leave. If army boats are anchored, they will escort you from the country by armed motorboats.

Do take a look at the fishermen’s boats on the shore. It has been said that Somali pirates are nothing more than fishermen from Somalia armed with sophisticated weapons.

Heading back home

More often than not, your flight will be in the early afternoon. Pack quickly and make your way to the airport.

Places to Stay in Djibouti


There are a lack of affordable options in Djibouti, but the Lonely Planet recommends the Le Héron Auberge as it is a great value for money. You can book on their website, and although rates reach about SGD$100 per night, it does offer free shuttle to and fro the airport.


Les Acacias Hotel is located centrally just 15 minutes away from the airport and 8km from the airport centre. It is ideal for business and leisure travellers and provides a relaxing escape for guests, including free Wi-Fi in all rooms and recreational facilities such as a private beach and an outdoor pool. Rates start at SGD$240 per night.


If you really want to live in luxury in Djibouti, the Djibouti Palace Kempinski is the right choice for you. This 5-star hotel has a private beach, gym, outdoor tennis courts, an infinity pool and luxurious interior. Reservations start at SGD $405 per night. Book here.

Getting to Djibouti

Djibouti isn’t the easiest place to get to. Flying from Dubai is the most probable option, although you can also travel to Djibouti from Ethiopia or Somaliland. Emirates and Singapore Airlines both fly directly to Dubai daily and Ethiopian Airlines flies to Addis Ababa. Alternatively, you could fly to Djibouti directly via Qatar Airways after making a stop at Doha. This route operates every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

If you choose to fly to Dubai first, you can fly with Daallo Airlines or Jubba Airways but we highly recommend taking Dubai’s low-cost carrier- Fly Dubai. The airline is delightfully premium for a low-cost airline, with movie bundles easily available with a swipe of your credit card. The aircraft was new and satisfyingly comfortable. As daily connections from Dubai to Djibouti are not available, their schedule will probably determine the length of your trip.

Getting around Djibouti

Tourists are uncommon, so getting a taxi in Djibouti is quick and simple. The cars are old with no air conditioning but sturdily do its job. Taxi fares however, can increase by up to 50 per cent when its dark, especially to and fro the airport. Cycling is also a good way to explore the city, or even by foot! Only an hour is needed to walk around the city, it isn’t large. Do visit the European and Arab quarters located just next to each other while you’re at it.

If you have more days in Djibouti, do visit the forests in the north as well as the many other beaches around the city. Considering that the country isn’t very large, a week should give you sufficient time to explore.

Things to note in Djibouti

Visa and money matters

All visitors to Djibouti are required to have a visa to enter. Travellers from countries except India, Syria and Yemen can get their visa upon arrival. Those travelling on Singaporean passports can do so for 5,000 DJF which translates to roughly SGD $38. However, immigration at the airport wasn’t smooth although this was the case.

The Djiboutian Franc (DJF) is tied to USD, making it fairly stable with plenty of local money street changers available to change dollars into francs.


Although French and Arabic are the official languages, the more widely spoken languages are Somali and Afar. English is usually spoken at tourist facilities and at the local street money changers.


Petty crime is not uncommon in Djibouti. Refrain from walking alone in the night with your passports and valuables. There have been some occasional cases of banditry outside the capital.

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