This first-person account is part of a regular series of how Counterpart works in the field. This story is by Abe Henry, Program assistant, Livelihoods & Economic Development.

The vast majority of tourists who arrive in Ethiopia head straight for the northern part of the country.

They’re really missing out.

Deep in the Central Rift Valley, the magnificent Lepis forest awaits, with its shy wild baboons, a river that courses through miles of endemic trees, vivid butterflies and birds, and the showstopper: an amazing 70-foot waterfall.

Counterpart’s Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) seeks to equalize the tourism influx into the African nation of nearly 85 million people.

It’s working to build and strengthen local tourism capacities in the Central and Southern Rift Valleys, south of the capital city Addis Ababa.

Working with local partners in and around Lepis and the nearby town of Arsi Negele, Counterpart and 29 community members spent more than four months blazing a two-kilometer hiking trail through the lush forest leading to the falls.

They built wooden steps to help with the steep sections, as well as a bridge that crosses the river 75 meters from the waterfall, allowing an incredible up-close view. Hikers can feel the mist of the cascade at two new outlook sites that give visitors a place to sit and relax as they take in the natural beauty and power of the falls.

To make sure the ESTA program benefits the local community, Counterpart and its partners founded and organized a tour guide association and provided instruction and certification for community members to become tour guides.

Negash Gemechu, Joe Hirpo, and Masho Guto recently graduated from high school and were unsure of how they could stay in their community and still make a living.

Without Counterpart’s tourist guide association, all three say they would likely have had to move to Addis Ababa or another large town to find a job.

With the ESTA program, they were provided training and practice in tour guiding in the forest they’d known all their lives.

The rigorous 21-day course, held in Addis Ababa and Lepis, showed Gemechu, Hirpo, Guto and four  other guides how to register visitors, maintain security protocols, communicate with guests and keep them safe on the trails.

Newly certified to lead tours, they also received intensive English language training so that they will be able to communicate effectively with tourists from the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom as they narrate the history, culture, flora, and fauna of the forest.

As more tourists discover Lepis forest and more of the rift valley’s beautiful secrets, ESTA will ensure it is local communities that reap the reward and indigenous organizations that are strengthened to lead the way.

Business is still slow in the forest, according to Gemechu, a 19 year-old from a nearby town who currently leads about two groups of tourists a week. But he is “hoping that more people will come and see our incredible forest.”

“Bring your friends!” he says with a grin.

You can watch a short video I took of some of Gemechu, Hirpo, Guto, and our local partner Dekabo Dale at the waterfall here.