Backpacking Kenya: A Cultural Guide

Backpacking Kenya - feature image

Dear reader, I’m going to assume that your virtual presence here is down to this: you, at the very least, have thought about backpacking Kenya. You’ve read that it’s a land rich in wildlife and hearty in cuisine, with vast savannahs and great green valleys. You’d like to visit the Maasai tribes on the borders of Kenya’s great game parks, or perhaps you’ve been dreaming about the white sand beaches of Mombasa. You’ve heard there are wonderful hotels dotted all over Kenya, but you want to take the road less-travelled, to risk the chance of losing yourself in the wilderness. You want to stay in authentic accommodation, hop between Kenya’s colourful cities and spend time eating delicious stew with the locals. You want to backpack.

In this, our very own Cultural Scribbles guide, we will provide all of the information you need to backpack Kenya safely, whilst experiencing the culture in a purposeful, genuine way. So let’s begin with some basic Kenya itineraries…

exciting itineraries for backpacking kenya

A suitable itinerary is dependent on a lot of different factors. Time is the major factor, of course, but it also comes down to a personal preference regarding places to see and things to do. In any case, I have, below, tried to encompass a wide variety of places and activities. All of which will hopefully appeal to most who are backpacking Kenya. The itineraries listed below are separated into travelling periods i.e. 10 days, one month etc, whilst still including all of the experiences that Kenya is famous for. Additionally, you can adjust them to suit your own needs.

Kenya Itinerary 10 Days

Days 1 and 2: Nairobi

Backpacking Kenya - Nairobi National Park
Nairobi National Park

Your journey will most likely begin in Nairobi, once you touch down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. As luck would have it, Nairobi is a great city to kick off your travels. There are enough things to do and see in Nairobi to keep you occupied for a whole week. However, we have to keep moving. So here are a few of the stand-out experiences in this bustling city: Nairobi National Park, the Giraffe Centre, the markets and Kibera.

Day 3: Lake Naivasha

Backpacking Kenya - Hippos at Lake Naivasha
Hippos at Lake Naivasha

Now we head Northwest to Lake Naivasha, one of the best places in Kenya to spot Crocodiles and Hippos. You’ll want to leave Nairobi very early in the morning, or indeed the evening before. Especially if you would like to spend a whole day in this marvellous setting before returning to the capital. Just a few hours drive from Nairobi, Lake Naivasha is a recreational hub for many Kenyans. So you’ll find lots of activities to do here, including boat trips and local tours. You can also visit both Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate National Park on a day trip from Nairobi. Cycling through Hells Gate National Park is a particular highlight for a lot of visitors.

Day 4: Kisumu and Lake Victoria

Backpacking Kenya - Sunset at Dunga Hill Camp
Sunset at Dunga Hill Camp

Get comfortable, because now we’re heading on a 5 hour drive to Kisumu, a town resting on the north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria. Kisumu has a myriad of option when it comes to accommodation, and you can find some really beautiful places overlooking the lake. Having spent a lot of time in kisumu myself, I would highly recommend carving out some time to visit the little fishing village of Dunga. The people here are wonderful, and one of the highlights is watching the sunset over the lake from Dunga Hill Camp.

Days 5 and 6: Kakamega Rainforest

Backpacking Kenya - Kakamega Rainforest
Kakamega Rainforest

It’s a rare occasion when you spot another traveller in Kakamega Rainforest. A multi-shaded green haven, this animated jungle is rich with biodiversity. The atmosphere is quite indescribable, but imagine a symphony of squawks and echoing howls emanating from a low hanging mist. Truly wild. The town of Kakamega is just a one hour drive from Kisumu by matatu bus. The entrance to the rainforest centre can be tricky to find, so be sure to ask for directions if you get lost. Also, the best way to experience the rainforest is by sleeping in a tent under the stars.

Days 7 and 8: Talek and the Maasai Mara

Backpacking Kenya - The Maasai Mara
Maasai Mara

Now, after heading back to Kisumu once you have seen Kakamega, it is time to head to Kenya’s most famous attraction. That’s right, the glorious Maasai Mara. From Kisumu you can jump on a matatu bus to Kisii, and then another matatu will take you to Talek. Talek is a town that sits at one of the five gates to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. From there, you will easily be able to book a safari day trip to take you through the reserve. It is quite possible within this reserve to spot not just the ‘big five’, but the ‘big nine’. In total, this includes the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Giraffe, Zebra, Cheetah and Hippo. This is one of the must-see highlights when backpacking Kenya. It will give you some fantastic photo opportunities.

Day 9: Mount Suswa

Backpacking Kenya - Mount Suswa
Mount Suswa

Perhaps one of the lesser-known areas of Kenya, the town of Suswa sits along the main road between Narok and Nairobi. It also sites at the base of the mighty Mount Suswa, a shield volcano in the Great Rift Valley. One of the highlights of this fiercely wild area, is the Mount Suswa Conservancy. Run entirely by the Maasai community that live in the area, all camping and park fees go directly to park conservation. So you can see animals and feel great about it.

Day 10: Time to Go Home

Kenya Airways

It’s time to head back to Nairobi to catch your flight home. If you have any spare time, it is definitely worth exploring Nairobi further. Perhaps you could even squeeze in a tour of the city. As you can see, 10 days is enough time to see a lot of Kenya. The only caveat is that it may feel slightly rushed. So next, let’s look at a one month itinerary.

Backpacking Kenya Itinerary One Month

There is a lot more flexibility to be had when you are in one country for a longer period of time. In this light, I do not want to restrict that flexibility by listing a day-by-day activity schedule. Instead, this itinerary will simply list some of the best attractions that kenya has to offer, and make suggestions as to how long you might want to set aside in order to see them. It is then in your own hands how you choose to see them.

  • Samburu National Reserve: 2-3 days
  • Amboseli National Park: 2-3 days
  • Tsavo National Park: 3-4 days
  • Lamu Island: 3-4 days
  • Mount Kenya National Park: 6-7 days
  • Lake Naivasha and Hells gate National Park: 3-4 days
  • Malindi and Mombasa: 3-4 days

Perhaps you have even longer to explore this beautiful country. In that case, maybe you can add some of the following from our six week itinerary to your travel list.

Backpacking Kenya Itinerary Six Weeks

The Northern half of Kenya is the country’s least built up and least-visited region. So if you have plenty of time whilst backpacking Kenya, I would definitely recommend heading North towards Loiyangalani and Lake Turkana. Loiyangalani means ‘a place of many trees’ in the native Samburu tongue. Although the area has become somewhat more commercialised in recent years, it is still brimming with authenticity, and well worth your time to visit.

For backpackers who desire a taste of the wilder, more desolate regions of the world, Northern Kenya should be on your list. And now, a special itinerary for those who are solely seeking to visit the safaris of Kenya.

Kenya Safari Itinerary

There are a total of 54 national parks and game reserves in Kenya. Enough to fill almost 6 months of travelling. We have stated some of them above under the ‘one month itinerary’. However, what truly counts, is how you choose to explore these enormous wellsprings of biodiversity. So below we’ve listed a handful of what we believe to be the best Safari offerings in all of Kenya. Each one brings its own unique way of experiencing the landscapes and the wildlife.

Any of these safari tours will leave your fauna and flora cravings utterly satisfied. However, any of the previously mentioned reserves, as well as the ones listed directly above, are more than accessible independently too, if you want to skip the organised tours.

places to visit whilst backpacking kenya

In this section, I’ll walk you through a number of the most alluring places to visit in Kenya. We’ll discover a city or town itself, along with several places to visit and things to do within that city or town. Some are well-known, others are rising gems, but I assure you all of them are overflowing with cultural experiences.

Places to Visit in Nanyuki

Nanyuki is a market town in central Kenya, which serves as a gateway to the Laikipia Plateau, one of Kenya’s lesser known but vitally important wildlife conservation areas. Despite being a market town, it is surprisingly cosmopolitan. You’ll find handfuls of foreign travellers seeking to hike Mount Kenya, along with British Military personnel (there is a training camp nearby) and Kenyan Air Force pilots. Below, we explore all the magnificent places and things to do in Nanyuki.

1. Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy and Animal Orphanage

Backpacking Kenya - A Bongo at Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy

With a very successful Bongo breeding program, the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy have managed to reintroduce these spectacular animals back into the wilds of Mount Kenya. Along with this, the centre also takes on the role of an animal orphanage. Within this parameter, the staff of the centre aim to take in orphaned, injured, neglected, abused or frightened wild animals and give them a second chance. Moreover, they provide shelter and professional care with the aim of releasing these creatures back into the wild. This place is well worth a visit when backpacking Kenya, if only to see the animals in the orphanage.

2. Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve

Backpacking Kenya - Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve

One of the most beautifully raw reserves in all of Kenya. With natural springs, water falls, rapids, rock outcrops and of course, a mosaic of green, you won’t want to miss Ngare Ndare.

There are also a number of bars and restaurants, and even an ‘equator market’ in Nanyuki which are well worth checking out:

Places to Visit in Naivasha

Naivasha is a large town in Nakuru County. On its doorstep there are an unusual number of things to see and do. So you’ll definitely want to spend at least 4-5 days in this town. These activities include sanctuaries, game parks, national parks, museums and lakes. Backpacking Kenya is greatly enhanced by a visit to Naivasha and its surrounding experiences.

1. Hells Gate National Park

Backpacking Kenya - Hells Gate National Park

Just south of Naivasha, this park gets its name from a thin break between the cliffs. Which was once a tributary of a prehistoric lake that nourished early humans in the Rift Valley. This iconic landscape was the setting for the 2003 film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, and it is also said to be the inspiration for the Lion King. Visitors are able to hike, bike and camp in the park, all while anticipating the emergence of the mighty fauna.

2. Lake Naivasha

Backpacking Kenya - Lake Naivasha

The name of this lake derives from the local Maasai name ‘Nai’posha’, which means ‘rough water’. This is likely the case because sudden storms can arise in this area. The lake is a drinking hole for many wild animals, and its famous for sighting crocodiles and hippos. Additionally, a huge number of bird species can be seen from the boat tours on the lake. A biodiversity hotspot that deserves your attention on your journey backpacking Kenya.

3. Enashipai Maa Museum

Backpacking Kenya - Enashipai Maa Museum

The first privately registered museum in Kenya, here you’ll find a marvellous collection of Maasai artefacts and items. The curators of this museum spent more than 6 years visiting Maasai communities with the aim of creating a real, authentic museum experience. Definitely not one to miss.

4. Crescent Island Game Sanctuary

Backpacking Kenya - Crescent Island Game Sanctuary

To get to this peaceful sanctuary you will need to take a passenger boat across Lake Niavasha. This is easily done as there are plenty of boat operators working on the lake. Also, it is worth noting that you will need to pay an entry fee upon arrival. Often called ‘ Kenya’s best kept secret’, this reserve is perfectly suited to those who want to a relaxing time watching wildlife and birds go by.

Places to Visit in Mombasa

A little different from all of the places we’ve listed so far, Mombasa is a coastal city in southeast Kenya that lies along the stunning shores of the Indian Ocean. Additionally, it is Kenya’s oldest and second-largest city, and its perfect white sand is irresistible to those who have spent weeks wondering the national parks of Kenya.

1. Fort Jesus Museum

Backpacking Kenya - Fort Jesus Museum

This fort was given World Heritage site status by UNESCO in 2011. Interestingly, Italian architect Giovanni Battista Cairati would design it, and it would be built between 1593 and 1596. Further, it was built by order of the then Portuguese ruler, King Felipe II, who wanted to protect the old fort of Mombasa. It’s a site of significant African and colonial history and well worth a tour.

2. Haller Park

Backpacking Kenya - Haller Park

Haller Park, existing on the site of an abandoned mine, is a beautiful nature conservancy. With the only population of Oryx along the north coast of Mombasa that are still surviving. It was once a fairly empty and dingy area, but it now flourishes with wildcats, ants, causarina trees and animals in enclosures, such as turtles and hippos.

3. Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve

Backpacking Kenya - Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve

A warm ocean bath, swaying palm trees and fluffy white beaches are what you’ll find in Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve. But that’s not all you’ll find. Come here to try wind surfing, water skiing, snorkelling and diving. Moreover, the reserve is home to a vast and colourful array of crabs, starfish, stone fish, sea urchins, cucumbers, turtles and corals.

Places to Visit in Nakuru

The largest urban centre in the Rift Valley, Nakuru is home to around 571,000 people. Furthermore, it is an important educational hub in Kenya, playing host to the large public institution, Egerton University. The city lies near the Mau Escarpment on the north side of Lake Nakuru, near the Kikuyu people’s homeland. There are a number of great things to see around Nakuru, including Lake Nakuru National Park.

1. Lake Nakuru National Park

Backpacking Kenya - Lake Nakuru National Park

Famous for Flamingos. A huge amount of algae lines the floor of this lake, and as a result Flamingos flock here in great numbers. The park covers an area of around 73 square miles, and is graced by the presence of black and white rhinos, African wild dogs and plenty of birds.

2. Menengai crater

Backpacking Kenya - Menengai crater

Menengai Crater is an enormous shield volcano in the Rift Valley with one of the largest calderas in the world. The volcano itself formed roughly 200,000 years ago, and the caldera 8,000 years ago. Some locals believe that ancient spirits roam the area and capture people and animals to drag to the underworld, not unlike the myths that surround Amazon River Dolphins. I’m not sure about that, but this is certainly one to check out whilst you’re backpacking Kenya.

3. Hyrax Hill Museum

Backpacking Kenya - Hyrax Hill Museum

The museum is set on a prehistoric site, with many other sites around the central hill that belong to various time periods. The earliest findings from these areas date back to the Neolithic period. The museum itself, a former farmhouse, features fascinating artefacts from Hyrax Hill and several other sites in the Rift Valley. The aim is to teach visitors about the everyday lives of seasonal settlers from 3,000 years ago.

Places to Visit in Kisumu

Kisumu is Kenya’s third largest city after Nairobi and Mombasa. Its name literally means a place of ‘barter trade’, which is fitting because it is a large inland port city that sits on Lake Victoria. Which is Africa’s largest and the world’s second largest freshwater lake. Ecotourism is on the rise in a big way in Kisumu, especially since many towns and villages nearby are surrounded by wetlands, which have been slowly degrading over the years. Kisumu is perhaps more urban than some of the areas we have discovered so far, but for that reason it is a great stop for those backpacking Kenya.

1. Kit Mikayi

Backpacking Kenya - Kit Mikayi

As you can see, Kit Mikayi is a 120m high rock formation found about 1km from the Kisumu-Bondo road. The Luo people of Kenya, in particular a sub-group called the Seme people, believe the rock formation brings them good luck. In fact, in the base of the structure there is a shrine, used by local people for prayer, oathtaking, rituals and just generally enjoying its beauty.

2. Kisumu Museum

Backpacking Kenya - Kisumu Museum

Open to the public in 1980, this charming museum exists to disseminate knowledge about cultural and scientific issues surrounding Western Kenya. Further, the museum charitably provides educational services and activities to local schools. Also a centre for research, the museum has recently been involved in an international projects on limnology. You’ll also get to see traditional Luo houses.

3. Maasai Craft Market

Backpacking Kenya - Maasai Craft Market, Kisumu

Authentic, handcrafted ornaments and trinkets for you to line your backpack with before you leave. You’ll find bracelets, necklaces and all sorts of items carved out of soapstone. The local craftspeople are more than ready for bartering foreigners, but the likelihood is you’ll be happy to pay the original asking price.

Places to Visit in Tigoni

Tigoni is a remarkably beautiful town with a faintly English feel to it. Nestling in the larger town of Limuru, which is known country-wide as a tea-producing region, Tigoni is a great spot to set off hiking. Especially if you want to see mesmerising waterfalls and awe-worthy forests.

1. Hiking

Backpacking Kenya - Hiking in Tigoni

There are some wonderful trails around Tigoni, such as Waterfalls Inn, which leads to an incredible waterfall. Further, you may want to visit the Indigenous Gatamaiyu Forest which too offers waterfalls and wildlife, such as leopards and elephants. Luckily, this is all only a three-hour hike from town.

2. Kiambethu Farm

Kiambethu Farm

Just a two-and-a-half-hour hike from Tigoni, you’ll find this intriguing tea farm. Here, you can enjoy a lunch time tour led by the warm owner, Fiona. She’ll tell you all about the history of the farm and the process of producing tea, all whilst sipping, well, a cup of tea. After that, you’ll be able to explore the indigenous forest with the local Kenyan guide who will teach you all about the plants and how they are traditionally used. As if that wasn’t charming enough, on site you’ll also find Colobus monkey, colourful birds and vibrant flowers. A rustic and rather delightful stop for anybody backpacking Kenya.

Places to Visit in Nyeri

Nyeri is a fascinating town with a rich and interesting history. Sat in the central, fertile highlands of Kenya, the town is well-served for food and water. A wonderful fact that until recently I was unaware of: Nyeri is home to the tomb of Robert Baden Powell, the founder of the Scout movement. Also, it is the home town of the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Luckily for you, it is also the best place from which to visit a handful of marvellous reserves.

1. Aberdare National Park

Aberdare National Park

Set in the heights of the Aberdare Mountain Ranges, this national park still holds an air of mystery about it. There are some that say the rare Black Leopard lurks in the jungles of this area, though it has seldom been seen. Rather happily, this mountainous region is a fair bit cooler than the lowland savannahs, and as such offers a slightly different perspective of the country. Highlights include several waterfalls, rare animals like the Black Serval, and the opportunity to watch animals drinking at the waterhole from the famous Treetops Lodge.

2. Solio game Reserve

Solio Game Reserve

A notably quiet, private game reserve, Solio is famous across Kenya for its Rhino sighting opportunities. In fact, Rhino conservation and breeding efforts at Solio have been so successful that the reserve has stocked game reserves all across Africa. In addition to the world’s largest population of White rhinos and the near one hundred Black rhinos, the Solio Reserve is home to a plethora of other wildlife. Namely, Buffalo, Zebra, Giraffes, Oryx, Antelope, Impala, Waterbuck and Warthogs. It is widely considered one of the best reserves for spotting Leopards too, which makes it an essential visit while backpacking Kenya.

best places to stay whilst backpacking kenya

LocationAccommodationWhy stay here?
NairobiKhweza Bed and BreakfastCentral location, open-air rooftop
restaurant and bar with panoramic city views.
NanyukiBessotted FarmstayVery close to Mount Kenya and offers
affordable private rooms.
NaivashaAloepark Art HotelJust 5 miles from crescent Island Game Reserve, and
the hotel has marvellously decorated rooms.
MombasaAkogo House – Hostel and BackpackersFor pure affordability, and the fact that its
situated only 1 mile from Nyali Beach.
NakuruClaire de Lune Moonlight HotelEminently affordable for those backpacking Kenya, not
to mention the free Wi-Fi and short journey to Westside Mall.
KisumuAnnodas Homes MilimaniJust 1 mile from Kisumu Museum, and a short walk
to Impala Wildlife Sanctuary and Hippo Point.
Tigoni (Limuru)Zereniti HouseSlightly more on the expensive side, but a wonderful
hub to walk and explore Limuru and Tigoni from.
NyeriKuniville Guest HouseA garden, a terrace, free Wi-Fi, what more could
you want?
Talek
(Maasai Mara)
Crocodile Camp Maasai MaraThis area is generally expensive due to its location. However, this
camp is much more affordable than most. And, don’t forget, you
can also do the Maasai Mara day trips from Nairobi, to save yourself
money on accommodation.
For Samburu Nature ReserveLion’s Cave CampAgain, the most affordable option given its prime location next
to a major game reserve. This camp is also set on the beachfront,
which is always good.
Lamu IslandWildebeeste LamuA very short walk from Lamu Fort and Lamu Museum, with a great rooftop terrace.

what to eat whilst backpacking kenya

Kenyan Diet

Kenyan food is rich and hearty. The main crops grown in the country for domestic consumption are maize and wheat, but a lot of sugarcane is grown too. Of course, Kenya also produces a lot of vegetables, tea, coffee, rice and soybean. Additionally, a handful of animal species are reared for meat consumption, including cows, goats, chickens, sheep and pigs. In fact, the ‘unofficial’ national dish of Kenya is Nyama Choma, which means barbecued meat in Swahili. The meat in question is typically beef or goat, and it is usually served with Kenya’s official national food, Ugali. The latter being a thick cornmeal paste (made from cooked white maize), which locals will thumb into a spoon shape and use to scoop up various stews and sauces.

Ugali with Beef Stew
Ugali with Beef Stew

If you can’t get your taste buds to agree with Ugali (and some foreigners can’t), you’ll find that rice or chips are often available as an alternative carb source. Expect to see chapatis on the menu too, especially as a side with whichever meat stew is on offer. If you’re visiting the lake areas, it is well worth trying the freshly caught fish too. In Kenya, the fish is usually served whole. Which is likely the reason for this local saying: real men eat the head of the fish. A Kenyan friend of mine who lives in Kisumu told me this just after I had ordered the fish. Although I have to admit, I didn’t eat the head. The most commonly served vegetables are collectively known as Sukuma-wiki, a sautéed dish of collard greens. This will usually be served with your choice of meat and Ugali.

Tilapia from Lake Victoria
Tilapia from Lake Victoria

Kenyan Soup (For backpacking Kenya with a warm belly)

Another dish you should try whilst backpacking Kenya is Githeri, a soupy stew traditionally served on its own or with crust bread. It is a Kenyan staple food, consisting of maize and beans, stewed with onions, tomatoes and often potatoes or meat chunks. Additionally, a dash of cumin, turmeric or chilli powder creates the flavours. The dish has its origins with the Kikuyu tribe of Central Kenya.

Githeri
Githeri

festivals in kenya

Brightly-coloured garbs, dancing, traditional food, parades, singing, all-round cultural joy – make sure you see at least one festival when you’re off backpacking Kenya. Of course, if you’d like a deeper insight into Kenyan festivals, check out this article on festivals in Kenya.

Lamu Cultural Festival

A celebration of tradition in the modern day, Lamu Cultural Festival takes place on the island town of Lamu. Expect to see song and dance, poetry, donkey and dhow races and mounds of traditional Swahili food. All set to the backdrop of Lamu’s heritage architecture. The festival takes place every November for 3 days, exactly when it occurs is down to the people of Lamu.

Safaricom International Jazz Festival

For you music lovers out there, or for those who just want to dance and have a great time, you wouldn’t go far wrong with this international Jazz festival. You’ll get to see and hear locally and internationally celebrated artists as they take the stage and produce their mellifluous tones.

Nairobi Restaurant Week

Fortunately for food connoisseurs, Nairobi Restaurant Week sees some of the cities finest restaurants serving dishes at a very friendly price. This glorious food festival takes place around January or February.

Lake Turkana Festival (Backpacking Kenya favourite)

This festival is in the Northern regions of Kenya, and serves to celebrate the preservation of traditional communities in the region. Which includes the Turkana, Samburu, Gabbra and Borana people, whose singing, dancing and delicacies you can enjoy.

Mombasa Carnival

One of the most popular festivals in Kenya. Mombasa Carnival has it all: colourful parades, traditional outfits, music and dance and plenty of food. It’s a favourite among travellers and Kenyans alike, and is worth making the trip to the coast for.

Backpacking kenya packing list

Kenya of course is a very diverse country in terms of its terrain and local geography. So a trip to the beaches of Mombasa requires different wear than a hike in the highlands. However, here I will simply list the basics of a packing list, then also a few extra bits that you may not have thought about.

Clothing

  • Loose, comfortable clothing for safaris and hiking. Including trousers if you’re heading out early in the morning, as even in dry season bushes can have morning dew
  • A protective hat
  • Warm clothes and cosy nightwear (the Great Rift Valley can get very cold at night)
  • Hiking shoes (make sure to break them in before you travel to Kenya)
  • Casual shoes
  • Flip flops and swimming gear (beaches)
  • Raincoat (rainy season)
  • Sunglasses

Tech

  • Camera and memory cards
  • Plug adapter (A universal adapter is necessary for everybody except those travelling from the UK – Kenya has the same G sockets as the UK)
  • Portable charger
  • Binoculars
  • Torch
  • Headphones (especially if backpacking alone)

Toiletries

  • Wet wipes and hand sanitizer (not easy to find in Kenya, especially in rural areas)
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunscreen

Documents

  • Passport and stamped visa
  • Travel insurance
  • Swahili phrasebook
  • Vaccinations and medications (malaria tablets)
  • First-Aid kit

It’s also worth noting that plastic bags are not allowed in Kenya. You’ll want to bring a woven or fabric bag of some kind.

What to wear on Safari in Kenya

There are two salient pieces of advice to take on when packing clothes for a safari in Kenya. One, make sure you have loose-fitting and comfortable clothes. It will be hot, and usually fairly exposed, so you’ll want to make sure you’re not wearing tight-fitting gear. Two: avoid wearing brightly-coloured clothing. The reason behind this is one of camouflage. You’ll want to fit in with the surroundings as much as possible so you are less noticeable to the animals and thus more likely to see them. Additionally, reserves are very dusty, and bright clothes will show that up more. I would also suggest bringing some hiking boots, an environmentally-friendly water bottle, a rucksack, hat and of course, your camera.

travel insurance for kenya

We don’t need to spend too long talking about travel insurance. You’re perfectly capable of deciding which insurance is best for you. But I’ll throw in my two cents anyway, just in case it helps you. What I will say is that Kenya can be unpredictable. So you might be hiking in the highlands far away from any hospital, or you may have been bitten by a nasty insect. Either way it is always best to get travel insurance before you set off backpacking Kenya.

The most recommendable choice for Kenya is World Nomads Travel Insurance. They allow you to buy or extend a policy mid-trip, and they cover everything that you might need whilst backpacking Kenya.

Kenya entry requirements

Travellers from the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand and EU countries will need to have a visa to enter Kenya. But it’s very simple to get. In fact, Kenya’s entry visas are exclusively issued electronically, with travellers required to get their e-visas before departure. You can apply for your single entry or transit e-visa online, here. They may take up to one week to process and the single entry visa will give you 90 days in the country.

If you plan to visit other East African countries, you might want to purchase an East African Tourist Visa. This will allow you to wonder freely between Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda. It last for three months, and overall it saves you money and the hassle of purchasing individual visas.

Entering Kenya during the Covid-19 era

Here’s what you need to know:

  • You will need to present a negative Covid-19 PCR test within 96 hours before departure.
  • Fill out a Travellers Health Surveillance Form on arrival for contact tracing purposes.
  • Accept health screening on arrival.

There are a few nationalities that are still requested to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Kenya. Though most nationalities are exempt from this. You can check the list of exempt countries, here.

You will need to wear face masks in public places, too.

Money in Kenya

Backpacking Kenya - Kenyan Shilling

The Kenyan Shilling (KSH) is the official currency of Kenya, and it is made up of 100 cents. Notes in circulation are KSh 1000, 500, 200, 100, 50 and 20, and there are also coins of KSH 40, 20, 10, five and one. One USD usually converts to roughly KSH 100.

ATMs are common in medium-sized towns, and even in some rural areas where you wouldn’t expect them. So definitely bring your bank card, as well as cash. However always be prepared for the worst, as occasionally the international data link can go down which stops you from withdrawing money. Always have some cash with you to overcome this problem, but also because almost all shops, restaurants and ticket offices will only accept cash from foreigners.

Changing Money

Most major currencies can be exchanged in Nairobi and Mombasa. However once you’re away from these cities you’ll struggle to exchange anything other than US dollars, UK pounds and Euros. The best places to change money are forex bureaus, which are dotted around everywhere and usually don’t charge commission.

Bartering

Bartering is commonplace and expected at markets and street stalls, especially those that sell handicrafts aimed at tourists. It is occasionally possible to barter over taxi prices and accommodation, but more often than not these are fixed prices.

Daily Budget in Kenya

On the Cheap

  • Hostel: $15-50
  • Camping: from $20
  • Dining at local restaurants: $2-5
  • Travelling by minibus (matatu): $1-5
  • Sharing safari drives with other travellers: $20-40
  • Beaches and markets: free

Midrange Living

  • Room in a half-way decent hotel: $75-150
  • Independent safari with car rental (for two): $75-100 per day
  • Full board in a safari lodge: $150-250

The high life

  • Room in fabulous hotel: from $200
  • Dinner in a glamourous restaurant: $30-40
  • All-out-no-expenses-spared safari in luxury camps: from $600

A few small tips

Carry small bills with you as much as possible and use larger bills for covering things like accommodation. Small shop owners and street vendors do not want to have to give you all their change to break up your large bill. Large expenses such as safaris and tours are typically quoted in USD or Euros, however you can usually still pay in Kenyan Shillings. As long as you are able to withdraw that amount from the ATM. Finally, one quick safety tip regarding money. If it does occur that you find yourself in a mugging situation, be sure that you have separated the cash you are carrying into different parts of your outfit. For instance, half your wad of money, so that one half is kept in your pocket, and the other elsewhere. That way you can hand over just one half of your money and not lose everything.

Getting around kenya

Moving around Kenya is fairly easy. There is a wide range of transport at your disposal and often it is affordable for those on a backpacking budget. Domestic flights with Kenya Airways are aplenty, especially between Nairobi and regional cities. In fact, you can even fly into national parks with Kenya Airways.

Trains are not a common way to travel in East Africa, however the new high-speed Nairobi to Mombasa rail service is definitely something to take note of. It reduces the journey time from an entire day on a bus to just 4.5 hours by train. Tickets for a lower-class journey are around $9.

Matatu
Matatu

The best and most common way of getting around Kenya is by bus. There is a huge network of buses and minibuses (matatus) which service nearly all of the towns and cities in the country. The buses are all managed by private companies, and consequently the level of comfort and speed of the journey will differ. Despite this, buses are definitely the cheapest and most convenient way to get around Kenya. All forms of transport come with their own ticket offices, and some will allow you to pay the driver directly.

Staying connected whilst backpacking kenya

It is possible to stay connected both in the human-familiar and technological sense in Kenya. Generally speaking, Nairobi is likely the best option for running into people from a familiar country. Which is especially nice if you’re feeling at all homesick. Yes, Nairobi is a favourite among expats in general, with several aid agencies and international companies setting up shop there. Additionally, the city is experiencing a huge increase in entrepreneurship and as a result there are now around 30 co-working spaces for start-ups and digital nomads.

Wi-Fi is typically unreliable in small cafes, so you’ll want to get a SIM card while you’re out there. This is easy and cheap, with Safaricom being the most reliable 4G provider. And of course, you can always top up with more data. It’s probably best to pick one up at the airport upon arrival, that way you’re ready from the outset.

Speaking Swahili: A few useful phrases

Speaking of staying connected – learning some of the local language(s) can really help you feel more in tune with your surroundings. The two official languages of Kenya are Swahili and English. However, there are over 60 languages spoke across the country and throughout various regions. Swahili is taught in schools countrywide, but most of the younger generations prefer to speak English, especially in the major cities. You’ll find that most people speak English and Swahili or another language of their tribal origin, so you’ll likely have no issues with communication. But isn’t it great to learn snippets of a language anyway? Here are a few phrases in Swahili for you to learn for your trip backpacking Kenya:

  • Jambo – Hello
  • Habari gani – How are you?
  • Kwa heri – Goodbye
  • Asante – Thank you
  • Asante sana – Thank you very much
  • Nzuri – Fine
  • Unasema kiingereza – Do you speak English?
  • Sielewi – I don’t understand
  • Samahani – Excuse me

Teaching English in Kenya

Teaching English in Kenya is a wonderful experience. You’ll find nowhere on earth where the children are more grateful for your attention and your capacity to help them learn. I spent a fair amount of time visiting schools in the village of Dunga, Kisumu, and the children there are absolutely delightful.

Despite most people, even younger generations, being considerably fluent in English, there is still always a demand for help in schools. Particularly in the ‘last-mile’ or more rural areas. The majority of English teaching work in Kenya is volunteer-based, offering food and boarding in exchange. However if you hold a Bachelor’s Degree and a TEFL certificate, you can often find paid work in private schools. It’s definitely an option you should consider as part of your journey backpacking Kenya.

Teaching English

Volunteering in Kenya

Volunteering abroad in general is a great way to saturate yourself with the local culture, and volunteering in Kenya is no different. Kenya is a very popular destination for volunteers, and indeed there are a wide range of things that you can volunteer to help with. Anything from teaching, to agriculture, to local NGO work. Although one of the more built-up countries in Africa, Kenya is still developing. As a result, volunteers are in high demand, especially in rural areas that may lack the capacity to ensure the comfortable everyday living of their residents.

Volunteering

In Kenya you’ll find volunteering opportunities in all kinds of fields, including community development, social work, ecological conservation and even tree planting. Here are a few of the best volunteering organisation to help you figure out what you would like to do in Kenya:

Most volunteer programs are run through reputable companies who have lots of experience working with the destinations in question. However, it is always best to keep your wits about you and ensure the company you’re interested in volunteering with are legitimate. Volunteers will usually only need an e-visa to undergo their placement in Kenya, but any other requirements will be stated by the organisation.

How to Stay Safe Whilst Backpacking Kenya

And last but certainly not least, let’s have a talk about staying safe whilst you’re backpacking Kenya. Generally speaking, Kenya is a safe country to spend time in. However, I’m sure you’ve heard stories in the news about terrorist attacks and other crime being carried out in the country. Unfortunately, the big cities, particularly Nairobi and Mombasa, do have their crime issues. Pickpocketing is more often than not the crime that foreigners find themselves the subject of. So here’s a very basic tip: keep your valuable hidden of hold them tightly in your hands, especially in crowded areas. It also goes without saying that you should never leave your bag anywhere.

The more significant of the safety issues to consider when visiting Kenya is the potential for terrorist attacks. There are a number of government travel warnings regarding the borders and coastline of Kenya for this very reason. In particular, the Somali border is to be avoided at all costs. There have been major attacks in the past, the most well-known incident occurring in Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Centre in 2013. Unfortunately these situations do really occur, and many people have lost their lives because of them. However, it is worth noting that they are not particularly frequent, and even the situation on the coastline has been stable for some time now.

Use your common sense. Avoid overcrowded areas and try not to wander around too much at night.

Some Final Words on Backpacking Kenya

This country is awe-inspiring, it truly is. You’ve got monumental and iconic mountains, savannahs, forests, beaches and animals. And, incredibly hospitable and welcoming people. A journey backpacking Kenya certainly won’t break the bank, as long as you budget for safaris and game reserves, and you’ll certainly feel like you’ve been somewhere unique.

I hope you have enjoyed this Cultural Scribbles guide to Kenya, I certainly enjoyed writing it. If you’d like to plan a different adventure on the other side of the world, why not check out our guide to Edzna Ruins.

 

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