Although people often associate Kenya with luxury (and pricey) all-inclusive safari holidays, there are plenty of opportunities for exploring this amazing country on a budget. Read on for the ultimate guide to backpacking Kenya.
Kenya is, without a doubt, one of the most popular destinations in Africa. And for good reason. Vast open savannah, picture-postcard white sand beaches, and some of the best wildlife spotting on the continent.
** If you need a visa to visit Kenya, I recommend using iVisa.com. Their online visa processing service is quick, secure, and easy to use. **
Backpacking Kenya: Where To Go
Kenya’s vibrant, international capital city is, for most foreign tourists, the gateway to the country. Chances are, if you are flying into Kenya, you will do so via Nairobi.
However, the majority of visitors don’t spend any time here, instead zooming straight off to one of the many national parks or beach destinations. I think this is a mistake.
There’s enough to see and do in Nairobi to easily justify spending at least a day or two here, before heading out to explore the rest of the country.
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust operates a rescue and rehabilitation programme for orphaned baby elephants and rhinos. The centre organises regular school visits to educate children about the need to protect these beautiful animals. It also helps to sponsor programmes aimed more broadly at promoting conservation and preventing illegal poaching.
For more information about the amazing work these people do, check out their website.
Nearby, the Giraffe Centre, operated by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, runs a similar conservation programme for giraffes. Visiting these two centres helps to ensure that they are able to continue their fantastic work.
You also get to see these incredible animals up close. Sometimes, very close.
On the outskirts of the city, Nairobi National Park is also worth a visit. It’s an easy 15 minute drive from the centre of town. Where else could you find wild herds of wildebeest, zebra and giraffe, not to mention lions, cheetahs and rhinos, in a major international capital city?!
An easy 2-3 hour drive from Nairobi, the town of Naivasha should be on every Kenya backpacking itinerary. It’s a great place to base yourself for a few days, with lots to see and do nearby. There are several decent campsites and other budget accommodation, and tons of outdoors activities on offer.
Lake Naivasha, one of the soda lakes (i.e. strongly alkaline) in the Great Rift Valley, is a beautifully scenic spot. Here, you can do boat trips (perfect at sunset), or explore the shoreline. It’s an ideal birdwatching spot, though keep an eye out for hippos!
If you fancy stretching your legs, you can do a short hike up to Naivasha Crater Lake just to the west of the main lake.
Hell’s Gate National Park is an alternative to the (much more expensive) Maasai Mara, or Tsavo National Parks. This is a good option if you are backpacking Kenya on a budget.
An added bonus of Hell’s Gate is that you can do cycling safaris. No decked-out 4-wheel-drive or guide needed here. It’s just you and the animals, and is a really unique experience. You can also go on walking safaris. But I recommend the biking option, as you get to cover more ground, so are likely to see more animals!
Another interesting place to visit near Naivasha is Elsamere. The former home of Joy and George Adamson (the couple who inspired the movie “Born Free”) is located in an idyllic spot on the shore of Lake Naivasha.
It’s now a museum and headquarters of the conservation programme the couple founded. Here you can learn about the Adamsons’ work rehabilitating animals back into the wild. You can also enjoy the best high tea in Kenya, sitting in the tranquil, shaded garden. Just be careful the monkeys don’t steal your food!
A couple of hours on from Naivasha, you’ll reach Nakuru. The real draw here is the fantastic Lake Nakuru National Park.
Lake Nakuru itself is another of the Great Rift Valley’s soda lakes, and is home to over a million pink flamingoes. Yes, over a million! It’s an incredible sight, especially as the sun goes down and the whole lake seems to turn pink. Though beware that parts of the shore do tend to smell a bit…
As well as the flamingoes, Lake Nakuru is also home to pelicans and many other water birds.
It’s not all about the lake though. The wider national park is one of the best places in the world to spot white and black rhinos in the wild. The latter are critically endangered.
Mombasa, Kenya’s second city, has a very different feel from the rest of the country. Known as the White and Blue City, it has a fascinating blend of cultures.
Located on the country’s southern Indian Ocean coast, it’s close to some fantastic beaches. If you’re in need of some sun, sand and sea during your time backpacking in Kenya, Mombasa would be a good add-on.
There are strong Indian, Arabic and Portuguese influences here: in the people, their languages, food, and architecture.
Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese between 1593 and 1596 and is remarkably well preserved. It’s an atmospheric place, and its museum provides an interesting insight into the history of trade in the Indian Ocean.
It’s super easy to find fresh, cheap and delicious food in Mombasa. Traditional dishes include biryanis, spiced stews, grilled fish and various other seafood.
Northern Kenya: Marsabit And Surrounds
If you really want to get off the beaten track, head to Northern Kenya. This is the country’s Wild West.
Prior to 2017, the only way of accessing this region by land was via what many people described as “the worst road in Africa”.
I travelled on this road in 2011, on the way up from Nairobi to Ethiopia, and the name was definitely justified then. It was an almost impossibly tough road, taking several days, and shredding all but the toughest 4×4 vehicles. Added to that was the possibility of being robbed by Shiftas (armed bandits).
That’s all changed now. Well, mostly.
Completed in 2017, the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale road, part of the Trans African Highway that connects Cape Town to Cairo, is a smooth, modern asphalt highway. You can now drive from Nairobi all the way up to Moyale, on the border with Ethiopia, in one (very long) day.
(If you’re looking for an awesome itinerary for an Ethiopian road trip, check out this post.)
It certainly feels less adventurous, but there’s no doubt that this new road has been good for the people of the region. It also opens up the north of the country to tourism. You can now get a bus to Marsabit from either Nairobi or Isiolo.
Security can unfortunately still be a concern in this region however. Check the local situation before planning any trips north of Isiolo.
Where To Visit In Northern Kenya
Samburu National Reserve is another great place to spot large African mammals, especially the big cats. Here you can also see the endangered reticulated giraffe (also known as the Somali giraffe), which lives in the drier parts of the Horn of Africa.
Marsabit feels like a true frontier town. It’s dusty, dry and hot. Here you’ll rub shoulders with nomadic camel herders, khat hustlers, cattle farmers and tribespeople wearing colourful traditional clothing.
Marsabit National Park, just outside town, is home to herds of zebra and huge, long-tusked elephants, as well as a range of other mammals, birds and reptiles. The park itself is located on top of a giant shield volcano, which is now covered in thick forest. There are three crater lakes, which are good places to spot wildlife.
If you fancy climbing a very tall mountain in Africa, but Kilimanjaro seems too obvious, you might want to consider tackling Mount Kenya. It will also cost you less than half as much as the better-known one: another good option if you are backpacking Kenya on a budget.
At 5,199 metres above sea level, it’s still the second highest mountain in Africa, and is only 700 metres shorter than Kili. You’ll also be far away from the majority of the crowds that plague its Tanzanian cousin.
Hiring a guide isn’t compulsory, but is strongly recommended. Most routes take 4-6 days, and you’ll need to bring everything with you. Adventure Alternative is a decent company to book with. Either way, it is forbidden (and would be stupid) to attempt the climb solo. You need to be with at least one other person, and a group of 3-4 would be ideal.
Pack for all weathers. Starting off, you’ll be hiking through equatorial savannah, which turns to bamboo forest as you ascend. At the top, you’ll probably be in snow. As well as sun cream and a decent pair of walking boots (duh), a warm sleeping bag and thermal layers are essential.
Backpacking Kenya: Pricier Safari Trips
Okay, maybe not ideal if you’re backpacking Kenya on a tight budget. However I think it’s still worth mentioning some of the country’s larger and better-known game parks.
These places can be fairly expensive. But, if your budget can stretch to it, they offer some of the best safari experiences on Earth.
Check out this post for a comprehensive guide to going on safari in Kenya.
Arguably Kenya’s most well known national park, the Maasai Mara (or simply “the Mara”) is one of the best places (many people say the best place) to see African wildlife on the planet.
You’ll find all of the famous large animals here: lions, cheetahs, leopards, rhinos, giraffes, elephants, buffalo, gazelles, and more. The Great Wildebeest Migration, one of the most spectacular and iconic annual migrations known to man, happens here. The Maasai Mara is a place of superlatives.
But it’s not cheap. Expect to pay anywhere from £300/$400 per person per day upwards. Perhaps slightly less if you went with the most basic budget accommodation.
The sky’s the limit with higher-end boutique options. You could easily spend upwards of £1,000 per night if you opted for one of the (admittedly stunning) luxury safari lodges.
Tsavo East and West
Taken together, Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks span over 21,800 square kilometres. This vast place is also home to large numbers of animals.
However, due to its giant size, there is a much lower density of wildlife in Tsavo compared to the Maasai Mara. This makes it trickier to spot some of the more elusive animals, and you likely won’t see quite as many overall.
On the plus side however, both Tsavo parks are somewhat cheaper than the Maasai Mara to visit and stay in.
Wildlife numbers are generally higher in Tsavo West than Tsavo East, though the latter is arguably more scenic.
Backpacking Kenya: Practical Tips
As is usually the case, hiring your own car is the most convenient option. It’s also the most expensive.
If you do opt for this, it’s always best to rent a 4×4. Whilst many of the country’s roads are asphalt, and some are in excellent condition, others are certainly not. A 4×4 gives you a lot more flexibility in terms of the places you can get to, especially in the north and east of the country, which is a big bonus.
You aren’t required to hire a driver when you rent a car in Kenya. Though I’d only suggest attempting to drive yourself if you are relatively experienced at driving in developing countries. Some Kenyans tend to drive rather… aggressively!
By far the cheapest way of getting around, this is the best option if you are backpacking Kenya on a budget. The majority of Kenyans travel by bus, and you can use the country’s network of coaches to get to most places.
Matatus are privately owned minibuses which operate as shared taxis (similar to dala dalas in Tanzania, or dolmuses in Turkey). They usually drive along set routes and can be used to get around, and between, most towns and cities in Kenya. They’re sometimes dangerously overcrowded though, and the driving is often
totally nuts a bit reckless. Not the most comfortable or safest way of getting around, for sure. But it’s quite fun, and you should ride in at least one matatu during your time in Kenya!
A railway has linked Nairobi to Mombasa since 1896. After decades of neglect, a shiny new Chinese-built line opened in 2017.
The journey from the capital to the coast takes under 5 hours, in relative comfort. It’s also pretty affordable, costing only US$ 10 in standard class.
Best of all, the line runs through the Tsavo National Parks. If you keep your eyes out, you’re likely to see elephants, zebras and giraffes all from the train. 🙂
For more information on how to take the train in Kenya, head over to the Man in Seat 61.
As you’d expect, flying is considerably more expensive than taking the bus/train, although it is possible to snap up deals. However, by travelling at 30,000 feet you do inevitably miss out on some fantastic scenery and wildlife spotting. As such, I’d only recommend flying internally if you’re very pressed for time.
Where To Stay When Backpacking Kenya
This obviously depends on your budget. There’s something for everyone, though bear in mind that budget options are more limited in Kenya (and Africa generally) than other parts of the world. Don’t expect anywhere near the range (or price) of cheap accommodation that you’d find in South-East Asia, for example.
For shoestring Kenya backpacking, you’ll find plenty of campsites in towns like Naivasha and Nakuru. Many of these have excellent facilities, including hot showers, basic provisions, and firewood for sale.
If you have your own vehicle and a suitable tent, bush camping is another option. It’s free, and awesome. Just be considerate where you pitch your tent, and (obviously) don’t camp too close to where other people (or hungry big cats) live.
Best Time To Visit Kenya
Straddling the equator, Kenya has wet and dry seasons, rather than summer and winter.
You can visit the country year round, however the “long rains” fall between March and May, so I’d personally avoid these months.
The dry season runs from July to September and is probably the best time to visit Kenya. This is also the time to come if you want to experience the Great Wildebeest Migration. However bear in mind that visitor numbers are typically highest then too.
Food & Drink
Locally produced food is cheap and usually of high quality, especially fresh fruit and vegetables. You’ll pay more for imported produce, though it probably still won’t break the bank.
Street food vendors are common in most places. These serve cheap and typically excellent food, and they’re mostly safe to eat from. Just use common sense: if there’s a line of people waiting to buy from one vendor, and the place looks decent and clean, chances are the food there will be great. And vice versa.
Fresh meat and fish is (usually) exceptionally good in Kenya, and best enjoyed cooked over a fire. Places will often have vegetarian options, but most traditional stews contain either beef, chicken, goat or fish.
Try ugali, a staple for most Kenyans made from maize meal. It’s a type of porridge, similar to sadza or mieliepap in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and is usually eaten with stew.
Tusker is the national beer, and is found everywhere in Kenya. It’s normally cheaper than imported beers, and is light and refreshing, if a little ordinary.
If you’re only visiting Kenya for a few weeks, I’d recommend not drinking the tap water. Bottled water is cheap and easily available. However, if you (like me) hate the amount of plastic water bottles that are wasted by drinking packaged water, consider investing in a Grayl Geopress. The planet will thank you for it.
The local currency is the Kenyan Shilling (Ksh). You shouldn’t have any problems withdrawing cash from ATMs.
Credit cards are becoming increasingly accepted in the larger towns and cities, though you’ll need cash when in smaller places and in the countryside.
Kenya is, overall, a fairly safe destination, especially compared to some of its neighbours (*cough* Somalia, *cough* South Sudan).
That said, petty crime (e.g. opportunistic bag snatching, pick pocketing, etc.) is somewhat common, and acts of terrorism are occasionally carried out here. (Though, to be fair, that’s the case in a lot of places we don’t think twice about before visiting.)
Nairobi has a bit of a reputation for crime (some people call it, perhaps unfairly, “Nairobbery”). Whilst street crime does occur, especially after dark, if you’re sensible and use common sense you should be fine.
The usual rules apply: don’t wave expensive items around, hide your laptop/camera/phone when not using it, try not to carry too much cash with you at any one time, be discreet when using ATMs, consider using a money belt, stash your cash in different parts of your backpack, etc, etc.
Avoid travelling close to the border with Somalia. Prowled by Shifta bandits and members of al-Shabaab, these areas are lawless and dangerous.
Useful Links For Backpacking Kenya
I hope this post inspires you to plan a backpacking trip in Kenya. Please let me know your plans and thoughts in the comments section below!
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