When we first decided we would travel around Africa, we knew that a trip to Kenya could not be missed. After selling our beloved Land Cruiser in Uganda we hopped on a flight over to see what Kenya had to offer. From the plains of the Masai Mara to buzzing Nairobi to laid back Swahili beach vibes these are the Kenya travel tips to keep in the back of your head.
Kenya Travel Tips To Know Before You Go
Nairobi isn’t that bad
Nairobi or “Nairobbery” has a strong reputation for being unsafe. Before we landed in Africa years ago I heard terrifying stories about visitors in Nairobi. We arrived with very little expectations of the city but were pleasantly surprised with Nairobi. Not only did we feel safe, but the city is packed with hip restaurants, rooftop bars, trendy coffeehouses, and beautiful hotels. Not only that but Nairobi National Park is the only national park in the world that lies next to a capital city with other animal refugee and orphanages scattered about the city.
As always – stay out of bad neighborhoods, don’t walk alone at night, and use universal common sense and Nairobi might even become your favorite African city.
Kenya is the Africa you think of
Endless plains of grass, ancient tribal warriors, and teeming with wildlife. It’s the Africa of your dreams. If you have been considering traveling to Africa for the first time Kenya may be the place for you. Portrayed in countless movies, books, and nature documentaries Kenya is well known.
Education is King
Speaking of African movies, have you checked out the movie “The First Grader?” It’s the tale of Kimani Maruge, an 81-year-old man who decides to go to primary school for the first time when the Kenyan government made it free. The story is true and Maruge is considered somewhat of a hero throughout the country. The motivation to learn in Kenya is extraordinary with literacy rates around 85%.
The Economy is Booming
While Kenya is still a developing country it’s important to note that it still has the most powerful economy in East Africa. It only took a few days in the countries capital for us to realize the nation is unlike most of its African counterparts.
There is a growing middle class, infrastructure, and a strong business sector. We happened to visit right before the 2017 elections and it seemed most Kenyans were hopefully about the prospect of their country. That being said, the wealth divide in Kenya was also one of the most apparent we have seen in Africa. Only rivaled with that of South Africa.
Make sure to pack your bag with your safari clothes because if you’re headed to Kenya you should partake in at least one safari. The name safari even comes from the Swahili word meaning “journey” or “trip.” Whether it be close to the city at Nairobi National Park, the famous Masai Mara, Amboseli, or Tsavo. Game spotting here is top notch and the Kenyan Wildlife Service takes pride in their countries natural landscapes and wildlife.
Kenya is your African movie
Out of Africa was the best picture winner of 1988, and possibly one of Robert Redford’s best films. The movie was based on Karen Blixen’s account of her time in colonial Kenya. What other big time movies are set in Kenya? How about “I Dreamed of Africa,” based on Kuki Gallman’s novel. Or “The Constant Gardener” telling the tale of pharmaceutical corruption…yup that was Kenya too! Obviously, not all movies about Africa are set in Kenya, but a large number of those dramatized Hollywood flicks are. If you want to live our an African movie then grab your gramophone and head to Kenya.
The Kenyan Shillings is the currency in Kenya and is currently valued at 100:1 with the US Dollar. USD newer than 2006 is widely accepted at many establishments around the country. We also have no problem using our credit card in Nairobi. I wouldn’t call Kenya a cheap destination – far from it actually. National park fee and conservancy fees can range anywhere between $40-$120 per day for foreigners. If you plan on staying in a lodge, hotel, or going out to eat you can expect to pay a high price for those luxuries as well. The “cheap” hotel we regularly use in Nairobi costs around a $100 USD a night.
Boda Boda’s, Piki-Piki’s, and Matatu’s
No those aren’t the names of some far off African inspired cocktail, they are some of the main modes of transport in Kenya. Boda Bodas are bicycles used to get short distances while Piki-piki’s are motorcycle taxis. These operate in smaller towns and cities and are a popular way to get around.
Watch the Boda Boda’s and piki piki’s weave in and out of traffic and get passengers to destinations in half the time that a car can. Matatus are the cheapest and most efficient way to get around for locals. Matatus or minibuses are hard to miss with blaring music, custom paint jobs, and neon lights.
None of these modes of transport are the safest option by any means, but they are fun and flexible and give you an opportunity to get more into local Kenyan life.
Those Coastal Vibes
Kenya isn’t just good for safaris, but the Kenyan Coast also boasts white sand beaches and is the perfect place to come for some peace and quiet on the Indian Ocean. Malindi, Watamu, Diani Beach, and Lamu all have that Swahili vibe that can also be found on the Tanzanian coast. Some of the best food in Kenya can be found on the coast, as well as some of the most interesting architecture and culture.
Like Tanzania, the main language in Kenya is Swahili and learning a few of the basic phrases will definitely enhance your experience with the locals. If you venture into the west of the country you will without a doubt come across the Masai people. The Maasai all speak Maa, but most understand Swahili as well. However, in Nairobi, at lodges, tourist attractions, and everyday people will likely speak English. It’s even common for many Kenyan’s to speak a mix of both Swahili and English when conversing.
What to Pack for Kenya
Overland Tour in Africa
Traveling Africa on your own can be daunting to many travelers. However, there is no need to fear with overland tour companies who will show the ropes and a great time. You can check out some of them here to compare the different companies and possibly score a discount.
Travel Water Bottle
Plastic pollution is a problem in Africa so it’s best not to contribute to the problem buying plastic water bottles everywhere. The tap water in Tanzania is generally not safe to drink, but a water purifier, like the Grayl waterbottle, works well!
However, we also love filtered water bottles in areas we’re uncertain of the water supply. Read more about favorite water bottle for travel in our post.
Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Africa. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm.
For more professional photographs we use our Fuji XT-3, and LOVE IT.
Lightweight pants that are made from synthetic material are tremendous to have in your pack. It’s what we wear most days when traveling around Africa as they’re comfortable, antibacterial, and protect our legs from mosquitos (malaria).
We recommend neutral colored pants as they’re great at hiding dirt and can match most shirt colors. What’s great is they’re useful beyond Africa as they are a travel staple and we pack a pair everywhere we travel.
I like two pairs, one pair is made by prAna and rolls into capris and the other are convertible pants. For men, prAna makes the Stretch Zion Pant, a tremendous pair of hiking pants for a reasonable price.
If you’re wondering what necessities to bring to Africa then sturdy shoes are perhaps the most important thing you will need before you get to Africa.
I cannot stress a good pair of shoes enough because if you land anywhere outside of South Africa a quality pair of hiking shoes will be hard to come by. If you plan to walk around a lot get thick rubber soled shoes as acacia thorns are prone to stab through thin shoes. Cameron learned the hard way one day when he pulled a thorn out of his foot that went straight through his thin rubber sandals.
I love my buff. I usually wear it for keeping my hair back, but it’s also served its purpose as a scarf and wet rag too. Buffs last for years and aren’t only helpful in Africa. I actually wear mine every day when I’m snowboarding in the mountains. It’s been one of my top travel accessory investments ever!
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Africa. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Most hotels will provide you with a towel, but they often aren’t suitable or allowed on the beaches. I like to travel with a microfiber towel because they are light and fold up small, and they also don’t cling on to sand our dirt. Here are a few of our favorite travel towels.
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