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The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Kenya

Olarro Conservancy, Maasai Mara, Kenya
Olarro Conservancy, Maasai Mara, Kenya | © Ninara / Flickr
Backpacking is and always has been an amazing way to explore a country, its landscapes, its people and cultural diversities. Kenya is no exception. Here is a guide for every backpacker in Kenya.

The backpacker scene

Since movement inside Kenya is very unrestricted, once you have a plan and a general itinerary, you will not only have a blast enjoying the sights and sounds, but you will also fall in love with the people of Kenya. Climbers, hikers and cross-country adventure seekers will find the country an exceptional experience as they encounter interesting cultures, undisturbed wildlife areas and rugged trails.

Rugged trail around Mount Kenya's top hut © John Spooner / Flickr

You can launch your adventure from Nairobi, the capital city with its vibrant cosmopolitan lifestyle, or Mombasa, the country’s coastal town that still has an abundance of the old Arabic charm. Alternatively, you can decide to finish your backpacking experience with either city. You can take your backpacking to the heart of the country in the Rift Valley, where you are spoiled for choice when it comes to exploring landscapes.

How to enjoy it every step of the way

Research

There are plenty of online resources about Kenya, and hundreds if not thousands of people who have carved out their own routes and are willing to share their experiences with others. Plan your itinerary around what others have done successfully, because you do not know the lay of the land. This is especially important because some routes pass through wildlife areas and need guides to help you through. SIM cards are available from at least four mobile service providers and data is quite cheap. English is the main language in Kenya, but you can also find French, German, Italian and Spanish speakers. Interacting with the locals is the best way to pick up on the local language and they are more than happy to help you to your next stop or even escort you there.

Survival tips

Crime in Kenya is really what you would expect of any country in the world. The worst that can happen to you is being pickpocketed if you have your valuables out in the open. Bag snatching is also another thing to be wary of, so it would be best to have a backpack as opposed to a shoulder bag, even one with thick straps. You can opt for public minibuses to commute from point A to B within cities and the general fare will be within $1 to $5 or less. This information will ensure you are not overcharged or shortchanged. Other than that, Kenya has been made secure for visitors and locals alike, as tourism is a huge part of the economy.

Food and accommodation

There are plenty of decent places to stay cheaply, including hostels, two-star hotels and plenty of Airbnbs wherever you go. Five-star hotels and luxury resorts and lodges also pepper every corner of the country, allowing you to relax after your adventure. You have a choice of international cuisine or local fare, including mutura, the famous nyama choma and ugali, or some bitter vegetables which are quite nutritious. Roadside food kiosks are quite popular and most are similar to one another, although some are very clean and sanitary so you need not worry about the quality of the food, while others should cause a bit of hesitation. You will know each at a glance.

The local Kenyan delicacy of nyama choma (roast meat) and ugali  © Xiaojun Deng / Flickr

Making friends

There is no shortage of Kenyan hospitality. From local communities to the guides you meet on excursions, you will at some point or another be invited for a meal and be served with a genuine smile and exceptional courtesy. Offering food and drink is part of welcoming any visitor and giving them your very best. Learn a few local language phrases to make you feel at home and the locals will be more than happy to add a few more to your vocabulary.

Friends are made anywhere, anytime, over anything  © klndonnelly / Flickr

Money, money, money

The local currency is Kshs, Kenya shillings, and they are used in all transactions. Changing your dollars or Euros to Kenya shillings will instantly give you thousands of shillings to spare for your adventure. One US dollar currently buys 101 KShs.

You can use your credit cards within the bigger cities but keep cash on you when in the smaller towns or rural areas. Your cards also work in every ATM and the banks can transfer larger amounts for you.

Some of Kenya's shilling bills and coins © klndonnelly / Flickr

Costs

1 meal ($1-$100USD)

1 beer ($2 for the local beer) $3-4 for foreign brands

1 night at a backpacker hostel ($15-50 cheap hotel)

1 cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel (less than 1$ for intercity transportation)

1 hygiene/medical essential (at a local shop) ($20-$25)

1 affordable experience (e.g. average entry to visit a Temple) $1 – $100 for entry fees to parks or sites depending on the place

Where to go

Naivasha

This is a backpacker’s paradise and home to Hell’s Gate, one of the smaller National Parks in Kenya. A commute to Naivasha takes only two hours from Nairobi and will cost about $3. It is popular as a campsite destination, with plenty of facilities available in the area. You can enjoy panoromic views of the freshwater lake Naivasha, birdwatching, hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, cycling, and fishing and spotting game. The climbs and hikes through this area will bring you close to geysers and hot springs where you can even boil an egg.

Enjoy canoeing with your friends or family © Razvan Chisu / Unsplash

Nakuru

The town of Nakuru is two hours past Naivasha by car. One can hike the Ngorongoro crater, which is a day’s hike to the summit, for beautiful views of a massive crater and back down. There are Plenty of Airbnbs and affordable small hotels in Nakuru town centre and on the edges of the town.

Eldoret

Eldoret is a small town that would be nondescript except that it is the gateway to the ‘spiritual home of running’, which is a small town called Iten. A bus to Iten from Eldoret will take roughly an hour and cost you about $3. World-class runners are made in Iten and now international athletes come to the town to train in the high altitude. You are likely to see groups of locals and foreigners jogging together on tarmac roads. The landscape is perfect for backpacking as it has both intensely rugged and moderate slopes.

Mombasa

The coastal, second-largest city of Kenya is a wonderful place to go backpacking. If coming from Nairobi you can journey by train. The Madaraka express takes four and a half hours from Nairobi to Mombasa and runs daily. It is a comfortable ride in standard class for $7, or $35 for first class. You are likely to spot game along the way, such as herds of zebra and giraffes, as well as elephants roaming in the wild.

Nairobi Railway Station © Caligula / Flickr

Once you are in Mombasa city, be sure to visit the neighbouring towns of Ukunda, Mtwapa, Bamburi and Lamu for landscapes that are old, rugged, serene, and simply beautiful. These scenic locations are but a stone’s throw away and are all within a $5 dollar bus fare.

Experiences

Take the Mtongwe Ferry

This is one of the oldest ferries in Kenya, and it shows. It carries thousands of people and quite a number of cars and mostly looks as if it will give way under the massive weight, but always comes through on the other end! The views of the Indian ocean from the ferry are spectacular. Just make sure you are close to the railing.

Climb Mount Usambara

Cross over to neighbouring Tanzania and climb the Usambara Mountains. You can climb the western Usambaras, which are the higher part, or the Eastern Usambaras, which have views of the coast and see more rain.

Spectacular views from the Usambara Mountain Ranges © Rod Waddington / Flickr

Go kayaking

Kayaking on the Ewaso Nyiro and Tana rivers gives you the adrenaline-pumping rapids experience and the serene peaceful water experience, all in the same rivers. You can see crocodiles and hippos from a fair distance and even watch them sink into the rivers as your kayak sends ripples through the water.