This was my first trip to Africa. I have been to Egypt before. But Egypt has a more middle-eastern vibe to it than an African one. Compared to Egypt, in Kenya, almost everyone speaks English. And compared to Egypt, much less touting. Kenya is known for its world-famous Masai Mara reserve. Apart from seeing the big five animals (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo), I would recommend a trip to the coastal city of Mombasa.
Day 1 – Nairobi
Compared to Cairo, Egypt, the capital city of Nairobi is a dump. There is little to see in the city. And if you are going to Masai Mara, there is little point in going to Nairobi National Park. I did a walking tour but the guide was mediocre. We did check out the National Archives (not recommended) and the city market.
One restaurant I would highly recommend for vegetarians is Bridges Organic. Many Indian food items like chapati and bhajia are common in Kenyan restaurants. Typical food costs about 3-4$ per meal in Kenya.
I booked a 3-day 2-night trip to Masai Mara for $320. I later paid 100$ for a one-day extension to cover Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru on the trip. Also, you can do it on your own and save ~50$ but it is fairly complicated. So, I would recommend going for a guided tour. There are only a few camps inside Masai Mara and it is not worth staying inside them. The village right outside is cheaper and is still well-secluded from civilization.
Day 2 – Nairobi to Masai Mara
We started at 7 AM and reached Great Rift Valley as our first viewpoint. The valley has been formed as the two continental plates are pulling away from each other.
We reached a village near Masai Mara in the afternoon, had lunch, and then did a two-hour tour (called “game”) in Masai Mara. The drive from Nairobi to Masai Mara is long and in the last 2-3 hours, the roads are bad. Roads inside Masai Mara aren’t great either. For the tour, pick an open jeep, so that, you have a great view during the journey. We stayed in a camp. The camps are comfortable. No Wi-Fi. Limited electricity. Limited cellphone signal.
Day 3: Masai Mara
We start at ~6 AM and return around 5 PM. So, it was a full day of the trip. Trust me, for most people one day is more than sufficient to see all the major animals in Masai Mara. Also, since you are not allowed to get out of the car for long, it does get boring after a while.
Day 4: Drive to Lake Naivasha
We started the day with a tour of a village of the Masai tribe. Learning about their culture and traditions. Feels a bit artificial of an experience.
Rather than returning to Nairobi, I decide to extend my trip to visit Lake Naivasha where we saw more Hippos. We paid 2000 Kenyan Shillings per person for the boat ride.
We stayed near Lake Nakuru that night.
Day 5: Nakuru National Park
We started the day with a drive to Lake Nakuru National Park. And, finally, saw a Rhinoceros, completing the big five animal list.
Flamingos’ favorite food is found in saltwater. But this lake seems to be expanding with underground fresh water and that’s reducing its saltiness. This is causing Pink Flamingos to migrate away from Lake Nakuru.
Rather than returning to Nairobi, I stayed back in Naivasha to do Hell’s Gate park the next day on my own. You don’t need a guided tour for that. Just pick a good hotel near the town center. I would highly recommend Jane’s guesthouse. While it’s ~1 km away from the town center, its ambiance is great and the rooms are spacious. Urban Dining is a great restaurant for vegetarian food.
Day 6: Biking in Hell’s Gate National Park
I took a 100 KSh matatu to Hell’s Gate Park in the morning. The matatu drops you exactly on the highway about 2 km from the main entrance. You should rent a bicycle here for 600 KSh to properly explore the park. Many bikes are in decrepit condition, so, do try before you finalize the rental. The entrance fee is USD 20 for one person and 215 KSh for one bike.
Hell’s Gate National Park is one of the few national parks in Kenya where you can bike and see wild animals like giraffes and Zebra. And that’s because this park has no predatory animals like Lions. I took the longest route which involved ~40 km of biking. I took this route because I wanted to check out Obsidian caves but it seems a few years back the ceiling fell and the entrance is now closed. I would recommend taking the shorter one that’s about 24 km round-trip. I would recommend visiting the Slot Canyon as well. For visiting the canyon, while you can do it on your own, you need a guide to get you in and help you rappel down and up. You can get a guide at the gate for ~1000-1500 KSh. I would say it is worth it. I spent about five hours in the park.
Getting in and out of the canyon requires rappelling.
The canyon is narrow and flash flooding during the rainy season is a real risk here.
There is a hot water waterfall with high sulfur content.
Later in the evening, I took a matatu back to Nairobi and then an 8-hour overnight bus from Nairobi to Mombasa. There’s a train as well but it runs at odd hours.
Day 7: Mombasa
I started my day in Mombasa by visiting the arch and the 16th-century Portuguese Fort. This was followed by a trip to the Jain Temple and then an ISKCON Temple. Mombasa, given its proximity to India, has a large Indian population that’s mostly engaged in trading.
I took an hour-long guided tour of Fort Jesus. The entry fee was 1200 KSh and the guide charged me 500 KSh. I would highly recommend the guided tour if you are planning to go inside this 16th century, Portuguese Fort.
Day 8: Cruise
I did a day cruise in a traditional Arabic Dhow.
The tour started with a visit to the Shimoni caves. During an earlier era, slaves were chained and kept here before being sent to the Americas.
Then we went on the day cruise. Remember, do carry a hydration pack as no plastic bottles are allowed in the reserve area and it gets really hot during the cruise. The boat looked rickety and I was concerned that it might not turn out to be a great experience but I have to say it was one of the best day cruises, I had done. Probably close to Belize and the Cayman Islands in terms of the experience.
Luckily, we saw dolphins.
Then we went on a 30-minute snorkel tour and saw quite a few fish.
In the afternoon, we stopped at Wasini Island for the lunch. I, usually, have low expectations of vegetarian food. But the food was great.
The final stop on the island was the Coral gardens on Wasini Island. They were formed when the ocean water level was much higher.
Then, I took an overnight train back to Nairobi. The train onboarding is a perfect example of African bureaucracy. First, you stand in a line to go through the security check. Then you stand in the second line to print your online ticket. Then you stand in a third line to go through the ticket + security check. Then you form a fourth line to board the train where an officer checks your ticket for the second time. The experience of flying out of Nairobi wasn’t very different either. Multiple lines, multiple security checks, multiple document verifications.
- Bolt is more popular and has better coverage than Uber in Kenya.
- Airtel has better coverage than T-Mobile or Google Fi and will be extremely cheap as well. I got 3GB of data for $3.
- Credit card acceptance is pretty high, so, you don’t have to use cash at any physical store. If you need cash, go to SBM for zero-fee cash withdrawals even with foreign debit cards.
- Single-use plastic bottles are banned in most national parks. While nobody checks, you can, in principle, be fined if you are spotted with one.
- COVID-19 PCR test takes about 24 hours and an antigen test takes about 3-4 hours for the result. PCR test costs 7000 KSh and Anti-gen test costs 3450 KSh. You have to convince them to do an antigen test since the US is one of the few countries that accept the results of the antigen test.