Kenya is not just about seeing – there's also so much to do here, from walking up some of Africa's highest peaks to drifting over the Masai Mara in a balloon, from snorkelling the Indian Ocean to cycling within sight of wild rhinos. So get down from your vehicle and explore.
Safari (which means 'journey' in Kiswahili) must be one of the most evocative words ever to infiltrate the English language. From wildebeest fording raging rivers and lions stalking their prey through the savannah grass, to iridescent flamingos lining a salty shore at sunset, a safari is Africa at its finest.
- Best Overall Wildlife Experience
Annual wildebeest migration at Masai Mara National Reserve from July to October.
- Best for Big Cats
- Best Wilderness Experience
- Best Times to Avoid
The rainy season (late March to May).
- Best Safari Planning Resources
Try www.safaribookings.com, https://ecotourismkenya.org or www.responsibletravel.com.
- Best Safari Circuits
The Mara Circuit and the Southern Circuit.
- Best Specialist Safaris
Planning a Safari
Many travellers prefer to get all the hard work done before arriving in Kenya by booking from home, either through travel agents or directly with safari companies. This ensures that you’ll be able to secure a spot at the more famous lodges, especially during peak seasons when places start filling up months in advance. However, while most safari operators will take internet bookings, making arrangements with anyone other than a well-established midrange or top-end operator can be a risky business. If you’re going for a budget option, you should do your research both in advance and on the ground when you arrive.
If you want to book a safari once in Kenya, allow at least a day to shop around, don’t rush into any deals and steer clear of any attempts of intimidation by touts or dodgy operators. The best way to ensure you get what you pay for is to decide exactly what you want, then visit the various companies in person and talk through the kind of package you’re looking for. Budget travellers should also check out the various hostel choices around Nairobi, as most also organise safaris.
Compared to other countries on the continent, Kenya is not always the cheapest destination for safaris. That said, most safari operator quotes include just about everything, such as park entrance fees, the costs of accommodation or tent rental, transport costs from the starting base to the park, and the costs of fuel plus a driver/guide for wildlife drives. However, this varies enough that it’s essential to clarify before paying. Drinks (whether alcoholic or not) are generally excluded, and budget camping safari prices usually exclude sleeping-bag hire. Prices quoted by agencies or operators usually assume shared (double) room/tent occupancy, with supplements for single occupancy ranging from an additional 20% to 50% of the shared-occupancy rate.
If you’re dealing directly with lodges and tented camps rather than going through a safari operator, you may be quoted ‘all-inclusive’ prices. In addition to accommodation, full board and sometimes park fees, these usually include two ‘activities’ (usually wildlife drives, or sometimes one wildlife drive and one walk) per day, each lasting about two to three hours. They generally exclude transport costs to the park. Whenever accommodation-and-full-board-only prices apply, and unless you have your own vehicle, you’ll need to pay extra to actually go out looking for wildlife, and costs can be considerable.
Most safaris at the lower end of the price range are camping safaris. In order to keep costs to a minimum, groups often camp outside national park areas (thereby saving camping fees) or stay in budget guesthouses outside the park. Budget operators also save costs by working with larger groups to minimise per-person transport costs, and by keeping to a no-frills set-up with basic meals and a minimum number of staff. For most safaris at the budget level, as well as for many midrange safaris, daily kilometre limits are placed on the vehicles.
For any budget safari, the bare minimum cost for a registered company is about US$75 to US$125 per person per day, which should include transport, food (three meals per day), park entry and camping fees, tents and cooking equipment. Sleeping-bag hire will cost you an additional US$10 to US$15 for the duration of the trip.
Most midrange safaris use lodges, where you’ll have a comfortable room and eat in a restaurant. Overall, safaris in this category are reliable and reasonably good value. A disadvantage is that they may have somewhat of a packaged-tour or production-line feel. This can be minimised by selecting a safari company and accommodation carefully, by giving attention to who and how many other people you travel with, and by avoiding the large, popular lodges during peak season.
In high season you’re looking at US$150 to US$250 per person per night (usually full board) for staying in lodges or tented camps, though these prices do drop a bit in the low season.
Private lodges, luxury tented camps and even private fly-in camps are used in top-end safaris, all with the aim of providing guests with as ‘authentic’ and personal a bush experience as possible without forgoing the creature comforts. For the price you pay (from US$250 up to US$600 or more per person per day), expect a full range of amenities, as well as top-quality guiding. Even in remote settings without running water you will be able to enjoy hot, bush-style showers, comfortable beds and fine dining. Also expect a high level of personalised attention and an intimate atmosphere – many places at this level have fewer than 20 beds.
Assuming service has been satisfactory, tipping is an important part of the safari experience, especially to the drivers/guides, cooks and others whose livelihoods depend on tips. Many operators have tipping guidelines, although in general you can expect to tip about US$5 to US$10 per staff member per day from each traveller. This value should increase substantially if you’re on a top-end safari, part of a large group or if an especially good job has been done.
When to Go
Wildlife can be seen at all times of year, but the migration patterns of the big herbivores (which in turn attract the big predators) are likely to be a major factor in deciding when to go. From July to October, huge herds of wildebeest and zebras cross from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara. This is prime viewing time as the land is parched, the vegetation has died back and the animals are obliged to come to drink at the ever-shrinking water holes. Not surprisingly, most safari companies increase their rates at this time.
Birdwatching is especially good from October to March.
The long rains (from March to May) transform the national parks into a lush carpet of greenery. It’s very scenic, but it does provide much more cover for the wildlife to hide behind, and the rain can turn the tracks into impassable mush. It does, of course, depend on the year – we've travelled in Kenya in April and enjoyed both clear skies and low prices. Safaris may be impossible in the lowland parks during this time. Such problems are also possible during the short rains (from October to November), although getting around is rarely a problem.
Most itineraries offered by safari companies fall into one of three loosely defined ‘circuits’, which can all be combined for longer trips. Treks up Mt Kenya are a fourth option, sold separately or as an add-on.
The Mara Circuit
The Southern Circuit
Offered as the main alternative to the Mara, southern itineraries make a beeline for Amboseli National Park and its famous Kilimanjaro backdrop. Anything longer than a three-day trip here should allow you to also visit Tsavo West for a couple of nights, with a couple more days required for Tsavo East as well. Most companies will give you the option of being dropped in Mombasa at the end of this route rather than heading back to Nairobi.
The Northern Circuit
Types of Safaris
Many safari companies offer some kind of birdwatching safari, though the quality is not always up to par for serious birders – if you are one, quiz any prospective companies at length before making a booking. Origins Safaris is one reliable specialist.
A camel safari is a superb way of getting right off the beaten track and into areas where vehicle safaris don’t or can’t go. Most camel safaris go to the Samburu and Turkana tribal areas between Isiolo and Lake Turkana, where you’ll experience nomadic life and mingle with tribal people. Wildlife may also be plentiful, although it’s the journey itself that is the main attraction.
You have the choice of riding the camels or walking alongside them. Most caravans are led by experienced Samburu moran (warriors), and accompanied by English-speaking tribal guides who are well versed in bush lore, botany, ornithology and local customs. Most travelling is done as early as possible in the cool of the day, and a campsite is established around noon. Afternoons are time for relaxing, guided walks and showers before drinks and dinner around the campfire.
All companies provide a full range of camping equipment (generally including two-person tents) and ablution facilities. The typical distance covered each day is 15km to 18km so you don’t have to be superfit to survive this style of safari.
The following companies offer camel safaris of varying lengths:
Few things can match the thrill of waking up in the middle of the African bush with nothing between you and the animals except a sheet of canvas and the dying embers of last night’s fire.
Camping safaris cater for budget travellers, the young (or young at heart) and those who are prepared to put up with a little discomfort to get the authentic bush experience. At the bottom of the price range, you’ll have to forgo luxuries such as flush toilets, running water and cold drinks, and you’ll have to chip in with chores like putting up the tents and helping prepare dinner. Showers are provided at some but not all campsites, although there’s usually a tap where you can scrub down with cold water. The price of your safari will include three meals a day cooked by the camp cook(s), although food will be of the plain-but-plenty variety.
There are more comfortable camping options, where there are extra staff to do all the work, but they cost more. A number of companies have also set up permanent campsites where you can just drop into bed at the end of a dusty day’s drive.
With ecofriendly lodges now springing up all over Kenya, remote population groups are becoming increasingly involved with tourism. There is also a growing number of companies offering cultural safaris, allowing you to interact with locals in a far more personal way than the rushed souvenir stops that the mainstream tours make at Maasai villages. The best of these combine volunteer work with more conventional tour activities and provide accommodation in tents, ecolodges and village houses.
One company that receives consistently good reviews for its cultural safaris is IntoAfrica.
These safaris essentially cater for the well-off who want to fly between remote airstrips in the various national parks and stay in luxury tented camps. If money is no object, you can get around by a mixture of charter and scheduled flights and stay in some of the finest camps in Kenya – arrangements can be made with any of the lodge and tented-camp safari operators.
Lodge & Tented-Camp Safaris
Safari lodges make up the bulk of most safari experiences, ranging from five-star luxury to more simple affairs. In the lodges you can expect rooms with bathrooms or cottages with air-conditioning, international cuisine, a terrace bar beneath a huge makuti (palm-thatched) canopy with wonderful views, a swimming pool, wildlife videos and other entertainment, and plenty of staff on hand to cater for all your requirements. Almost all lodges have a water hole and some have a hidden viewing tunnel that leads right to the waterside.
If you can’t do without luxuries, there’s a whole world of luxurious lodges with swimming pools and bars overlooking water holes, and remote tented camps that recreate the way wealthy hunters travelled around Kenya a century ago. Some of the lodges are beautifully conceived and the locations are to die for, perched high above huge sweeps of savannah or water holes teeming with African wildlife. Most are set deep within the national parks, so the safari drives offer maximum wildlife-viewing time.
The luxury tented camps tend to offer semipermanent tents with fitted bathrooms (hot showers are standard), beds with mosquito nets, proper furniture, fans and gourmet meals served al fresco in the bush. The really exclusive ones are even more luxurious than the lodges and tend to be very expensive.
Operating out of Diani Beach, Fredlink Tours runs motorcycle safaris to the Taita Hills, Rift Valley, Tsavo West and the Kilimanjaro foothills.
Walking & Cycling Safaris
For the keen walker or cyclist, and those who don’t want to spend all their time in a safari minibus, there are a number of options, from short rides to multiday expeditions. In major wildlife areas, the best walking options are in Hell's Gate National Park and the conservancies that surround the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Feature: Don’t hurry
When planning your safari, don’t be tempted to try to fit too much into your itinerary. Distances in Kenya are long, and hopping too quickly from park to park is likely to end with you tired, unsatisfied and feeling that you haven’t even scratched the surface. Try instead to plan longer periods at just one or two parks – exploring in depth what each has to offer and taking advantage of cultural and walking opportunities in park border areas.
Booking a Safari
The service provided by even the best safari companies can vary, depending on the driver, the itinerary, the behaviour of the wildlife, flat tyres and breakdowns and, of course, the attitude of the passengers themselves. We try to recommend some of the better companies, but this shouldn’t take the place of your own hands-on research.
When choosing a safari company, the Kenyan Association of Tour Operators has a list of members. It may not be the most powerful regulatory body in the world, but most reputable safari companies subscribe, and going with a KATO member will give you some recourse in case of conflict.
A DIY safari is a viable and enticing proposition in Kenya. Doing it yourself has several advantages over organised safaris: total flexibility, independence and ability to choose your travelling companions. However, as far as costs go, it’s generally true to say that organising your own safari will cost at least as much, and usually more, than going on an organised safari to the same areas. And you will, of course, need to book your own accommodation well in advance (if you’re staying in lodges or tented camps) or carry your own camping equipment.
Some companies offer camping equipment for rent. Expect to pay from KSh250 per day for a sleeping bag with liner, KSh550 for a two-person dome tent and KSh150 per day for a gas stove (gas canisters are extra). On most items there is a deposit of KSh2000 to KSh4000.
It’s also possible to hire a vehicle and camping equipment as one package. Adventure Upgrade Safaris is one such operator.
DIY Safari Companies
We recommend all of the following local companies. Most are focused on renting vehicles, but they may be able to make some arrangements on your behalf and/or provide camping equipment for an additional cost.
Choosing a driver can almost be as important as choosing a safari company – they will, after all, be your constant companion throughout the trip – and there are some travellers who base their visit around the availability of certain drivers. In most cases, the drivers will make the necessary vehicle arrangements, and some will double as guides, fixers and interpreters.
Drivers we recommend include the following:
Feature: Guide Accreditation
A good indicator of any guide’s level of expertise and experience is the accreditation system run by the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association (www.safariguides.org). It isn’t perfect, but all applicants must sit for an exam to progress to the next level and it remains a fairly effective system. A full (although not always updated) list of accredited guides can be found on the website.
- Bronze: basic knowledge of guiding and wildlife
- Silver: advanced knowledge of guiding and wildlife, and at least three years’ experience
- Gold: the elite, with (at last count) just 27 in the whole country
Feature: Beating Safari Scams
Every year we get emails from readers complaining about bad experiences on safari, from dodging park fees and ignoring client requests, to pure rip-offs and outright criminal behaviour. For the most part, these incidents are perpetrated by Nairobi’s budget companies, which shave every possible corner to keep their costs down.
A persistent feature of Kenya’s safari scene are the street touts, who will approach you almost as soon as you step out of your hotel in the streets of Nairobi and Mombasa. They’re not all bad guys, and the safari you end up with may be fine, but you’ll pay a mark-up to cover their commission.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to take your time with your booking. Talk to travellers, do as much research as possible, insist on setting out every detail of your trip in advance, don’t be pressured into anything and don’t pay any substantial amounts of cash up front. If in doubt, think seriously about stretching your budget to use a reputable midrange firm. And even though we recommend some operators, satisfaction is by no means guaranteed whoever you go with.
Of course, we receive plenty of positive feedback as well, so don’t let potential problems put you off. Indeed, wildlife safaris can be utterly unforgettable experiences for all the right reasons, so it’s certainly worth making the effort to book one – just keep your wits about you.
A balloon trip in and around the Masai Mara is a superb way of seeing the savannah and its animals. The almost ghostly experience of floating silently above the plains with a 360-degree view of everything beneath you is incomparable, and it’s definitely worth the considerable outlay; prices start at around US$400 per person.
The flights typically set off at dawn and go for about 1½ hours, after which you put down for a champagne breakfast. You will then be taken on a wildlife drive in a support vehicle and returned to your lodge.
Climbing & Mountaineering
Kenya isn’t particularly well known for its rock climbing, but that’s more to do with a lack of infrastructure rather than a lack of suitable places.
One useful resource is the Mountain Club of Kenya in Nairobi. Members have a huge pool of technical knowledge about climbing in Kenya. Savage Wilderness Safaris offers organised and customised walking, climbing and mountaineering trips, including climbs up Mt Kenya.
Where to Climb
Cycling & Mountain Biking
If you’re just after a trundle rather than some serious cycling, many local companies and accommodation places around the country (particularly campgrounds) can arrange bicycle hire. Prices generally start at KSh500 to KSh1200 per day, but always check the quality of the bike as standards vary wildly. The only national park where you're allowed to cycle is Hell's Gate National Park.
An increasing number of companies offer more serious cycling trips in Kenya – try Rift Valley Adventures. Expect to pay around US$120 to US$150 per day.
Where to Cycle
Diving & Snorkelling
The Kenyan coast promises some of the best diving and snorkelling in Africa beyond the Red Sea. In addition to myriad fish species and colourful coral, charismatic marine mammals – including dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and humpback whales (August to October) – also frequent these waters.
There is a number of professional dive centres on the coast. If you aren’t certified to dive, almost every hotel and resort can arrange an open-water diving course. They’re not much cheaper (if at all) than anywhere else in the world – a five-day PADI certification course starts at around US$470. Two tank dives for certified divers go for around US$100, including equipment and transport.
When to Dive & Snorkel
There are distinct seasons for diving in Kenya. October to March is the best time.
From June to August it’s often impossible to dive due to the poor visibility caused by the heavy silt flow from some rivers. That said, some divers have taken the plunge in July and found visibility to be a very respectable 7m to 10m, although 4m is more common.
Where to Dive & Snorkel
There is a string of marine national parks spread out along the coast between Shimoni and Malindi. As a general rule, these are the best places to dive and snorkel, and the better marine parks are those further away from Mombasa.
The Kenya Fisheries Department operates a number of fishing camps in various parts of the country and also issues mandatory fishing licences. Ask your accommodation or safari operator to help make the arrangements.
Where to Fish
The deep-sea fishing on the coast is some of the best in the world, and various private companies and resorts in the following places can arrange fishing trips. Boats cost US$250 to US$500 and can usually fit four or five anglers. The season runs from August to April.
Gliding & Flying
Flying lessons are easily arranged in Nairobi and are much more affordable than in Europe, the USA and Australasia. Scenic flights include trips on the plane that appeared in Out of Africa at Segera Retreat, and flying safaris at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Campi ya Kanzi, between Amboseli and Tsavo in the southeast, can also arrange scenic flights and flying safaris.
Kenya has some of the best trekking trails in East Africa, ranging from strenuous mountain ascents to rolling-hill country and forests. It is, of course, always worth checking out the prevailing security situation in the area you wish to trek, not to mention the prevalence of any wild animals you might encounter along the trail. In some instances, it may be advisable to take a local guide, either from the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) if they operate in the area, or a local village guide.
Where to Trek
The following places are all good for proper mountain trekking in varying degrees of difficulty:
- Mt Kenya
- Mt Elgon National Park
- Mt Longonot
- Cherangani Hills
- Loita Hills
- Aberdare National Park
- Ndoto Mountains
For forest hiking, we especially like the following:
Useful Trekking Resources
For more trekking information, get hold of a copy of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in East Africa; it may be out of print but remains the definitive guide to trekking the region.
Among the operators we recommend, consider Savage Wilderness Safaris, which offers trekking around the country, Samburu Trails Trekking Safaris for the Rift Valley, and Maasai Trails, which runs cultural trekking in the Masai Mara's Loita Hills.
Responsible Trekking & Climbing
Help preserve the ecology and beauty of Kenya by following responsible trekking best practice.
- Carry out all your rubbish.
- Never bury rubbish: digging disturbs soil and ground cover and encourages erosion. Buried rubbish will likely be dug up by animals, which may be injured or poisoned by it.
- Minimise waste by taking minimal packaging and no more food than you will need. Take reusable containers or stuff sacks.
- Sanitary napkins, tampons, condoms and toilet paper should be carried out despite the inconvenience. They burn and decompose poorly.
Human Waste Disposal
- Where there is a toilet, please use it. Where there is none, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm deep and at least 100m from any watercourse. Cover the waste with soil and a rock.
- Don’t use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable.
- For personal washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container at least 50m away from the watercourse. Disperse the waste water widely to allow the soil to filter it fully.
- Wash cooking utensils 50m from watercourses using a scourer, sand or snow instead of detergent.
- Stick to existing tracks and avoid short cuts.
- If a well-used track passes through a mud patch, walk through the mud so as not to increase the size of the patch.
Fires & Low-Impact Cooking
- Don’t depend on open fires for cooking. Cook on a lightweight kerosene, alcohol or shellite (white gas) stove and avoid those powered by disposable butane-gas canisters.
- Ensure that you fully extinguish a fire after use.
- Place gear out of reach and tie packs to rafters or trees.
- Do not feed the wildlife as this can lead to animals becoming dependent on handouts.
Personal Trekking Equipment Checklist
- Sturdy hiking boots
- A good-quality sleeping bag – at high altitude (such as Mt Kenya), nights can be bitterly cold and the weather can turn nasty at short notice
- Warm clothing, including a jacket, jersey (sweater) or anorak (windbreaker) that can be added or removed
- A sleeping sheet and a warm but lightweight sleeping bag
- A sturdy but lightweight tent
- Mosquito repellent
- A lightweight stove
- Trousers for walking, preferably made from breathing, waterproof (and windproof) material such as Gore-Tex
- Air-filled sleeping pad
- Swiss Army knife
- Torch (flashlight) or headlamp with extra batteries
Kilifi, Mtwapa and Mombasa all have sailing clubs, and smaller freshwater clubs can also be found at Lake Naivasha and Lake Victoria, which both have excellent windsurfing and sailing. If you’re experienced, you may pick up some crewing at the yacht clubs; you’ll need to become a temporary member.
While rarely hands-on, a traditional dhow trip out of Lamu is an unforgettable sailing experience.
Conditions on Kenya’s coast are ideal for windsurfing – the country’s offshore reefs protect the waters, and the winds are usually reasonably strong and constant. Most resort hotels south and north of Mombasa have sailboards for hire. Further north, the sheltered channel between Lamu and Manda Islands is one of the best places for windsurfing on the coast.
Kitesurfing is also possible at Diani Beach and Malindi.
Where to Windsurf
The most exciting times for a whitewater rafting trip are from late October to mid-January and from early April to late July, when water levels are highest.
Where to Go Rafting
The Athi/Galana River has substantial rapids, chutes and waterfalls and there are also possibilities on the Tana River and Ewaso Ngiro River near Isiolo.
- Best Ballooning
Head to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Western Kenya – the best season is July to October.
- Best Mountaineering
Scale the heights in Mt Kenya National Park in the Central Highlands from June to October.
- Best Diving & Snorkelling
The Lamu archipelago's Manda Toto Island is the best option, from October to March.
- Best Mountain Trekking
- Best Cultural Trekking
Hike with Maasai Trails in Loita Hills in the Masai Mara. The best time is from June to February.
- Best Windsurfing
Try the Lamu and Manda Islands from December to March.
- Best for Water Sports
Diani Beach, south of Mombasa, is great year-round.
Planning Your Trip
When to Go
Kenya is a fantastic year-round activities destination, with one important exception: we generally recommend that you avoid the long rains, which run from sometime in March (or later) through to May. At this time trails (and access roads) can be impassable, and underwater visibility is generally poorer. The shorter rains in October and November tend to be more localised and heavy downpours rarely last longer than an hour or two. These ‘short rains’ (as they’re known locally) will rarely disrupt your plans to get active.
What to Take
There are few requirements for most activities. Operators who organise whitewater rafting and other similar sports will provide the necessary equipment; bicycles and mountain bikes can be rented in Kenya, but serious cyclists and bikers may want to bring their own. Most hikers head out onto the trail under their own steam (good boots are a must), but even those who plan on joining an organised hike with a guide will usually need to bring their own equipment.
Sagana: Kenya's Adventure Capital
When it comes to adventure tourism in Kenya, thrill-seeking travellers have for decades had few options. Until now. Around 100km north of Nairobi, the small town of Sagana is emerging as a major adventure-sports centre to rival Jinja in neighbouring Uganda or Swakopmund in Namibia in southern Africa. Much of it revolves around one company, the excellent Savage Wilderness Safaris, which offers whitewater rafting, rock and mountain climbing, kayaking and mountain biking.
Whitewater rafting, a particular specialty, takes place on the Tana, Athi and Mathioya Rivers. Depending on water levels, rafting trips start from four to five hours, but longer trips (450km, three weeks’ duration) are also possible; most trips last one to four days and cover up to 80km.
Its headquarters are 6km north of the Embu–Meru junction (or around 12km south of Sagana) along the main Nairobi–Nanyuki road.