The phantom 'boat tour boys' who disappeared with your down payment have mostly evaporated thanks to the Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association, which ensures business is fairly distributed among local guides. Do not hire guides who cannot produce a copy of the association's price list or prove their membership.
Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association
All guides registered with the Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association work to a set price list and circulate at different resorts along the beach on a regular basis, so it's more than likely you'll be softly approached by one within an hour or two of arrival. Note that the association excludes entrance fees to Lake Malawi National Park from its prices. Most tours and activities have a minimum of three people (you can pay the difference if there are only one or two of you).
Guides registered with the Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association can organise a number of half- and full-day trips involving snorkelling. For example, trips to Thumbi Island West cost around US$40 per person including food, snorkel hire and fish-eagle feeding.
If you prefer to go snorkelling on your own, many places rent gear (rates start at about US$10 per day, or US$5 per half-day, but check the quality of your mask). Otter Point is a small rocky peninsula and nearby islet that's popular with snorkellers and even more so with fish. You may even see otters here.
If you prefer to stay on top of the water, lodges including the Funky Cichlid rent out kayaks for around US$20 per day, or US$10 per half-day. Guides registered with the Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association offer canoe trips for US$25 per person including lunch.
Guides registered with the Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association can arrange a number of boat trips to the islands and/or Otter Point for US$35 to US$50 per person including food, snorkel hire and fish-eagle feeding. Sunset booze cruises are also popular and cost around US$25 per person, including fish-eagle feeding but not drinks.
There’s a range of hikes and walks in the hills. Entry into the national park is US$10, which you can pay at the Lake Malawi National Park Headquarters or the nearby gate, and the rate for a Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association guide is US$15 per person. It's better to hire a guide.
The main path starts by the Missionary Graves and leads up through woodland to a col below Nkhunguni Peak, the highest on the Nankumba peninsula, with great views over Cape Maclear, the lake and surrounding islands. It’s six hours return to the summit; plenty of water and a good sun hat are essential.
Another interesting place to visit on foot is Mwala Wa Mphini (Rock of the Tribal Face Scars), which is just off the main dirt road into Cape Maclear, about 5km from the Lake Malawi National Park Headquarters. This huge boulder is covered in lines and patterns that seem to have been gouged by long-forgotten artists but are simply a natural geological formation.