Good News and Bad News
This post on the Ups and Downs of Backpacking in Kenya is only Part 1 of our 4-Part Kickin' it in Kenya Series. Don't miss Our 7 Favorite Foods and Experiences, Action-Packed 24-Hour Nairobi Itinerary, and 3 Awesome Days of Things to Do in Lamu.
Which do you want first about backpacking in Kenya: the good news or the bad news?
Hopefully you said bad news, cuz that's what you're getting.
The bad news is that Kenya is not an easy budget travel destination. Of the many countries we’ve backpacked in, it would have to rank closer to the bottom.
But now the good news:
Anyone can have an amazing time backpacking in Kenya and come away thinking its the among the best travel destinations on earth. All they'd have to do is avoid some of the mistakes we made, minimize the following bad news and instead maximize the good news.
✓ Good News: The Food is Healthy
Kim and I were so concerned about the purportedly unhealthy food in Kenya that we actually considered bringing multivitamins as supplements. Good thing we didn't, because those concerns were totally unfounded!
Everywhere we went, we were able to get plenty of fresh, nutritious veggies (mostly boiled greens). Even a vegetarian wouldn’t have too hard a time traveling here.
Aside from the abundance of greens, we were pleasantly surprised by the freshness of the food. Since refrigeration is a challenge in most of Kenya, most of the food we had (especially the meat) came from nearby, locally farmed sources.
✗ Bad News: The Food is Monotonous
When even Kim is adding spicy sauce, “pili pili” as they call it, to every dish just so it can have some semblance of flavor and spice, you know you have a problem.
Most of the local food we had consisted of some over-cooked meat, a bland starch, beans, and boiled greens. No spices, not even salt in some cases, are added. Nutritious? Yes. Delicious? No.
There is flavorful food to be found, but only at much more expensive restaurants. And since backpacking in Kenya is expensive enough, we decided sot sacrifice on flavor in favor of saving money.
✓ Good News: Getting Around Is Cheap
- An 20 min Uber ride might cost $2.
- A flight from Lamu (definitely worth visiting) to Malindi is as low as $25.
- The sparkling new train between Mombassa and Nairobi is only $7.
- A one hour matatu (shared mini-van) is as low as $1.
✗ Bad News: Getting Around Is a Nightmare
It is actually terrifying.
The quality of the roads is often treacherous, but the biggest source of terror is the complete disregard most Kenyan drivers have for all rules of the road intended to keep us safe. For example, on two-lane highways, cars will regularly veer into the oncoming lane to pass, whether or not a car is coming the other way or not. Any oncoming car is expected to pull off into the shoulder to avoid collision. It's not fun at all.
Not only that, traffic in the cities and main highways is horrible beyond description. It is an absolute utter shit-show. Google Maps can't even figure it out. Their travel time estimates are completely useless. For instance, we hit a two-day-long pileup on the Nairobi-Mombassa highway and the whole time Google said the road was clear.
✓ Good News: Cell Service Is Cheap and Reliable
Just about everywhere we went we had good cell reception, and data packages were very reasonably priced at about $10 for 3 GB.
✗ Bad News: Internet Speeds Suck
Even at our friends’ high end apartments in Nairobi (a.k.a. Naiboring), internet speeds were agonizingly slow. Forget streaming Netflix; even downloading podcasts took forever.
✓ Good News: Planning What to Pack Is Easy
Pack light because even in higher altitudes the weather’s generally nice. Rains, when they do come, are intermittent and followed by sun.
And don’t worry if you forgot something because on just about any street corner you can find decent quality used clothing that’ll cost you next to nothing. Just donate it back once you're done with it. Kim did this in Lamu, where we spent more days than we planned and she ran out of culturally appropriate clothing.
✗ Bad News: Planning Anything Else Is Super Challenging
Good information on backpacking in Kenya is incredibly hard to come by. Not only are there no tourist offices at all, barely anyone seems to have written about budget travel in Kenya online.
Aside from doing safaris (which definitely aren’t budget-friendly) we faced a constant struggle to figure out what to do, where to go, what to eat, and where to sleep.
✓ Good News: Getting Off The Beaten Path is Easy
Aside from the Distant Relatives hostel in Kilifi, Shela in Lamu, and the big national parks, wherever we went we were the only tourists around and were able to experience authentic and untainted local experiences all to ourselves.
✗ Bad News: Getting Off the Beaten Path is Troublesome
More often than not, when Kim and I ventured too far off the beaten track, is was us that got beaten down instead.
We’d find ourselves spending hours going down horrible roads only to end up at an unrewarding dead end. In other countries, getting “lost” like this leads to memorable experiences, but while backpacking in Kenya our experiences doing so were mostly forgettable and sometimes regrettable.
We'd also stick out like sore thumbs wherever we went because of our light skin. Kim and I sometimes got so exhausted by all the attention this brought us that we'd hide out in our rooms and get takeout.
✓ Good News: Services Are Dirt Cheap
Getting someone to do your laundry, tailor your clothes, cook you food, give you a massage, or whatever is guaranteed to be very affordable.
When we were stuck at the station waiting for our train from Mombassa to Nairobi, we got the guy who bought us our tickets to motorbike into town, pick up some food for us, and bring it back for only $1. You won’t be pestered for a tip either.
✗ Bad News: You’ll Be Milked For Every Dollar You Have
This was probably the thing that bugged us the most while backpacking in Kenya.
- Policemen will pull us over, look for some leverage to get money out of us, and even when they don’t find anything they’ll ask us for money anyways. If you're patient and friendly, you can get away without paying, but it's a pain nonetheless.
- If somewhere’s worth going to, count on there being an extraordinarily high fee for tourists. National parks cost up to $80 per day to visit, we had to pay $20 each just to go in the water to go snorkelling in Watamu, and even a local park in Nairobi, Karura, costed $6 to enter.
- Whenever we ate at local places the server would invariably "miscalculate" the final bill. We'd then have to point out their "mistakes" and negotiate a bit until they'd eventually apologize and correct the bill.
And the list goes on. Not only is it draining on the wallet, it's draining mentally.
✓ Good News: Almost Everyone Speaks English
All signs are in English and almost everybody speaks the language reasonably well. Being able to communicate with anybody definitely makes backpacking in Kenya a more culturally enriching experience.
✗ Bad News: Many Will Use Their English to Hassle You
Being able to interact with anyone means anyone can interact with you too. And they will. While many of these interactions were purely friendly, too many involved people trying to get money from us.
We too often felt less like welcome visitors and more like piles of money to be taken for all we're worth.
Backpacking in Kenya: It's Up to You!
Backpacking in Kenya can absolutely be an awesome and unforgettable experience. It just takes a bit more work and planning than most other destinations.
If you plan a solid itinerary beforehand and take care to minimize the downsides, you'll have a great time. If not, you may regret not having chosen to go elsewhere instead.
Either way, the one thing I guarantee is that it’ll be an adventure!
Complete the Series
Get more tips for your Kenya backpacking trip from the three other posts in our 4-part Kickin' it in Kenya series: