Photo Courtesy of Jason Florio
In some ways, visiting Kenya is like coming home. Described as the “cradle of mankind,” it is here that some of the earliest humans were born. Our long-lost ancestors traipsed the arid, desert scrubland of northern Kenya doing what our species does best: adventuring far and wide. It's that same adve…nturous spirit this vast and varied country inspires in its modern-day visitors. Wild and fiercely beautiful in places, vibrant and fast developing in others, Kenya is filled with experiences to delight every traveler: arguably the best safaris in Africa; terra-cotta sunsets astonishing enough to make you weep; white-water rafting and quad biking for adrenaline addicts; hot-air balloon riding and dhow boat sailing for more peaceful pioneers. Through the golden grasslands of the Masai Mara, past the towering peaks of Mount Kenya, to the soft, sugary sands of the Kenyan coast, this is a country that demands to be explored.
What to know before you go to Kenya
There’s not really a bad time to come to Kenya, as even in the rainy seasons (April, May, and November) the days are still predominantly sunny, with rain showers only in the evenings or early mornings. The rains also encourage lots of wildlife to come out and munch on the luscious grasslands, so if safari is your main agenda then coming at a wetter time of year is not a bad idea. If the thought of rain sends shivers down your spine, aim for the dry season: July to October and January to February. Although temperatures vary significantly across the country—hot and humid at the coast, hot and windy in the north, cooler in Nairobi and the highlands, and drier and hotter as you head toward the Tanzanian border—these temperatures stay roughly the same all year.
International flights arrive at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, about 20 minutes drive from central Nairobi. It’s now possible to purchase your visa in advance online for most nationalities, but you can also buy it on arrival if necessary. Check out the eVisa portal for more information. Do note, however, that getting the visa on arrival takes a whole page of your passport, whereas getting online in advance it’s just a small stamp at the border.
There’s a number of ways to get around Kenya. If you’d like to self-drive, you can organise a rental car from Jomo Kenyatta Airport with Europcar. For taxis in and around Nairobi, download the Uber app to your smartphone, or try the Little Cab app, a Kenyan-only Uber competitor. You can fly around the country using small charter flights with Safarilink and Air Kenya, which take off from Nairobi Wilson airport. If you’re booking a safari or tour your booking operator will often be able to arrange flights for you. Another great airline for getting around the country is Fly540, especially if you’re heading to the Kenyan coast.
Kenya has a colorful and varied food scene, with influences from across the globe—including spicy dishes brought over by the Indian community, pineapples and chilis from Brazil brought by the Portuguese, and European vegetables and fruits. That’s without mentioning traditional Kenyan foods: staples such as ugali (like rice, but made from maize flour), sukuma wiki (a leafy green vegetable that’s a little tougher than spinach), and beans are the most commonly eaten foods in Kenya. Nairobi has a surprising array of excellent restaurants offering everything from Thai food, to gourmet burgers, to stone-baked pizzas.
Kenya’s cultural heritage is particularly vibrant. There are a huge range of tribes here: from the colorful, beautifully adorned Maasai warriors in the south to the bejeweled Samburu tribesmen and women in the north, to name just two. Village visits can be arranged to meet the tribes and see traditional ways of life. In the Marsabit region, take a trip to the Singing Wells. Locals take their cattle there everyday and sing as they form a human chain to scoop water from the well to the trough. In Nairobi, visit the Nairobi National Museum to see the early human fossils, and check out the Maasai Market to pick up some local Kenyan handicrafts (although beware, some of the goods on sale are knock-offs made in China).
In Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, there’s always a huge range of festivals and events going on, from live music to thrift markets. For the most up-to-date information about what’s happening there, try Kenya Buzz (a local events website) or EatOut for the latest information on restaurants and bars. Further afield, Kenya has a number of annual events worth attending. The Lake Turkana Festival, held on the shores of the lake in Loiyangalani each year, is a colorful celebration that brings together local tribes, while the Lamu Yoga Festival is a chance to find your bliss on the beach. Athletes should check out the annual Lewa Marathon, with the chance to jog past zebra and antelope on a nature conservancy, while petrol heads should explore Rhino Charge, an off-road motorsport competition that raises money for conservation each year.
Kenyans are a friendly people with an excellent sense of humor. Tourism is a huge part of the country's income—as such, tourists are made to feel very welcome here. Local languages spoken are English and Swahili. Phrases you'll hear include jambo (hello), habari? (how are you?), asante sana (thank you very much), and karibu (welcome). Learning a few Swahili words is highly recommended—even though English is widely spoken, it always delights locals to hear visitors having a go. The local currency is the Kenyan shilling. It's usually easiest to get cash on arrival in Kenya as there are plenty of cash machines in Nairobi and a couple at Jomo Kenyatta airport. Credit cards are widely accepted in Nairobi, but if you're heading out of town, take some cash.
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Harriet Constable is a freelance journalist specialising in travel, conservation, and development. She writes for the The Times, Financial Times, NPR, Wanderlust, SUITCASE Magazine, and more. She also co-authored the updated Rough Guide to Kenya. Currently based in Nairobi, her travels have taken her to every continent on earth.