Just a little fun fact about me before we dive in: in 2013 I sold all of my belongings (which was especially one bag and a car) to buy a one-way ticket to Kenya, where I lived for a year while I built out my first non-profit.
Wild, isn’t it?
That being said, I’m not saying I’m a Kenya expert at all. I was working pretty non-stop while I was there, and my experience is also dated. However, I have been back to Kenya many times in the last decade for both work and play. Which is why I’m confident my tips will be helpful for you planning your next trip.
Why visit Kenya?
Look, I know I say this every time I write a travel blog post, but seriously….Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The landscape is incredibly diverse- you’ve got mountains, beaches, deserts, and valleys- as well as abundant wildlife, kind people, and rich culture.
Kenya is also quite accessible, with the most major airport in the nation’s capital, Nairobi. In fact, if you’re planning on traveling around East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, etc.), then you’ll likely get your major international flight in and out of Nairobi.
Which is all the more reason to go!
Is Kenya expensive?
This is a great destination for all kinds of travelers: from shoestring backpackers, to bougie honeymooners. There’s really something for everyone.
Like many African countries (at least all of the ones I’ve been to, and I’ve been to 12!), there’s not a huge range of mid-price options. Well, I should say, there are mid-price options, but you might be surprised that $200/night on a hotel room doesn’t actually offer all that much. Like the economy and society, there’s a stark contrast between the low and high end of places to stay- and the middle part is a little bit of a gray area.
Can you backpack Kenya on a tight budget? Absolutely.
Is it an affordable family vacation or honeymoon spot? Not really.
The luxury in Kenya is true luxury. They don’t mess around, and truly pull out all the stops. However, just know that a trip like that will be thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars.
How to navigate Kenya with a midrange budget:
To all of my in-betweeners out there (like us), don’t worry. I have a few tips for you to consider to make your stay more affordable, as well as comfortable.
First things first, one of the biggest new additives to Kenya since my first time there in 2012 is Airbnb. Like most places, Airbnb opens up a whole new range of options. Many of which fall in the midrange budget.
You also have the perk of reviews, which I highly recommend reading before booking. And, Airbnb has really great customer service, and even offers refunds with certain circumstances if you’re unhappy with your stay, Whereas many local hotels do not.
Food will be one of the least expensive parts of your travels, so there’s no need to skimp in this department. Local food is delicious (get a fresh baked chapati off the streets, and you’ll know what I mean), and is super affordable.
If you are parked up in an Airbnb with a kitchen for a few days, it’s also fun to hit up the local market to cook a few of your own meals, too. Buying food from the market is really inexpensive. Just make sure you have cash 🙂
Chances are, you’re in Kenya because you want to see some animals. And you will. Don’t worry. However, park entrance fees are one of the priciest parts of Africa in general. And there’s really no getting around it.
My suggestion would be this: instead of spending money on seeing multiple small parks all over the country (like Lake Nakuru or Hells Gate), use the funds you have to spend 3-7 days in one of the bigger parks (like Ol Pejeta or Maasai Mara). This will ensure you see all of the animals. Plus, you’ll save on the transport between locations.
Some of the smaller parks are beautiful and peaceful, but you won’t see much more than you would’ve seen just driving down the road anyways. Better to save those small fees on a bigger park investment, instead.
Where to visit in Kenya
Now that I’ve gotten you all excited about parks and animals and food, let’s chat about where the heck you should even go. Then you can get to planning!
Look, you’ll land in Nairobi, so you might as well stay there for a night or two to get the travel off of you before you jump into your real Kenyan adventure. Nairobi is a huge, sprawling city that has some surprisingly quiet and green pockets interspersed throughout.
If you forgot to pack anything, or your toiletries got seized by TSA, this is the place to stock up on all of your needs before you head into more remote areas.
Next, check out a Maasai Market! These markets are traveling, so I can’t tell you the set location during the time you’ll be there. But you can either Google it, or ask your Airbnb host/front desk person. The Maasai Market has tons of beautiful handcrafted goods from Maasai people. But, even if you don’t want to buy anything- the colors, sounds, and sights are a true Kenya experience.
Many people do a Kibera tour when they’re in Nairobi. Kibera is the second largest slum in Africa, home to millions of people. I actually worked there for a few months. Which is why I’d recommend not doing a tour. I call it a human safari. And it sounds as weird as it actually is.
After your few days of refresh in Nairobi, it’s time to make your way into nature! The Rift Valley is near and dear to my heart, as I lived there for a long while.
Hells Gate National Park is the park in which Lion King was inspired by. You can see Pride Rock, and everything! It’s only about 90 minutes from Nairobi, which is a nice comfortable start to your safari experience.
The bike ride through Hell’s Gate is gorgeous, and a fun family activity for everyone. I will say there wasn’t a ton of wildlife when we went, but it was still cool to ride bikes alongside zebras. Our tour guide was hilarious, and super sweet, too.
After Hell’s Gate, you can hit up Lake Naivasha National Park for a quick boat ride in a lake full of hippos. These two parks are right next to each other (they’re both in Naivasha), so you can easily do them both in one day.
Other than hippos, there’s not a lot of wildlife to see at Lake Naivasha. At least while we were there.
Wait, no, I take that back. There’s a ton of birds. I’m just not a bird nerd, so I didn’t even take that into account. If you’re a birder, then go! Naivasha is actually known for its diverse bird population.
Lake Nakuru National Park
Oh Nakuru, the memories I hold in this place are unforgettable. I actually had my first apartment here, where I could oversee Lake Nakuru National Park while I sat at my desk. It’s only about 45 minutes from Naivasha, so you can hop right over, no problem.
Lake Nakuru National Park is bigger than Lake Naivasha, with more abundant wildlife. The most popular one being (drumroll please):
We love to see rhinos in the wild, because these poor little guys are dwindling fast. This is a main attraction for people to go to Lake Nakuru, as the park is only about 2 – 2.5 hours from Nairobi.
If you’re only planning on going to the Maasai Mara, you will not see rhinos there. They don’t live there, at ALL. Lake Nakuru is a much more affordable option to seeing rhinos in the wild, as opposed to Ol Pejeta- which is another more major park.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Another favorite (am I going to say this about every place?), because I’ve led multiple retreats here over the years.
This is a place to go see the big five animals of Africa: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, African buffalo. But that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. There’s also cheetahs, giraffes, gazelles, warthogs, hyenas, hippos, and so much more.
I highly recommend staying at The Safari Cottages if you want to have the most incredible stay imaginable. It’s a family-owned business nestled in the bush of the most incredible wildlife (think elephants and giraffes visiting you for your morning tea), while still being fully remote and disconnected in the bush. The staff is wonderful. The rooms are more than comfortable. And the FOOD. Let’s just say, you won’t go hungry.
Ol Pejeta is also known for its rhino conservation efforts, so you will definitely see rhinos there. They also have a Jane Goodall conservancy for chimpanzees within Ol Pejeta, as well.
Best of all, Ol Pejeta is only about 4 hours from Nairobi. I know that’s still a bit of a trek, but it’s nothing compared to getting to the Maasai Mara.
If you want to get more activity in post-safari, then Mount Kenya is just outside of the conservancy just waiting to be climbed.
Maasai Mara National Park
Everyone has heard of the Mara, right? It’s definitely the most famous place in Kenya, known for its seemingly endless park parameters stretching endlessly into the East African horizon.
The terrain is exactly how you’d think of Africa- vast, arid, and chalk full of animals.
Because the Maasai Mara is such a hotspot, the prices definitely reflect as much. The good news is that there are more midrange options popping up in the last decade, which make it more accessible to those of us who can’t go full luxe. Usually that means staying just outside of the Park, and driving in every day. Which isn’t the end of the world, at all.
This is the place to go to see the big five animals, and so much more. It’s not just about the diversity that you see, but really the quantity. There’s just so many animals. It’s stunning.
Highly recommend going during the Great Migration months (June to October) to see more zebras and wildebeests than you can even begin to wrap your mind around. If zebras and wildebeests don’t excite you, just think that about their predators. When there’s lots of food running around, the big cats come out to play.
The biggest downfall of the Maasai Mara is that it’s far from your point of entry in Nairobi. It will take about 8 hours to get there. You can, of course, charter planes- but that comes with a hefty price tag.
Now that you’ve seen all the animals your little heart could desire, any maybe even climbed Mount Kenya, it’s time to hit the beach. Most people don’t think of beaches when they think of Kenya. But I can tell you with certainty, Kenya had the best snorkeling and beaches that I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.
Many people have heard of Zanzibar, and know it to have that endless stretch of white sand with turquoise water. Kenya is the same. Honestly, I’d argue it’s better.
Because it’s less touristy! Less traffic going through keeps things authentic, and also keeps the sea life more abundant.
Diani Beach is my favorite pocket of the Mombasa coastline, because of the food, people, and sleepy seaside vibes. It’s much quieter and less hectic than neighboring beach towns, with plenty of beach front hotels to stay in for reasonable prices.
It is a bit of a trek. This will be about 10 hours from Nairobi. Yikes! Although you can also opt to fly in, instead. I did the overnight bus route, because then I just slept the whole way through. I’d recommend that.
I’d suggest starting with the adventure stuff- animals, safaris, bikes, and hikes- and then transitioning to beach life.
The salt water is the best way to rinse off all that dust you’ll have accumulated along the way.