Home  | 

Add new content to Overview!
Introduction

Kenya is a haven for travelers, and for good reason. The country offers a diverse array of activities, from relaxation on the stunning beaches of Diani to some of Africa's best game watching in Maasai Mara. Facilitating this travel is Nairobi, East Africa's largest city, which offers excellent options for accommodation, dining, entertainment, safaris and onward travel within Kenya. Of course, staying with families to experience Kenyan lifestyle is also encouraged and welcome. In the early years of the country's independence, the government focused on developing Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a decision that has paid off. Today, the airport is the hub of East African air travel and is served by numerous international carriers. The country's population is 37 million. About 80 percent of the population practices Christianity, 10 percent follow Islam and the remainder adheres to other beliefs. Kiswahili and English are the country's official languages.

Nairobi is a city of contrasts, and it will most likely be a starting point of a trip to Kenya (It is also free of malaria, due to its high altitude. If you know you will staying exclusively within the city on your trip, you will not need malaria medication. If you will be leaving the city, however, prophylaxis is a must.) It is home to between 2 and 3 million people, and here, Africa's tallest skyscrapers loom over the continent's biggest slums. Perhaps this city, more than some others in the region, highlights severe income disparity. Downtown, you will find opulent hotels, such as the Nairobi Hilton, the Intercontinental, and the Nairobi Serena. Bars, restaurants and clubs such as Carnivore, Club Soundd, K1 and Trattoria will keep you well-fed and awake long into the night. But this luxury coexists with extreme poverty. Kibera, by some estimates Africa's biggest slum and the subject of the film The Constant Gardener, sprawls outside city center and is home to roughly 1 million people. Mathare, another major Nairobi slum, has been engulfed by violence in recent months following massive police crackdowns on suspected gang members. The residents of these areas are not officially recognized by the government, and government services do not make it into the slums. Running water, public schools and sanitation are extremely lacking ? some estimates say that as many as 50 percent of Nairobi's residents do not have access to running water.

Nairobi is a large city, but many parts are walkable ? if you have the nerve to deal with chaotic traffic and drivers who will not consider for a second stopping to let you cross the road. That is, actually, a more general point about traveling in Kenya: It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world with regards to road accidents, and road transport poses one of the biggest threats to travelers (and residents, too ? road-related incidents are the third-leading cause of death in Kenya, behind only Aids and malaria.) While traveling anywhere in the country, always use a seatbelt. Traffic laws are ill-enforced in the country overall, but in Nairobi the police set up road blocks at night, stopping vehicles at random for searches. If you are found without a seatbelt on, expect to pay a bribe and/or be threatened with jail and a court date. The same goes for when riding in matatus, Kenya's ubiquitous minivans that serve as public service vehicles. They are cheap, convenient, noisy and sure to be a wild ride, but again, buckle up: These ?menaces of the road,? as one transportation official called them, account for a disproportionate amount of Kenya's road carnage.

In addition to being a hub for travelers, Nairobi is also the center of many diplomatic missions and international organizations. The U.N. has its regional headquarters here, and for several years the U.S. embassy in Nairobi was the world's biggest. It is a bit out of the way, though, as it was rebuilt outside city center following the 1998 bombings here and in Dar es Salaam. Security is very high at the embassy, and should you need to enter it make sure to bring a passport. In downtown Nairobi, at the junction of Moi Avenue and Haile Selassie Avenue, you will find the August 7 Memorial Park, the site of the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the American embassy that killed 218 people. Today the park is peaceful and serene, a respectful memorial to the lives lost and a place to reflect on the tragedy. Sitting in the park today, it is difficult to believe you are still in the bustling downtown of a major city; it is even harder to believe the horrific violence that engulfed this place. Inside, there is a small museum with photographs and personal stories that chronicle the event.

Elsewhere in the city, you will find Uhuru Park (Kiswahili for ?freedom.?) This is a beautiful park in the downtown area, with statues, fountains and pleasant walkways. It does, however, have a higher rate of pickpocketing and muggings than do other parts of the city, even in the middle of the day with hundreds of people around. On the whole, Nairobi has a high level of petty crime, and has earned the nickname ?Nairobbery.? Do be careful with personal belongings and only carry what you absolutely need when walking in city center; however, do not let this dissuade you from exploring the city. Nairobi is vibrant and full of life ? everything moves quickly here. Take some time to visit some of the city's many markets; the craft market and city market are close to the Hilton and the Intercontinental. Down Ngong Road, a major thoroughfare leading out of city center, there are smaller roadside fruit stands, coffee shops and restaurants serving fantastic local foods. Don't leave Kenya without relaxing on the side of a small dirt road, discovered by accident, holding chapati (Kenyan round flat bread) in one hand and a bowl of nyama choma (roasted meat) and rice in the other. And for those interested in seeing animals, just outside the city you will find Nairobi National Park, where some of Africa's greatest wildlife graze and hunt with the city's skyline in the background.

Though Nairobi certainly offers a great deal to see and do, a visit to Kenya is not complete without venturing outside of the city limits. You don't have to travel far before all of the scenery changes: skyscrapers give way to savanna, thoroughfares turn to dirt roads, businessmen and expats fade to be replaced by farmers and pastoralists. It was outside Nairobi that it first hit me that I was in Africa. We had arrived in Nairobi the week before, a group of students having just met. We spent those days getting acquainted with the city ? walking down Ngong Road, riding matatus wherever they were going, dancing at Carnivore and haggling at Toy Market. Everything was new and I had had no time to process what I was seeing, no time to allow myself to indulge in the moments. That might be due to Nairobi's atmosphere itself: the cars and people moving fast; everybody going somewhere; the days rushing by through the smoke of city buses, the blaring horns and throbbing music of matatus and the constant banter of streetside hawkers. Yet when we boarded Kenya Railways one evening for an overnight train ride on the Lunatic Express to Mombasa, all that changed. I awoke after a night of sound sleep to the gentle rocking of our sleeping car. The train often moved slowly and made frequent stops, but that morning it seemed to have found its pace. The endless savanna lit up well before the sunrise, and we ran to open the windows and lean out of the train, feeling the morning wind rushing past us. Small villages dotted the landscape, and families were waking to start the new day. My eyes focused on one in particular, where a mother looked on as her small daughter chased a nosy goat out of the hut with a frying pan. Just as quickly as I had seen them, they vanished behind us, replaced by other scenes: two children running up a hill to wave to the train; a father picking up a small boy to keep him from running off with his older brothers; a lone pickup truck racing down a dusty road. And of course, in the middle of it all, a giant ad in the shape of a Coke bottle, letting us know where we could buy soda and reminding us of all that is inescapable in the world, even 10,000 miles from home.

Mombasa is worlds apart from Nairobi. The cool, dry, polluted Nairobi air vanishes with the heat and humidity that surrounds Mombasa. The city is right on the coast of the Indian Ocean, and from numerous vantage points there are stunning views out to sea. This used to be Kenya's capital, and today it is the second-largest city. There is a distinct Muslim influence, as there is on much of East Africa's coastline, and quiet nights on the Mombasa shores are punctuated with calls to prayer from the city's many mosques. The city is entirely more laid back than Nairobi, but it is no less full of life and vibrancy. Old Town retains its cobblestone streets, its endless markets and roadside carts and its narrow, winding roads whose destinations are always a surprise. Fort Jesus is certainly a landmark here. Built in the 16th century by the Portuguese to protect their growing presence in Indian Ocean trade, the fort still stands majestically over the cliffs, and visitors can explore its towers, gateways and lookout points.

The downtown area, while more relaxed than that of Nairobi, is still very much a commercial and cultural center, with many shops, restaurants, clubs, bars, markets, cafes and theaters. Tuk-tuks, 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws, are extremely popular here, and are much more fun to ride than conventional taxis. If you find a driver who is particularly competitive, you might be in for a small road race through Mombasa's streets, careening through traffic with Swahili beats blaring through the radio. The city is also a central point from which to travel north to Diani and the resorts there, or south to the Tanzanian border. Coastal Kenya outside the city is a totally different experience. If you have time, explore the many Swahili villages, enjoy eating fresh fish, and relax in the equatorial sun. The rural coast is one of the most beautiful aspects of the entire country.

On the other side of Kenya, in the far West, is Kisumu, the third-largest city in the country. The heat and humidity of Mombasa is here, as well, but without the ocean breezes. The result is a city that is even hotter with a great risk of malaria. Travelers to Mombasa, Kisumu and any part of Kenya other than Nairobi need to be on anti-malarial drugs. Kisumu also has Kenya's highest rate of HIV/Aids, with a regional prevalence significantly greater than the national average. There are many NGOs and international organizations working in Kisumu.

The city tends to be quieter than Mombasa, but there is a vibrant nightlife that is a bit more difficult to find. The downtown area is fairly small (Kisumu was only recently named a city) but it offers excellent coffee shops, ice cream stores and neighborhoods to explore. Perhaps the greatest attraction in the area, though, is Lake Victoria. Take a tuk-tuk or boda boda ? a bicycle taxi ? to the shores of the lake and witness its vast expanse. An excursion to the lake is a must for visitors here. On a sunny day the water glows a brilliant blue, and when the clouds roll in the sky and water turn a metallic gray that conceals the many hippos lazing in the shallows. (Keep in mind that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal, and are extremely dangerous, especially when sensing that their route to the water has been blocked.) There are many resorts along the shores with outdoor patios on the lake, where you can sip a Tusker, Kenya's beer, and enjoy the afternoon sun. Or, if you prefer to get out on the water, rent a dugout canoe and go exploring. The water is not safe for swimming; however, many of the resorts do have outdoor pools if you need to cool off. If you are planning on traveling outside of Kenya as well, consider stopping in Jinja, Uganda. Here you will once again find Lake Victoria, but will also be at the source of the Nile. The lake is much greener and more lush in Jinja, and there is excellent whitewater rafting.

More than anything, though, enjoy Kisumu's relaxed feel. The best coffee shop I found in Kenya is on the main street downtown, and the city is small enough that you can allow yourself to get a little lost and never wind up in the trouble you would in Nairobi. The buildings are low-rise with some pretty architecture, and the streets are wide. One leading out of town towards Uganda is tree-lined and runs nearby to the lake, making for a beautiful walk. There is much to see and do here, even though it may not be as popular a tourist destination as some other parts of the country.

Of course many people don't come to Kenya to see cities at all ? they come for the wildlife, and safaris in Kenya are certainly incredible. The biggest and most famous park is Maasai Mara, in the southern part of the country on the border with Tanzania. The Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti are, in fact, one massive region, home to the migration of thousands of wildebeests and other wildlife in pursuit of the rainfall. Tours can be hired from many companies in Nairobi, and can be scheduled for varying lengths. Weekend safaris are a popular option, though they can be longer. Regardless of how long your excursion is, make sure it includes a game drive in the early morning, in midday, and at sunset ? that way, you will be likely to see the greatest variety of wildlife. Accommodations also vary ? there are hotels and resorts, as well as campsites with varying amenities. The park area is a six hour van ride from Nairobi over horrible roads; there is also an airport at the park if you would prefer to go by air. Regardless of how you get there, you are in for a memorable experience. Few scenes are as stunning as witnessing a lioness stalk a wildebeest, or a parade of giraffes standing dark against a rising sun.

While Maasai Mara may be the major safari destination, there many smaller parks that are equally beautiful and exciting, if not as well known. About two hours outside Nairobi you will find Lake Naivasha and Hell's Gate National Park. These areas are excellent for camping, hiking, biking, boating and driving. The lake itself is beautiful, but is shrinking. You can hire a boat to take you onto the lake to see hippos and the majestic scenery nearby. There are excellent hikes in the area, where you will find zebras, gazelle and parading giraffes. Hell's Gate is much drier than the area around the lake. Here you will find yourself in the middle of a massive, dusty area, surrounded by stunning rock formations and hundreds of zebras and giraffes. The road through the park is sand and dirt, making for a tremendously adventurous bike ride. Or, if you prefer, you can hire a bus and see the area that way. Additionally, there is a gorge in the park that makes for a terrific hike. Hell's Gate, while not offering the range of flora and fauna found in Maasai Mara, is a much more personal, hands-on experience. You do not need to be confined to a safari truck or rushed through in a bus. It's an excellent place simply to explore at your own pace. The entire area near Lake Naivasha is a major center for the flower industry, and you will certainly find beautiful plants here. However, the push to maintain this industry has been very taxing on resources and the local environment, and it is a contentious issue.

North of Nairobi is Mt. Kenya, the second-highest peak in Africa. The mountain and surrounding Mount Kenya National Park is very popular with hikers and climbers, and there are numerous resorts and lodges in the area. The mountain itself is picturesque, with jagged peaks standing starkly against the sky. For outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers, a hike up Mt. Kenya will provide a much more physical experience than a game drive.

Regardless of what you choose to see and do in Kenya, a journey to this country promises to be an incredible experience. It is also an easy place from which to travel to other parts of the region. Several bus services operate between Nairobi and other East African cities. Akamba is perhaps the best ? it has offices downtown, and has routes to Dar es Salaam, Kampala and several other cities. Easy Coach is also a good choice for domestic service, offering a reasonably priced ticket to Kisumu and other Kenyan destinations. Kenyatta airport is served by many airlines with flights to destinations in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, South Africa and many other countries.

There are many more places to go and things to see than I could cover here. As you experience Kenya for yourself, add to this article and expand this site so that future travelers will know the best the country has to offer.

Posted by Bruce Hamilton, August 10, 2007


Most Active Stories: Kenya