Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

Everything You Need to Know to Visit Kenya for the First Time

Kenya Wildlife Travel National Parks
by Colby Holiday Sep 7, 2021

Touching down on a makeshift airstrip at the Maasai Mara National Reserve and being met by herds of wildebeest and zebras grazing languidly along the grassy plains is an experience that will stay with you for years to come. These sights are part of the once-in-a-lifetime adventure that draws people from around the world to the birthplace of safaris: Kenya.

Though best known for its wildlife-rich parks and preserves, there’s more to Kenya than scouting for the Big Five. With topography ranging from the craggy, snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya, to the expansive grassy plains of the Maasai Mara, the warm and sandy shores of Lamu, and even to the urban jungle of Nairobi, no two regions of Kenya are alike. With so many options, it may be difficult to decide where to start, what to do, and how much time to allot for each magical experience when visiting Kenya. We’re will help you plan your trip.

How much time to spend visiting Kenya?

Journalist on safari smiling

Wendy Hu

A week in Kenya is doable, but two weeks is ideal, especially if you plan to adventure throughout different cities in the country. Due to COVID-19, many domestic flights are still limited within Kenya. Couple that with long drive times due to the remoteness of many of the lodges and accommodations, and you’ll find that traveling within Kenya usually results in an all-day affair. So be sure to factor in travel days when planning your trip.

Top things to do when visiting Kenya

Whether you are looking to take a luxurious romantic getaway, an eco-friendly sabbatical in the bush, or a family-friendly adventure, you won’t find a shortage of things to do to suit your tastes while in Kenya. If you’re making the voyage to Kenya, chances are, a safari or two will be on your list of things to do. With over 40 national parks and reserves and over 160 conservancies, choosing which ones to visit can be a daunting task. To help narrow it down, here are two safari lodge camps that have completely different vibes, but that offer equally incredible experiences.

Stay at a sustainable eco-lodge and do walking safaris

Baby zebra cuddling up to its mother

Wendy Hu

El Karama Conservancy is a private, family-owned conservancy committed to supporting biodiversity through holistic management and sustainability. The private lodge is located in Laikipia, at the foothills of Mount Kenya. With a sprawling 14,000 acres of private land and views of over 200,000 acres, El Karama is one of the most magical habitats in Laikipia. Here, predators and a gamut of endemic and endangered species roam wild and free. You will see your fair share of zebra, giraffe, elephants, and antelope during your game drives, and if you’re lucky you may even spot lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Morning bush walks give you an up-close-and-personal lay of the land and, by the end of your expedition, you’ll be able to spot and name a myriad of flora, fauna, and even animal defecation.

Splurge on a luxury lodge experience

Mother cheetah and three cubs

Wendy Hu

Mara Plains Camp re-opened recently after undergoing a full renovation. This wildlife destination is tucked within the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, with access to over 100,000 acres of exclusive land in addition to the 583-square-mile Maasai Mara Reserve. This lodge offers a luxury, five-star safari experience with all the bells and whistles, like complimentary Canon DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses for your use. The landscapes here offer a flatter, less bushy terrain, making it easier to spot those elusive predators, like the big cats. During my trip to the Maasai Mara, I saw wildebeest, lions, and even a mama leopard with her four cubs. Peak season for the Maasai Mara is July to October when over two million wildebeest, zebra, antelope and other herds of animals make their annual migration.

Sleep under a blanket of stars

Bubble tents for sleeping outdoors in Kenya

Wendy Hu

For an unforgettable experience during your time in Kenya, spend at least one night sleeping under the stars. A “Fly Camping” experience can easily be arranged with El Karama Lodge during your stay. Sundowners by the fireside, open-fire cooking, the sounds of nature and wildlife serving as a calming soundtrack all create a bespoke experience for the books. When it’s time to turn in for the night, you have the choice of curling up in a bell tent or Tentsile tree tents. The latter is perfect for families with adventurous children, as these fun tents are suspended in the trees.

Get a bird’s eye view of the Maasai Mara

Orange hot air balloon above the Kenyan savannah

Photo: Balloon Safaris/Facebook

When planning your trip to Kenya, the one thing you may not have considered is experiencing a safari from a different vantage point. If a hot air balloon safari ride above the Maasai Mara isn’t on your bucket list, now’s the time to add it. Soaring high above the plains you light spot a lioness sauntering across the savanna, a lone elephant standing as though it’s posing for a photo, and more wildebeest, antelope, and zebra than you can count. If you book a tour with an operator like Balloon Safaris Limited, your day will start long before sunrise, but watching it wake from its slumber and paint the morning skies a peaceful palette of pastels, you’ll soon forget about the nominal sleep you got the night before.

Watch baby sea turtles hatch

You will have to make your way to the coast for this, and your timing will have to be perfect. However, if you are able to time it just right, you’ll get to witness one of the most incredible — and dare I say cutest — sightings while in Kenya. Endangered green turtles are finding refuge in Lamu thanks to the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust. During my trip to Lamu, we were able to witness ex-poachers, who are now hired to protect turtles’ nests, facilitate a new batch of hatchlings making their way to the sea to begin their life voyage.

How to travel to and within Kenya

Now that you have an idea of what you want to do when you are in Kenya, let’s talk about how to actually get there, and get around once you’re in the country. Unless you are flying directly to the coastal regions of Kenya, you will likely be flying into Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Quite possibly the most luxurious way to get there is via Qatar Airways Qsuites — one of the world’s best business-class suites. These suites come with a hefty price tag; however, with dining on demand, your own private pod with a door that closes, and your own personal flight attendant, the long-haul flight in these premier suites are an unforgettable experience of their own. You will be able to get a good night’s rest with Qatar’s turn-down service and seats that recline fully into a bed. Qatar even provides comfy pajamas and a travel kit containing several toiletry essentials.

Once you touch down in Kenya, there are several ways to get around. We don’t recommend driving, unless you are familiar with the driving culture in Africa and you have impeccable map-reading skills along with a keen sense of direction. Many of the conservancies and reserves are located in extremely remote areas, where no signage or lights exist. Besides that, you will need an off-road vehicle to get you down the pothole-riddled dirt roads.

The best and safest option for getting around on the ground in Kenya is through a private driver, an organized tour, or by booking accommodations that also provide transportation. If you are traveling to different areas within the country, the quickest, though not the most affordable, way to get around is by a domestic airline, like SafariLink. These flights depart from Wilson Airport, about four miles from Nairobi city center.

When flying domestic airlines, you will have to abide by strict weight restrictions, maxing out at 33 pounds total for your checked luggage and hand luggage. Since domestic flights are on smaller aircrafts — think 16-seater aircrafts — soft-sided duffel bags are strongly recommended as space is extremely limited. Also note, plastic bags, such as grocery bags, are prohibited in Kenya, and being caught with them could result in a fine if found in your possession.

What to pack and what to wear in Kenya

Guides and travelers on a walking safari in Kenya

Wendy Hu

Given the space limitations, not only on the aircrafts but also on the safari vehicles, you’ll want to ensure you are packing all the things you need and none of the things you don’t.

The Maasai Mara is on a plateau, with an elevation of around 5,000 to 7,000 feet — temperatures are cool, averaging from low 50’s Fahrenheit in the mornings to high 70’s by midday in areas like Nairobi, Laikipia, and Great Plains — so packing layers is highly recommended. Fifty degrees may not seem all that chilly until you’re riding in an open-air vehicle with gusting winds. It gets quite cold, so you’ll want to pack a jacket and perhaps even a knit cap for those frigid mornings.

Muted tones that blend into nature, like tans, browns, and dark greens, are highly recommended. Steer clear of bright colors, especially red, as you don’t want to alarm any of the animals. If you’re thinking about donning camouflage, don’t — it’s actually illegal to wear this pattern in Kenya if you are not military personnel. If you’re doing a bush walk during your stay, boots are the way to go. Sneakers will suffice; however, when meandering through tall prickly grass, boots are better.

The coastal regions and rural areas in Kenya will be much warmer, averaging in the mid 80s to low 90s. However, these regions are predominantly Muslim so dress is far more conservative. It is culturally appropriate for women to cover their upper arms and legs, and avoid low-cut tops.

More information on visiting Kenya

Profile of a Maasai in traditional garb

Wendy Hu

There are around 42 ethnic groups in this country, making the culture just as unique and diverse as its terrains. One thing that remained consistent on my travels there was the warmth of every Kenyan I met. From the incredible guides, to the Masai warriors, and friendly passerbyers belting “Jambo!” (hello), the kindness exuded is unmatched.

There’s also no such thing as a “stranger” in Kenya — or, at least, there’s no literal translation of that word. Instead, “mgeni” is the closest word you’ll find. It means guest or visitor — and in Kenya, everyone is treated as such. This ethos runs deep. You’ll find that many homes, especially in coastal regions like Lamu, have an outdoor sitting nook in front of them. These sitting areas are open to anyone, whether you are a “stranger” just passing through or a family friend.

As a guest in Kenya, there are a few things to keep in mind. Ask for permission before taking photos of anyone — particularly in the villages and rural towns, and especially of women and children. Our guide advised us that you may encounter those who are friendly and welcome having their photos taken. However, there are others who, even if they sense you picking up your camera to snap a photo, they will shun the camera or may become aggressive.

A few words to know when visiting Kenya

Learning a few of local words goes a long way in showing your respect for the place you are visiting, no matter where you travel. Swahili, alongside English, is the official language in Kenya. As mentioned, “jambo” is the most common greeting you’ll hear in Kenya. It isn’t one of those flat “hello” greetings uttered just as a courtesy. On the contrary, jambo is said in almost a singsong manner. It’s full of cheer and feels like sunshine when it’s exchanged. So, when walking down the streets of Kenya, or bopping into local shops, and your new stranger friend greets you with, “Jamboooo”, be sure to return the same enthusiasm.

Another word to know when traveling to Kenya is “asante” or “asante sana.” This means thank you or thank you very much. When someone thanks you, you can in turn say karibu, which is you’re welcome. Use “pole pole” when you’re on safari and you’d like the driver to slow down. The translation means to take it easy. Another phrase to keep in mind, whether adventuring in Kenya or simply journeying through life is “hakuna matata” — a phrase we all know so well — meaning no worries or no problems.

What to tip in Kenya

When it comes to tipping culture in Kenya, there is an expectation in the hospitality industry; however, it is, of course, to your own discretion. Kenya Shillings (KES) is the local currency and US dollars are often accepted within the tourism sector. Here are a few suggestions for tipping:

Tour guides and drivers: 1,500 KES (approximately $15 USD) to each guide and driver per day
Waiters and bar staff: 500 KES
Baggage porters: 500 KES

Covid-19 and visa requirements for Kenya

In this new age of nasal swabs and QR codes, be prepared to show both upon arrival in Kenya. Proof of a negative COVID PCR test, valid for 96 hours from the date the test is taken till your arrival in Kenya, is required. In addition, COVID test results must be uploaded on Trusted Travel or Global Haven websites where you’ll be given a QR code that you must show, along with your negative COVID test upon arrival. You will also have to complete an online International Travelers Health Surveillance Form where you’ll get another QR code that must be printed and shown on arrival.

If you are a US citizen, you will be required to have a visa for entry, which costs US $51. All other citizens can check visa requirements through Kenya’s Immigration Department.

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