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Maasai Mara National Reserve: How to Plan, Book, and Enjoy an Unforgettable Safari

Kenya Wildlife National Parks
by Suzie Dundas Jun 26, 2023

There are literally hundreds of places to go on safari in Africa, from the well-known Kruger National Park to thriving wildlife parks in Rwanda just a few hours from the country’s famous gorilla treks. But there’s one name that still manages to stay atop most traveler’s lists of top safari destinations: Maasai Mara.

But if you’re not sure what that is, never fear. The name gets thrown around a lot, but when most people say “Maasai Mara,” they’re referring to a national reserve (i.e. national park) in Kenya. The home is the ancestral (and current) land of the Maasai people, most easily recognized by their red “shuka cloth” clothing. There are several luxury hotels in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and while it’s known for being an expensive destination to visit, it doesn’t have to be. It’s possible to visit on your own, staying in budget camps and booking your own safaris.

Of course, it can also be a fabulous highlight of a more splurge-worthy trip, especially if you book a glamping lodge where you can have your morning coffee overlooking a river filled with hippos, then enjoy an evening sundowner while you watch giraffes roam in the not-so-distance).

Visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve is easier and more accessible than you might think, as long as you do just a bit of advanced planning.

Where is Maasai Mara?

Maasai Mara, also spelled Masai Mara, is a famous wildlife reserve in southwestern Kenya in eastern Africa. It’s named for the Indigenous Maasai people, as well as the Mara River that runs through the reserve. Maasai Mara National Reserve is in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, a geographically dramatic section of the country filled with mountains, canyons, lakes, and more features caused by tectonic activity.

The Maasai Mara National Reserve covers about 580 square miles and abuts the much larger Serengeti National Park in neighboring Tanzania. It’s one of the most popular safari destinations in Africa, especially during the famous wildebeest migration.

How to get to Maasai Mara

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The best way to get to the Maasai Mara National Reserve depends on your budget and how much time you have to spare. Nearly everyone flies into Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. If you’re coming from the US, there are direct flights to Nairobi from JFK Airport in New York City. Otherwise, you’ll likely need to connect through an airport in Europe like Istanbul, Turkiye; Frankfurt, Germany; or Paris, France. Fortunately, flights to Nairobi are frequent, and you can probably get there with just one stop, depending on your departure airport.

From Nairobi, you have two options for getting to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. You can drive the 160 miles between Nairobi and the reserve. It’s a bit of a bumpy drive for the final section, but it’s fun and a good adventure if you have time to spare in transit.

If you’d prefer to be direct, you’ll hop on a connecter flights from Nairobi to an airstrip near the reserve. Which one you’ll fly into mostly depends on where you’re staying, and your hotel can advise on which airstrip is most convenient. The flights usually take about 45 minutes and need to be booked independently of your international flight (Air Kenya has the most options). If you’re visiting with a tour operator or booked a hotel package, it will likely include your transportation from Nairobi.

About the Maasai Mara Tribe

masai mara national reserve masai man

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The Maasai Tribe is believed to have originated in the Nile Basin area of Sudan. They migrated southward to Kenya and Tanzania in the 15th century, settling in the Rift Valley region. Traditionally, cattle herding is the primary economic driver, with wealth measured in the number of cattle they own. As with so many Indigenous peoples of Africa, the Maasai Mara had much of their land, power, and autonomy taken during the period of British colonization. Now, Massai people live in Kenya and Tanzania, including in and around the reserve. Good books about the Maasai Tribe include “One of Them (My Life Among the Maasai of Kenya)” and “Happy Valley: The story of the English in Kenya.”

To support the Maasai people, try to book tours and activities owned by or that employ members of the Maasai Tribe, and look for cultural activities that empower and support (rather than exploit) local people and traditions. If you do any shopping around the Maasai Mara National Preserve, try to buy from shops and co-ops with locally made products, instead of buying the standard budget souvenirs that look like you could buy them on Amazon.

When to go to Maasai Mara

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The best time to visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya depends on your personal tolerance for rainy weather (and your budget). For most people, however, there are two main factors to consider: the wildebeest migration and the weather.

The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles on the planet and a reason many people visit the Maasai Mara (more on that below). If you’re there to see the wildebeest, plan you trip for June through September. The migration usually happens between May and October, but there’s no set or guaranteed schedule, of course.

In terms of weather in the Maasai Mara, there are two primary seasons: dry and wet. Dry season runs from June to October and is generally considered the prime time to visit for wildlife viewing as animals tend to congregate around water sources and aren’t blocked by lush vegetation. It’s warm and sunny, with highs in the low 80 degrees F and lows around 60 degrees F.

The wet season is November to May, and because it rains more, you can expect lush green landscapes, migratory bird activity, and fewer tourists. However, healthy vegetation can make it a bit more difficult to spot wildlife, and extreme rain can make some safari routes inaccessible. But it’s also a cheaper time to visit, and the weather is still pretty warm. January and February are usually the least rainy of the winter months around the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

The Maasai Mara Great Migration

masai mara great migration wildebeest

Photo: Arend van der Walt/Shutterstock

The Maasai Mara Great Migration, also known as the Serengeti-Mara Migration, is one of the most remarkable wildlife events in the world. During the migration, millions of wildebeest, zebras, gazelles, and other herbivores move between the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park in search of fresh grazing land and water. The migration’s exact date and scale are influenced by the availability of food and water, seasonal rain, and grass growth.

In January and February, calves are born in the herds, during which time they’re usually in the southern Serengeti. This draws predators like lions, cheetahs, and hyenas, creating intense predator-prey interactions. When the rain subsides, the calves and the herd move north to find greener grazing land, and by June, they reach the western corridor of the Serengeti. From there, huge numbers of animals begin to cross the the crocodile-infested Grumeti River. For many, this is the highlight of the migration, though it can be tough to watch.

From July to October, the herds move further north into the Maasai Mara National Reserve. This is when you can more or less count on seeing wildebeest in huge numbers in the Maasai Mara, plus other animals who come to find an easy meal. Toward the end of October, the herds start moving back to Tanzania. More than 1.5 million wildebeest and 400,000 zebras have been recorded migrating during this time, so your chances of epic wildlife spottings are as guaranteed as they’ll ever be.

Maasai Mara safari options

safari car with tourists in kenya

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In general, you have two Maasai Mara safari options.

The first option is to book a hotel or travel package that includes safaris as part of the cost. Most of the expensive Maasai Mara hotels (including the JW Marriott Maasai Mara) include daily game drives,. And even hotels that don’t include it in the cost can arrange safaris for you, taking care of all the details so all you have to do is meet your vehicle at your hotel. Of course, if you book your trip to the Maasai Mara as part of a vacation package, it will almost certainly include activities as well as lodging and transportation.

A solid budget Maasai Mara tour operator is Horizon Safaris, with three-day Maasai Mara safari camping trips starting around $600. More luxurious tour operators are quite easy to find, like those from Wild Voyager or Kensington Travel. High-end trips often include hot-air balloon safaris and mimosas in the bush, but will easily run $4,500-plus per person (or much more than that, if you’d like).

You can also book a Maasai Mara safari without doing it as part of a tour. When you make your hotel reservation, just ask the hotel if they have a one-day safari tour company they recommend. You can also find one-day safaris online from companies that’ll pick you up and return you to your hotel. If you’re going this route, you’ll have to pay the Maasai Mara National Reserve entry fee of $80 per adult per day (or $70 if you’re staying on the reserve). Some budget safari trip include that fee in the pricing, and some don’t.

Websites like TripAdvisor and Viator will have plenty of options for safari drives, hot-air balloon safaris, cultural tours, and more. If you’re staying in Nairobi, you may be able to find a local guide or operator at a price less than those advertised online to westerners.

Maasai Mara hotels

masai mara fairmont hotels

The Fairmont Maasai Mara. Photo: Expedia

There’s no beating around the bush: those fancy Maasai Mara hotels in the style of tented safari lodges are expensive, and you’re unlikely to find one for under $500 a night, even in the off season. However, there are some cheaper options if you’re willing to stay outside the lodge or forgo amenities like private decks and afternoon canapés. Below, you’ll find options for honeymoon-worthy splurges and backpacker budget stays.

It’s essential to book all Maasai Mara hotels in advance. You don’t want to land in the reserve only to find there’s nowhere affordable left to rest your head.

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

JW Marriott Maasai Mara Lodge

masai mara hotels JW Marriott


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The JW Marriott Maasai Mara Lodge is one of the most famous and luxurious safari lodges in all of Africa. It’s an all-inclusive Maasai Mara hotel with three restaurants, a spa, and sprawling tented suites with private decks. This is the safari hotel of your dreams, with a price point to match: rates start around $2,500 a night (yes, per night).

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Fairmont Mara Safari Club

masai mara hotels - fairmont

Photo: Expedia

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Fairmont Mara Safari Club is akin to the JW Marriott in that it’s a tented safari lodge within the Maasai Mara National Reserve. However, it’s a smidge more affordable, and the rooms are a bit more tied to the environment. That means more natural materials and safari prints, plus slightly smaller rooms. That said, it’s still very fancy and high-end — plus, the waterfront rooms back to a river popular with bathing hippos. Rates start around $460 per night, plus a steep activity fee.

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Sand River Camp Maasai Mara

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Sand River Maasai Mara is a luxury tented camp with just 16 rooms inside the preserve. It’s owned and operated by the Elewena Collection, which runs a handful of luxurious and unique safari-focused resorts across eastern Africa. It’s one of the pricier Maasai Mara hotels with a starting rate around $1,700 a night, which gets you everything from outdoor showers to private al fresco dinners in the bush to extended safari drives and breakfast delivered to your door.

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Giraffe Hills Mara Camp

masai mara national reserve giraffe camp

Photo: Expedia

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It is possible to find a Maasai Mara hotel under $100 a night, as long as you don’t mind roughing it a smidge. Giraffe Hills Mara Camp is basic but comfortable enough, with cabins and tents with real beds starting around $60 per night per person. You can book just the room, a package with meals included, or a safari package with meals and game drives. It’s the best of the budget hotels near Maasai Mara National Reserve.

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