Backpacking Kenya: The ULTIMATE budget Kenya travel guide

Add Amboseli National Park to a Kenya 7 day itinerary to see the country's best landscapes.

 Backpacking Kenya: Top experiences

  1. Watching the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara — the most iconic safari destination in Africa
  2. Relaxing on the beautiful beaches of Lamu, followed by a tour of the ancient Swahili town
  3. Witnessing a heartwarming conservation success story — and baby elephants — at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi
  4. Shopping and chatting with the salespeople from Kenya’s huge diversity of cultures at the local markets
  5. Riding a bicycle through the landscape that inspired The Lion King in Hell’s Gate National Park

Jump to the list of posts from Kenya, or read on for my comprehensive Kenya travel guide.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

Kenya itinerary ideas

If you have only 3 days in Kenya, you can still sneak in a quick trip to Lake Naivasha.
Lake Naivasha is one of the most popular inclusions on a Kenya itinerary. It’s only 90 minutes from Nairobi, on the way to the Maasai Mara.

The highlight of any trip to Kenya is undoubtedly a safari in one of the country’s national parks. In fact, many travelers spend their entire Kenya holiday bouncing between parks to see a diversity of wildlife and landscapes.

But the Big 5 are only part of Kenya’s appeal. You won’t want to miss out on the gorgeous beaches and ancient cultures along the Swahili Coast, or the vibrant capital Nairobi, or the Afro-Alpine terrain on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Adventurous travelers may even want to travel north into the vast desert that borders Ethiopia.

The ideal short-stay Kenya itinerary is at least two weeks. Start off with a couple days in Nairobi to recover from jetlag and see the baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. From here, you can book a day tour or a DIY-overnight to Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park to cycle alongside zebra and buffalo.

Next, head out for a three-day, two-night safari in the Maasai Mara! The best trips involve staying in the park, but if you’re on a tight budget, you can use public transport to get to the amazing Mara Explorers Camp and organize game drives and cultural visits from there. Your safari days will start with before-sunrise wake-up calls, game drives at dawn, long afternoon siestas, and evenings back in the car for more game drives.

After doubling back to Nairobi, you have a couple of options. You could make the five-day trek up Mount Kenya. It’s much cheaper than Kilimanjaro, far less crowded, and widely referred to as more scenic.

Alternatively, take the overnight train to Mombasa and spend a week bouncing up the Kenyan coast. Popular stops include Diani, Kilifi, Watumu, and Malindi. Then hop on a short flight to the legendary Lamu Archipelago, where you can spend the remainder of your trip backpacking Kenya wandering abandoned Swahili ruins, lazing on totally empty beaches, grilling seafood on board a dhow, and exploring the ancient city.

Kenya weather and when to visit Kenya

The best time to see the wildebeest migration in Kenya is in June-August.
In late summer, the wildebeest cross the Mara River — one of Africa’s most incredible wildlife spectacles.

Look at Kenya’s equatorial location on a map and you’d assume it’s hot and humid year-round. But in reality, like much of East Africa, most of Kenya is at a high enough elevation to keep the weather nearly perfect year-round.

If your trip to Kenya centers around Nairobi, the Maasai Mara, and the Rift Valley, expect daytime temperatures in the low 80’s (Fahrenheit). Evenings drop into the 50’s — you’ll want a fleece.

Trekkers summitting Mount Kenya need to be prepared for extremely cold conditions. Pack or rent a down jacket and four-season sleeping bag — you may even encounter snow near the peak!

On the other hand, if you’re traveling to the coast or the northern desert, you can expect extreme heat and humidity. Mombasa is infamously swampy, and air conditioning is extremely rare in these areas.

Rainfall should be the biggest factor you consider when deciding when to go on a Kenya tour. Kenya has two wet seasons and two dry seasons. Almost everyone will want to visit during a dry season — you have a much better chance of seeing wildlife, and the coast is far more pleasant.

Dry season in Kenya runs from January-February and from June-October. You very well may still experience afternoon rainstorms during this time — but they only come a few times a week and aren’t overly disruptive. Time your trip for July or August for the best chance of seeing the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara. The only downside to traveling in dry season is prices are high and crowds are larger.

The rest of the year is wet season, when severe storms and rain pass through almost every day. The storms are typically short, but they’re intense enough to wash out roads and disrupt travel. Additionally, the high volume of water means animals in the bush have no trouble finding places to drink — so they stay hidden in the greener thicket and don’t venture out to be easily visible. The only advantage to backpacking Kenya in wet season is costs are lower.

Language in Kenya

The Maasai people speak a tribal language, but also Swahili and usually English.
You’ll encounter many different cultures when backpacking Kenya. They all speak unique languages, but you can get by with Swahili and English.

Kenya is a multilingual country — due to the diverse tribal cultures, at least 68 languages are recognized. Most are derived from Bantu languages, similar to the rest of East Africa.

The main language locals use to communicate across tribal boundaries (and in cities) is Swahili. This is also the dominant local language in coastal regions. It’s quite simple to learn a few words (in fact, you probably already know ‘jambo’ and ‘asante sana’). Locals very much appreciate any small effort you make to speak Swahili with them. You can now take basic Swahli lessons through Duolingo.

Can’t express yourself in Swahili? No worries! English is the main colonial language in Kenya, and most Kenyans learn it in grade school. You can usually get by in English unless you travel independently to very remote areas. Due to education disparities, men are more likely to speak English than women. Almost everyone in the tourism sector speaks English.

Budget for Backpacking Kenya

Seeing baby elephants in Nairobi costs just $5.
While safaris are pricey, you can keep your budget for backpacking Kenya low by mixing in some time in cities (like Nairobi, where you can see baby elephants for $5).

 Many first-time Africa travelers experience sticker shock when they arrive on the continent. While the day-to-day cost of living here is very low, any and all activities are quite expensive, especially compared to much of Asia.

Still, it is possible to backpack Kenya on a budget of around $50 USD a day. This would cover one big-ticket activity (like a safari), while most of your trip would involve hanging out at beaches or organizing activities independently. You’d eat mostly street food and camp in your own tent on this budget.

A more realistic Kenya travel budget is around $100 a day. This would allow you to stay in hostels, combine a few activities or go on a longer safari, and eat in local restaurants and cafes.

See also  Queen Elizabeth Safari: ULTIMATE guide to Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda

At the top end, the sky is the limit. You could stay in boutique bush camps, hire a private driver for your entire time in the country, and take a hot air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara. But this would run you upwards of $1,000 a day — you wouldn’t really be backpacking Kenya at that point!

Sample Costs

Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: From 2000 shillings/night

Street-stall meal of nyama choma: 500 shillings

Cup of good local coffee: 200 shillings

Museum or historical site admission: 500 shillings

Bus ticket from Nairobi to Mombasa: 1,600 shillings

Taxi from Kenyatta Airport to central Nairobi: 3,000 shillings

Three-day safari in the Maasai Mara: from $400 USD

Kenya Visa Requirements

You can get a Kenya visa on arrival or use the online portal to buy an e-visa.
Kenya has visas on arrival and e-visas for most travelers. They cost $50.

Nearly everyone needs a visa for Kenya travel. Luckily, these are easy to get online and on arrival.

Most visitors to Kenya require a single-entry, 90-day tourist visa ($50). You can get this on arrival at any international airport or at the borders with Uganda and Tanzania. You cannot get them at the border with Ethiopia.

If you prefer to arrange your visa in advance, you can apply for an e-visa. The turnaround time is about 48 hours. The process is straightforward — print your confirmation and show it to border authorities on arrival.

If you plan to visit Uganda and Rwanda as part of a larger East Africa backpacking route, it’s cheaper and easier to buy an East Africa Tourist Visa. The EAT visa covers all three countries, with limitless border crossings between them, for 90 days. It costs $100 (so the same price as visiting Kenya and Uganda separately, and cheaper if you want to visit Rwanda too). You must apply in the first country in the region that you’ll arrive in. You can get this visa on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or arrange it at a consulate from home.

A word of warning: While both single-entry and EAT Kenya visas are theoretically available at land border crossings, you’re better off arranging them in advance. This goes double if you plan to use a low-traffic (or low-tourist-traffic) crossing. Many of the border posts in the region are tiny, underresourced, and staffed by officials who are unfamiliar with the laws. When I traveled from Uganda to Kenya by bus there was no option to get a visa on arrival (I had a pre-arranged EAT visa).

Accommodation in Kenya

If you want to save money when backpacking Kenya, consider camping. You'll get the best atmosphere and it costs almost nothing.
Camping safaris are a great way to save money. You can bring your own gear or rent it in Kenya.

Hotels in Kenya run the full spectrum — grubby urban concrete blocks to spectacular luxury bush camping. If you’re backpacking Kenya on a budget, you’ll probably use a lot more of the former.

The cheapest accommodation in Kenya is your own tent, pitched at community campsites around the country. These campsites can be as cheap as 400 shillings, and even in popular national parks, they can be under 1,000 shillings. There’s usually an on-site restaurant so you don’t have to worry about carrying your own food.

 Next up in terms of price and luxury is “lazy camping” — where you rent out a tent from the campsite you’re staying at. This is much more convenient than self-camping because you don’t have to carry all your gear. A lazy camping site runs about 1,000-1,500 shillings.

Big cities and areas popular with travelers have typical backpacker hostels, known locally simply as “backpackers.” Two of the most famous are Milimani Backpackers in Nairobi and Mara Explorers just outside the gates of the Maasai Mara. You can usually choose from a range of dorm rooms, shared-bath rooms, and private rooms with a bathroom inside, each priced accordingly. It’s pretty uncommon to find breakfast included. Dorms cost about 1,200 shillings a night, and a private room in a hostel costs upwards of 2,000 shillings.

Hostels and campsites are great for backpacking Kenya because they have a really social vibe. But if you don’t want to camp, it can be hard to find these traveler-focused options — they only exist in very touristic places. And if you want to save money you’re better off choosing local hotels anyway.

Local hotels usually have a (cold-water) indoor bathroom, four walls, a hard bed, and a lock on the door, but little else. Still, they’re safe, cheap and cheerful — you’ll also likely meet some colorful locals on their patios. They start at around 1,000 shillings a night for a room. Many towns in Kenya have a particular hotel where backpackers congregate — the Backpacking Africa Facebook group can help you identify them.

If money is no object, you can of course find more luxurious places to stay. Plan to spend around $50 a night for a mid-range bush camp, but these can easily top $1,000 a night the more luxurious you get. Camps inside national parks will always be dramatically more expensive than those just outside the park gates.

Food in Kenya

Grilled corn is a popular street snack on the Swahili coast
If you’re missing vegetables, you can always find grilled corn with chili and lime.

I’m going to be honest — no one plans a trip to Kenya for the food. Like most of the region, Kenyans’ primary focus with food is utilitarian. If it has calories and nutrients, no one seems too bothered by flavor.

That’s not to say you can’t eat well — you absolutely can. I enjoyed nearly every meal I had in Kenya. But you’ll mostly have to go to international restaurants and cafes.

The most popular food in Kenya is called nyama choma — grilled meat.usually goat. It’s reasonably tasty and cheap as chips — 500 shillings will get you a plate of it with a couple sides. Carnivore in Nairobi is the iconic place to try it, but you can save money by ordering at any streetside stall.

Nearly every meal in Kenya comes with ugali, a corn/millet/grain-based porridge. It’s boiled until fairly solid, such that you can pick it up with your hands and dip it in the accompanying sauces. It’s inoffensive — the texture is weird but it has little flavor. Most travelers try it only a couple times before steering clear. You can usually get rice as an alternative.

Spinach is the most common vegetable, but you may find other vegetables or beans as a side depending on time of year. Grilled corn with chili and lime is another popular snack.

Swahili food on the coast is an entirely different story. Here, the mix of Indian, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern cultures has led to a truly exciting cuisine. Fresh seafood is the highlight, but coconut rice, coconut beans, plantains in tomato sauce, and tropical fruits round out your meal. Swahili curries are also worth a try. Swahili food tends to be spicy.

See also  Backpacking Uganda: The ULTIMATE budget Uganda travel guide

Cafe culture has exploded in Nairobi, Kisumu, and other large inland towns. You can always find a place to get a tasty sandwich or fresh pastry for breakfast. Java House is the biggest chain, and a haven for vegetarians, but be sure to try some of the local places as well.

Unfortunately, due to safety issues that prevent people from walking anywhere after dark in much of urban Kenya, most travelers end up eating dinner at their hotels and camps. The upside is the food is often better than what you’d find at restaurants. Most camps cater to vegetarians as long as they know in advance. More luxurious places will offer three-course meals (soup, main, dessert), and it’s often included with your room rate.

Drinks in Kenya

Good coffee is hard to find in the bush, but in cities, you can always get a cappuccino
Amazing cappuccino at Whispers Cafe in Lamu Town.

Kenya is a large producer of coffee and tea. And luckily for backpackers, some of the best beans stay local. If you’re in a city or town you’ll always be able to find at least one great coffee shop.

In the bush, most coffee is of the instant variety. Even luxury tented camps tend to serve mediocre coffee — but when you’re sipping it while watching a lion family play in the Maasai Mara, you won’t mind.

Along the conservative Muslim Swahili coast, women alone may not feel super comfortable in male-dominated coffee shops. This is mostly an issue in Mombasa and other southern coastal cities. By the time you get as far north as Lamu, it’s a total non-issue.

Another popular beverage in Kenya — especially along the coast — is fresh fruit juice. The tamarind juice is to-die-for. You can also buy fresh young coconuts in tropical areas.

When it comes to alcohol, beer is king, and it’s mostly lagers. You can also find millet beer and corn and millet-based whiskeys. You won’t find much alcohol on the Muslim Swahili coast (Lamu has only a single hotel bar and a single covert local liquor store).

If you venture out into remote villages, you may have the opportunity to try some ~interesting~ beverages — like cow’s blood or fermented milk. If it’s offered to you on a tour, by all means try it. But it’s best to wait for an invitation, as these beverages are usually part of rituals and foreigners ‘ordering’ them is a pretty big overstep.

You should not drink tap water in Kenya. You can buy bottled water everywhere. If you want to cut down on plastic waste, consider bringing a Steripen. This small UV wand purifies water and kills bacteria when you stir it around for 90 seconds. I’ve never gotten sick using a Steripen, but I did cave in Lamu and buy bottled water because the donkey-crap-filled wells grossed me out so much. If you drink water from an unfiltered source that’s cloudy or dirty, use the Steripen for 180 seconds before drinking.

Activities you can do while backpacking Kenya

Everyone wants to go on safari in Kenya.
A safari in Kenya will be the highlight (and priciest part) of your trip.

The one activity everyone who visits Kenya wants to do is go on safari. Luckily, the country has many options for all budgets.

Even if you’re backpacking Kenya on a shoestring budget, you can still get up close to several of Africa’s most iconic species with a bike ride through Hell’s Gate National Park. The park doesn’t have any predators, but it does have buffalo, giraffe, wildebeest, and many different varieties of antelope.

The Maasai Mara is Kenya’s most popular game park, where the annual wildebeest migration across the Mara River occurs. You can see the park on a three-day, two-night trip from Nairobi.

Other popular parks include Amboseli (famous for the elephants walking in front of Kilimanjaro), Nakuru, Tsvaro East and West, and — right near the airport — Nairobi National Park. All of them offer something a little different, but you can get the general idea by picking one plus the Mara. Be sure to check out my safari packing list before you go!

If you’re after more active pursuits, nothing beats the trek up Mount Kenya. Mount Ololokwe in the far north is a cheaper (but much less accessible) option. On either, you’ll likely have the hike to yourself aside from your guides.

The other big draw to Kenya is the beach. Kenya’s coast combines history with relaxation, with plenty of Swahili ruins sites to break up your days sunbathing. Dhow trips are a popular activity, and you can book snorkeling tours, dive trips, and dolphin-watching tours as well.

Many backpackers in Kenya are surprised by how quickly expenses for activities add up. For each of the things on this list, you’ll need a driver, a guide, tips for each of them, admission fees, food, accommodation…it’s a lot. So you may want to add a few days to your itinerary that consist of little more than wandering around villages and seeing local attractions. You can usually find a local to show you around for about $5 for half a day (hotels and campgrounds advertise this as a “village walk”), and you’ll get much more out of the experience that way.

Transportation in Kenya

Mash POA runs buses from Nairobi to all the major Kenyan cities.
Sorry for the grainy cell phone photo here, but Mash POA is one of the most reliable bus companies in Kenya.

As far as East Africa goes, Kenyan transportation is really good. The bus service is relatively safe and efficient, the train service is outstanding, and even the matatus are nowhere near as bad as they are in Uganda. A reliable network of domestic flights rounds out your options.

The main way travelers get around Kenya is by bus. Buses are affordable — about $2 per hour — and comfortable. I traveled with the company Mash POA and had a great experience (plus, their office is in a relatively safe part of Nairobi). You can usually get a bus ticket the day you want to travel, but it’s best to book (online, by phone, or in person) a few hours in advance for long trips.

One thing you’ll hear a lot about overlanding Africa is to never travel after dark. But in Kenya, it’s actually pretty okay to take the night buses. They don’t pass through major wilderness areas and the lack of traffic on the roads means you’re less likely to be in a blind-overtaking situation.

If you’re traveling among smaller cities — like Naivasha-Nairobi, or Mombasa-Diani Beach

See also  Namibia Camping Safari: What to Expect

0– you’ll probably end up on an occasional matatu in Kenya. These are fairly organized, with fixed (and posted) fares. Conductors cap it at a relatively sane number of passengers compared to neighboring countries, and drivers mostly stay under 100 km/hour. Still, matatus are not as safe as buses and you should avoid them when possible. They don’t operate on fixed schedules — they leave when full.

For travel between Nairobi and the coast, easily the best option is the train between the capital and Mombasa. It takes under 5 hours and second-class seats cost just 900 shillings. Book in person at any Kenya Railways office.

If you’re in a hurry or on a bigger budget, flying is a great way to cover the enormous distances in Kenya. It’s the only option to reach Lamu, and it’s convenient for some of the northern mainland coastal towns as well. Silverstone is the most affordable airline, but travelers hopping between parks or on a schedule that doesn’t have space for delays will be better off using Safarilink.

If you’re visiting national parks, you will usually have to book an organized tour or hire a private driver. Public transport may reach the outer park gates, but won’t work for a game drive. This is the main thing that drives up safari costs. Budget upwards of $100 a day. The only alternative is to rent your own vehicle, but with terrible roads and reckless driving, it isn’t worth the hassle.

Safety When Backpacking Kenya

If you're wondering, is Kenya safe, the answer is absolutely! Most travelers have trouble-free trips..
Outside of Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya is a very chill country. Just don’t leave valuables on the beach.

Kenya doesn’t have the best safety reputation in the world. Nairobi in particular is infamous for its robberies and terrorism threats, and Somali pirates have kidnapped tourists in coastal towns in years past. But the reality is most of these risks are overblown, and you can easily avoid them with a bit of caution.

Street crime

The key thing to remember on your Kenya backpacking trip is to never go out on foot after dark. I don’t mean “at night” — I mean literally when the sun sets. Streets that are safe during the day turn into deserted, crime-ridden danger zones at night. You can stay safe by taking taxis/Ubers or eating at your hotel. This holds true in both cities and rural areas. For example, it is not safe to walk along the lakeshore at Lake Naivasha after dark.

Mombasa and Nairobi have the worst crime in the country. In these cities you’re better off locking valuables in your hotel while exploring at all times of day, and bringing only the cash you need for the day with you. Know your neighborhoods (for example Karen in Nairobi is very safe) and bring enough money to hop in a cab in an emergency.

Slum tourism” has taken off in some of Kenya’s larger cities. I have serious questions about the ethics of visiting neighborhoods like Kibara, but on a practical level, if you decide you are comfortable with it, you absolutely must take a guide.

Terrorism

Yes, Kenya has experienced terrorist attacks, most famously at the Westgate Mall in 2013. Yes, Kenya’s politics are regionally controversial, and the Somali community in Kenya is not exactly thrilled with many of the government’s actions.

But the odds of you, as a tourist, getting caught up in a terrorist attack in Kenya are so low that it’s not even worth worrying about. Follow all the typical safety precautions and you’ll be fine. This includes staying out of neighborhoods known for higher levels of terrorist threats (your biggest risk is getting caught in the crossfire when someone tries to take down a political target).

Currently, Mombasa is a bit on edge after a string of attacks last year. It’s nothing to be paranoid about, but I’d recommend checking your government’s travel advice before you leave home.

Wildlife and nature

Realistically, one of the biggest risks you’ll face in Kenya isn’t from crime. It’s from Africa’s most dangerous animal — the mighty mosquito. If you don’t take sensible precautions, you put yourself at risk of getting malaria in Kenya.

Everyone must make their own decisions about the pros and cons of taking antimalarials (link is to the CDC). For me, it’s a no-brainer — malaria is a serious disease and a pill covered by insurance with a small risk of minor side effects is well worth the protection it offers. There is little scientific evidence that homeopathic methods such as special teas work. Your risk is highest during wet season, but travelers can get sick year-round. I always take Malerone when traveling in malarial regions in Africa.

Compared to mosquitoes, the rest of the big wildlife in Kenya poses basically no risk to travelers. Don’t be an idiot — keep your distance from all wildlife, store your food safely when camping, don’t feed the baboons, and don’t ever get out of your car in a game park. If you’re camping, try to avoid middle of the night bathroom trips. If you must leave your tent at night, listen closely for wildlife. Be especially careful around water. Hippos — the most dangerous animal in Africa — may congregate here.

Kenya travel advice for women alone

Lamu is one of the safest destinations for solo female travelers.
As a solo female traveler, I vetted my dhow captain through my hotel. I ended up having a great experience.

Contrary to popular belief, East Africa is perhaps the easiest and safest part of the world to travel as a solo female. Kenya is no exception.

Kenyan men are exceptionally friendly, but rarely disrespectful. This is the kind of place where you can go to a beach cafe and play chess with the all-male clientele and no one will even think of you as a potential date, let alone look at or talk to you as if you are.

It’s not universal — Mombasa, in particular, is known for being more unpleasant for solo women. And if you go to a bar alone you’ll definitely raise eyebrows. But on the whole Kenya is one of the most hassle-free destinations I’ve ever traveled to.

In fact, one huge advantage of solo female travel in Kenya is most of the safari touts and scamsters will leave you alone altogether! They mainly target wealthy-looking couples and families.

Bikinis, shorts, and tank tops are totally acceptable on the beach and when you’re on safari. But in towns — especially along the Swahili coast — cover your shoulders and knees.

Ready to get started? Check out the posts from Kenya.

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You can plan the perfect Kenya safari on a tight budget! This Kenya travel guide will help you plan the perfect Kenya itinerary, including the Maasai Mara, beaches, and Lake Naivasha. #kenya #travel #africa

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Gemma
4 years ago

This is absolutely dreamy. I have always wanted to go on Safari in Kenya and assumed it would be very expensive. Great to know that’s not the only option to explore!

Rhea
4 years ago

My family is from Kenya 🇰🇪 but I haven’t had the opportunity to go on a Safari or visit Kenya yet. Loved this post: it was really informative.

Rachel
4 years ago

I agree with you about the slum tourism. It was a bit of a thing when I lived in the Philippines. But I would still very much like to visit Kenya!

Lauren
Lauren
4 years ago

Love this post, it’s so informative and the photos are great!

Josy A
4 years ago

This post brings back sooo many happy memories! We were really lucky to have a friend that lived in Kenya for a few years, so when we visited she could give us good advice and make sure we went to the best spots.

I totally agree with you about the food. Nyama choma was fun to try, but it was the swahili food near Mombassa that blew me away.

Shafinah Neville
4 years ago

Can I check if you went on this alone? I did Kenya 5 years back but under Intrepid, and I’ve always wanted to return to explore the other parts as well – but I really cannot imagine navigating everything on my own! (I really want to check out Masaai Mara because I missed that the first time round)

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