Mbale to Nairobi bus: Travel from Uganda to Kenya via Tororo and Malaba

The Nairobi to Mbale bus is an easy way to travel between Uganda and Kenya.

Travel in East Africa is always an adventure. I’m talking about the literal travel part — getting from Point A to Point B when you don’t have a tour or private driver. On a recent trip to the region, I wanted to cross from Uganda to Kenya in the Mount Elgon region — but all the travel guides I found told me I’d have to double back to Kampala, eight hours out of the way. But when I asked around on the ground I learned about a little-advertised service running from the northeastern city of Mbale to Nairobi.

Taking the Mbale to Nairobi bus saved me over 12 hours of total travel time. It was convenient, easy and as comfortable as long bus trips in East Africa get. In this post, I’ll give you the step-by-step details of how to make this journey happen. You can also reverse this journey if you are looking for a Nairobi to Mbale bus.

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.

Why go from Mbale to Nairobi instead of going straight from Kampala?

Sipi Falls is closer to Mbale than to Kampala
If you’re visiting Sipi Falls at the end of your Uganda trip, it’s faster to take a direct bus from Mbale to Nairobi than to double back to Kampala.

First thing’s first: Before we dive into how to cover this border crossing, let’s talk about why you might want to.

One of the best places to visit in Uganda is the beautiful little highland town of Sipi Falls in the Mount Elgon region. It has great hiking, small-scale coffee producers, and of course, views of the namesake waterfalls. Better yet, because it’s a good six hours from Kampala, Sipi Falls doesn’t get very many tourists.

Additionally, you might find yourself in this region if you plan on climbing Mount Elgon. This is a great hiking option if you want to see the iconic Afro-Alpine landscapes but don’t want to shell out for a Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya or Rwenzori trek. It’s a four-day round trip hike — so you can fit it into a short Uganda itinerary.

If you venture all the way out to Sipi Falls or Mount Elgon and you plan on heading to Kenya afterwards, chances are you’re not going to want to double back to Kampala. Luckily the mid-sized city of Mbale is just 90 minutes from Sipi Falls and an hour from Rose’s Last Chance (the trekking hostel at the base of Mount Elgon), and you’d have to change buses there anyway.

Mbale is also less than two hours from the Kenyan border. So it’s a convenient gateway town for your onward journey.

Which Uganda-Kenya border crossing does this route use?

If you want to cross the busy border at Busia, you'll need to take a matatu.
While the Malaba border sees little tourist traffic, you can cross on a coach bus instead of taking a matatu to Busia.

If you look at a map of northeastern Uganda, the town that immediately stands out is Busia — the busiest Uganda-Kenya border crossing. This crossing is near Kisumu in Kenya. The vast majority of buses between the two countries use this crossing, stop in Kisumu, and continue on the Nairobi.

However, if you plan to go from Mbale to Nairobi by bus, you’ll use the more remote Malaba crossing instead. This crossing is further north, near the Kenyan city of Eldoret. It’s still busy, but it primarily serves truck traffic (truck drivers often have to wait several days to clear customs due to the crowds).

The buses go from the border to Eldoret, stop again in Naivasha, and finally arrive in Nairobi the next day.

Visas and border formalities

Before you buy your bus ticket to cross the border, make sure you have your visa house in order. Because you’ll be using a small border crossing that sees few mzungu tourists, you should ideally try to arrange your visas in advance. When I crossed the border I didn’t see anywhere to buy a visa on arrival to Kenya, even though the government claims it’s theoretically possible.

The easiest, most hassle-free visa option is to buy an East Africa Tourist Visa (EAT Visa) from your home country. You must arrange this with the country you’ll arrive in first. It costs $100 and gives you 90-day unlimited crossings between Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. If you plan to visit all three countries it’s the cheapest option, and if you only plan to visit Uganda and Kenya it comes out to the same price as buying separate visas.

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If Uganda is the first EAT country you’ll visit, you can arrange your visa here.

With the EAT visa, you’ll simply show your passport and get stamped in/out when you arrive at the border. No money changes hands, and officials barely give your passport a second look.

The other documentation you must have to cross between Uganda and Kenya by bus is proof of yellow fever vaccination. They check everyone!

Additionally I highly recommend carrying at least $100 in USD or Ugandan currency to the border. You can change money at very fair rates while waiting to cross, and it’s not smart to arrive in Nairobi with no Kenyan shillings on you (speaking from experience!).

Taking the bus from Mbale to Nairobi step one: Buy your ticket

Mash Cool is the best Mbale to Nairobi bus company.
Mash Cool has nice coach buses and safe drivers (sorry for the terrible phone photo — didn’t feel like digging out my camera at 3 am in Naivasha).

All of the buses running the Mbale-Nairobi route travel overnight. I know, I know, you’ve been warned to never travel by road after dark in Africa. But this route doesn’t go through any wildlife areas, you’ll be out of Uganda by dusk, and the Kenyan highways are actually quite safe and empty at night.

This bus route gets almost no mzungu traffic, but it attracts tons of local travelers. So you’ll need to buy your bus ticket at least a few hours in advance. (If you get stuck and that day’s bus is sold out, there are plenty of cheap hotels in Mbale.)

A few companies run this route, but the best option is the Kenyan company Mash Bus (also called “MashPOA” and “Mash Cool” by some locals). It doesn’t have an office at the bus station. Instead, you’ll need to go to Naboa Road. Walk by the Bam Shopping Center, then go another block down until you come to a couple of banks (including a Stanbic). Keep an eye out to the left and you’ll eventually see a building with “MASH POA BOOKING OFFICE” scrawled in red graffiti-type letters — it looks like this. Turn left into the alley next to the building (between the white and orange buildings in the photo at that link), and you’ll see the door to the booking office on your left.

The easiest way to locate it is by looking for the Mash bus that is usually parked out front. If that’s not around, Easy Coach and Simba Coach also have offices near here, and usually have buses parked nearby.

The booking office can sell you a ticket for that night. It costs 40,000 Ugandan Shillings (you can also pay in Kenyan shillings) for a regular seat, or 50,000 for a VIP seat. The regular seats are plenty comfortable. You’ll select a seat number and get a specific ticket for that seat.

The bus doesn’t depart until 6 pm — with boarding at 5:30. If you have a little spare time in Mbale you can leave your bags locked up at the booking office.

Step two: Explore Mbale and grab some food for your journey

Mbale has some nice cafes and beautiful views of Mount Elgon.
Mbale isn’t a sightseeing destination, but it’s a perfectly pleasant town to explore for a couple hours.

Mbale isn’t a touristy town, but it has a big expat population. So it has a good number of nice cafes and restaurants where you can kill a few hours before your bus. It also has well-stocked grocery stores, which are worth taking advantage of. Once you’re on the bus you won’t stop for food for 12 hours.

The one must-visit spot in town is the rooftop cafe at Casa del Turista. It has beautiful views of Mount Elgon and great coffee and snacks. You’ll pay about 15,000 shillings per person for a drink and snack here.

If you want a heartier lunch, New Nurali’s Restaurant is a good Indian option. The curries are delicious and it’s very affordable. I paid 25,000 shillings for a curry/rice/naan combo.

The best supermarket in town is Republic Supermarket on Republic Street. But you can find better/fresher bus snacks at the Mbale Central Market. The market itself is a friendly place to explore if you have some time to kill. Pick up a few pieces of fruit and some chapati from the vendors outside. Try to avoid buying anything that comes in plastic bags. You’re not allowed to bring the bags into Kenya with you.

Finally, for the best third-wave coffee you’ll find outside of Kampala, check out Endiro Coffee Shop. I promise you the cappuccinos here will completely satisfy your craving.

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After wandering around town and eating and drinking to your heart’s content, head back to the booking office by 5:15. Use the restrooms around the corner before you get on the bus. It’s a good 8 hours before your next “comfort” break.

Step three: Board the bus and head to the border

At this point in your journey, you're just a few hours away from baby elephants in Nairobi.
If you’re feeling impatient with border formalities, just remember — Nairobi’s baby elephants are just a few hours away.

Around 5:45 pm, the Mash employees will start boarding everyone onto the bus. You’ll need to put any large backpacks or suitcases in the compartment underneath. The boarding process is easy and hassle-free, provided you sit in your assigned seat.

I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the Mash bus was. My seat reclined. It was well-padded and had plenty of leg room. It was at least as comfortable as any coach bus I’ve taken in the U.S. The air conditioning worked, and much to my delight/surprise, there were no TV’s blasting music videos all night.

The bus staff consists of a driver and a conductor. Make sure you know what the conductor looks like. When you get off the bus at the border, he’ll be the one to make sure you get back on in Kenya.

The drive to the border is a pleasant 90 minutes along a mostly-okay surfaced road. The sunset views over the Mount Elgon region are gorgeous from the right side of the bus. You’ll stop a few times to pick up passengers who live closer to Tororo.

Step four: Cross the border

Baby giraffes also await you in Nairobi
Okay, I only have so many photos of dingy bus stations, so you get more photos of cute animals in Nairobi.

After passing through Tororo, you’ll stay on the bus for about 10 more minutes before reaching the Malaba border. You’ll know you’re there when you see the massive line of trucks extending for hours (don’t worry, you don’t have to wait in that line).

The bus pulls up to the little one-room border hall on the Ugandan side and lets everybody out. You’ll probably stand in line for about an hour here, depending on whether there was another bus in front of you or not. Money changers approach the line to offer up Kenyan shillings. As long as you keep your guard up and know the exchange rate in your head, this is a reasonable money-changing option. The money changers seemed pretty honest and fair.

When it’s finally your turn at immigration, you’ll hand your passport over to the Ugandan agent. They’ll stamp you out quickly and send you around a quick queue to the Kenyan side. Here you’ll need to show your visa (but not your yellow fever certificate yet) to get your entrance stamp. When that’s done, you’ll walk out of the room and pass into Kenya by foot.

An immigration official will stop you before you enter the huge bus parking lot to make sure all your stamps are in order. The guy working the night I was there was extremely friendly and chatty. When he found out I was American he talked for ten minutes about Obama!

Next is the most stressful part of the border crossing — finding your bus. The parking lot is enormous, it’s dark, and plenty of touts mill about trying to get you into their vehicles. This is where knowing what your bus conductor looks like is enormously helpful. Once you locate your vehicle, you’ll have to show the conductor your ticket again and your Kenyan entrance stamp to get back on.

If you’re desperate, a handful of snack and soda vendors wait outside the coach buses. You’ll need Kenyan shillings to buy anything.

Once everyone is back on the bus, you’ll ride ten minutes down the road before being offloaded again. This is where immigration officials check yellow fever paperwork. If you don’t have it, you’ll need to get a jab on the spot.

Step five: Ride to Nairobi (with a quick break in Naivasha)

After your overnight bus in Kenya, stop at the Thorn Tree Cafe for a cup of coffee.
I don’t know about you, but good coffee is my top priority after a night bus. The Thorn Tree Cafe is near the bus stop in a safe area, and has great coffee and atmosphere.

From the border, it’s about eight hours to Nairobi. You’ll probably be across by around 10 pm to start the journey.

The bus stops very briefly in Eldoret (after about 90 minutes). You can’t get of the bus here. Another 4 hours later it stops in Naivasha for a 15-minute comfort break. The toilets here are passable and free, and if you’re really desperate, you can pick up a bus station snack.

Finally, you’ll arrive on the outskirts of Nairobi by about 6 am. Your fastest option is to get off the bus near Kikuyu on the Southern Bipass (tell the conductor where you’ll going and he’ll help you). You can take a matatu or Uber the rest of the way to your Nairobi hotel from here. Alternatively, stay on the bus all the way until it reaches central Nairobi.

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Arriving in Nairobi

If you decide to go all the way into central Nairobi, a few words of warning are in order.

The Mash bus office is on a seedy corner in the seediest part of the downtown area — east of Moi Ave near River Road. This is not a good place to find yourself on your own. Even Kenyan women avoid it.

What’s worse, the Mash office is tiny and you won’t really be able to hang out inside while you figure out what you’re doing.

The best option if you arrive here is to immediately call an Uber. In order to do this, you’ll need a SIM card from Uganda. If you had MTN in Uganda you can use Safarilink’s data network in Kenya. But it pulls from your “airtime” (calling minutes) instead of your data, so make sure you have plenty of airtime left before leaving Uganda. There is nowhere to buy a Kenyan SIM card near the booking office and no free WiFi.

If you can’t get an Uber, your best option is to walk a few blocks to a safer area to hail a taxi or matatu. To do this, walk directly down Accra Road towards Moi Ave. You’ll pass all the long-haul matatus and eventually reach the back of the National Archives building. Due to the matatus, there are enough people out for it to feel slightly less dodgy even if you’re unlucky enough to arrive on a Sunday morning.

From here you’re in safer territory, and you can walk around the park surrounding the Archives to reach the heart of the Central Business District. If you’re feeling fried by the overnight bus and hectic arrival, the lovely and legendary Thorn Tree Cafe is just 3 blocks from here and is an essential (if expensive) coffee stop.

If you didn’t heed my earlier advice and crossed the border with no cash, you’ll need to find an ATM at this point. A reliable option with guards that doesn’t have a street view is the Stanbic at Kenyatta Ave and Kimathi Street.

Taxis hang out around the Ambassador Hotel (bargain hard). This is the best option if you’re staying in Westlands or the CBD. But if you’re staying in Karen, look for Bus #24 right outside the Ambassador Hotel. It costs just 100 shillings and takes around half an hour.

Where to stay in Nairobi after your Mbale-Nairobi bus journey

Milimani Backpackers is the best hostel in Nairobi.
If you’re looking for a cheap, homey place to stay, Milimani Backpackers is a good bet.

You’ll probably be pretty exhausted from your overnight bus trip, so good accommodation in Nairobi is a must!

My favorite place to stay in the city is Wildebeest Eco Camp. They have an absolutely stunning property with a pool, leafy gardens, free WiFi and an open-air dining area in a safe corner of Langata. You’ll be a ten-minute walk from a junction where you can grab a matatu to anywhere in town. Prices start at just $12 a night camping with breakfast included. The food is amazing too — definitely splurge for the buffet dinner.

The one thing Wildebeest Eco Camp doesn’t have is good-value private rooms. So if you’re on a budget and want your own space, opt for Milimani Backpackers instead. This hostel is in an even safer and more convenient location (read: gated community). It’s owned and managed by a friendly local woman. You’ll feel right at home with the cozy living room and communal dining area. Prices start at $25 for private rooms, but dorms and camping are also available.

Finally, don’t just hide in your hotel when you visit Nairobi! The city may be intimidating for first-time visitors. And after the Mbale to Nairobi bus journey it might not make the best first impression. But there’s tons to do here and it’s actually quite a friendly and pleasant city. After arriving and getting to my guesthouse the first time, I never once felt unsafe. Don’t miss the elephant orphanage, giraffe center, Bomas of Kenya, the Kenyatta Conference Center and Nairobi National Park. Check out my one day Nairobi itinerary here!

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East Africa travel doesn't have to be difficult. You can take the bus from Uganda to Kenya via Mbale and Nairobi with no hassle at all. Learn about the Kenya border crossing and how to get around once you arrive in Nairobi. #africa #travel

Read more about Uganda here

Read more about Kenya here

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Margarida Vasconcelos
2 years ago

I also travelled by bus between the two countries, twice :). I stayed at the same hostel too. thank you for sharing it.

Margarida Vasconcelos
2 years ago

I also travelled by bus, always. I stayed at the same hostel and visited the elephant orphanage too 🙂

Francesca
2 years ago

This is such a handy post! I think it’s so important to not rule out travel overland. Not only do you get to see a more intimate and close-up side to the countries you’re passing through but you’re also cutting down on your carbon footprint!

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