Welcome to Kenya: one of the most incredibly visceral and eye-opening travel destinations on Earth. It’s all too easy to try and descriptively paint this fascinating country in monochromatic hues like “adventure destination,” “coastal getaway” or “safari capital.” In fact, for those tens of thousands of visitors coming solely to vacation in a more-or-less stable and developed East African nation, that’s pretty much the only side of the country you’ll be presented with. Now don’t get us wrong; in many respects these descriptors are completely accurate, and they’re a big part of the reason why Kenya’s tourism (and coffee)-based economy has been so prosperous compared to the rest of the region. But as with most things, the real story of this proud, beautiful, culturally diverse country is infinitely more complex.
Pick a city. Nairobi? Mombasa? You won’t need to walk far down its streets, or drive in pretty much any direction away from its borders, to realize that, despite undeniable signs of growth and development, this is still very much a poor country. In fact, the Kibera slums in Nairobi, one of the largest urban slums in all of Africa, have even turned into something of a tourist attraction these days. Now take a minute to check the national Kenyan news. It’s not unheard of to hear stories about widespread political corruption, or some cowardly fundamentalist attack on a bus station, nightclub or shopping mall - the painful remnants of both European colonialism and the religious extremism that plagues much of this part of the world. Here you might be thinking, “Why could they possibly be telling me this? Do they want to deter me from going to Kenya altogether?” And the answer, of course, is no. From both a contemporary and historical perspective, there are countless reasons to explore Kenya's incredible cultural makeup: its rich tribal heritage, its tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity, its friendly residents who are fiercely proud of their home and independence, its tangible, industrious drive towards modernity. But as anyone who knows the area will tell you, the best way to truly get off the beaten path and appreciate this abundance of cultural goodness is to first be aware of the often uncomfortable realities you may encounter when you do.
As for Kenya’s natural splendor, however; that’s another story entirely. Imagine watching the sun rise above the African continent at 17,000 feet, scuba diving with reef sharks and sea turtles in the temperate waters of the Indian Ocean or witnessing the migration of 2 million wildebeests as they venture across the open plains of the Maasai Mara. That's just a small taste of the country's mind-blowing arsenal of adventure possibilities. The diversity in both landscapes and wildlife here is undeniably breathtaking, and allows visitors to observe and experience spectacles of Mother Nature that simply cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. Have we sweetened the pot enough for you? Good. Then pack the boots and the camera and a sense of adventure, and prep yourself for a journey into one of Africa’s most culturally and geographically exciting destinations. It may not always be pretty, but even at its most challenging Kenya can’t help but amaze.
Unless you hail from a select group of African or Central American countries, you’ll need a visa to enter Kenya’s borders. On the plus side, visitors from most of these nations can purchase their necessary documentation at the airport upon landing in Nairobi for around $50 USD. To see where your country stands, click here.
Kenya utilizes a currency called the shilling, abbreviated KES. Exchange rates tend to be favorable for just about anyone using one of the world’s major currencies, including .011 USD / .009 EUR / .007 GBP. For up to the minute exchange rates, click here.
Contemporary Kenyan politics operates within the structure of a presidential representative democratic republic, in which executive power is held by an elected president, while legislative power resides within the national parliament. There is also an independent judiciary headed up by a presidentially-nominated chief justice. To date, though its government functions with remarkable stability given the region, Kenya continues to be plagued by political corruption – the hallmark of post-colonial nations. Unless you’re living here, however, this reality will likely go unnoticed. For those interested in learning more, check out the official government site.
The number of spoken languages in Kenya numbers well into the 60s, though its two officially recognized tongues are Swahili and English. Those fluent in the latter will easily be able to navigate all aspects of contemporary Kenya in and around its two main cities, Nairobi and Mombasa, with lessening degrees of success expected the further one moves north and west. And though foreigners will practically never be expected to converse in Swahili, it never hurts to try. After all, as with just about anywhere you travel, locals will always appreciate an honest effort to learn. Here’s a good site to help get you started.
OK, we’ll admit that on paper Kenya may not look like the safest bet for a stint abroad. Though its government is stable and economic conditions are certainly better than in decades past, poverty is still very much a reality for many Kenyans and a destabilized East Africa adds a bit of impending chaos to the mix. Crimes here run the gamut from pickpocketing and armed robbery to kidnapping and terrorist attacks (mostly orchestrated by militant Islamist fundamentalists in neighboring Somalia) and in general, unless you’re feeling particularly driven or possess an intimate knowledge of both the land and the people, the north-easternmost regions of the country should be avoided altogether.
Still, off-putting as that may sound, it’s important to recognize that the bulk of visitors to this beautiful country leave with nothing but fantastic memories and a strong desire to return. Want to count yourself as one of them? Then take extra precautions not to display flashy clothing or accessories, be vigilant when walking at night or traveling by road and keep yourself up to date on warnings issued from the State Department or other official government agencies. A little extra awareness and knowledge of your destination will make all the difference here.
Getting to and fro in Kenya, like many countries on the African continent, can be something of a tricky, time consuming process. If you’re in a hurry, Kenya Airways provides relatively inexpensive daily flights from Nairobi to major cities like Mombasa, Malindi and Kisumu. Otherwise, the vast and often poorly maintained network of roads/paths that traverses the country’s landscape offers a daunting and sometimes dangerous (due to the possibility of encountering either reckless drivers and/or nighttime carjackers) challenge for motorists. Should time not be an issue, consider bypassing the jeep or bus altogether and hop a ride on the nostalgic, colonial era Rift Valley Railway. Sure it may take the better part of 24 hours to get from Nairobi from Mombasa, but it’s hard to beat the moonlit view of Tsavo National Park from your sleeper car.
As for getting around within cities, you’ll find that Kenya’s public transportation errs a bit on the rudimentary side. Busses, jam packed commuter trains and creative variations on the taxi like the 3-wheeled tuk-tuk and the minivan-esque matatus will pretty much be your only available options in both Nairobi and Mombasa, and good luck finding mapped out routes to follow. Regardless, though the system may not be ideal, take comfort in the fact that inevitably you’ll find your way from Point A to Point B.
Kenya’s weather, as you might expect being an equatorial country, calls for plenty of sun and warm temperatures pretty much year round. Sounds tough, we know. You can find snow atop the 17,000+ ft Mt Kenya, but otherwise precipitation comes in fairly limited doses (usually during the months of April/May and November/December). In general, there are four climatic regions in the country: the hot and rainy western plateaus, the temperate, central Rift Valley highlands (Nairobi), the arid, scorched northern bushlands and the consistently humid coastal region (Mombasa). Suffice to say, whenever you plan on visiting, pack plenty of short sleeved shirts and sunscreen.
Though there are pockets of wealth, Kenya is predominantly a low-income country for the vast majority of its citizens. That said, tips will go a long way in both aiding the local economy and ensuring that your service (especially for, say, room cleaning) will be top notch. Be ready to tip a minimum of 15% in bars and restaurants, 500-1,000 KES for hotel staff (that’s a combined total per week), and 300-500 KES per person per day on guided treks and safaris. Don’t worry, when converted into your own currency these will be marginal sums at best, and keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to give the money directly to the intended recipient him/herself.
As for traditional mealtimes, there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. Kenyans usually consume breakfast around 6-9am, lunch around 12-2pm and dinner around 7-10pm. And if you’re eating customary foods, prep yourself for plenty of kale, Ugali, fish, beef, goat, coffee and tea.
You have to be 18 to legally purchase and/or consume alcohol in Kenya, a market which is increasing as the Kenyan middle class grows slowly but steadily larger. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there is a sizable Muslim population in Kenya, for whom the consumption of alcoholic beverages is not allowed. Still, you’ll find an abundance of nationally brewed lagers and pilsners at your disposal, just about all of them produced by either Tusker or White Cap and most sold in large .5 liter bottles. Almost all wine sold here is imported; however, depending where you venture, you may be able to sample homemade bush beer (called pombe) and palm wine (called tembo). And whatever you do, stay away from the sometimes-literally lethal (due to the occasional addition of things like jet fuel and embalming fluid) Chang’aa. Just know that it’s a kind of Kenyan hard liquor and leave it at that.
Kenya proudly lays claim to the environmental, social and political activist Wangari Maathai. In 2004, she became the first African woman ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: an honor given for her work promoting sustainable development and democratic ideals in Africa. Considering all the continent’s remaining social struggles and shrinking natural habitats, let’s hope there are a lot more of her type waiting in the wings.
Peak season:June - September
Currency:Kenyan Shilling (KES)
Lamu Cultural Festival
The Lamu Cultral Festival is a welcome mainstay amid Kenya's sparse and sometimes inconsistently observed list of cultural celebrations. If you happen to find yourself near this coastal northern archipelago during the month of November, don't miss out on the opportunity to participate in the 3-day revelry, which includes traditional tribal dances, races and handicraft exhibits. Online information is usually readily available from year to year, but feel free check out our link if you're looking for a more detailed look at this noteworthy celebration.
Rift Valley Music Festival
Started in 2010, the Rift Valley Music Festival has ballooned into Kenya's largest live music event, set on the scenic shores of Lake Naivasha 90 km northwest of Nairobi. Sometimes referred to as just the Rift Valley Festival (or RVF), not only does this 3-day/3-stage event celebrate music and heritage throughout the region but it also works hard to promote educational and environmental awareness throughout the rest of the year. That's a double win. Look for dates to fall annually between late August and early September.
December 12 may just be the most important day to remember on the Kenyan calendar. Dubbed Jamhuri Day, not only does this national holiday commemorate Kenya's independence from the British Empire (1963) but it also marks the day on which the country became an officially recognized republic one year later (1964). If you find yourself in pretty much any civilized area of the country during this time, expect to witness parades, fireworks, dancing and a host of other cool cultural goings on.
Lake Turkana Festival
Granted you probably aren't planning your trip to Kenya around the small village Loiyangalani on the southeastern shores of Lake Turkana. Still, if you find yourself in the neighborhood during the month of May, you'll be privy to one of the country's most engaging and enjoyable celebrations of culture: the Lake Turkana Festival. Every year, multiple tribes and ethnic communities from around Kenya converge for 3 days of dancing, singing and (most importantly) healing tribal divides that still linger in the region. If you can manage the distance, you'll likely experience one of the most incredible cultural displays this East African nation has to offer.