While Kenya is most famous for safaris in the beautiful and vast Maasai Mara or climbing Mount Kenya, Africa’s highest mountain, the coast in the east of the country has just as much thrill to offer.
When I was working in Nairobi with the NGO “Real Stars” , I managed to travel to the coast as well. I also ended up almost drowning after catching Malaria.
This guide will let you see the best of Kenya’s coast and craft your trip just the way you like it, while hopefully staying safe and healthy.
Let us start in the main city of the east, Mombasa. As an ancient port city and safe pirate hideaway for centuries, not anymore, it has kept a lot of its old charm. It is Kenya’s oldest city (900 AD) and second largest with 1.4 Million people and also has a huge port. Goods for Uganda, Rwanda, Congo and Kenya all first touch African soil in Mombasa if they come by ship.
Mombasa was handed over to the British by the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1898 and it was the first Kenyan capital before they moved it to Nairobi. The reasons were the swampy grounds and humid weather. And that is also the first thing you notice coming from Nairobi. While the present capital sits at almost 2000m, Mombasa is right by the Indian Ocean and the weather behaves accordingly. Just imagine perfect beach weather most of the year!
Due to the early Arab settlers that came down south from Oman, the influence they had on the city’s architecture is still vividly obvious today. It is one of the highlights of the city to explore the old town with all the little shops and restaurants before taking a look at Fort Jesus. Built by the Portuguese in 1593-1596 and designed by Italian architect Cairati, Fort Jesus is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is partly damaged but still a great display of old Portuguese military architecture laid out in the shape of a man, hence the name.
During British rule, many Indians were transported to Mombasa to build among others projects the Ugandan Railway. Many great Indian restaurants can still be found in the city of which Shehnai Restaurant has the most delicious food.
For amazing handcrafted goods try Yusufi Antiques & Gallery or the Akamba Handicraft Industry Cooperative Society. Lots of masks and wood carvings from all of Africa are for sale there.
The Mombasa Carnival in November is Kenya’s biggest festival and a great demonstrations of local tribes. For more entertainment venture to the Golden Key Casino, where a bit of gambling literally for cents will give you free drinks and food. Diani Beach, a 30 min taxi ride south of Mombasa is another tourist hot spot. Most resorts sit at this stretch of coast and feature various nightclubs and outdoor bars.
After some time in Mombasa, I took the bus north to Malindi, where I arrived after 2 hours and paying around 3 Euros.
Almost as old as Mombasa, Malinda has been a Swahili settlement since the 13th century. Among others Chinese explorers, a Kurdish geographer and Vasco Da Gama came for a visit. The Last one, before he started his journey to India, erected a coral pillar, which stands still today. It is a popular tourist destination in Malindi. Buy your ticket at the Malindi Museum and you will have access to both, then take a tuktuk to the pillar and enjoy the obvious history at this place but also magnificent views.
Due to its multicultural history, the old town center is an interesting place to stroll through, too. Nevertheless not much of the old buildings has been preserved well. Some of them are simply cheap restaurants or run down hotels. In one of those I found my place for the night. Trying to save as much as I could, I took the cheapest offer for 3 Euros a night and one with many holes in the mosquito net. I woke up with a hundred bites and a week later, after my coastal trip, I actually came down with the most terrible headaches I have ever had. I went to a pharmacy to test my blood and they found malaria parasites. Since I had saved money again on standby medicine that would cost 50 Euros in Germany, I bought the cheaper Chinese version in Nairobi for 50 Cents and hoped for the best. For some reason it actually worked and some days later I was as good as new.
I blame that cheap hotel in Malindi for getting Malaria and I suggest you to always protect yourself from mosquitos in Kenya but especially on the coast. Don’t save on your health!
However, Malindi also has a more beautiful wildlife experience to offer. The Malindi Marine Park is perfect for snorkeling and also offers fabulous diving. Just 20 minutes south you will find the Watamu Marine National Park, THE diving hotspot in Kenya. With green turtles laying their eggs in the area above water, in the water the coral is a refuge for octopus and eel and a massive semi-tame moray. Whale sharks pass through each year from October to February, with good sightings reported each day. While in the area you should visit the Gede Ruins, showing how life was in a medieval swahili-arab town.
Don’t be like me and avoid the cheap hotels in the city but instead stay in of the many affordable beach bungalows right by the water. Airbnb offers the best value for money. If you don’t have an account yet, sign up here and get a discount on your first booking: Sign Up!
My journey continued and I had yet to arrive where I wanted to go to most. The next morning I took another bus, this time for 9 Euros as it would be a 7-hour journey. I love travelling over land so it was the logical choice for me. But you can also book your flight with FLy540 or Silverstone Air for approx. 30Euros one way. Flights leave daily and include the speedboat transfer from Lamu Airport on the main land to Lamu Island. It will take you 25 minutes.
I however enjoyed my bus ride as you will pass through many little towns and villages where women and children will try to sell you their fruits through open windows. You will see how the landscape is slowly changing to a drier vegetation while less and less villages appear in the area. The road was also quite bumpy and once in the middle of the jungle I could not hold it any longer. I asked the bus driver to stop and with my prepared toilet paper went behind the next tree. The whole bus was waiting while I did my business. After eating a strange breakfast it simply could not be postponed any longer. Relieved we continued our journey and reached the port in the late afternoon. An old but efficient ferry brought us over. Note that in the past some of these ferries have sunk and usually the locals don’t know how swim. Each time it is a tragedy with many people drowning. Fortunately we made it across safe.
In 2010 a UNESCO report labelled Lamu as one of 10 UNESCO world heritage sites that are most “On the Verge” of irreparable loss and damage. Insufficient management and development pressure have been the main causes. All through Lamu you can see great potential of the whole city being an open museum but you will also see lots of ruins and historical houses falling apart. However sad that is, it does give the place a special atmosphere. No cars are allowed on the island and so close to 3000 donkeys transport goods and people. There are also 30 mosques on the island, spread out between the two main towns Shela and Lamu. The population is mostly Muslim. All in all, walking across the island feels like you have traveled back in time. Emerge yourself in the local life and you will experience it how it has been for hundreds of years. The first night I had a great dorm in the JamboHouse Lamu, less than 10 Euros a night and close the center with a rooftop terrace for great views. The next day I walked with my backpack to Shela, the southern part of Lamu Island. I was looking for even less tourists and a more authentic atmosphere. It was also the starting point for my planned expedition to snorkel with whale sharks.
North of Lamu lies Manda Island and behind that one Manda Toto, small Manda. I had heard that between the two Manda Islands whale sharks pass the channel on a regular basis along with other interesting fish. My plan was to swim from Shela to Manda, then walk across the island and go snorkeling on the other side. I prepared a plastic bag with some money and a shirt and went to the beach. It looked like barely 100 meters to cross the channel and I started with high hopes. As it was midday right on the equator, the sun was at the highest possible point and burned me like a huge laser pointer. I noticed that after almost an hour I had not even reached half way but instead was drifting in the open ocean. The tide had turned and made this little trip a whole lot more adventurous. It took me another hour of hard swimming and praying before I reached Manda. I actually thought I had just escaped drowning.
Things didn’t get much better on the other side though. The sand was burning hot and I had not shoes. So i searched the trash that had washed ashore and finally found 2 not too broken sandals, each a different size. I was hot and thirsty. I followed the only path that led away from the beach inland. A bushy landscape with the occasional fruit tree didn’t offer much shade. At a small farm house I asked for water and the locals were happy to help. They also showed me the way to the little settlement where I could buy more. Months before the terror organization Al Shabab from Somalia had kidnapped tourists from resorts in that area but I surely didn’t look like a lot of money.
When I reached the beach and saw Lamu on the other side I felt already much better. I had no energy for snorkeling anymore but one more swim across was still ok. Saving money was a good motivation. The second time was much easier but I was done for the day.
If you plan a similar trip, local fishermen will bring you to all those little islands for not more than 25 Euros including a delicious lunch with freshly caught fish on a sandbank. Next to Shela you will also find huge sandbanks and an old fortress.
After a total of 5 days on Lamu Island i made my way back to Nairobi from where I took a bus to Lake Victoria to celebrate New Year’s Eve with some friends. There I noticed my Malaria for the first time and left the old year as sick as you can be. It could only get better.
However the coast of Kenya offered me all the adventures I had hoped for and then some more. It is culturally rich and the nature is diverse and definitely worth your visit.
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