The Nairobi Backpackers’ Experience
The combination of a friendly and comfortable backpackers’ lodge and some beguiling attractions has enticed me to spend an extra couple of days in Nairobi on more than one occasion. When traveling through Kenya or East Africa, you might find yourself passing through Nairobi with some frequency due to its status as a transportation hub. Often visitors view this as a necessary weigh station on their way to a safari or the beach; however, the city has become traveler-friendly in many respects.
Nairobi is also a great place to connect with the human aspects of this diverse nation. There are more than 40 tribes in Kenya. That diversity adds up to a rich cultural mix that is evident in the streets of Nairobi. There are cultural villages, artisan cooperatives, and lively markets to indulge your curiosity, and a variety of sights and activities to suit almost every taste. An afternoon at the Kenyatta Market, just west of the Upper Hill Commercial District, is a good place to sample some favorite local dishes from Ugali, a cornmeal paste, to Nyama Choma, or roasted meat.
While there are some legitimate concerns about security for travelers in Nairobi, it is just necessary to take normal precautions. Don’t go wandering about alone and on foot at night. However, walking during the daytime is generally safe in most areas of the city.
Finally, a couple of days to acclimatize isn’t a bad idea. Nairobi sits at 1,795 meters (5,889 ft). This isn’t an extreme level of altitude, but is enough that it might give you a bit of fatigue beyond the normal jetlag.
In general, the people in Nairobi are hospitable and helpful; however, many are in need of making a living, so it seems reasonable to them that you as a foreigner should pay higher rates than a local person. When hiring a car or visiting the local market, it is a good idea to educate yourself beforehand as to the fair price of things.
Before you go
Most visitors to Kenya only need a passport and can purchase a visa upon arrival at the airport. Passport holders from many African and some Asian countries do not need visas to enter Kenya. If you come from a country that has tense relations with Kenya, you may be required to take some additional steps in the clearing process, so it’s best to plan ahead.
For more information on visas, check out the following resources:
Before going to Kenya it is a good idea to visit your travel medicine doc about 6 weeks out. Some of the vaccines that may be advised require a series of shots. Nairobi itself is not a malaria zone; however, many of the low-lying areas in the country are, so you may want to take a course of anti-malarials if you will be traveling around the country. It is also possible to buy inexpensive anti-malarials that are considered reliable in Kenya.
- Check the CDC site to see what is advised for vaccinations and health purposes.
The local currency is the Kenyan shilling, and money can be converted at banks, department stores, and licensed currency exchanges. ATMs in banks are usually guarded and are also generally safe for withdrawing funds, although it is recommended that you do so during the daytime. The exchange rates fluctuate, so it is a good idea to check the rates before making an exchange. Street exchanges are considered risky.
How to get there
International flight enter Kenya via Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Some of the major airlines flying to Kenya include:
- From Australia – Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, and Qatar Airlines,
- From Europe – British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Lufthansa, Kenya Airways, Condor and TUlfly,
- From the North America – British Airways, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Lufthansa
If you are arriving by air, I recommend taking an official taxi from the airport to where you’re staying. Most lodges will also offer airport pick-up. How much you may want to use the services offered may be determined by your travel budget. An official taxi, with a yellow-stripe on the side, is easily obtained and then you can avoid paying the additional costs incurred by having the driver from the lodge stand around and wait while you clear customs.
Find a flight to Nairobi
There is a learning curve to using public transportation in Nairobi. If you’re staying at a friendly backpackers’ lodge like the Wildebeest Eco-Camp in the Lang’ata area, then other travelers and camp staff will help you learn where to catch buses and what the routes are. In Kenya, it is a legal requirement for all public service vehicles, matatus, buses, and taxis to have the yellow stripe on the side with passengers’ capacity and licensed route written on the stripe.
Many visitors refer to all of the buses as matatus, little privately-owned mini-vans that are definitely the cheapest ride in town, sometimes for as little as $0.35USD per ride, but they also can give you your craziest Nairobi experience. If you like adventure and are on a budget, you may want to rely on these as your primary mode of transportation. However, many of the buses aren’t really Matatus. There are larger buses that cost a little more, starting at $1 USD per 30-minute ride, are a little slower, and generally more law-abiding.
“Taking public transportation can be a very good experience,” said Joseph Makau, a local resident. “Buses are the most reliable in terms of routes, timetables, and safety. The cost is fixed for given routes and bus stages. The matatus are riskier, but the cost is generally less depending on the time of the day. For instance, when the morning or evening rush hour is on, the prices are double what you’ll pay during the mid-day when traffic is flowing smoothly. It is good to inquire at your camp or hotel about matatu routes rather than asking strangers in Nairobi, which can be very risky.”
There is a government effort to reduce traffic congestion by phasing out 14-seater matatus by not registering new ones. It is a subject of much controversy amongst city commuters.
Good for some routes such as Mombasa and Kisumu via Nairobi.
There are flights on a daily basis to the Mara, Eldoret, Nanyuki, and beyond to Uganda and Ethiopia. Up-to-date costs for the different routes are best obtained through websites for airlines such as Kenya Airways and Fly 540.
Taxis are a better bet at night and offer security for a little more money. Once you have used a driver and trust them you can take their cell number and gain reliable transport when you need. Costs are on average $16USD for a half-hour.
Walking is safe in most areas during the day. It’s a little dusty, and watch for traffic as vehicles seem to always have the right-of-way. Do not expect cars to give way even on the sidewalks! If you do get lost, a hotel or bank guard usually can give advice.
Check out the following sites for more transportation related information:
Where to Stay
Whether you are staying in a youth hostel, a home, or a tented camp, the common element in the backpacker experience is the opportunity to burst the little travel bubble that isolates one from the locals and other travelers. If you want to share travel stories and experience a taste of the local life, you’re much better off starting with a backpackers’ lodge. You might share a communal dorm room, pitch a tent, or stay in a permanent private tent, but one of the great advantages to a backpackers’ lodge is the common area where you can take meals, share ideas, get to know your fellow travelers, and get ideas for connecting with local people and the culture.
Many lodges and camps offer local tours and safaris. You can choose to create a do-it-yourself plan for exploring. This will save you some cash. The trade-off is that the local guides employed by the lodges are usually quite knowledgeable. You can find the right balance for you and your budget and interests.
On my first visit to Nairobi I had the good fortune to fall into the Wildebeest Eco Camp. The staff was warm and friendly – even after I asked what was surely more than my fair allotment of questions. The garden setting offered a respite from the throb of the city, and the food was good, clean, and affordable.
On my second visit the Wildebeest had relocated to the Lang’ata area, which is quite convenient to myriad attractions but a bit farther from the city center. The owners Alan and Lynita greeted me warmly and remembered my previous visit. I felt like I was like returning to visit my Nairobi relatives. Even on the nights when they were fully booked and grilling meat for the crowd, they remembered to throw a fish on the barbeque to accommodate my diet.
On my most recent trip, I was changing my travel plan as I went along, but the Wildebeest always managed to find a space for me. I was open to staying in whatever type of accommodation they had available from a communal tent to a deluxe camp. However, I think the garden tents with their two twin beds, safe-deposit boxes, electricity, and shared bathroom areas are a good value at $40US. The Wildebeest Camp, like other backpackers’ lodges, can arrange tours, safaris, or community service projects for their guests.
Check out the following accommodation options:
- Wildebeest Eco-Camp – Lang’ata Nairobi. Accommodations range from camping tents to permanent dorm tents (shared) to deluxe garden tents with private baths. Cost range from $11.88 to $71.26 USD. Amenities include dining, Internet, friendly staff, safety deposit boxes, city tours, volunteer connections, and safaris.
- Bush House and Camp – Karen, Nairobi. Accommodations range from camping accommodations from $11.00 to single rooms with shared bath to special suites with private bath. Costs range from $25.-$100USD. Amenities include: conference facilities, weddings, and prayer meetings.
- UpperHill Campsite and Backpackers– Lavington, Nairobi. UpperHill provides driver services, trekking, safari setups, and has a full restaurant on site as well as a bar with a sound-controlled disco. Prices range from $63 USD for a private ensuite family room that sleeps 2 adults and 2 children to $5USD for camping on the grounds using your own equipment.
- Nairobi International Youth Hostel– Ralph Bunche Rd., Nairobi. 96 beds, both shared and private rooms. Amenities include: Internet, airport pickup and an outdoor patio. Convenient to city and located in secure residential area. Costs are from $9USD.
- In addition to the above listed lodges, Couchsurfing is a growing phenomenon in Nairobi.
Find a hostel in Nairobi
What to Do
A couple of days in Nairobi can help acquaint you with the flavor of East Africa – from the food and culture to the wildlife.
The Masaai Market travels to different locations depending on the day of the week. Vendors set up stalls across the parking lot and do business from 8am to 6pm.
Locations vary, but here are some of the most common places to find the Massai Market:
- Tuesday – WestGate Shopping Mall, off Kijabe Street
- Wednesday – Capital Centre, Mombasa Road.
- Thursday – The Junction, 3rd floor parking
- Friday – Village Market, Limuru Road.
- Saturday – Law Courts Parking, City Centre.
- Sunday – Law Courts Parking, City Centre.
- – Safari Park Hotel, Thika Road.
- – Yaya Centre, Argwings Kodhek Road.
The Nairobi National Park is world famous for its sheer wildness and the fact that it lies only 7 kilometers outside of the city. The habitats within the park offer a refuge for many species, from larger mammals such as elephants, rhinos, and lions to smaller reptiles and a variety of birds. The entrance fee for non-citizens is a little steep at $40 US, but if it’s the only safari you plan, it’s a bargain.
However, if you’re looking to get out and about for just a couple of hours and save a little money, strolling along the Nairobi Safari Walk, adjacent to the national park, is a great introduction to the animals of East Africa and a less expensive alternative at $20 US.
The Kazuri beads can be purchased at various locations throughout the city, but a visit to the factory in Karen also shows successful community development in action. This community co-op offers tour of the jewelry and pottery making factories and a chance to meet the local artisans. The jewelry and pottery makes wonderful gifts to take back home.
One of the most popular attractions in Nairobi is the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, also located near Nairobi National Park. This sheltered environment provides some sweet photo ops, but it also offers a glimpse of the realities of modern wildlife conservation. The baby elephants are cute. The stories of how they arrived in this protected place are not. You can foster an elephant for $50 USD a year and take a stand in the conservation wars.
This is an amazing place doing beautiful work. At the very least I would recommend visiting the website. If you sponsor a baby elephant they are very good at sending monthly reports with fabulous photographs. The orphanage is located in Karen and is open for visitors daily from 11:00-12 a.m. It is lovely to watch the handlers feed the babies their milk from a giant bottle. Cost is $7 USD.
At the Giraffe Center in Karen, you can climb up the observation platform and feed the giraffes. If you would like to see those long eye-lashes up close, this is your place! The cost is $9 USD.
Uhuru Park Speaker’s Corner
See one of the places where Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, known for her Green Belt movement, started her hunger strike to protect green space in the city. Uhuru means freedom in Swahili. This spot has become known as Freedom Corner and it is not uncommon to hear people speaking on the concerns of the day.
Check out the following sites, articles, and resources to learn more about what to do in Kenya:
- Kenya for the Indie Traveler
- 7 Affordable Places to Go on an African Safari
- Book an adventure trip in Kenya
- Nairobi: What You Need to Know
- Cost of Traveling in Kenya
- Nairobi City Guide
- The Masaai Market
- Kenyatta Market – Visit the market stalls, eat, and get your hair done all in one place.
- Carnivore – Lang’ata, Nairobi. Upscale Nyama Choma and one of the most famous restaurants in Africa. Adults $30-34USD, not including drinks. Also the Simba Saloon is just next door and also worth a visit.
- Anghiti Restaurant – Westlands, Nairobi. Widely acclaimed Indian food that includes vegetarian offerings. Costs range from $7 – 14USD for main dish.
- Veranda – Lang’ata, Nairobi. A small garden oasis with excellent food. The seafood is highly recommended.
- Talisman – Karen, Nairobi. This restaurant prides itself on the freshest ingredients possible — a gourmet experience. Costs on main dishes range from $7-14 USD