In the late 1990s, Kenya was reeling: South Africa had stepped out from the shadow of apartheid, Botswana and Namibia were emerging as two of Africa's hottest high-end destinations, and the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam cast a dark pall over the region. What a difference a few years can make. Despite a wave of post-election violence in 2007 and early 2008, Africa's original safari destination is starting to come back, from the luxury campsites springing up across the Masai Mara to remote island resorts and swank eco-lodges tucked into some of the country's most secluded corners.
LAY OF THE LAND
Most first-time visits to Kenya begin in the south, for the abundant wildlife and eye-popping scenery in areas like the Masai Mara and Amboseli. Further north, where Mount Kenya's 17,000-foot beacon beams, the landscape is dominated by the cool central highlands: a fertile farming region that is the geographic and economic heart of Kenya. To the west is the Great Rift Valley, one of the planet's most spectacular tectonic scars, stretching for thousands of miles down the length of the continent. Here you'll find some of the country's most dramatic scenery, from rugged escarpments and green-cloaked cliffs to lush valleys and soda lakes that draw Kenya's celebrated bird life. Further west, along the Ugandan border, is the green, sultry region around Lake Victoria. Its opposite pole is the equally steamy Indian Ocean coast, which has some of East Africa's finest beaches and is steeped in Swahili culture. The north remains Kenya's most intriguing region, where desolate landscapes, and the remarkable "Jade Sea," Lake Turkana, remain far off the beaten tourist track. However, travelers should use caution in the northern region due to the presence of bandits. Avoid public transportation in the region.
WHEN TO GO
Kenya's four seasons revolve around the rains. The rainy seasons typically last from March through June and November into December. While you'd do well to steer clear in April, May, and Juneespecially along the coast, where most resorts close up shopNovember can be a great time to go bargain-hunting. Low-season rates abound, and the short rains can be sporadic. The long dry season from July to October coincides with the annual wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara; not surprisingly, it's accompanied by a stampede of tourists. You'll want to plan well ahead: Most of the top camps get booked up months in advance. August brings waves of tourists to the coast, but the silt-filled water and seaweed-fringed beaches can be disappointing. The short dry season (January through early March) is the best time to visit, when the weather is hot and clear throughout most of the country, and the coastal conditions are optimal. Things kick off with a frenetic rush during the Christmas holiday season, when prices skyrocket and rooms are hard to come by. The weather remains ideal throughout January and February, and often into March, when shoulder season rates can bring some surprising steals.
HOW TO GET THERE
Flights to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the main port of entry in Kenya, are invariably routed through Europe from North America. Most airlines have stopovers in London or Amsterdam before proceeding to Nairobi. British Airways (www.britishairways.com), Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com), and KLM Royal Dutch (www.klm.com) are the top European carriers; Northwest Airlines (www.nwa.com), a KLM partner, offers reliable rates from North America. It's often cheaper to buy direct flights to London or Amsterdam before connecting to Nairobi, though in the high seasonespecially around the holidaysbargains and seats are both in short supply.
Thanks to growing demand from the luxury market, flying around the country is faster, easier, and more convenient than in the past. Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), Air Kenya (www.airkenya.com), Safarilink (www.safarilink-kenya.com), and newcomer Fly540 (www.fly540.com) offer daily flights between major cities and most game parks. Kenya's major carriers are generally comfortable and reliable, and considered to be among Africa's safest. Alternatively, private charter flights coast into the airstrips of the country's most exclusiveand remotelodges, provided you've got money to burn. Traveling by road offers an opportunity to enjoy the spectacular scenery as it unfolds, but it can take a hefty toll on your car, your backside, and your wallet. Arranging for a driver is recommendedespecially in remote regions, where directions can be confusingand 4WD is a must.
While hardly suggested for any but the bravest souls, Kenya's ubiquitous matatus (shared taxis) careen around the country at an alarming speed, whisking passengers between the farthest-flung locales (and, sadly, involving themselves in plenty of pileups in the process). You're sure to see those little white minivans whirling about the country, along with a chaotic caravan of beat-up buses, timeworn taxis, and trucks that shuttle passengers, livestock, and any other unfortunate cargo across the country's bumpy roads. A matatu ride can be as adventurous as any safari, but you should probably skip it.
Tune into the radio or pick up a local paper (www.nationmedia.com/dailynation), and you'll see that crimeoften violentis a fact of life for many Kenyans, especially in urban areas. But most of the dangers are far from the usual tourist centers of gravity, and crimes typically occur in impoverished, densely populated slums (like Nairobi's infamous Kibera). Major cities are well policed, and a bit of common sense should ward off potential trouble. You'd still do well to take a taxi at night in Nairobi and Mombasa, but the worst you should expect to encounter is a con man offering discount safaris or claiming to be a Sudanese refugee.
Since the Nairobi embassy bombing of 1998, Kenya has invariably found itself on the U.S. State Department's travel advisory list. It's worth keeping abreast of the latest warnings, though it's doubtful you'll encounter much ill will toward Americans. The 200708 post-election violence likewise cast an unflattering spotlight on the country, but in the wake of a peace deal, life for most Kenyans has returned to normal. The more likely threat for visitors will come from mosquitoes and other nasty microorganisms. Malaria prophylaxis is a must; you'd also do well to get vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, meningitis, polio, and yellow fever. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers comprehensive health and medical advice, and it's worth consulting the Web site when starting to make plans.
The official Web site of the Kenya Tourism Board is a reliable online resource for all things Kenya (www.magicalkenya.com). To get the latest news on national parks and reserves, the Kenya Wildlife Service is your best bet (www.kws.org). Despite the touts telling you otherwise, there's no official tourist office in Nairobi; most "guides" will take you up a dingy set of stairs to a cousin selling cut-rate safaris. Proceed at your own risk.
NEED TO KNOW
Language: English, Swahili
Capital City: Nairobi
Population: 33.8 million
Area: 225,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 254
Electricity: 240V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Kenya Shillings = $0.01 US Calculate Other Amounts
Kenya requires visas for citizens of the United States. Visas are available at the airport, but there may be a delay. For more information about visa and immunization requirements, go to www.kenyaembassy.com
GOOD TO KNOW
The Kenyan diet—much like that of the other East African plains states—primarily consists of meat with potatoes, rice, matoke (mashed plantains) or ugali (maize meal). When well made, the meat—usually beef, goat or mutton—is stewed with potatoes and some vegetables, and spiced with clove and cardamom. Kenya's national obsession is known as nyama choma: barbecued goat so delicious it's an absolute must. Along the coast, expect heaps of fresh seafood with piri piri chilis. Wherever you are, wash every meal down with an icy Tusker, the ubiquitous national lager.
Markets selling local arts and crafts can be found all over the country. Some of the best finds include Makonde carvings made from ebony, kiondos (wooden baskets), jewelry, basket work, and textiles. Particularly famous is the Masai tribe's colorful jewelry, which combines thousands of beads with shells and leather. Batiks, local sarongs, soapstone carvings and paintings are also popular. However, nothing will impress your friends more than the mounted zebra you bagged on the Serengeti.
January: 1, New Year's Day
May: 1, Labor Day
June: 1, Madaraka Day
October: 10, Moi Day; 20, Kenyatta Day
December: 12, Independence Day; 25, Christmas Day; 26, Boxing Day
Winter: Eid ul-Fitr