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10 Things to Know Before Traveling to Kenya

10 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO KENYA

Travel is Challenging

Travel is challenging and your trip will be better with these 10 things to know before traveling to Kenya. Kenya is a very long trip – a direct flight is over eight hours from Europe and 15 hours from the States.  Insomnia, brain fog, and constipation are normal health issues after a long journey. Always ask for help when needed, which is easy to do in Kenya because the people are so great.

Three ladies walking along road.
Kenyans’ happiness shines from their smiles and fresh bright clothes.

The People are the Best

Kenyans are refreshingly sincere, honest, educated, and most speak English. They believe a warm greeting comes from within them, and asking how you are doing is important. “Jambo” is the term for both hello and goodbye. “Hakuna matata” means no worries or take it easy and is not just a term used in The Lion King. Everyone belongs to a tribe, and locals can recognize what tribe a person is from by their language, the way they speak, and their name.

A group of young men on motorcycles.
Need a ride? This friendly group of young men are taxi drivers waiting for business.

You are a Mzungu

In general, a mzungu is the term they use for a tourist. The entry fees are always two-tiered, with the mzungu price much higher than it is for residents. This is great because it makes the splendors of Kenya both accessible and affordable to the locals.

A group of Kenyans with one white guy.
Can you find the Mzungu? Tourists stand out amongst a group of Kenyans.

To My Surprise!

Most Kenyans have never heard of Amazon, Uber, or Starbucks. They believe KFC stands for Kenya Fried Chicken. They are unfamiliar with Disneyland, the Jungle Cruise, and Indiana Jones (the theme song plays in your head while on game drives!).

Three people walking past a KFC.
Kenyans believe KFC stands for Kenyan Fried Chicken.

You don’t see a lot of senior citizens. The average age is 20, and life expectancy is 63. This shorter life expectancy is contributed to by infectious diseases such as HIV, which is endemic, malaria, and tuberculosis.

A man selling cooked corn from a bbq.
Kenyans appear to have plenty of food and small business entrepreneurs to sell it.

There is gender inequality in Kenya, and same-sex sexual activity is a crime. They don’t think anyone in their country is queer. We had a lesbian couple on a safari, and after they left, we asked what they thought about them. Their response was shock because they had no clue that the ladies were a couple.

A mother and baby wait to cross the road.
Gender inequality in Kenya means women are not taken as seriously as men.

You will stand out as a tourist. Kenya has a population of over 50 million with approximately one million tourists a year. Compare this with Costa Rica, which has a population of around five million and three million tourists annually.

A donkey outside a convenience store.
You don’t see a lot of tourists in Kenya, but you might see donkeys.

Cell Service

Cellular reception is very good almost everywhere in Kenya. Your choices for reception are to pre-purchase an online eSim, wait in line at a local store to purchase a physical SIM if you have a phone that still uses it, or pay your current provider the international day pass fee. I chose the latter because my carrier, AT&T, usually works well in other countries, and it has a $100 cap on the fee, which means that the $10 per day fee ends after your tenth day if your whole trip is in the same billing cycle. Also, be sure to have WhatsApp ready to use for international calling and texting. It always works the best.

A Safaricom office with people out front.
Safaricom is a mobile phone service with SIM cards for sale.

Money

Your hundred-dollar bills must be newer than 1990 when they started putting in the security strips. But you might only find this out once you get to the front gate of the Samburu National Park, only to hear they do not take credit cards. Fortunately for us, we had friends with M-PESA.

A man and woman on a motorcycle.
Kenyans use M-PESA connected to their phone SIM card to pay for almost everything.

M-PESA is the national currency that works off a Sims card, but it takes about two hours to set up at a store in Kenya. Credit cards will get you by, but carry lots of cash, especially to the national parks. If you’re staying at a lodge in the park for three nights, two people could cost you $600 to get in the park.

A multi-level building with people out front.
In a building like this you can find almost everything you need from groceries to electronics.

If you stop in a small town to use the ATM machine, consider that if it is a Sunday, the machine might be out of money and eat your card. This was my experience on my first day in the country in a town called Meru. Fortunately, I spent the night there, and everything got sorted in the morning.

A bank with people on a motorcycle in front.
There are plenty of banks with ATM machines in small towns. But they can run out of money on a Sunday.

What You See From the Road

If you choose to drive to a safari rather than fly, you will be treated to a view of the country. Consider hiring a car with good suspension because, at some point, the road will likely turn to dirt, and it can be hours of slow, uncomfortable travel.

A van stuck on the side of the road.
If you drive to a safari from Nairobi, select a worthy vehicle. We got stuck in the van with poor suspension.

You will see children running along your car with big smiles and cheerful greetings. This is because they want candy, so be sure to buy a bag of candy before your drive.

Three children running along the road.
Bring candy to give the kids running along the road.

Kenya is a developing country (saying “third world” is insulting and no longer acceptable). You are making a mistake if you judge what you see by your “developed” country values. The roadside businesses may appear impoverished and below your standards. But to the locals, these businesses are an opportunity for ownership and independence that play a crucial role in the economy. They provide essential goods and services, support livelihoods, and foster community interaction. In other words, they are a gateway to freedom and independence through individual business ownership.

A girl carries buckets of watermelon and pineapple.
The roadside businesses are a gateway to freedom and independence through individual business ownership.

The Trick to Using eCitizen on an iPhone

eCitizen is a clunky internet platform you must use to pay entrance fees to museums and parks. If you are using Safari on an iPhone, after you create an account, confirm your identity, and find the correct fee, you will be brought to a payment screen where you can enter your credit card information. At this point, it becomes frustrating because you will get a message that something went wrong, and you need to check your credit card statement to see if the payment went through. The trick to avoid this annoyance is to TURN OFF THE POP-UP BLOCKER. Go to Settings, Safari, and turn off the toggle for “Block Pop-ups.”

Workers selling rice.
Rice and corn are popular food items sold along the road.

How to Choose a Guide

You will always want to hire a guide in Kenya, whether it be for a safari, museum, or archeological site. A college student will always be available at the entrance to museums or arch sites. They will speak perfect English and be very knowledgeable. Tip them one to two thousand Kenyan shillings ($6-12) at the end.

A Masai male.
Lang, a Maasai guide is always cheerful, intelligent, and ready for adventure.

There are five types of safari guides in Kenya. Always find a tribal guide, preferably a Maasai; they are the extraordinary choice. Avoid the Big 5 guide, who is only interested in checking each animal off your list; Macho, who thinks they know everything; the Bush Lover, who will only talk to you on the game drive and not back at camp; the Language lacking, who only know a few key phrases. The best guides are at the safari camps, not in Nairobi.

A Masai guide.
Kuda is a Maasai warrior and guide – he is an extraordinary choice!

Climate Change Can be a Disaster

Cash crops vary by region and include corn, potatoes, cabbage, rice, beans, and sugar cane, all grown by hand. Corn is mostly used to make Ugali, a food eaten daily by locals. Stalks are left in the field to feed cattle while they fertilize the fields for the next crop. Without irrigation, crops are planted just before the rainy season. If it does not rain, growing cycles can be devastated.

A man selling potatoes.
Potatoes and other crops depend on regular rainfall.

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Hi. We are Paul and Cindy, two biologists, fit and over 50, who enjoy exploring, photographing, and blogging about our outdoor travel. Our journey is to find outdoor activities that are away from crowds, kind to nature, and authentic. We carry backpacks, stay in clean accommodations, and feel that good food is as important as good friends.

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