Backpacking Malawi Travel Tips
Backpacking Malawi is an incredibly primitive experience. Things have changed somewhat sine I first visited back in the mid noughties. However, I still believe this is one of the last true backpacking experiences in this part of the world. That being said, backpacking Malawi is also very easy. You will find transport very straightforward, locals super friendly and enough creature comforts to feel at home.
In this post, I would like to talk about my experiences Backpacking Malawi and what I love about this country so much!
Backpacking Malawi – The Warm Heart of Africa
Malawi is known as the “Warm heart of Africa”. As you may know, this is a small country and certainly less touristy than neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania. Located on Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi), this beautiful part of Africa is very primitive and popular with volunteers. You will also find many local experiences in Malawi. What do I mean by local experiences in Africa? I mean hidden gems like visiting the witch doctor in a local village or helping out in an orphanage. Then again, you might be more interested in exploring secret coves in Senga Bay or climbing up to a famous mission in the mountains.
About Poverty in Malawi
You should expect that there is a lot of poverty in Malawi. Some of the best places to visit in Malawi are full of malnourished kids and homeless men or drunks. However, in spite of the majority of Malawians living below the poverty line, it is still a very safe place to travel. As mentioned, it is also renowned for being the “Warm heart of Africa” – something you should witness while backpacking Malawi.
The Best places to see in Malawi
Nkhata Bay – Beautiful, fun, great places to stay and popular with backpackers.
Kande Beach – Just south of Nkhata Bay, less people, beautiful beach, popular for overland trucks and awesome for horse riding.
Cape MacClear and Monkey Bay – Super popular for scuba diving, partying volunteers and anyone backpacking Africa.
Lilongwe – Friendly capital and a good base to travel to any of the best places to see in Malawi.
Mzuzu – Great hostel in Mzuzu with an excellent supermarket. However, not much to do other than volunteer in Malawi.
Chitimba Camp – Popular for overlanders, the owners are cool, there’s a nice beach, a village outside and it’s just a nice place to stay or camp in general.
Getting around while Backpacking Malawi
I’ll be honest, it’s not the easiest to travel Malawi. Buses are mostly “Matatus” which are small Toyota Hi-Ace vans packed to the hilt with locals. Not only are they a tight squeeze but they often stop for long periods to wait for more passengers. And the worst part? They don’t always go where you need to go. What do I mean by that exactly? Well, say you want to travel on a bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay. Despite the popularity of both destinations, there is no one bus that makes a trip between them.
Unfortunately this means you need to board several matatus/bus to travel from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay. Alternatively, you can fork out a hefty sum on a taxi instead. Speaking of taxis, these are not on a meter in Malawi. For this reason, try to know how much it should cost before you go anywhere.
Backpacking Malawi is not exactly easy. But if you can stomach the changing of buses, the waiting around and the cramped conditions, you’ll make it there eventually.
Typical Costs for Backpacking Malawi
Malawi is not as cheap as you might think and the more touristy or western places to stay are more expensive than off the beaten path accommodation. Most hotels or guesthouses will start at the equivalent of US$30/40 per night but that being said, you can find a US$7 a backpackers in Lilongwe or maybe camp on the shores of Lake Malawi for the same price. Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay is upward of $20 a night for a bungalow and rooms in Kande Beach are approximately $40.
Taxis are also expensive so the best way to travel is on a local minibus which is rarely more than $1 unless you are travelling out of town. Although if you do end up in a taxi from say a Lilongwe backpackers into the town centre it will usually be around $5.
Food and shopping
Food is either expensive or cheap depending on whether you eat in the western restaurant chains or the local joints. And for everything else? Shop in the markets or local supermarkets as opposed to the western shopping chain called Shoprite. Me? I always eat in local restaurants or pick up Chips Mayai (Chip omelette) whenever I see it. Camping or staying in hostels is the best way to keep costs down and so too is avoiding KFC.
Things to do in Malawi
There are many cultural activities andMalawi Day Tours you can experience while backpacking Malawi:
Go Horse riding in Kande Beach or Nkhata Bay
You can decide upon one or two hours horse riding in Kande Beach and I sincerely recommend the latter. Starting out at a beautiful ranch, you are introduced to the horses by extremely friendly guides before riding through forests and local villages before ending up on the sand. You know the best thing about Kande Beach horse riding? At the end of the two hours, they take the saddle off and you go for a swim on the horse – unique and amazing, this is not only one of the the best things to do Kande Beach, it is amazing value given the low cost vs. fantastic service.
Note: You can also do the very same horse riding day tour from Nkhata Bay.
Take a canoe out in Nkhata Bay
It costs so little and the boats are there whenever you want to take them out. Explore the bay, stop off at a beach around the corner and just bask in the still waters of the lake once you get out there. Kayaking in Nkhata Bay is relaxing and the best part is that you can go wherever you want, whenever you want, for as long as you want. You can also do this in Kande Beach and when you arrive there, you will see an island out on the lake that is reachable on a canoe or even stand up paddle board.
Scuba Diving in Cape Mac Clear
Let me just say that I know exactly jack about scuba diving but I do know heaps of people who have experienced it in either Kande Beach, Nkhata Bay or Cape MacClear. What I do know is that it is a totally different experience than ocean diving and while there are some unique fresh water fish to check out here and wreckages in the lake, visibility is not great and it can seem underwhelming when compared with Scuba diving in Zanzibar or the red Sea. However, if Scuba Diving is your thing then apparently the best place to scuba dive in Malawi is Cape MacClear.
Hike to Livingstonia from Chitimba
You can stay overnight in Livingstonia but staying on the beach at Chitimba is much more relaxing. Also, this gives you an incentive to hike up the mountain. You can take a local guide from the village to show you the way. Alternatively, just go it alone, there are usually beach boys who will help you out when you look lost. The hike is rated medium/hard and starts early at 6am to avoid the midday heat. On the way up, there is a beautiful waterfall in which you can cool down.
At the top you will find Livingstonia Mission. Inside, there is a small “museum” and beautiful views of the lake but at the end of the day. This activity is really about doing something active because the town itself is a little underwhelming in spite of the rich history behind it.
Meet the locals on a village walk
In any or at least most of these places you are invited to take a day tour to the village on which you can learn about the local way of life, meet a witch doctor, or maybe check out a school/orphanage. Given their reputation for being so friendly, taking a village walk really is one of the best things to do in Malawi and gives you an opportunity to discover something new about an entirely different culture.
Visit the local flea markets
Get right in there, second hand clothes, headphones and vegetables – the market is overflowing with products and produce while it is also a really great way to meet some Malawians and support some small local business.
Take some woodcarving lessons
Have you heard of “Malawi chairs”? Did you know that Malawi is the cheapest and best place to buy souvenirs and wood carvings of any kind? Well in my opinion this is definitely true. Most of the shop keepers also encourage you to come back and spend time learning how they ply their trade.
Learn to cook like a local
Nsima is a porridge like substance made of maize which is common throughout Africa and what more of a cultural experience can you expect than learning to cook this staple food. Rice and beans is a standard meal here but if you learn how to make Nsima and a nice sauce with a local, it goes very well with some fried chicken.
Climb to the summit of Mount Mulanje
Take a porter, take a dip in cool waters at altitude, take a few days to visit and then climb the impressive Mount Mulanje. The views across the plateau are nothing short of breath-taking and although this is a rather difficult climb, it’s a rewarding hike in a beautiful part of Malawi.
If you would like more information, click here for a list of all my posts about Backpacking Malawi.