Backpacking Malawi Travel Tips
Malawi is known as the “Warm heart of Africa”, a relatively small country and certainly less touristy than neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania. Located on Lake Malawi itself (and also known as Lake Nyassa), this beautiful part of Africa is very primitive, popular with volunteer projects and ideal for seeking out local experiences. 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, discovering secret coves with a local in Senga Bay or discovering an ancient vine covered bridge in the nearby forest.
That being said, you should expect that there is a lot of poverty here and less visited places in Malawi will often have the sad sight of malnourished kids looking for food or homeless men sleeping in the bush. Despite the majority of Malawians living below the poverty line, but as this travel guide will explain, it is certainly a safe place to travel and it is renowned for being the above mentioned “Warm heart of Africa” for good reason – the locals are incredibly friendly.
Most popular places to visit in Malawi
Nkhata Bay – Beautiful, fun, great places to stay and popular with backpackers.
Kande Beach – Just south of the above, 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 backpackers.
Lilongwe – Stay a night or two max, nice for restaurants or a night out but otherwise nothing very exciting about the capital.
Mzuzu – Great backpackers close to town with an excellent supermarket but again, 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 as the 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 or fork out a hefty sum on a taxi instead. Speaking of taxis, these are not on a meter in Malawi so try to know how much it should cost before you go anywhere and the best way to do this is by asking at your hostel/guesthouse/hotel.
Backpacking Malawi is not the easiest but if you can stomach the changing of buses, the waiting around and the cramped conditions, you’ll make it there eventually.
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 great cultural activities, things to do and here are just a few Malawi Day Tours and ideas for your trip.
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 and then it gives you the incentive to hike up the mountain. You can take a local guide from the village to show you the way or 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 but there is a beautiful waterfall you can stop at halfway up to cool down.
At the top you will find Livingstonia Mission which has a small “museum” and beautiful views of the lake but at the end of the day, this is really about doing something active because the town itself is a little underwhelming despite the 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 and most of the shop keepers 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.